Garmin’s Fenix smartwatches have long been considered one of, if not the, best multi-sport smartwatches money can buy, bringing performance tracking and GPS-based mapping to just about every outdoor activity.
In its latest attempt to cement this reputation, Garmin unveiled the Fenix 6 in Chamonix, France last week ahead of the Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc (UTMB), claiming it to be the firm’s greatest yet thanks to tweaked design and feature improvements.
The last we saw of the Fenix line was the 5 Plus range, which arrived just over a year ago and delivered some welcome updates for the loyal Garmin fan base, especially more ‘lifestyle’ features such as music storage, Spotify control support and Garmin Pay for mobile payments.
Essentially, the Fenix 6 doesn’t differ massively from its counterpart. It has the same sports tracking, mapping tools as well as the same smartwatch features we saw on the Fenix 5 Plus. As with its predecessor, the Fenix 6 comes in a mind-boggling myriad of very similar variations, each targeted at different types of users.
Another thing that hasn’t changed here is the price. Yes, no matter which Fenix you opt for, it’s still hugely expensive in relation to the general smartwatch market, with numerous skews and price tags that range from £529 for the more compact 6S right up to an eye-watering £999 for the top-spec 6X.
So what is actually new in the Fenix 6? Jon Hosler, Garmin’s senior product manager for Fenix devices, claims it took almost 18 months of development to get the 6 to launch, so we were expecting more than just a few subtle changes over the 5 Plus series when we got some hands-on time with the Fenix 6 Pro Sapphire, the standard model which retails for £699 but doesn’t possess the cool solar power feature found in the most expensive 6X.
Traditionally, critics have been pretty vocal about the bulk of Fenix devices. Garmin has attempted to address that here with the latest iteration, which – despite having a 17 per cent larger (1.3-inch) display over the 5 Plus – still manages to be lighter and smaller overall, measuring just under 1mm slimmer and weighing 7g less. Being such a subtle design update, though, means you might not even notice. We did, however, find it feels less heavy and every little helps when it comes to the cumbersome Fenix series.
One of the biggest upgrades design-wise, however, is the display. The bezel size has been reduced so there’s no longer a black rim separating the actual display and the edge of the watch face. And because of that, you can fit more customisable data fields on the screen at one time (eight over the 5 Plus’s six). This means less faffing scrolling through the menus to find the data that’s important to you.
It’s now also an “always on” display, so you don’t have to activate it with a strong wrist-flick to check the time. This is definitely a nice touch – checking the time should be completely effortless.
“The new screen is lower power, and you can see it in the sun,” states Martin Resch, Garmin’s senior product manager of outdoor, EMEA. We were dubious about this, but after using the Fenix 6 during a hike under the scorching midday sun in the Alps, we have to agree. It was impressive how clear and bright the display was when in direct sunlight, a discernible improvement over the 5 series, which would often require a good squint.
The rubber strap that comes as standard serves its purpose well, and felt comfortable enough during our testing, fastening securely with the QuickFit Band design. Also, for the first time, Garmin are bringing some smarter-looking nylon fabric offerings to its strap lineup this year, which we can’t really see working so well with the rugged vibes of the Fenix 6, especially the bigger 6X.
What’s fresh in terms of actual on-board features? “Widgets glances is a big improvement for users,” Hosler claims. “Showing essential info, but more at once, to find things better, faster.”
In reality, we found these re-designed widgets do make it much easier to keep track of what the watch has been (or is) tracking, summarising the most important info into a condensed block, which you can flick through easily by tapping the watch’s menu button while on the home screen.
One of the biggest new software updates for the Fenix is the 6’s more efficient power platform. The most exciting can only be found however on the £849 6X Pro Solar model, which is fitted with solar panels built into the glass of the display. “The solar power feature works to extend battery life,” said Resch. “It’s not about charging the watch, but it does drastically improve how long it will last for. It should give you an extra day per week on average than those without it.”
For the rest of the Fenix 6 line-up, instead of giving users a remaining battery per cent mark, Garmin has upgraded this to reflect actual usage in time, days and hours, which we’re fans of. This will update in real-time, reflecting the true battery power remaining based on how you’re using the watch in the moment – kind of like a laptop battery indicator. So, it will show longer remaining battery life while not tracking than when you’re tracking a run using GPS.
Speaking of which, GPS options have also been optimised by giving users the choice to make their own customised battery manager profiles depending on how they use the watch, which Garmin claims could “double the battery life” from previous versions. For instance, those who don’t need to use certain features can opt to turn them off and concentrate and the tools they need, so the watch isn’t unnecessarily draining the battery every time you track an activity.
We didn’t have enough time to put this properly to the test, but we did generally find the watch to operate smoothly with a good degree of accuracy. It found GPS almost instantly after hitting the “track hike” option and recorded an expected 50-minute hike to the top of Refuge Elena, a restaurant and hotel, just outside the village of Courmayeur at 44 minutes with a recorded maximum elevation of 2,063 metres. The Refuge’s info point said it stands at an altitude of 2,062 metres, so it was pretty much bang on.
In terms of multi-sport tracking, the Fenix 6 series has a welcome an update to its heart-rate sensor. Previously, you had to purchase an additional chest strap to track your heart rate while swimming. However, Garmin has managed to tweak the sensor so it can now measure heart rate underwater. While we didn’t get the chance to test out this feature, we can imagine swimmers being happy about it, if accurate.
Overall, we would have liked to have seen some bigger design changes in the Fenix 6. It looks almost identical to the 5 Plus that came before it, and while Garmin is probably a little worried about upsetting its dedicated customer base by changing something they already love, it’s always good to see brands push things forward. Everything can be improved.
The Solar feature is one of the most exciting things to come out of Garmin for years, so it’s a shame it’s only available on the uber-pricey 6X Solar Pro model, which costs £849. Saying that, we’re certain it will be fed down to the cheaper models in the coming years as more iterations are launched, so that’s something to look forward to.
Even still, there’s no denying the Fenix is still one of the most comprehensive, impressive and accurate multi-sport trackers out there.
Price: From £529 | Garmin | Sigma Sports | Wiggle
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