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Reviews - Thu 11th Jul 2013 - Garmin Fenix GPS Watch - Heason Events

Garmin Fenix GPS Watch

11th Jul 2013

Garmin now offer a bewildering array of GPS sports watches. The Fenix is aimed at a cross section including runners, bikers, walkers, fishermen and hunters! OK, so I don’t really fall into the latter two categories, but the first three I certainly do (I was quite impressed though that the watch can tell me the best times of day to go fishing wherever I am in the world!). I had been exercising with my smartphone in a holder on my shoulder for a couple of years which, whilst it was something of a revelation and it still amazes me that we live in an age where it’s possible to record so much information on the go, was frustrating at times. Battery life limited me to about 2 hours when tracking, the phone was difficult to operate when in the holder, sometimes it would simply not work, and most importantly, it was impossible to see your progress / pace / time etc whilst on the move.

So it was time to get a purpose made device, one that would be visible at all times, with plenty of battery life, weather-proof (I was always paranoid about getting my phone wet in the rain) etc. Out of the box the Fenix comes pre-charged which was nice – I find it frustrating when you receive a new product in the post and have to wait overnight whilst it charges up. It also came with a heart rate monitor, a spare strap (orange), charger, and quick start manual. If you want to read the full manual you need to go online to do so and download the PDF. Environmentally sound, but frustrating for a device with so much functionality.

I figure it’s best to break the watch down into different areas for the purposes of a thorough review. So:

Battery Life

On the face of it the battery life is excellent. I have yet to see it drop under 50% whilst out on a run / ride, but that is from fully charged. The official blurb has it listed as

GPS mode: 16-50 hrs
Sensor mode: 3 weeks
Watch mode: 6 weeks

The 16-50 hours is what I am most interested in. 16 hours is for regular GPS use, and is what I have it set to all the time. However there’s a second setting called Ultra Trac which takes a GPS reading once every minute and will last for 50 hours. Obviously this will result in a less accurate route trace, but is pretty useful for endurance races and trekking. My only issue with regard to battery life is that on a couple of occasions I have neglected to turn off the GPS, left the watch on my desk overnight, and then gone to use it the following day only to find that the battery is totally flat. Not really sure that there’s anything Garmin can do about this as its basic human error, and something that I have done twice (early on) and not again! I guess that it served to highlight the importance of making sure that the battery is fully charged well ahead of any planned activity.

Update: this weekend just gone I wore the watch whilst working on an event. I arrived on site at 7.30am on the Saturday and left at 7pm. I wore the watch the whole day, and the battery was on about 5% when I turned it off. I’d covered 11.4 miles walking around the site if it’s of interest!

Software / Operation

Having come from a smartphone background I have to say that the interface is not that great. Instead of a tablet, think Kindle. The screen is black and white, and not very bright. Clearly this is to save battery life, but it does take some getting used to now that I am used to super high resolution touch screen devices. I should say that there’s a backlight to be able to see it at night, and there is no problem seeing it in bright sunlight. All that said, I think I am perhaps being a little unfair comparing to the large smartphone and tablet screens. The watch features 5 buttons, one in each corner, and a big red one centre-left. It doesn’t take long to learn what each one is for. What does take a while – and I have yet to master it – is remembering the complex navigation system. The watch is really a pretty complex bit of electronics and as such the menu systems necessary to drill down to each bit of functionality can be quite cumbersome. Again I can’t really see an easy alternative to this given the physical limitations of a watch. One bugbear was that it took me a while to figure out exactly how to record a run or a ride. Starting the GPS with the red button, and then long-pressing the bottom left button brings up an option to ‘Start Activity’. Took me a while to find that and it wasn’t listed in the quick start guide which was frustrating. Initially I accidentally recorded a run as a route and then struggled to import it into Strava (more on this later).

Actual Use

Using it whilst running or biking is pretty straight forward. The screen is big enough that you don’t have to stop and squint at it. There’s a backlight if it’s dark, though every time I’ve been out in the dark with it I’ve had a torch. I usually choose to run with the summary screen which tells me the three most important things: Distance, elapsed time and pace. Pace, for me, is the holy grail indicator. I usually know what pace I ought to be running at depending on the terrain, gradient, and my goal for the run, so it’s useful to be able to check it visually. This comes with a health warning though. Rather like MPG readings in modern cars, a single glance at the watch can give a fairly inaccurate reading, so it’s best to take at least three glances over 15 seconds or so to get a real idea of your actual pace. Whilst running it’s easy enough to scroll down through the following screens: Calories and Lap Time, Altimeter, Compass, Map (showing your route so far), Time & Date, Heart Rate.

Functionality

Essentially the watch will track your location (which means you get a trace on a map afterwards of where you have been), speed, altitude, time, and if connected to a hear rate monitor, your heart rate. It obviously also tells the time and date!

My biggest gripe of all with the watch is the number one function, and that is the GPS. Once it’s locked on it’s faultless, but it can take a frustratingly long time to actually find enough satellites to begin operation. I’ve learnt that if I am to use it for an activity I need to take it outside and turn on the GPS at least five minutes before starting the activity. Failure to do this usually results in a lot of jogging on the spot and frustrated partners waiting whilst it wakes up. In one instance I gave up after five minutes, started a ride, and it eventually found the satellites about 3 miles later. Granted it was a cloudy day, but I had my phone with me and resorted to using that and t found them pretty quickly. I also worry about the cloud cover when using the watch as a navigation aid in bad weather. It’s a pretty frustrating bug, but one that I have fairly quickly learned to live with and work around.

