Garmin Fenix 5x – A Trail Runner’s Review

Overview

These little gadgets we call “Wearables” are a hot market right now. Fitbit, Garmin, Suunto, Wahoo, Casio, Polar, Mio… this list goes on. It seems like a flooded market with options just about anyone. This list becomes a lot leaner when you start running ultra long distances and require so much more from your wearable device than simply step counting. Advanced metrics, performance analysis, navigation, maps, heart rate sensors, and an extremely long battery life become important.

This is where the Garmin Fenix 5x comes in! The Garmin Fenix 5x was rolled out in June of 2017 as part of the “Fenix 5” family. Within the Fenix 5 family are three very different devices, I’ll touch more on this later. As a previous Garmin Fenix 3HR owner I was excited to see what this new hardware had to offer and high hopes they had resolved some annoyances I had with my Fenix 3HR. The “Fenix” line of wearable’s from Garmin is designed for the hardcore outdoors folks who are off the grid for extended periods of time. These watches are built tough, and hold up in demanding conditions. They also carry an equally burly price tag!

This review is based purely on my opinion and from the perspective of a distance trail runner and ultra marathon runner. However, I do see the benefit of this watch as a hiker and climber!



Comparison Between Fenix 5 Models

Fenix 5s (Left), Fenix 5x (Center), Fenix 5 (Right)

These devices feature HUNDREDS of options, features, and functions. For that reason I’m going to gloss over them pretty quickly and kind of generalize. There are THREE different Fenix 5 models that each carry different price tags and feature sets:

Fenix 5 – The “basic” model of the Fenix 5. This watch is VERY similar to the previous generation “Fenix 3HR” device. The only major difference being that the new Fenix 5 is much smaller with a case size of 47mm versus the previous 51mm of the Fenix 3. This may not sound like much but when you compare these devices on your wrist the difference is notable! The Fenix 5 also features a lower profile heart rate sensor, a more colorful higher resolution screen, increased battery life, Strava integration and a few other niceties. The user interface feels snappier, and cleaner. The Basic Fenix 5 also comes with optional Sapphire glass for added durability (not a cheap upgrade!). Fenix 5 starts at $549 for the base model, and up to $699 for the Sapphire glass.

Fenix 5s – The Fenix 5s is aimed at people with smaller wrists who don’t want a giant watch. The Fenix 5s packs all the great features of the Fenix 5 with the one exception of battery life. The Fenix 5s is rated for 9 days “smartwatch, and 14 hours of continuous GPS tracking ( versus 2 weeks / 24 hours). This is a great option for people who were previously scared away from the Fenix devices due to their crazy large size but may not be viable to people who demand extended battery life. The Fenix 5s starts at $549 and goes up to $649 for Sapphire Glass.

Fenix 5x – This is what this review is written about. The Fenix 5x is the “flagship” model of the Fenix family. It features all of the functionality of the Fenix 5 and 5s with the added benefit of FULL TOPOGRAPHIC MAPS! This is the big selling point of the 5x. This is particularly intriguing to those who find themselves off the grid in the backcountry, hiking, trail running, backpacking etc… The Fenix 5x only comes in a 51mm frame size meaning it is substantially larger than the 5 and 5s. It is the exact same size as the previous generations Fenix 3HR. The Fenix 5x starts at $649 and goes up to a whopping $799 with the inclusion of a metal watchband.


Fenix 5x – Hardware Design

The Fenix 5x and it’s classy packaging.

Hardware

If there’s one thing Garmin knows how to do it’s design a watch. The Fenix line has always held a special place in my heart. I’ve gone through the original Fenix 1, Fenix 2, Fenix 3HR, and now the Fenix 5x. All of them have been incredibly well built, rugged, and never felt “cheap” or like they cut any corners. The glass of the Fenix 5x is Sapphire crystal and extremely durable. This stuff is nearly impossible to scratch! The bezel and back of the watch are fabricated with stainless steel that differs from the older Fenix 3HR, it has more of a “brushed” look rather than the previous generations painted design which makes me think it will resist scratches a bit better. The rest of the watch is made up of poly-carbonate plastic but it doesn’t feel cheap at all. The supplied watch band is a silicone rubber that includes two “slack keepers” which was a nice addition for those with smaller wrists. The included strap is a bit stretchier than the older Fenix 3 which is in turn more comfortable on my wrist. On the back is the optical heart rate sensor which is much lower profile and doesn’t protrude into your skin while you wear the device.

