Heads up! The Huge Spring 20-30% off sports tech sale sale is on! The semi-annual 20% off sale is underway with virtually all trainers and most power meters included. Wahoo, Tacx, Elite, CycleOps, STAC, Kinetic, Garmin Vector 3, PowerTap pedals, Stages, and many more. Not to mention bike GPS units from Sigma, Lezyne, Garmin, and Polar. Even GoPro’s on sale too!
Also the Garmin Fenix 5 Plus series ($150 off!), as well as watches from Polar (including the newer Polar Vantage), Suunto 9, and COROS units. The Edge 520 Plus (with navigation) is down to $209 (from $279). And a boatload more things I can’t fit into this little text box.
Today Garmin announced the new Fenix 5 Plus series, which takes the existing Fenix 5/5S/5X and injects full onboard color mapping, onboard music, and contactless payments. Additionally there’s new Galileo GPS support for higher accuracy, new smart notification privacy features, and locking the GPS altitude to the elevation data in the maps themselves, among other features.
Meanwhile, the higher end Fenix 5X Plus also gets new Pulse Oximetry hardware/software solution that’s even likely to be approved as a medical device. Atop all that are a pile of new software features, most heavily focused on the hiking realm, but also applicable to other sports as well.
I’ve been using three final production loaner units for more than two months now across a wide variety of landscapes and sports. I travelled specifically to the peaks of the French Alps to test this watch and the also recent entrant Suunto 9 on fairly demanding trails. Add to that the usual complement of swim/bike/run, and I’ve got a gaggle of test data to work with. As usual though, once I’m done with these loaner units for this review I’ll be sending them back to Garmin, then going out and getting my own elsewhere.
With that – let’s dive into things.
While this product is technically named the Fenix 5 Plus, in reality there’s enough new stuff here that Garmin could easily have called it a Fenix 6. I’m not entirely sure why they didn’t, because I think it undercuts just how much new stuff is here. Nonetheless, I’m going to itemize everything ‘new’ in the below list, which is largely in comparison to the existing Fenix 5 (non-Plus). Where new features originated with other Garmin watches, I’ve noted that.
Of course I dive into everything in this list (good and bad) throughout the review. This is simply aimed to be a consolidated pile for those wanting to quickly get up to speed:
– Added up to 16GB of full-color maps to all three Plus watches – 5/5S/5X (only 5X has maps previously) – Added Garmin Trendline popularity routing data to map sets (first seen in Edge 1030 last summer) – Added ability to use known elevation data from onboard maps + known GPS coordinates to calibrate altimeter – Added music capability to watch (both direct music files and iHeartRadio/Deezer offline sync, started on Garmin FR645 Music first) – Slightly improved Bluetooth headphone connectivity reception over Garmin FR645 Music. – Added contactless NFC payments to watch (initially on Garmin Vivoactive 3, then other units since) – Added Galileo GPS support via new GPS chipset (initially seen Galileo in Garmin Edge 130) – Change GPS algorithms in conjunction with new hardware for claimed better edge case handling – Improved antenna/communications chipset performance, should resolve sensor dropouts issues for mostly 3rd party sensors – Added ClimbPro, which splits up climbs on courses into individual chunks (better explained in Navigation section below) – Added PulseOx to Fenix 5X Plus (only), which is pulse oximetry data using onboard red-LED sensor – Added full golf course dataset to all units (40,000 courses cached on watch now) – Added Privacy mode for smartphone notifications on watch so that message contents aren’t displayed automatically (only upon wrist turn or button press) – Increased battery performance to 32hrs in 1-second GPS mode and 85 hours in UltraTrack mode (for 5X Plus specifically) – Increased price by $150 for base models
To consolidate everything in one tidy video I’ve put together this masterpiece of…well…something. It basically summarizes thousands of words into less time than it takes to drink 6 cups of coffee. Plus, everyone likes moving pictures.
Ready to get into the weeds? Then hold on, this review is a beast! Perhaps the most detailed and longest one I’ve written to date.
There are nearly as many variants of the Fenix 5 Plus series as Brady Bunch kids. Actually, correction, there are technically more. Once you include Sapphire glass variants and DLC coating variants, then you’re talking 15 total variants – far more than the six Brady Bunch kids and three adult members of the show. Here’s an entire listing of the pricing variants (all prices dual USD/EUR):
Fenix 5S Plus:
Base (699): White w/silver bezel, regular glass display, sea foam silicone band
Base (unisex – Europe only) (699): Black w/silver bezel, regular glass display, black silicone band
Mid (799): White w/silver bezel, Sapphire glass display, white silicone band
Mid (unisex) (799): Black w/black bezel, Sapphire glass display, black silicone band
High (849): White w/rose gold tone bezel, Sapphire glass display, white silicone band
High (849): White w/ silver bezel, Sapphire glass display, leather band
Ultra (999): White w/ rose gold tone bezel, Sapphire glass display, rose gold tone metal band
Fenix 5 Plus:
Base (699): Black w/Silver, regular glass display, black silicone band
Mid (799): Black w/Black, Sapphire glass display, black silicone band
High (849): Gray w/Titanium (bezel/rear case), Sapphire glass display, orange silicone band
High (849): Black w/Black bezel, Sapphire glass display, black leather band
Ultra (1099): Grey w/DLC Titanium (bezel/rear case), Sapphire glass display, DLC Titanium metal band
Fenix 5X Plus:
Mid (849): Black w/ Black bezel, Sapphire glass display, black silicone band
High (899): Black w/ Grey bezel, Sapphire glass display, brown leather band
Ultra (1149): Grey w/ DLC Titanium (bezel/rear case), Sapphire glass display, DLC Titanium metal band
Now, I didn’t have all 15 editions to unbox. And even if I did, it’d be more boring than watching paint dry (even 15 colors of paint). Instead, I got three editions to unbox. A variant of the 5S+, 5+, and 5X+. Within the video I compare the sizes as well as weights, plus a look at it next to the Suunto 9.
As for this post, instead of unboxing all 15 variants, here’s a single edition unboxed – the Fenix 5S Plus mid-range variant without any of the fancy bands. First up, we take that box we saw above and remove its top:
Then, we take out the interior box and shelf holding up the watch:
Finally, we get the the parts removed. There’s not many parts. It’s merely the USB charging/sync cable, as well as the Fenix 5 Plus manual. Additionally, there’s a small warning guide. Oh, and the watch itself.
Here’s a closer look at the watch once removed from the foam insert.
The charging cable meanwhile is the same as the previous Fenix 5 series. No changes there.
And like the previous Fenix 5 series, the units still use QuickFit straps. Each watch has a different size strap though, so the 5/5S/5X all are different widths.
And finally, the manual. You won’t need it after this.
Note, I’ll be adding in a massive Fenix 5 Plus unboxing Festivus video of all the versions…once I finish editing the huge pile of footage from that and two other videos.