I’ve already said that it has a lot of functions, and that it is almost a victim of its own complexity, with long menu systems, but once you learn how to use the functions that you want it’s easy to operate and very useful indeed. I use the watch primarily for tracking my runs and rides, and not for navigation so to date I’ve not put that element of its functionality through its paces.

Update: I’ve now managed to test out the navigation element of the watch and am impressed. I created the track that I wanted to follow – a run along the roads in this instance – in Garmin Connect online, uploaded it to the watch, and set off with an arrow on screen telling me where to go. This is not a navigation system with full colour OS maps, but is more rudimentary, simply showing a trace of where you are headed, and overlaying a directional arrow on top. It was easy to follow and would be a very handy function if out in the mountains and, for example, navigating off the top of Ben Nevis in a white out. However given the small size of the screen it wouldn’t work particularly well for a fast moving bike ride.

There’s an Alerts function where you can set the watch to make a sound and / or vibrate when you pass above or below custom-set thresholds in proximity, distance, time, elevation, arrival at destination, speed, pace, heart rate, cadence, and battery life. I have dabbled with these, but in all honesty find that whilst I am running I can neither hear the alerts, nor feel the vibrations so haven’t found them to be that effective. I am sure that if walking they would work better.

PC based Software

There are two pieces of software that you can use to complement your watch: Basecamp, which you install on your computer, and Garmin Connect which is an online service and is compatible with all Garmin products. Basecamp is a disappointing and muddled affair reminiscent of something from the early days of GIS and GPS. The advent of smart phone based tracker apps in recent years has accelerated the design of intuitive user interfaces incredibly quickly and Basecamp seems to have missed the bus! Once you work out what the various icons mean (I still haven’t fathomed them all) it is possible to plot a route and upload it to your watch, then using it to navigate by. The truth of the matter is, however, that it’s much more sensible to use Garmin Connect (or MapMyRide or countless other free services available online) to do so. Garmin Connect is a different kettle of fish all together. It’s in line with the other leading online services and is clearly very widely used, as illustrated by the scarily fast moving mileage tally on the home page indicating the total collective miles ridden, walked, run, kayaked etc by Garmin users all over the world. It’s a very simple user interface and allows you to quickly and easily create a Course (as named in the software) and then upload to the watch (where it is somewhat confusingly called a Track). You can then find the Track on the watch and follow it. Garmin Connect is like many other community based websites in that it provides a means for you to log all your activity and derive training data from it, comparing present and past runs, pace, calories burned etc. It’s all well and good, but I actually have actually been using Strava for the past year as I find the competitive edge it brings more interesting. Fortunately Garmin have done a very sensible thing in my eyes, and have teamed up with Strava so that it’s a one-step process to upload your activity straight from the watch into Strava. I’m not sure why they didn’t simply add this as a feature of Garmin Connect, so that when you upload to GC, you can also simoultaneously upload to Strava (that way they’d have been harvesting your data as well as Strava), but it’s hardly a complaint as Strava is where I want all my data.

There are well documented (on internet forms) problems exporting data from the likes of Strava (and other software) into Garmin Connect which means that whenever I want to upload a route to the watch I create it from scratch within Garmin Connect.

Synchronisation

The watch comes with a heart monitor and synchronises with it so that you can record your heart rate whilst using it. Once paired with the heart rate, a semi-automatic process that occurs when you enter the relevant menu section of the watch and place it near the HRM, it works just fine. However I;’ve tried two separate Garmin units with it, and both have taken a significantly long time to actually pair with the watch. Once they are paired, everything is fine. You can also purchase a Cadence Monitor for your bike.

Reliability

The only issues I’ve had with reliability is as described: on occasion the watch simply hasn’t found satellites quickly enough and I have had to start without it which is frustrating. It has never crashed on me mid-use. The battery has been fine.

Field Tests

So I have used the watch for plenty of training runs and rides, and even in a couple of running races, but yesterday I used it in a triathlon – my first actually. I’m actually currently testing a Garmin edge 810 cycle computer at the moment and had that mounted to my bike and ready to go, so planned to only use the watch for the run leg – it doesn’t work in the water as it can’t hold the GPS signal. I was worried about wearing the watch under my very tight fitting swim-wetsuit, so had it ready at transition. The night before I had practiced putting it on whilst running, and found it to be virtually impossible. However I discovered that I can get my hand through the strap if it is done up on its loosest setting, and then it’s easy to ratchet it tighter. This system worked perfectly and I was able to track my pace and progress all the way around. The watch itself worked seamlessly as I had turned on the GPS before starting the event and simply had to press one button to start my activity.

Funky Features:

Calculating the size of an area.
An odd one, and possibly useful one day. Essentially if you create a loop by either mapping it online and uploading to the watch, or by walking / running / biking a circular route, it not only measures the distance covered, but also calculates the area within the circumference!

Downloading Geochaches
Not something I have tried as yet, but I can see this would be useful if Geochaching was your thing,

Sun up and down times
A nice little feature, especially useful if you are camping, or are planning an early or a late bit of exercise.

Summary

I’ve spent a while testing this bit of kit as it’s a very complex little thing. It has its frustrations, as I am sure do most of its competitors, but overall it’s pretty mind blowing what it can do. I think that over the next few years these devices will catch up with the excellent user interfaces offered by smartphones, and become truly amazing devices.