The Garmin Fenix 3, much better than sliced bread.

I’ve been writing this damn review for ages but stuff keeps coming up. Like work, colds, flu and hearing loss. And then, while I’m prevaricating/dying of man flu they only go and release the Fenix 5 (and 5S and 5X). So this should be redundant. But it’s not, not really. Consider the 5 as an evolution of the 3. What’s here is still present, mostly, with some useful additions and I’ll deal with them later.

Anyhow, there’s something nice about having a GPS on your bike. Chuck in a tidy front mount, add in speed, cadence and HRM and you’re all set to ape the pros. But, ultimately, many of us record our rides simply because we can. Some of us use the data to pique our interest, bore our inner nerd, bore our mates. Only a few of us do anything really meaningful with it.

I’m a long time lover and hater of GPS. I like the tech, I like the data. I hate that it makes me need to go faster and love that it makes me need to go faster. I love the purity of not having one and the added tech warmth of having one. In truth I don’t really know why I own one at all. Deep down that’s probably true of many of you reading this, if you’re really truthful with yourself. But, hey, where’s the fun in that? If we were all really truthful we’d eschew much of what we buy. In the dark world of post 2016 and post truth let’s have something that we can enjoy without too much analysis.

I’ve been happy with my Garmin products despite their idiosyncrasies, bugs and faults. It’s claimed on the internet that all Garmin users are essentially beta testers. There may be some truth in that but, really, there are millions of these things, there are bound to be issues. And the internet will report them. But my 520 became more than a little irritating when it lost its signal at the start of every ride. I needed a replacement, decided not to replace it, then, when the opportunity presented itself, I took the plunge. The question was Garmin or not Garmin and, whatever I chose, was it time for something a bit different? In the end I said yes and now wear a massive great clock on my wrist during exercise. And if we exclude the Sonos sound systems from the equation it may well be the best thing I’ve ever bought and, on this site, easily the product of the year. That’s impressive, given the competition.

My Fenix (pronounced Phoenix apparently) is the 3rd iteration of Garmin’s do everything watch It’s pitched squarely at triathletes but it’s equally at home doing climbing, hiking, indoor gym stuff and, get this, stand up paddleboarding. Seriously, if you’re a stand up paddleboarder nothing gets close. You can take it skiing. You can ‘do’ Golf with it though, I promise, that aspect will be missing from this review. It won’t put the kids to bed or solve the Trump/Brexit problem but it will do just about everything else. When I bought it I intended to use it only for exercise. 2 months and it’s only left my wrist for charging.

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The variant I bought is the performance bundle. That means you get the ‘stock’ Fenix 3 together with the Garmin ‘run’ HRM. A bit of judicious price matching saw me net the whole lot for £291. The cheapest place right now appears to be Blacks at £290.  Bear in mind that the HRM strap alone is worth almost £80 and that’s something of an excellent deal. The new model could see this model prices tumbling but I doubt that. Weak pound, dollar pricing of the new model means that one is going to be over £400 easily.

There are a number of other Fenix 3 variants. They include a Sapphire glass variant, a wrist based HRM version and combinations of each of the above. Right at the top of the tree is the Fenix 3 Chronos. The Sapphire glass version is probably worth having. But it’s a premium over the crystal and, as far as I can ascertain from the web, it does make the display a little harder to read. The wrist based HRM is also, apparently, excellent, but no substitute at all for the chest based one in my view.

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It’s a pretty nice package when it arrives. The box comes with a charger (proprietary naturally), assorted manuals and the chest strap. The chest strap is already paired with the unit so it’s just a matter of putting it on to use it. You also get an elastic extender for the chest band so if you’re of considerable girth you’ll still get it on. It’s a very tidy package indeed.

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It’s a big old thing but, actually, you get used to it. And this is coming from someone who didn’t wear a watch or fitness tracker at all.

