Even before putting the watch on your wrist, you can feel the cost of this watch. Or at least that’s how Garmin is probably hoping you react to the 83 gram watch (72 grams if you get the Titanium version). The front bezel and backside of the watch are stainless steel, a design choice that guarantees durability. If you couldn’t tell by touching the watch that it was enclosed in metal, Garmin’s design choice to include five screws on the plate around the screen makes it clear this watch is for hardcore scenareos. You even have the option to swap out the bands for a different style via the “QuickFit” band attachment points, although I’m slightly disappointed Garmin didn’t include a spare band like they did with the previous version. The standard all black and metal design I received reminds me more of a tank where the sharp edges and industrialized construction tells me this watch needs to be outside on adventures.
Compared to the fenix 5, which I’m holding in my other hand, you’ll have to look somewhat close to tell the difference between both watches. Although I complained about the weight, the 6 is actually 2 grams lighter than the 5. Apart from the weight, another small difference is the layout of the heart rate sensors. Garmin’s upgraded from a 3 green light + feedback sensor to a 1 green + 1 green/red + 2 feedback sensors. One last visual change apart from a few labeling adjustments is the screen, where the fenix 5 has a 240×240 resolution and the fenix 6 has a 260×260 resolution. Just enough added resolution to make the older fenix 5 seem fuzzier.
More on the screen, although there’s a sapphire option, I would recommend against it unless you do rock climbing or other high-abrasion risk sports since the sapphire screen reduces brightness of the screen by a noticeable margin. You do get incredible scratch resistance as a result, I just think most folks will be fine with the included Gorilla Glass. One quick story on the sapphire screen: I loaned my fenix 5 with a sapphire screen to a friend who used it on a triathlon. He fell off his bike doing around 50 mph (80kph) on a downhill, made it out mostly ok but was surprised only the watch’s stainless steel bezel was the only part that got scratched and the screen was unblemished. So maybe consider the sapphire screen if you want this watch to make it through a fall on a bike.
The watch gets plenty bright at night with the backlight, and is easily viewable in direct sunlight thanks to the “sunlight-visible, transflective memory-in-pixel” display Garmin uses. You’re not getting a OLED modern smartphone style display with deep contrast and beautiful colors, rather, the color range and contrast looks more like a TFT LCD (think early 2000’s laptops). If you have objections to this, you should turn around now since the watch is made with performance in mind first, then modern amenities second.
The real power of the fenix 6 shows up when you look inside. Bumping up from a wimpy 64 MB of storage on the 5, the fenix 6 has a whopping 32 GB of space. This space is mostly for music though, as you would be out of your mind to fill that with courses or workout data. As long as you have the music option, you’ll also get wifi and maps included with this watch. I’ll get into maps later, but for now just know that you get all the modern sensors for finding your way like GPS, GLONASS, GALILEO, barometer, compass, gyroscope, and accelerometer. To find more data about yourself, Garmin includes thermometer, heart rate, and Pulse Ox sensors.
Your “main” screen on this watch is the time, where you have a choice on the watch face and data to be displayed. Pressing the up/down buttons on the left cycle through small widgets which if selected will open up the full widget. I like this change since you get to see three small widgets at once, instead of just cycling through a full screen widget one at a time. I can quickly go from time to music control, view the weather, check my last activity, and jump back to the main screen in just 3 button presses. You also have the ability to set up shortcuts, where holding a button or pressing a button in a specific setting can pull up a specified screen.
I happened to test this watch at the same time I was testing the vivoactive 4 which is mostly touch screen based. Overall, buttons > touch screen, especially when working out. But I did miss the fine control of screen navigation via touch in some situations, and found myself tapping the top of the fenix 6 expecting the screen to light up. Maybe Garmin can add an accelerometer detection for tapping the screen to activate the light (otherwise you need to press a button or lift the watch and wait).
There’s one last item I want to touch on, which is the responsiveness of the watch. Overall it’s pretty good, where most screen navigation is on button release, and selection/choice button activation is done via button press which is how Garmin has done it in the past. I did notice input lag when first changing a screen, or getting into a data-heavy widget like music or maps. The slowest the watch gets is right after saving a workout, where you’ll have to wait ~5 seconds for it to complete internal operations and bump you back to the main screen. Totally fine 99% of the time, but frustrating when you just want to get into another part of a workout and have to wait for the watch to catch up. I think I’m overall ok with this since it means Garmin is very efficient with their power usage on the watch. I just hope in the next 2 or 3 versions of the fenix that things speed up a little more. One suggestion to Garmin, change the stopwatch lap button to do a lap on button press, not button release, thanks!
