Wearable wars: Garmin smartwatch hands-on review

Article By : Brian Dipert

A smartwatch with more than a week between recharges is, in a word, liberating.

EDN hands-on projectAs long-time readers may already recall, I’ve tried out, torn down, and otherwise dabbled with a plethora of wearable devices over the years. Originally, there was my Garmin Forerunner GPS-inclusive running watch, succeeded by several smartwatch variants within Google’s Wear OS (its current name … formerly Android Wear) ecosystem. I’ve also test-driven several Pebbles, along with dissecting a Microsoft Band and multiple off-brand fitness trackers and watches. And my wife is a longstanding Fitbit fan (both watches and bands) and the owner of an Apple Series 2 smartwatch (and, as of her birthday yesterday, as I write these words, a Garmin Forerunner 35).

Some of you might also recall that back in April, EDN published my teardown of a Garmin fēnix 5 Plus high-end fitness watch. One of the reader feedback comments particularly gave me a chuckle:

Looks pretty neat, but wow – the Fenix 5X seems to be over $900! Did you reassemble it or was it destroyed in the process?

Alas, the fēnix 5 Plus did not survive surgery. But fortunately, it was a donation, so neither EDN nor I had to pay for it. I suspected in advance that my dissection would end up being permanently destructive … in fact, I admittedly went ahead and did the teardown straightaway instead of doing some hands-on testing first because I didn’t want to be tempted by a positive usage experience into subsequently buying another watch of my own (one that I didn’t really need).

Alas (again), however, my fiscally sensitive scheming was for naught. A few months later, Amazon put the sapphire face-based (and stainless steel bezel-based) version of the fēnix 5 on sale for $399 … and I took the bait, suspecting as I did so that this was an inventory-emptying move on Garmin’s part to clear out room for fēnix 6 successors to come, which ended up being spot on:

To understand the difference between the fēnix 5 and the newer fēnix 5 Plus model I’d previously torn down, and more generally to try to clear up some of the model-vs-model “differentiation between them [which] is admittedly more than a bit confusing,” as I’d previously commented, here are some high-level notes:

  • The fēnix 5S and fēnix 5 are functionally identical, just with different face diameters (42mm vs 47mm) … the former’s smaller overall dimensions also translate into a lower-capacity battery and decreased operating life between recharges.
  • The fēnix 5X has an even larger face diameter (51mm) than the fēnix 5, which makes it feasible to display maps directly on the watch.
  • Newer “Plus” variants of all three models also support direct map display, along with the ability to both play back watch-stored tunes and live-stream various “cloud” music services (Pandora, for example, along with recently added Amazon Music). Pulse oximeter support (only on the 5X Plus) supplements prior pulse monitoring, and Garmin Pay capabilities have also been added.
  • And sapphire face-based variants of both families support not only Bluetooth connectivity to wirelessly tethered smartphone or tablet (also supported by conventional scratch-resistant mineral glass face models) but also Wi-Fi connectivity (which, truth be told, ended up being less useful than I’d thought … more on that later)

I’ve been wearing the fēnix 5 pretty much full-time for a few weeks now, after having toted pretty much nothing but Wear OS timepieces on my wrist for the preceding several years. Here’s how it looks, with one of the custom watch faces from the Connect IQ Store (CleanAnalog, to be exact) installed:

Wearables are, unsurprisingly, a highly personal decision; what works great for one person may be lousy to another, and visa versa, due to feature-selection and -prioritization individuality. With me being such a techie, you might have thought (as I indeed did for several years) that my highest feature set priorities would be a crisp OLED or LED-backlit LCD display (versus the comparatively dim transflective memory-in-pixel display on the Garmin) and a touchscreen UI (versus a series of buttons on the Garmin), along with a robust set of both standalone smartwatch apps and supplemental “applets” to apps running on the smartphone, all common characteristics of both the Apple Watch and Wear OS ecosystems.

And yes, it’s cool when Google Maps running on my smartphone alerts me to an upcoming turn by vibrating my watch. Or when I can control Pandora on my smartphone from my watch … although it doesn’t work very well anymore (something that Runkeeper users, for example, have also learned). But you know what’s not cool? A painfully sluggish UI, reflective of the Wear OS ecosystem’s primary SoC supplier’s (Qualcomm) sloth-like development pace versus Apple’s year-to-year (except this year) chip advancements.

And you know what else isn’t cool? The ~18 hour battery life between charges, even without integrated GPS activated. This shortcoming means, for example, that I can’t use a Wear OS-based smartwatch for sleep tracking, not that any third-party apps do a decent job of it anyway (I’ve tried), far from built-in support within the O/S. And more generally, it means that I’m perpetually in a state of “nomophobia,” wondering if the watch is going to even make it through a working day, worrying about making sure I’ve packed a charger for business trips, and not even thinking about toting it on a multi-day backpacking trip. And lest you think I’m unfairly beating up Google and its partners, I’d be saying the same thing if I owned an Apple Watch … and my wife does say the same thing.

Conversely, the fēnix 5 loses only about 10% of its charge each day under normal operating conditions, translating to more than a week between recharges. With GPS constantly on (while tracking an activity, for example), Garmin claims up to 24 hours of use, although user forum feedback suggests that 12-18 hours (depending on whether, for example, Bluetooth is also on, and how frequently and for how long the backlight is illuminated) is more realistic. This all is, in a word, liberating. I can wear it like a watch, not like a vampiric battery-sucking mobile electronics device, but I still benefit from the really important stuff that makes smartwatches great, such as notifications of incoming emails, texts, phone calls, and voicemails, and reminders about upcoming appointments.

Paying for things using your mobile device vs a credit card is cool, and the Garmin Pay ecosystem is admittedly less mature than Android Pay … but I’ve likely also got my Android smartphone with me anyway, so I can just pay that way. Sleep tracking, which I’d never done before, is now something I look at every morning and is seemingly quite precise; Garmin’s algorithms differentiate between REM and other sleep modes based not only on average pulse rate but also on beat-to-beat duration variability. Location tracking is equally rock-solid (unsurprising given Garmin’s long GPS lineage), and my activity tracking data is not only collected by Garmin’s Connect cloud service but also, via a third-party sync app called Health Sync, routed to Google Fit for merging with my legacy Wear OS results.

There is one thing that I do miss, however, and I say this realizing that battery life is probably the fundamental factor in its absence. My Wear OS watches would not only auto-sync to my phones via Bluetooth but, when out of range, over Wi-Fi when available. Limited-capability Wi-Fi sync is also available with the fēnix 5, but it’s a tedious manually-initiated process instead. I’m not sure how the Bluetooth signal strength of the Garmin watch compares with its Wear OS predecessors (battery life tradeoffs again?) but what I will say is how much more often I now encounter the dreaded red-color “Reconnect to phone to refresh data” message … even when the phone is only one room over from me.

I also dread a bit having spent so much money (even on sale) for something like this with an embedded battery whose charge storage capacity will inevitably degrade as the number of recharge cycles I put on it climbs (no matter that my teardown suggests it’s relatively easy to replace). As such, as I continue using the fēnix 5 in the coming months (and hopefully years), I’ll report back any additional observations (positive and negative alike) that I come across. For now, I welcome your comments!

Brian Dipert is Editor-in-Chief of the Embedded Vision Alliance, and a Senior Analyst at BDTI and Editor-in-Chief of InsideDSP, the company’s online newsletter.

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