With the recent Stravafication of running and cycling it seems there is little reason to go anywhere or do anything unless it’s GPS tracked for speed, distance, and time. What good is going outdoors if we’re not able to capture each data point for online analysis and social media blasting? If it’s not tracked, logged, and shared, it didn’t happen. Because of this, athletes have been forced into owning full quivers of digital devices – watch for running, a cycling computer for bike rides, an iPod or smartphone for music, and a GPS device for tracking longer hikes or backpacking trips.
As all outdoor activities converge into social media sharing events, wouldn’t it be nice if the technology that we use to track them would converge as well? With the fenix GPS Watch, Garmin begins this consolidation in a strong, stylish way, creating a digital tracking and navigating device that from the outset is designed to do almost everything for everybody.
Features and design
The Garmin fenix is a big, burly, ruggedly handsome watch. This is not your nerdy, bright yellow GPS belt hanger screwed onto a rubber wrist strap. It is sophisticated, smooth, well designed and one of the more attractive GPS ABC watches we’ve seen. Wearing the fenix proclaims rather loudly that not only does the wearer have good taste and a superior design sensibility, but he or she knows where they are, where they’re going, and how to get back from where they went. At least that’s the feeling we got while cruising through our day with the fenix on our wrists.
Wearing the fenix proclaims rather loudly that the wearer knows where they are, where they’re going, and how to get back from where they went.
With the fenix, Garmin blends functionality from their other popular GPS devices and placed them smartly on the wrist. The fenix includes all the features of a GPS ABC device: a built-in barometric altimeter, barometer, a 3-axis electronic compass, plus a temperature sensor all packed into a housing that is waterproof to 50 meters. But what makes it unique is that it also uses ANT+ to interact directly with sensors that record heart rate, outside temperature and, for cyclists, speed and cadence (no power meter readings yet). The fenix also communicates via Bluetooth with both iPhones and Android smart phone apps for added mapping capabilities and route storage, as well as for passing information back and forth with other fenix watches.
Backcountry travelers will appreciate the watch’s navigating and tracking skills. Hunters will enjoy accurate sunrise and sunset times for their exact location. Fishermen can tag a location with a waypoint each time they catch a fish and then return to those spots on their next angling outing. Cyclists will be pleased to find that the fenix does most everything the popular Garmin Edge cycling computers do, while runners will find similar functionality to Garmin’s popular Forerunner watch line.
To help sort out this all-things-to-everyone approach, the fenix comes preconfigured with activity profiles that adjust the presentation of the data to show only the information that’s most important to someone doing that specific activity. The fenix we tested came with profiles for hiking, running, cycling, mountaineering, fishing, sailing, aviation, and geocaching. And, if those aren’t enough, it is possible to build your own profiles, as well download even more from the Garmin website.
What’s in the box
The watch we tested was part of the Garmin fenix Performer Bundle package (MSRP $449.99). This grouping included the watch, a premium HR monitor with chest strap, a spare bright orange watch band (the one that comes on the watch is black), extra screws, a torx tool for swapping out the band and opening the back of the watch, a USB data/charging cable, an AC power adaptor with power plug, and a quick start guide.
What does not come in the box is a complete manual. And, as we quickly discovered, a manual is mandatory for anyone who plans on using the watch for anything more than telling time. Sadly, the manual is only available online. And getting that manual wasn’t as simple as it should have been. When we visited the Garmin support webpage we clicked on the the image of a watch, but there was no fenix manual to be found. Only after doing a product search did we find the fenix manual hidden away in the “On the Trail” hiking/handheld GPS section. Yes, all this for a manual that really should come packaged with the watch.
Performance and use
As we mentioned, we tried diving in without reading the manual and had some disappointment. Several times we thought the GPS had started to record a trip only to discover part way through that it had not. Or that the GPS had started, but we had not saved the track properly after finishing the activity. This can be annoying if tracking the activity was the whole purpose of the trip. When first starting out with the watch we’d suggest taking a couple practice runs, hikes, or bicycle rides while figuring out how to use it before heading out on any important adventures.
Taking most smartphones into the wilderness and depending on the for navigation can create a long list of technical hurdles.
Getting to know the nomenclature of the fenix’s menus didn’t come easily either, but some of that was our fault. We half assumed that the menus and naming conventions would be similar to Garmin’s Edge cycling computers that we regularly use. Not true. Those accustomed to Garmin’s outdoor GPS units may find the fenix’s control menus less confusing, but for us, getting to the data we wanted was often difficult and required repeated references to the manual.
One of the most frustrating things about the watch in daily use is the time it takes for the GPS to start tracking an activity. Starting the GPS is simple enough. Just press the red button on the left side of the watch twice. But as with all GPS devices, the satellites must first be located. We found it annoying to be forced into waiting around for up to five or six minutes before the fenix found the satellites necessary to begin tracking a hike, run, or bike ride. And, yes, asking friends to wait because your watch hasn’t found its satellites yet doesn’t go over so well with a group of type-A hikers itching to hit the trail. Other times, the satellites would be located almost immediately.
