“The Garmin fenix 3 HR is as close to perfect as any GPS action smartwatch has ever gotten.”
- 24/7 Heart rate monitoring
- Smart Notifications
- Customizable vibrating alarms
- Sapphire lens
- Regular software updates
- Heart rate monitor has trouble with vigorous exercise
- Move alarm seems random
It’s almost a foregone conclusion that each time Garmin engineers release a new watch technology they add it to their fenix line of smartwatches. The fenix 3 already sports the combined functionality of all of Garmin’s specialty running, fitness, and swimming watches (and most of the company’s bike computers), so when Garmin unveiled Elevate — its first-ever wrist-based optical heart rate monitoring feature — we knew it was only a matter of time before it showed up in the do-it-all fenix line.
Here it is in the fenix 3 HR. And this watch is epic.
Features and design
The fenix 3 HR retains the look and feel of other models in this line: It has a strong, bold, hunky, outdoor action watch case and a silicone strap that’s rugged yet sophisticated enough to be worn with a business suit or dinner jacket. The round 218 × 218 pixel transflective color display is protected by Garmin’s top-of-the-line Sapphire lens and is surrounded by five buttons: three on the left and two on the right. The case is water resistant to 10 ATM or 100 meters.
On the wrist the fenix 3 HR looks no different than a regular fenix 3. Once turned over, however, the difference is obvious. The back of the watch features Garmin’s Elevate tech — an optical heart rate monitor that records and logs your heart rate 24 hours a day. The optical sensor sticks up from the middle of the back of the watch and three lights glow green when it searches for a heartbeat.
With the fenix 3 HR’s extensive feature set, creating a list of all the things it can do is almost overwhelming. Aside from telling the time, showing the day and date, and displaying sunrise and sunset times, it also sports a load of sensors including GPS, barometric altimeter, barometer, electronic compass, heart rate monitor, accelerometer, and a thermometer. It also tracks and logs daily quantified life metrics like steps, calories burned, stairs climbed, and sleep quality. It’s like a fitness science data center on your wrist.
With the fenix 3 HR’s extensive feature set, creating a list of all the things it can do is almost overwhelming.
The fenix 3 HR comes loaded with Garmin’s latest fenix 3 software upgrade, which in addition to specialized legacy functions for running, cycling, swimming, open water swimming, triathlons, and hiking, now includes data capture settings specifically designed for skiing/snowboarding, standup paddling, rowing, and golf. The new golf feature allows players to download course data giving them real time distances to the front, back, and middle of the green.
As a smartwatch the fenix 3 HR is also well equipped. When paired with a compatible iOS or Android phone and Garmin’s free Connect software, the watch can deliver all manner of smart notifications including emails, texts, calendar alerts, news headlines, and any other messages the phone’s system will push. Plus access to Garmin’s Connect IQ app environment lets you customize the watch further with downloadable tracking options, watch faces, and other specialized apps.
What’s in the box
The Garmin Fenix 3 HR Sapphire we tested came with the watch and black silicone band, a USB/charging cable, and an AC adapter.
Performance and use
Setting up the fenix 3 HR is no different than any other paired smart fitness device. After downloading the free Garmin Connect software to a compatible iOS or Android phone, users create an account, answer a few personal metrics questions, and then pair the device to the phone via Bluetooth.
We’ve been following the fenix line of watches since Garmin first launched it, so each time Garmin adds a new feature we’re eager to check it out. Twenty-four/seven heart rate monitoring is a great addition to an already amazing smartwatch. We used it most for tracking resting heart rate and for momentary checks throughout the day, which is easier than with most: Because it’s always running checking your pulse is one button-press away.
After wearing the watch for a month and putting it through mountain-bike rides, hikes, and stand-up paddling sessions, we discovered that while Garmin’s optical heart rate monitor performs well at work, while walking, or even during light hiking, it has trouble during vigorous activities like trail running or mountain biking. From testing against a heart rate chest strap we found that the watch often under-reported our rate by as much as 20 to 30 beats a second while doing any exercise that had us shaking our arms around. We noticed the largest differences while mountain biking over rough terrain. It seems that the watch may bounce around on our wrist too much to get a good reading. In fact, it was so unreliable for mountain biking that we eventually paired the watch to our ANT+ compatible chest strap and used that for heart rate data capture. Yes, you can do that: When the strap is on the fenix 3 HR reads the rate via ANT+; when it’s off the watch uses the wrist monitor.