Unless you’re starting the watch up for the first time, searching for GPS in between skyscrapers, or beginning a workout in a place hundreds of miles from where you last did one, you’ll probably get a GPS signal within 10 seconds, almost certainly in under 30 seconds. On top of a relatively quick GPS acquisition time, you’ll have pretty accurate workout tracking data.
When on the run, you can switch between different data screens that offer the basics (time, distance, pace, speed), and access screens that dive into metrics for the data hungry and performance driven athletes out there like heart rate, elevation/grade, heading, and even a full map.
Most runners who grab this watch will immediately want to customize a few data screens to show only the most important info. You can have anywhere from one to six data fields per screen with pretty much any running metric available to a modern GPS watch. I not only customized my data screens, but would often create a new screen for specific workouts to keep only the core information I needed at a glance.
The real power of the fenix 6 comes out when you start using navigation, music, and Pulse Ox information on your runs. Navigation with maps is incredibly useful when trying to run in a new city, or just finding your way back home when you realize you’re late and need to find the fastest path home. Well, somewhat fast path.
Turns out, the processing power and map making algorithms of the fenix 6 isn’t enough for it to even get close to modern smartphone navigation. I’ll sometimes tell the watch to navigate me back home on runs and find it takes me an extra 20% further than if I just guessed a route home. This added distance usually seems to come from the fenix trying to put me on a simple path. Sadly, it also seems to think you’re a car when navigating as it seems to follow most one-way street rules, even when running! The map is also incredibly chaotic with information and colors, which doesn’t help when the watch takes 2-10 seconds to remap an area if you zoom out. Overall, using the map feature when running should be just for supplementing navigation or for emergencies.
Otherwise, I’d say just use “Straight-Line back to start” navigation…but Garmin removed that feature!! It BOGGLES my mind why they’d remove such a feature, maybe they want to force you to try out maps, as that’s your only other option outside of “TracBack”. I’ll try to be quick with my complaints on TrackBack as it’s actually decent at telling you where you came from. What it doesn’t do well is estimate your return time. If you’re a programmer at Garmin reading this, I think there’s a bug. Right now, if you run 10 miles out on a straight line, then turn around and do 5 miles back, then turn on TrackBack, Garmin will initially say you have 15 miles to go, then it sees you’re on course with 5 miles to go, figures you just did 10 miles in 1 second, and then USES THAT 10 MILES IN ONE SECOND AS YOUR STARTING PACE.
But, I’m assuming that’s not a dealbreaker for anyone and what you want to know more about is the Music playback during runs. It’s pretty great if you have a modern pair of bluetooth headphones. Now you can get out on a run with music and leave the phone or MP3 player at home. I have been using AfterShockz Air headphones which pair in a few seconds and usually have a good signal to my wrist. I’m 6’3″ with somewhat long arms, so as long as you’re shorter than me, you’ll have same or better Bluetooth playback with similar headphone equipment. What doesn’t seem to work well is long term playback, as it’s almost inevitable that a song will skip/cut out one second or so over the course of an hour. Not bad, but this never happens when you use wired headphones. One other disappointing problem with the Garmin music playback I can’t seem to solve is that it freezes if I leave a song paused for too long. Only way out is to disconnect the headphones, reconnect, and start a new song.
Grabbing playlists from Spotify, Deezer, or even loading music files from your computer right to the watch are all possible. You can even use the watch to control music on your smartphone which could be a better option if you don’t want audio issues and can handle the extra weight. Overall, I think the music playback is a decent feature, but still needs work.
Last few comments on the watch when running. You do have Pulse Ox data on the fenix, but it won’t do any readings when the watch is moving, so it’s not really something you can use on runs. The Garmin Pay is actually great to have on runs, much nicer to have a credit card on the wrist for nutrition/hydration purchases on your run instead of carrying the food/water yourself or running with cash. And I want to finish out by saying this is a fenix watch, not a Forerunner, so it’s thicker and heavier. Still great on runs, but you might want to try a Forerunner 945 if most of your time will be running.
After a run, you can almost drown in data. Garmin Connect does a wonderful job of showing you the important metrics at a glance, easily summarizes your workouts, and offers the ability to export or sync to other apps. Like that Strava thing everyone has. As a quick tip, I found that Garmin Connect has more data resolution than Strava. So if you’re looking for the exact heart rate you had at mile 5.65, better first make sure you had your watch logging data every second, and then check out the data on Garmin Connect.
I found syncing over Bluetooth to my phone to be the easiest, but you can sync over WiFi, or even use the USB cable to sync via your computer. And then I found that data to be pretty darn accurate. I did a long run along an old rail trail with mile markers and set up mile alerts. The fenix 6 would beep pretty much within a foot or three of the mile marker post. I’m guessing any deviations were from the post installers, and/or from my not exactly straight running. It’s important to know though that all GPS devices have some bit of uncertainty in their measurements as they’re listening to space radios to figure out a spot on the Earth to guesstimate where they’re floating. So you can probably count on this watch to be at 13.1 miles on a 13.1 mile course, but can’t use it to certify a 5k course is exactly 3.106 miles. Additionally, GPS accuracy drops when in places with heavy tree cover, large vertical rocky surfaces (sometimes called buildings, but if you’re lucky, it’s a cliff side), so be mindful of all devices in those cases.
