In recent years, GPS-enabled running watches have hedged even closer into wrist-mounted computer territory. But pack too many features into a tiny space, and something's going to underperform — often it's satellite accuracy or battery life that's lackluster. When Garmin announced the third update to its Fenix line, watches first geared for rugged backcountry exploration with fitness features added in, it promised to be a rock-solid multisport watch that combined all of the features of its Forerunner sports line. Plus, it was redesigned to be more accurate than earlier models. For a true test, we ran with it in the most challenging urban environment — New York City — and later tried advanced features on the slopes in upstate New York. Here's how it performed in our early testing.
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Day 1: There's nothing more frustrating than spending an hour configuring a new tracker when all you want to do is put it on and give it a whirl. The makers of the Fenix 3 must have realized this: Out of the box, it is ready to go with common settings for runners enabled and a battery with usable juice. There's little more required than entering your language choice and heading out the door. Likewise, Garmin has made it a breeze to pair the watch to your smartphone app for wireless uploading, which we did after our first run.
Finding a GPS signal took a moment, possibly thanks to the new construction: Garmin moved to an "EXO antenna" — basically, a metal ring on the face of the watch that aids in reception — and added support for GLONASS, a Russian-controlled satellite system, to improve accuracy. The Fenix 2 was never this precise.
Another huge improvement over the Fenix 2: WiFi uploads. We set it up to sync via our office network and the run appeared on Garmin Connect without any prompting on our part.
The improvement to Bluetooth syncing was also immediately noticeable. This is most likely because the watch has a built-in daily fitness tracker — it counts steps and measures your sleep — and displays smart notifications, so the Fenix 3 is in constant communication with your phone throughout the day. Within seconds of opening up the Garmin Connect app on my iPhone 6, the dashboard updates to show the current step total.
Day 2: Buzzzz. Buzzzz. Buzzzz. At 6:30 AM the Fenix 3 rattled — silently. A vibrating alarm is great because it ensures you wake up even if you're sleeping with earplugs. But, more important, it doesn't wake your bed partner. One knock: You can only set one alarm, and there's no snooze option. And, unfortunately, you have to remember to switch it into and out of sleep mode. Also, Garmin shows only "movement" during your sleep, rather than trying to pinpoint exactly when you were awake or dozing.
One of the "smart watch" features we really loved, strangely, was being able to view the current weather conditions quickly on your wrist. As a runner in the northeast during a brutally cold winter, it helps to ensure you don't leave the house with too few layers. The watch leverages your phone to pull in the conditions from a nearby weather station, and it'll display the forecast for the next four hours and the next four days.
A feature that sets the Fenix line apart from Garmin's more traditional run-trackers is navigation. You can select a previous activity to follow or set a track up ahead of time via the Garmin Connect website. Once synced to the watch through the mobile app, you can get nearly turn-by-turn directions for your run or hike. A special data screen will point an arrow toward your next waypoint, to keep you on course. We like this feature when we're running trails or strange routes in new cities — we're never lost and don't have to tote along a map.
Day 3: Where the Fenix line really sets itself apart from Garmin's other sport-specific timepieces is in the backcountry. The aforementioned navigation feature is just one example. Another: ski mode. To test it out, we hit the slopes at Gore Mountain in upstate New York. In four hours we skiied 1:45, with each run recorded as separate laps — the watch recognizes when you get back on the chairlift. Your current run metrics include distance and descent, as well as your average and top speed. You can also toggle through screens to see your totals for the day. This was fun, if dangerous: We'll admit to bombing down one steep run just to nudge our max speed a little higher.
We left the watch running the entire day on the slopes and assumed the battery would be drained by the end. Not so. Even with Bluetooth connected to our phone to track steps and sleep, we still had 61 percent at day's end. It's safe to say the watch will last any long run or marathon — hikers and ultramarathoners can get even more life by reducing how frequently the watch reads your position.
Finally, we swapped the strap. The Sapphire edition we tested ships with a fashionable steel band. It looks nice, but it's heavy — double the weight of the watch when compared to the rubber strap model. Plus, for high-intensity activities, you can't adjust the metal band quite as finely to stop it from bouncing around.
[$600 for Sapphire edition with metal band, from $499 with rubber strap; garmin.com]