The laser golf rangefinder vs GPS question can only be resolved by looking at the needs and abilities of the person who will be using it. There are advantages to each and we’ll try to break those down for you here. It’s also important to mention that 2011 saw the first “hybrid” model on the market and it’s success will no doubt spur manufacturers to develop more devices that combine laser and GPS.
Advantages of Laser:
- Accuracy – A laser rangefinder will give you near exact yardage to any target you can see (within several hundred yards). It’s going to be more consistent and more accurate than GPS. It also will give the yardage to the actual flag where it is on the green.
- Learning Curve – There isn’t much to learn about a laser golf rangefinder. The directions won’t take long to read and a few minutes of playing with it and you should have it down.
- Battery Life – The battery on a laser rangefinder will last many, many rounds. For most users, a year or more.
- # of Courses – laser rangefinders will work on every golf course and never need to be updated.
- Magnification – We find it surprising that laser rangefinders are allowed to have magnification. Sometimes just having binoculars on the golf course can be handy for seeing what lies ahead and with a laser, it’s built right into the device. When making a purchase, pay attention to the level of magnification. Not only do you get a better view with a higher level, it’s also easier to hit your target.
Disadvantages of Laser:
- Hills and trees – If you can’t see a target, your laser binoculars won’t help a bit. Experience tells us that this is an infrequent problem, but when it is a problem, it’s a big one. (That’s when a hybrid rangefinder would come in really handy.)
- Hitting the wrong target – Today’s laser rangefinders are very good about picking up the flagstick instead of targets behind the green, but it’s still a possibility that you could accidentally get the yardage to the wrong target. The closer you get to your target, the less likely this will happen. Most users will be able to manage this without much difficulty after a little experience.
- Steadiness issues – Using a laser golf rangefinder does require moderate steadiness when shooting the target. For most people this isn’t an issue, but for some users, it’s a deal breaker. See our 7 Tips for Using a Laser Rangefinder.
- No front, middle and back of green distance – Although you’re getting exact distance to the pin, unless you can see it, you have no way of knowing where on the green the pin is located. Again, a hybrid would come in handy for this, but most golf courses provide some indication of where on the green the pins are located.
Advantages of GPS:
- Distance to the front, middle and back of every green – Every golf GPS provides this basic information and it’s extremely valuable. Most golfers will do just fine aiming for the middle of every green.
- No steadiness required – A GPS device will give you yardages without you having to aim it or even touch it.
- Distances to targets you cannot see – All GPS devices can give you yardage to targets that you cannot see. Most of them include hazards as well as green yardages, but pay attention because some basic models only include distances to the front, middle and back of the green.
- Hole layouts – We refer to GPS devices that offer hole layout views as “full-featured”. If you’re on a course that is unfamiliar, it’s often nice to be able to take a look at the hole layout before you play it. It’s important to note however, that these types of units have more of a learning curve and can slow you down during your round. There are some “basic” models that don’t include the layouts and in truth, that’s not always a disadvantage. On the golf course, we think it’s important to get information quickly, rather than trying to figure out your device.
- Bonus Features – Many golf GPS devices have shot-measuring features, scorecards, statistics and more. These features can be fun and useful, but it’s important to make sure they don’t consume too much of your time and attention.
Disadvantages of GPS:
- Accuracy – Although all GPS devices do a pretty good job with accuracy, they’re not likely to ever be as good as laser. Clouds, trees and whatever else can happen to interfere with satellites will be a factor. It’s not always ‘right on’ vs laser which will be right every time.
- Distance to the pin – Although some of the full-featured models allow you to tap or move the pin position, it’s still only your best guess unless you have a pin location sheet.
- Computers – Although most GPS devices now come “preloaded” with courses, many require hookup to a computer for updates and/or newly added golf courses. Some even require hookup and online registration before they will work. This is the area where we usually where we find the most complaints from users.
- Learning Curve – the more features available, the more learning required.
- Battery Life – With any golf GPS, you’ll need to make sure it’s charged up every few rounds.
Hybrid – the best of both worlds
Although the Bushnell Hybrid is the only hybrid on the market as of this writing, we consider it the best golf rangefinder available, over all GPS and laser rangefinders. Although some of the advantages of GPS would be nice to have, we consider most of them extraneous to the main purpose of a golf distance measuring device. Getting the accuracy of laser combined with GPS features that eliminate ALL of the disadvantages of laser alone is hard to beat. However, in the future, we do expect to see hybrid models with GPS hole layouts and all the other bells and whistles.