- Excellent battery life
- Hard-wearing frame
- Versatile GPS tracking
- Quick, well-designed UI
- Lacks golf tracking of other models
- No on-watch maps
- Big and bulky
Key Features: 20hr (50hr hiking) GPS stamina; Stainless steel rim; GPS with GLONASS
What is the Garmin Fenix 3?
The Garmin Fenix 3 is a serious runner’s watch. It’s big, it’s expensive and makes a pretty bold design statement on your wrist. But it’s also great.
As well as offering GPS tracking for runners and cyclists, the Garmin Fenix 3 has specific modes for other sports and exercise, including skiing. It also adds full notifications and has its own app store, meaning even dedicated exercise-obsessed tech heads won’t need to invest in both a running watch and a smartwatch.
On the smartwatch side in particular, it isn’t quite a direct replacement for an Apple Watch or Android Wear watches. But it absolutely decimates all non-dedicated exercise watches in terms of activity tracking.
Design and Screen
The Garmin Fenix 3 sits right at the top of the Garmin sport watch lineup. It lives roughly alongside the Forerunner 920XT, a slightly smaller, square-faced model designed primarily for triathlon runners.
This is more an all-purpose outdoors watch, with dedicated modes for hiking and skiing as well as cycling, running and swimming. Also, it has a design that threatens to engulf the wrists of all but the manliest of forest rangers. The Garmin Fenix 3 is larger even than the Forerunner 920XT and Fenix 2, with a watch face that protrudes 16.7mm from your wrist.
It’s big. And while we’re against the idea of specific gadgets being “for men” or “for women”, Garmin seems to have a predominantly male audience in mind for this one.
Given the imposing dimensions, though, I think you’ll find the Fenix 3 surprisingly comfortable. Thanks to its reasonable weight, it won’t disappear on your wrist like its dinky brother, the Garmin Vivoactive, but it’s comfortable enough to wear all day.
I did tend to take it off while typing at a desk, however – and generally when sleeping too (even though it offers auto sleep tracking).
The latter is a personal thing, but since the watch face is quite chunky, it can tend to get in the way a bit more than an “ordinary” watch.
Its styling most closely resembles a diver’s watch, which may appeal if you’re not a fan of the running watches that appear to be more mini-computer for the wrist – such as the other top Garmin models. Suitably enough, it’s waterproof to 100m, just like any respectable diving watch.
It isn’t an all-metal design: Only the rim and buttons are metal. But the plastic casing feels incredibly tough, clearly a higher grade of material than you’re likely to see in the average fitness tracker. It’s “fiber-reinforced polymer”. Very fancy.
Given how hardy it looks it was disappointing to find the Garmin Fenix 3’s standard watch face scratch-proofing isn’t up to the job. The watch arrived to us with quite a pronounced scratch across the middle of its display, having clearly suffered rough treatment elsewhere already.
Although Garmin doesn’t state exactly what kind of toughened glass the Fenix 3 watch face uses, judging by the display finish and that great big scratch, it’s unlikely it’s Gorilla Glass 4.
The company does actually makes a special, super-hard version of the watch with a Sapphire Crystal top layer. This is worth considering now that you can pick one up for as little as £360/$540; it also comes with an extra metal link band. However, given how much weight this would add to the watch, we’d prefer to stick with the rubbery strap.
The default strap has clearly been designed with exercise in mind. It uses a standard, non-clap design, with holes pitted throughout that double as ventilation.
Back to the front, the Garmin Fenix 3’s screen is similar to the one featured on the Garmin Vivoactive. It’s a low-power LCD panel, and its advantage over the screen on the Fenix 2 is colour. This isn’t deep and rich colour, the kind you might find on an LG Urbane, but it helps to give the interface more visual interest, particularly when viewing all those graphs.
In terms of screen character, it’s somewhat similar to the E Ink displays of Amazon Kindles, or the screen of a calculator. While not flashy, it’s practical since the display can remain on 24/7 while consuming very little power.
The downside is that the Fenix 3 screen isn’t natively visible without ambient light. However, a bright built-in watch light is included. As standard it comes on when you press the dedicated light button on the side, but you can also switch it to turn on when you press any button, or even waggle your wrist. Contrast is a little low without the light on, lacking clarity in low-level indoor lighting or worse.
While not dazzling, in general this is a great screen that performs the functions of telling the time and constant activity tracking without killing the battery.
Battery life is excellent. I’ve been using it rather generally: an hour of tracking here and there; for notifications; and as a watch. Having charged the Fenix 3 just under a week ago, I was down to 56% of battery life.
