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Preview: Garmin Fenix 5, 5S, and 5X (with maps!) GPS sport watches

Garmin's fourth-generation Fenix series: the 5S, 5, and 5X.

Garmin’s fourth-generation Fenix series: the 5S, 5, and 5X.

The fourth generation of Garmin’s Fenix GPS sport watch will replace the current Garmin Fenix 3 and Fenix 3 HR. Release date is March 2017. The three models vary in both size and features:

You might be asking, What happened to the Fenix 4? The rep did not go into details, but referenced (completely seriously) the perception of bad luck in Asia.

Versus the Fenix 3, the primary improvements to the Fenix 5 models are an:

  • Improved battery life;
  • Optical wrist-based heart rate monitor; and,
  • Interchangeable wrist band, so that it can be quickly and easily dressed up or down.

The Fenix 5 is the most direct upgrade from the 3-series. The Fenix 5S, as in “small,” is for those who want less bulk on their wrist, whether due to fit or aesthetics. And the Fenix 5X has an over-sized face so that it can better display maps. More on that shortly.

The MSRP jumps $150 from the Fenix 3, and $50 from the Fenix 3 HR. The Fenix 5S and Fenix 5 are both $600, and the Fenix 5X is $700. Yowzers.

Battery life

The battery life of a GPS watch is a function of how it is being used. In watch-only mode, the Fenix 3 will run for 6 weeks. In standard activity-tracking mode, when the GPS pings its location every second, it records 20 hours of data; and in UltraTrac mode, when the GPS pings are less often, 60 hours.

The battery life of the Fenix 5 improves to 12 days, 24 hours, and 75 hours in watch-only mode, 1-second mode, and UltraTrac mode, respectively. Few users need more; if you do, the only better option is the Suunto Ambit3 Peak, which runs for 20 hours, 30 hours, and 200 hours at 1-, 5, and 60-second GPS pings, respectively.

The 5S is not as long-lasting as the older Fenix 3 or newer Fenix 5, presumably due to a smaller battery. Its lifespan is 9 days, 14 hours, and 40 hours.

The 5X demands extra juice to power its over-sized display. Even so, battery life is comparable to the Fenix 3: 12 days, 20 hours, and 50 hours.

Optical HR sensors on the back of the watch

Optical HR sensors on the back of the watch

Wrist-based heart rate

The Fenix 5 models all have an integrated wrist-based optical heart rate monitor, similar the Fenix 3 HR. Garmin was reluctant to disclose its exact accuracy, but it is reportedly “good enough” for most users.

Its website gives no additional details, but clearly qualifies performance expectations:

The data and information provided by these devices is intended to be a close estimation of your activity and metrics tracked, but may not be precisely accurate.

A chest strap is still the benchmark for heart rate accuracy. If the difference of 150 bpm versus 160 bpm (or even 155 bpm) is meaningful to you, as it is to me on many of my training runs, these wrist-based monitors are not yet a viable substitute.

Fenix 5X: On-watch maps!

The Fenix 5X is the first Fenix model to display full-color maps. That sounds exciting, but I don’t think I will abandon my conventional handheld GPS unit or Gaia GPS app just yet.

One limitation is the screen. It’s inherently small. The resolution is not groundbreaking. And it’s not a touchscreen, so there is no pinching or swiping operations; instead, the side buttons must be used.

The other limitation is the mapping data. The watch is pre-loaded with Garmin’s proprietary 100,000-scale TOPO dataset, plus road maps for cycling and course maps for 40,000 worldwide golfing destinations (which I’m sure is of great interest to this readership).

Maps in 100k-scale are generally sufficient for navigating high-use trails, but not for off-trail travel or even sometimes for low-use corridors.

If you need more detailed maps, you can purchase Garmin’s 24k-scale topographic data and upload it to the watch. This layer was not available on the demo watch, but I was told that, “It gets busy” with all the topographic detail.

The 5X has an over-sized full-color display with pre-loaded maps. I believe that this is the cycling road map.

The 5X has an over-sized full-color display with pre-loaded maps. I believe that this is the cycling road map.


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43 Responses to Preview: Garmin Fenix 5, 5S, and 5X (with maps!) GPS sport watches

  1. MarkL January 12, 2017 at 2:03 pm #

    I don’t understand the point of putting maps on such a tiny screen. If you need a map print one and/or a phone and/or a real GPS.