Although most of us aren’t at gyms anymore, I did have a chance at a Hotel with a “one person only” gym room to test the data accuracy of treadmill running. It’s about the same as previous models of Garmin watches, where you really have to do a calibration run first, and then most runs after that around the same pace are pretty close to reality. What bothers me though is I think something Strava side, where say you do a 10 mile treadmill run, your watch claims 9.50 miles, you calibrate and save as 10 miles, Garmin Connect says you did 10 miles, yet Strava says you did 9.50 miles. Just a heads up for those of you who are silly like me and use a ruggedized mutlisport watch to run inside and post to social media.
I wouldn’t be surprised if Garmin fenix watches were in the top 3 most common watches on Ironman triathletes (but I would be surprised if anyone out there still has a triathlon race still scheduled for 2020). This watch is perfect for those multisport athletes and I was going to test it in a few triathlons this summer. Instead, I did a few on my own, and even did a half-iron with three socially distancing friends. I wore this watch, along with the older fenix 5, the less capable vivoactive 4 and the tried and true Forerunner 935 in the mock race. The fenix 6 was overall the best to use, but I found the lightweight of the Forerunner hard to ignore. I found the open water swim data to be very accurate, maybe not to certify a course, but it was closest to the average of all the watches used in the race, including 3 others form my friends.
Although I never got a chance to test this watch in a pool, I did check out all the features and can confidently say it’ll do a great job tracking your laps. It looks very similar to previous models that do pool tracking which from my experience means it’ll track those who do flip turns very well, and track those who do the “I’ll just stay above water and push off with my hands” folks with 98% lap accuracy.
Now if you’re also into cycling, you’ll get all the standard features of the watch, along with excellent connectivity to cycling sensors. I was able to pair it with my speed, cadence, and power sensors flawlessly on each ride. What is somewhat annoying is your watch will beep/buzz before you start a workout that it’s found those sensors when in other sports. If I’m about to go on a run, my watch will find satellites, but also beep to let me know it also found a bunch of cycling sensors. First world problems right there. The cycling data and accuracy is right up there with the running data, and you’ll probably take advantage of the map features a lot more as you can cover more ground (get more lost faster) than running. Routes are also much more important on bike rides, and I now never try a new route without first adding the course to my watch. Given that you synced the courses properly, you’ll get turn indicators and overall path layouts on the watch overlayed on a map with street names. We’re so close to having Garmin give voice turn-by-turn directions on the watch itself just like how Garmin did it in the old days on those windshield mounted GPS units.
Lastly, I want to comment on some bonus features of the watch that not everyone would normally try out. There’s Breathework that helps you destress, Yoga/Pilates which has animated guided routines, Strength/weights which shows you full workouts and tracks them, and Expedition that lets you go on multi-day adventures on a single charge.
For accuracy, I did find a few tests and the fenix was off by 0.01 or less, unless I was in an area with tall buildings and the data readings would be a little off. Overall though, I think this is one of the most accurate Garmin devices I’ve tested to date based on months of daily use and comparisons to other watches I’ve tested. It still won’t be as accurate as counting your laps on the track, or if you have a dedicated bike computer with sensors on the wheel though.
For heart rate accuracy, I’d say buy a chest strap if you want the best experience. The accuracy of wrist based heart rate is acceptable but not perfect. Like all Garmin watches that use wrist based heart rates, you’ll have a lot of things that can make it less accurate like: watch too loose, watch too tight, skin too cold, skin too hairy, too much vibration on the arm. Always go for a chest worn heart rate monitor if you really want accurate heart rate data, as the wrist based data is often +/-10% off, and has serious data smoothing issues. I found this watch would miss heart rate events like a spike in a quick sprint.
The other new player in the data game on this watch is Pulse Ox which is an estimate of SpO2. I actually bought a fingertip pulse oximeter to check the accuracy of Pulse Ox and wasn’t thrilled with the data, but that was somewhat a good thing. My fenix would claim my Pulse Ox would drop to 90 pretty regularly which is very low/dangerous if you read that as a true Pulse Oximetry reading for SpO2. I’d then grab my fingertip reader and find my real SpO2 was 98%. I can see Pulse Ox as a rough idea for how oxygenated you’ve been over the past few weeks, important for high-altitude activity seekers. Just don’t use this as a medical device.