If you’re familiar with the Fenix or higher end Forerunner series (such as the FR935), you won’t find much of a difference in the Fenix 5 Plus range in terms of basics like activity tracking or such. All of that remains the same, save one single feature around privacy options for smartphone notifications that I’ll dig into in a little bit.
There’s no more natural place to start with the basics than the watch face. By default, this will show your current altitude, current heart rate, and date/time, along with your steps. But all of this is customizable, such as the data elements. You can blend from the default watch faces, or you can download gazillions of others from the Connect IQ App Store. Or you can stick a picture of your cat on the background too. Whatever floats your boat.
From an activity tracking standpoint, the unit will track your steps, sleep, stairs, and heart rate. All of which can be seen by pressing the up/down buttons and scrolling through the different widgets. You can also download other widgets as well for apps like weather (again, also from the Connect IQ app store). Here’s a small gallery of widgets on my watch:
The activity tracking data is then transmitted automatically to Garmin Connect via the Garmin Connect Mobile smartphone app. It’s here you can see all that activity tracking data. You can look at it on a per-day basis as well as a weekly and monthly view.
In the case of sleep, last week Garmin added REM sleep cycle data that you can view as well. The Fenix 5 Plus series supports that by default out of the box, and allows you to see a breakdown of sleep phases. This can also be plotted over various timeframes.
Note that Garmin devices do not account for naps however in your overall sleep metrics, which is a bit of a bummer. Though, most watch vendors don’t account for them either.
By leveraging the optical HR sensor on the back of the unit you’ll get two core 24×7 metrics displayed as well, which is 24×7 heart rate (HR), and 24×7 stress. The 24×7 HR measures at 1-second intervals and tracks your resting HR data. Resting HR can be used to track fatigue and is generally a good indicator of whether you may be getting sick or over-trained. I detail a bunch more on using that data here.
I will note that my resting HR values do seem more consistent here than some devices I’ve seen in the past. Specifically, it seems to be doing a better job of tracking my lower RHR values (i.e., low-40’s), than it used to, where it would seem to ignore those values when displaying the minimum RHR value for the day.
Finally, on the basics front, you’ve got smartphone notifications. These notifications can be controlled from the apps and notification centers on your smartphone itself. Though, there are overrides for aspects like ‘Do Not Disturb’ mode that you can implement on the watch itself. Additionally, you can specify whether you want notifications to appear during workouts or not, as well as non-workout times or not. All of this is customizable.
What’s new to the Fenix 5 Plus series in this scene is the ability to enable privacy mode for notifications. This allows you to not display the contents of the message (or notification) until you press a button on the watch or turn your wrist. The purpose of this would be sitting at a table/meeting with others and having notifications show up automatically. Perhaps eggplant and peach related texts from your BFF. Historically, these would instantly be shown for all to see. Whereas on something like an Apple Watch, these wouldn’t be shown till you rotated your wrist. Now Garmin follows the same methodology as those watches, and can restrict it until you want it shown.
This is a much welcomed change. While it’s still not as nuanced as Apple (in terms of waiting to show anything at all until your rotate-wrist), it’s definitely a boatload better. Note that by default the privacy notification mode is not enabled.
Want all the user interface/menu details? No problem – here’s a big long video that goes through all the menus, as I walk through the watch one section at a time.
Ok, that wraps up all of the non-sport specific things. The rest of the post is focused on the sporting/mapping/PulseOx/etc aspects of things.
Like aspects covered in the basics section, things are actually virtually identical to the Fenix 5 series in here as well (except some climbing/navigation/mapping pieces I discuss in the next section). However, do note the inclusion of Galileo GPS satellites, which I’ll briefly cover here, but also dive into more in the accuracy section down below.
To start a sport on the Fenix 5 Plus you’ll simply tap the upper right button to get the sport menu so you can select which sport you want.
There are piles of sports to select, including the ability to create custom sports and download apps that also operate in the same manner as a sport. In total, here are all the sport modes available by default:
Trail Run, Run, Hike, Bike, Bike Indoor, Open Water Swim, Triathlon, Golf, Navigate, Track Me, Map, Multisport, Treadmill, Indoor Track, Climb, MTB, Pool Swim, Ski, Snowboard, XC Ski, SUP, Row, Row Indoor, TruSwing (Golf related), Project Waypoint, Walk, SwimRun, Kayak, Strength, Cardio, Yoga, Floor Climb, Elliptical, Stair Stepper, Jumpmaster, Tactical, Boat, Other [Custom]
Once you select a sport mode it’ll go off and find satellites and sensors if applicable. You’ll see the red line at the top turn to a green line for satellites. And any sensors will display once connected. This can be anything from cycling power meters to inReach devices to heart rate straps. Interestingly, the heart rate lock icon no longer displays by default here, rather, you have to press the ‘Up’ button to see that it’s locked. Battery status and smartphone connectivity is also displayed in this same spot. Personally, I think it should always show HR status over any other icon, given how important it is to get HR lock correctly. But I suspect they assume that you’re wearing the watch constantly so it always has HR lock anyway (probably a fair assumption).
Once ready to go you’ll press the upper right start button again to begin recording and tracking. At this point, it’ll leverage GPS and sensors to display stats applicable to your particular sport. For example, here’s a small gallery of data screens while running yesterday:
All of these screens are customizable, and you can create/add new pages/screens as you see fit (a crapton of them, more than I could create). There are also stock screens with certain data types, including Virtual Partner, Compass, Elevation, Map, and Music controls.
However, custom data pages can have up to four data fields on them, in a variety of patterns. You can choose the pattern and then choose the individual data fields to add to those pages:
There’s simply no watch on the market from anyone that has as much depth of data fields/metrics as the Fenix series. It’d probably take half this review in text to list them all. Even more so when you consider you can download what I’d presume to be thousands of data fields from Connect IQ as well for other data metrics.
For example, the Stryd Running Power Meter data field. This data field connects to the Stryd sensor and allows you to see running power as well as other running efficiency metrics. You’ll add this data field to your watch, and then from there you can add it to a custom data page.
This then displays that data during your run, and records it for access later on, to Garmin Connect (viewable on Garmin Connect as well as Garmin Connect Mobile smartphone app). It’s also in the recorded .FIT files, so you can use 3rd party apps to display the data too.
At which point you may be asking if the ANT+ related connectivity issues of the Fenix 5/5S are resolved? It appears so. Garmin themselves has said they redesigned aspects of the hardware here to address things, and my testing out on the road with Stryd on a Fenix 5 Plus shows clean data (whereas in the past I got useless/broken Stryd data on the Fenix 5/5S). One of the core reasons I went to the FR935 as my day to day watch is that it worked with Stryd. Here’s a nice clean graph from yesterday’s run with Stryd (or you can check out my Garmin Connect file here):
I’ve also had no problems connecting to other sensors. The only slightly notable exception to that is that I’ve found the Garmin inReach Mini, when attached to the back of my backpack, the connection drops a fair bit. Connected to the side of my backpack it’s fine. On the FR935 I didn’t seem to have the same issues with top/back of backpack connectivity. On the other sensor front, I’ve largely used power meters (Vector 3, Stages LR, Favero Assioma, SRM Exakt specifically), and the Wahoo SPEED ANT+ speed sensor.
