Gear Review: Garmin Fenix 3 Multisport GPS Watch

In the world of fitness wearables, we have seen a ton of new products flood the market recently.  While there still seems to be a lot of feature convergence going on as they move away from specialized devices, the high-end market still seems to be dominated by two key players, Suunto and Garmin.  If you are a tech nerd like me, these two brands are the only ones that deliver solid products with all of the features desired for those that like to get far away from the world.  If you haven’t picked up on it before, I have been a Garmin guy since I started running.  I have been using the Fenix 2 for over a year and have been pretty happy (you can find my review here).  Given my overall satisfaction, I was actually hesitant to upgrade to the Fenix 3, but am really glad I did in the end.  There are a lot of similarities between the 2 and 3 in terms of features, battery life, etc. so instead of doing a full blown review here, feel free to read my Fenix 2 review.  Instead, I decided to highlight the key differences I have observed over the past few months with the Fenix 3 that made me glad I upgraded.

Garmin Fenix 3

fenix3

Key New Features

  • Color Display.  Ok, this is not a HUGE deal, but it does a couple of things for me.  One, it is a higher quality display than the black and white one on the Fenix 2 that improves the readability.  Second, it gives it a bit more of an everyday watch feel, which is important for me since I like to wear mine as an everyday wristwatch.
  • Fitness Tracking.  This is a big addition if you are in to the fitness tracking stuff.  It tracks many of the common metrics like steps and sleep schedule.  Not a big deal if you aren’t into it, but I have actually found the data quite interesting in assessing my activity when I am not running.
  • GLONASS Support.  For those that don’t know, GLONASS is the Russian satellite network that just recently became publicly accessible.  With this turned on, you get an additional 24 satellites to key ping against.  I have found that the watch does a great job at finding satellites quickly with this enabled.  It also seems to help with data accuracy, which I describe in more detail below.
  • WiFi.  This is another nice to have for me.  It allows you to connect the watch to a wifi network.  When in range, the watch will automatically upload activities and download updates.  You never have to worry about manually syncing via bluetooth or connecting it to a computer.

Key Improvements

  • Bluetooth!  My biggest complaint with the Fenix 2 is the bluetooth functionality.  They used a high power chip in the Fenix 2, which drained the battery faster.  They improved this with the Fenix 3, making Bluetooth relatively cheap to use in terms of power consumption.  It is also much more reliable when connecting to Garmin Connect on my iPhone.  A win-win overall and by far the best improvement between the two models.
  • Not as bulky.  It is about the same size from a diameter perspective, but it doesn’t sit as high off of the wrist at the Fenix 2, making it a little less unwieldy to wear while running and as an everyday watch.
  • Simultaneous ANT and Bluetooth Usage.  This was another issue with the Fenix 2.  You couldn’t have bluetooth enabled while using the ANT heart rate strap.  They fixed this with the Fenix 3 allowing you to use them both.

Things To Keep An Eye On

  • I have heard a lot of people talking about how their Fenix 3 is tracking short in more secluded/wooded areas.  In running routes that would fit into this description, I have noticed the Fenix 3 tracking a little short in comparison to my Fenix 2.  They may make some improvements to this with future firmware updates, but I have noticed that accuracy seems to be restored when I enable GLONASS.  Doing so doesn’t seem to have any noticeable impact on battery life, so is might be worth it.

If you like this post and would like to stay up to date when future gear reviews, race reports, and other related posts are released, please follow my Facebook page at Ultrarunner Joe!  Also, I generally focus my reviews on trail running.  If you are looking for crazy amounts of details, you can always check out THE man, DC Rainmaker and his review here.

Gear Review: Garmin Fenix 2 Multisport GPS Watch

For my review of the Garmin Fenix 2, I want to share my impressions from the perspective of how I use it, for running and trail running.  As a multi-sport device, the Fenix 2 provides ample functionality for swimming, biking, and several other activities, but since I do neither, I have not spent sufficient time using that feature set to be able to form an opinion.  Also, while I have always used a watch, I can’t say I have tested a wide array of options on the market, so I will stay away from detailed comparisons as well. If you are interested in a rather thorough feature review and comparison from the perspective of a multi-sport triathlete, I would suggest this review:

http://www.dcrainmaker.com/2014/03/garmin-fenix2-multisport.html

However, if you want the honest opinion and perspective of the Fenix 2 from an avid trail runner (which you probably relate to more closely if you are reading this) then read on.

In The Box

Price: $399 ($449 with the HRM)

Fenix2

  • Watch
  • Charger
  • Alternate wrist band
  • Heart rate monitor (optional)

The alternate wrist band is a Velcro wrist band option versus the traditional watch style. I opted to go the traditional route, although I am sure this will be a matter of preference for most people. It is nice having the option. The HRM is optional and costs an extra $50. If you buy it separately, it costs $100, so I would recommend buying the bundle. Additionally, many of the advanced analytics require the HRM so if you think you may want to gather any additional info, such as HR, VO2Max, Cadence, Recovery Time, etc., then you might as well save so money.

