Fenix 3 is a better smartwatch than most

The Apple Watch is about to be launched this month and there isn’t much excitement in Singapore because the country is not in the first launch wave. Enthusiasm over Android Wear has waned with the lack of compelling new models and there have been no improvements in battery life.

In the meantime, most people don’t know that Garmin has actually launched a pretty good smartwatch in the form of the multisport Fenix 3.

It’s just a pity most people won’t know about the Fenix 3 because they think a smartwatch ought to look like an Apple Watch, Moto 360 or Pebble. And when you tell people this is a “fitness watch”, they may give you the leery look since they associate the term with hardcore fitness freaks.

The problem with smartwatches

Having used a Moto 360 (and selling it off after a few weeks), I’ve come to learn that the smartwatch industry doesn’t really know what would keep a watch on people’s wrists. It’s not enough just to be able to install tiny apps or change watch faces, the watch has to actually be useful and practical on a daily basis.

I got frustrated with the Moto 360 because it just took too long to read the time – the watch would wait about one second before switching on the LCD screen when you deliberately flicked your wrist towards you. That was the deal breaker for me, even though I could put up with the 1.5-day battery life and the imperfect circle of the screen.

If a watch isn’t good at telling the time immediately, it can’t be a watch. Never mind how “smart” it is.

Then that leads to the question about what smartwatches are really for.

The watch giants of the consumer mass market – Seiko, Citizen, Casio, Swatch – have held off on any hasty movements into the smartwatch industry because people are still buying traditional watches in droves. Their watches do a simple job of telling the time damned well, and their batteries (sometimes supplemented by solar technology) last longer than people would actually keep the watch.

If a watch is to do more than read out the hours and minutes, it had better do those extra things very well for people to consider buying it. Of course, every one is waiting to see how popular and innovative the Apple Watch will become, but I’m still skeptical even though I’m an iPhone user.

Enter The Fenix

I’ve handled Garmin devices since the 1990s when I first got to use their handheld GPS mapping gadget when I was in the army. Since then, I’ve watched them advance into the fitness realm, as well as in-car solutions and now action cams like the VIRB as well.

I was using their flagship running watch Forerunner 620 since late 2013 and it served me well for my regular runs. But it had an unnecessary touchscreen (one was always afraid to accidentally touch the screen and end a run session prematurely), and was lacking in modern features like step tracking.

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The Forerunner 920XT

 

In 2014, Garmin released the new flagship triathlon watch – Forerunner 920XT – and packed it with not just multisport capabilities (swimming, cycling, running) but also smartphone notifications, step tracking and third-party apps capability (Connect IQ). I tried it on but it looked like a big rectangular slab on my skinny wrist, so I passed.

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The Fenix 3 in clock mode

A few months later,  Garmin announced the Fenix 3, which had all the features of the 920XT but with a round screen, metal bezel, and hiking features aka ABC (altimeter, barometer and compass). Immediately, I knew this was the true successor to the Forerunner 620 and was a watch that one could wear all-day.

Obviously a lot of other people thought the same way, and when the Fenix 3 was finally released in Singapore last month (Mar 2015), both variants (sapphire and non-sapphire) sold out very quickly. I managed to grab a non-sapphire version with silver bezel and red strap, and sold off my FR620 soon after.

While I can’t comment on the Apple Watch (since I haven’t used it), I would say that the Fenix 3 could be the most useful and practical watch on the market today.

Now this is not a full review of the Fenix 3, you can read the industry benchmark review from DC Rainmaker (everyone who is into fitness gear reads his blog). I’ll just summarize why I think the Fenix 3 is a better wearable than any other device available today.

Fitness first, then add smartwatch features

My key issue with the fast-growing wearables market is that most of the models pretend to be fitness devices, which they aren’t.

For example, I wouldn’t recommend any wearable that just offers step-tracking as a key feature – because I walk a lot daily and I still haven’t found any evidence that walking 10,000 steps daily really has any dramatic impact on improving my health. There is just no substitute for sweaty exercise and a healthy diet if you want to lose weight or keep your weight constant.

So be it the Fitbit Zip, Fitbit Charge, Garmin Vivosmart, Jawbone Up and so on, I find them to be largely gimmicky. By the way, many smartphones now have step-tracking apps that do the same job for free (ie. Fitbit app on iOS).

I also don’t need a heart-rate sensor on my wrist, because they’re not accurate enough, and they are only meaningful when paired with real exercise data.