Additionally, note that the Fenix 5 Plus follows in line with the Fenix 5 series in allowing connectivity to ANT+ & Bluetooth Smart sensors. The full list of sensor types is as follows:
So basically, anything and everything you could want. Also, it supports Garmin’s ‘Xero’ lineup of range finders/sights. The only notable exception to the list above is cycling ANT+ FE-C trainers, which are not connectable here.
You can save/connect multiple sensors of the same type. For example, if you have multiple bikes, each with their own cadence sensors on them, it’ll save those and automatically connect to them when those sensors turn on. Additionally, via data fields and apps, companies can create their own sensor types. We’re seeing that with aerodynamic sensors like what I’ve previewed recently in the AeroPod.
After your workout is complete you’ll get summary data from the workout that you can look at on the watch. This includes things like distance, calories, and heart rate zones. Additionally, you’ll get PR’s (personal records) displayed as well as recovery stats.
In addition, the Fenix 5 Plus supports all of the latest FirstBeat driven training load and recovery metrics. These are viewable after a run, as well as via the Training Status widget at any time.
When you dive further into this widget it’ll show you running and cycling VO2Max (cycling requires a power meter though):
Additionally, it’ll show your recovery time remaining until your next hard workout:
Lastly, it’ll show your training load over the last 7 days. Note that for VO2Max and load related stats, these stabilize best after 30 days of workouts. So initially the numbers in the first week or two are a bit fuzzy, and then they get more clear over time. With Garmin’s new Physio TrueUp you’ll get these records synchronized from other devices – like an Edge series device such as the Edge 1030.
I covered how Training Load works in last year’s Fenix 5 in-depth review, so check out that specific training load section for all the details (it hasn’t changed here).
Finally, your total workout information for a given activity is available on Garmin Connect and transmitted to partner sites that you’ve authorized (i.e., Strava). Here’s a quick look at two activities recorded via the Fenix 5 Plus watches. First is a hike in the Alps on the Fenix 5X Plus. Second is a recent run with the Fenix 5 Plus. Both of those links go to the actual activity itself, if you want to view it. In the case of the run, it was with Stryd, hence the additional data fields.
Phew, got all that? Good, it’s time to head into the mountains and talk mapping, navigation, and climbing.
ClimbPro, Maps, and Navigating:
For many people, when they saw the original Fenix 5 had mapping onboard they were pretty excited. Until they found out that it was only the largest of units – the 5X. Sure, that drove the 5X to be Garmin’s most popular seller, but it didn’t drive everyone to buy that watch. Folks like myself simply found it too big for their wrists.
With the Fenix 5 Plus series though, all watches – no matter the SKU or size – get full onboard mapping. Maps are included for the ‘region’ in which you buy it. Meaning that folks in North America get North America maps, folks in Europe get Europe maps, and so on. The maps provided are the ‘TopoActive’ map set, which looks like regular maps with topographic data atop it. While these maps are OSM-based (OpenStreetMap), they have a layer of special sauce that sits atop it, which provides what Garmin dubs ‘Trendline Popularity Routing’.
Essentially that special sauce takes the hundreds of millions of workouts uploaded each year and figures out the most popular routes from them. Basically just like a heatmap of sorts. That way when it comes to routing to a given point (if you don’t have a specific course/route assigned), it’ll leverage that data to figure out the best pedestrian or cycling-friendly route. Thus avoiding bad routes or routes that real cyclists/runners don’t actually use. This functionality was introduced back on the Edge 1030 last summer, and then continued into the Edge 520 Plus a few months back.
Note that you can’t see any ‘heatmaps’ on the Fenix 5 Plus maps, rather, it’s just data that’s used in routing decisions. In any case, here’s what a typical map looks like in a more dense area (up above you can see it in a less dense area):
I’ll circle back to maps in a moment while showing you routing, but I want to touch on the next new feature first – ClimbPro. This feature allows you to see the elevation profile of your climbs for specified routes. Now, I know what you’re saying: “But we could already see the elevation profile for routes”! And that’s true, but this (ClimbPro) splits up your specific climbs within your route. The problem with the overall route elevation profile is that the scale just doesn’t work well for longer hikes. That’s because the distance is too long, and you don’t really get the detail you want in terms of how long is this specific climb.
Thus, ClimbPro automatically slices and dices the climbs within your route and shows them individually. As you ascend each portion, it’ll list the elevation/grade/distance details for that specific climb. You can still see your overall route elevation profile on another page if you want, but this is all about the current climb. And honestly, it’s flippin’ awesome (when it works).
So, to decode up above, you’ve got:
Distance Climbed of this climb: 1.03mi Current Ascent: 676ft Average Gradient: 15% Vertical Speed: 1300ft/hour Time for climb: 1:36:03 (I had to take some fugly detours) Climb Number: 1 of 1
In my case for both of these high-elevation hikes, there was merely one climb – up a lot. Garmin says that if you had a route with multiple climbs on it that it automatically divides these climbs up for you. Unfortunately, living in Amsterdam, the only climb I’d be able to find is a canal bridge. Still, for my time in the Alps, it was super cool and became my default data page when hiking.
The only downside was that I did see some bugs with ClimbPro when I reached the top of the climb I got weird data displayed (i.e., non-valid climb profiles). When I had to go off-course in terms of route (i.e., due to snow), I got mixed behavior. In some cases it kept the ClimbPro page up to date on the vertical ascent/profile piece, whereas other times it lost the plot. I actually liked that it kept me updated about the climb even when not on the route, as spring-time hiking in the Alps means lots of diversions due to snow, landslides/past avalanches, brush not cleared, etc… So diversions are a fact of life. I suspect this will be sorted out soon enough.
A couple of final tidbits on ClimbPro. When in between climbs it’ll show details in grey for the next climb (upcoming climb). The elevation data is gathered from either that of the course creation tool (i.e., Garmin Connect), or if building a route on the watch itself, then it’ll use the DEM data within the pre-loaded maps on the watch.
Next we’ve got maps and navigation, which I’ll roll into one. The Fenix 5 Plus series takes the mapping aspects of the previous 5X unit and brings them to all 5 Plus watches. This means that when you buy a unit now you’ll get maps for your specific region. Thus if in Europe you get TopoActive Europe, and if in North America you get North America, and so on. What happens if you travel? Well, annoyingly you still need to either buy or download maps for those regions. Buying from Garmin costs money, but you can also use free OSM maps as well. I did this on one watch of mine when in the Alps, as that watch was initially loaded as a US unit. No big deal to do, but still annoying.
