2019 PERSONAL LAUNCH MONITORS BUYERS GUIDE
Launch monitors are everywhere. They’re an integral part of nearly every club fitting and every teaching session. Club designers rely on them to validate their work, and there isn’t a driving range at PGA Tour event that isn’t lined from end to end with Foresight, Trackman, and Flightscope. Golf has become a data-driven game, and a good bit of that data comes from launch monitors. Given that many of the best players in the world use these devices to drive both equipment and on-course decisions, it’s understandable that average golfers would be hungry to do the same.
Here’s the rub. The gear the pros are using to scrutinize nearly every aspect of their swing and ball flight…depending on the model and the bundled features, a full complement of ball and clubhead data is going to set you back $12,000 to $25,000 – and that’s before we talk about things like software and maintenance contracts.
Most of us don’t have that kind of cash-on-hand, which is why there’s such intense curiosity around a growing number of what are called Portable or Personal Launch Monitors. The majority of these small, pocket-sized devices promise plenty of data for less than $500. We’re talking literal pennies on the dollar compared to their pro-level counterparts. By no small measure, they represent the holy grail for data-hungry average golfers. Real and reliable numbers just like the pros get for a price you can afford; that’s the dream and that’s the sell.
Too good to be true? Leaving some wiggle room for your expectations, probably.
We wanted to see how closely these affordable come to matching the output and accuracy of pro-level offerings. Prices for the devices we tested range from $369 at the entry-level to nearly $2000 for the prosumer (the middle ground between professional and consumer) grade SkyTrak. What became immediately apparent is that none of these devices match the volume of data provided by more expensive units. They measure significantly fewer metrics. None of the devices provide clubhead data, few attempts to provide spin numbers, and only SkyTrak provides dispersion data. Given the price points, none of this should be surprising.
Limited data might be fine for some, but what about accuracy? That proved to be a bit of a mixed bag as well – and that’s perhaps a generous characterization, though some do a significantly better job than others. The upside is that many of the devices we tested bundle additional features to elevate your experience beyond data collection and reading numbers off a screen. If you’re not entirely data-focused, there is some real fun to be had.
If you’re considering purchasing a personal launch monitor or want to see how these device measure-up, this guide is for you.
How We Test
We're here to help you find the perfect Personal Launch Monitor to fit your needs.
To do that, we put the leading devices in the category through a thorough and fully independent testing process that leaves no feature unexplored, no detail unchecked, and no stone unturned.
To determine the accuracy and reliable of the data offered by the devices tested, we tested them side by side with an enterprise-class Foresight GCQuad launch monitor. Foresight is trusted by the R&D teams at every major golf equipment company and is renowned for the accuracy of the data it provides.
The metrics we consider when rating Personal Launch Monitors include Accuracy, Ease of Use, Portability, and Features.
Launch Monitor Technologies
Most, if not all, launch monitors available today are powered by one of two technologies: Radar or Cameras.
Radar-based systems use Doppler radar to follow the flight of the golf ball. Fundamentally, it’s a smaller version of the technology meteorologists use to track weather patterns. In simple terms, Doppler works by bouncing microwaves of an object – in this case, a golf ball. By continuously sending waves and receiving the reflections, Doppler-powered devices can track the movement of the ball through space.
Enterprise radar launch monitors like Trackman and FlightScope X3 feature larger Doppler radars, which are capable of tracking a golf ball over its entire flight. By comparison, less expensive consumer-grade units, like the ones tested here, have smaller Doppler units that lack the power to track the full flight of the golf ball. Even outdoors, the capability of consumer-grade radar systems to track a ball doesn’t match what you get using Trackman in limited flight mode.
The limited size of the radar unit is the reason why inexpensive units require the golfer to specify which club is being used. By designating a club, you’re letting the device know roughly where it needs to look for the ball. That ultimately serves to improve the accuracy and consistency of the readings and is why smaller units frequently miss shots that launch outside the normal window. It’s essential that golfers understand is that none of the consumer level radar units are capable of tracking anything close to the full flight of a typical golf shot.
With the exception of SkyTrak, all of the models we tested are radar-based.
