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Garmin Fenix 3 Review – Second Look

Introduction

I take my fitness and training very seriously. I own and operate the only Stand Up Paddle (SUP) School and Personal Training in Canberra and because of this I am always looking for something that will enable me to track training, improve the paddling experience and keep an eye on other metrics like recovery to aid in improvement for myself and to pass onto my students. The Garmin Fenix 3 has the ability to do all of this plus much, much more. In the past I have had the opportunity to test and review some other watches on the market such as the Suunto Ambit3 Sport and Peak, Polar V800 and M400, Garmin Forerunner 620 and 920XT. I will therefore reference these watches during this Garmin Fenix 3 review for comparison reasons.

In the box

Fenix 3  - In the box

There are 3 flavours of the Fenix 3, the Silver with Red Band, Grey with black band and the Sapphire which is packaged with a metal and rubber band. In the box you get the unit itself, Garmin HRM-Run transmitter and V4 strap, USB Data/Charger cable and the obligatory instruction manuals. In the Sapphire model you also get the premium, but heavy at 137gms on its own, metal band and the tools that allow you to swap the bands out for each other.

What is the Fenix 3 capable of?

According to Garmin here is some of the functionality of the watch:

fenix 3: New features

  • High-resolution 1.2″ chroma colour display
  • Scratch-resistant domed Sapphire lens on Sapphire model
  • Steel EXO GPS/GLONASS antenna
  • Water resistance: 10 ATM (90m)
  • Trail Running (Auto Climb/Run Switch/Climb Odometer)
  • Storm Alert
  • Activity Tracker: Measure steps, calories burned, and sleep
  • GPS (24 satellites) and GLONASS (24 satellites) combined with downloadable satellite data (via Wi-Fi or Bluetooth with 3G/4G/Wi-Fi connection) for ultra fast GPS locks
  • Supports Connect IQ Apps
  • Virtual Racer: Compete against other activities
  • Metronome (audible or vibration alert) for running/cycling cadence training
  • Personal Records (PR’s)

Garmin Fenix 3 Altimeter

fenix 3: Multisport features

  • Virtual Partner: Train against a digital person
  • Multi-sport: Changes sport mode with a press of a button
  • Multiple bike profiles
  • Swim metrics
  • Advanced workouts: Create custom, goal-oriented workouts
  • Pace alert: Triggers alarm if you vary from preset pace
  • Time/distance alert: Triggers alarm when you reach goal
  • Vibration alert
  • Interval training: Set up exercise and rest intervals
  • Heart rate-based calorie computation
  • Running Dynamics: Cadence (watch/HRM-Run), Vertical Oscillation (HRM-Run), and Ground Contact Time (HRM-Run)
  • VO2 Max Estimation: Running (HRM-Run) and Cycling (HRM-Run & ANT+ compatible power meter)
  • Race Time Predictor
  • Recovery Advisor and Recovery Time
  • Live Tracking
  • Training Effect: Measures impact of an activity on your aerobic fitness
  • Customisable screen(s)
  • Compatible with ANT+ power meters
  • Auto Pause, Auto Lap, Auto Scroll

fenix 3: Outdoor features

  • Barometric altimeter
  • Electronic compass
  • Waypoints/favourites/locations: 1,000
  • Routes: 50
  • Track log: 10,000 points; 100 saved tracks
  • Ski / board mode

fenix 3: Watch features

  • Physical dimensions: 51.5 x 51.5 x 15.5 mm
  • Display size: 31mm
  • Display resolution (W x H): 218 x 218 pixels; transflective MIP colour
  • Weight – Rubber band: Silver/Grey 70g; Sapphire 87g (metal band alone 137g)
  • Water resistance: 10 ATM (90m)
  • Up to 20 hours battery life with 1s GPS intervals; up to 50 hours in UltraTrac mode (15s on/45s off), 6 weeks in watch mode
  • Smart Notifications on the watch (with compatible smartphones)
  • Automatic sync via Wi-Fi and Bluetooth
  • VIRB control

…and there is a lot more over at http://fenix3.garmin.com/en-AU/

Garmin Fenix 3 Buttons

Everyday use (watch-ability)

It appears that gone are the days of the GPS watch that is only for use during activities. This was mostly because the battery life was extremely poor and wearing them with anything other than gym gear was unlikely. The Fenix 3 excels here in both these regards.