To put it in perspective, if you didn’t have maps for the region you were in, this is what you’d see (just your track and route):
The map page is visible from any outdoor sport profile that you want, and will automatically show your current track atop it. You can zoom in/out and pan around using the buttons, which works fairly well (and avoids the messiness of a touchscreen in harsh conditions):
When you want to go somewhere, you’ve got roughly two options for doing so. The first is to decide on where you want to go entirely within the unit itself. The Fenix 5 Plus includes a points of interest database within it, and thus you can find shops, monuments, and other POI’s directly on the device. At which point you can have it create a route to it (and it’ll use the previously mentioned Trendline Popularity routing as well):
You can also route from the watch to specific coordinates or saved locations, as well as just pick a point on the map. Further, you can have it create a course (hiking/running/cycling only) based on a preferred length (called ‘Round-Trip Course’), if you want the variety that is the spice of life.
The second method is to follow a specific course (which can also include past activities). When following a specific course it’s something you downloaded/transferred to the unit. These can be created using a variety of applications/platforms, including Garmin Connect itself (which means you’d also leverage that popularity data too). Transferring a route to the unit can be done via USB or Bluetooth Smart.
Once a route is on the unit you can access it via the ‘Navigate’ app or a specific sport app and selecting ‘Navigate > Courses’, which then allows you to specify a course and follow it.
Before you do so though, you can preview the course map (left), elevation (center), and climbs for ClimbPro (right):
Once on a course it’ll give you turn notifications as you approach turns, and detail on the remaining time/duration left in the course.
Now in the past you had breadcrumb trail navigation (without maps, except on the 5X). Where I’ve found maps to be particularly useful though is when you’ve got trails that splinter into a number of smaller trails. Sometimes with just breadcrumbs it’s difficult to know exactly which trail is the right trail, since you can’t see the other trails on the map to know which of three trails is correct. The below trail fork was a perfect example of that. When navigating without map details it was impossible to know which one was correct. I would have had to have gone a little ways on the trail and then waited for an ‘off-course’ error, or found out it was right by no error. With the maps, I could establish context immediately.
What you see above on the map is my planned route going up to the left, my past track down to the right, and then up to the right if you look carefully you see a dotted line of a trail. This part specifically (the dotted trail), made it easy to figure out which way was which in the woods.
Of course, plenty of people have gotten away without maps for years on their watches, and only have breadcrumbs. But at the same time, plenty of people have previously loved the 5X (or the Apple Watch with certain apps) and having maps on them. Once you’ve got the maps and have used them, they’re incredibly helpful. The only issue I take with Garmin’s approach is the loading of maps for outside your region. It’s just unnecessarily cumbersome and expensive. Other companies like Wahoo and Sigma make it easy/trivial/free to download OSM map data for other regions, whereas Garmin is charging $69+ for these OSM-based maps. And it’s not like Garmin’s download process is simple and seamless.
If Garmin’s download process took mere seconds to pick a region and then charged a small fee (such as $5-10 because of the added heatmap data baked in), I could kinda understand a fee. But the process today just isn’t as clean and easy as it should be for the higher price.
Still, at the end of the day for most people the newly included maps combined with ClimbPro and minor bonus features like being able to snap your initial elevation point to the DEM data from the map based on your GPS position, are all features that are much wanted and highly appreciated.
PulseOx (5X Plus Only):
Perhaps the most notable feature of the Fenix 5 Plus series is the one feature only seen on the 5X Plus: PulseOx. This is unlike anything Garmin has done previously, not because of the fact it has a shiny red sensor, but because of the fact that they’ve charted a course taking them directly into medical certification waters. First though, let me explain what it is.
PulseOx is the buzz term for pulse oxygen saturation levels, otherwise known as SpO2. There are multiple uses for this, but in the athletic sense, climbers have long used this at high altitude scenarios to monitor such levels. In doing so they can be more aware of situations which can lead to some pretty serious immediate health/safety/security issues. If you’re into high-altitude scenarios, there’s plenty of resources to read on the topic.
But ultimately, PulseOx gives you a specific value – such as 65% or 80% or 95%. if I’m at sea level and all is well, I could be at 98%. Whereas, if I’m at 10,000ft/3048m, then I could be at 85%. As I climb higher, that value decreases. But there is no specific hard and fast rule on what’s considered safe or not. It’s not as simple as saying 65% is cause for concern for everyone, because in some people it could be 75% or 80%. Whereas another person is 65%. Most climbing outfits will note it’s a blend of having a trained guide look at the numbers given alongside experience diagnosing someone. Still, it can be valuable.
In any event, as for the 5X Plus, it features a special red channel that is quite visible on the bottom of the unit. Meaning, it has extra hardware the 5S/5 Plus don’t have. Here’s the red LED when turned on:
Collecting a reading takes anywhere from 10 to 30 seconds, and is generally most successful when not moving (just pausing for a second while walking is usually good enough in my testing). This is in line with how most climbers monitor these levels today – pausing to use small sensors to take readings.
The Fenix 5X Plus will then spit back this reading and chart it over the altitude over the last 24 hours:
You can also see this data in a different chart over the last 7 days as well. My specific photo of this isn’t terribly ideal, since I wasn’t wearing the 5X all the time (was switching between watches), but you can get the idea:
You can manually take as many readings as you’d like, or alternatively you can have it automatically take readings. This roughly ends up being every 15 minutes or so, assuming you’re not moving. At this point the data isn’t yet plotted on Garmin Connect Mobile (the smartphone app), though that’s in the works. Note that if you set it to check every 15 minutes, you’ll burn through more battery.
In playing with this in the Alps, it was pretty cool to watch these numbers start to fluctuate as I climbed. And in the vast majority of cases they trended in the directions I expected. If I went higher, they’d decrease, and if I went lower, they’d increase.
The only issue I had some three weeks ago on beta firmware is that due to a reset during an activity, I lost the day’s worth of readings (right before I was set to take a super cool photo of it). While I haven’t had any resets since (and multiple firmware versions since), I can’t say for certain that this bug – specifically the lack of saving data – has been solved.
Still, the more immediate question you may then ask is whether or not this crosses into the realm of a medical device. After all, most PulseOx units that you’d buy are often considered medical devices. Garmin’s answer: Kinda, sorta, maybe.
It’s actually a bit more complex than that. See, Garmin has been working with the FDA on the medical device aspects. They, alongside Apple, Fitbit, and Samsung are all part of a pilot program/working group around ‘software medical devices’. This means that an app developer can come along and develop a specific app that is considered a legit medical device. For example, someone could come along and develop a Connect IQ app atop the PulseOx technology that’s fully certified as a software medical device. But the onus there would be on that specific app, not necessarily Garmin (or Apple/Fitbit/Samsung), to pass certification tests.
So that begs the question: Who might go forward on making such an app?
And funny enough – the answer there might actually be Garmin themselves.
When asked whether they’d consider it, they said it was “Well within their wheelhouse”.
Garmin says they’re pretty confident in their PulseOx technology, and are considering paying the $50,000USD fee to get the FDA certification, even if just “for fun”. They walked through some of the detail on that specific test, and it’s actually a surprisingly low bar (even compared to some of the rigors that myself and other readers put heart rate and GPS sensors to). For example, the FDA pulse oximetry certification test (see section 4) is done totally stationary indoors sitting in a chair. The person needn’t be standing or outside (both more complex). Next, the variance is +/- 3.5%, but that’s not a straight +/- 3.5 value, as there are allowances for outliers as well.