As the category designation suggests, Camera-based launch monitors use an array of advanced high definition cameras to measure ball data at, and immediately following, impact. Because the flight of a golf ball is almost entirely determined at impact, camera-based systems can take what it measures – things like ball speed, launch angle, azimuth, and key spin metrics to calculate flight distance. While camera-based systems can’t measure the full flight of the golf ball, they typically provide more accurate axis tilt and spin measurements and are far more reliable in limited flight scenarios.
Depending on the quality of the cameras, some camera-based launch monitors can struggle under certain lighting conditions and in highly reflective environments.
Skytrak is the only camera-based system included in this test.
Rapsodo MLM - Best Outdoor Launch Monitor Under $500
For those satisfied to know ball speed, launch angle, and carry distance, the Rapsodo MLM is as good as it gets outdoors for less than $500. The data it provides, while limited, is more accurate than most. It lacks some meaningful metrics like spin, and azimuth (also called horizontal launch angle), but its shot tracer feature can help you visualize shot shape/curvature which is as much as you can hope for when clubface and path info isn't available. The Rapsodo MLM doesn't work indoors, or with a net, so if you don't have wide-open spaces in front of you, you'll need to look elsewhere.
Features That Matter
Metrics: What data does the unit provide? While enterprise-class units provide an abundance of ball data (and many provide club data as well), personal launch monitors are limited in the data they provide. None provide head data natively, often swing speed measurements appear to be little more than educated guesses, and none provides the totality of information you get from professional-grade hardware. Determine what metrics you absolutely have to have, and then look for a device that provides them. Spoiler alert, you may not find one.
Accuracy: Just because a launch monitor spits out a number, doesn’t mean it’s accurate. Some units quietly acknowledge their shortcomings and avoid providing metrics they can’t reliably measure (for example, most units don’t offer backspin values). Others provide more data but do so at the risk of diminished accuracy. If the data isn’t both accurate and consistent, it’s virtually useless. Would you buy a calculator that’s only right some of the time?
Ease of Use: How easy is it to operate the launch monitor? Even the best launch monitors on the market need to be easy to use. For most of us, practice time is limited, and it shouldn’t be wasted trying to configure, connect, and use a device meant to help us improve faster. Some units require more precise placement at setup. Ask yourself if you’re willing to put in the extra effort to ensure the highest degree of accuracy possible.
Value-Added Functionality: While measuring the flight of the golf ball is the primary purpose for all of the units we tested, most offer some variety of additional functionality. Some units allow for simulator play, while others include features to record your swing, or leverage GPS functionality on the golf course. Others add elements of gamification like long drive contests and closest to the pin challenges. For some, these added features may be reason enough to buy a device, while others may find them compelling enough to choose one model over another.
Portability: Full-sized launch monitors like Foresight and Trackman are appreciably larger than consumer-grade units. If you’re spending more than $10,000 on a launch monitor, portability probably isn’t one of your primary concerns. For the average golfer who travels from home to the range and back again, a device that’s small enough to fit into your golf bag might be appealing. You should have no trouble finding a place to stash any of the sub-$500 models
Smartphone/Tablet Apps: While the Voice Caddie and Garmin offerings are entirely self-contained, the other devices we tested require an app to communicate with the launch monitor and relay data to the user. We found the applications to be generally easy to navigate and hassle-free. The Rapsodo MLM and Skytrak stand out for their simple and intuitive interface and layout though Rapsodo proved to be a battery killer when taking swing videos.
Personal Launch Monitor Features Chart 2019
|Product||Range||Mobile App||Weight||Outdoor/Indoors||Battery life|
|10-370 YD||Yes||7 oz||In + Out||4 Hours|
|10-370 YD||Yes||4 oz||In + Out||15 Hours|
|10-370 YD||Yes (iOS only)||9 oz||Out||4 Hours|
|10-370 YD||Yes||1lb||In + Out||5 Hours|
|Voice Caddie SC200|
|30-320 YD||No||7 oz||In + Out||20 Hours|
|Voice Caddie SC300|
|10-370 YD||Yes||1 lb||In + Out||12 Hours|
What’s Your Budget?