Another nice feature is the addition of “quick fit” bands which can be removed and replaced without a tool in a matter of seconds. There are already a number of third party manufacturers making bands for this watch for cheap money on amazon in various colors and materials from stainless steel to leather. I personally prefer the plain old silicone band for functionality!

Charging

The Fenix 5x in its charging state.

Garmin has gone away from the cradle style chargers for their new series of watches. Instead using a more straight forward USB-C inspired connector. Unfortunately this is a proprietary connector but it will be used across all of their wearable devices. I like the connector except for the fact that you cannot wear the watch WHILE it charges… kind of a big deal. This was a nice feature of my older Fenix 3HR’s cradle charger. I was able to keep a power bank in my running vest and run the wire up through my shirt to my watch.

Screen

The Fenix 5x features a higher resolution 240×240 pixel screen with more colors than the older generation. This Transflective screen is a “see in sunlight” type. Colors aren’t bright and vibrant like an Apple Watch but this type of display is functional. It uses little battery, and its visible in all conditions. At night you can illuminate the device using a backlight.

The Fenix 5x does not have a touch screen… which is a good thing! Try “swiping” your watch to find the course display while running in the rain. It’s not as easy as it sounds! I fully appreciate that the watch has 5 buttons for control. Nice big, clicky buttons that are easy to feel while you’re on the move in the dark or running through a torrential downpour! Speaking of rain, the Fenix 5x is fully waterproof. Not just “water resistant”… water proof. This watch can be submerged to 100 meters which makes it suitable for some diving applications, swimming activities, or just getting wet in general without worrying.

Connectivity and Sensors

The Fenix 5x features both Bluetooth and Wifi for connecting to the cloud and your phone syncing activities and downloading IQ Apps (more on this later). As for sensors the Fenix 5x features GPS/Glonass , Temperature, Optical Heart Rate, Altimeter, Barometer, Accelerometer, and Gyroscope.



Looks and Size

I wear my Garmin Fenix 5x to the office every day!

Let me be frank… this is a BIG watch. I’m not a big man by any means and stand at a measly 5’7″ stature and around 145 pounds with fairly small wrists. This watch probably looks a little silly on me to most onlookers. I’ve grown to accept the size as I previously owned the Fenix 3HR and it’s basically the same form factor. The watch is not only wide, but it’s got quite a high profile too which can get caught on doors, or stuck in a jacket sleeve when you’re trying to put it on.

Once you get past the sheer size of the watch you start to notice its beauty. I get compliments on this watch all the time. It’s stainless steel bezel and beautiful layout really make it appear to be sophisticated timepiece. With the help of switching the watch face to a classy analog look you could easily pair a Fenix 5 with a nice suit for a wedding or event. Go even further and pick up a metal watch band to complete the look.

For me, I’m pretty utilitarian so I accept and embrace the large size to get all of the great features of this watch. I wear it every day and only take it off to sleep or charge.



Smartwatch Capabilities

Various “smart watch” functions of the Fenix 5x (Notifications, Weather, Music Controls, Calendar, Sunrise/Sunset)

Let me start off by saying this is NOT comparable to an Apple watch or Android wear device. The Fenix 5x does some cool things when paired to your smartphone but it’s not overly featured. You can control your music from your phone, read text messages, see notifications, answer or reject phone calls, calendar reminders, and thats about it. For me, this is just enough functionality to use as a daily driver in an office environment.


