Garmin Fenix 3 review: a great GPS watch

Gear and Clothing, Reviews
Garmin Fenix 3 Watch review

The Garmin Fenix 3 is a new edition to the Garmin watch lineup. I’ve been thinking about moving from tracking my running with an iPhone to using a watch for a while. The Fenix 3 inspired me to make the leap and I’m glad I did.

I am obsessive about tracking my running data. I’m motivated by numbers and watching the milestones tick past has pushed me further than I would have ever thought possible. I knew I “had it bad” when I realised that it had reached the point where if the phone wasn’t charged, I wouldn’t run. I know that’s maybe not how it is for all of you. For me though, that’s meant strapping on the armband with my iPhone for every run over the last five years.

Why shift away from using an iPhone for GPS tracking?

Each successive iPhone I’ve used to track my runs has got better and better. Over the time that I’ve been doing it, the apps have improved out of sight. So why bother changing a winning formula?

  1. I dislike carrying the phone in the armband. It’s an impediment on my arm and never feels natural. I know that you can get minimal waist bands that will hold the phone but that never seemed like an ideal option for me either.
  2. When I’m not carrying it on my arm (i.e. in a hydration pack) it’s not that accessible to quickly check on progress during the run. Nothing interrupts “the flow” more than having to stop and take your pack off.
  3. The phones have got bigger lately. My iPhone 6 is a physically large item to carry around.
  4. Battery life. My old iPhone 4S was barely making it through 3.5 hour runs in the end. I need to know that the device I’m using is going to track my whole run, especially when the device is a little older and the battery isn’t what it used to be.

This all added up to a need to review my options.

Enter the Garmin Fenix 3

I decided that I needed to buy a GPS running watch. After considering the options on the market that appealed to me (namely the Suunto Ambit 3, Polar V800, Garmin 920xt and the Garmin Fenix 3) I settled on the Garmin.

I should say up front, this is not an exhaustive technical review. If you haven’t come across him, DC Rainmaker does fantastic technical reviews of GPS watches. You should go and read his review of the Fenix 3 if you are interested. Go ahead I’ll wait…

For those of you who skipped the link above the Garmin Fenix 3 is a GPS enabled multi-sport watch. It lets you track your running via the GPS without the need to carry a connected mobile phone. It has multiple activity profiles catering for many sports. If you have a heart rate monitor you can pair it with the watch to track your heart rate while you run.

Fenix 3 in use

Thoughts on wearing and using the watch

Physically the Fenix 3 is a solid but good-looking device. I bought the grey model with the black band. I’ve been impressed with the casing both in looks and durability. I hadn’t worn a watch for many years so there were a few early knocks on door frames and desks as I got used to having something on my wrist again. The Fenix 3 has survived these knocks without a scratch. It seems durable and that has removed any thoughts of having to be careful with the watch while out running.

It’s also comfortable to wear. I tend to tighten the band one notch when running, to secure it a little more on my wrist but I’ve worn this watch for 3 hour runs and haven’t had any hot spots or uncomfortable moments. The only thing I’d say here is that if the watch were a bit lighter it would probably go from something that is “comfortable” to something that you forget you have on until you use it.

Another noticeable aspect of the watch, coming from a phone, the physical buttons on the watch are a great feature. While it might be nice to have a touch screen to swipe between data screens, when it’s cold and you are wearing gloves buttons just work. You can easily manage the watch without having to fumble and get cold fingers. Overall the buttons work great and I haven’t had any issues with going back to a more “analogue” approach.

The interface on the watch

I’ve only used the watch running and walking so I can’t speak for the other sport modes but based on my experience I’d say that for key function of recording your activities, the Fenix 3 knocks it out of the park.

The watch is very customisable. I love that I can setup the trail running mode just how I like it, with different data screens showing all the information that I need. I’ve been able to setup customised alerts to remind me to eat every 15 minutes on long runs (I’ve found small amounts regularly works better than the occasional large amount of calories). I’ve also turned off any phone notifications when I’m running so that I’m not being distracted if I have my phone with me in the hydration pack.

I’ve found the general user interface to be intuitive and haven’t had to resort to the manual yet, always a good sign.

The Fenix 3 has some other nice features for the outdoors minded, a built in compass, a temperature sensor, barometer and altitude read outs. This makes it extra useful to take tramping (hiking) in the mountains. I’m looking forward to exploring more of these features on my next tramp.

