The fenix 3 and fenix 5 are two of the most robust GPS watches Garmin ever created. With their classic, sport watch style, the fenix watches look just as good in the office as they do on your adventures. They capable of tracking tons of activities from running to cycling to skiing to swimming to golf.
For those of you who already own the fenix 3 – or maybe you’re deciding between the new fenix 5 or more affordable fenix 3 – we’ll examine the differences between each version and see which better fits your needs.
The fenix 3 was introduced in March 2014. It was one of the first (and Garmin’s first) GPS watches that actually looked like something you’d want to wear in places where suits and ties are more appropriate than shorts and running shoes. The fenix 3 came laden with sensors that could do everything from determine altitude to improving running form. It worked equally well running and cycling as it did on ski slopes and open water.
With the release of the fenix 5, Garmin has tried to one-up what they produced on the fenix 3 (including the price!).
So is the new fenix 5 worth the cost? We’ll break down the differences in detail – starting with the biggest updates in the fenix 5 – and find out….
PHYSICAL / STYLE DIFFERENCES
Size and Weight
The most noticeable change is the fenix 5 appearance. While the fenix 3 could be purchased with a wrist heart rate and had a metal band option, they were all the same size and shape. But now the fenix 5 comes in three different sizes (with three different names).
The fenix 5S is the smallest of the three and aims for the crowd that wants all the features of the fenix 3 without the weight and bulk. The fenix 5 – the middle child – is a tad bigger. And the fenix 5X, which we consider the true successor to the fenix 3 is roughly the same size and weight – and has a few extra features that aren’t found in the fenix 5S or 5.
Watch Color and Display Screen
The new fenix 5 watches come in a bunch of different colors. The fenix 3 came in two colors: silver and gray. They looked pretty similar to be honest.
The fenix 5 comes in white, silver, gray, and black depending on whether you choose the 5S, 5, or 5X. They also have a bunch of band color/style options.
There are also options to buy the fenix 3 and fenix 5 with a more scratch-resistant, sapphire lens.
The other big addition to the fenix 5 are quick-fit bands. The fenix 3 had interchangeable bands in styles that ranged from rubber silicone, leather, and metal all in a variety of colors. But changing them required two small screwdrivers and four (easily lost) tiny screws.
Quick-fit bands can be taken on and off in seconds without tools. And they are just as secure as the screw-in version.
Even better, the new quick-fit bands work on the fenix 3, too. Don’t fret if you own or buy the fenix 3.
Wrist Heart Rate
Not long after the fenix 3 was introduced, Garmin released the fenix 3 HR which had wrist-based heart rate (the original fenix 3 did not). But every version of the fenix 5 now comes with wrist heart rate. This seems to be the trend Garmin is headed since they are discontinuing many of their non-wrist-based heart rate watches.
This isn’t a bad thing as wrist heart rate data is sufficient for general use. And it’s nice to have all day heart rate readings, which you’d never do with a chest strap HRM.
The downside to optical heart rate is that it sucks up battery power. But Garmin seems to have solved this issue with the fenix 5 (which we’ll get to in a moment).
MAPS AND FINDING YOUR WAY
New and only included with the fenix 5X (the biggest and most expensive fenix watch), Garmin brings us full color street and topo maps. This is HUGE breakthrough as earlier mapping on the fenix and some of Garmin’s other watches, was a simple breadcrumb map.
Color topo and street maps come pre-loaded on the fenix 5X. Now you can see exactly where you are, where you’ve come from, and – if you’ve pre-loaded a route – where and how much farther you need to go.
For those new to an area, or interested in exploring different routes, the fenix 5X can also suggest new routes based on your current location. Even better, it’ll provide turn-by-turn directions as you run or cycle through the course.
Finally, a small but cool feature is that the regular data you want to see (distance, pace, etc.) is overlayed on top of the map. This means no more scrolling through screens to jump between the map and other information. It’s all on the same screen.
Garmin included a wrist heart rate monitor on every version of the fenix 5 – which are known power hogs – but the battery life actually increased* vs the fenix 3!
