Review: Garmin fēnix 3 sportswatch

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Made for life outdoors, the Garmin fēnix 3 sportswatch (Photo: David Nield/Gizmag.com)

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The fēnix 3 is Garmin's latest take on the rugged, outdoor sportswatch. It combines some advanced fitness and activity tracking features with basic smartphone notifications, and it's aimed at those who spend a lot of their spare time running, hiking, swimming and exploring the great outdoors. Join Gizmag as we take the fēnix 3 for a breath of fresh air.

Though Garmin says that the fēnix 3 does come with customizable smart watch capabilities, this is much more about tracking your activities and navigating across mountains than pulling up your Facebook messages or making calls via Bluetooth, so adjust your expectations accordingly. It follows on from last year's fēnix 2.

The sportswatch comes with a simple USB charging cradle, mains adapter and quick start guide out of the box (a more detailed manual is available through the associated mobile app). You can also buy the watch in a bundle with a chest strap for more advanced tracking and heart rate monitoring.

fēnix 3 specifications

Read through the fēnix 3's specifications and you can't fail to be impressed. Built-in compass, temperature, accelerometer, altimeter and barometer sensors mean you can work out exactly where you are and which way the weather's going to turn at the same time, while the integrated GPS technology is augmented with GLONASS support, a satellite-based system that pinpoints your position with even greater accuracy.

The watch comes with a 10 ATM water resistance rating, which equates to being able to withstand pressures equivalent to a depth of 100 m (330 ft). That means bathing, swimming and snorkeling should all be fine, but not deep water scuba diving or high-speed jet ski racing.

The number of supported activities has been upped from the fēnix 2. You can now track outdoor running, indoor running, outdoor biking, indoor biking, pool swimming, open water swimming, triathlons (running, swimming and cycling in quick succession), skiing (including cross-country), snowboarding, climbing, hiking and trail running. If you do one or more of those activities on a regular basis, and you want a more convenient way of tracking your progress, then the fēnix 3 will definitely be of interest.

Like many fitness trackers, the fēnix 3 buzzes if you're sat in one place for too long, and of course there's an alarm feature here too. The associated Garmin Connect app for iOS and Android lets you look back over your activities, switch between digitized watch faces and install a limited number of third-party apps (like timers and simple games). Smart notifications from a Bluetooth-paired phone are supported and cover most apps – you can read emails and texts (but not reply to them), see your calendar, and control music playback, for example.

Step, calorie and sleep tracking are also included, so you really are getting a comprehensive look at your health and fitness. There's the opportunity to set goals in all of these areas, and quickly check up on your progress from the watch as you go. One other useful feature is automatic movement detection. If you're running, tracking stops while you're waiting at the lights; if you're skiing, it stops while you're on the lift. It's a clever bit of kit.

Wi-Fi support is included, though there's not much you can do with it apart from upload your activity statistics when you get back home (no surfing your favorite websites or catching up with Twitter feeds here). Garmin's proprietary ANT+ wireless protocol lets you connect up various accessories, such as bicycle sensors and heart rate monitors.

You can also get detailed coaching advice on your running, as long as you fork out an extra US$99.99 for the HRM-Run chest strap because the sportswatch itself doesn't include heart rate monitoring capabilities. It's probably worth the expense if you want to do more with your advanced training statistics, but only if you're training for a triathlon or something similar. The extra functionality the strap gives you includes recovery time estimates.

It's certainly a step up from its fēnix 2 predecessor, with its 1.2 inch sunlight readable Chroma color screen surrounded by five navigation buttons, more refined looks and extra activity modes. What's more, the fēnix 2 was only waterproof to 50 m (164 ft). If you're considering an upgrade from the older model, there are plenty of reasons to tempt you into it.

fēnix 3 in use

The fēnix 3 is reasonably comfortable to wear, but is definitely robust rather than stylish (remember this is a watch designed to be able to survive just about any kind of weather). It's by no means ugly, but the sportwatch is built with functionality in mind.

A stainless steel bezel is matched with a black or red strap, or you can opt for the more expensive sapphire model with extra-tough glass and stainless steel strap. There are a few dozen alternative watch face designs to choose from with extra widgets and a choice of styles, and while they're not as comprehensive as those available to a Android Wear wearables, it's still useful to have the option.

Testing the watch's modes and features, we found it responsive and reliable throughout. There was a slight learning curve while we worked out what the five buttons did (you won't find a touchscreen here) and there were times when trying to work out how to complete a particular task proved confusing, but careful study of the user manual proved useful.

The fēnix 3 certainly feels like a serious bit of kit, especially when viewed against the Apple Watch or Android Wear smartwatches, which can seem a little toy-like by comparison.

We found visibility in direct sunlight to be decent without being outstanding, and to be honest we'd take more battery life over a gorgeous-looking LCD screen anyway. Garmin says the battery is good for 6 weeks in watch mode, 20 hours with full GPS and 50 hours with UltraTrac GPS (hourly pings rather than minute-by-minute updates). Those figures sound about right based on the testing we did (we were seeing drops of 4-5 percent per hour with features like Bluetooth and GPS running all of the time), so if you're prepared to conserve power and switch off some features at night it should last you over a camping weekend.

The GPS locked into position very quickly and options like the navigation mode were a pleasure to use, guiding us back to our original location via a basic map or a single arrow pointing toward our destination.

It makes sense to have these kind of tools on your wrist rather than on your phone when you're trudging through marshland or down a rocky footpath. When you're running or trail running you want to be able to glance at the display very quickly and the fēnix 3 is great for this.

Information is displayed in bold colors and bulky fonts, so seeing where you need to be heading or how far you've gone is no problem at all, even if you're careering down a mountain. We tested the watch alongside a Jawbone tracker and a Nexus 6 smartphone and the step-counting accuracy seemed comparable.

Being able to navigate back to the car using a watch when half-way up a mountain peak is a lot of fun – using a phone seems clunky and unreliable by comparison, particularly when out of cell signal range. You can customize most of the modes, choosing which data is shown on the screen, and even automatically scrolling through it if desired. It's touches like this that make the fēnix 3 feel a cut above.

Reviewing routes in the Connect app shows the GPS+GLONASS system to be very accurate. Time, distance, pace and calories burned can be checked (and activities shared on social media of course), but we found sleep tracking to be a bit of a let down, as you can only look at how much you've moved during the night rather than whether you were actually asleep or not. We're also pretty sure you wouldn't really want to wear this bulky sportswatch to bed every night anyway.

Overall, the app is comprehensive and well designed, and Garmin has obviously invested time and effort into it. Another feature we liked was Live Track, which enables your family and friends to monitor your location from any browser window. If you're heading up into the mountains then it's handy to have something like this.

The standard fēnix 3 costs $499.99. Yes, it's an impressive device, but that's a lot of cash to splurge at once. You really need to know you're going to make the most of its various features before you make the purchase. It's in the activity logging and GPS tracking where this watch really shines, and if you can put up with a few niggles then it's worth the admission price.

While Android Wear smartwatches and the Apple Watch seem like fledgling product categories that have yet to find their place, the fēnix 3 feels mature, a device that knows its place and its purpose. Casual users aren't going to spend this much money on an adventure watch, but if it's in your wheelhouse then it's a very good buy indeed.

Product page: Garmin fēnix 3

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