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Review: Garmin Fenix 5 (Sapphire)

Written by

Frank May

Fast Runner, Triathlete and Engineer

This expert review is written by

Frank May

Fast Runner, Triathlete and Engineer
Frank May did his first 5k at the age of 10 and has not stopped competing in them since then. Frank has a background in mechanical engineering and puts some of his free time towards running through the streets, tracks, and trails of Boston.
Expert score

Expert Review: Garmin Fenix 5 (Sapphire)

Quick overview

Fenix 5 (Sapphire)
List price
599.99 US$
Battery life
14 hrs
Water proof
Yes + Swim Tracking
Multi sport
Yes + Event tracking
Music support
Yes from Phone
24h tracking
Heart monitor

Pros and cons according to our running expert

Pros and cons according to our running expert

  • Sapphire screen
  • Stainless steel and fiber reinforced body
  • Ships with QuickFit bands for easy style changes
  • Incredible reliability with Garmin’s well known sport’s watch pedigree
  • The rugged design and thicker body results in a heavier watch
  • In extreme cold the metal bezel conducts heat away faster than plastic counterparts and this causes the watch to fail

Our verdict

Garmin's Fenix 5 S is a rugged multisport watch from the Fenix line of watches designed for those who want a rugged watch packed with sensors for a variety of outdoor activities. The Fenix 5 I tested touts a sapphire crystal display covering a fiber-reinforced polymer body with a stainless steel back. This watch is designed to match your every move, while recording your every move for up to 60 hours.

Design and Hardware Garmin Fenix 5 (Sapphire)

Garmin ships the fenix 5 in a grey matte cardboard 4” (101mm) cube with actual size glossy profile shots of the watch on 3 of the sides. This gives you a great sense of scale before even taking the watch out of the box, and lets you see how thick the watch actually is. One little detail Garmin missed on the photos is the second loop strap, although I recommend owners of this watch to just remove the second strap that doesn’t have the notch that locks into the band. Or maybe you should leave it on if you’re wearing a $600+ watch that you don’t want to fall off your wrist!

The top half of the packages slides up to reveal the watch looking back at you, supported by a foam piece that is wedged between two cardboard trays that hold the charging cable, spare band, and user information. It’s a clever use of space that doesn’t detract from the good looks of the packaging.

Looking at the screen though and I can say the sapphire face is fantastic. My 935 developed a few tiny scratches during the same testing timeframe, but this fenix 5 with sapphire still looks totally new. This is really the decision maker for the 935 vs the fenix 5. If what you do with your watch is rough enough that you don’t mind added weight and price for something that will stand by your side free from blemishes much longer, you should should consider the fenix 5x. Otherwise, if you’re the kind of person who wears your watch on the road for running and then goes to a desk job, you have a bit of overkill on your wrist

Charging is easy to do, but slower than the 935 with similar battery life. No big deal since the watch lasts days in standby and almost 24 hours in GPS+HR mode (I did some tests myself), so you won’t be charging this everyday. Still would be nice if Garmin started using a non-proprietary charger like type C, but I don’t know how that would work with waterproofing and watch size. Maybe consider magnets in the future chargers?

Phone connections are easy to set up on pretty much every modern smartphone. You get texts (limited length can be displayed), music controls, ability to answer/decline calls, and a few other handy daily use items. One of the best features is the phone finder that forces your phone to buzz and ring even if it’s in silent mode. Overall, this is technically a smart watch, but doesn’t hold a candle or even a torch to modern Apple watches or Android wear watches that have built in apps. Garmin does have the Forerunner 645 Music which holds music and lets you play it over connected bluetooth devices if you’re looking for a little extra.

Quick fit bands are a nice touch to come standard with the fenix 5. I got black and neon green, but nothing’s stopping me from having a watch that’s black and neon green since the watch bands pop off with a little squeeze on their release mechanism. Besides quick fashion changes and mounting this to a bike or other gear system, you don’t really end up using the Quick fit system too often.