The price range for the units we tested is just under $400 to just under $2000. If you want enterprise-level accuracy and features (head data, for example), you’re looking at $7000+ for used Foresight GC2, and upwards of $25k for a brand new, fully-featured unit. That’s a massive difference, and so it’s plenty reasonable to wonder how much you should expect for pennies on the dollar.
Given where the technology stands today, a fully-featured launch monitor for only $500 is too much to reasonably expect. Most of the units we tested provide only a small subset of the data you’d get from an enterprise-class unit, and few provide that data reliably. Mostly, you should expect to get what you pay for.
Indoors, Outdoors, or Both?
If you’re going to use your launch monitor almost exclusively indoors, our first piece of advice would be to save your money for a SkyTrak. Consider buying used if you’re on a budget.
For those leaning towards using a more affordable radar-based indoors, make sure you have at least 8 feet of flight distance (plus the requisite about of room between the launch monitor and the hitting zone).
According to its manufacturer, the Rapsodo MLM isn’t suitable for use indoors or when hitting into a net. Outdoors, it was a standout for under $500.
If you’re splitting time between indoor and outdoor use, Flightscope’s Mevo, while not perfect, can handle either environment, the option to use metal dots can improve tracking a bit, and the video features are well executed.
Business, Practice, or Fun?
If you’re a club-fitter or teaching professional looking to leverage data to increase sales and add value for your customers, the hard truth is that none of these low price radar-based units will suit your needs. Skytrak does offer some fitting capabilities, and the bag mapping feature (also available in the Rapsodo MLM) is impressive. You should, however, also consider that an ever-increasing number of fitters and teachers are leveraging clubhead data. Frankly, it probably doesn’t make sense to spend upwards of $2,000 to be behind the industry curve.
For recreational golfers looking to measure their distances, some of the $500 radar units do a reasonably good job, though accuracy often comes at the expense of more data. At the $500 price point, the most accurate unit we tested provides fewer metrics than most.
If you’re data-obsessed to the point that you want to know precise ball speed, launch angle the degree, and your spin numbers within a couple of hundred RPM (give or take), $500 isn’t going to get you everything you want. Skytrak comes the closest to an enterprise experience, and the simulator component makes it the best option for fun as well. It lacks clubhead data, and it’s pricey by comparison, but, for indoor use, it’s head and shoulders above anything else priced below $5000.
For the golfer who less obsessed with data and just looking to have a good time with their friends, units that offer games like closest to the pin or long drive challenge may offer the most bang for the buck. Mevo, Rapsodo, SkyTrak, and Voice Caddie all include a selection of games that extend the capabilities of the device beyond just capturing data.
Before you buy, make sure you fully understand what you’re looking for and what each device can offer.
The Extra Mile
For many, $500 is a considerable amount of money, so it’s reasonable to try and squeeze every bit of value out of your purchase. To that end, many of the devices provide what I suppose should call bonus features above and beyond what we’ve already discussed.
Rapsodo also encourages you to show off your swing by publishing it on their Explore page for everyone to marvel at your distances.
Mevo offers tools to analyze your swing, displays data in a table similar to what you’d get with an enterprise model, allows you to toss bad shots, and stores your data in the cloud (Rapsodo also stores session data online).
For roughly 4x the money, SkyTrak provides the most robust set of features. On top of the closest to the pin, longest drive, and bag mapping functions, SkyTrak features a treasure trove of add-ons that enhance the ownership experience. You can play famous courses, kill zombies, and even improve your cardiovascular health with its fitness mode.
Range Balls or Real Balls?
Another hard truth; if you’re planning on collecting data while banging limited flight, beat to hell, or otherwise nondescript range balls, you’re not only wasting your time, you’re wasting money. If getting data with the ball you play is impossible, you should at least try and get data from a ball that’s similar to the ball you play. Failing that, make sure you’re using the same ball. That shouldn’t be too hard in indoor environments or hitting nets, but understand that if one ball you’re hitting isn’t like the next, there’s not much to be learned from whatever numbers appear on the screen from shot to shot.
If a literal mixed bag of range balls is your typical use-case, and you’re looking for more than just a good time, it probably makes sense to save your money.