Which isn’t to say that Garmin is shooting for a lower bar. Everyone’s shooting at that same bar. Don’t hate the bar, it is what it is. And at this point, that bar has proven to be more than useful enough for boatloads of people globally to use SpO2 readings for a wide variety of applications. And Garmin deciding to fork out the cash to get it certified (which they feel pretty confident they’ll pass, based on their own testing), would be a significant milestone in consumer wearable companies moving into the medical device realm.
Finally, for those curious on why specifically they didn’t put it within the smaller 5/5S Plus units, the reason was a blend of a few factors. Garmin says that the battery constraints were less in the larger 5X (given its size it had more room internally), and atop that – they wanted to give something unique to the 5X Plus over the less expensive units. Similar to how the 5X (original) had mapping while the original 5/5S didn’t. It wouldn’t be hard to see this quickly shifting to other watches down the road if Garmin sees consumers finding value in it.
(Note: I didn’t specifically go out and buy a high-quality comparison testing device to compare against. Garmin specifically recommended the Nellcor Portable SpO2 unit, which is about $500-$600 if I were to consider doing so and wanted trustable results, mainly because they’re considered some of the best out there. They noted that some of the lower end $18 devices you’ll find on Amazon aren’t necessarily medical-grade nor high quality. I’m open to buying something that’s high-end enough to use on this and other future devices, so if you’re in the field, feel free to drop suggestions in the comments…and perhaps click that ‘DCR Supporter’ button while you’re at it… )
In a move that will surprise exactly nobody, Garmin has rolled out music support to the Fenix 5 Plus. This follows the Forerunner 645 Music this past winter and the Vivoactive 3 Music last week. In the case of all of Garmin’s music-capable watches, tunes manifest itself in two basic ways:
A) Manually copied music files: These are saved MP3 files, playlists and the like that you sync via USB cable to your computer B) Streaming services cached files: These are offline playlists/favorites from music services like iHeartRadio and Deezer, cached for playback when not near connectivity
The music features mirror that of the Forerunner 645 Music, edging out the Vivoactive 3 Music in a few minor ways. Specifically that the Vivoactive 3 Music lacks audio alerts for things like pace and laps, which the FR645/Fenix 5 Plus have. Second is that the Fenix 5 Plus/645 Music have the ability to add a music page to your workouts data pages, whereas the Vivoactive 3 Music lacks that ability, adding a couple extra steps to change songs mid-workout.
But let’s step back a second and talk about how you listen to music. To do that you’ll need a Bluetooth audio device of some sort. Headphones would be most common (here’s what I mostly used this time around), but it also could be a crappy Amazon Basics $15 speaker, or a not-so-crappy BMW car. In the Bluetooth audio realm, the world is your oyster. Except Apple Airpods. That oyster doesn’t work so well here from what I’m told (I lack them to test), as they also aren’t super compatibility friendly with other Bluetooth devices either.
In order to connect your headphones you can go through a variety of menus to pair them. Be it the normal sensors menu or the music-specific portions, all roads lead to the below. You can pair multiple Bluetooth audio devices if you happen to have that. Of course, only one can be used concurrently
Once paired up you’ll want to get music on the unit. The first method is via Garmin Express (Mac or PC), allowing you to ‘watch’ music folders (you can customize which ones), and then select playlists/albums/songs/artists/etc to transfer over:
Note that while you can sync podcasts, that has to be done via desktop. It can’t be done via WiFi unfortunately, meaning it’s…well…cumbersome for frequent updating. Garmin has said in the past that they’d like to get there, but it’s unclear if there’s a timeframe for that.
In any event, the actual process of syncing music is pretty darn quick, but the inventorying of even a small music library can take a heck of a long time. All Fenix 5 Plus units have 16GB of storage space on them, of which about 14.5GB is addressing. However, after maps and such you’re left with about 10GB of usable music space (which you can actually use for music). Note that you don’t technically have to use Garmin Express to move music onto the device. You can just drag it on via other apps as well…like Windows Explorer:
Next, there are the streaming services. As of today that’s just iHeartRadio, though supposedly soon Deezer. To get these files on, you’ll need to configure WiFi. You cannot sync these streaming services via USB (or Bluetooth Smart, which is too slow/bandwidth limited). In order to get started (in the case of iHeartRadio), you’ll activate your device to your iHeartRadio account online. Sorta like pairing up a new NetFlix device.
Once that’s done you’ll want to ensure you’ve got some playlists favorited/created/whatevered so that the Fenix 5 Plus can find them. From there go ahead and crack into the music settings to choose which playlists to sync:
The way Garmin has designed music on all their devices is via service provider model. This allows 3rd parties to relatively easily plug into said model. For example, Spotify or Pandora could reasonably join the platform and it makes it largely transparent in terms of adding additional services. You see this when you crack open music, as you’ll see service such as ‘My Music’ (the stuff you copied over via USB), or ‘iHeartRadio’ (self-explanatory), all seen as equals here. Deezer will show up in the same place, as would other services. Not to mention that Garmin recently opened up Connect IQ from a music standpoint as well.
In any case, when you first navigate to the music widget (just press up/down from the watch face), you’ll see the current album playing (if any), as well as controls around the edge, like a rotary phone. Handily, if you’re playing music from your phone already (as I am at this very second writing this), it’ll automatically default to showing album information and controls for the phone. A nice touch.
These controls are pretty easy to identify, and include the basics like skip/back/play/pause/volume/repeat and shuffle options, plus the all-important ‘Manage’ option, which is the little settings icon. By tapping that icon you get into the music providers and headphones areas.
It’s here you can select which music to play, be it streaming services music or manually transferred music. It’s pretty much as you’d expect, allowing you to choose anything from specific albums to playlists to artists. It’s easy to navigate, even when running along.
So how does playback sound?
But as always, that’s more dependent on your headphones (or Bluetooth audio device) than anything else. Unless there’s some sort of dropout (which I haven’t seen here), then the audio quality is based largely on the devices your using. The biggest issue for wearable music devices tends to be dropouts between the watch and headphones, based primarily on distance. Most headphones have a ‘master’ communications side – either left or right. You can easily Google for which side is the master on your specific headphones. Wearing the watch on this same side will almost always resolve any dropout issues.
Still, I haven’t had that, unlike a handful of dropouts that I saw on the Forerunner 645 Music. Garmin says they’ve made some hardware design decisions that should help a bit there. As is usually the case in connectivity drop type issues, even the tiniest of changes can have dramatic impacts (as Garmin found out in the opposite direction with the original Fenix 5 and ANT+ sensors). Still, in this case, all seems well with the pile of headphones I’ve tested.
Of course, this section wouldn’t be complete without addressing what will invariably be commented on 23 times in the first day: Where’s Spotify?