The first question you might ask about the Fenix 3 is why. Why choose something like this. Isn’t it just for people who contravene the rules and follow a swim with a bike ride and a run? Well, there are that lot yes. The weirdos who tackle long course weekends, tear off rubber and practice how fast they change their shoes. But there’s a lot more cross over to the Fenix that just that. Think of the Fenix as your Garmin plus smart watch. That’s really it. Does everything a Garmin will do, does everything a smartwatch will do, does every sport you do. Obviates the need for multiple devices.

The basics

So, let’s start with how the Fenix works. It’s actually pretty straightforward. If you’re familiar with Garmin ‘drill down’ menus that’s what we have here. There are 5 buttons and no touch screens. On the right we have start/stop. That button does just that, starts and stops (or pauses) activities. it also operates as the ‘select’ button. It also takes you to the ‘apps’ and we’ll come back to that in a bit. The bottom right hand button is lap and ‘back.’

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The top left hand button is the power on/off button and manual backlight. It also operates things like ‘do not disturb’ and the like. The bottom two buttons are up and down and they do what they say on the tin. The ‘up’ button when held in also takes you into settings.

So by a combination of button presses, up, down, back and select you move through a variety of menus. It’s easier to see so take a look at the video I’ve done below. It’s not exhaustive but it gives you an idea.

On arrival you need to set up a variety of things. Crucially you’ll also need to connect the Fenix 3 to your Garmin connect app. This can be on a PC/MAC but, of course, it’s far better to house it on your smartphone. The Garmin connects via bluetooth or wireless. I don’t tend to use the latter and only switch the former on when I want to sync OR when I want the watch to send me notifications. So, if I want to see texts/calls etc on a ride I’ll leave bluetooth on. Most of the time I leave it off to further extend the impressive battery life. The start stop key can also become a hot key as well and in my case I’ve made it the bluetooth on/off key. Once you’ve dealt with all your individual settings, weight, height etc, you’re all ready to go. Your HRM is already connected but if you want to add cadence, speed, power etc then it’s simply a matter of connecting via the correct menu. It’s staggering that something like this can be connected to so many things at once.

In terms of battery life the Fenix is smaller than a 520 and only marginally bigger than a Garmin 25. Yet it boasts 16-20 hours in GPS active mode and 40 hours in Ultra trac (GPS sampling) mode. I leave mine in GPS mode, wear it every day, track activities twice a day 4-5 times a week for a couple of hours and, by the end of each week, I normally still have 40% left. Charging is proprietary so don’t lose your lead but it’s good to see that you do actually get supplied with a charger as well.

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The battery life on the Fenix does depend on what’s switched on. Bluetooth has an effect but it’s actually insignificant. I turn mine on because I don’t want all my notifications. The 16 hours is probably conservative. Even on a slow ironman there’s very little risk of you running out providing you’ve remembered to charge it to capacity in the first place. Most foreign sportives won’t put a dent in the Fenix 3, ditto an Ultra marathon. There doesn’t appear to be any battery fade with multiple charges but of course the battery is not user replaceable. Nevertheless there are examples out in the wild which have been used for years with no issue. Non replaceable batteries? Well, welcome to the modern world. If you baulk at the idea here, how’s that iPhone or Galaxy holding up?

The Fenix as a Smart Watch

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Essentially it does all those things that other smart watches do. It’s counting your steps, floors, distance travelled, and sleep (in the app), represents them on the watch and also transfers them to the connect app.

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There are multiple alarms, frequency settings, vibrate and alarm functions etc to wake you up and, of course, you can set it to transfer all notifications from your phone to your watch. You can even answer calls on the watch though, clearly, you can’t talk into it. You can also control your music player on your phone but there’s no additional internal storage for music so you will need your phone with you to enjoy that music.

Then there are the widgets, which are not to be confused with the apps (exercises). You can choose to have weather, barometer, altitude, last exercise, etc etc when you cycle through the up/down on the left side of the watch. And, of course, using Garmin’s connect IQ store you can add any app that you want. And customise the watch as well. Customisation is a thriving community so there should be all sorts of apps, widgets, displays that you can find. It’s simply a matter of using the Connect app to download them and letting them sync with the phone. In terms of being a smartwatch it’s pretty much as good as anything out there. As good as smart watch as the Apple Watch 2 or Galaxy S3? Not as sexy, not by a long shot, but it’ll do the important stuff even if some of the more out there features are missing. It’s all you’d ever realistically need.