Activity Tracking

Activity Tracking Metrics of the Fenix 5x

The Fenix 5x will keep track of your day to day activity if you wear it 24/7. Metrics include:

Step Count – A basic estimated step count that’s calculated from the motion of your wrist during walking or running.

Move Bar –  This is a staple of Garmin Wearables. The “Move Bar” is a constant reminder to get up and take a short walk. It will clear once you’ve moved enough to satisfy it.

Stairs Climbed – Similar to step count but instead counts how many stairs you’ve climbed in a day.

24 Hour Heart Rate – Awesomely detailed metrics about your heart rate. A heart rate reading is taken every 1 second throughout the day and composed on a chart. This is really valuable stuff! Learn your resting heart-rate and max very quickly.

Stress – This is an interesting metric based on resting heartrate when you’re not moving. It tries to determine how rested/stressed you are throughout the day.

Sleep Tracking – Learn your sleep patterns with this metric. How deep of a sleep did you get? Was it interrupted? Unfortunately I can’t use this as I find the watch too large to sleep with. I’d end up scratching my face with it or something! I could see how this could be useful though. Maybe with a smaller device.


Built-In Activities

Choosing an activity on the Fenix 5x is easy.

The Fenix 5x comes pre-loaded with a ton of “activities”. Activities are basically just a pre-set configuration of settings that customize the experience to cater to what you’re doing. For instance if you “Run” GPS and Heart Rate are active, and 5 screens of run related metrics like distance, pace, and a map are displayed. If you use “Treadmill Run” GPS turns off and a separate set of data fields are displayed designed for running on a treadmill.

What else can you do? Out of the box you have options to : Ski, Hike, Stand up paddle board, swim, Run, Treadmill Run, Trail Run, Climb, Mountaineer, Bike, Indoor Bike, Mountain Bike, Row, Golf, Walk, Cardio, Strength train, and more! Heck… There’s even a pre-set activity for sky diving! If by chance Garmin hasn’t thought of your activity you can simply create a custom activity with its own presets.

What I particularly like about the Fenix 5x is that you can calibrate your “treadmill running” sessions. The watch asks you to confirm the distance ran after the activity is complete so it can learn your stride length more accurately. This is a feature that was missing from my Fenix 3HR and a very welcome addition!

Of course after you complete an activity this can be Synced through Garmin Connect, Strava, and many other social platforms.



GPS Tracking for Running

Data screen 1 out of 5 for my “run” activity customized to my liking.

I am primarily interested in the running and hiking aspects of the watch. These rely heavily on the GPS accuracy of the watch. The Fenix 5x has a few settings that allow you to sacrifice some battery life for added GPS Accuracy.

GPS + Glonass – Glonass or “Global Navigation Satellite System” is a Russian network of satellites that can be used in conjunction with standard GPS. The combination of using both gives you more satellites to ping from thereby improving the accuracy of your location.

1 Second vs Smart Recording – The watch lets you dictate how often you’d like the GPS to “ping” and record a track point. By default all activities use “smart recording” which intelligently decides when to record a track point. For instance, if you stop for lunch it will stop recording points and resume when you start hiking again. Personally I tend to leave my Fenix 5x on “1 second” which takes a track point recording every second regardless of the speed you’re moving. For me this has shown to improve accuracy while sacrificing battery life and file size slightly.

GPS Accuracy

From what I’ve seen so far the Fenix 5x is very accurate indeed. I’ve seen complaints of GPS accuracy in the Fenix 5 family on the internet. From personal experience the watch appears to be just as accurate as my Fenix 3HR and my Samsung Galaxy S9+ when running Strava. All three devices seem to be within 1/10th of a mile of each-other after a 10 mile run.


Maps and Navigation

Map view during an activity gives you a detailed view of your surroundings.