*(Err, sort of. It decreased in the fenix 5S and remained the same in the fenix 5X but it DID increase in the fenix 5. That counts as progress!).
We’re also pulling these estimates from Garmin, who have been known to provide best-case (cough, cough) battery life. Not what you actually might see in real life.
Garmin uses three modes to measure battery life: Everyday mode, GPS mode, and UltraTrac. Everyday mode is just wearing your watch around like an activity tracker – no GPS.
GPS mode is the mode for tracking outdoor activities (and what most people think of when considering battery life).
UltraTrac confuses most people. Because it makes it appear that the fenix has the most amazing battery ever. But don’t be fooled – UltraTrac conserves power by taking GPS coordinates infrequently – basically it turns GPS off except every minute or so when it takes a location reading.
This is great for battery life, but absolutely terrible for measuring accurate distance and pace. This mode should only be used for long hikes where you’re more concerned with a general map of where you’ve hiked instead of accurate distance tracking.
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RUNNING DYNAMICS POD, TRAININGPEAKS, STRAVA, VARIA
There are a couple, small but useful additions only available on the fenix 5.
Running Dynamics Pod
Part of the data the fenix is capable of collecting while you run includes stride length, vertical oscillation (how much you bounce up and down), and ground contact time. Basically, these give you a strong sense of running form and how efficiently you run.
Until recently, you needed to wear a Garmin chest heart rate monitor called HR-Run to measure this data. But now with the fenix 5, you can use the Pod – which simply clips onto your waist, eliminating the need for the chest strap.
Another new feature for TrainingPeaks users is an app available on Garmin IQ which downloads TrainingPeaks workouts directly onto the fenix. No need to write down or remember your workouts – they’ll automatically be on your watch.
Strava users rejoice! With the new Strava app – only available on the fenix 5 – you can review segments in real-time. Guess-work is no longer needed to know when they start and stop – just check your watch.
Also for Strava Premium users, the Beacon feature is the high-tech way to share your location with up to 3 people. Safety is a top priority – Beacon lets someone know where you are at all times.
Varia Vision and radar is a new safety device that displays cycling stats from the fenix 5 to a small projector that attaches to your sunglasses or helmet. When paired with the Varia radar, you’ll be alerted to cars approaching from behind.
We already mentioned that the cheapest fenix 5 costs $599.99 but that’s not the whole story. The base model of the fenix 5X costs $699.99. But add on extra features like the sapphire lens and metal band and the price jumps to $849.99.
Compare these costs to the fenix 3 which started at $449.99, and went up to $549.99 for the wrist heart rate and sapphire lens versions. Also consider that the fenix 3 is no longer price protected – you can usually find it online for 20-35% less than the fenix 5.
With such price differences, cost plays a big role in figuring out which watch is better for you. Do you want the newest with the updated features? Or something almost as good that costs much less?
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Those are the biggest differences between the fenix 3 and fenix 5. We’ll cover everything else the fenix watches can do below. There are a few more small updates on the fenix 5 which we’ll review as we go.
Both the fenix 3 and fenix 5 come loaded with sensors beyond GPS.
Altitude, Direction, Temperature, and GPS Accuracy
ABC (Altimeter, Barometer, Compass)
Standard on the fenix 3 and fenix 5 are three sensors that help with navigation and weather changes. Altitude is tracked with GPS and the barometer, which measures air pressure and uses that information to determine elevation. The barometer also tracks changes in air pressure to help identify incoming storms. The compass provides N/S/E/W direction.
GLONASS and Gyroscope
In an effort to improve GPS accuracy, the fenix 3 and 5 both come with GLONASS satellite tracking. GLONASS is the Russian satellite system, similar to the United States launched GPS. Enabling GLONASS with GPS provides more satellites to connect to and – in theory – provide greater accuracy.
The introduction of the gyroscope is new on the fenix 5. The battery-saving mode UltraTrac, which, saves battery but greatly decreases pace and distance tracking, performs better with the gyroscope. The idea is that it creates more accurate data points with UltraTrac. So – in theory – you get a longer battery with more accuracy.
