If you're an avid runner or cyclist, there's a good chance that either you or someone you know well is sporting a Garmin watch. Over the past few years, the company's reputation for building the best sports-tracking wearables has grown.
With the Fenix 5 - reviewed here in its Sapphire Edition configuration for an ultra-tough screen, not the larger maps-on-board 5X or smaller-form 5S versions - we're seeing the culmination of all that experience in a watch which looks good and seemingly lasts forever with each charge.
With its build quality, durability and long feature list, the Fenix 5 promises a lot. Is it the best sports watch on the market today?
Garmin Fenix 5 review: Design
- Fiber-reinforced polymer body
- Stainless steel bass and bezel
- QuickFit watch bands (22mm)
- 47 x 47 x 15.5mm dimensions
There are three sizes of Fenix 5: The Fenix 5S is the 42mm case option with a chrome bezel around the face; the regular Fenix 5 is a 47mm case with angled, brushed metal frame around the display; and the Fenix 5X is the beast of the bunch with a 51mm case.
As you'd expect, the Fenix 5 is incredibly durable. The fiber-reinforced polymer body may be a really fancy plastic, but it's strong enough that it almost convinces you it's made of metal. Underneath, the bottom panel is made from stainless steel with an attractive brushed finish, which is matched by the round bezel around the lens.
To give it that industrial, rugged look the screws holding the casing together are exposed on the top and bottom and feature a hexa-lobe head to dissuade users from trying to pull the watch apart.
One part that is designed to pull off easily, however, is the strap - which holds tightly using a unique clip mechanism, but then pulls off by simply sliding down the "lock". We've found in testing that it holds well regardless of what you put it through, and is among the easiest straps to swap out for another watch band when you need to. The only downside - despite being a 22mm strap - is that it seems to only be compatible with Garmin's QuickFit watch bands.
The default silicone strap is a soft, flexible material with lots of closely positioned rectangle holes for the clasp to fit into. It also happens to have a tab protruding from the underside of the second loop to hold the strap in place and stop the loops from sliding up and down.
Returning to the watch case and, like many sports-focused wrist gadgets, there are multiple buttons. Pressing these buttons gives an indicator of the watch's build quality, offering a proper "click" and reassuring tactile feedback.
Most of the buttons have primary and secondary features, depending on whether you press once, or press-and-hold them. On the left side: the top left button activates the light or the feature list; the middle left scrolls upwards through lists and widgets, or launches the main watch menu; the last button the left is used to scroll downwards or dismisses notifications. Switching to the right edge: the top button launches the activity tracking function from the main watch face or acts as the select/enter button within menus; the bottom button is the back/lap button.
Adding to all of this, the Fenix 5 is also rated for underwater use. With its 10ATM certification, you can take it swimming virtually anywhere, even deep sea diving - providing you don't dive to depths below 100 metres.
Garmin Fenix 5 review: Screen
- 240 x 240 resolution colour panel
- Transflective and LED backlight
- No touchscreen control, buttons only
It's only when looking at the display that the Fenix 5 may seem a step below the smartwatches from the likes of Apple or Samsung. But the transflective screen technology does have massive benefits, mainly when it comes to battery performance.
Similar to classic sports watches of the past few decades and - more recently - Pebble smartwatches, the Fenix 5's screen isn't a miniature version of the same technology used in smartphones. Rather, it's a basic, unlit LCD panel with a relatively low resolution and refresh rate.
The benefits of this technology are clear. Firstly, it's on all the time, as a watch face should be, without consuming bucket loads of battery. Secondly, it's easy to see in any light. Indeed, when light catches it at the right angle it becomes more visible rather than less. It is a colour screen, so some widgets have the odd splash of colour here and there, but for the most part the watchfaces and widgets make use of monochrome themes.
The downside to this, of course, is that with this low resolution and refresh rate, you don't get high definition graphics and animation. This means finer graphics and text, especially with curves, look a little jagged and unrefined. Still, when you're looking at arm's length, that hardly matters.