Compared to more insubstantial running watches and almost any other smatwatch, this is a great result. However, stamina is similar to that of the Forerunner 920XT. According to Garmin’s figures, the Fenix 3 will last for up to 20 hours with full GPS tracking or 50 hours of lower-intensity hiking tracking. Or five weeks as a plain old watch.
Among its rivals, such as the Polar V800, this level of stamina may the norm, but it’s far in excess of what we’re used to from most other gadgets.
To charge the Fenix 3, you simply place it in a clip-on frame that then plugs into a USB adapter.
The Garmin Fenix 3 is designed to feel watch-like. It doesn’t have a touchscreen and it doesn’t use any gestures in its interface beyond a long button press. It’s all about button-operated navigation, with up/down menu systems that you flick through with the use of the “up” and “down” buttons that sit on the left side of the Fenix 3.
This is old-school operation, with good clicky-clunky feedback. Having recently come from using the fiddlier, more confusing Garmin Vivoactive, it’s refreshing.
From the watch face, you press the “start” button on the right side to open up the activities menu. This is just a list of all the default activities, plus any bonus apps you’ve decided to install. Here are those default activities/apps in full:
- Cross-country Ski
- Trail Run
- Indoor run
- Indoor bike
- Pool swim
- Open-water swim
- HR chart
- Find phone (causes the paired phone to ring)
Just pick one of the above, then press the “start” button again to signal to the Fenix 3 to begin tracking. It’s simple. Garmin has been careful to ensure accidental presses don’t leave you lost mid-race by requiring you to long-press the “up” button to get to the more involved settings menu.
The interface is basic compared with an Apple Watch, but just right for this sort of device.
Any other apps you choose to install will come from the Connect IQ store. This is a bespoke Garmin app store found within the Garmin Connect app, used to review your runs and other tracking data. From here you can download many different watch faces, some of which pack in an incredible amount of data, new apps and even a few games.
Garmin itself has added a few little extras through this store, such as tennis and basketball trackers. However, right now it’s best to consider what’s built into the Fenix 3 as the large extent of its abilities.
One feature present in the Fenix 2 is missing here, however. It’s not possible to view a map of your location right from the watch. Why? It’s to leave room for the Garmin Epix, a slightly more expensive but much plainer-looking watch that includes 8GB of storage to store full country maps.
If you’re a serious hiker, the Garmin Epix might be worthy of consideration. But it doesn’t have Wi-Fi – which the Fenix 3 does – and user reports suggest it’s buggier.
Fitness Tracking and Performance
The Garmin Fenix 3 includes an array of sensors, as well as the lead GPS. You get Bluetooth and Wi-Fi for data syncing with a mobile device, an accelerometer, barometer with altimeter, and GLONASS to get you more accurate and fast location sync than standard GPS.
All these sensors let the Fenix 3 track marathons and mammoth cycles without the aid of a phone. Using GPS, it’s possible to get fairly good accuracy too.
As with the Vivoactive, it isn’t pin-point perfect; the chipset used by the rival Suunto Ambit3 is widely considered more accurate. However, we found that unless you’re concerned with cross-referencing against a visual map, the distance and speed figures are fairly accurate.
Locking onto signal is quick too, taking around five seconds for destinations of which it knows, or up to a minute or two for new ones.
Things are similar with the altimeter read-out. In the Fenix 3’s hiking mode, the altitude can seem a little slow to update, but it’s only a case of the data being a couple of seconds out. What helps to even out these slight niggles is how intuitive and flexible the watch is.
Each activity has its own tracking screen, with a specially tailored display that provides all the data fields you need to view mid-exercise. The running activity has displays for distance, time and pace on one screen, a page of lap distance/lap time/lap pace, and a third one displaying your heart-rate data. The Fenix 3 offers up a decent amount of data per screen, without overloading things.
However, to really get the most out of a Fenix 3 you’ll need to invest in some accessories. The main one is an HR sensor, since the watch doesn’t have one.
This is largely because most wrist-worn sensors aren’t particularly accurate. You can buy a Fenix 3 bundle, which includes a chest strap.
The Garmin Fenix 3 supports plenty of sensors outside of the Garmin ones, because it’s compatible with the ANT+ standard. There are wrist-worn ANT+ heart-rate straps available too, if you don’t want a chest one.
A few of the built-in activities presume you’ll have an ANT+ sensor. For example, try the “indoors bike” mode without a connected bike cadence sensor and all you’ll only be measuring for how long you’re pedalling.
Garmin’s own GSC10 bike sensor costs around £35/$53. This isn’t a complaint as such, you just need to make sure you know exactly what the watch can and can’t do on its own.
In fact, it may actually be the more casual fitness fan who becomes annoyed by the lack of a HR sensor in the Fenix 3.
