Garmin fenix3 review

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Garmin fenix3 review

Postby arathorn » Wed 25 Nov, 2015 4:12 pm

Review of the Garmin fenix3 for hiking and outdoor activities

At the outset I should declare after 3 months of using this sports watch I love it – but before saying why its so good, we should get the negative things you need to know about it.

In short it is brilliant at being a watch, a sports data recorder (assuming you have all the Ant+ sensors that measure the data you want to record) and in providing sat nav location data relevant to off road micro navigation (assuming you know or are prepared to learn how to navigate with primary sources like a topo map and a compass).

There is already a very comprehensive review of the fenix3 as a data recorder for all sporting activities here - ... eview.html - DC Rainmaker is pretty much the most thorough review available on that use of a fenix3.

If you use a power meter on a bike you may want to quibble about the seeming lack of any ability to calibrate the power sensor to zero and when you have 4 data fields current in a display they are harder to read on the fenix3 on your handle bars than the typical Garmin Edge for example. Those that swim with the fenix3 report useful stroke and other data from the device, which is reasonably waterproof for ordinary swimming.

So this review will focus on using the fenix3 for hiking skiing kayaking or other outdoor activities where micro navigation is required. (Micro navigation is just navigating where you provide the energy necessary to change locations, hence using a small scale map like a topographical map or detailed marine chart will be useful and appropriate).

So, what’s not to like – well,

What is does not, and will never do.

1. The fenix 3 is not and never will be suitable for in car or turn by turn navigation – it does not have, and cannot display maps like a nuvi or other on screen street navigating gps it does not have the features that are associated with those like audio prompts. If you need to navigate in a car or airplane, find a more suitable purpose built device, with a much bigger display screen.

2. It will not as delivered give you the physical accuracy achieved by for example using a magnet fixed to a spoked wheel – it will get a lot more accurate if you pair it with ANT+ sensors to give it the relevant data rather than relying on the approximations that all gnss must make given the way they have to calculate incredibly difficult calculations over extraordinary distances and then makes educated guesses as to locations and speeds – gnss devices like the fenix will only ever record and display approximations within an order of accuracy. The longer the track, the greater the cumulative inaccuracy if you just use satellites. Its also less accurate at measuring distances than counting steps if you know your average pace length. (Global Navigation Satellite System or gnss is the correct generic term for satellite navigation; GPS or Global Positioning System is the proprietary system confined to the US Government owned satellites. The fenix3 is capable of using other systems as well as GPS such as Glonass, the Russian system.)

3. It will never be a replacement for a detailed map and compass – it will provide useful navigational assistance – and it can assist an experienced micro navigator to make better and safer decisions. It does not remove the need to learn the very human based skills of navigating using a range of observations and data, of which a gnss derived estimate of position is just one item an experienced navigator will need to take into account.

Before you can use it usefully you will need –

4. To have installed both Garmin Express and have a current Garmin Connect account on a pc or mac – these are free downloads from Garmin and are absolutely required to communicate and upload and download data, applications, new and better than standard watch faces and widgets that make the fenix so nice to use. Have a look at for examples of what is on offer – mostly for free.

5. To have the ANT+ sensors installed and ready to send data relevant to your sport – which might include a heart rate monitor, a foot pod, speed/cadence/power sensors for your bike or indoor trainer . The exception may be swimming as the fenix3 appears to have inbuilt software that provides swimmers with data on their stroke and training.

6. A phone that works with Bluetooth 4.0 or better – the mobile version of Garmin Connect on your phone is very useful to synch data from activities and you will need Bluetooth if you want to pair the fenix to your phone to see notifications – I only use that feature during working hours to save battery life.

7. If you want to use the fenix3 for navigating, you will need sufficient background information and experience with maps and how to read use and understand the data on them – for example you will need to be able to know and how to select which of the alternatives to set for –

a. Which if the 3 alternative norths you wish to display – alternatives being magnetic, true and grid?
b. What map datum is to be used? – depends on the datum used for the printed map you are using.
c. What format of position display do you want to appear? – common alternatives are latitude and longitude for straight line courses or routes such as when in the air or on water, or UTM or MGRS for land based topographic maps where tracks that meander are more normal.

8. If you have not come across those choices and which you use when and why you will need to acquire some background navigational information by doing a course, learning in the field with an experienced guide or reading about the basics of navigation and how gnss and customised on screen mapping fit into and expand on (but will never replace) those basics. If you need that knowledge you could do worse than read Kyle Brotherton’s book the Ultimate Navigation Manual (its available from Amazon or kindle or see his website here - ) – I liked the way he starts in his book with the shadows 2 sharp sticks make when put in the ground to cast a shadow (reliably gives you east and west) and ends with the effect that the new European and Chinese satellite gns systems will have on navigation globally. Recommended pre-reading before trying to use the fanix3 in the field to micro navigate.

9. To get to know what each of the 5 buttons do on the fenix3, given that the 2 on the right are customisable by the user and different commands are implemented depending on the duration of each press of each button. Users of Polar devices will adapt quickly but some time with the manual and its diagrams will be required. I have set my two right hand buttons (when you use a long press) to give me an instant gnss position (fairly quick, even when not in an activity using gps) and to toggle Bluetooth on and off. Useful for things you use often and don’t want to open menus to achieve.

10. The top left button illuminates the face – good when light is low and if you select a watch face with a white background (like the classic Swiss below) it will give you enough light to find things in your pack at night.

11. To spend some time getting to understand how to set up the fanix3 to show/display you what will be most useful in the activity you are engaged in. The display screens of the fanix3 are user configurable to an extra-ordinary degree – assuming you know which data fields you want to display.

