Garmin’s Fenix line has long been among the best—if not the best—multisport watches money can buy. These capable wrist-puters add performance tracking and GPS-based mapping to just about every outdoor activity. Critics have been vocal about the watches’ bulk, so there was much rejoicing earlier this year when Garmin announced multiple, slimmed-down versions of the watch, including the slender 5S. Of all the new options, I decided to test the Fenix 5X, which is the exact same size as the bulky Fenix 3 HR. And I don’t care how big it is. Outside of slap bracelets, this is the best thing I’ve ever put on my wrist.
Garmin Fenix 5X
Excellent range of features in a rugged sports watch. Supports a wide variety of outdoor activities and tracking accessories. Maps feature is powerful. Easy to read in bright sun. Great battery life.
Pricey. Too large for some people. Shows phone notifications, but you can’t access voice controls to respond. Third-party apps range from OK to terrible. Scrolling through the maps is frustrating.
The basics: The Fenix 5X ($700) is a GPS sports watch with built-in apps for running, trail running, treadmill running, indoor track running, hiking, climbing, biking, indoor biking, mountain biking, pool swimming, open water swimming, triathlons, skiing, cross-country skiing, snowboarding, stand-up paddle boarding, rowing, indoor rowing, and golf. You can also install additional apps made by Garmin or its third-party partners, which can be hit and miss. A highly scratch-resistant sapphire crystal screen makes up the screen, there’s a heart-rate monitor on the back, the case is waterproof to 100 meters, and the watch can pair with just about every external sensor made for fitness, from foot-pods and cycling power meters to navigation units on boats.
That’s all awesome stuff, but most of that has been a staple of the Fenix line already. So what’s new? The display on the Fenix 5 and 5X went from 218×218 pixels to 240×240 (the smaller 5S stayed at 218), making text easier to read. It also went from 16 to 64 colors. Obviously, this isn’t the same type of small, ultra-clear mini-TV screen like you’d find on the Apple Watch or an Android-powered wearable, but the display is reflective, meaning the brighter your lighting conditions, the easier it is to read—that’s the opposite of most smartwatches.
The Fenix 5 line can display notifications for texts, emails, and calendar events from your phone, but you can’t speak your replies like you can on an Apple Watch or Android Wear watch. That said, those smart watches can’t go two days on a charge like the Fenix 5 can. In fact, it will last for weeks (yes, plural) in watch mode while still monitoring your heart rate and steps continuously. If you turn GPS on to track a run or hike, it will last 20-24 hours (depending on the model) in the high-accuracy one-second refresh mode, and up to 75 hours in the less accurate UltraTrack GPS mode. Basically, all three models are iterative improvements over last year’s Fenix 3 HR (Garmin skipped 4 because it’s an unlucky number in some Asian countries). The UI is a bit refined across all the watches, the batteries last a bit longer, and you get more features in smaller bodies.
Show Me the Way
So why the hell do I covet the oversized 5X instead of one that would be less prone to catching on my sleeves and backpack straps (which it certainly does)? One word: Maps. The Fenix 5X comes pre-loaded with detailed topographic maps of the entire US. You can add more maps too, if you like. This is huge; Not only can you always see exactly where you are on a map regardless of whether you have reception or your phone with you, but you can create automated routes for running and cycling on the fly. Garmin’s system knows city streets as well as obscure trails and creeks in the middle of nowhere. It can even help you find points of interest around you, from banks to restaurants.
The watch can also help you find your way back to a trailhead, which saved my bacon more than once during my tests this summer. Once, on a 105-degree day while hiking at Vermilion Cliffs National Monument in Arizona, I’d run out of water on my way back to my car and I took a wrong turn. Upon realizing I was lost, I was able to use the Fenix’s “Back to Start” mode, and it led me safely back to safety. A couple weeks later, while driving through Giant Sequoia National Monument in California, Google Maps mistakenly steered me waaay down a long jeep road into the middle of nowhere. I ended up camping for the night, then, in the morning, I used the maps feature on the watch to orient and find my way back to the main road.
The maps feature isn’t perfect. Panning and zooming around the map takes a ton of different button presses and it will leave you crying for a touchscreen. But still, it’s an incredible feature, and the full-color maps are easy to read. The watch even has the ability to give you turn by turn directions, and it vibrates to alert you to look down at it.
The Right Track
The Fenix 5X is also remarkably accurate in everything it tracks. The GPS tracks it lays down have less wavering than any watch I’ve used before. It did struggle when I was in some narrow slot-canyons, but because all GPS devices depend on clear sightlines with the sky this is to be expected. The heart rate monitor is the most accurate of any wrist-worn device I’ve tried. Over the course of a five-mile run, the watch’s HR monitor stayed almost perfectly lined up with my trusty chest strap. There are some dips and peaks in there, but it’s good enough for the vast majority of exercisers—and you can pair the watch to your chest strap if you want. The biggest surprise was how well it was able to track my running cadence. Typically, you need a tracker on your shoe, chest, or head to do that well, but I was amazed that the Fenix could accurately measure my cadence from my wrist.
My favorite mode was probably snowboarding. It knows when you’ve hopped back on the lift and starts a new lap when you get off. Each snowboard run is superimposed over a map of the resort, and it’s incredibly satisfying to see your top speed and how many vertical feet you descended over the course of the day. For a watch that tracks almost everything, though, it seems like a big omission to leave out water sports like kayaking, canoeing, and surfing. I tried a third-party solution for surfing, but the results were poor. I would love to see Garmin add an official surfing app, and I’d love to see better quality from the third-party apps in general. On the other hand, my favorite alarm app on my phone (Sleep as Android) makes a Garmin app that lets me use my watch to give more detailed info on my sleep quality. Slick.
Now that I’ve spent all summer with it, I think the Fenix 5X is the best outdoor fitness watch I’ve ever tested. It’s easy to read and easy to navigate, even without a touchscreen. It tracks everything from my vertical descent speed on a mountain bike to the number of strokes per lap I take while swimming. I can use it to control the music on my phone, and I can use its built-in maps to get me out of a hairy situation in the wilderness.
If maps aren’t that important to you, I’d recommend going for the regular Fenix 5 or 5S (both $600 and up), but it’s worth popping for the more expensive Sapphire versions (both $700 and up). They’re more rugged, and those are the only models that include Wi-Fi. The 5X is only available with a Sapphire screen, and starts at $700. That’s a lot of scratch for a watch, and the 5X is a lot of watch. I wish it were smaller, and I wish it were cheaper, but you’d pretty much have to surgically remove it from my wrist at this point.
Brent Rose is a freelance writer, actor, and filmmaker, currently traveling the US living in a high-tech van, looking for stories to tell. Follow his adventures on Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, and at ConnectedStates.com.
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