I really like a watch that doesn’t require me to squint at. This makes life super easy especially when I am on the water during a training session checking the time, checking on my daily steps progress or simply checking the time. The Fenix 3 ticks the boxes in this regard. The display comes in at an impressive 31mm/1.2” display and is full colour. There are no washed out colours here either, which was a general complaint for the Forerunner 620 and to a lesser extent the 920XT. One issue that I have found is that in low light it is hard to make out the time, let alone any other details on the watch face, especially with a downloaded watch face from Garmin Connect IQ. This is despite the size, contrast and clarity of the display. This is most noticeable with a white on black display and can be mitigated by going with a black on white display. This doesn’t look as good though

With regards to size of the watch and to put it into perspective, I have a relatively average sized wrist at 18.5 cm (7 inches) so unless the watch itself is the size of a wall clock I am pretty safe with respect to the watch looking oversized. To put the below picture in perspective that is the Fitbit Charge HR next to the Fenix 3 on my wrist.

The Fenix 3 is very comfortable to wear for long periods of time. I didn’t find it as comfortable as the Polar V800 or the Suunto Ambit3 and I put that down to the way the rear of those watches are molded and shaped on the back of the bezel. I am also of the opinion that the Ambit3 has the best wrist band of the available watches in this price range which is not to say that the band on the Fenix 3 isn’t any good, it is. Just not as comfortable.

As you can make out from the photos, the unit I tested was the version with the black band ensuring that there was no discolouration of the band. I would guess that the silver version with red band may not get away unscathed. I experienced this when I tested the Garmin 920XT which was red and white.

The Fenix 3 body is constructed of stainless steel, which contributes to the extra weight but also provides the great look it has. In my opinion the best looking GPS watch on the market, so far. Word of warning though, it does seem to attract scratches on the anodized bezel, so if you are an active type or incredibly clumsy this may figure into your decision making process.

Garmin Fenix 3 Pacman Watch Face

What I really like

Design. As mentioned above, this is a very good looking watch and does not look out of place whether you are at the gym or out for coffee, dinner or a for a few drinks with friends. Pair it with the Garmin metal band or even a 3rd party leather band and you have a very adaptable fitness/dress watch.

Things I would like changed/fixed/improved

Low light viewing. It can be difficult to see in low light which is not something that was an issue with the 920XT.

Ease of use – Watch/Activities

I will break this section up into two sections, Watch and Activities.

Watch. The watch itself is really easy to use. The familiar formula of setting up the watch initially inputting your height, weight and age are there as well as setting the time automatically (via GPS) or manually. Auto is a great option, especially if you travel in and out of different time zones. That is if you don’t plug it into your computer initially. If you do then you get even more options like setting up your Garmin Connect account, Wi-Fi connections and naming your device. Be aware that you will need to install Garmin Express onto your computer first for this to work. Once the setup is complete you have the option straight out of the box to select a heap of different watch faces with the main difference being analogue or digital. If these don’t tickle your fancy there are a heap of watch face app options available on Garmin Connect that also include additional data such as daily steps, battery usage and heaps of other options. It is really up to the ability of the app designer. You also have the ability for notifications for email, text, calls or even social media updates to appear on the watch. I don’t like that so I didn’t mention it but maybe it is something that you want.

Garmin Fenix 3 Temperature

Activities. For those like me that are not keen on touch screen navigation, you will be happy to know that there is no touch screen integration on the Fenix 3. Navigation is via the five function buttons around the outside of the watch, which is down a button from the six featured on the 920XT. This results in one of the buttons having a press and hold or secondary feature. Given the size and layout of the watch, I am not sure why a sixth button wasn’t added as that was one thing I liked about the 920XT, dedicated primary function buttons.  For the Fenix 3 the middle button on the left hand side of the bezel is dual function. A normal press is the up button and on a press and hold it opens up the setting menu. The buttons, like the bezel, are made of milled stainless and have an extremely solid feel to them. Due to the weather conditions here in Canberra I have been able to test the use of the watch with and without gloves and the feel is still very solid. Even when pressing and holding buttons it is not necessary to feel like you need to push the button through the watch.