Standard on both fenix versions, it is mainly used to track steps in activity tracker mode. It’s also used to calculate pace and distance for treadmill runs. And it’s needed to track swims and count strokes for different paddle sports.
Also standard on both fenixs, the thermometer provides temperature readings; however, these can get skewed by body heat. An accessory called Tempe can be clipped to a pack or piece of clothing and does a better job tracking temperature.
GPS provides distance, time, and pace (or speed when you are on a rolling, sliding, or floating object).
Accuracy is improved when GLONASS is enabled, especially for hikers or trail runners who often have dense forest above them.
For the majority of the fenix watches, this is tracked by the optical wrist sensor. But all the fenix watches are compatible with a chest strap heart rate monitor (HRM) for more accurate heart rate data.
The fenix does a few things with heart rate data. It displays heart rate zones while exercising. It provides alerts to let you know if you’re above or below a set heart rate range or zone. And it calculates burned calories, which should be more accurate with heart rate data.
The fenix watches also estimate max heart rate – then show you what percent of your max you’re using.
One feature Garmin touts about the fenix watches is that they function as a virtual coach (we’ll cover this in more detail below). So post-activity – using all the heart rate data collected (along with other info) – the fenix suggests what it thinks your recovery time should be before you workout again. In my experience, this is on the conservative side (and often ignored on my part). Then again, better to be safe than to overdo it.
One little caveat is that if none of this is possible with the non-wrist HRM fenix 3 unless you are wearing the heart rate chest strap.
One other cool trick – again only if you are wearing one of Garmin’s pricier chest HRMs made for swimming or triathlons – is that heart rate is tracked swimming. Unfortunately, you can’t see heart rate in real-time. Instead, the HRMs saves the data, then syncs it to the fenix post-swim.
Treadmill Runs, Stroke/Paddle Counts, and Other Related Cool Stuff
With the built-in accelerometer, the fenix watches can track some pretty amazing things. This sensor pretty much takes over when GPS isn’t available or can’t be used.
Indoors at Home or the Gym
If you find yourself on a treadmill (IMO, I have no idea why you’d ever want to to do that!), the fenix 3 and 5 use arm swing to calculate pace and distance. So you get the same benefits that you get with outdoor running and GPS, but inside on a treadmill.
For anyone who uses a rowing machine, the fenix watches tracks rowing strokes per minute, pace, and total strokes.
And with the compatible cycling speed and cadence sensor attached to your bike, the fenix tracks cycling metrics on a bike trainer.
The fenix watches are some of the most versatile GPS watches on the market. They don’t just excel in one activity, but work great in a variety of different sports.
The activities they’re set-up for include: running, cycling, swimming, hiking, mountain biking, paddle sports, skiing, snowboarding, and even golf!
And while a lot of GPS watches claim to be suitable for more than just running, they are often just regular GPS features (like speed and distance) displayed in mph instead of min / mile. Not so with the fenix!
The fenix 3 and 5 built-in sensors do things like: track distance swimming in pools and open water, count paddle strokes while canoeing or kayaking, track ski runs and auto-lap at the end of each run – plus it’s compatible with accessories to enhance nearly every activity.
A slight change to the fenix 5 are the golf features. These are slightly more fleshed out than what you find on the fenix 3.
Running with the fenix – whether it’s on the road, trail, or indoors – gives you a wide range of features that track your run, enhance your workouts, and provide a ton of information post-run. You can take full advantage of these features – or you can just go for a run.
Before you even step out the door, the fenix can be set-up in a few different ways. If you want to follow a pre-determined route, you can create one on Garmin Connect (by tracing roads along a map) and upload it to the watch.
In all but the fenix 5X (which provides real street and topo maps), the route will be shown as a dotted line – you’re current position is marked with the triangle. As you run, you can follow your course along the dotted path – if you’ve made a wrong turn, you’ll see your position moving away from the uploaded route.
As we mentioned earlier, the fenix 5X is capable of generating routes for you and providing turn-by-turn directions.
