I run, bike, swim, surf, snowboard, paddle, hunt and ride motorcycles. Not only is the Garmin Fenix 3 the first smartwatch capable of keeping up throughout all those activities, but it’s also the first to genuinely help me become better at them.
The Fenix 3 is, as you guessed, the successor to the Fenix 2. Garmin has fixed all of the biggest complaints about that watch, with the biggest being the slow GPS acquisition. By adding the ability to connect to the Russian GPS equivalent, GLONASS, you can now use 24 more satellites (+ the 32 from GPS) that ultimately give you a much quicker and more reliable location lock.
Quick history about GLONASS: GLONASS stands for Globalnaya navigatsionnaya sputnikovaya sistema, or GLObal NAvigation Satellite System and was Russia’s answers to the GPS program. It was only 4 years ago, in 2011, that GLONASS achieved full global coverage. Read more about that here.
Pick your activity and the watch customizes its function to suit.
First, you need to pick your watch face. There’s a bunch from both Garmin and users in the company’s Connect IQ app store. Next you have widgets that are little pages that show you info, like steps, temp, altitude, barometric pressure, and many others. These are accessed by simply pressing up or down from the watch face.
The sunrise/ moonrise widget, available in the Connect IQ store for free.
Then you have your apps, these are the satellite tracking-enabled modes that you will use for all of your actual activities. Once you’re in an app and you’ve started an activity, you cannot view the widgets without stopping and closing the activity. The apps are customizable and each app has a slew of screens that can each display up to 4 different data fields, with up t0 10 screens per app. You scroll through the screens using the up and down buttons during your activity. It can take a little while to figure out which screen you want to have with which data, but once you have it all sorted out, you won’t really need to adjust them.
Pro Tip: During an activity, if you hold the “down” button, you will return to the main watch face. From there you can see the time and scroll through the widgets. When you are ready to return to your activity, press the start button.
Personally, I was completely against anything and everything smartwatch. That is, until I wore this one. I could not see the need to read texts or do any other silly thing like using it as a Star Trek communicator that most “smartwatches” are trying to achieve, but the Fenix 3 has slowly and easily welcomed me in to the world of wearables. The watch is connected via Bluetooth Smart (4.0+) to my phone and remains connected as long as the phone is within range. I’ve chosen to enable most notifications for the watch. A small notification pops up and you can ignore it or read it. Reading anything more than a quick text is best handled by picking up your phone. I use the watch as a sort of filter for which things I want to respond to.
Weather info is synced from your phone...it’s pretty rough out here in SoCal.
One of the things that makes this watch unique is that it has an actual altimeter, barometer and compass; it doesn’t rely on your phone and an Internet connection to fake them.
After finishing an activity and once the watch is back in range with the phone, the activity is automatically synced and uploaded to Garmin Connect before I get in the house. If you use Strava, you can link that with Garmin Connect and auto upload each new activity from Garmin Connect over to Strava, the whole process is extremely easy and painless. If you do not have a smartphone, you can connect the watch to a WiFi network and all the same auto uploading will happen just as well. If you don’t want to use WiFi, you can always plug the watch directly into your computer. The phone sync is by far the easiest though. Your watch won’t play favorites either, it will be just as happy with your Android device as it will with an iOS device; sorry no love for Windows Phone.
Like most of Garmin’s product line, the Fenix 3 can connect to a plethora of accessories via ANT+. The beauty of ANT+ is that it is an open protocol and you are not limited to only Garmin accessories. Adding an accessory is simple pairing process, and from there you will need to add that data field in to your activity app. Most Garmin accessories will auto populate the data fields into the apps once they are added. Here is what the Fenix 3 can connect to via ANT+
- ANT+ Heart Rate Monitor
- ANT+ Running Footpod
- ANT+ Cycling Speed/Cadence Combo Sensor or Individual Speed/ Individual Cadence
- ANT+ Cycling Power Meter
- ANT+ Tempe (Temperature Sensor)
- ANT+ VIRB Action Camera (for controlling the Garmin VIRB camera)
- ANT+ Shimano Di2 (coming in future update)
The Fenix 3 has a built in temperature sensor, but the data can be skewed by your body heat. For a more accurate reading, the Tempe sensor for $30 provides an accurate ambient temperature and gives you a min/max on the temperature widget. I did notice that when using the watch for surfing, I could pretty easily tell how cold the water was by letting it soak while waiting for waves.
Save yourself the hassle and get the Bike Mount Kit. It’s a $15 block of rubber that squeezes around your handlebar and gives the watch something to latch on to, while also letting everyone else know that you have a Garmin. It’s easier than having the watch on your wrist and allows you to use either hand to work the buttons.
Garmin has overhauled their line of accessories and the new Speed and Cadence sensors are perfect. You can buy them as a pair for $70, or individually for $40 each.
The speed sensor slips in to a bungee housing and wraps around your hub.
The cadence sensor is held on to the crank arm with a stiff bungee, that comes in 3 sizes from Garmin.
No magnets, no zip ties, no tape! They have isolated each sensor too, so you now have one cadence senor that straps to your non-drive side crank, and a speed sensor that wraps around your wheel hub (front or rear).