Garmin Fenix 3 Activity Tracking

The size of the screen helps again when using the watch during activities. The default setting for the display is black on white which as previously mentioned provides a much easier, at a glance read of the screen. The user has the option of selecting 1, 2 or 3 fields be displayed during an activity. Even with all 3 fields displayed it is still very easy to read even during intense activity like running and better yet, for me anyway, a quick glance while paddling. Starting your activity is simple and is executed by pressing the large button on the top right of the bezel (this will also pause and stop your activity). This will open up your activity/widget menu (things like HRV, AMRAP timers and custom profiles live in here) and you navigate this with the up/down buttons. Once you have decided on what activity you are going to perform select it with the same button again. This will open the activity and begin the synchronisation of any available sensors and GPS. The first time you start an activity in a new area the GPS sync can take up to a minute but after that it is a very quick process sometimes taking only 5-10 secs in my experience. Wait for the red ring to turn green and to give you a vibrate and reassuring tone and you are ready to go.

What I really like

Vibration only alerts. Hallelujah. This is the one of the options I have been hoping for. It is something that my wife is even happier with. You even have the option of having tone only alerts of tone and vibrate. Hallelujah indeed.

Metronome. This is something that I only recently discovered. Set the metronome to a cadence or beats per minute and have the dulcet tone or vibrate of the metronome help you maintain you cadence. Works great when running and I have also played around with it while paddling which helped me relax a little instead of being a breathless thrashing machine.

Things I would like changed/fixed/improved

Start Delay. This is something that I first saw on an iPhone app and it is awesome. For me as a stand up paddler I really don’t have a free hand at the start of a race. Imagine trying to paddle in a washing machine. 99% of all races will have a countdown to the start and having an option to set a time delay would be excellent. Something other users like runners wouldn’t mind either.

Battery life. Garmin claims up to 20 hours of GPS tracking at 1 sec intervals which is good but not as good as the Garmin 920XT or the Suunto Ambit 3 Sport (25 hours). The watch it really is in direct competition to, the Ambit 3 Peak still holds the battery life mantle at 50 hours though. This is good but a little disappointing considering the cheaper 920XT has better longevity and the Fenix 3 is promoted as an adventure sport, trail runner, multi sport watch which to me would indicate a requirement for long periods without power.

Ease of use – Apps & Software

Next we will dive into the watch software, the apps. The addition of apps into this segment allowing real personalisation to the individuals watch is a massive game changer in my opinion. I will admit that the first thing I did was download a new watch face. Apps for your watch isn’t new thing as Suunto has had Suunto Apps for some time now, but from my short exposure to them is that they are not as slick as those available on Garmin.

 On top of the watch face apps you have the option to add additional applications, data fields and widgets. Opportunities for development are truly endless, as long as you have a knack for programming. Applications like a HRV tracker, AMRAP timer and even an app that will help you find your car. The HRV tracker has continued to be improved and now

Data fields allow you to add additional information to organic apps, graphical heart rate, speed in knots and the one I love, Surf Tracker. Now I suck at surfing, still a steep learning curve but the first time I used this app it displayed the number of waves caught (not many), time on wave (not long) and speed and distance covered. Finally the widgets.

Widgets offer the most personalisation opportunities to the watch. Time zone widgets, weekly activity history and even Chuck Norris makes an appearance with a daily joke.

It is really easy to get the apps, data fields and or widgets onto your watch. You can either hook it up to your computer via the USB and download via Garmin Express or using the Garmin Connect Android or iPhone app, download the preferred item and sync between the phone and watch. I tried the Garmin Connect Mobile on Android and iOS with no real issues.

Like the other new Garmin devices, the Vivoactive and 920XT now supports 24/7 activity tracking, including sleep metrics. The sleep tracking has recently evolved further and is now more inline with leading sleep tracking devices like the Fitbit trackers and the relatively unknown Misfit Shine. Want to confirm that you had a really crappy night sleep? Sync with Garmin Connect and confirm it.

On the computer based software side of the house, Garmin has produced a very good and relatively easy to use program. I say relatively as it has taken a bit of getting used to for me as I was very familiar with the original version, but times have changed and it is a step in the right direction given the advances and improvements to what information can be tracked and interrogated.

