Garmin’s smallest Fenix 5 becomes even more tempting with the new features. Yes, it’s expensive, but now that it’s loaded with topographic maps you’re no longer skimping on big features by paying less. There’s a gamut of sports tracking and more detailed metrics than you can shake a Fitbit at. There really is no sports watch comparable to the Fenix right now, and with new features like Garmin Pay and music, the 5S is becoming a pretty decent smartwatch too.
- Full-color topographic maps
- Music and Garmin Pay
- More compact design
- No pulse oximeter (only 5X Plus)
- Sapphire version costs more
It was a year ago that Garmin launched the Fenix 5 range, and for the first time included a smaller watch in its ranks, the Fenix 5S. For 2018, Garmin is giving that trio of sports watches a refresh, with the Garmin Fenix 5S Plus still providing an option for people who find the 5S Plus and 5X Plus too hulking. Because let’s be honest, they are.
But as the name also alludes, this is more of a small bump-up on last year’s model than a full jump. At first blush it looks just the same as the 5S, but the watch now comes loaded with new features like onboard music, Garmin Payand full-color topographical maps, the last of which had previously been available only on the big bad Fenix 5X.
As a refresher, the Fenix is Garmin’s top-end range of watches, pulling together heaps of detailed metrics to form some of the most feature-heavy outdoor watches money can buy. The Plus series certainly doesn’t lose any of that, only adding to the capabilities of Garmin’s top-shelf sports watches.
I’ve been living with the Fenix 5S Plus to find out if there is more to love about the smallest new Fenix. Here’s our full review.
If you’re at all familiar with last year’s Garmin Fenix 5S, chances are you wouldn’t be able to spot any differences here at first glance. The 5S was introduced with the Fenix 5 line as an option for people who wanted the benefits of the Fenix without the bulk. Measuring 42mm wide and weighing 69g, you’re getting the same dimensions on the non-Plus version here. It’s not the daintiest thing, but women especially are going to find it a much better fit.
What’s not immediately noticeable is the increase in screen size. Garmin has bumped up the display by 20% to make way for those new maps. The larger screen doesn’t make a significant difference most of the time, but when you do want to view maps on the watch you’ve got more space to play with.
Talking of that screen, you’ve got the option of either regular glass or sapphire. Sapphire is tougher against scratches and scuffs, but it’s going to cost you $100 more. The regular 5 Plus is actually $150 more to get the sapphire, but the 5X Plus has it as standard.
Elsewhere, it’s the same five-button configuration around the case and a stainless steel ring around the face that’s easier on the eye than the industrial look of its two older Fenix siblings. The lugs are still quite, err, luggy, but otherwise this is definitely going to be the more popular choice for people with smaller wrists, and anyone who wants something that looks a little more like a smartwatch, and less rugged. Sure, it’s prepared for any death-defying outdoor adventure your heart desires, but not everyone needs to know that.
As you’d expect for a Fenix watch, the 5S is filled to the brim with sports tracking modes. Running, cycling, swimming, golfing, stand-up paddleboarding, kayaking – and tonnes more. As mentioned in the 5X Plus review, if it’s not on here, you probably shouldn’t be doing it. And if your incredibly niche activity isn’t on there you can make a custom mode of your own to remedy that.
Everything that we got on the Fenix 5S is here once again, but this time Garmin is adding full-color topographic maps, a feature that was previously exclusive to the Fenix 5X.
With better map detail, including contour lines to determine elevation, the 5S Plus is now much better equipped for outdoor adventuring. Added to that, Garmin has added Galileo satellite tracking on top of GPS and GLONASS, which improves satellite coverage for urban spots or more challenging areas like deep canyons.
All of this means avid hikers can go for the cheaper, smaller option without losing the 5X’s key feature. But it’s not all about hiking. Runners and cyclists have got plenty to play with here. They can take advantage of Garmin’s trendline popularity routing, which finds the best routes around you from the watch itself. And of course you have the full suite of fitness tracking with GPS, optical HR and dollops of juicy stats to pour over post-workout.
I took the 5S out hiking and had it running alongside the 5X Plus. Performance was good on both in terms of accuracy and how we were able to track ourselves on the watch. These full TOPO maps are rotatable, but you can also pan and zoom around should you want to get a closer look or scout around the area. Tracking the map after, a couple of the lines went a little off the path (as you can see far right in the above shot), but generally it was good.
Garmin Fenix 5S Plus (bottom) vs Polar H10 chest strap (top)
As for heart rate based running, Garmin doesn’t claim to have improved the optical heart rate tech since the standard 5S. As you can see in the graph above, things went pretty smoothly there. But on a HIIT run, performance was less impressive. Firstly, note how it took the watch more than five minutes to laser onto my heart rate. This was more of an exception than the rule, but it’s still not great to see at all. Secondly, during those rests between intervals it took the Fenix longer to come down, so the difference in the troughs is quite a lot in some places.
For a lot of people, Garmin’s tech is probably going to be good enough, although with HIIT training the sensor still falters a bit in climbs and recoveries, trailing behind the chest strap. It’s something we see a lot across the board, and despite all the improvements Garmin has made, its optical tech still has a ways to go.
Garmin is also giving the entire lineup of Fenix Plus watches some new smart features – namely music and Garmin Pay. Garmin’s reserved enough space for 500 songs, it reckons, which you can load on as music files using the Garmin Express desktop program.
Alternatively, if you’re an iHeartRadio subscriber you can sync playlists offline to listen to, and this feature will be coming to Deezer subscribers in the future. The music has worked fine for me in testing, just as reliable as it was on the Vivoactive 3 Music. Once in an activity, a long push of the down button will bring up the playback menu for selecting songs, skipping, pausing etc. Combined with Garmin Pay, the idea is that you can set out for a run and leave your phone behind. If you do have your phone with you, the watch can control the music playback on there instead.
As it wasn’t live during our review period, we haven’t been able to test Garmin Pay on the 5S yet, but rest assured we will be. If you’re not familiar, this lets you load a bank card onto the watch and then pay using your wrist in stores that support wireless transactions. Again, it’s a way to let you leave your wallet and phone behind.
Battery life has been extended over the original 5S – up to 11 hours in GPS mode and seven days in “watch mode” (ie not tracking). That’s actually less than last year’s model, presumably because Garmin is factoring in music here, and pretty short compared to the Fenix 5X’s 20 days in watch mode and 33 hours with GPS.
In using GPS I found the battery suck to be about on level with Garmin’s forecast. Obviously it’s smaller, but considering it now has another reason to be outdoors longer, it’s a shame that it’s taken a cut on 2017’s model. It doesn’t help that charging is pretty slow – get it plugged directly to the mains; USB charging is a painfully slow trickle.