Garmin has refreshed its Fenix range for 2018, adding more features into the 5 Plus and making it more powerful than ever. Despite its significant price tag, is this the best smart sports watch to buy?

Rugged style, built to last

  • Sapphire crystal display (on Sapphire Edition)
  • Stainless steel underside and bezel
  • 100m waterproof
  • 46mm case

In the past, Garmin's watches were known for looking a bit 'sporty'. That meant lots of bright colours and not a lot of subtlety. In recent years, it's been toned down to ensure the watch is something you can comfortably wear to work without it looking out of place. So much that a lot of the company's watches are starting to look similar. 

With the Fenix 5 Plus, little has changed from an aesthetic standpoint compared to the 2017 model. It's similar to the new Forerunner 935 in shape and button layout, but features enough unique touches to keep the two devices distinctive. While the Forerunner is Garmin's runner-focused and rounded sports watch, the Fenix 5 Plus is its rugged multi-sport cousin. 

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Exposed screws around the surface of the Fenix's frame and angled chamfers give it that 'outdoorsy' look. And, as well as being slimmer, the black bezel around the screen has minute/second index markings all the way around the face.

Materials like the stainless steel on the bezel and underside as well as the sapphire crystal glass screen (on the Sapphire Edition only) ensure this is one of the most well-made high-end sports watches out there.

Those materials do mean the watch does feel quite substantial on the wrist; it's reassuringly weighty, and doesn't get in the way, but some may find it a bit too bulky. 

Similarly, the quick release 22mm strap is comfortable and features enough holes up the wrist band that anyone of any wrist size should be able to find a fit that works for them. It's flexible and soft enough that it never feels uncomfortable, while the brushed metal clasp gives it a sense of class. What's more, the quick-release system is really convenient and doesn't require you to have epic fingernails or to find a tiny sliding pin. 

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The fibre-reinforced polymer case features five buttons, as is the norm for Garmin's non-touch watches. If you've grown accustomed to touchscreens then it takes a few days to stop swiping on a screen with no result, but the button system is intuitive enough that it soon becomes muscle memory. 

The Fenix 5 is also water resistant to 100 meters, which means you can take it anywhere, in any weather, or go swimming, and it'll survive just fine. 

Battery life takes a hit, but is still great

  • 19 hours of non-stop GPS tracking
  • 12 days use as a smartwatch

Most regular smartwatches are unlikely to deliver more than two days – unless you go for something like the dual-screened TicWatch Pro – whereas the Fenix 5 Plus is so long-lasting you don't even need to start worrying after a full week's worth of use. Garmin claims you can get 12 days of use if you only use it for its smartwatch/notifications functions. Although, if you're buying a Garmin, it's highly likely you'll be using it for tracking activities too.

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In our first seven days using the Fenix 5 Plus we tracked three running activities, between 4-5.5km, with music playing, as well as using it on a few nights to track sleep, then as a smartwatch for the rest of the time. Having set it up for first use and charged it on Tuesday afternoon, it was down to around 25 per cent on the following Wednesday morning... over a week later. 

Ok, so the Fenix 5 Plus isn't quite as good as the Forerunner 935 in the battery life department, but it's still very good and shouldn't ever leave you feeling anxious. Even with 10 per cent left, we'd feel comfortable taking it out for a 30 minute run. In fact, on a 30 minute run, it lost less than five per cent of its capacity. Not bad, eh?

Tracking capabilities and performance

  • GPS, GLONASS and Galileo location tracking
  • Garmin Elevate heart-rate sensor

One element with almost every GPS-equipped smartwatch that leaves us a tiny bit frustrated is the time it often takes to log onto our location. With the Fenix 5 Plus that's never a problem. From pressing the activity button to seeing the green bar that indicates the GPS signal is locked takes less than 10 seconds.

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Thanks to its combination of different location tracking services – GPS, GLONASS and Galileo – the Fenix 5 Plus is reliable when it comes to outdoor sessions, either walking or running. As the watch has the data built in, you can bring up an onscreen map whenever you want, wherever you are. While the map interface is a little slow to animate when zooming in/out, it could still be really useful if you're lost. Ideal for trail runners then.

We mostly used the Fenix 5 Plus for running, but the beauty of the watch is its multi-sport capabilities. For those outdoor activities it allows you to customise the data you want to see on the screen. For runners that means run time, distance and pace, but also being able to scroll through a handful of other relevant screens (lap time/pace screen, heart rate screen, map and time). 

