Mobile mapping was Garmin’s game before the world’s most valuable company threw its hat in the ring by sticking a GPS chip into its second-generation iPhone. Now, Apple is cutting into Garmin’s wearables line too. Not only does the Apple Watch have a heart-rate monitor built in, the latest release has its own GPS/GLONASS chip. Add in the power of the App Store, and the possibilities of the Apple Watch are limitless.
But, there’s one thing that Garmin has over Apple: purpose. Everything about the Fēnix 3 HR watch is designed for the backcountry user, whereas the Apple Watch is a mainstream device. The Apple Watch is a great fitness tracker, but can it and the current app offerings hold a candle to Garmin’s backcountry expertise?
Garmin Fēnix 3 HR | $550
The Fēnix 3 HR will get by in the city—when paired with a phone, it’ll show your texts, phone calls, calendar appointments, control your music and more—but what this mountain-smith is really amped on is being in the woods, preferably for extended periods of time. If you’re the same way, keep reading.
I haven’t peeked inside the 51-millimeter waterproof (up to 100 meters) case, but it’s probably mostly battery in there. Garmin claims the Fēnix 3 HR will last up to 2 weeks without tracking any activities. Very impressive, but this watch isn’t made for not tracking activities. The real question is, whose battery will drain faster on a ride: yours or the watch’s? Likely, the Fēnix will still be recording your heart rate long after you’ve blown up. Garmin accurately claims 16 hours of GPS recording time. The watch lasts me a typical week of living, working and riding. Put it in its battery-saving UltraTrack mode, and it can get through a long weekend of bikepacking.
Garmin also has its own app store where you can find all kinds of watch faces and apps for specific activities. I downloaded a couple cycling apps for research purposes, but I was satisfied with Garmin’s built-in MTB function.
It allows the user to scroll between multiple screens of highly customizable data fields, with metrics aplenty. I have my ‘home’ screen set up with distance, current altitude, elevation gain and time of day; a subsequent screen for ride, current and upcoming sunset times; another for elevation data; one all about speed; and another for temperature and barometric pressure (the watch has a built-in barometer and thermometer). I got rid of the heart-rate data but it’s there if you want it. It will also pair with, and show metrics from, power/cadence gadgets.
The Fēnix tracks with the accuracy of both GPS and GLONASS reception (Russia’s GPS satellite network). There’s no base map so your track on the breadcrumb screen appears to be floating in space, but when used with the watch’s built-in electronic compass and a paper map you’ll be able to figure out where you are. The watch allows you to set waypoints beforehand or save your current location at the touch of a button, and the TracBack function is great for out-and-backs. If you make a wrong turn on the way back, an alarm will sound so you don’t wind up bombing down the wrong ridgeline.
Garmin won’t tell you this, but it’s possible to upload GPX files to the Fēnix 3 HR from your computer (Google it). I’ve done it for a couple new rides and it’s amazing not having to check the map at each junction—a glance at the navigation screen is all you need, which in many cases, can be done without stopping at all.
Want full map support? The Fēnix 5X is the only watch in the Fēnix series that supports base maps and can supply turn-by-turn navigation to the trailhead and beyond. Viewing a map on a watch face has its limitations, but you can do a lot of the heavy lifting by plugging the watch into your computer and running Garmin’s BaseCamp app, where you can create routes and upload them to the device. It’s pretty spectacular, but at $700, the 5X also costs a lot more than the Fēnix 3.
If, at 51 millimeters in diameter and 17.5 millimeters thick, the Fēnix 3 HR and 5X are too big, check out the 42-millimeter Fēnix 5S, and 47-millimeter Fēnix 5. There’s also a Fēnix 3 without the heart-rate monitor. Whichever one is right for you, you can be sure that it’ll be a far better tool for the trail than the Apple Watch 2. The Fēnix watches don’t have touchscreens or Siri, but Siri still can’t get you out of the woods like they can.
Apple Watch 2 | Starting at $370
Just like all of Apple’s creations, its watch is a masterpiece of elegance and simplicity in design. It’s almost too beautiful to ride in, but this thing is designed for activity. It’s water resistant to 50 meters, has GPS and GLONASS reception, a built-in heart-rate monitor, and it’s lightweight and compact enough to forget it’s on your wrist while you’re working out—the case for the 42-millimeter aluminum-bodied version is a mere 34 grams.
It’s a tough little guy as well. I haven’t babied the watch and after 8 months of use the Ion-X Glass lens shows only a few light surface scratches—you have to be looking for them to see them. The aluminum case has just one minor blemish as well. If you’re extra tough on gear, Apple offers the watch encased in stainless steel and capped with a sapphire crystal face for $200 more.
I prefer wearing the Apple Watch over the Garmin, but there’s just one problem with that: The built-in Workout app is essentially useless for ride recording. It’ll tell you things like current and average speed, distance, duration, heart rate and calories (which I couldn’t care less about) but that’s about it. It doesn’t track or navigate, and says nothing about elevation.
But it’s all about the apps, right? I’ve been using three different ones. Strava works extremely well if you’re simply looking to track the ride and view the stats later. The app fully functions without the watch being connected to the phone but the metrics it shows—elapsed time, speed, distance and current heart rate—are limited and non-customizable. It’s great for the basics, but leaves a lot to be desired.
I want to be able to upload GPX routes, see elevation stats, my coordinates—you know, things that are useful in the woods. Neither Apple nor Strava offers this, but there are apps that do. Gaia GPS and ViewRanger both offer downloadable TOPO maps, show a fair amount of metrics and you can upload GPX files to them. They display info on the watch, but neither of them work if the watch isn’t connected to the phone, nor will they allow the watch to download maps stored on your phone. And they drain your phone’s battery—when it dies, the app stops recording and you’ll be lost and unable to call for help.
The battery in the watch itself isn’t up to snuff for hardcore backcountry use. I usually get more than Apple’s claimed 18 hours of battery life, even with a couple hours of GPS tracking on Strava, but that’s nothing compared to the Garmin. I might get a day-and-a-half out of the Apple Watch, with a couple hours of recording, whereas I often get more than a week out of the Garmin, with multiple rides.
You might be able to ask Siri who won the game last night, check your stocks, unlock your computer (a small but totally awesome thing), or pay for your groceries with the Apple Watch, but this city slicker isn’t quite ready for full-time country life—yet.