You can also program workouts and upload them to the fenix. This is nice for interval workouts, ladder intervals, or any type of run that can be broken up into different increments of time, distance, pace, and/or heart rate intensity.
Even if you haven’t pre-loaded a workout, you can create more simple workouts – like intervals – directly on the watch.
There are also some free training plans for the major running distances on Garmin Connect. If you use one of these, daily workouts are automatically loaded onto the fenix.
Similarly, TrainingPeaks has created its own app on Connect IQ to help download workouts to the fenix. If you use TrainingPeaks, this is an option to look into. At this time, it’s only compatible on the fenix 5, not the fenix 3.
Now it’s time to get out the door and actually start sweating!
If you’ve loaded a workout on the fenix, it vibrates and makes an audible alert at every leg as you progress through the run.
There are a couple other ways to train with the fenix. The virtual partner/pacer has been a long-time Garmin exclusive feature. It’s a fun way to run if you are looking to go at a certain pace. You can read more about it here, but basically you tell the fenix what pace you want to run and it visually shows your pace compared to the set pace with a “virtual” person on the watch. So you can see how far ahead or behind you are from that person (i.e. your pace).
While running, there’s a ton of different metrics and information that can be displayed in real-time as you run. Most commonly, these are things like distance, pace, time, lap time and pace, cadence, heart rate, calories, elevation… but the list is much longer and fairly extensive. Screens displaying this info can be customized in whatever manner you like – or just use the pre-loaded profiles Garmin provides.
In addition, there are a set of features Garmin collectively refers to as Running Dynamics that can be tracked and displayed while you run (and later analyzed post-run). To get this data, however, you need to wear one of Garmin’s Run-HR chest straps or the Pod, which attaches to your waist band (this only works on the fenix 5).
Running Dynamics provide a detailed look into your overall running efficiency. The data it measures includes ground contact time (how long your feet touch the ground), vertical oscillation (how much you bound up and down), and stride length. Together, these provide a blueprint into your running form. There’s an article we wrote here with more information.
You did it! Run completed – congrats! Now it’s time to analyze your run.
There are a few ways to review your run. Directly on the watch, the fenix provides a summary (time, distance, pace, heart rate, calories, etc.) as soon as you finish and saves it on the watch.
The fenix then uploads your run to Garmin Connect where it can looked at even further, providing a map of your route, distance and elevation data, and pace, heart rate, and cadence graphs.
Run Recovery and Training Effect
Immediately following a run, you’ll also see a recovery timer. Using heart rate data and the intensity of past activities, the fenix suggests a recovery time (usually displayed in hours) before your next workout.
Similarly, the fenix also provides a tool to measure your just completed run and determine how it affects your overall fitness. It assigns a number between 1 and 5 (where 1 is super-easy, no benefit and 5 is way too hard, possibly detrimental) for both aerobic and anaerobic benefits. Aerobic benefit measures your fitness level and capacity to burn fat. Anaerobic is more about sprinting ability and how well you fight fatigue.
While Training Effect looks at a just-completed run, Training Load analyzes workouts for the last seven days. Again, based on mainly heart rate data, it provides a quick guide of whether you are training too hard or not.
Finally, the fenix provides a VO2MAX estimate. This tool provides an analysis into overall fitness. For someone in great shape, this number won’t change too much but for those just starting out – or maybe worried about losing fitness – this is a great stat to track.
Many of the functions we covered for running also apply to cycling. Obviously, this doesn’t include running dynamics, but the other features like uploading routes, programming workouts, and using the virtual partner work can be used cycling. And post-workout, VO2MAX and other training effect features work the same way.
We covered this earlier, but with Strava being so big in the cycling world, it’s worth mentioning again. Using the fenix 5 and the Strava app, you can see segments in real-time. And premium Strava users can use the fenix 5 with the Beacon function so family and friends always know where you are during your ride.
The biggest advantage of using the fenix watches for cycling is its compatibility with cycling-specific accessories.
This does two things: it records speed using the wheel circumference and rotation count and it counts how many times per minute you crank the pedals.
