Garmin Fenix 3

While the world fawns over the Apple Watch 3, serious runners and adventurers know an outdoor sports watch is a far better way of spending your money, and the Garmin Fenix 3 is one of the firm's most ambitious efforts yet.

Following on from 2014's Garmin Fenix 2, the Fenix 3 brought with it a new color screen, more activity modes and faster GPS locking. You get a limited number of smartphone notifications, if you want them, but the emphasis is on tracking your vital statistics as you journey through the great outdoors (or work out inside).

It launched for the hefty sum of £369 ($499, AU$650) with a grey or silver strap, but has since dropped to £299 in the UK. For £449 ($599, AU$849) you could pick up a premium Fenix 3 Sapphire edition with extra-tough glass on the face (hence the name) and an additional metal strap, although that's now down to around £375 if you opt for the model with integrated heart rate monitor (which launched later).

Since the Fenix 3 first launched, we've seen the Garmin Fenix 5 range and then the Fenix 5 Plus range that expands on the series even further. That's meant the price of the Fenix 3 has dropped too, but it's still quite an expensive product considering it's three years old. 

Screen, comfort and battery life

As we’ve mentioned, the screen is one of the main upgrades over the Fenix 2, and the 3.1cm (1.2-inch) 218 pixel-diameter display uses a colour system Garmin calls Chroma. It’s backlit and is easy to read in sunlight, assuming it’s actively tracking something like a hike or a run. Waterproof rating has doubled too, from 50 metres to 100.

If the screen’s in its monochrome power-saving mode it can be tricky to look at inside or out. Nevertheless, buttons and menus are clear and straightforward, and what little space there is on the screen (compared to a smartphone at least) is used well.

Garmin Fenix 3

The rubber strap supplied with the Fenix 3 is sturdy without being uncomfortable, and even after a long run, soaked with sweat and rain, it won’t bother you to any great degree. It’s a strap that feels like it’ll take a lot to come loose from your wrist – basically, you don’t have to worry about it.

The more expensive Sapphire edition is obviously for wearing at evening soirees rather than out on the hills – not only is the metal strap less comfortable to wear, it substantially adds to the watch’s weight too.

Garmin Fenix 3

Battery life is impressive: with GPS, Bluetooth and the screen enabled on during run tracking, I only saw drops of 6-7 percent an hour. That means even if you’re actively using the watch non-stop (and you won’t be) you should be good for 15 hours or so. Garmin says the battery life with GPS active is 16 hours, so that just about matches up.

You can stretch that to 50 hours with a low-power UltraTrac mode that pings for a GPS location every minute rather than every second. In standby, watch-only mode, meanwhile, Garmin says the Fenix 3 will go for three months, and I can well believe it: it only drops a percentage point or two each day if you’re using it solely for telling the time.

Every challenge we put in the path of the Fenix 3 it coped with admirably. Most modes require some kind of GPS locking, which usually only takes a second or two (as long as you're outdoors of course) – it can tap into the similar GLONASS system for extra accuracy too. 

ANT+ connectivity ensures compatibility with all of Garmin's accessory kit (from foot pods to cycling sensors).

From the runs we took around the Cheshire countryside, tracking is very accurate indeed, and much better than you'll typically get from a phone alone. Download your routes back to the Garmin app and you'll find the watch has carefully plotted your movements. 

We noticed one or two jerky anomalies, but very few over the course of several days.

Garmin Fenix 3

Pace is picked up accurately as well, with a delay of only a second or two – handy if you stop to read a map and want your statistics to reflect that. The way the Fenix 3 auto-scrolls through various bits of data (like distance, time and pace) means it's easy to glance at. 

It's intelligent too – start to go uphill and the elevation statistics will show up automatically, though you can customise this and pretty much every other aspect of the on-screen readouts.

Navigation is really the jewel in the crown of the Fenix 3, and you can access a compass, altimeter and barometer with a couple of button presses before you've even turned GPS on. 

The watch lets you set waypoints and navigate back to them, which makes a lot more sense from your wrist when you're careering down a hillside and don't want to yank out a smartphone or a map. Split-seconds count – get too distracted and you'll find you plant your ankle in a hole – and the blocky, clear display of the Fenix 3 does the job nicely.

Garmin Fenix 3

A lot of the more advanced features, including Vertical Oscillation, Ground Contact Time, VO2 Max (for tracking improvements in fitness) and Recovery Time (how long you should wait before another run), are only available with the purchase of the HRM-RUN heart rate strap (another £79, $99, AU$150, although if you can find it in a bundle it's better value). 