Having a Heart Rate Monitor

I bought the model with the bundled HRM-run heart rate monitor. This was also my first experience of having heart rate information about my running.

It has been really great to be able to quantify my effort while running. Speed zones give you some sign and clearly you can tell when you are puffed without a heart rate monitor. However, I’ve found that having heart rate information has helped me sustain better endurance paces over longer distances (not pushing too hard too soon) and work on different effort levels when hill climbing. I was concerned before I used it that I would find it tight or restrictive but in practice I forget it is there most of the time.

One thing I discovered by accident is that the heart rate monitor will over estimate your heart rate massively if you have a metal key in your jacket pocket touching the electrode through your t-shirt, good to know (I was pretty sure that I don’t normally have a heart rate of 225 while standing at the start of a trail…).

I would recommend the heart rate bundle if you don’t already have a heart monitor you could pair with the watch.

Battery Life

Battery life is better than I was expecting. With phone notifications on and tracking about 5-6 hours of running a week I’m getting seven days use from the watch before recharging. I’m sure that I could extend that a little by fiddling with the settings or turning off notifications but in terms of modern day gadgets a week of life is really good in my book.

For those doing super long distances or ultra marathons there is the added benefit that the watch can be charged while in use from a battery pack (that’s not me, yet).

Coming from the phone as a fitness device it is super refreshing to not even think about the device’s battery life before heading out on the trails.

Accuracy and Reliability

I’ve been happy with the GPS accuracy on my runs. It matches or exceeds the GPS tracks that I was getting on my iPhone 6.

The altitude and temperature readings from the watch aren’t so reliable. The temperature is very effected by the watch sitting on your wrist and therefore warmer than they should be. This could be rectified by adding a “tempe” sensor from Garmin that measures temperature and can be attached to a pack to get a more accurate temperature reading. The altitude readings are also quite variable. It often gets the altitude change pretty much spot on, but the starting and ending altitude can be pretty wacky. I could change the settings to use GPS to calibrate the altitude regularly but I’m reluctant to turn this on for battery life reasons.

I have experienced a couple of ‘freezes’ with my unit where the time gets stuck and the unit is unresponsive. A force restart was required on those occasions and thankfully it has only been while in normal watch mode, not while I was running. Hopefully future firmware updates with the watch will fix this.

I’ve also had trouble with the connection with the heart rate monitor a few times. Restarting the watch has fixed the problem. On at least a couple of occasions when it lost the heart rate monitor it also lost connection to my phone, suggesting a bluetooth problem with the watch. Again, hopefully future firmware updates with the watch will fix this.

On the whole I’ve been happy with the watch, while I’ve had a couple of issues, I also tracked half a dozen 2.5 hour and longer runs with no problems at all. I suspect that being a new device there are some teething problems and it will stabilise over time. Others have reported that the Garmin 920xt is very reliable and this watch is based on the same platform so I’m hopeful that will be the case for the Fenix 3 as well.

Activity and Sleep tracking

The watch does a great job of recording my steps. It is nice to have an overview of my general level of activity during the day. The step count is in line with other activity trackers I have used. Garmin’s daily step goals seem well thought out too. They increase or decrease based on your daily activity but a long 3 hour run doesn’t blow out your target goal for the following day.

Since I have had the watch, Garmin has rolled out automatic sleep tracking. I don’t wear the watch at night so I don’t get an overview of whether I had a restless night. I do get a reasonably accurate picture of the general amount of sleep that I get, providing I put my watch on first thing in the morning.

Looks and everyday wear

One of the primary reasons that I choose the Garmin over the other options was the look of the watch. It is big, but otherwise it’s a good looking watch to my eye and it doesn’t feel too sporty to wear to work.

I’ve worn it daily now for a couple of weeks and I’m happy to say that it works well for everyday wear.

A Smart watch?

Yes it kind of is.

There are two aspects to this the connection to the iPhone (receiving phone notifications on the watch) and Garmin’s app platform Connect IQ.

Phone notifications on the watch work well and have been useful. I’ve had no trouble pairing the phone and it seems to keep its connection to the watch very well. Notifications even sometimes turn up on the watch a fraction of a second before the phone itself, making it handy to figure out who is calling you. The only downside is that you have no filter on what gets sent to the watch. Everything that you have in notification center on the iPhone will so up on the watch.