The Moto 360 has a mediocre heart-rate sensor that took forever to lock on to my pulse, and it was also pointless as the Moto 360 had no GPS fitness features to correlate the heart-rate data with. HR sensors need very close contact with the skin to get accurate readings, but watches tend to be worn a little loose for comfort.

On the other hand, smartphone notifications on the watch are great – they are something you don’t know you need till you actually use it, and is a standard feature on any smartwatch. The Fenix 3 buzzes you about any notification on your iOS or Androidphone, be it incoming calls, SMSes, emails or Whatsapp messages.

The key benefit of this feature is that you don’t have to keep pulling your phone out of your pants pocket to see what messages you’ve received. You just glance at your watch and either press to dismiss, or just wait for the Fenix to switch back to the clock. This is great for me especially when I’m riding my motorbike and worry if I’m missing an important call.

You might say that there are other smartwatches or wearables that offer smart notifications at a lower price. But the Fenix 3 trounces all of them because it’s an excellent GPS fitness watch first, and not a smartwatch trying to pretend to be a fitness watch. It also has step-tracking, smartphone notifications and doesn’t bother with heart-rate tracking unless you use the bundled HRM-Run strap that goes across your chest during workouts.

There are so many features in the Fenix 3, you should just read the product page here.

In brief, here’s what I like about the Fenix 3

  • It’s not crippled as a wearable if you don’t have a smartphone. The key difference between the Fenix 3 vs Android Wear/Apple Watch is that it’s perfectly usable without being tethered to the phone. For example, the Moto 360 will need your phone to be on your body if you need GPS location tracking, since the watch itself does not have GPS. Most smartwatches are extensions of your smartphone, but the Fenix 3 doesn’t have that baggage.
  • Very fast GPS satellite lock-ons, so less waiting time before a run. The entire bezel is the antenna! I usually don’t wait for more than a minute for the lock-on to complete.
  • Multisport capabilities that have encouraged me to swim and cycle more, instead of just running. I overhauled my swimming technique and can now swim far longer than before, in part due to the swim data collected by the watch. You don’t need to be a triathlete to enjoy this watch.
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18k steps seems overkill but that’s because the Fenix 3 adds up both steps from my running and from daily walking.

 

  • Inbuilt accelerometer that not only does step-tracking, but allows me to run on treadmills and track distance
  • An intuitive user interface (despite the initial confusion over the five buttons) that works great during workouts or office use.
  • Professional-level customization of data screens, so you see only the exercise or app data you want to see.
  • Incredible battery life. On average the Fenix 3 can last a week between charges, and doesn’t use more than 10% of battery per hour of running. Smartphone notifications do drain the battery more, but you still get at least five days at one go. So I can do three workouts in a week, get smart notifications and still not have to charge the phone more than once a week.
  • Pleasant surprises in software. With the latest March 2015 updates, the Fenix 3 now has Bluetooth music controls and automatic sleep tracking. I love the former, especially when I take the train and it’s too packed to take out my phone to change the song in iTunes. Music controls doesn’t seem to work with Spotify though.

Garmin Connect Dashboard

  • Very comprehensive Garmin Connect website that shows you an incredible amount of data. Even if you don’t use all the data, it still makes you feel good and motivated to try harder.
  • Rugged and manly design. I love the big-ass round silver bezel that makes this as fashionable as any regular watch. However, the bezel does get scratched easily because you will be banging this into walls unexpectedly.
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After a 10km run

What I don’t like

  • The screen is low-contrast and low-resolution. Yes, this helps with the battery life, but unless you’re in good lighting, you often need to switch the backlight on to see the time or data clearly. The screen is a trans-reflective LCD screen and is 218 by 218 pixels only. It has “color” but like the FR620, the color is muted-looking most of the time. At least the watch face offers huge fonts that are “always-on”.
  • Buggy software and downloadable apps. While you can download a few third-party watch faces or basic apps (eg. to show sunrise/sunset timings), I’ve stopped doing so because they tend to crash the watch or drain the battery quickly. In stock form, the Fenix 3 performs pretty well for me, though others have complained in forums of numerous software issues. Still, Garmin keeps pushing out firmware updates (auto-downloaded to the watch) to fix the issues. Most Garmin users are used to this, but be prepared for unexpected bugs at any time.
  • Oversized 26mm strap that cuts out a lot of third-party options that are 24mm or 22mm.
  • It won’t fit under a buttoned-up shirt sleeve
  • Proprietary charging base. In the perfect world, every device would just use the ubiquitous micro-USB port for charging. On the flipside, the Fenix 3 does charge very quickly within 2 hours.