Let’s go Cycling

That’s the main function you’re interested in right? But of course. So, what’s it like cycling with a watch rather than a dedicated unit. Much of that comes down to what you want from your GPS. Do you want to be a slave to it, be driven by it, or is it just useful. For me, it’s kind of a mix. If I want to beat that ‘fastest ride ever’ I need to know where I am in terms of MPH. And glancing at your wrist isn’t ideal. Sure, you can mount it on a rather hideous bulb but that’s not great. So there’s a drawback there but that accounts for around 1% of my rides. 99% of the time it’s actually better off out of my way. I enjoy the ride, I get the data afterwards.

Initial setup is straightforward. You just need to decide what data you want to see on your screens. You can have up to 10 data screens plus virtual partner and the maximum number of data fields you can have on each data screen is 4. Clearly that is less than you can have on something like the 520 which has up to 10 fields of data. When I was using the 520 I had it setup for 4 speed fields, 3 climbing fields and the time. I didn’t use HR. I didn’t use cadence. And it’s fair to say that the data fields on the Fenix are therefore limiting if you want to see lots of data. I don’t so it suits me fine to have speed on page 1, climbing on page 2 etc. If you really want to see loads of data then there are a multitude of apps on the Connect store which will show up to 10 data fields on one screen. Despite the size of the screen they are actually effective.

If you don’t like the idea of missing out on your climbing stats then you can activate a feature called auto climb. The parameters for auto climb can be varied but essentially your main screen (my screen 1 is speed related) is replaced by your climb screen when the Fenix auto detects you climbing. It’s generally triggered in the 2-5% grade and you can also change the sensitivity of when it auto switches. You can do the same for running but, if your run is selected as a trail run, then the feature is already activated.

Once you’re all set up it’s just a simple matter of pressing go. That’s achieved by selecting the bike app, waiting for the GPS to lock (it’s both GPS and Glonass) and off you go. The pick up on the GPS lock is about the fastest I’ve seen and takes seconds most of the time. As per the usual Garmin suspects you can set auto pause, auto elevation etc and it will pause your ride during your cafe stop. Well, sort of. There’s a slight difference there. When you leave your bike outside the cafe with your Garmin attached then your bike doesn’t move. But you take your wrist with you. The Fenix senses movement so you have to pause it yourself. Let it stop, select resume later and sip that flat white. When you get back on the bike simply restart it. It’s one more step but it’s hardly the end of the world.

When you’re done with the ride simply press stop, save and let the data transfer to the Connect App. Once it’s all synced this is what you get.

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That’s my rabbit ride, it seems. Cycling through the tabs on the app will give you further metrics and data. And, provided you’ve connected 3rd party apps in the settings, YES that ride will instantly transfer itself to Strava so you can wonder at your new single personal best. There are no Strava live segments on the Fenix 3 but, well, shakes head.

In terms of being a cycling GPS it’s really just a lesser data field 520 that’s out of your line of sight. The GPS has been flawless on road and in deep cover. I’ve been using it in all weathers, temperatures, for road and CX, in good sight and in the woods. It’s never lost its signal and never had any hiccups at all.

There are other functions as well. It will pair with your Garmin Virb or Vector pedals for example. It’ll hook up to your smart turbo trainer. The cycling dynamics data that you can derive from it are extensive and useful. If you’re seriously training it will help you out. You can’t derive your (estimated) V02 max from it unless you hook it up to both the HRM AND power meter, with running it will do a VO2 max from HRM data only. You can get an idea of the type of metrics that you can produce (with a power meter) here. It will even tell you if you’re standing during your ride, for example. Of course many power meters will already do most if not all of these functions but if something like the Vector is your go to meter then you get it all in once place. That’s not to say other power meters shouldn’t seamlessly connect and provide the metrics in Connect.