A couple of times I have left the house and forgotten to pick up my phone. The buzz on my wrist, when I get the car, telling me that the watch has lost connection to the phone has served as a great reminder to pop back and pick the phone up. Handy.

Garmin Connect IQ is the new app platform for the watch. You can download watch faces, extra data fields to use in sport tracking, widgets and apps.

I like the idea that the watch can be extended but I’ve had mixed success with the various things I’ve downloaded. It’s early days here and we’ll have to wait and see if truly compelling offerings are released here or if the big names such as Strava want to enter this space when the new Apple Watch is capturing everyone’s attention. Overall I’m glad the ability is there to extend the watch and I’m hoping that over time better quality products will turn up in Connect IQ.

On the whole the watch just smart enough to add decent value to the everyday wearing experience.

Garmin Connect platform

Garmin has it’s web-based platform for tracking your activities called Garmin Connect. If you have used other online services such as Strava, Daily mile, Runkeeper etc then you know roughly what to expect.

Overall they have done a good job with this. However there are some noticeable omissions. You cannot setup your own training plans easily. You can create custom workouts and then individually import them into the training calendar but you can’t group them together. This makes the process time consuming.

The iPhone app also won’t let you choose which shoes you ran in despite the web app having good capabilities in this regard. This has lead me to skip managing shoe mileage in Garmin Connect and do that on Strava instead as that can be managed on the mobile and therefore done immediately before I forget which pair of shoes I was using.

Another thing I’ve noticed is that it is impossible to search for friends that are also using Garmin Connect. This may be due to the default privacy settings that they have chosen for new accounts, limiting information that is shared on the platform. I’m all for data privacy for those who want it but compared to Strava, Garmin Connect feels quite broken in this regard.

Fortunately the platform does a great job of integrating third party services like Strava and MyFitnessPal. It automatically exports all my activities to Strava and pulls my data from MyFitnessPal daily. This is great for me as I have been able to keep using services that were already part of my routine before I started with the watch.

How does this all fit in the “minimal” lifestyle?

That’s a fair question. How does using an expensive gadget that relies on GPS data from satellites (in space no less) qualify as being remotely connected to getting back to nature?

Firstly and most importantly it gets me out the door. By setting, tracking and achieving distance goals and following training plans I’ve been able build my long distance runs from 3km to 30km. This lets me get out into the backcountry and experience the beautiful New Zealand beach forest and refill my soul with joy.

Secondly, because the watch is more “immediate” I am less distracted by it. I glance at it, get the information I need and carry on running. With the phone I would have to fumble around, unlock it (I always set the screen to turn off during runs to save battery life). This awkward process (even harder if you have gloves on) just served to distract from the meditative process of running and enjoying the surroundings.

Overall impressions

Let me say straight up, the Garmin Fenix 3 is a great device. I’m really happy with my decision to ditch the iPhone and choose this particular watch. It is fantastic in its role as a GPS sports watch. In everyday wear it has enough smarts to be more than just a time piece. The activity tracking and move alerts work as intended to keep me moving throughout the day.

What I like

  • A real running companion: The primary reason for this product to exist is tracking your physical activities. It does this really well and can be easily customised to suit your needs and preferences
  • Water proof and rugged: I’m not worried about taking this out in bad weather like I would be with my phone.
  • Battery life: For a modern “smart” gadget the pleasure of not having to charge it everyday is immense.
  • Activity tracking: It does a good job of counting steps and reminding you to move throughout the day
  • Connects to Stava: The Garmin Connect automatically uploads runs straight to Stava so I can share what I’m doing out on the trails with my running buddies.
  • Bonus, it is enough of a smart watch: phone notifications work well and add to the experience of using the watch.

What I dislike

  • Garmin Connect Software: There are some limits with the mobile app that limit it’s usefulness and it’s not as polished as I like.
  • Garmin Connect IQ: Might be too early to pass judgement here but the extra features I tried didn’t add enough to the watch to be worth keeping
  • It’s just a fraction bigger than I’d like: This is just plain nitpicking here but if they could give me a watch that looked this good and had the same battery life but was thinner and possibly a little smaller in diameter, I would really enjoy it. It’s by no means unwearable, and if it dropped features to reach the size goal then I’d probably be unhappy with that too…

Overall Score:

Quality: 4/5, Comfort: 4/5, Price: 4/5, Looks: 5/5

Total: 17/20

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