As a huge user of Spotify myself (I’m listening to it right now on my phone, and have nearly 100 playlists in a reasonably OCD organized folder structure), I’m waiting for it as well. But ultimately, this isn’t in Garmin’s hands. Just like it’s not in Fitbit’s hands. Both these companies deeply want Spotify on their watches (just as much as people like you and I do). Instead, this is 100% in Spotify’s hands. They decide whether or not to work with companies like Garmin and Fitbit here. I spent some time talking with them about it back this past spring, specifically while at Garmin. While they see the interest in supporting what is now the #2 smartwatch platform (behind Apple), I got the impression they were hesitant to dip their toe into developing an app for it due to concerns that it wouldn’t be ‘complex’ enough (meaning, adding features like favoriting/etc…). And note when I say ‘developing’, Garmin/Fitbit/etc would of course be realistically the ones doing the actual developing of the app.
Hopefully though we’ll see a shift in things, but if you’re like me – the right people to bug here is the music provider of choice. Telling Garmin/Fitbit/whomever is useful and provides ammunition, but not as much as just telling your streaming music provider directly. I did my part, now do yours. 🙂
Garmin Pay (Payments):
Garmin first introduced payments last summer as part of the original Vivoactive 3. Since then it’s expanded to the Forerunner 645/645 Music, and the Vivoactive 3 Music. Adding to that now is the Fenix 5 Plus series. Garmin Pay is the branding that covers the contactless/NFC payments, just like there’s Apple Pay on Apple devices, Fitbit Pay on Fitbit devices, and Samsung Pay on Samsung devices. All of which allow you to use your watch to simply tap a contactless payment reader and pay for goods.
In the case of a watch, this is most useful in perhaps running or cycling scenarios where you have ‘known good’ stores that accepts contactless payments. Perhaps a coffee shop or such. Obviously, many people will still carry a credit card, but I’ve found it handy in some rare scenarios.
In any event, the first barrier to entry here is to actually have a Visa or Mastercard credit card from one of the supported banks. Each of these ‘pay’ entities must negotiate with individual banks, not just credit card companies. So you have to flip over the bank of your credit card and ensure that bank is on Garmin’s supported list. In general it’s still slim pickings, but it is getting better. For example, just last week they added Chase in the US, which is the largest issuing bank in the US – and a massive win for Garmin. More importantly, it means I can finally use it on my credit cards (since most of them are with Chase). Neither my Dutch or French credit cards are supported yet.
To add your card you’ll go into the Garmin Connect Mobile smartphone app and simply follow the prompts. It only takes 60-90 seconds.
As part of that, you’ll receive a confirmation text too, a simple validation code to enter in. Additionally, as part of that, you’ll get a pin-code to enter in before you can use a credit card on the watch. This passcode is good for 24 hours from entry, or until you’ve removed the watch from your wrist. This is in line with Fitbit and Apple.
To pay for something, you’ll go ahead and hold the upper left button to access the quick menu system, and rotate the dial around to the wallet icon. After which it’ll prompt you for the pin code.
At this point you’ve then got a while to tap and pay for something. Quick and easy:
Once completed it’ll give you a quick confirmation on the screen (and also ideally on your card reader).
And that’s it!
Now, the one downside is that it doesn’t give you a receipt/transaction total on your phone like Apple Pay does. So if the merchant doesn’t have a receipt system, that could be a problem for some. But virtually every merchant offers a receipt, so it’s unlikely to be an issue for most.
Ultimately, as with before – this works well enough, assuming you have a card supported and a store/shop that also supports contactless payments. In my travels I’ve found the adoption by stores to vary a lot. In Australia for example, it’s virtually impossible to find a spot that doesn’t accept it. I went without credit card or cash for months using just contactless payments. In France? You couldn’t go a day if you wanted to. Same with the US. Both certainly have stores that accept contactless payments, but hardly enough you could depend on entirely.
Of course, over time this technology will become completely commonplace in most countries/stores/devices, and thus, as a result, it will soon be as normal to pay with a watch as it is to pay with a credit card. For now though, I see it more valuable for ‘known good’ establishments that allow you to skip carrying a wallet to grab a coffee at the end of a run.
There’s likely no topic that stirs as much discussion and passion as GPS accuracy. A watch could fall apart and give you dire electrical shocks while doing so, but if it shows you on the wrong side of the road? Oh hell no, bring on the fury of the internet!
GPS accuracy can be looked at in a number of different ways, but I prefer to look at it using a number of devices in real-world scenarios across a vast number of activities. I use 2-6 other devices at once, trying to get a clear picture of how a given set of devices handles conditions on a certain day. Conditions include everything from tree/building cover to weather.
Over the years I’ve continued to tweak my GPS testing methodology. For example, I try to not place two units next to each other on my wrists, as that can impact signal. If I do so, I’ll put a thin fabric spacer of about 1”/3cm between them (I didn’t do that on any of my Fenix 5 Plus workouts). But often I’ll simply carry other units by the straps, or attach them to the shoulder straps of my hydration backpack. Plus, wearing multiple watches on the same wrist is well known to impact optical HR accuracy.
Next, as noted, I use just my daily training routes. Using a single route over and over again isn’t really indicative of real-world conditions, it’s just indicative of one trail. The workouts you see here are just my normal daily workouts.
I’ve had quite a bit of variety of terrain within the time period Fenix 5 Plus testing. This has included runs in: Paris, Amsterdam, Kansas, French Alps, Florida, US Virgin Islands, California, and plenty more. Cities and countryside, mountains, trees and open-air. It’s been everywhere!
All of the workouts you see here I did with Galileo enabled, mostly because I was curious how well it would perform given it was new.
First up we’ll start with going big here! This is up in the French Alps in Chamonix for a beastly climb in dense trees against the side of a mountain. In this test I had a Suunto 9 on one wrist (with BETA firmware), and a Fenix 5X Plus on another. Then, attached to my backpack I had a few more watches. Those being a Fenix 5S Plus, a Fenix 5 Plus, a FR935, and a Suunto Spartan Ultra. Just a few, right? Here’s the overall tracks:
It’s confusing, I know. Thus, we’ll zoom in a bit.
We’ll start with the ascent first, which is on the left side. The blueish line wandering is the beta Suunto 9 – it had a really bad day here. No idea why. Meanwhile the other tracks are very closely clustered. The FR935 is a bit offset from the group by I’m guessing 3-5 meters, but not bad. Overall, things are nice and crisp to begin.
Next, as we go up the mountain a bit you’ll see things remain very tightly clustered. The FR935 does seem to struggle in a handful of places briefly, though not significantly. If we look at the right-side of the track as I come back down, we see a tiny bit of separation on the Fenix 5X Plus specifically, but not the others. Not much, only 2-4 meters is my guess, but that green line just sneaks out the side.
Now this is the very top portion of the climb, with some really tight switchbacks. No, you might mistake that blue line for a trail, that’s still the beta Suunto 9…uhh…trailblazing somewhere. Because the below picture is kinda hard to discern, I’m going to zoom in a bunch to just that tight switchback section.
Well then, that’s a mess to look at.