The wrist sensor had other drawbacks as well. It protrudes from the back of the watch, which doesn’t hurt or become annoying, but it would be wrong to say that we didn’t notice it. Each time we straighten the watch on our wrist we could feel the bump. The other downside with all optical heart rate monitors is that at night the sensor light can be quite bright. It shines green and occasionally, when the watch is in close proximity to your face, it can be bright enough to be distracting. At those times we just slipped the watch off and put it next to the bed. Yes, that meant losing track of our heart rate, but sometimes falling asleep is more important.
Access to Garmin’s Connect IQ app environment allows the watch to be customized with even further with downloadable tracking options, watch faces, and other specialized apps.
We also had trouble with the built in Move Alert. The idea behind it is simple. When you’ve been sitting too long, the Move alert will vibrate the watch and the word “move” will show up on the screen. That means it’s time to get up and walk around. In an office setting this can be a great reminder to get moving and keep your brain awake. After walking around a while the watch will vibrate again and the move bar will reset. But on our watch the move alarm often vibrates when we’ve been in motion for a while — and then just as suddenly lets us know that the bar has been cleared.
The rest of the functions worked flawlessly. The days of waiting a minute or two for the fenix to find GPS satellites is over. When we were ready to start a hike it would be ready to go within seconds. There were only a few occasions when we had to wait at all.
One weekend, in a State Park that had no proper trail signage, we came to depend on the hike function’s bread crumb trail to help us find our way back to our camp. The bread crumb trail shows the path of a hike from above with an arrow at your current location. The view can be adjusted from a height of 50 feet overhead all the way out to 300 miles, making it easy to look down on a hike and see exactly where you’ve been and where you need to go. If the bread crumb isn’t helpful, then Garmin’s TracBack feature can point the way back (with an arrow on the screen) by retracing your route exactly. With all this help it would be very difficult to get lost while wearing a fenix 3 HR.
The feature we found ourselves unable to live without had nothing to do with GPS or action tracking. It was the fenix 3 HR’s customizable vibration alarms. We use the fenix 3 HR’s alarm system to program our life. Garmin allows a seemingly unlimited number of alarms to be scheduled for any or all days of the week. While many “smartwatches” only allow one alarm to be set for a single day, weekday, or all week, the fenix allows each alarm to be scheduled for as many or as few days a week as you want. We found setting alarms on the watch to be easier than setting up notifications on our iPhone.
For the past four months the Garmin fenix 3 HR has been our day-in-day-out cycling, hiking, mountain biking, swimming, stand-up-paddling, canoeing, and surfing watch. In fact, we’re to the point now where summers wouldn’t be the same without a fenix tracking our every action. Indeed, we love the fenix 3 HR.
Is there a better alternative?
A fenix 3 without the optical heart rate monitor or Sapphire glass is $100 cheaper. Is 24/7 heart rate and a better lens worth the extra $100? For some, it might not be. After all, we did used our heart rate strap for some activities anyway.
How long will it last?
Garmin engineers are constantly improving the software that runs the fenix 3 line of watches with fixes, updates, and often entirely new features. The updates are delivered directly to the watch via the Garmin Connect software so it’s simple to keep the watch up-to-date. When fenix 3 HR was released all the new software features were also made available to owners of the previous version of the watch. When the updates arrive it’s often like getting a new watch without having to buy one. Like any tech gadget the fenix 3 HR may not be completely future proof, however if Garmin’s updating history is any guide there’s little worry of it becoming obsolete over the next two years.
Should you buy it?
Yes. For those who want optical heart rate tracking and don’t mind a big, beautiful hunk of performance tracking technology on their wrist 24/7, you’ll have trouble finding another watch that compares to the fenix 3 HR. The Garmin fenix 3 HR is as close to perfect as any GPS action smartwatch to date.
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