The Garmin Approach S3 golf GPS watch, introduced in 2012, builds upon the earlier generation Approach S1 by adding an excellent touchscreen, higher screen resolution, an easy-to-use scoring capability (including Stableford scoring!), distances to layup points, maps of the shape of each green (with the ability to adjust the pin placement using the…wait for it…touchscreen), preloaded courses throughout the entire world (the S1 is limited to preloaded U.S. and Canadian courses), and the ability to add your own hazards/targets.
The Approach S1 was the first golf GPS watch we reviewed, and we quickly became big fans of the form factor. Having distances readily available on your wrist keeps things moving – no more digging around in pockets or unclipping a GPS from your belt. The additional functionality offered by the S3, along with the easy-to-use interface and sleek good looks, lift it even higher on our list.
So what’s not to like? Well, when we mentioned that you can add your own custom hazards and targets, you may have noticed that we didn’t reference any pre-mapped hazards and targets…because there are none. Bummer, because the high cost of Titleist Pro V1s would seem to prescribe some contemplation of whether you can actually clear that creek that cuts through the middle of the fairway. This is a shame, particularly since Garmin has pre-mapped targets in their course database today (used on their handheld Approach series). The Garmin also doesn’t offer an online golf portal from which to review saved scores and statistics as the competing Callaway upro mx+ and Motorola MOTOACTV do.
Notwithstanding these factors, the Garmin Approach S3 is one of our favorite golf GPS watch, but it comes at a cost – the highest among all golf GPS watches (at time of initial testing) and even more than some dedicated devices that include full hole graphics and more advanced functionality.
- Easy access to distances
- Excellent course coverage
- No fees to access course database
- No pre-mapped hazards
- Middling battery life – with the long rounds at our public courses, it won’t make it through a second loop
Retail price: $249.99 (price reduced with release of Garmin Approach S4 Watch)
Three year total cost: $249.99
Availability: Discontinued. Replaced by the Garmin Approach S4 Watch
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And before we dive in, a little Garmin marketing to provide an overview:
The Good: With courses worldwide preloaded on the device, just charge and go! The charging clip is much improved over the earlier generation S1.
The Bad: We had one hiccup requiring a restart when initially updating the device software. Patience is required when plugging the S3 into the computer for an update – the Garmin software takes awhile before it recognizes the device.
- Required Steps. The user only needs to confirm the battery is charged in order to get started. For future course updates, users will need to download an application (“CourseView Updater”) from Garmin’s web site. No registration is required – we dig it!
- Time Required for Setup. Charging the battery takes around 3 hours, and the Approach S3 watch will indicate the charge level onscreen.
What’s in the Box: The Garmin Approach S3 comes with:
- Cable (USB-to-charging clip)
- Power Adapter for wall outlet charging
- Owner’s Manual
- CourseView Updater (for firmware and course updates). You will want to periodically check for additional course updates using Garmin’s CourseUpdater software. After connecting the Garmin Approach S3 to your computer with the USB cable, expect a longer-than-usual delay, as it takes awhile before the Garmin software recognizes the device. Upon initially running CourseView Updater, we had one software update available. The update process went relatively smoothly (it required one restart), and the updated software was installed and loaded within minutes. The software then alerted us to map updates in each of the three available regions (North & Latin America, Europe, and Australia & New Zealand). We installed map updates for North & Latin America only, and the process took about 10 minutes.
Critical Golf Test: The Garmin Approach S3 golf GPS watch uses the same map database as the rest of the Garmin Approach family of devices. The resulting coverage in our course coverage test is excellent.
Manufacturer’s Claims: The S3 watch comes preloaded with a solid 28,000 courses worldwide, placing it above average among the devices we’ve tested.
EASE OF USE
The Good: Our readers already know our feeling on golf GPS watches – we love ’em! An incredibly useful form factor, made even better in the case of the S3 with an easy-to-use interface.
The Bad: Accessing the Green View during play is a multiple-step process.
- Buttons. The Garmin Approach S3 has three fixed (i.e. non-touchscreen) buttons: backlight/power, measure (for shot distances), and scoring. All other actions are accessed through the touchscreen, including “Back” and “Menu” buttons (indicated by three horizontal lines) that are always accessible on the left and right edges of the touchscreen.