    Side note: I have issues with Gaia. It is great when it works, but it fails too often. I’ve had it on 2 different phones. Even when I am using downloaded maps and the phone is in airplane mode it sometimes the map image won’t resolve when the screen comes back on when I check it.

    • Andrew Skurka January 12, 2017 at 2:40 pm #

      I generally agree. For serious or regular nav, you will want a better tool than this. But for done-in-a-day sports (e.g. cycling, running, day hiking) I could see it. For example, over the holidays I could have avoided carrying my smartphone on runs in northern MI, where my in-laws live but where I’m unfamiliar with the road system.

      Is this worth $700? YMMV, but I know my answer to that question.

      • Bob S. January 12, 2017 at 3:14 pm #

        Don’t forget the additional $100 for the 24K maps that I assume would be locked to the device it is activated on. I have a Garmin Edge 800 cycling computer and the map screen is next to useless to navigate with.

        Couple of questions.

        Are the OEM maps specifically designed for fenix 5x watches or do they use the same maps all their other GPS units use?

        Do you know if the fenix 5x is compatible with Garmin Bluecharts?

        • Andrew Skurka January 12, 2017 at 4:11 pm #

          The Fenix 5X map data is their standard 100k package that is used by other Garmin devices.

          Unsure about Bluecharts, but I can ask. If you have other tech questions, I can ask those too.

          • Bob S. January 12, 2017 at 7:36 pm #

            Thanks Andrew – I did a little research and I think I found the answers to my question.

            Bluecharts appear to be on SD card only now so they are not compatible.

      • MarkL January 12, 2017 at 4:28 pm #

        $700? Ouch!

      • Haig January 15, 2017 at 5:17 am #

        MI!? I live in Detroit, and although MI is great for camping, it seems less so for backpacking. Other than in the Upper Peninsula, have you found good backpacking trails in MI?
        By the way, I bought the Flex based on your recommendation. It’s excellent. Thanks.

  2. Jimmy January 12, 2017 at 2:17 pm #

    Thanks for the preview, Andrew. Any idea how the optical HR impacts the battery life?

    Also, I think there was a typo in the Fenix 5 battery life lasting for 12 *weeks* in watch mode.

    • Andrew Skurka January 12, 2017 at 2:33 pm #

      I do not know for certain, but my experience with the Suunto HR chest strap is that the battery life is nearly unaffected. It may be different for an optical sensor or for a Garmin product.

      The “12 days” is not a typo. For whatever reason, the battery life of the Fenix 5 models is not as good as the Fenix 3 when in in watch-only mode. I don’t think this is a big deal — if you own one of these watches, I would imagine that you use it in activity mode several times a week and download the data regularly (while simultaneously charging it).

      • Jay C. January 12, 2017 at 6:00 pm #

        The thing about the optical HR is the LED lights that the watch has to power–with a chest strap there are none, it’s just the bluetooth LE or ANT+ wireless connection to a watch or phone. It’s not an insignificant battery impact. I have a Garmin watch with optical HR and with all-day HR turned on, it drains about 10% of the battery in a day without using GPS (GPS is about another 8% to 10% per hour in 1-second ping mode, which is mostly what I use it for, because I use it for running, not often for hiking). If I turn off all day HR, it sips the battery: maybe 3% to 5% in a day, depending on what other kinds of stuff I do with it. The light is another battery suck, as well as all sorts of goofy apps and widgets. My watch is an FR 235, so a different family of watch with a different baseline for total battery life, but just to note that wrist HR has an impact on the battery. Mine’s also over a year old, and they’ve likely improved the tech since then.

      • Jimmy January 12, 2017 at 6:42 pm #

        Thanks for the reply, I have the Fenix 3 which I will use in UltraTrac mode for hikes less than a week long. I’m sort of glad that the Fenix 5 isn’t so much better — I can save my money instead of wanting to upgrade!

        I was confused by the wording, “The battery life of the Fenix 5 improves to 12 days […]” when the previous paragraph said, “[…] Fenix 3 will run for 6 weeks”. I was lazy and didn’t factcheck on the Garmin website… oops.

  3. Bob S. January 12, 2017 at 2:47 pm #

    The Fenix 5X is the first GPS sport watch to display full-color maps only if you do not consider the Garmin Epix a watch.

    Although Garmin claims they do not support this, it is also possible load 24K open source maps onto a fenix 2 but the maps are monochrome and there is a bit of a trick to getting it to work. I have an old unlocked version of Garmin Mapsource Topo (Ver 3.00 Oct 1999) that works fine on a fenix 2 and is much better than the OS maps. I believe the basemap feature was disabled on the fenix 3 so it won’t work on that model.