How does the watch feel though? I’d say tolerable. It’s the heaviest watch I’ve tested so far, and it’s very obvious when comparing to any of the other Garmin watches. Some might be drawn to this premium weighted feel that’s from the steel and sapphire, but I’m the kind of guy who wants to reduce unnecessary weight. The watch is also thicker than most other similar Garmin watches, so be sure to test one out before buying one.

Water Resistance
Yes + Swim Tracking

Navigating the Interface Garmin Fenix 5 (Sapphire)

I spent months with this watch. That’s hundreds of running miles, miles of swimming, and miles of cycling (I tested this watch during the winter of 2017-2018, so outdoor cycling was tricky). I slept with this watch on, went to work with it, and always had it paired with my cellphone, so I’ve gone through most of the everyday testing you can put this watch through and learned a few things.

The Fenix line of watches from Garmin represent premium multisport watches that live as much on the trail as they do on the road. Harsh conditions and extreme sports play well with this watch, so I tested this watch in extreme conditions. One of them was a 10.7 mile run in 4F weather.

I did this run with the Forerunner 935 on my other arm as a little test to see if the temperature would affect anything. Both watches had above 25% battery during the whole run and were directly on the skin of my wrists. Considering the Fenix 5 has an operating temperature range of -4 to 122 F, I expected it to have no problems with 4F on my arm.

I did not expect it to shut off after mile 9.7 due to cold problems. The internal watch temp read 24 right before it went off.

This is a huge issue for any winter sport enthusiast, since the watch fails before the minimum operating temperature. I understand this may not have happened at full charge, and most people do not go out for a long run at 4F while keeping watches exposed, but this test was pretty conclusive in demonstrating bigger with more metal does not always mean better.

On the run Garmin Fenix 5 (Sapphire)

In general, the fenix 5 does everything the Forerunner does and a little more. This applies to Running. However, since this watch is heavier than the Forerunner 935, I would argue that you should go with the 935 if running is really all you care about. Otherwise, keep reading this review as I let you know what I found over months of training with this watch.

GPS is fast to acquire:

  1. start activity
  2. within 10 seconds or less, you usually have GPS.

Chances are you spent more time reading those two steps than how long it takes the watch to find GPS in an open area.

It’s rare that I waited more than 30 seconds, but equally probable I’d find GPS in under 2 seconds.

Just a note though that I used this watch in residential areas and not in skyscraper lands like NYC which will cause issues for any GPS device.

Once you do have GPS, you get a fairly accurate estimate of your distance. Those in rural areas who run on bike trails and don’t make sharp turns will have the best accuracy, and those who run in cities in between tall buildings will have terrible accuracy (I ran with the fenix 5 and Forerunner 935 through NYC and ended up with a half mile discrepancy between both watches after “11” miles of running).

Most of my running was through Boston and Cambridge which has fewer buildings. However, I still found cases where the GPS signal thought I was on the other side of the street (note the middle of the picture below, the top blue line is correct, the bottom blue line is wrong).

fenix 5 maps cambridge

Other activities Garmin Fenix 5 (Sapphire)

I mostly used this watch for swimming, biking, and skiing outside of my regular running, so I’ll dive into each of those sports, let’s start with swimming.


It’s worth mentioning that this watch does do open water swimming which is a pretty big perk to a GPS multisport watch, but I didn’t have a big enough wetsuit to use in the Charles River this winter to test it. We’ll have to take Garmin’s word for it that this watch handles open water swimming pretty well. You’ll get time, distance, water temp, heading, lap time, bearing, and a few other swimming metrics like SWOLF while in the open water.

I did spend a bunch of time in the pool with this watch and found indoor swimming accuracy is in line with all the other garmin watches, where it is 95-99% accurate. This means worst case it’s missing about 1 length every 20 and you end up with a distance less than what you anticipated. Garmin doesn’t have a way to change the distance post workout like you can with treadmill running. You have to edit it on Garmin Connect for that, which is usually not worth the effort. I found the watch was more accurate when doing flip turns when compared to grabbing the wall and pushing off like an uncultured triathlete (thaaat’s me!).

One item I mentioned earlier is SWOLF which stands for swimming golf score (lower is better), where you aim to reduce the number of strokes and time it takes you to complete the length. It’s also useful to check after a workout to see how efficient you were since you get total time, distance, and SWOLF.