The speed sensor is going to be slightly more accurate in measuring distance and speed than GPS. It also allows the fenix to track speed and distance indoors on a trainer.
The cadence sensor counts rotations per minute – without this, there’s no way to accurately know cycling cadence.
Vector Power Meter
A power meter is the most accurate way to track cycling performance. It measures how much power (measured in watts) you produce while you ride. Power is measured left-right pedal independent – you’ll know if one leg is strong than the other.
Varia Vision, Radar, and Lights
These three devices work independently or in tandem to provide cycling information and increase safety.
Varia Vision is a small projector that attaches to a pair of sunglasses or helmet and displays GPS information and other types of data. Remember Google Glass? It’s like but more useful and not as nerdy.
This small device attached to the back of your bike and warns you when cars approach from up to 150 yards behind. When paired with Varia Vision, you’ll be notified of approaching cars through the Vision device.
These smart lights sit on your handlebars like other bike-mount lights. What’s different is that they not only adjust intensity with changing light conditions, but will project farther out along the road as your speed increases.
The fenix counts laps during pool swims as well as time, speed, and total distance swam. But it’s important to set the pool length on the watch prior to starting in order to get accurate information.
The fenix also measures individual stroke count. With this, it can determine swolf (or swimming efficiency) to help you monitor swim form. And it will attempt to figure out which type of stroke you are using (free, back, breast, etc.).
Because the fenix uses the accelerometer for pool swims, it’s important to tell the fenix (by pausing the watch) when you are resting or taking a break between laps. If you don’t, the fenix isn’t good about auto-pausing or figuring out that you stopped. Just hit the lap button when you want to take a break. This tells the fenix you are actually stopped.
During open water swimming – either training or during a triathlon – the fenix uses GPS to record your swim. GPS only works when your wrist is above the water, so every time your arm comes out of the water, the fenix tries to lock onto GPS and record your position. This can result in some wonky location tracking, so the fenix uses an algorithm to smooth out the course and provide more accurate distance. Ultimately, what this means is the swim won’t be as accurate as in the pool, but it’s still pretty good and way better than other options.
One important note regarding heart rate. The wrist heart rate monitor doesn’t work in the water. If you want to measure heart rate, you need to wear one of two Garmin chest strap HRMs. One is designed for open water swims, the other for pool swimming. The upside to wearing a chest strap is you get accurate heart rate data while swimming. The downside is you can’t see heart rate in real time. It’s only once you’ve finished swimming, that the information gets passed from the HRM to the fenix.
This deserves a separate mention from running, cycling, and swimming features. The fenix seamlessly switches between swimming, cycling, and running activities with a single button press. This changes the display screens for that specific sport and marks a time between transitions. In the end, you get one long race or workout, rather than three separate activities.
When on the water using a paddle – whether it’s rowing, stand-up paddleboarding, kayaking, or rowing – the fenix counts paddle strokes. Using this info, it calculates stroke rate, distance per stroke, and – when you download rowing apps from Garmin Connect – your watt (i.e. power) per stroke.
The built-in compass and navigational breadcrumb maps will help you find your way back if you venture too far out.
Downhill Skiing and Snowboarding
Putting the fenix in ski mode lets you track your runs all day without thinking about it – just start it up and let it go. During your ski runs, the fenix tracks speed, distance, total descent, and number of runs.
The best part is once you start it up, you don’t need to think about it again. The fenix auto-pauses while you’re on the lift or stopped. And it’s smart enough to auto-lap on the bottom of every run. No worries about wearing it under your jacket as it tracks GPS just fine.
Hiking & Trail Running
The fenix 3 and 5 were our top GPS hiking watches in 2017. With ABC sensors (altimeter, barometer, compass) and strong route and mapping features, the fenix can help you easily navigate the trails.
Like with other activities, routes can be uploaded ahead of time. While the fenix 5X is the only fenix with real topo maps, the breadcrumb map on the other fenixs will help keep you on the correct path.
You can also program waypoints on the fenix – these are specific locations (like a landmark, camp, or where you left your car) that will appear on the breadcrumb map.