    They fenix 5X series looks like nice watches but if you assess your needs and find $600 out of your price range there is the option of buying a refurbished fenix 2 for under $130 and a refurbished fenix 3 for about $250 (and dropping). I bought a refurbished fenix 2 with a 1 yr manufacturer’s warranty from an authorized Garmin dealer for $150 and it looks and works like new.

    I agree with Andrew that I would not abandon a traditional GPS or phone app to navigate with a watch but one of the nice features on the fenix watches is the ability to transfer routes, tracks, and waypoints back and forth between the watch and compatible Garmin GPS units.

    If I was going to complain about anything Garmin it would be the HRM chest straps; I am on my 3rd one.

    • Andrew Skurka January 12, 2017 at 2:51 pm #

      Forgot about the Epix, thank you. Easy to do — it seems to have been abandoned, released two years ago and nothing since.

  4. shuping January 13, 2017 at 11:49 pm #

    hi Andrew
    I received your book for as a Christmas present. I’m enjoyed it. thanks for the review. I really wanted to buy the Garmin Fenix 3HR; but a hiker friend told me to wait. I current wear an Apple watch. it doesn’t really do a lot. it dies on my when I do a all day hike. I don’t mind paying $700 for the sapphire version of 5. I do make route of trails before going on a hike using Gaia GPS on a spare iPhone that I only use when I go abroad. it works out for me so far. I believe you can load route (.gps) file to the fenix watch too. it won’t so the map. but if you are off the trail the watch will tell you. you can also trace back with the watch too. do you have experience there? I have smaller wrist, but I think i will still buy the 5 for its battery life. am I making a good investment? thanks kindly

    • Andrew Skurka January 14, 2017 at 7:12 am #

      It sounds like you are looking mostly for an outdoor watch. In that case, I think the Suunto Ambit3 Peak is the best option: you can load it with routes (although none of these watches will be as user-friendly as a GPS unit or Gaia when used like this), and you can buy it for $300.

      I have been using an Ambit2 for years and could not be happier. The Ambit3 is similar but better, eg longer lasting battery, more powerful software. I have a long term review of it on this website.

    • Andrew Skurka January 14, 2017 at 7:12 am #

      It sounds like you are looking mostly for an outdoor watch. In that case, I think the Suunto Ambit3 Peak is the best option: you can load it with routes (although none of these watches will be as user-friendly as a GPS unit or Gaia when used like this), and you can buy it for $300.

      I have been using an Ambit2 for years and could not be happier. The Ambit3 is similar but better, eg longer lasting battery, more powerful software. I have a long term review of it on this website.

  5. shuping January 13, 2017 at 11:52 pm #

    I was going to buy the 5x. after reading the forum here, I believe I don’t need it. does everyone agree? thanks

    • Andrew Skurka January 14, 2017 at 7:04 am #

      Struggle to imagine a scenario where the $700 5X is “needed” or even where it is the most optimal solution. But if you tell me more about your intended use I could give you a more definitive answer.

    • MarkL January 14, 2017 at 10:49 am #

      IMHO, for someone really interested in training and tracking their routes but has minimal actual navigation needs (familiar areas, areas with low consequences, etc.) I can see the attraction of these watches as they are much more convenient than a hand-held unit. When my Foretrex 401 dies I might consider upgrading. But I am confident in my paper map skills.

      • Andrew Skurka January 14, 2017 at 3:58 pm #

        That’s close to the application that I’m thinking for this type of device: if it wasn’t imperative that I have paper maps and compass (or even a smartphone with a big screen) but I still wanted something just in case. For example, I could imagine running on roads or well maintained trails in unknown areas with it, or doing a day hike in an area I know reasonably well but could use some assistance at a few intersections.

        But, again, $700, wow.

  6. CHERYL January 14, 2017 at 6:55 am #

    Is a heart rate chest strap still an option with the 5x?

    • Andrew Skurka January 14, 2017 at 7:02 am #

      Yes. When paired with a chest strap (extra accessory BTW) its data will override the optical sensor.

  7. Shuping January 14, 2017 at 4:17 pm #

    Thanks Andrew. I’m going to check out of Ambit3 and forego the fenix 5. I need to learn more about paper map and compass navigation skill. Any suggestion there?

