By now, any avid golfer knows what a Trackman is, or even FlightScope. These are professional launch monitors, used by instructors and perhaps more importantly, clubfitters. With a wealth of technology, they can measure ball speed, launch angle, spin rates (both back spin and side spin), carry distance and overall distance, just to name a few. They are also expensive – about $20,000. So basically they're unaffordable for the average golfer, plus you'd have to have a bay to set them up in, more than likely.
What you want, if you're interested in this kind of technology, is something portable and a lot less expensive. Fortunately, technology in most everything is evolving at such a rapid rate that even highly sophisticated launch monitors are available in small packages at a much smaller price tag. We're not suggesting one that costs 1/50th of the large units is as accurate, but you might be surprised at how good some of these products are.
Furthermore, if you know how to use them – or have a pro who can help you – they can substantially improve your practice, making it much more productive. Simply put, you can get valuable feedback every time you practice if you know your numbers.
Here's a look at some options:
Swing Caddie SC200 ($350)
Our top pick for personal launch monitors is the Swing Caddie SC 200, the latest from Voice Caddie. It's the most affordable, fairly accurate and even talks to you. The best part is that's also very easy to use.
While it doesn't actually measure spin rate (which is one of the most valuable features of Trackman, for example), it gives you plenty of other information. Like Trackman and Flightscope, it uses Doppler radar, which is amazing, considering its size is close to that of an iPhone 6. And unlike some other portable devices, it's self-contained; no need to pair it with a phone. It uses four AAA batteries and comes with a remote control.
And here are some of the cool features: It has a barometric pressure sensor to adjust for more accurate readings. You can adjust it for different lofts of clubs for more accuracy. And it will store all your statics.
As far as reading go, you can get ball speed, clubhead speed, smash factor, carry and total distance. Additionally, you can use for it practice, set it for Random or Target mode and play games and see how you score. No doubt, this makes practice more fun and productive.
Ironically, what this portable launch monitor doesn't do is report the launch angle of your shots, though that information is certainly used in the calculations of carry and distance.
NOTE: If you don't need advanced features such as barometric pressure adjustment, consider the original (and excellent) Swing Caddie SC 100, which sells for a lot less here .
FlightScope Xi Tour (reduced to $7,500), FlightScope Mevo ($500)
If money isn't an issue, the FlightScope Xi Tour is the closest thing to having one of the big boys. Because not only does this unit do what the Swing Caddie does, but it measures so much more like spin rate, side spin, launch angle, attack angle, face to target, face to path, swing plane (both vertical and horizontally) as well as a provide a club acceleration profile.
The FlightScope Xi Tour is fairly easy to use and it interfaces with an iPad or other device. Because it's more sophisticated, it can provide more data as well as a variety of graphs that can tell you more about your game and even help with club-fitting. You can see a virtual representation of your swing and you can play FlightScope Skills challenges. As the name would imply, it's popular with professional golfers.
The drawback, of course, is that while it's portable, it is bigger than other portable devices, so you're not going to put this in your golf bag, even without the iPad. But for serious students of the game and even instructors, this is probably money well-spent without having to finance it like an automobile.
But if you want something cheaper, smaller and even more portable, FlighScope has just introduced the FlightScope Mevo, which pairs with your phone. It measures ball speed, club speed, smash factor, vertical launch angle, carry distance and spin rate.
Mevo can be used for other sports, too, like baseball and soccer, but the golf application is specific. You can even take video with your phone and add data overlay to the videos as well as share your results with your teacher.
Like Flightscope, SkyTrak is more sophisticated than the Swing Caddie, but isn't nearly as portable. But you can set up a virtual driving range in your house or garage, or even better, use it as a golf simulator to play famous courses from around the world.
Similar to the FlightScope Xi, it can hook up wirelessly to your iPad or personal computer and if you have a large monitor or big screen TV, you can set it up like the golf simulators that cost thousands of dollars more. Obviously, this is more difficult to take to the range, but not prohibitive. But it can can be used for game improvement, entertainment or both.
Ernest Sports ES14 ($550)
Like the Swing Caddie, the Ernest Sports ES14 is portable, but unlike the Swing Caddie, it isn't all self-contained. It uses Bluetooth to connect with a phone or iPad. It measures swing speed, ball speed, and smash factor, but also calculates spin rates instead of measuring them directly.
Unlike the Swing Caddie, which sits behind the ball, the ES14 is placed in front of the ball and at an angle, so if you hit a shank, it is possible to destroy it.