A Garmin Fenix to the Apple Watch and Back Again - Part 1

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The gadget junky is a finicky creature.  Influenced over the years by savvy marketing execs at companies everywhere, a species that has evolved into one that craves the latest tech (shiny things).  As a self-proclaimed gadget junky, believe me, it’s a rough first world problem. 

The smart watch, a gadget that a few years ago I would have called purely marketing hype, yet here we are at the beginning of 2018 and smart watches (or fitness wearable if you’re one of those savvy marketing people) are as common as sugar laced foods and reality TV (ok, not that common, unfortunately).

I am one of those that was originally against the very idea of wearing a watch again.  Other than a fancy pants watch my wife gave me as a wedding gift (that I still love and wear on special occasions), I enjoyed the notion of only having a smart phone in my pocket. A smart phone does many more cool things than the calculator watch I used to have in grade school (yes, I was that kid and yes, apparently, I was a gadget junky that long ago). 

Why go back to wearing a watch?  Why deal with an at times uncomfortable band and an interesting wrist tan tine?  For me it started with fitness trackers, in particular the Garmin Vivosmart. It started with tracking my steps throughout the day, but I quickly realized there was another feature I used and enjoyed even more, the notifications.

In today’s day and age, it is unusual to walk around and see someone not on their smartphone, as sad as that is, but once in a while there is a legitimately important notification (be it text, e-mail, call, etc.) that one should respond to.  However, if you’re like most people, you are in the habit of taking your phone out of your pocket for EVERY notification and in some cases right in the middle of a face to face conversation with a real person without even realizing how rude that might be in a given situation.

For me, the smart watch has provided an opportunity to stay on top of my notifications, letting me know of those that are truly important and filtering out those that aren’t.  I know, I’ll get off my old curmudgeon soapbox now and get to the review, but that truly is the feature that got me hooked on all of this new-fangled wearable tech, sonny!

Ok, on to what you came here for, my thoughts on the Apple Watch and Garmin Fenix in the form of a simple pro/con list for each brand with some brief explanations of each point.  Keep in mind, these are my opinions and your mileage may vary or YMMV (this old guy is so HIP!).

Background - How I Formed my Opinions

As mentioned, my fitness wearable streak started with the Vivosmart.  I then went to a Garmin Fenix 3 and after about a year I moved to a generation 2 Apple Watch (the water proof one with a slightly better battery, my wife has the Gen. 1 for comparison).  After yet another year (you’re starting to see a trend with my attention span aren’t you) I moved on again to a Garmin Fenix 5X that I am currently wearing.  The pros and cons that follow will be based on my personal experience with the aforementioned devices.  Many of the pictures will be of the Fenix 3, the Fenix 5X will be supplemented as necessary.  If you would like a close up picture of anything in particular, drop me a line and I'll update the post.

Garmin Pros:

1.     Battery life

Massive, and I mean truly great, especially if you use it mainly as a smart watch.  Perhaps you use a cycling computer as your main activity tracker. The Fenix battery will last weeks, seriously, it is awesome.

2.     Appearance

The Fenix series is by far the best looking smart watch in my humble opinion, with any face/band combination.  Garmin really knocked it out of the park in the looks department.  Keep in mind that I am one of those people that does not like a small watch face. 

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3.     Durability

The Fenix feels built to last, it is water proof to a depth I will never see unless something goes really wrong kayaking.  Even the buttons feel heavy duty with a satisfying click when you push them.

4.     The Garmin Ecosystem

This may vary greatly depending on who you ask, but I’ve found Garmin Connect and various fitness devices to be reliable for the most part and Garmin has only made the interface better over the years.  The Connect App for your smartphone has been improved upon greatly in the last couple of years.  I also find it very useful feature to have my fitness data all in one place when uploaded from various devices (Garmin Edge and Fenix devices in my case)

5.     An Outdoors, Sport and Fitness Focus

Clearly, this watch is focused on the fitness and outdoor lifestyle with features for nearly every sport except maybe Cricket and Curling and even outdoor features for sports like rock climbing and mountaineering (barometer, altimeter, temperature, etc.) 

6.     Frequent Updates (Usually a Good Thing)

Updates almost weekly are common and yes, some of the updates fix one bug and introduce another, but Garmin typically fixes any issues that pop up in a timely manner.  I’ve never had an update cause my device to be unusable either, it’s typically a minor inconvenience.

7.     Always on Watch Face

Starting with the Vivosmart, I have grown to hate wearables that require you to tilt your wrist to activate the screen.  It never works correctly, and it is never instantaneous!  I want the device to be at the ready all the time.  I understand this may be a battery saving issue, but there must be other less intrusive ways to save on battery power.

8.     Crisp, Basic Display

While basic, the display does have color and it is crisp.  I find it very easy to read in almost all conditions.