In terms of cycling there’s little that it lacks, the difference between it and a Garmin 1000 for example is simply about what it can display. You get all the data, you just don’t get to see it all the time (unless you opt for a Connect IQ display). Of course there are other differences such as navigation, which is perhaps the thing that would put most off the Fenix 3. I’ll deal with nav later. It does have it, it just doesn’t have very much of it.

Let’s go running

It’s arguably running where the Fenix 3 shines. Not because it’s better at it. Just because the metrics it offers to runners are, frankly, staggering, a bit scary and a little WTF?

Initial setup is the same. Select your fields, go for a run. But it’s the added stuff that is built into the watch and HRM that really makes your eyes widen. Use the watch and you’ll get the usual thing, speed, distance, average speed etc. You’ll also get cadence and stride length from the sensors built into the watch. All of those will show up in connect. Add in the really clever HRM and you’re into a whole new world of data as you can see below.

The sensors in the HRM work together to calculate some other pieces of data such as Ground Contact time, balance (which foot spends more time on the ground than the other), vertical oscillation and vertical ratio.

And it will put all those things into a pretty little graph so that you can see how close you are to running, if not correctly, after all what is correct, but consistently. So, you can see my GCTB in the graph below.

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The greens are acceptable, the orange etc less so. Now, you may ask, what the sweet hell do you actually do with any of these things? And the answer for me is nothing at all. But that data can be invaluable for those training and offering training to correct certain biomechanics. It’s good to know that they are there and that the Fenix is capable of producing that sort of data. It’ll do the same on the bike for cadence, speed, power, HRM etc. It’s a comprehensive set of data which, if you’re INTO that sort of thing, is crucial.

There are a load of other useful features as well. You get live pace and that live pace updates pretty quickly. I’ve yet to suffer any GPS dropouts even when running under motorway bridges and the like. If you use the HRM then you will get to calculate (or estimate at least) your VO2 max AND at the end of each run you’ll be told how long it’s going to take you to recover from your effort. As you improve the Fenix will start to indicate that your lactate threshold is increasing. You can set auto laps for whatever distance you require. You can do reps and threshold tests. It’s practically impossible to understate just what it’s capable of. And if you run indoors it will do treadmills. Fairly well but if you want to get it bang on correct just add a footpod. The only thing it’s not very good at is elliptical training when it picks up some of the movements as steps but is a little hit and miss.  In terms of running there’s nothing more to realistically want.

Let’s go swimming

The HRM isn’t waterproof, well, not the RUN version. There’s a TRI version and a SWIM version which will record HRM during the session and upload later. Indeed, it’s hard to look beyond the TRI version as it offers that additional functionality and still does the dry sports as well. It’s within a few £’s of the RUN version on Wiggle so it would make a sensible upgrade and even used RUN versions go for good money on ebay. The Fenix itself is waterproof to 100m which is nice. I wouldn’t necessarily rate it for scuba diving but short recreational dives should be ok.

Once again you can get a quite staggering amount of information from it. It’s not relying on GPS in the pool, it’s all accelerometer based. It senses when you turn on each lap and, as far as I can see, it’s breathtakingly accurate. All the data is there including SWOLF. What? Swim Golf apparently and something to do with getting your stroke length better and your countdown and more efficiency. Like golf the better score is the lower one. If you’re into serious swimming (I’m fast but not) then this should assist with being a more efficient swimmer. And if you stray into open water swimming it’ll do that on a GPS basis and still tell you all about your strokes, cadence etc.

Let’s do Tri or Duo

And you can do those things as well. Indeed, that’s pretty much what this was intended for. There’s nothing really to add here. Doing Tri is done via the Tri app and you can customise the fields to deal with transition, activity etc. So you really can measure the whole thing. The level of customisation is superb.

Navigating

There’s a load of options here but essentially this is breadcrumb/arrow following stuff. The screens not sufficiently useful to see everything but it will get you home and, if all else fails, there is a magnetic compass, useful for you hikers. It’s probably easy to show how this all works rather than explain it so there’s a few videos here.