What really matters is that you can easily and clearly see the time. Even when it's dark you can just press the light button and illuminate the watch face, as many of us will have been accustomed for decades.
Garmin Fenix 5 review: Software
- Compatible with iPhone, Android and Windows
- Share data with Strava, MyFitnessPal and more
Because there's no touchscreen, Garmin's wearable software is controlled entirely by the physical buttons on the side. Don't let that fool you into thinking it's limited, however, as there are plenty of layers to the interface running on the latest high-powered watch.
Pressing-and-holding the top right button launches the activity function, where you can quickly start tracking a run, walk, or virtually any other kind of exercise, whether it be indoor cycling, open water swimming or strength training. There are all kinds of sports available within the watch's software and you can decide which of them to have as your favourites.
That means if you happen to be an avid skier, you can choose to have that at the top of the list of activities to track when you press the button. As well as bespoke sports tracking, there's a basic "track me" option which doesn't designate a sport, and an HRV stress tracker for measuring your health/heart condition.
Pressing-and-holding the top left button launches functions specific to the connectivity with your phone. That means you have a "Find my phone" option that gets your phone to play an alert sound until you find it and access the associated Garmin Connect app. There's also music control, which allows you to play, pause, skip and adjust volume of any music app running on your phone. As well as those, there are options for manually syncing the Fenix 5 with your phone, switching on "Do not Disturb", saving your location, locking the buttons and switching off the watch.
The user interface you're most likely to use is the set of full-screen widgets accessed by tapping the up or down buttons on the right side. Here you can scroll through widgets for weather, notifications, calendar events, compass, altimeter, intensity minutes overview and many more. All of which give you a quick snippet of information for any key metrics you choose to have on there.
Garmin Fenix 5 review: Connect app
- Informative daily snapshots
- Intensity minutes goal based on exercise strain
- Calendar mode for in-depth daily insight
The Garmin Connect app is essentially a central hub for all of the masses of data collected by your Fenix watch. Here you'll be able to see a simple overview showing your daily steps, sleep, calories burned and other snippets, but you can dive way deeper into your stats than what's available on the brief overview screens.
You can arrange your Snapshot views to include breakdowns of a few of the metrics you want to keep track of easily. For instance, Steps shows you your current daily tally on top, with a chart beneath showing your progress over the past 30 days. It's a similar story with the Sleep Snapshot, except that goes back over seven days.
Intensity Minutes is potentially one of the most useful for keeping fit. Using the heart rate/steps/pace data collected during your exercises it calculates how many minutes of vigourous intensity exercise you're doing and how many moderate intensity minutes. Your weekly target is initially set based on your size, age and weight, and your task is to meet that target.
For example, one 25 minute run counted as 50 intensity minutes, and so three of those runs per week would fill our target. Add in all of the other activities we tested the watch during and we surpassed that goal - hopefully increasing our fitness in the long run (if we keep it up).
There's a calendar view within the app, too, which shows different colour tabs on each of the days. Tapping on one day gives you a detailed overview of all your activities from that particular day, with a chart showing your heart rate at the top, and a list of metrics and achievements below it.
The "more" section of the app lets you dive down deeper into many of the tracked metrics, allowing you to view your performance and insights in more detail, while the news feed shows any tracked exercise by you or your Garmin Connect contacts.
What makes all of this even more useful is that you can connect the app and your account to several other popular services. MyFitnessPal, for example, can read and write data to the app, just as exercise sessions can sync automatically with Strava.
However, with all that good stuff said, it was with this software where we experienced our only real problems with the Fenix 5. Mainly, the link with Strava means all of our exercises were pushed to the community, even our indoor kettlebell sessions. Given that Strava is predominantly walking, running and cycling focused (in other words - exercises where you actually move some distance), it seems odd that the Garmin app doesn't distinguish between types of exercise. It's a minor issue, easily solved by deleting the activity, but smarter automation would be better.