Once connected and on the ride, I did find that the buttons were a little tough to press on the side compared to top-facing buttons of other bike specific devices, but I think that is because I have super narrow handle bars and everything is crowded together. Data relay works great and you shouldn’t have any trouble reading the screen in the daylight or while bombing down a hill.
I initially thought the heft of the watch would bother me while running, but honestly did not notice it. You can set it up to do an auto lap at specified intervals and give you info on your last mile.
Garmin has two heart rate monitors to choose from, the Soft Strap Premium Heart Rate Monitor for $70 and the HRM-Run version for $100. The Run version includes a three-axis accelerometer in the chest module to give you Garmin’s “Running Dynamics” and features a little running man on the front of it.
You’ll see a new screen populated with a color graph that shows your cadence as compared to others in your age range. The scale is kind of ambiguous and doesn’t really tell you much. It also has your vertical oscillation (how high your feet go and up and down with each step), your cadence (steps per minute), and your ground contact time (how long your foot stays on the ground for each step). You do not need the HRM-Run to get cadence, the watch itself is capable of doing that, but the HRM-Run provides a bit of redundancy.
Dynamic data from a run.
If you are a treadmill runner, the Foot Pod is for you. For $70, it will give your watch pace and distance information when GPS is unavailable, as it will be indoors. If you have the foot pod connected while on a run/walk/hike outside and lose your GPS connection, your distance will then revert to data from the foot pod. So while your actual track may not be as accurate, your distance should be spot on. This could alleviate some discrepancies in distance when used in UltraTrac mode as outlined in the battery life section. The foot pod claims about 95% accuracy out of the box and is calibrateable to get it nearly perfect. Note that the foot pod is shoe dependent, so if you have it calibrated to one shoe, do not expect it to be perfect moving over to the next. For most of us, leaving it just the way it is will work fine.
At the beginning of the year, I challenged myself to beat my high school track mile record of 4 minutes 54 seconds. I convinced a few of my old track friends to do the same and we are now virtually competing against each other around the country. The Fenix 3 has helped me track my improvements. In January, I ran my first official test mile at 7:35. In the past few months of training, I have dropped that down to 5:54; only 1 more minute to knock off!
Though Garmin does not have an official app for surfing, but someone else has created one and it’s available in the Connect IQ store. You will have to add it as a single data field in a new app. From there you start the app and go surf. It will give you a counter of how many waves you’ve caught as well as your previous and best speeds, distance, and time.
Catching a few waves before the sun comes up at the Huntington Beach Pier.
On a recent ski trip this winter I was excited to see how the watch did with snowboarding. Start the watch in to “Ski/Board” mode and off you go. The Fenix is monitoring your altitude and will notice when you get on and off the lift and start a new lap for you each time you begin your run. You really just hit go and don’t have to worry about a thing. You can see a cumulative distance traveled, elevation descended, average and top speed, and a host of other info. The watch band did not go wide enough to fit on the outside of my jacket, so I wore it under and would take a peek each time we were on the lift to see how the previous run went.
Garmin has pre-included apps for: XC ski, Ski/Board, Climbing, Hiking, Trail Running, Running, Indoor Running, Bike, Bike Indoor, Pool Swim, Open Water Swim, and Triathlon. Each App has been specifically tailored for those activites and you can go and customize them from there. You can also add your own, as I did for the surfing. If Swimming is your thing, the watch will record everything you need for indoor/ outdoor swims, including stroke cadence and distance.
In your normal day-to-day routine, the Fenix 3 can be set to record your steps in a widget called “Wellness” and give you gentle nudges when you’ve been sitting for too long. Stay stagnant while binge watching your favorite show on Netflix for more than an hour and it will buzz and tell you to get off your lazy butt and move. Each subsequent 15 minutes of inactivity and your inactivity bar grows by a notch.
It typically takes about 50 yards of walking to clear the “move bar”. This has actually been super helpful for me at work. With a normal desk-bound day job, a little reminder every hour to get up and walk around has helped me to not only get a few extra steps in each day, but also improve my overall mood. It’s a simple thing like this that is really helpful. It’s worth noting that just about all of Garmin’s fitness bands and watches have this functionality built in.
The sleep tracking is a mixed bag. The information you get back is an ambiguously scaled graph that shows when you move around at night. We did learn that my wife usually hits coma status right around 3am, so I’ll try to keep from waking her around then. The fact is you are sleeping with a giant watch on your wrist that is going to leave a few funny marks on your face if you like to use your arms as pillows. More often than not, I usually get a sharp gasp from the wife when the cold watch manages to touch her skin.
If you want to share your location during an activity, you can do so via Garmin’s LiveTrack. You enable the LiveTrack on your phone, then start an activity. You will need to keep your phone on you, and as long as the phone has a data connection it will broadcast your location in real time. You can choose to share it to individual people via email, or get social and share it on Facebook and Twitter. This could be fun if you have a big race coming up and want to have people cheer you on mid race. You’d set up the LiveTrack, share your event with them, and they’d be able to know when you are going to be coming by. I’ve used it with the wife when going on long bike rides. She can know that I haven’t been hit by a car and also when I am on my way home and when she can expect me, it allows me to focus on the activity.