While it is possible to use the fenix as a stand alone GPS tracking and data device without ever connecting it to a computer, there are two pieces of software that are required for analyzing and/or storing the data on a computer. Those using the fenix for athletic training will need to download Garmin Connect. Garmin Connect makes it easy to keep a training history on a local computer or by using the Garmin Connect website for storing that same data in the cloud. Hikers and adventure users will need to install Garmin’s Basecamp software on their computers not only to store routes, tracks, and waypoint data, but it also makes creating routes, planning adventures, and accessing them from the fenix much easier. None of this is, however, is explained in the fenix manual. In fact, Garmin Basecamp is only mentioned once in the manual and then only as a way to “send a hike” to your computer. Garmin Connect (the software/website favored by many runners, swimmers, and cyclists) isn’t mentioned in the manual at all, nor is the Basecamp smartphone app.
Once we discovered the software connections and got our computer (and iPhone) set up, we had no trouble uploading tracks to Basecamp or Garmin Connect. (Strava.com users should know that the fenix works just like an Edge or Forerunner on the site.) This watch is a complicated digital device, but Garmin could do a much better job communicating all of this to people who are just starting out with it.
There were other oddities as well. While the fenix features a temperature sensor, the quick start guide points out that “your body temperature affects the temperature sensor.” And that “to get the most accurate temperature reading, remove the device from your wrist and wait 20-30 minutes.” In other words, don’t count on the temperature reading being correct if you’re wearing your watch. Garmin offers a wireless sensor for $29.99 that can be hung far enough for your body to record the correct temperature and communicate it back to the watch, and while it seems like something Garmin could have included in the Performer bundle, people who want exact numbers will have to buy one more sensor.
Out in the wild, the fenix performed well. Worried that the watch might be a bit bulky for running, we tested it in a 5K charity race. We started the GPS a little before the race began because we wanted to make sure it had time to locate the satellites. Using the running profile we selected the info page that shows distance and time and all it took was one glance at the large LCD screen to see just how slowly the miles were going by. We could just as easily have added heart rate to the info page for a full data screen.
Using the watch in a mountain bike race was a different story, but that had more to do with the rider than the watch. Turns out, there is a reason why bike computers are mounted in the center of the handlebars. While racing on rocky, dirt single track it is nearly impossible to take your eyes off the trail long enough to check a watch. And while there are times when taking a hand off the bars is possible, it’s not something we like to do for anything other than grabbing a quick drink. Garmin already thought this through and sells the Forerunner Bicycle Mount Kit (MSRP $14.99) that makes it easy to strap the fenix right onto the middle of the handle bars. If we didn’t already have an Edge, we’d get the mounting kit and be quite happy with using the fenix for running and cycling.
All this data processing must take it’s toll on the fenix’s power supply, right? The idea of using a watch that requires a USB port or a power outlet each night would be a game ender, considering how awash we are power cords as it is, but Garmin has done a great job with the fenix’s 500 mAh Lithium-ion battery. While taking the fenix on a 12-day backpacking trip down California’s John Muir Trail would require some alternative power solutions, we found the fenix battery power to be a non-issue in regular day-to-day and even long weekend use.
In one test, we ran the watch a full six days with at least one short GPS tracking event each day before the battery began running low. The first warning we saw was at 18 percent to go and then a hour or two later (with GPS tracking running) the watch simply died. Had we downloaded any of our activities to a computer using the USB connector during those previous six days, the fenix would have stayed charged no problem. We found that using the fenix on a regular basis and plugging into a computer for data uploading every day or two kept the watch charged to over 90 percent and never once did we need to plug the fenix in simply to charge it.
If longer battery life is something you need, Garmin has outfitted the watch with the ability to conserve power. The biggest drain on the battery is the GPS and Fenix has four different settings that adjust the number of times the watch records the GPS and sensor data. The settings are: Normal, UltraTrack, Indoor, and demo mode. UltraTrack spaces the interval between the tracking point out so a little detail is lost, but battery life is greatly extended. Indoor does regular interval sensor tracking (minus the GPS) and demo mode turns the GPS off entirely letting the watch go a reported six weeks.
Smartphones are now the biggest single competitors for the wrist-based timepiece in general and for GPS devices specifically. The questions we found ourselves asking while testing this watch was “Does this do anything that a smartphone can’t do a whole lot cheaper?”
In an area of solid cell service it is hard for any battery powered device to compete with a high resolution, full-color display with real-time Google maps plotting a course over a background of satellite images. The Garmin fenix is still set in the low rez world of monochrome LCD displays and has no onboard maps, nor the ability to display detailed maps of any kind. But depending on what you’re doing, simply glancing at your wrist is always easier than getting a smartphone out of a pocket, especially when you’re standing in the middle of a creek fly casting for rainbow trout, or bombing a rocky downhill on a mountain bike. Plus, with the relatively short battery life of most smartphones, taking them out into the wilderness for more than an a day or two and depending on them for navigation can create a long list of technical hurdles. Smartphones are not normally worn on the wrist. They aren’t waterproof. And they don’t announce that we’re ready for adventure. All of which the fenix does very well.
While $399.99 may seem to be a lot to pay when compared to a couple $5 smartphone apps, when contrasted with the price of a rugged, handsome watch, it’s not so bad. And when you compare it to a $4,500 fashion watch that does little more than tell the time and look expensive, the fenix is an amazing bargain.
- Stylish, sophisticated-yet-rugged design
- Huge display reads well during serious activity
- Solid GPS tracking options
- ANT+ and Bluetooth communication
- Good battery life
- Menu layout is confusing and difficult to navigate
- Profiles and data pages are complicated to set up
- Documentation lacks in detail