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Golf Rangefinder GPS vs. Laser

by Don Patton

    This article is one of our editor's top picks this month.

    Overview

    Buyers of golf rangefinders must choose between a global positioning system unit that knows the positions of major features on the course and computes their distances, or a laser device that measures the return time of a beam reflected off an object. Laser scopes have been available since the 1990s, but GPS systems are becoming the more popular choice. There are also applications for smart phones that allow them to function as GPS rangefinders.

    Cost

    As of the date of publication, laser devices cost $200 to $500, GPS units cost $150 to $400 and smart phone apps cost $0 to $40. With a laser device you pay only once, but with some GPS systems and smart phone applications there are subscription fees or costs to download courses.

    Features

    Lasers can measure the distance to any object that will reflect the light beam. That includes most prominent course features like trees, hills, aprons and the faces of bunkers. They also work well on the players in the group ahead. This allows the user to accurately measure the distance to the pin when someone is putting, and on the tee to determine if the next group is safely out of range. Some lasers also incorporate a measurement of elevation to the target.

    GPS units display distances to a set of preselected points and most provide an aerial view of the hole; some even have a virtual fly-over of the entire hole. This is very useful on an unfamiliar course. GPS systems are much smaller than laser devices that require sophisticated optics and a laser source, but the size difference is minor; lasers still fit easily in a golf bag pocket.

    Ease of Use

    A laser is as simple to operate as a point-and-shoot camera. With GPS systems, however, the user must first download and install a database for the course he wishes to play. On the course, after the unit boots up and locks onto available satellites, the user selects the course and sometimes has to navigate to the proper hole. When it’s finally ready, the GPS is simple to operate and the information is available almost instantaneously.

    Limitations

    With lasers, it is very difficult to measure to the flagstick from any distance, unless special reflective flagsticks are in use on the course. Some models claim improved performance when measuring flagsticks, particularly when reflectors are present.

    For most lasers, it’s hard to read horizontal surfaces like water and sand. The user might have to point at nearby vertical objects to estimate the distance. Performance of lasers may be degraded in rain, though some devices have a setting to prevent unwanted rain reflections. The range of the laser is limited to about 300 yards on some models, but this is not a problem for most players.

    On a GPS unit, the course features, especially those with identified yardages, are only available if the programmer has decided they are important. Some units allow the user to position a cursor to estimate the distance to any specific point, but the accuracy depends on the operator’s ability to locate the cursor. A similar operation is needed to estimate pin positions. Depending on the model, some courses may not be in the databases provided on the manufacturer’s website.

    Considerations

    Each type of rangefinder has its advantages and disadvantages. Accuracies for each are similar, usually within one yard. For an overview of each hole and quick distances to prominent features or the middle of greens, the GPS is better. For the versatility to measure to almost anything, lasers are preferable. If the user is concerned primarily with pin locations and knows reflectors are used on the courses she will play, then an enhanced “pin-seeking” laser model might be advisable.

    Warning

    While the elevation measurement feature of some laser rangefinders might be useful, the golfer should be aware that it is currently considered a violation of Rule 14-3. Although distance measuring devices are allowed by the USGA, a golfer can be disqualified from a tournament for employing a device with this “gradient” function even if it not enabled (Decision 14-3/0.5).

    About the Author

    Don Patton began writing after retiring from an engineering career in 2006. He holds a Bachelor of Science in electrical engineering from the University of California at Berkeley and continued with graduate study in software engineering.

    Photo Credits

    • handheld GPS image by Christopher Dodge from Fotolia.com