    By the way the intend use of gps watch is for hiking running and cycling. I already have my answer though. Thanks

  8. Scott January 23, 2017 at 9:17 pm #

    With the Fenix 5, can you load the mapping/ topo maps that come pre-loaded on the 5x? Or is the only way to have that feature is soley on the 5x?? I prefer the size of the 5, the 5x just looks way too big. Thanks!

    Scott

    • Andrew Skurka January 23, 2017 at 10:19 pm #

      The Fenix 5 does not display maps like the 5X. And I’m doubtful that this capability could be added with a software update or a home solution — Garmin would have had to add extra memory, but then not used it.

  9. Court Fawcett February 2, 2017 at 2:05 pm #

    Do you know if you can delete or upload over some of the base maps? For example I have zero interest in golf, so could I delete the golf course and use that space to add more topos or apps?

    • Andrew Skurka February 2, 2017 at 4:15 pm #

      Those maps are pre-loaded and cannot be modified by the user. Furthermore, at this point you cannot upload additional map data to the watch.

      • Phil February 14, 2017 at 9:31 pm #

        You should check on the loading of additional maps. I think it is possible.

        • Andrew Skurka February 15, 2017 at 8:22 am #

          Interesting comment. What makes you say that? It would not surprise me if there is some backdoor for tech-savvy folks, but Garmin gave no indication that it was even possible.

  10. Mose February 26, 2017 at 6:42 pm #

    Does the Fenix 5x allow custom maps like the Garmin Epix for trails? Or are you stuck with the maps that come with the unit?

    • Andrew Skurka February 26, 2017 at 8:59 pm #

      At this time there is no option to change the stock map data.

  11. GS March 26, 2017 at 7:02 am #

    Hi Andrew
    A big picture question – I am an occasional runner. What is the benefit of paying up to get the 5 vs the 3HR. What does one really gain other than a higher price? Please note I am solely looking at the 5 and not the 5X.

    Secondly for someone who is price indifferent, is the Fenix 5 now the best sports/smart watch on the market or is there another category leader? Again I don’t need or care about maps.

    • Andrew Skurka March 26, 2017 at 7:20 am #

      The differences between the 5 and 3HR are not huge.

      Do you care about the wrist-mounted HR? If not, then I would give the Suunto Ambit3 Peak a look, too. About $300, and besides lacking the wrist-HR it has all the features you need for both endurance sports (e.g. running) and outdoors.

  12. Chris April 12, 2017 at 3:55 am #

    Can I program a running route and import it to my Fenix 5x? If so how? (for turn by turn directions? I just moved)

    • Andrew Skurka April 12, 2017 at 7:05 am #

      I don’t recall how much route-plotting you can do with the 5X. But at a minimum, you will know where you are, which is useful in new parts of town.

  13. Susan Topp April 13, 2017 at 7:02 pm #

    Have you found out if you can add any maps to the Fenix 5s? Can you even load a route? I need maps but the 5x is too large. Need this for daily wear and backpacking.

    • Andrew Skurka April 14, 2017 at 10:54 am #

      The 5S has no mapping capabilities. Only the 5X.

  14. Susan Topp April 14, 2017 at 11:06 am #

    So you can’t even download a route to follow using Garmin Connect or Basecamp on the 5s?

    • Andrew Skurka April 14, 2017 at 11:11 am #

      There are some basic navigation features, but no mapping. For example, you can create waypoints in the field and add waypoints using Basecamp, and “go to” that waypoint (and the watch will tell you distance and direction). It will also create a breadcrumb track for you and can tell you how to return to your car. But the watch will not show you a real map of what’s going on.

  15. EHAB April 16, 2017 at 11:40 am #

    Hello Dear

    If I buy Fenix 5X with USA Topo ,so can I download other maps to use it another country like middle east ? how to work there without Maps ?

    BEST

  16. Myrixamophit April 22, 2017 at 11:03 am #

    “The 5X demands extra juice to power its over-sized display. Even so, battery life is comparable to the Fenix 3: 12 days, 20 hours, and 50 hours.”

    Aren’t the dsplays of 5 & 5x identical? The difference in power consumption comes only from the hardware, the calculation power is higher on the 5x, for the maps capabilies of course. 5 & 5x are the same, only a bigger housing and stronger computer for the mapping sets the 5x apart.

    Cheers

    • Andrew Skurka April 22, 2017 at 9:45 pm #

      Yes, that is correct. The display size is exactly the same (30.4 mm) but the 5X has a bigger case.

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