Those who consider themselves “athletes” will want accurate HR data that lets them see their exertion levels throughout a course. The casual crowd may be happy with only the occasional heart-rate check, and will therefore be totally put off by the idea of a chest-strap accessory.
However, the Fenix 3 does offer the always-on step tracking available on cheaper fitness trackers. Press “down” from the watch face and you’ll see a screen detailing your steps, calories burnt and how close you are to reaching your goal. Plenty of watch faces show your daily step count too, if you want an even more immediate read-out.
If you’ve looked though the entire Garmin range, you may be wondering what the Fenix 3 offers over the Vivoactive, the cheapest watch to offer similar capabilities to this one. As well as Wi-Fi and much better battery life, this higher-end watch lets you manage your exercise plans directly from the watch, set targets and set up a training calendar.
The Fenix 3 doesn’t cover one activity that the Vivoactive does: Golf. The cheaper watch offers hole details on tens of thousands of courses worldwide.
This is a baffling omission for a watch that costs around twice the price and is otherwise the much more capable of the two. Garmin: What were you thinking?
Just as the exercise-tracking facilities are designed for enthusiastic runners, cyclists and generally active people, the Garmin Fenix 3’s smartwatch capabilities aren’t quite as good as those of an Android Wear watch, Pebble Time or Apple Watch.
The feature I’ve appreciated most is notifications. The Garmin Fenix 3 taps into the standard Android/iOS notifications stream, letting you read short messages and see the headlines of emails.
It’s a good way to see who is prodding you and whether you need to take your phone out of a pocket. With notifications dismissed once they’re read, however, it isn’t a way to look through the day’s communications after the fact.
I’ve also experienced some flakiness with the connection between phone and watch. At times the Fenix 3 disconnects, meaning those notifications just stop rolling in. However, getting to the root of the problem isn’t easy, plus it seems to vary between one phone and another.
With the Motorola Moto X Play, the connection was solid, but it disconnected a few times with the Samsung Galaxy S6 Edge+. I’ve had more issues with the Fenix 3’s connection than with any of the more “lifestyle-y” watches I’ve tested.
However, when the Blueooth hooks in, notifications come through fast, and are easy to read on the large, clear display. Formatting could be better at times, though, not quite taking enough consideration of the round screen.
The other big built-in smartwatch feature is the Calendar, which syncs with your Google calendar over Bluetooth or Wi-Fi. This is accessed by pressing “up” twice from the watch face: Not as immediate as the steps counter page, but still pretty simple.
The little mini-apps that sit on the screen above and below the watch face are the Fenix 3’s widgets. Within the Garmin Connect app it’s possible to re-order them and install more. Neat preinstalled ones include music control, and a widget that controls the Garmin VIRB action camera.
There are many other apps to download too, such as multi-time zone watches, weather reports, your elevation and even a couple of games. As of the time of writing, there were around 50: Fewer than you might expect if you’re used to the sort of numbers involved in other smartphone/watch platforms.
Without wanting to confuse, these aren’t the Fenix 3’s proper apps. Those appear in the activities menu. So what’s the difference? Not a great deal really, except that the full-on apps generally offer more interactivity, plus there isn’t much overlap between apps and widgets in terms of content.
Given that the Fenix 3 has Wi-Fi, it seems a shame that there’s no email client for it. I wouldn’t buy the watch under the assumption that more involved apps such as this are sure to appear.
Should I buy the Garmin Fenix 3?
The Garmin Fenix 3 is an excellent watch for exercise obsessives. It’s big, tough, with excellent battery life whether you’re using it as a watch or tracking a marathon. While it may seem expensive, compare it to an Apple Watch and suddenly it seems much better value.
An an all-round package this is absolutely one of the best sports watches on the market. However, a big part of that comes down to the great UI, and the reasonably strong ecosystem in the shape of the Connect IQ store.
Garmin’s sport watches have earned their position as virtually the “default” choice. But if choosing from the company’s top models, is the Fenix 3 the right choice?
If you’re after a smaller watch then the Vivoactive is a terrific solution, offering arguably better value, plus support for golf course mapping. It won’t last as long, however, and its UI may prove a little confusing at the start.
What about the Forerunner 920XT and Epix? Neither feel quite as hardy as the Fenix 3, and both present a less distinctive style.
The Forerunner 920XT has fewer activities, but is a little cheaper too. The Epix is the only choice if you want to see proper mapping info, such as an in-car GPS system.
It’s enough to make you wonder why Garmin can’t just make the one killer model that does everything.
An excellent watch for hardcore runners. Its minor niggles are offset by its great interface, battery life and software.