Unless you tell someone the Fenix 3 is an adventure-ready sport watch, they would be none the wiser, especially when you put on the metal link band. The base model sells for $499 while the Sapphire model retails at $599. That extra $100 gets you a scratch resistant Sapphire lens over the typical mineral glass lens and the fancy metal link band that normally costs $129 (a plain black rubber band is also included). Additional color bands are available for $25. The Sapphire model also trades the shiny red bezel around the start button for a plain silver one that blends in well with the rest of the watch. The metal link band is re-sizeable and something you can do at home, just pop out the pins, remove links until it fits and put it back together. You could take it to a jeweler and pay them to do it, or just do it yourself and save the time and money. As soon as you put the metal band on, you will notice its heft, it doubles the weight of the watch from 85 grams with the rubber strap up to 175 grams and will take a little getting used to. For guys with hairy arms: be warned, the metal band is hungry for your arm hair.
I’ve worn the metal band to swanky events and felt comfortable that it looked good with my suit. Just swap the watch face over to analog and no one will ever know you’re wearing a sport watch. Swapping the bands is also very simple and handled via a pair of tiny Torx screws on each side. Garmin includes the Torx drivers and the swap takes only a minute or two.
Garmin claims a full 20 hours for constant on GPS recording at 1-second intervals, I charged it to full and let it run until dead on my porch and it managed to stay active for 18 hours and 43 minutes. Not quite 20, but I am sure that cool temperatures might have an effect on the life.
Next is UltraTrac mode, which decreases the GPS update frequency, but maintains your sensor scan rate of once per second. Your location precision is going to go down, but your battery life should more than double, up to 50 hours. It accomplishes this by turning the GPS on for 15-20 seconds at a time, collecting a point, then turning it off for 45 seconds.
If a sacrifice in GPS accuracy doesn’t sound like the best option, you can always connect the charging cable and run the watch via an External Power Pack. Garmin has a re-branded Powermonkey Explorer that they sell for $90 that has 2200 mAh, more than 7x the Fenix 3 battery capacity of 300 mAh. It does come with a solar charger and an extra rubber bike attachment. Chris went over our take on solar re-chargeable battery packs, you can read that here.
I have worn it in the shown configuration and it’s doable. You tuck the backup battery in to your pack, in this case I was wearing the Osprey Rev 12 running pack, and let the cord dangle from your wrist. It’s not pretty, but you can definitely tell that the engineers who designed this actually thought about this problem and came up with a reasonable solution that no other brand has accomplished as cleanly.
If you were on your bike, you wouldn’t even notice the battery and would have no trouble making it through a 24 hour race. Well at least the watch wouldn’t die, whether or not you would, is another matter. Note these quoted times are with Bluetooth switch off.
In my three months with the watch, I usually only needed to recharge it once a week. That is with about 12 hours of GPS activity per week and a constant Bluetooth connection with an average of 40-50 email/ text notifications per day. Compared to the previous Fenix 2 that would last about a day with a Bluetooth connection, this is a huge improvement. If you want to spend $500 and not use the GPS tracking you paid for, you can do that; Garmin says to expect about 6 weeks with no GPS or Bluetooth connections.
Connect IQ is Garmin’s unique way to put apps on your sportwatch. In only a few months, the number of useful apps, widgets, and watch faces has quickly grown. Garmin replaced the Hunt and Fish info that was previously built in to the Fenix 2 with a widget on the Fenix 3. It takes in to account the phase of the sun and moon to let you know when it might be a better time to hunt or fish.
Adding an app, watch face, data field, or widget from the Connect IQ store is very simple. You choose what you want on your phone or computer in the store, hit “Download” and the next time your watch syncs, it will be there. You will then need to add/enable that App, Widget, Watch Face, or data field where you want it.
The Garmin Connect web interface and Smartphone App has seen a major overhaul in the past few months and it is much more polished. You can easily search your activities and compare data points for all activities in one simple window. The homepage presents in more of a “card” style with all of your info in one spot.
I’ve been notably more active since owning the Fenix 3, and that’s no coincidence. It encourages you to keep moving, and is ready and waiting to record each adventure. As an engi-nerd by day, I enjoy looking at data plots to see how my physical fitness is doing. A few times, I have had to remove and re-add a sensor, which was a small pain, but otherwise everything has worked extremely well.
Like other GPS-enabled sportwatches, it’s not a svelte accessory. It is half an inch thick and definitely noticeable when you are wearing it. But, if you want a single watch that can track any sport you could ever want to do, while still being something you wouldn’t mind being seen with, then this is the watch for you.
The one downside is a fairly limited navigation ability that’s essentially rendered obsolete by your smartphone. The soon-to-be-released Garmin Epix addresses that with a color touchscreen and pre-loaded topo maps. We’ll be reviewing that watch in the very near future.
IndefinitelyWild is a new publication about adventure travel in the outdoors, the vehicles and gear that get us there and the people we meet along the way. Follow us on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.