So here’s the big deal about the Fenix 5x. Maps! Glorious maps! This is why you spent the premium to get this big ass watch! The Fenix 5x ships with Garmins 100k Topographic map onboard. This is a somewhat lightweight map of the entire US. It features, roads, trail systems, points of interest, and more. What’s so special about this is that these maps are “Route-able” meaning you can set a destination like the summit of a mountain and let the watch figure out what trails you need to take to get there. There’s a few ways to use this functionality. You can set courses, navigate to waypoints, or search for a nearby restaurant. Or you can simply just “browse” the map by selecting “map” from the main menu. 

While the Mapping and Navigation function is super powerful for being on your wrist it is a little slow and clunky. Imagine the first GPS that came standard in your moms Mini-Van in 1998… It’s something like that. “Typing” on the watch is also pretty painful if you needed to search for something to navigate to using the up and down keys to select letters.

Navigate a Course

In my opinion the most practical way to use these maps is by pre-configuring courses within the Garmin Connect web portal. When I sync this course to my watch I can see the context of a map being around the course. THIS is super helpful during long runs, hiking, or in busy trail networks that are hard to follow with complicated junctions. Simply glance down at my wrist and get confirmation that I’ve taken the right turn. I know what you’re saying. “Big Deal, my IPhone can do offline maps.” and that’s true. However the convenience of it being on your wrist and not relying on a phone battery is HUGE. I’ve also found the Garmin topo maps to be surprisingly accurate including even less traveled trails.

Round Trip Routing

This function allows you to pick a direction to run and tell the watch how far you’d like to go. The watch will then figure out the best route for you to achieve your distance goal and make a loop that finishes at the starting point. This works surprisingly well and can be particularly handy for people on vacation trying to squeeze a training run in when you don’t know the area well.

“Around Me” Mode

The “Around Me” Function displays a list of points of interest that are within close proximity to you. This is a handy way to route on the fly to close destinations. I could see this being nice for sight seeing in areas that you may not be f


Battery Life

Garmin advertises “12 days” in smartwatch mode and “20 Hours” in 1 second GPS tracking mode. The GPS tracking mode can be extended up to 75 hours if you use “Ultrac Mode”. Ultrac Mode basically sets the recording interval of the watch to 5-10 minutes depending on a mix of conditions. This will reduce accuracy but increase battery life dramatically. As an added bonus Garmin implemented a gyroscope to sense the movement of the watch while you’re running. They use this data to “fill in the cracks” of the GPS data when you’re using Ultrac Mode. Clever stuff!

Personally the longest event I’ve ever run was 11 hours and 30 minutes. I had my watch in standard 1 second recording interval mode. I was using the optical heart rate sensor, and I turned on the map a handful of times to make sure I was on the right track. After the race finished I still had 30% of my battery left! I’m really impressed with the battery life of this watch. I can’t imagine ever needing to use Ultrac Mode unless it was a multi-day trip. During weeks of low activity when I’m not using the watch to track GPS runs as often the battery lasts much longer and only needs charging after a couple of weeks!


Running Performance Metrics

Running Performance Metrics Screens – Training Load, Recovery Status, V02 Max, Race Predictor

If you’re a fitness nerd like me you’ll love the advanced performance metrics this watch generates automatically. Spend the first week of training with this watch and it gets to know you!

  • V02 Max
  • Training Status
  • Aerobic / Anaerobic Training Effect
  • Cadence
  • Stride Length
  • Ground Contact Time
  • Resting Heart-rate
  • Vertical Ratio
  • Training Load



Connect IQ Apps

The Connect IQ Store

The Garmin Fenix 5x is compatible with the Connect IQ store. This allows you to modify your device by adding apps, widgets, special data fields, and more. I’ve personally been enjoying the “Strava Course” app that allows you to import Strava courses directly into your device! The Connect IQ store also allows you to customize your watch face to basically whatever you can imagine from old grandfather clock to new-age digital. The Connect IQ store is still growing, and to be honest most of the applications and widgets are disappointingly out-dated feeling. However, if you spend some time you can find some functional things that may suit your needs. Again, this ain’t the Apple Watch! These apps are purely meant for function.