There are a wealth of resources out there to help you with breadcrumb maps etc. There’s another feature called trackback as well. So once you’ve got where you’re going and have saved your ride you can select trackback to follow it back to your source. I wouldn’t rely on the Fenix 3 for map based navigation in the same way as a Garmin 1000 and there is a lot of work involved. But it’s doable and there are ways and methods.

Overall

It’s an epic bit of kit this. Sure it’s a bit big and it doesn’t have the sheer class of something like the Samsung Gear S3. But it does more and you can’t take the other lot swimming. Indeed, many smart watches can’t be worn in the shower. The Fenix 3 really is a 365 day piece of tech.

There are flaws. It doesn’t sit well under my shirt sleeves for example. It is big. It does require you to look further ‘off road’ when you want to take in your data during a ride. But in terms of being an all round perfect thing I do think it’s hard to beat. I’d certainly not be averse to also having a Garmin 1000 on my good bike IF I won the lottery tomorrow. And if I did win it big then I might even favour something like the 735xt for running and the 1000 for cycling. But that requires considerable investment and the all round abilities of the Fenix 3 are really quite difficult to beat.

I’ve been using it all day every day for 3 months now and haven’t had a single gremlin or glitch. The non sapphire glass is standing up well to abuse, the bezel shows a few minor marks but it looks nicely lived in. I’ve moved from a red band to a black one and it’s a bit classier. The silver bezel stands out but it’s still a fairly classy affair. I can customise it tomorrow if I want something different, have hands, show more fields, consume more data. It really does offer something for everyone. Get beyond that lack of real mapping and it makes about the most perfect sense as a unit as it’s possible to give. You can feel that I love it and that view is pretty much shared by everyone who does. Owning a 520 seems to be a nice thing to do. Owing a Fenix seems to lead to some sort of evangelism. It really is that complete and that good. So what about that new one?

The Fenix 5

Well, they skipped 4 as it’s unlucky in certain countries. There are multiple variants but in essence there’s the 5 (the new 3), the 5s (the 5 small) and the 5X (the 5 how bloody big with mapping). They’re not likely to be cheap. In terms of added features then, if we ignore the 5x’s maps, the list is extensive but, essentially boils down to some tweaks, improvements and the addition of a load of ANT+ sensors (varia, di2 etc) and a load of bluetooth SMART sensors. Improvements yes but, depending on the continued stock levels and pricing of the 3 you may not feel it’s sufficient to warrant the upgrade. Mind, you do get some sexy new case and straps options (though the latter may well prove to work with the existing Fenix).

Much of this will be about whether you want the latest thing with a few more things that might be important. Even the hardest data analysers will find only a little more functionality with the 5. The hardcore trail runners will certainly gain something of added value in the mapping features of the 5x. Perhaps the singletrack riders as well, but us roadies perhaps it’s just a nice thing to have. But with that comes a bit more size and girth and those things aren’t always aesthetically pleasing. I’d wager it’s the 5S which might be the sweet point. Smaller in form, equal in function (though many of the new models lose Wifi) and just that bit more every day. Lots of female users will be attracted by that but I think that many males will be as well. For now stock is good of the 3 and the 5 will likely be expensive, so it’s up to you what importance you place on certain forms and functions. There are some more subtle things going on in terms of pixel display and bezels so it may well be that I’ll have a shufty in due course. But for my purposes at the moment the 3 is all I’d ever need. Indeed it’s far beyond what I even need. That’s the thing about tech though, having all that stuff you can never really find a use for is the thing that makes it great. That it does the stuff you need it for without complaint, the real winner.

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One thought on “The Garmin Fenix 3, much better than sliced bread.

  1. I can’t believe nobody thanked you before, this was a great review and helped me with my decision of buying the fenix 3 HR, instead of the new one.
    I can deal with the size and weight of the watch, so anything else is just not enough to cover the gap of money for me.
    Nice review and thanks!

    Liked by 1 person

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