The Fenix 5 Plus can track pretty much anything, ranging from water and snow-based sports through to golf, hiking and indoor cardio sessions. Whether you're into kayaking, swim-run, triathlons or mountain biking, it's got your back. 

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Those looking for a decent sleep tracker might be disappointed though. The watch often assumed we were asleep when we were sat on the couch binging on Netflix beyond our programmed bed time. Once or twice over the opening week it served up some useful sleep tracking information, but we soon stopped wearing it during the night.

Fenix, plus music

  • Load music onto the watch via desktop
  • Bluetooth for pairing headphones

One of the joys of the latest crop of Garmin watches is the ability to store music on the internal storage, right on your wrist. With 4GB to use, there's enough space for roughly 1,000 songs. Built-in Bluetooth ensures you can pair your favourite sports headphones and head out for a run without needing to take your phone. 

While music provider options were initially limited, you can now listen to both Spotify and Deezer playlists as well as the lesser known KKbox, iHeartRadio and AWA. If you don't use any of those, things are a little more cumbersome. You'll need to add music the old fashioned way: by plugging into a PC or Mac and transferring files manually using the desktop Garmin app. If you have files stored, or downloaded on iTunes, it's not very inconvenient. 

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Of course there is a major upside to having music stored locally on a device: you don't need rely on any cellular connection for streaming. It means no drop-outs or glitches when running into areas with poor coverage which, if you're a trail runner and like your tunes, will be a godsend. 

If you'd rather just stick to using Google Play, Amazon Prime or Apple Music on your phone, that's still an option, since the Fenix 5 Plus – like most current Garmin watches – lets you control the music playing on your paired device from your wrist too.

The app

  • Daily, weekly and monthly breakdowns
  • Garmin Coaching programs
  • Strava syncing
  • Plus lots, lots more...

Garmin's Connect app for both iPhone and Android is among the most in-depth out there. Whether you're into training for a specific sport, or just casual daily activity tracking, the Connect app handles it all really well. 

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The app's main homepage shows a brief overview of your day so far, including step count, heart rate, intensity minutes, floors, stress levels, calories and weight (among others). Keep scrolling and you can manually add an activity, weight or calorie intake through the tie-in with the MyFitnessPal service.

Scroll further and you'll see a full overview of the previous day, followed by one showing your averages from the last seven days. In all, it's a great view for seeing your generalised data, but there is a lot more to this app besides.

Access the side bar menu and you'll see a plethora of options to dig into various activities and details. You can see a breakdown of every run you've been on, or how well you're sleeping (if this works well for you anyway), or any other activity that's being tracked. 

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Fitness fanatics get it even better. Under the performance stats tab you can break down various metrics like your VO2 Max, which helps indicate how fit you are. You also get lactate threshold, training effect, training status, HRV stress and FTP (the last of which is a particularly interesting metric, which measures your exercise power in Watts and Watts per kilo).

Verdict

If you're looking for an all-action sports watch that tracks everything you could possibly need, does so reliably and consistently, and lasts an age, then there's nothing better than the Fenix 5 Plus. It tracks a plethora of sports and activities, is built like a tank, and can survive over a week on a single charge. 

It could still do with some improvement on the sleep tracking side, but the inclusion of built-in maps will be a major boost, especially for those who held off on 2017's Fenix 5X due to its mammoth size. 

Which all sounds great, but the asking price will be a barrier for some. The Fenix 5 Plus costs a minimum of £599, while the Sapphire Edition model reviewed here will set you back an eye-watering £749. It's a lot of cash, but then it's perfectly matches for the hardcore fitness fanatic.

Price when reviewed:
$880

Also consider

Pocket-lintGarmin Forerunner 645 Music image 5

Garmin Forerunner 645 Music

If you want a solid fitness/running tracker with built-in music and don't want to spend £600 on a new watch, the Forerunner 645 Music edition is a great option with a lot of the same functionality. Granted, it's built more for running and less for multi-sport, but it's a great watch. 

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Garmin Fenix 5 (2017)

That's right, one of the best alternatives to the 2018 Fenix 5 Plus is the 2017 Fenix 5. It might not have the same features as the new model (you don't get Garmin Pay, the new interface, or music), but you will be able to pick one up much cheaper. What's more, you'll get better battery life, even if you do have to wait a bit longer for the GPS to pick up your signal.