So, I’m going to remove a few things, most notably everything but the Suunto Spartan Ultra (on my backpack), and the Fenix 5X Plus (on my wrist):
They’re very close. Note that due to snow and debris I wasn’t necessarily perfectly on the path. I would say these are both fairly close though, but I wouldn’t be able to tell you precisely which one was most correct here. Neither track is bad, and both make minor equal mistakes at varying times.
If you want to dig into the data sets yourself, this entire set is available on the DCR Analyzer here. Overall I’d say the Fenix 5 Plus did fairly strong on this, especially on the descent, where it’s really super tightly locked to the trail. This is generally what I saw throughout the Alps on my hikes – things were very very good from a GPS track standpoint, which was especially useful when I was navigating routes/trails with a map.
Oh, for fun, a brief look at altitude:
You can see the Suuntos and the Garmins each had their own sets of opinions about the starting altitude, and then things seemed to blend between the two of them towards the top. In theory, the highest I went was 2075m according to the chairlift I walked up against that had the elevation written on the side of it. The FR935 actually got the closest here at 2068m. But given every other watch was below this a fair bit, I’d question whether the elevation marker at the top of the La Praz chairlift is correct. Note there were three little ‘blips’ of elevation on some of the Garmin watches. What’s odd is that it did it at precisely the same second for a pile of them, especially at the end there, where I took a bunch of photos. My bet is something I did when lining up all the watches to take photos may have been the cause there.
Next, we’ll look at another run, this time in Paris. This one is a simple two-looper of the gardens, which can be a surprisingly difficult track. It’s often up against the tall fences, and with reasonably high buildings across the street and some good tree cover. For whatever the reason, this particular route seems to trip-up many a GPS watch.
Zooming in to the upper portion of the park, we see that the Fenix 5 Plus is the most correct in terms of exactly which side of the road I started on. It’s spot-on there.
The rest of the tracks in this portion of the loop from the Fenix 5 Plus look the best of the three. The FR935 goes through a building at one point (actually, a couple buildings). And the Suunto 9 goes through a fence briefly (not a horrible diversion, only a couple meters off).
Next, here’s the middle section of the park:
In this section the Fenix 5 Plus almost nails it perfectly, but makes one minor error I’ve highlighted in yellow, slightly overshooting a turn by a few meters. It does correct itself properly however a few seconds later. The (beta) Suunto 9 is the least correct when it goes through some trees across a few gardens.
Finally, the bottom portion of the gardens:
Above you can see how on that long skinny part sticking out the beta Suunto 9 cuts the corner entirely, while the FR935 and Fenix 5 Plus trace it cleanly. However, it’s not until you zoom all the way in that you’ll see the Fenix 5 Plus is actually the most correct, staying precisely on the sidewalk around that tip before I crossed the street over/around.
Next, we’ll shift to another run. I decided to include this because it’s neither great nor horrible. Just kinda ‘blah’. It was through neighborhoods without much tree cover (and certainly not dense tree cover). And it was along a mostly perfectly straight street. The high-level overview:
At a high-level it looks perfectly fine. But let’s zoom in a bunch:
You’ll notice in that section the Fenix 5 Plus wavers a bit. The other units largely nail that road and the correct side. But at one point it has me going through the gas station parking lot, which I did not do:
I included this run mostly to show you that it’s not always ‘holy crap’ perfect. Rather, it’s very good, but there are still the occasional quirks. If you saw this run on Strava, it certainly wouldn’t draw your attention. But it was worthwhile pointing out.
Note that I primarily tested Galileo accuracy, as opposed to plain GPS accuracy or GPS+GLONASS accuracy. Historically speaking some folks have had issues with GLONASS, despite in theory having more satellites and thus potentially better accuracy. There were certain use cases/scenarios were GLONASS didn’t perform as well as even regular GPS. In talking with Garmin about whether they felt a similar caveat might apply to Galileo, they said no, that they hadn’t seen the sort of caveats with Galileo that you have with GLONASS. My testing seems to support that.
Still, I’m interested in seeing more data from more folks on this, over an even wider variety of terrain than I tested. But for my purposes, I’m pretty happy with it.
Updated section – August 2018: Openwater swim accuracy. Since this review published I’ve had a chance to get in more openwater swims than I did pre-review. And the results more or less suck. The below video summarizes them. While this video is from late June, I’ve consistently tried every few weeks with new firmware since then (now mid-August), and the results are equally as sucky for the Fenix 5 Plus. Others are seeing the same. I’d say keep avoiding the Fenix 5 Plus if you’re needing half-way functional openwater swim tracks:
(Note: All of the charts in these accuracy portions were created using the DCR Analyzer tool. It allows you to compare power meters/trainers, heart rate, cadence, speed/pace, GPS tracks and plenty more. You can use it as well for your own gadget comparisons, more details here.)
Heart Rate Accuracy:
Before we move on to the test results, note that optical HR sensor accuracy is rather varied from individual to individual. Aspects such as skin color, hair density, and position can impact accuracy. Position, and how the band is worn, are *the most important* pieces. A unit with an optical HR sensor should be snug. It doesn’t need to leave marks, but you shouldn’t be able to slide a finger under the band (at least during workouts). You can wear it a tiny bit looser the rest of the day.
Ok, so in my testing, I simply use the watch throughout my normal workouts. Those workouts include a wide variety of intensities and conditions, making them great for accuracy testing. I’ve got steady runs, interval workouts on both bike and running, as well as tempo runs and rides – and even running up and down a mountain.
For each test, I’m wearing additional devices, usually 3-4 in total, which capture data from other sensors. Typically I’d wear a chest strap (usually the HRM-TRI or Wahoo TICKR X), as well as another optical HR sensor watch on the other wrist (including the Scosche Rhythm 24, and Scosche Rhythm+). Note that the numbers you see in the upper right corner are *not* the averages, but rather just the exact point my mouse is sitting over. Note all this data is analyzed using the DCR Analyzer, details here.
Note that while I’ve been using the Fenix 5 Plus since April, I’m mostly going to use recent data in this review – since that’s the firmware that it’s currently on and the production firmware that real world people are using.
First up is an interval run from two days ago, as we’ll just get right into the more complex workouts. This is compared against a Wahoo TICKR-X chest strap and a Scosche Rhythm 24 optical armband sensor.
As you can see, in the first two minutes there’s some disagreement. In this case, the Fenix 5 Plus is the most correct with the cleanest ramp of my HR. The Scosche 24 is the least correct, appearing to have lost lock or something. The TICKR-X lags along but catches up quickly.
After that things are pretty good for the Fenix 5 Plus for that steady-state portion that’s the first half of my run, including the build pieces. So let’s zoom into the interval bits.