12. For example when hiking as a default I just want to see my current position and the time of day, in large letters given my pretty ordinary eyesight. The next screen might show distance travelled, distance to destination, estimated time to that destination and ETA. The next screen might show data relevant to intermediate waypoints for planned stops or re-supply points. If you know and understand your activity and what is important for you to know, you will know how to choose and set the fields to display. An example of what starting the activity hike brings up as a starting page is below -

Image13. Your swimming / running / indoor trainer / bike displays for each activity will of course differ and the fenix3 lets you do that – AFTER you have mastered its menus, which may all the gods bear witness will take you some time as the manual supplied is very basic. A sample list of activity choices appears below –

14. The concept you need to understand about the fenix is that it is intended to cover many sports or activities in one the one device, and then goes with you to the office or workplace with whichever of 100 odd user selectable watch faces you like – I have a black one for the day and a whiter one for night which doubles as a basic torch when you use the top left illuminate background button – see examples below.

[url=]Image[url=]Image[url=]Image15. Think one watch like device, for many tasks.

16. Band and glass choices - If you feel the need you can pay more for a metal band and a harder screen for the fenix3 (increases the asking price by about $100 US) but that is an aesthetic choice which adds some weight and cost – the basic supplied rubber wrist band is great for all sports and easily changed if you want to with 2 x Torx T6 screwdrivers to which ever 1” / 26mm wide watch band appeals to you – I like the NATO nylon bands for their light weight and comfort but YMMV.

17. The fenix itself is a bit bulky compared to a conventional watch and will not fit under the sleeve of a normal business shirt – not pretty by super thin mechanical watch standards, but I like it as my everyday watch and for everything I do outdoors so on it stays attached.

18. You will want to set up a separate set of display screens for each activity, and you can add custom activities if you need to – leaving micro-navigation for a moment as an example I have one to display data relevant to flying that tells me (much more accurately than the airlines basic display) how far we have to go to our destination and how long that will take. The gnss receiver on the outer metal face of the fenix which serves as its aerial is sensitive enough to give you and display that information if you have a window seat on the plane and it can get a reasonable view of the horizon. I tried this all the way on a recent flight of abut 12,000km from Sydney to Vancouver and it kept streaming accurate data for most of the flight – extra ordinary satellite reception sensitivity from a small device.

19. It also can act as a 24x7 activity tracker both while you are awake and sleeping – its no more or less accurate than most of those devices like a fit bit etc but there is some worth in seeing each day how much you moved around (apart from full on training sessions in your preferred sports). The fenix will accumulate and log all that activity data in Garmin Connect if you tell it to.

So having set it up, installed all the necessary software and bushed up on your basic navigation skills, is it that useful?

20. Yes – for the following reasons –
a. If you have loaded an intended track/course beforehand using a plot made in Garmin Base Camp, you can quickly see if you are on course, or the extent you are off that track/course .
b. To make using the fenix3 simpler it is better to keep waypoints tracks/courses in separate files or folders in the Base Camp program – and then just load the ones you need to the tasks in hand until you next will have an opportunity to connect the fenix3 to your pc or mac. (Alternatives for Base Camp are OziExplorer in the pc world or MacGPS Pro or Adze in the mac universe. You will need Garmin Express and Garmin Connect whichever of those alternatives you choose – they are free and operate in both universes).
c. You can have a constantly updating readout of your position which you can use to keep track directly on the go on your map – eg grid reference 173268 read from the fenix plots directly to that GR on you map – but you will need to carry the relevant map with you and have it readily accessible – a map case for paper maps or print outs is a really good idea, as is keeping a thumb or finger on your last known position to quickly find it again on your map
d. If you have become uncertain of your position on a map or your proximity to a significant feature, the fenix is very useful in resolving that uncertainty. Remember navigation is a lot more than just knowing your ordinates.
e. If you need to retrace your steps to a previously known location the BackTrac feature is easy to use and accurate.
f. If you need to tell others of and guide them to your location the constant read out is very useful.
g. If you know you average step length you can use the count the steps feature with a lap setting to dead reckon distances travelled – useful if for any reason satellite coverage is not available.
h. Battery Life - with the gnss enabled the fenix3 seems to run accurately and continuously for about 20 hours after a full charge (the watch running without gnss seems to go for over a month) – but you will need to re-charge using the usb powered proprietary Garmin charging cable is you want more than 20 hours and a usb power source – pocket rechargers work with the fenix3 quickly and well.
i. One thing you need to learn is that the gnss is by default off to save batteries and you need to select your activity and start it to record data – that’s easy as it seems natural to turn on the recording when you start – the trick to remember is to either pause or stop recording when you are done, as those 20 available hours will be gone if you by mistake leave it seeing satellite reception overnight.
j. It only recharges to the back of the watch using a 4 pin proprietary Garmin cradle into a USB port (see cable below) but it seems to recharge quickly from a USB charger or battery pack.


k. Glancing at your “watch” on the go (which is how you treat your fenix3) is quicker and more natural than having to dig a larger gps unit out of your pocket, pack or holder, and then press a series of commands before you can get useful information.
l. ETA’s to critical waypoints and end destination (if you have selected them to display) are really useful aids in deciding on your options on the trail and what variables you may want to choose.

21. So – what are the negatives?

a. Expensive - asking around $500 AUD , especially if you have already paid for a larger gps – shop around as online prices vary considerably.
b. Need to spend a lot of time learning how to use the fenix3, customise it and learn to use required screen based programs like Garmin Express, Connect and Base Camp to input new apps and interesting watch faces and extract / load relevant data to and from the fenix3.
c. Proprietary charging cable that you will probably need more than one of if you want to re-charge in the field.
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