Garmin Connect Phone Application

Screens within the Garmin Connect Android app

Recently Garmin revised their application and gave it a facelift. I’m really happy with how the app works. It allows you to see your recent activities, performance metrics, and a variety of other stats in real time. Unfortunately you’re not able to create a course within the app… you’ll need a computer for that.

The “Home” screen is a dashboard of activity stats for the current day. I really like this! It displays graphics for steps taken, calories in/out (with MyFitness Pal Integration), Stairs climbed, among other things. It’s quite detailed and extensive and gives you a great idea of how your current day stacks up against your typical day. The phone app also lets you display a list of past activities and detailed metrics about each one.



Garmin Connect Website

The “Course Maker” application within Garmin’s Web Interface

What cannot be done within the Phone Application can be done on Garmin’s Connect website. Thing’s like downloading an excel file of all of your activities, creating custom courses on a map, downloading GPX files, importing manual activities and more. In general the website is a good experience, I particularly like the course maker as it allows you to add course waypoints to the map. Things like “summit”, “water”, “first aid”, and so on. Very cool!


Fenix 5x or Fenix 3HR?

Fenix 5x (Left) compared to Fenix 3HR (Right)

Fenix 5x (Left), Fenix 3HR (Right) – The back of the Fenix 5x is now stainless steel with a lower profile HR sensor.

Before I picked up the Fenix 5x I was using the Fenix 3HR as my daily driver. To be honest I LOVED my Fenix 3HR so it was a hard decision to upgrade. The Fenix 3HR is 90% of the Fenix 5x, however that last 10% is pretty important to me. The Fenix 3HR may share the same form factor but its guts are quite a bit different. The Fenix 5x is MUCH snappier throughout its interface. I spent a lot of time staring at my Fenix 3HR’s “loading screen” waiting to start my run if I wanted to use a course, this is not the case with the 5x. I’ve also found the new performance metrics to be handy, along with the updated UI which makes browsing through the menus much easier. Then there’s the obvious difference in that the Fenix 5x offers full topographic mapping and navigation. The Fenix 3HR can “navigate a course” but its simply displays a breadcrumb red line that you can follow opposed to the full fledged mapping included in the 5x.

On the other hand its kind of hard to compare these two devices. The Fenix 3HR can currently be found for bargain deals used, or refurbished as low as $275. The Fenix 5x is not a cheap watch starting at $649 MSRP!



Fenix 5x or Fenix 5/5s?

Fenix 5x

This can be a tough choice for some. Both of these watches offer the same incredible interface, and functionality. It all boils down to four factors in my opinion when comparing the two devices.

Mapping and Navigation

This one is obvious, the 5x has mapping and navigation features. The 5/5s does not. The 5/5s does allow basic course navigation but its no where near the feature set of the Fenix 5x‘s full navigation functionality.

Physical Size and Weight

The Fenix 5x is big, really big. The 5/5s is big… but bearable. If you have an issue with big watches the 5x may simply not be an option… in that case the 5/5s will be a better choice.

Battery Life

Oddly enough the base model Fenix 5 has slightly better battery life than its larger Fenix 5x brother. This is mainly due to the fact that the Fenix 5x has to do a lot more and needs more horsepower to do the job of navigation and displaying full maps.

Cost

This is a factor, but a minor one. The Fenix 5 starts at $549 MSRP for the base model, the Fenix 5x starts at $649. However, if you opt for the “Sapphire” version of the Fenix 5 you’ll be at the same $649 price tag as the Fenix 5x which includes Sapphire glass by default!

Aside from that, they both offer the same in depth performance and functionality.



Who the Garmin Fenix 5x is For?

The Garmin Fenix 5x is a BEAST of a watch. This thing offers just about every feature under the sun that is possible in a device that is worn on your wrist. I could see this watch being particularly useful for Trail Runners, Hikers, and Mountaineers that find themselves off the grid. Bushwhacking is an easy task with the built in maps, compass, and altimeter. This device is also great for endurance athletes and ultra runners who require in depth performance metrics for their training plans along with incredible battery life for super long events. Even if you’re not an elite athlete you may be drawn to the Garmin Fenix 5x if you’re somewhat active and enjoy well made electronic gadgets.