We didn't have one to test but if you're interested in getting as detailed a breakdown of your activities as possible it could well be worth the investment – and using the additional heart rate monitor on other Garmin models has always proved excellent in terms of accuracy and the metrics it offers.

One of the reasons why you're going to want to spend so much on a sportswatch is the sheer number of modes and measurements on offer here: cross-country ski, ski and snowboard, climb, hike, trail run, run, run indoor, bike, bike indoor, pool swim, open water and triathlon are the available modes, with each bringing relevant statistics to the party. 

That leaves you with a very comprehensive picture of your activities indeed.

Garmin Fenix 3

For indoor swimming, for example, the watch uses the accelerometer to try and work out when you’re turning round and which type of stroke you’re using – for us it proved to be largely accurate, as long as you stick to a predictable course and don’t suddenly veer off for a sit down on the edge of the water.

What you get with triathlon mode is the Fenix 3 automatically jumping between types of activity (running, swimming, cycling) when you hit the lap button. It’s also possible to create your own multisport profiles to easily transition from one to the next.

Top marks for collecting data then, but can you actually do anything with it? Enter Garmin’s well-established Connect app for iOS and Android, which syncs to your Fenix 3 via Bluetooth. You can use it to store your course routes and times as well as download watch face widgets (there aren’t many, but they’re all interesting to test out).

Garmin Fenix 3

Past activities like runs, hikes and swims are all easy to sift through and look back on, and there’s an impressive level of detail here. The overall dashboard that keeps an eye on steps or sleep is more rudimentary and won’t have you ditching your Jawbone or Fitbit just yet.

There is some attempt to give you coaching advice – the daily steps goal is automatically adjusted based on how you’ve been doing lately – but by and large the data analysis is left up to you. This is by no means a problem unique to Garmin though, and it’s something that most wearables and associated apps can all get better at.

Garmin Fenix 3

The watch and app are very good at tracking where you’ve been and how you’ve done, with goal achievements and personal bests popping up on screen as and when you hit them, and you can go back and edit stats as well as share them with friends through the integrated social elements.

One feature we did like was the ability to set routes and waypoints before you venture out and then see if you can hit them along the way – the smart timepiece will even guide you if you go off course. It means you’re not just stuck retroactively reviewing your past performance but can set detailed targets for your next adventure in the hills.

Garmin Fenix 3

There’s also a clean-looking interface for reviewing your statistics from the comfort of a Web browser. With a wealth of export and review tools, it puts the likes of Google Fit to shame, though all that data can get a bit overwhelming unless you know how to act on it. If you want as much detail as you can get on your running, cycling, swimming and hiking, Garmin Connect has you covered.

Extra features

Smartphone notifications are fairly basic – any app can send you alerts, but only a few (including texts and emails) can be shown on screen. There are no options to reply or interact with notifications so this is very much a one-way, read-only system. It’s handy, if you want it, but it’s hardly a key selling point.

Garmin Fenix 3

You can also monitor steps, distance, sleep and calories as with any other fitness tracker – what's more the Fenix 3 buzzes if you've been sat in the same place too long. 

Step tracking is very accurate but sleep is a little hit-and-miss: it only records how much you moved around, and you don't really want to go to bed with something this size on your wrist anyway.

For an all-action outdoors sportswatch, the Fenix 3 is the best out there at the moment – Garmin has combined the choicest cuts of its earlier efforts to deliver a device that excels in most areas. Just be aware that a heart rate strap is required to get the most out of the running and exercise analysis tools, otherwise you'll have to be your own coach – unless you go for something like the Fenix 3 Sapphire HR, which costs a lot more.

We liked

There was plenty to like: the fast and accurate tracking, the wide variety of modes, the lengthy list of useful features, the intelligent interface and the addition of smartphone notifications. It’s comfortable to wear and offers a strong battery life, and the app’s good too.

We disliked

Some more analysis and coaching wouldn’t go amiss but could be easily added in a future software update, while the screen isn’t the most dazzling. Sleep tracking is pretty useless and it’s unlikely many will make use of it.

All in all, it’s another impressive watch from Garmin. The high price will put off casual users who want to record their steps and sleep, but for serious athletes trail running in the rain or building up to their next triathlon it’s worth every penny you have to fork out. The new champion of sportswatches.

Verdict

The Garmin Fenix 3 is a fantastic smartwatch, but there is a cost attached to this – and if you really want the device to work to you then you have to pay out even more for the costly heart rate strap.

I would have liked the software to go deeper into my data but what is on offer is impressive. This is definitely a superlative device for those who are looking to improve their fitness.

David Nield
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