On Garmin Connect you can create your own training calendar and allocate your sessions ahead of time. There is a very good interface for setting up workouts/intervals within the program. My only gripe with the creation of intervals is that you can only select an individual heart rate zone as your target heart rate zone for intervals. This is a bit limiting and doesn’t give much scope. Apart from that it is easier to setup repeats than the old version which was a bit of a pain with the drag and drop options. The same options apply with the setup of your intervals/workouts with the customization allowing you to set the intervals by pace, time, distance or triggering with a press of the Lap Button or the aforementioned heart rate zones. Name the workout and send it to your device ready for your next session. Better yet you can have some sessions ready to go on Garmin Connect and upload them to your watch by using Garmin Connect Mobile.

Post activity there are a heap of options as well. You can easily export your activities for use in 3rd party apps as .TCX and .CSV files as well as .KML files for Google Earth. This makes life easy if you want to export to other sites or apps that aren’t already supported by Garmin like Training Peaks. There are plenty of sites that do have direct support including Stava, MapMyFitness/MyFitnessPal and Endomondo. If you want the social medias to know of your exploits then you can export to Facebook.

What I really like

Garmin Connect IQ. Customisation. Everyone wants to customise what they have. Cars, phones even their lunch so being able to customise how our watch looks other than just changing the band is a fantastic addition to the already tight market and really sets the compatible Garmin watches apart from the rest. With a lot of different applications, widgets and data fields available the only limit is your coding ability and the sensors available for you to use on the watch.

Garmin Fenix 3 Activity File

Workout/Intervals creator. The workout/interval creator is simple to use and there is plenty of flexibility in how you create your individual session. As noted it would be good to be able to select more than one HR Zone per interval. Being able to send the previously created session directly from your phone, via Garmin Connect Mobile, to your Fenix 3 is fantastic especially when you get to your destination and realise you haven’t downloaded the session. It would be great to be able to create the session on your phone though……hint, hint.

Things I would like changed/fixed/added

Post activity analysis. There is plenty of information available to the user post activity but it is all the usual stuff like pace, speed, elevation. For me the missing piece is being able to pick out segments from your paddle or run and isolate it for review. This is something that you get, for free, straight out of the box with Polar Flow, Suunto Movescount.

SUP sport profile. I have it on good authority that this is coming. Whether it includes paddle metrics like stroke rate, cadence etc is to be seen, but it is a very interesting addition that I am anxious to get my hands on. Be prepared for a full review of this when it does become available.

Bugs

Technology can and will be buggy. Have a search around the internet if you haven’t had first hand experience with tech bugs. The Garmin Fenix 3 is not immune here either. The biggest issue that you will read about with the Fenix 3 (and the 920XT) is that there are some issues with the accuracy of the tracking. I have been witness to that in a previous software version 3.80 which had me veering all over the place as you can see with the attached comparison pics. Version 4.00 was only released in the last weeks of July, and at this stage there hasn’t been a repeat of this. While bugs like this are obviously very disappointing for the end user, the fact that Garmin are releasing software updates in an effort to solve known issues and provide additional options, like 4.00’s multiple alarms, support for new sensors like the recently announced HRM-Tri and Swim as an example, it demonstrates that Garmin will react to solving issues for their customers. This is something that we see with our phones, cars and computers so it should be no different for our software based watches.

To keep up to date with the latest updates check out https://www8.garmin.com/support/download_details.jsp?id=76233

Conclusion

This is a very option heavy watch and apart from its mapping rich sibling, the Garmin Epix, the Fenix 3 is one of the most feature rich available GPS watches on the market. Its direct competitors, the Suunto Ambit3 Peak and Polar V800 also have impressive offerings however they in no way can match the user customisation of the Fenix 3. Does this make the Fenix 3 the better watch? Well that is like trying to convince a Holden owner that the new Ford is a better option. What I have learned is that people are incredibly loyal to a particular brand and struggle to look away from their particular favourite, but if you love the idea of personalising your experience and easily adding information that enhances your day to day activity our training outcome then the Fenix 3 should go to the top of the list. Garmin, of the GPS watches I have had a chance to spend significant time with, have implemented the 24/7 activity tracking component the best of anyone outside of Fitbit. Polar is right up there and Suunto have just rolled out an update with more elements like sleep metrics added but are still a fair way back.