If you need to turnaround or become disoriented, TracBack assists leading you back the way you just came. If you navigate off that path, it redirects you onto it as quick as possible.
ABC sensors provide elevation and alerts when the weather pattern changes. The compass is another means of navigation to find your way.
The long battery life of the fenix makes it ideal of longer hikes or overnight camping trips. For an even longer battery, these is an UltraTrac setting. This extends the battery for up 60 hours. You do, however, lose distance and pace accuracy, so this feature should only be used in cases where battery life trumps GPS tracking.
For hiking and trail running, the fenix also tracks your vertical speed, i.e. how fast you are climbing or descending.
If you enable AutoClimb, the fenix automatically changes the display screen to climbing metrics whenever it detects that you’ve started climbing or descending a hill.
As we mentioned earlier, the fenix 3 and 5 can both be used when golfing. The fenix 5 expanded on a few of the features introduced on the fenix 3.
Before you do anything, you need to download the course you are playing on from Garmin Connect. With that done, you’re now able to start using the fenix while you play.
First, the fenix provides yard distance to the front, back, and middle of the green as well as yardage to any doglegs or layups. As you play, it measures shot distance. And you can use the fenix as a digital scorecard.
On the fenix 5, you’ve got a couple extra features. One is yard distance to hazards, not just the green and doglegs. Autoshot will automatically record and track your shot distances and keep count.
Along the same lines, the fenix 5 can be used as a digital scorecard. And the odometer times your rounds and tracks how far you’ve walked along the course.
This is the “step-counter” portion of the fenix. It’s very similar to Fitbits and have been added to every recently released Garmin GPS watch. The main functions are to count daily, cumulative steps, set step goals, and track your sleep (assuming you would wear a hefty watch to sleep… which I personally wouldn’t….).
Move reminders appear if you’ve been sitting for too long. A quick walk usually clears it up. These can be annoying to see later in the day, especially after a hard morning workout – but on more restful days, they are good reminders to get up and move around a little.
Bluetooth and WIFI connectivity
The fenix watches download activities to Garmin Connect automatically once they are saved on the watch. The fenix 3 and fenix 5X connect through Wi-Fi and Bluetooth. Oddly, the fenix 5S and 5 only connect via Bluetooth…
Connect IQ is Garmin’s app store. It’s where you can access things like the Strava app or the Face It app which lets you create your own watch face from a picture. It’s also where you customize the watch face or find new and different ways to display the data collected on the fenix.
When near your phone, any alerts also appear on the fenix. This includes text messages, incoming phone calls (you can decline calls but can’t answer them), or any type of notification that also appears on your phone.
If you run with music played on a phone, the fenix can jump between songs with a button push.
Find My Phone/Watch
If you lose your phone, you can use the fenix to help track it down. And conversely, if you lose your fenix, your phone can help track it down.
Garmin’s VIRB camera is a Go-Pro style video recorder that also records your GPS data. Paired with a fenix, you can use the fenix as a remote control to start and stop the VIRB camera.
Live Track and Group Live Track
Live Track is a useful way for family and friends to follow your progress during an activity. It’s perfect for families at large events like a marathon to figure out exactly where you are.
Group Live Track lets you follow up to 50 people. The idea is if you are on a large group bike ride, you can see other cyclists who may have gotten separated from the larger pack.
Finally, Race Predictor uses current fitness data like VO2Max to provide estimates for expected finishing times in standard race distances (5k, 10k, Half Marathon, Marathon).
Garmin has made definite progress to make the fenix 5 more inclusive to a majority of people out there. The 5S addresses those who wanted a smaller design while the 5X expands on the mapping and navigation features that originally made the fenix such a strong watch.
That being said, there aren’t many ground-breaking features on the new fenix 5 watches. If you have no interested in wrist heart rate, the original fenix 3 is still your best and most economical bet. If you want wrist HR and a better battery, the new fenix 5 is a great option with the fenix 3 HR a better budget option. That leaves the 5S for anyone who prefers a smaller size and the 5X if you want the newest mapping features.
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