In closing, I think Garmin has done an excellent job to take on the entire wearables market without compromising on its traditional strengths of making great fitness gear. That’s no mean feat, even though it means the watch may not appeal to people beyond its traditional installed base.

The Fenix 3 is not for everyone though, because firstly it is relatively expensive at $615 (without the HRM-Run chest strap) and $689 (with the strap). You pay even more for the sapphire crystal version that comes with both a rubber strap and metal strap ($759 without strap, $819 with strap), but I think the heavy metal strap is pointless if you actually do exercise with the watch. Also, with a non-replaceable battery (ie. the watch won’t last you more than a few years) so you should stick to the non-sapphire version.

And most people don’t really want to buy a fitness watch they will not truly appreciate, since they don’t exercise regularly.

I mean.. you can tell people that Singapore has a very high rate of Type-2 diabetes and they need to exercise more, but people are generally happier if they can have their oily meals and wear their fancy luxury watches.

I know this may sound condescending but I’ve come to observe most people really don’t care about their health until it’s too late. They will go out and buy a wearable but then complain it isn’t helping them to lose weight. Wearables won’t help you lose weight if you don’t actually diet and exercise to begin with.

For those of us who do practice a healthy lifestyle, or people who always use fitness watches for workouts, the Fenix 3 is a great companion. If you are looking for a better running watch than what you own now, the Fenix 3 and the 920XT are the best in class right now in both hardware and software. It won’t allow you to play Candy Crush on the screen, but a watch is not a phone or tablet!

I love my metal G-shocks but I find myself wearing the Fenix 3 almost daily because it’s really that useful. I don’t really use the hiking features, but who knows, I might just need them someday.

7 Replies to “Fenix 3 is a better smartwatch than most”

  1. Hi ian, I am completely new to smartwatches, activity trackers and GPS on watches. Would you recommend the fenix 2 (less hard on the wallet) or the fenix 3 for someone looking for a change in lifestyle and who loves gadgets.

    1. Hi firdie, I would not recommend any Fenix model if you aren’t already regularly doing two or more types of exercise like running, swimming and cycling. The Fenix 3’s main role is that of a hardcore/enthusiast sports watch and the smartwatch functions are secondary (though very useful). If you are just starting out on regular exercise, I would suggest a basic GPS watch like the Forerunner 15 that offers both GPS tracking for running and step counter for daily walking.

  2. Spot on article… there’s a few key points … I have the sapphire version with metal band. Bit more weighty, but no biggie.

    A watch for me, needs to be a watch .. .a mans watch. Made from metal, a bit bash proof, water resistant, and basically never take it off. They look great, and often receive comments (not that I’m chasing them, but just sayin…)

    It took a fairly decent watch to make me put my titanium 200mWR EcoDrive watch in the drawer.

    The screen is absolutely BRILLIANT in sunlight… whereas try reading your iphone or other “smart screen” type appliance in bright sun, or out on the water. At first i was dissappointed at the screen readability inside… but garmin have it spot on … you can’t really have both (not without a huge battery impact) … and outdoors.

    Second is proper 100m water resistance.

    You’re dead right, a watch needs to be a watch (sports) first, then a “smart watch”

    I totally love the custom faces the garmin has too, some very cool ones coming out in the past few months… check out FRINGE … and ModiSumo … i love this one for its inclusion of elevation, sunrise/sunset data, and step counter … while still having a big readable time format.

  3. Nice write up – come to it late. I particularly like the line “If a watch isn’t good at telling the time immediately, it can’t be a watch. Never mind how “smart” it is.”. Its why I’m on my second Apple Watch and hate them both as much. Neither can tell the bloody time easily! So back on with the Fenix 3. Notifications can be a pain – I want them on my watch but not particularly on the phone lock screen – its an all or nothing scenario. I also have the HR Sapphire – the HR is actually great – much better than the Apple one or my Charge HR (long gone). All in I would say its the perfect marry of sport and tech – and a watch that does what it says on the tin best – tell the time. Highly recommended.

  4. Hi Ian,

    Just wondering, can you actually read messages on the Fenix 3?

    Or do you just see who is sending them.

    If you can read them, can you read all of them if the text is long etc? (Some smartwatch don’t have scrolling features for msgs)

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