Flightscope Mevo - Best Indoor Launch Monitor Under $500
The most versatile of the sub-$500 launch monitors tested, FlightScope's Mevo is small but captures a wide range of data. The intuitive app allows you to take swing videos while overlaying the data for each shot for side by side comparison. Shot data is stored in the cloud so you can track your progress from swing to swing and session to session. Mevo isn't perfect, and for the most accurate data, you need to place stickers on each ball. That's not realistic on a public driving range, but if you split time between the range and hitting indoors (or into nets), Mevo is your best bet for $500.
All of the devices we tested provide Ball Speed and Carry Distance. Other metrics produced by each unit are detailed in the chart below.
|Product||Club Speed||Launch Angle||Side Angle||Spin||Side Spin||Landing Angle||Carry||Total|
|Voice Caddie SC300|
|Voice Caddie SC200|
EXPERT TIP - On A Budget?
In 2020 we're starting to see a successful personal launch monitor take it's shape and for $500 you can reasonably expect some of these devices to give you information to help you in your game. The Rapsodo was more than 90% accurate on all data sets, with the exception of spin.
More Tips (If You Still Want to Buy)
- Some of the launch monitors tested work better indoors, while others work better (or exclusively) outdoors. Before you purchase a launch monitor, make sure you know where you’re going to use it.
- If you’re only going to hit a few dozen balls at a time, battery life may not be relevant. For longer sessions, especially when leveraging video features, battery drain can be an issue. Plan accordingly.
- Launch monitors are a part of nearly every fitting experience, but don’t expect to fit yourself with a consumer-grade unit. They’re not consistent enough and don’t provide the data necessary to be used in a fitting scenario.
- In the launch monitor category, you get what you pay for. While some of the models we tested do a reasonably good job measuring ball speed and launch angle, real spin measurements, which are a key component of dispersion and distance metrics, come at a cost. That cost is significantly more than $500.
Personal Launch Monitor Rankings
|Product||Accuracy||Ease of Use||Features||Portability||Total|
|Voice Caddie SC300|
|Voice Caddie SC200|
Q: What’s the difference between a personal launch monitor and what my fitter or coach uses?
A: The short answer is several thousand bucks and a whole lot of accuracy. Enterprise-class launch monitors like Foresight and Trackman provide a significantly higher degree of accuracy and considerably more data points. This isn’t a case of paying a lot to get a little bit more. The differences are massive, which is what you should expect, given that most of these personal launch monitors cost less than 3% of what professional-grade gear sells for.
Q: What data can I get from a personal launch monitor?
A: Every model provides a slightly different dataset. All of them will give you ball speed and an estimated carry distance. Pricier units often provide additional data like launch angle and backspin. Some take a stab at head data like clubhead speed and attack angle. Few (if any) provide offline or dispersion numbers, and frankly, most spin numbers from small devices shouldn’t be entirely trusted. You need to decide if just the basics are good enough, or if you want as much data as possible – even if it isn’t entirely reliable.
Q: What is Smash Factor?
A: Smash factor is a common club performance metric. Several of the devices we tested provide this value (with varying degrees of accuracy). The Smash Factor formula is simple. It’s ball speed /clubhead speed (ball speed divided by head speed). The theoretical (and reasonable limit) for Smash Factor is 1.5 (maximum efficiency). When a device doesn’t accurately measure ball speed, head speed, or both, Smash Factor becomes meaningless. Anything above 1.45 with a driver is excellent, while anything much above 1.5 typically means either actual ball speed was slower than measured or club speed was faster than measured.
Q: Are all personal launch monitors accurate?
A: To put it bluntly, No. In fact, most aren’t. Skytrak is just short of excellent indoors, has a robust software package, and comes the closest to the enterprise units. It also costs 4x as much as the next highest-priced units tested. That said, sunlight and reflections cause issues outdoors; it struggles to keep up with high swing speed golfers, and doesn’t provide head data. The Rapsodo MLM is reasonably accurate, but it works outdoors only, and provide an extremely narrow set of data. Mevo works similarly both indoor and out, but misreads aren’t uncommon. To get pro-level metrics, reliability, and accuracy, you’ll need to spend thousands more.