Above you can see there’s a bit of disagreement. The blocky-nature of the TICKR-X is easy to throw out as incorrect in a few spots (seriously, I think this strap is dying on me as of late). And the bits of spiky green from the Scosche 24 are also easy to identify as incorrect. Surprisingly, the Fenix 5 Plus is most correct on the ramp and hold portions of each interval. However, where you see a little bit of slowness is on the recovery of the 5th/6th/7th intervals, where it lags behind a bit:
It’s not a massive amount, a few seconds or so in most cases, but definitely worthwhile noting. Overall though, for this particular workout it actually does the best of the three units.
Next, let’s do another interval run. Because interval runs are the bestest. This time comparing against a Vivoactive 3 Music (optical HR), and a Wahoo TICKR-X chest strap.
Overall, the Fenix 5 Plus actually didn’t do too bad for the first main build portion and the four main intervals. Those are actually pretty much spot-on, zero complaints there, even on the recovery bits.
But what about those four 30-second sprints at the end? Well…let’s talk about that:
So, here’s my breakdown of this section:
Purple line – Wahoo TICKR-X: This mostly lost the plot, with the exception of the 3rd interval’s recovery, which it got right. Teal line – Vivoactive 3 Music: This was spot-on for #1/#3, but lagged recovery on #2/#4. Not horrible though Red line – Fenix 5 Plus: This as good for #1/#4, so-so for #3, and crappy on recovery of #2. Thus a fairly mixed result for these short sections.
Thus overall I’d rank that interval run actually pretty good for the Fenix 5 Plus since it nailed the main 800m interval portions, though did struggle on a couple of the recovery bits for the 30-second sprints. I think most of us could live with that.
I’ll dig up some steady-state runs here shortly, but I can tell ya that things are pretty clean there, which is what I usually see…like below, where it was easily the most correct of the four watches (as an aside however just looking at that file set, that run had a bizarre GPS track from the Fenix 5 Plus, that I hope was a bug on a previous firmware version, I’ve never seen a track quite like that).
Lastly, we’ll look at a ride. GPS accuracy on rides is rather boring (it’s been perfectly fine), but heart rate accuracy is more fun. This ride was from yesterday, a simple one-hour ride with a bunch of stop/starts for lights/signs, and a few sprints. Also, some grated bridge decks, which are always tricky for any HR sensor. In this case, you’re seeing the Suunto 9 optical HR sensor on one wrist, the Fenix 5 Plus on another, and the Scosche 24 as well. The Wahoo TICKR-X I had worn totally died about 10 seconds into the ride (like, red light stayed on died).
As you can see above, the units actually track fairly well, matching effort as well. Right out of the gate the Suunto 9 loses the plot, but locks on pretty quickly. After that point there’s only two specific spots of disagreement from the Fenix 5 Plus. The first is here:
In this case, I had stopped pedaling and you can see the other two units properly decrease HR, whereas the Fenix 5 Plus doesn’t recognize it immediately.
And the next is a bit later in one big chunk and then a few short spikes/drops.
So it’s definitely not perfect. But those of you that have been following my trials and tribulations with wrist-based optical HR sensors and cycling will note this is actually pretty darn good for a Garmin sensor on my wrist and cycling. I was somewhat surprised to see this.
Which is probably the overall theme here – while Garmin hasn’t claimed any major improvements with the Fenix 5 Plus series and optical HR sensors, it seems like whatever minor improvements have been made have gone a long way. You can see my interval sessions were largely pretty good, and while my ride wasn’t perfect, it was hardly throw-away either. I suspect for most people, if they get results like I’ve been seeing, they’d mostly be happy with it.
I’ve added the Fenix 5 Plus series into the product comparison tool, which allows you to compare it against any watches I’ve reviewed to date. I added all three units under a single product ID, and noted the differences accordingly in the handful of data fields that differ. This helps keep things from getting all crazy.
For the purposes of the below table, I’ve compared it against the existing Fenix 5 and the Suunto 9. But you can easily mix and match against any other products within the database here, by creating your own product comparison tables. Note that in some cases nuanced features (like being able to calibrate altitude based on the map DEM data), doesn’t really fit well into product comparison tools designed to host hundreds of watches (when only a single watch has it).
There’s zero question that Garmin is nailing their stride with the Fenix series. The inclusion of music, contactless payments, and maps across all devices are precisely what most users have been asking for. Meanwhile, Garmin’s also answered power users who have been asking for potentially higher GPS accuracy with Galileo support, not to mention addressing the connectivity woes for ANT+ sensors on the original Fenix 5. And then finally adding in Pulse Oximetry support and the ClimbPro bits, to differentiate themselves in a way not seen before. There’s no question this feature is targeted directly at the high-altitude folks that historically would have gone Suunto.
Of course, no watch is perfect. And as one might expect, no matter how much I test this device (two months now) and no matter how many Fenix 5 Plus devices I have in my stable (six units), I simply won’t be able to find every situation or quirk out there. Still, I have seen a few during my testing in the beta period, some of which may have been resolved. For example, I’ve seen some odd quirks with ClimbPro when I reach the top of all climbs (or start descending). And then there was the one reset I had three weeks ago losing PulseOx data. And some slowness on openwater swimming distance readings on the unit itself.
Areas I haven’t seen issues though are GPS accuracy, or 3rd party sensor connectivity. My testing with Galileo GPS enabled has produced incredible tracks, as many of you have unknowingly commented on within my Strava uploads the past month or so. And music hasn’t been an issue either, that’s working well for me. And perhaps most notable is that I’ve been wearing it 24×7 and it just works as it should from a daily watch standpoint. Of course, I still wish I could answer incoming texts and such with quick replies, but in my case that’s primarily an Apple limitation of being on iOS. Fitbit and others share the same 3rd party non-Apple Watch walls.
Of course – all of this skips the elephant in the room: Price. Starting at $699, it’s $150 more than the existing Fenix 5 series (base price), which is a huge jump in a time-frame when watches with music are getting cheaper (the Fitbit Versa at $199 with music, $229 with contactless payments). Even Garmin’s own Vivoactive 3 Music was introduced at $299 – effectively the same price the Vivoactive 3 has been the majority of the last year. I’m not sure this is the right trend. I suppose it’s up to Garmin to find out.
In most ways, the Fenix 5 Plus series should likely be called the Fenix 6. It’s got far more features than a mere ‘Plus’ designator deserves, both in terms of hardware updates as well as software ones. I feel like Garmin is likely doing itself a disservice here in underselling how much has changed. But, that’s their problem, not mine. From my standpoint, I’m more than happy with the watch and it might actually be enough to convert me from my trusty Forerunner 935. We’ll see.
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Hopefully you found this review useful. At the end of the day, I’m an athlete just like you looking for the most detail possible on a new purchase – so my review is written from the standpoint of how I used the device. The reviews generally take a lot of hours to put together, so it’s a fair bit of work (and labor of love). As you probably noticed by looking below, I also take time to answer all the questions posted in the comments – and there’s quite a bit of detail in there as well.
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Additionally, you can also use Amazon to purchase the unit (though, no discount). Or, anything else you pickup on Amazon helps support the site as well (socks, laundry detergent, cowbells). If you’re outside the US, I’ve got links to all of the major individual country Amazon stores on the sidebar towards the top.