The Garmin Fenix 3 HR is a GPS-enabled sports watch that justifies its hefty price tag by being versatile and rich in features.
Logan Strain --0001-11-30 00:00:00
I don’t think that the person qualified to review all of the Garmin Fenix 3 HR’s features actually exists. Or if they do exist, they’re too busy going on one of their mountain climbing, river swimming, or cross country skiing expeditions to actually sit down and write a review.
This is a smartwatch built for world-class, multi-sport athletes who feel bummed that they’re going to skip the Southernmost Marathon in Florida this year because it conflicts with Ironman World Championships in Hawaii. When Garmin designed this watch, they obviously weren’t thinking of, as is my case, 30-something dads who jog with their dog and occasionally lift dumbbells they bought at a garage sale in order to keep their waistline more or less where it is.
Despite that, even non-Olympians will find a lot to love about this feature-packed smartwatch. It’s not easy to justify a $599 price tag, but the Garmin Fenix 3 HR pulls it off by offering impressive hardware that collects a wealth of data, access to useful apps, and a brawny but sleek design.
The Fenix 3 feels hefty, but it’s downright compact when you consider how much hardware they packed into a watch about the size of a Double Stuf Oreo. It includes a GPS sensor, heart rate monitor, barometer, and altimeter.
The software is equally impressive. It doesn’t have a touchscreen, so you have to navigate the interface through four buttons. The fifth button activates the backlight. It takes a little getting used to, but I was able to explore the watch’s capabilities after a few tries. One qualm: frequently, there’s a second or so long lag between pressing the “up” or “down” button and seeing the watch respond by scrolling through options. In an age where we’re spoiled by instant responsiveness from our devices, it’s mildly irritating.
It comes preloaded with several activities you can track. But unless you’re already sponsored by Red Bull, you’ll probably use only a small fraction of them. There’s even a golf tracking mode, if you like your exercise to be at a more leisurely pace.
Here’s a small section of the activities menu.
You can, however, trim it down so that it only displays the activities you use.
By connecting with the Connect IQ store, you can add other features. The watch already comes standard with a handful of watch face designs, including an old-school analog style, big digital numbers, and a data-packed screen. But if none of those work for you, you can download more from the app store on your phone. Here’s a super sick Punisher watchface I chose.
Here’s a perk of being married I wasn’t told about: you never worry if doing things like this will slash your dating pool.
The apps in the Garmin IQ store mostly help you improve your workouts, make sense of the data that the watch generates, or feed you information like stock prices. My favorite, however, was “Find My Car.” You use it by first locking in your car’s location using the GPS sensor after you park. When you’re done shopping/movie watching/Yosemite mountain climbing, you simply fire up the app. It will point in the direction of the saved location, and tell you the distance to it in feet.
According to Garmin, the Fenix 3's battery lasts up to 50 hours in UltraTrac battery saver mode, up to 20 hours in GPS mode, and up to three weeks in smartwatch mode. In my experience, only using the GPS on brief runs, I was able to get about a week’s use out of it without charging it up again.
The app, Garmin Connect, feels just as comprehensive at the watch. It obviously displays all of the basic information you’d expect: number of daily steps, hours of sleep, and heart rate throughout the day. But that’s just the start.
For example, there’s a “Leaderboard” that allows you to turn your fitness routine into a game. You’re connected with a group of other Garmin users who walk roughly the same number of steps as you.
The sheer amount of data available from your activity is tough to work through. That’s why they also included an “Insights” feature that’s designed to help you make sense of your overall performance. It includes updates to your goals, motivation, and some basic fitness tips.
Most helpfully to me, Insights includes a reminder to get moving if you spend too long sitting. If you’re sedentary for a full hour, it vibrates and fills a “Move Bar.” More move bars fill with each 15 minutes of activity. After you finally get up and walk a sufficient number of steps, it clears the Move Bar.
Through the “Smart Notifications” feature, you can fine tune how many of your smartphone’s notifications actually make their way to your watch. That way, I was able to see a message from my wife on my wrist when she texted me. But when my smartphone informed me that someone added me on LinkedIn, that information never made it to the watch.
If you’re a data geek about your workouts, then this is your dream watch. It gives you basic info like time of exercise, distance, calories burned, and a map of your run. But you can dive deeper if you want.
For example, it gives you granular data about your pace over the course of your run. In the chart below, you can literally see the two times I stopped running in order to let my dog poop.
Other data includes heart rate, elevation, cadence, temperature, and how much time your heart rate spends in the five heart rate “zones.”
Interestingly, it can also estimate your VO2 max, a stat that normally only serious athletes know. It calculates your running speed, beats per minute, and heart rate variability to estimate the maximum volume of oxygen you can consume per minute.
The Garmin Fenix 3 HR is the watch to get if you want something that looks different than what your other tech-loving friends have on their wrists. It doesn’t have the rounded, sleek design of an Apple Watch, the unassuming minimalism of a FitBit Surge, or the elegance of a classic watch. With its half-inch thick bulk, stainless-steel bevel, sturdy analog buttons, and five visible screw heads, it’s more accurate to describe its appearance as industrial and orderly. It’s stylish in the same sense that an M1 Abrams tank is stylish.
Though it’s undeniably big, it was comfortable on my wrist. I wore it nonstop for about a week without any skin issues.
However, nothing’s perfect. In addition to the problems with the user interface lagging, the screen is tough to see in certain situations. In medium-low light (think dusk time), it was too dark to see the screen clearly, but too bright for the included screen light to have any effect. The colors available on the display are very limited. I only saw a single shade of five colors: blue, red, yellow, green, and (rarely) purple. Though I get that Garmin is aiming for rugged functionality over splashy design, I think the whole experience would be enhanced if the app developers had a broader palette to play with.
But these issues are overshadowed by the Fenix 3 HR’s crazy awesome benefits. If you want the pinnacle of fitness-oriented smartwatches and are willing to shell out the equivalent of the monthly lease payment of a luxury car in order to get it, then the Garmin Fenix 3 HR is your only option.
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