Key Features for the Ultra Trail Runner

The Fenix 2 has all of the critical back country functions that trail runners love that help us track the unique intricacies of our chosen paths.

  • Barometric altimeter for tracking elevation.  It also provides real-time cumulative elevation gain tracking, which is something I always like to remain aware of.
  • Barameter/Weather Tracking.  This allows for real-time tracking of changing weather, so you can minimize your chances of getting caught in bad weather unprepared.
  • Compass, Waypoint, Follow GPS Track, Back to Start Navigation features…in case you get lost!

The battery life on the Fenix 2 is the most refreshing thing to me personally.  I was tired of running out of battery mid-race.  The Garmin Fenix 2 boasts up to 50 hours of battery life, and I can attest that this is true.  What I will also say is that this depends on your typical usage.  The great thing about the Fenix 2 is the flexibility it provides to the user to balance feature usage with battery life requirements.  For example, if it is more important that your watch lasts for an entire 100 mile race than being extremely precise, then you have the ability to adjust how often it grabs a GPS location to preserve battery life.  Here are a couple of configurations that I have played with, just to give you a ballpark  idea of what to expect:

  • ~16 hours – GPS Ping Rate every second while using the HRM
  • ~20 hours – GPS Ping Rate every 10 seconds while using the HRM
  • ~24 hours – GPS Ping Rate every 30 seconds while using the HRM
  • ~50 hours – GPS Ping Rate every 60 seconds while using the HRM

***These numbers are estimates and may vary.

Nice-to-Have Features

Bluetooth Capable – This is a great addition to the watch that enables several awesome features for a trail runner.

  • Mobile Phone Sync – While not meant to be a smart watch by any means, when connected to your phone, your watch can receive notifications, such as text messages and caller id.  I find this beneficial because I typically put my phone in my pack, so it is not always easy to reach.  Plus, even when reachable, I don’t always hear audible notifications.  So if my wife needs to reach me for any reason, I am more likely to get the message right away.
  • Real Time Sync – This feature is nice.  It allows me to sync my run back to Garmin Connect via my phone as soon as the run is done.  I don’t have to worry about going home and plugging it in or any of that nonsense.  It simply uploads on my drive home.
  • Live Tracking – Live Tracking is helpful for those that want to follow you during a race or track your progress on a training run.  It allows you to create a website link via Garmin Connect that you can provide to people to track your progress.  The watch then pings your data back using your mobile phone.  The caveat is that you have to have a cell signal for it to update regularly.

Integration/API – Garmin has its own website to track your data in Garmin Connect, but if you are like me, you KNOW you are addicted to Strava.  This is where I think Garmin excels versus its main competitor among trail runners (Suunto).  It has (so far) maintained a very open integration API that makes it a whole lot easier for sites like Strava to interact directly with your device.  Additionally, when paired with the Garmin Connect Sync feature mentioned in the last bullet and something like Tapiriik (www.tapiriik.com), I no longer have to upload my data to two different places.

VIRB Support – action/adventure cameras have really started to take off.  While GoPro is the big player here, Garmin also has a product called the VIRB.  While still geared toward bikers at the moment, the VIRB and the Fenix 2 can link together, allowing you to control the camera features from the watch.

In Action
On the trails, the Fenix 2 was very pleasant.  It is light enough that I did not really notice it all that much.  It was comfortable and did not bounce at all on my wrist.  The buttons are easy to access on the move, making it easy to navigate through the pages while on the move.  I have had previous watches where I have accidentally bumped buttons on the watch and paused/stopped my run in progress…not the case at all with the Fenix 2.  Durability wise, I have brushed up against trees with no visible effects.  Overall, the Fenix 2 held up well to the trails of the Wasatch mountain range.

My Final Thoughts

Pros

  • Well built and durable, yet fashionable at the same time.  Unlike older Garmin products, this watch will hold up on the trails while also being wearable as an every day device.
  • Has every feature I have ever needed and many more on top of that.  I am also grateful of the multi-sport capabilities…just in case!
  • The data pages are easy to configure, allowing you to customize how and where the important data appears on the watch.
  • As someone that designs business intelligence solutions for a day job, I LOVE all of the data that I get out of this watch.  Some of it may not necessarily be valuable to most people, I still like combing through it.

Cons

  • Bluetooth is great first step, but needs to mature.  First, they don’t use low power bluetooth, so leaving it on can kill your battery life if not careful.  Second, you can’t use Bluetooth and ANT/HRM at the same time.  So you have to choose between which functions you want to have available to you for a particular run.
  • Price.  For a pure runner, the price may be a bit steep to justify as there are cheaper options that are more focused on running.  As a trail runner though, I feel that it brings enough of the features in play to make it worth it in the long run.

Recommendations

Score: 4.5 of 5 (Strongly Recommend)

Even as someone that doesn’t take full advantage of all of its features, I am extremely happy with the Fenix 2!  I feel that any complaints that I do have are more related to me trying to find SOMETHING bad about it.  I am definitely a Garmin fan over competing products so I am partial, but from what I have seen, this watch is deserving of the position as the flagship product in the Garmin product line for some time in the future.