Garmin Fenix 3 Snowboard

Of the watches that I have had the opportunity to review to this stage this has been the most complete example of function, ease of use, future proofing and drop dead good looks.

The Fenix 3 is not as light as the plastic shelled 920XT but the weight is comparable to the other direct competitors, unless you get the Sapphire model and wear the metal band. Good news is that you will develop good forearm musculature. Just mix up which arm you wear it on.

I did mention that the battery life could be better but if you are coming from one of the older generations of Garmin GPS then the battery life on the Fenix 3 is going to be a godsend. This is definitely a highlight of the new generation of Garmin products.

There are enough reports out there from users that are not entirely happy with the GPS tracking performance that it has to be mentioned. A recent update of the GPS chipset to 2.90 was issued to remedy this and from the reading I have done it has quietened the noise down. I did not have any crazy issues with the distances recorded. Apart from the issues mentioned in the “Bugs” section, there were minimal discrepancies between my older Nike+ GPS and Runkeeper on my Sony Xperia Z2 but I expect that to happen. Comparing them against each other in 3rd party apps didn’t cause too many variances either. My thinking on it is that if you are running around Melbourne, Sydney or Brisbane CBD (notice I didn’t mention Canberra there) there is going to be some drop out, much like you experience using an in car GPS. I imagine that in the not to distant future we will see more GPS watches come onto the market that have a 3G/4G sim card in it to not only provide tracking online but to provide additional accuracy to the onboard GPS chipset much like and iPhone or Android phone would do. There is currently only the Timex One GPS+ available on the market and that is not available in Australia unless it is imported direct from the States.

The Garmin Connect Mobile app available on iPhone and Android devices is slick in its integration and uploading of activities to 3rd party apps is a breeze. Recent updates to the Android app have improved the stability of the Bluetooth connection which previous to that dropped in and out regularly. Garmin Connect on your Mac/PC has a lot of info and tabs on it but once you get your head around the layout it is simple. Setting up intervals/workouts is intuitive easy enough to use.

When running an interval activity from the watch the countdown leading in and out of the interval, both audible and vibrate, is excellent and should be the default option when paying this much (or over $500).

I highly recommend the Fenix 3 to anyone whether it is for SUP, running, hiking, swimming or any other athletic or fitness discipline you may be into. It is that good. If you are a business person that lives in a suit by day and trains whenever you get the opportunity then this watch can provide that type of flexibility but not looking like a sports watch. Throw a waterproof leather band on it and you are good to go. It may be a little large for anyone, male or female, if you have small or skinny wrists but for anyone else it is not going to look all that big. The final decision on which version to get really depends on whether you want the grey or silver bezel. You also have the decision on whether you really need to spend the extra $100 plus on the Sapphire model for the scratch proof glass and metal link band.

Order the Fenix 3 Online

The Garmin Fenix 3 (Silver/Grey $729 Sapphire $849 – far cheaper at Highly Tuned Athletes) retails around the same price as the Suunto Ambit3 Peak Sapphire ($749 Peak $649) but is about $100 more that the Polar V800 ($629). You also have the 920XT ($599) hanging around the periphery also. Of those three that I have thrown into same boat as each other I would rate them Fenix 3, V800 and then the Ambit 3. That is my opinion from having spent a significant amount of time with each watch and lived with them day to day for the length of the review, one month. When it is all said and done the ability to personalize the Fenix 3 puts it ahead of the others. It offers great interval functionality, vibration alerts, 24/7 activity tracking and a strong web based offering with Garmin Connect. With apps, data fields, watch faces and widgets being regularly released and updated by Garmin users on Connect IQ the Fenix 3 is a complete package that is able to stay ahead of you fitness and lifestyle requirements.

Caveman Rating
4.5 out of 5 Smiling Caveman Head

This Garmin Fenix 3 Review – Second Look was written by guest contributor Matthew Scott. You can follow Matthew on facebook or twitter. The views, opinions and positions expressed within this guest post are those of the author alone and do not represent those of Highly Tuned Athletes.

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