Battery life is right on point with what Garmin claims. You can get weeks (28 days in expedition mode) out of the watch, and they’re refreshingly honest by putting up the lower estimates of the watch’s battery life with all features at full power. You’ll still get 10 hours with GPS+Music+heart rate which I’ve tested. Good to know if you’re a day hiker that wants music without a cellphone.
Few extra features on this watch that are borrowed from daily activity tracker watches. The first one sounds gimiicky. Body Battery indicator. As the name implies, it estimates the energy your body has. It works by increasing the number as you sleep, and decreasing as you’re awake, and decreasing even more as you work out.
The question is, if you feel great but see your body battery is low, do you rethink how you feel and try to figure out if you should feel more tired? This kind of open loop body feedback is a little risky if you take it too seriously, but I like the concept and find it to be a good indicator of “will I have a good workout today?” since it can remind you of how long you’ve been up and how much you’ve slept + if you’ve already done a workout.
Another feature that I was suspicious of is the stress level indicator.
It sounds similar to the body battery metric, but takes in your heart rate variability along with many other actual scientific data points the watch measures to try to figure out if you’re stressed or relaxed. I laughed at the feature when I first tried it, figured I’d turn on “stress notifications” because it’d be silly for a watch to tell me when I’m stressed. Then I forgot about it for a few days until I finished a meeting at work and was late to a check in with a coworker as my phone buzzed from a client and I just wanted to get a snack from the kitchen.
A familiar buzz rattled my wrist and I looked at the screen to see what other notification I now had to deal with and it was instead a kind message saying “you seem stressed, do you want to take time to relax?”. I stopped what I was doing and just thought to myself, “you know what, yes, I am stressed, I should calm down. Thank you Garmin!”
Now this doesn’t make up for the many times it gives me false positives, like when really getting into techno on my drive to work, or when hanging out with friends and getting excited over a topic, but it really shows Garmin getting into new data-driven health analytics that I think will be pretty useful when polished.
Last two features to get into are Garmin pay and the music feature. Garmin pay lets you link a card to your watch, and after setting it up via the Garmin Connect app and adding a pin code, you can use your watch on any NFC compatible payment device to pay for your purchase. I found myself using it just for the novelty. Now in the era of “don’t touch things”, I find myself using it a little more. Pretty useful, and even nicer to have it on runs/bikes.
Last but not least is the music playing abilities of this watch. You can sync Spotify, Deezer, several other apps, and even load the watch directly with MP3 files. You will need a bluetooth headset to play the music from, but it’s pretty simple once it’s working. Play/pause, next/previous tracks all available via touch on your wrist.
Garmin claims the watch can hold “up to 500 songs”, which translates to 3.5 GB of space. Overall, the feature works as described. I’m a picky audio person (you know the word), so Bluetooth streaming isn’t my top choice, but you can’t be picky when running. What irks me is that the headphone+watch combo I use often cuts out a few times during an hour.
Although this is like 99.99% perfect, it totally breaks the immersion in a song when it skips a half a second and you know you’ll hear another skip in a bit.
I generally use Air by AfterShockz which are pretty premium, and have tried other cheaper buds, and the cutting out/skipping problem still shows up. Maybe it’s because I’m 6’3″ and have a long distance between my wrist and head, but I really wish this could be 100% perfect
If the fenix 6 seems too pricey, but you want the rugged layout, go with the fenix 5. If you’re hoping to get most of the new tech in the fenix 6 but don’t see yourself more as a runner than anything else, go with the Forerunner 945. If you’re somehow still reading this and just realized you don’t need mutlisport activities, don’t want to spend much, but still want the Garmin ecosystem, the vivoactive 4 is where you should go.
Those looking to break free from Garmin or consider other competitors should check out the Suunto 9 which has similarly long battery life but in a classier package. Another watch that came up in my research is the Coros Apex which has similar month-ish GPS mode battery life, cheap pricing, and decent data.
If you’re here to compare the fenix to an apple watch or samsung watch, consider the fenix as a stainless steel multi-tool, and the apple watch/samsung galaxy watch as elegant pocket knives. Sure, there’s overlap in functionality, but one is for tackling exploration, and the other is to show off to coworkers as you open envelopes.
I don’t know how much longer the fenix line of watches will stay on top of the Garmin product line. The fenix 6 is still a beautiful watch for multisport athletes, but the much cheaper vivoactive and slightly cheaper Forerunner lines make the fenix choice a little trickier.
Garmin is adding more features to their cheaper line of watches to compete with folks like Samsung, Apple, and fitbit. Garmin is utilizing very similar hardware on their cheaper models, to the point where I think they’re intentionally locking out software options on cheaper watches to force you into the more expensive ones like the fenix.
This leaves me with a narrow group of folks who should go for this watch, but this also means those folks will have an incredible watch ready for their every need without many sacrifices.
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