For new swimmers, I would turn on the auto lap alert so you have some milestones to anticipate when swimming. This stops you from prematurely ending a workout since the watch will buzz about halfway down the pool when you’re completing a lap. No more awkward arm swings in front of your face to check the distance when swimming.

The fenix 5 is pretty much the same watch in the water when compared to the 935, except….the fenix 5 is heavier and thicker. Since your hands hang downward when swimming, the watch has a tendency to fall towards the end of your wrist, and then you end up bumping into the watch when tilting your hand backward during a stroke. It’s annoying enough that I stopped using the fenix 5 on swims and switched over to the Vivo Active HR or the Forerunner 935. Maybe those with thicker forearms won’t mind this as much.


Like every good multisport watch, this one comes packed with cycling features. Of course you can see speed, distance and time, but how about multisport time if you want? You can also pick lap times, lap distances, max speed, and even vertical speed for those who want to really get into the King of the Mountain mindset.

I’d recommend using a chest strap since the built in wrist montior is good, but can be fooled when clothing gets beneath it, or if you end up on a bumpy road, or if it’s having a bad day and can’t figure out where your pulse is so it makes one up (happened to me a few times). But, you can still show your heart rate, aerobic or anaerobic thresholds, and pretty much any variation of max/avg hr for lap/avg/last lap.

Those of you who get a cadence sensor can also pair it with the watch to show the cadence information right on the watch. And those of you who grab the Garmin Vector power meter will be able to pair it to the watch and check out all sorts of crazy data that you’d expect from a $1,000 sensor system. Lastly, those of you who are true gearheads can also pair this to your gear shifters to get gear data, is that enough for you? No? Fine, you can also get muscle O2 sat and total hemoglobin level estimates. I’m just waiting for garmin to sell you a sensor that you swallow that gets you real time digestive tract info.

Other interesting functions Garmin Fenix 5 (Sapphire)

I spent time in this watch outside of running+cycling+swimming and have some notes on those modes.

Treadmill running is very similar to outdoor running, but it needs calibration (do a run and then pick save with calibration). The watch is then 1-10% accurate for similar runs of the same speed and cadence. If either one switches, accuracy drastically worsens. You can still correct the run distance after the fact though.

Hiking and climbing give you a good set of navigation tools along with your usual suspects of distance, time and speed. I’m unsure though who would totally trust the internal compass of this watch over an analog compass since the resolution of this watch isn’t as good as the real deal.

Skiing is an oddball mode that you forget you have until you use it. I ended up having a lot of fun learning how many runs I did in a day, max speeds, total distance and had a little surprise after syncing it with Strava…Strava also has KOM segments for trails. What’s the point of skiing if you don’t know how fast you went down the black when compared to everyone else who ever did it? What’s funny is that Garmin also has a “snowboard” mode that seems to be identical to skiing besides the icon.

Alternatives Garmin Fenix 5 (Sapphire)

The Fenix line of watches is Garmin’s premium multisport watch line with a few varieties. There is the Fenix 5 (the one I tested), 5X (more weight, more memory), 5S (lighter, less battery, smaller), and the Chronos (more expensive, larger, heavier, titanium options, less connectivity, worse resolution).

Conclusion Garmin Fenix 5 (Sapphire)

I have a hard time recommending this watch.

The only key positive differences when compared to the 935 are that the Fenix 5 watch has a 100m waterproof rating (versus 935’s 50m), has a sapphire screen with a stainless steel body (versus 935’s glass and plastic body), and the Fenix watch comes with QuickFit bands standard.

The negative differences are that the Fenix 5 watch costs more (at least $100), weighs more (73% more), and is physically larger. If those trade offs are worth it for the benefits, get the watch. Otherwise, I strongly, strongly encourage you to save some money to get a more comfortable watch like the 935. To be clear, this watch is not bad at all.

It’s a great watch, but it’s up to the end user how much they are willing to sacrifice to get a few added features.

Have a look at our selection of the best GPS running watches of 2018.

Price comparison:
Garmin Fenix 5 (Sapphire)

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