Garmin Fenix 5 review: Performance
- Advanced GPS and GLONASS reception
- Heart rate/VO2 Max monitoring
All elements of the Garmin's hardware performed as well as we would expect for a top-of-the-range sports watch. The GPS tracked reliably every time we used it, and hooked onto our location after just a few seconds of activating the activity tracking feature.
The one time it took a little longer than usual to successfully pick up a GPS signal was in the Snowdonian hills, where it seemed to take 20-30 seconds to lock in our location before starting the hike tracking. This was just a blip in an otherwise overall reliable experience. And once it found the signal, it accurately tracked our route up one of mountains.
Every interaction we had was relatively quick, and only limited by the refresh rate of the screen, rather than any lag or performance issues. Pressing buttons would usually result in an almost instant response from the content on screen.
Heart-rate monitoring happens almost without you knowing it and, again, seems to be as accurate as a wrist worn device can be. No results seemed to be anything outside the ordinary, and were in line with what we've seen with multiple other devices in the past. It was the same story with sleep tracking.
Garmin Fenix 5 review: Battery
- Up to two weeks in "smartwatch mode"
- Up to 24 hours GPS/HR tracking
- Charges using bespoke cable
As we mentioned referring to the display, the one major benefit of this type of display tech is that the battery lasts a very long time. Compared to Android Wear or Watch OS wearables, the Fenix 5 feels like it goes on forever.
Garmin claims the Fenix 5 can last up to two weeks between charges in smartwatch mode, or up to 24 hours of constant GPS tracking, and our testing showed it should be capable of meeting this promises.
After 10 full days of wearing the watch, our test unit was down to 18 per cent. Breaking it down, that's around eight per cent lost per day, or around 12 days of charge. This may seem to come up short against Garmin's quoted results, but when you consider we used it to track three 25 minute runs using GPS, a couple of indoor strength and cardio sessions, plus an hour-long walk and two shorter treks, the battery held up really well in real life. We also wore it all night, every night to track our sleeping.
Short version: the Fenix 5 has a two week battery, for moderately active users. Possibly less for the more active among you.
Charging is a little different to other wearables. While it has the usual four contact points, it doesn't charge on a magnetic cradle. Instead, you have to push in the cable until it clicks in place. It's a little less convenient than some others, but it ensures a reliable, constant connection and means it's virtually impossible to accidentally knock the Fenix 5 off charge.
If money is no object and you have no issue dropping £500 upward on a great, modern, connected sports watch, then the Fenix 5 will surely leave you satisfied.
It's got enough smartphone connected-ness about it without hogging your attention, but really excels when it comes to sports tracking - of any kind you care to throw its way.
There are some tiny software kinks to sort out - we had one issue with sleep-tracking thinking our TV-watching was sleep when it wasn't, plus the push-all to Strava is irksome - but as a piece of hardware it's sublime.
The Fenix 5 is the clear king among its sports watch competition. Garmin's reputation as the best sport-focused smartwatch maker is clear to see.
The alternatives to consider...
If what you’re after is a regular smartwatch with a heavy focus on sports, the Polar M600 might just do the trick. It’s Android Wear, but with Polar’s fitness tracking expertise built in too. If you’re an Android user, it’s worth serious consideration, although it will only give you two days of battery.
Read the full article: Polar M600 review
Samsung Gear S3 Frontier
As smartwatches go, the Gear S3 Frontier’s Tizen based software is easily among the best out there for easy of use. It’s not as finely tuned for sports tracking as the Garmin, but does, sort of cross the line between traditional smart watch and sports watch. It’s not quite as sturdy, or resistant to outdoor conditions, and lacks some of the depth in health tracking available from the Fenix.
Read the full article: Samsung Gear S3 review
Suunto Sport Wrist HR
Suunto is often seen as a direct competitor to Garmin in the wearable field, and its latest watch, the Spartan Sport Wrist HR promises to offer "superior accuracy" heart-rate measurements. In fact, it claims to deliver data that’s remarkably close to chest strap HR monitors almost every time.