- Screen. The black and white screen, which is 1″ in diameter, is easy to view. The available backlight will remain on for approximately eight seconds after activation – there is no ability to modify the default time the screen remains backlit. Users can also choose between a white or black background for the screen. Touchscreen sensitivity overall was very good (most of the time the user interacts by tapping the touchscreen to scroll or select, swiping only to change holes or unlock the screen). We on occasion accidentally moved to the wrong screen when tapping the screen to toggle from Hole View to Layup/Dogleg View – the touchscreen is sensitive, and if your finger is moving vertically on the screen when you do this you may trigger the watch to change holes. In addition, though you can place the flagstick in the Green View (see below), the screen is small enough that it can be a bit challenging to accurately place, and is best done with a fingernail.
- Form Factor. The device has a smooth black plastic and rubber exterior, and weighs in at 2.1 ounces, just a hair heavier than the S1 watch. It’s thicker than an average watch, and though noticeable it wasn’t bothersome during play. The watch is well-made and the wrist strap adjusts to fit a wide range of sizes. The S3 comes in either white with red trim or black with grey trim, and sports a sleeker look than the original S1.
- Starting a Round. Starting a round is as simple as powering up the device (we usually kept the device powered up all of the time since it is, after all, a watch), pressing the menu button and selecting “Start Round,” and then choosing the desired course from a scrollable list. Once you are on a tee box, the device will default to the hole closest to your position.
- Battery Life. Battery life is somewhat short when the GPS functionality is in use on the course, lasting approximately 7.5 hours. Garmin markets the S3 charge as lasting 4 weeks when used exclusively as a watch. A warning will appear when approximately 7% of the charge is remaining.
For more details, check out the Critical Golf comparison of golf GPS device features.
COURSE DETAIL AND MAPPING
The Good: The Garmin Approach S3 provides distances to near, center and far points of the green (“near” and “far” points being relative to player position), rather than being limited to fixed front and back points. Green graphics are a nice addition. Users can custom map up to five points on each hole.
The Bad: Though the Approach S3 adds layup and dogleg distances on par 4s and 5s, these aren’t nearly as helpful as pre-mapped hazard and other target information would be.
- Views. The Garmin Approach S3 provides a primary Hole View, a graphic Green View, a Layup/Dogleg view, and additional screens for shot distance measurement and time. Users can cycle through the Hole View, Layup/Dogleg View and Time View by simply tapping on the screen. The Green View, however, is not part of this rotation – for whatever reason, it can only be accessed by first pressing on the menu button.
- Hole view – This screen displays the hole number, par, distances to the near and far (in slightly smaller text at the top and bottom of the screen) points on the green, and the distance to the center of the green (the largest text in the middle of the screen). Interestingly, the distance to the hole is when measured from the tee is a direct line, even in the case of a hard dogleg. Garmin’s handheld devices, such as the Approach G6, will provide longer distances to the green from the tee, assuming the user plays out to an approach point and then into the green.
- Green view – The Green View shows a basic graphic of the shape of the green, and allows players to move the flagstick position, with the distance to this new flagstick location then replacing the “center of the green” reading on the device. The flagstick will remain in the updated location as the user moves between views. In addition, the green graphic will rotate based on player position, and always shows the near and far points as dots on the green edge (these will be the distances displayed within the Hole view). Unfortunately distances are not shown on this view – it would be extremely useful to be able to place the flagstick where desired and see the distances to near, center and far points update immediately, rather than needing to return to the main Hole view screen.
- Layup/Dogleg view – While pre-mapped distances to hazards aren’t available on the S3, Garmin has added distances to layup points and doglegs, which appear in this view. We found the layup point distances to be of minimal value in the absence of overhead hole maps – knowing how far it is to the layup point isn’t as powerful when you can’t visualize where it is on the hole. Much more useful is the ability to save up to five custom locations on each hole (see “Custom Mapping” below), which will then appear in this view. Pre-mapped layup and dogleg distances are removed from this view as you come within 35-45 yards of them. User-mapped distances drop off once you are approximately 25 yards past them.
- Measurement view – Shows the measurement of a particular shot. Users can toggle between the Measurement view and the Hole view while continuing to measure distances. Shot distances cannot be saved (the device will automatically reset the shot measurement once you walk to the next hole).
- Time view – Shows the current time and date. Dots on this screen indicate that the odometer is on.
- Menu – Pressing the Menu button brings up a variety of options, including ending a round, saving hazard/target points, checking the battery level, and so forth. Users move up and down the listing by tapping at the top or bottom of the screen.
- Hole Information. The hole number and par are always visible on the Hole view screen. Hole handicap is not available.