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9.     Sensor Compatibility  

The Fenix series works with many of the cycling sensors I use almost daily, such as cadence, speed and heart rate.  It also works with power meters, both on the bike and smart trainers. It will even work with the Garmin Tempe external temperature sensor, which is great for camping or any other time you need an accurate temperature measurement while wearing your watch.  The watch does have a temperature sensor, but it can be heavily influenced by your body temperature while wearing it.

10.  24hr heart rate monitoring

This is a great feature for tracking your resting heart rate, stress level, sleep patterns, etc. and many devices with a HRM utilize this feature. (Garmin Fenix 5 Series and Garmin Fenix 3HR)

11.  Comfortable Bands

One nice bonus of having a larger watch face is having a wider band.  To me, a wider band is much more comfortable to wear all day, especially if it is breathable via the adjustment slots in the band.  Also, in the Fenix 5 series, the band has many adjustment positions allowing for just the right snugness so that the optical heart rate monitor can optimally without completely cutting off the circulation to your hand.

12.  Mapping

Yep, legit maps for those spontaneous hikes or for when you forget your handheld GPS.  Yes, the screen is small and the button pushing can get cumbersome without a touchscreen, but it’s better than looking for moss on the north side of a tree trunk.

13.  Many Customizable Features and Digital Watch Faces  

Connect IQ offers hundreds of watch face styles and activity widgets.  Many of these downloadable programs are free and oriented towards fitness tracking. 

14.  Several Watch Specs/Bezel Sizes to Choose From

The latest series, Fenix 5, offers several watch face sizes/styles to choose from with the 5X being the largest and includes a bevel made of sapphire, fancy! While only the 5X offers mapping, the other options contain all of the other features that make the Fenix so great.  The previous generation, the Fenix 3, only had one size option and from there you could choose to purchase it with the optical HRM or without.

 

Garmin Cons:

1.     Dim display

This is a con for some that find it hard to see indoors due to the dim nature of the display without the backlight on.  I find the brightness level acceptable, but it is worth mentioning.  If you're unsure, definitely take a look at the device under store lighting, or even better, if you have a friend with the Fenix, take a look at it in your home or office to determine if it will work for you.

2.     Finicky software at times  

As noted above, some updates have introduced new bugs which may interfere with recording a particular activity.  I have not been directly affected by this issue, but I know of those who have so it is definitely worth mentioning.  This issue is mainly on the smart phone or app side of things from my understanding.  As always, some issues can be traced back to human error and often stems from not following the update procedure to the letter.

3.     No touchscreen

I am sure some people would in fact prefer it, but as I understand it, it is a battery saving measure and I’m sure a button only UI helps to seal the device from dust and moisture.  To be fair, as the Fenix software progresses, Garmin has made it much less cumbersome to perform common functions with only buttons compared to similar devices from other brands.

4.     Less integration with smart functions

This is especially true when comparing the iOS ecosystem and the Apple Watch.  There aren’t nearly as many polished apps or widgets in the Connect IQ Store as there are in the Android and iOS app stores, but then again, there are many more smart phones out there than there are Connect IQ enabled devices.  That is not to say that the Garmin Fenix does not have any smart integration with Apple and iOS phones.  It does cover the basics of smart device integration.  For example it handles notifications well (even better on the most recent firmware), calendar items/appointments, weather (obtained from the phone), and basic music control (great while running/walking, etc.).  I'm sure the variety of available apps as well as abilities within a given app will continue to increase and improve with each new firmware update.

5.     3rd Party Connect IQ Digital Phases and the Disappearing Seconds Hand

3rd party digital watch faces don’t display seconds after about 10 seconds or so after watch movement re-enables the second hand.  From what I understand, this is yet another battery saving method, but if you use almost any Garmin branded watch face, the second hand is always on.  I’m not sure why some of the almost perfect 3rd party watch faces can’t make this an ‘always on’ feature or if there is a way to get around this limitation at the expense of some battery life.

6.     Another Proprietary Charging Cable

Again, this is probably for waterproofing purposes, but I would love to see a wireless charging ability in the next generation Fenix watch.

7.     An Expensive Device

Not much needs to be said here, even the most basic Fenix spec is costly.  To get around this, you can always purchase the previous generation (Fenix3, Fenix3HR) at a deep discount.  Another option is to wait for the various Garmin sales throughout the year where devices are discounted to various degrees, anywhere from 10 or 20 bucks to over 100 dollars off the normal price.


 

At this point I’d like to say let’s move on to the Apple Watch pro and con list, but this post ended up much longer than I had originally planned.  Stay tuned as part two of the Apple Watch vs. Garmin Fenix post is coming later this week, including the very highly anticipated conclusion (yes, I know you will be sitting by your computer all week repeatedly hitting the refresh button until part two has been posted, and I apologize for that).

In the stare down contest, the Fenix won, hands down.  The Apple watch blinked (or at least turned its screen off again).

In the stare down contest, the Fenix won, hands down.  The Apple watch blinked (or at least turned its screen off again).