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Hands-on Gear Review
Garmin Fenix 5 Review
Bottom line: A full-featured GPS watch with good battery life for every day use, training sessions, and wilderness navigation.
No product we have used compares to the Fenix 5. With all the possible features we can think of, in a reasonably sized product with battery life that exceeds expectations, we literally had a hard time filling the "con" field of our comparison chart. That is rare in OutdoorGearLab reviews. We are good critics that way. Certainly, things could get more reliable, smaller, with better battery life. However, understanding the "state of the art" and the limitations inherent in compact electronics, it is hard to imagine a product better than the Fenix 5 for its intended purpose. The *Suunto Ambit3 Peak* comes close, but lacks the built-in heart rate sensor of the Fenix 5, among other minor differences.
RELATED REVIEW: Best GPS Watches of 2017 for Running & Training
Our Analysis and Hands-on Test Results
Garmin's flagship product has reached a glorious maturity. In four iterations now (Garmin skipped the product named "4" for translation issues) the Fenix has steadily improved, going head-to-head and back and forth with mainly the competitor from Suunto. In comparing each company's latest product, the Garmin easily comes out ahead. It has everything the Suunto Ambit3 Peak does, plus a built-in heart rate sensor, slightly better battery life, in a smaller form. Additionally, with the same features but different battery life, Garmin now makes the Fenix 5 in two additional sizes. The Fenix 5, with no qualifiers, as we tested it, is in the middle. There are larger ones and smaller ones, with lettered qualifiers and the same features. Garmin didn't just skip a number, they launched steps ahead of Suunto.
Garmin handily takes the top spot in our weighted scoring matrix. It easily tops the features category and drops average scores in every other category. Putting it all together, the Fenix 5 comes out well ahead of the rest.
Ease of Use
Like all compact electronics in 2017, the user interface of the Fenix 5 marks the state of the art. The ubiquity of small electronics has created an economy of scale that is, ironically perhaps, most noticeable in the ease of use. Customers are accustomed to slick app interfaces, intuitive on-device data access, and clean access to limited but carefully curated customizable options. The Fenix 5 is no exception to this and delivers all of the above with aplomb.
The closest comparison on the market is the Suunto Ambit3 Peak. Both are full-featured, high-end training devices. A big difference, as deduced from extensive experience with all Garmin and Suunto products, is in their respective ease of use. Some primary, yet relatively minor, differences distinguish them from one another. In the Garmin's favor is the company's long tenure in the field. Many consumers, and you may be one of them, are already using Garmin's data management software.
Whether you use the PC-based Garmin Training Center, or the online Garmin Connect, either from a different running watch or from a bicycle computer like our Editors' Choice in that category, the Garmin Edge 820, picking up the Fenix will allow you to plug and play. In our survey of the market for a GPS training watch, this compatibility was a significant advantage of the Fenix. If you don't already have a brand loyalty, however, the gap narrows. The Suunto Ambit models are about equal to the Fenix, in terms of interface. Specifically, the Suunto picks up GPS signal a little faster at the beginning of your training and the Suunto online interface uses Google maps for route planning. The non-branded maps used by Garmin Connect are slightly less detailed.
The other Garmin devices we tested, including the Best Buy Forerunner 35 and day-to-day smart watch Garmin VivoActive use the same "Connect" interface. All sync smoothly and easily with the smartphone version, which in turn collates data in a format that is visible with the web-browser accessed Connect platform. Other watches and platforms are also quite easy to use, while some are more cumbersome. The Apple Watch Nike+ and the FitBit Surge stand out for slick use and easy data management. The Nixon Mission and Polar M400 are notable for respective issues in terms of ease of use.
The Fenix 5 is a fully featured product. It literally has every feature we can imagine in a GPS/training watch. This is refreshing. The same team that reviewed GPS watches in 2017 also reviewed multi-tools in that same time frame. GPS watches are the multi-tools of wearables. In reviewing multi-tools, we also consider discrete features and rank their inclusion in given products. There are certain non-negotiable attributes, things that are really nice, and things that are fully optional on multi tools. Of all the tools we evaluated, none had all the non-negotiable and all the "things that are really nice". Right off the bat, one has to compromise feature selection in multi-tools, no matter what you're willing to spend. With the Fenix 5, no such compromise is necessary. We can't think of anything to add to the GPS distance and pace, time-keeping, smart-watch features, barometric altimeter, advanced navigation attributes, step count, sleep tracking, built-in optical heart rate, thermometer, and optional after-market external sensors available. In short, the Fenix makes no compromises in features.