- Custom Mapping. Users can easily add custom points to the course maps by selecting the menu button and then scrolling to the option to save the point as a particular type of target (bunker, water, hazard, layup, etc.). Up to five custom points can be saved on each hole. Users can’t modify existing layup or dogleg points.
Suggestion Box: Garmin already has a large number of targets pre-mapped in their course database, and should leverage this by including hazard information, either in addition or to replace their existing Layup/Dogleg view.
The Good: A highly responsive touchscreen makes the user interface simple. With scoring capability, green graphics, shot measurement, and the ability to place the flagstick for more precise distances, the S3 has the majority of features available on handheld devices.
The Bad: No online golf portal on which to save scores. Can’t modify settings during a round.
- Shot Tracking. The S3 watch can measure the distance of a shot, though measurements cannot be saved. There is also a built-in odometer that automatically tracks the distance traveled during a round and the elapsed time.
- Score and Statistics. Fixing one of the pieces missing from the Garmin S1 watch, basic scoring is available on the S3, for both stroke play and Stableford scoring. Pressing the “Score” button will display the overall score for the round relative to par (“E”, “-3”, “+45”, etc.), and the score for the hole. Entering a score is simple – the score on a hole defaults to whatever par is for the hole, and can be changed by pressing “+” or “-“ on the touchscreen. Holding down the “Score” button will display a list of scores for all holes. When the S3 is plugged in to a computer, players can view past scorecards. Curiously, if you edit a score on the watch after a round is completed, that revised data, while viewable on the watch, will not be saved to the scorecards that can be seen on a computer.
- Auto-advance. The Garmin S3 automatically advances when you move to the next hole – you do not have an option to disable this feature. Users can easily manually return to a prior hole or advance to the next by swiping up or down on the screen, or tapping at the top or bottom of the screen.
- Course Storage. The Garmin S3 watch stores all available courses on the device – thus there is no need to select which courses to load before heading to a new course or on a golf trip.
- Preferences. A wide range of preferences can be adjusted on the Garmin S3, including the measurement unit (yards vs. meters), language, tones, screen background (white or black) and, of course, time and time format. The S3 does run afoul of our common complaint that you must exit your round in order to change preferences (why not have the ability to change the background screen color during play depending on whether it’s cloudy or sunny?).
Suggestion Box: We hope that Garmin steps it up and offers an online portal, along the lines as those from Callaway, Motorola and SkyGolf. These online portals offer a variety of different functionality, including the ability to review scores and statistics online, track shot locations, as well as provide course overviews, review courses in advance of play, and share/compare your scores with other players.
For more details, check out the Critical Golf comparison of golf GPS device features.
We found the Garmin Approach S3 to be as accurate as other dedicated golf GPS devices, consistently providing readings within 3-5 yards of the actual distance to the center of green, though on occasion we did see greater variance to near and far green points versus on-course markings. We did experience one hole where the green was mis-mapped by approximately 30 yards.
The distances to the near and far green points drop off the screen when the player is within 30 yards. The distance to the center of the green (or to the flagstick, if users have moved its location on the Green View screen) continues to be shown throughout the hole.
Head-to-head against other Garmin devices, including the Garmin Approach G6 and the older Garmin Approach G5 and Garmin Approach G3, distances were generally very close if not exactly the same, with the S3 watch sometimes differing up to several yards (readings among the handheld devices were virtually always the same). The Approach S3 watch is slightly slower in updating distances; however the difference in speed is negligible enough that it is likely to be noticed only by our lunatic review staff, who hit the course with five different Garmin Approach devices for comparison testing.
Retail Price: At $249.99 (priced reduced with the release of the Garmin Approach S4), the Garmin Approach S3 is not the most expensive golf GPS watch any longer, but carries a price beyond that of many of the top-rated handheld golf GPS devices, including the Garmin Approach G6 – hmph!
Fees for Access to Course Database: As with other devices in the Garmin Approach family, there are no additional fees for access to the course database.
Three-Year Total Cost of Ownership: With no cost for access to their course database, the three-year total cost for the Garmin Approach S3 remains $249.99. This still keeps the Approach S3 watch among the more expensive GPS devices in terms of overall cost over three years.
Value: The Garmin Approach S3 is currently the most expensive golf GPS watch in our tests, and is the highest priced GPS device that lacks full hole views. You are absolutely paying for the convenience of having information available on your wrist, as the S3 is more expensive than handheld devices that offer a greater feature set, including pre-mapped hazards and full color graphic or satellite displays. While we like the steps that Garmin has taken in adding more features to their golf GPS watch offerings, the price point does give us pause.