Who it’s Not For?

I’ve said this multiple times in this article but I’ll say it again. This is a big watch, if you don’t like big watches you won’t like the Garmin Fenix 5x. For those of you in the market primarily for a “Smart Watch” may want to look  elsewhere. While the Fenix 5x offers some primitive smart watch functions its not nearly as full featured as something like the Samsung Gear or Apple Watch… This is intentional it’s not designed to be ONLY a smart watch. If your training consists of short runs under 5 miles or so and you have plenty of opportunity to charge your device then the crazy long battery life of the Fenix 5x isn’t really a big selling point. If you don’t find yourself needing maps for plotting a course or finding your way then the Fenix 5x‘s navigation features may not appeal to you. And finally, this is an expensive piece of fitness equipment. If you’re on a budget this is probably not an option.

If any of the above reasons sound like you I’d suggest checking out some of Garmin’s other options in the “Forerunner Series”. These are less expensive devices that offer specific functions aimed at that demographic.


Conclusion

The Garmin Fenix 5x is a long distance trail runners dream come true. The navigation functions, comprehensive training tools and performance metrics along with a smattering of other cool features make this watch a compelling option in a market flooded with wearable gadgets. Being able to run for 12+ hours while tracking GPS, heart rate, broadcasting my location, and using topographic maps all from a relatively small device on my wrist has been amazing. I love the waterproofing, and rugged build and durability that feels like it will last for years to come. This is a device I rarely take off my wrist, its been a great tool in keeping me motivated to train and move. With that said, there are some funky quirks about it. It’s smart watch features aren’t that compelling, the screen while super functional isn’t as vibrant as competitors. The physical size can also be somewhat tough to swallow. The “Sync” between the watch and Garmin Connect can be somewhat confusing at times (for instance you can’t edit an activity “type” on the watch after an activity has been completed). Sync appears to also only be one way, from the watch to the cloud… not vice versa. Meaning if you upgrade your watch you potentially lose your previous watch’s settings and learned metrics. This isn’t a HUGE deal as these metrics will be re-generated within 7 days of using the device.

At the end of the day this device has become a crucial tool in my trail running and ultra running arsenal. I highly suggest checking the Fenix 5x out!

2 Comments

  • Ted C

    June 1, 2018 at 5:19 pm

    Good review Dave. I generally share your positive sentiment about the Garmin 5X.

    If you talk to to Garmin, then I have two pieces of feedback!

    I don’t find the heart rate monitor very accurate so I have to wear a strap. I also wish the map interface was a little bit more intuitive and centered around running. But even having that integrated I’ve found to be a big help since my general running style is get lost in the woods until I need to run in a general direction for some time to get back. I like the weighting and the interface, and I feel it’s a much more stylish watch than my 930 Triathalon watch – so I can wear it all day and get more of the Fitbit style data.

    See you on the trails!

    Reply
    • mm

      Dave Dillon

      June 1, 2018 at 5:44 pm

      I agree Ted! I hate HR straps so I don’t bother wearing one. I know the Optical HR isn’t perfect but it’s better than nothing for me… at least I can get a decent baseline of my performance. I do find it to be more accurate if I tighten the strap down rather tight. The Map interface is tough to judge since no other wearable on the market offers something that compares. So yeah, it’s a little dated feeling, and kinda clunky. But it gets the job done, and in a pinch could save your butt. For me I find that having the map context around my GPS breadcrumb track in the “map” widget during an activity is the most valuable feature. I can see upcoming trail junctions and gauge distance to the summit of a mountain without having to pull up my phone or a paper map! I know they’ll refine the mapping, and the Fenix 6 and 7 will probably be much more polished. For now, this does the job!

      Thanks for reading!

      Reply

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