No other product we reviewed has this full set of features. The Suunto Ambit3 Peak comes closest, only omitting the built-in optical heart rate sensor. The Apple Watch Nike+ doesn't have a barometer or thermometer but has everything else. Certainly, few need all these features. When you omit even more than the Suunto and Apple have dropped, you have even more options, all more compact, less expensive, with longer battery life, or all of the above.
Accuracy is easy to test and compare. In years now of testing the accuracy of GPS watches our roving lead test editor Jed Porter has used high school tracks in Bishop and Mammoth Lakes, CA, Driggs, ID, Jackson, WY, and Leadville and Denver, CO. Across the country, the inside lane of a standard running track is exactly 1/4 mile. Using this benchmark, the accuracy of a GPS watch is easy to test. We make multiple trips with each device, recording the variation of what is recorded as compared to the 1/4 mile lap. In the most recent iteration of this test, with the Fenix 5 and cohorts the distance recorded in the Fenix varied from the actual by an average of 3%.
At 3% error, the Fenix 5 is about average, and completely within acceptable bounds. Certainly, there are more accurate tools we've tested. The TomTom Runner, in a remarkable performance, especially for this inexpensive product, delivered perfect results. Over each of two tests of half a mile each, the Runner measured exactly .50 miles. At the other end of the spectrum, and with the 7% error potential approaching distracting, the Nixon Mission is the least accurate in our test.
Ease of Set-Up
Evaluating "Ease of Set-Up" is almost becoming moot. Compact modern electronics, networked with a smartphone like all these watches are, are equipped with set-up interfaces that are remarkably complete. We experience, anymore, precious little variation in the set-up procedure between one product and the next. The Garmin is no exception. All you need to do is charge it, download the app to your phone, and follow the instructions on the app.
Future iterations of this review will likely omit this category and readjust our scoring metrics to reflect the idea that, by then, all GPS watches will have pretty much standardized, easy set ups. We really hope for full consolidation of the ease of set up. For now, there are just minor variations between the products. Notably, the Polar M400 took almost an hour to sync, initially. Also, the interface of the Nixon Mission is curated by the generalized, open source Google "Android Wear" app. This app is shared by a number of smart watches and isn't optimized for athletes. One can deduce important info, but it isn't as easy to get going as the apps from Garmin and the others.
For a fully featured, reasonably sized GPS watch, the Fenix 5 battery endurance is remarkably good. In day-to-day use, with occasional normal length (1-2 hours) training sessions, we have been able to go just over a week between charges. For more extensive GPS use, the battery lasts less long. While we didn't execute any ultra distance running tests, we were able to use the Fenix for some expedition ski trips. In a few Peruvian high altitude missions, using the Fenix for glacier navigation and for tracking routes through a few 6-10 hour days, we had plenty of battery for the 5-day excursions.
In extensive use of both comparably featured devices, we found the battery life of the Fenix 5 to be just a little better than the Suunto Ambit3 Peak. This is especially notable considering that the Garmin is smaller and has the optical heart rate sensor working all the time. Comparison to basically all the other devices is inappropriate, as the rest have considerably fewer features.
For a full-featured watch, especially one with the battery life exhibited by the Fenix 5, the size profile is pleasantly small - though we could always wish for it to be smaller.
It is certainly larger than many others, but it is more compact than previous Fenix's and is thinner than the Suunto Ambit3 Peak. It is also smaller in every way than the Nixon Mission. Additionally, the Fenix 5 can be purchased with the same features, but varying battery life, in both a smaller and larger version than what we tested. We tested the unqualified "Fenix 5", while the Fenix 5S is smaller and the Fenix 5X is larger. They all have the same features and vary only in battery life and some navigation attributes.
With a full feature set and the different sizes available, this is literally a product for everyone. It is expensive, so if you won't use all the features, something else is likely better. However, if you are uncertain exactly how you will use your GPS watch, or if you know you will use it every day, every night, through training sessions, and navigating wild terrain, you can't go wrong.
The Fenix 5 is the most expensive product in our test. This is common for our Editors' Choice winners, especially when the winner is as clear as this one was. As the only fully-featured product, and one that our testers have a hard time criticizing, the price is likely justified. For anyone that truly will use the features and functionality of the Fenix, it is worth the cost. If you do not need one or more of the functions, there is almost certainly a tool for you on the market. Read our main GPS Watch article to better sort out the options.
Garmin hits the ball out of the park with the Fenix 5. It is fully featured, with excellent battery life. Really sweetening the deal is that one can choose one of three different sizes, compromising only on battery life for the smaller versions.
— Jediah Porter
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