Technology follows trends. At one time mobile phones were getting small enough to fit inside a matchbox, yet now the shops are full of smartphones the size of a slice of bread. Garmin has plotted the same course with its 4in screen hand-held Montana models, but it’s still working at the opposite end of the scale to produce the Fenix, a fully functional GPS (Global Positioning System) receiver housed in a regular-looking wrist watch.
The Garmin Fenix is 50mm wide and chunky, but it’s not much bigger than some altimeter watches (although skinny wrists might find it a little big). The stainless steel back panel and wide rubber strap are comfortable to wear, and the unit easily slips under jacket sleeves.
The layout is simple with a large, clear face that is easy to read in bright daylight or the dark with its excellent light. The five button controls around the edge are all large and have textured surfaces, which makes them easy to operate with gloves on as well as with cold or wet fingers. The four metal buttons are marked with icons: scroll up, scroll down, return, light. The fifth (orange plastic) button accesses the menus. I’ve found that the buttons don’t accidentally operate while the Fenix is tucked under layers of clothing, something that I’ve been frustrated by with altimeter watches in the past. The Fenix is also waterproof to 50m and designed to operate in sub-zero temperatures.
As a watch the Garmin Fenix performs perfectly with functions such as alarms, stopwatch, timers and world clock. In this mode the battery life is excellent, operating for weeks between charging – and this makes the Fenix outdoor gear you can use every day, which gives added value for money on what is an expensive bit of kit at £350.
GPS mode is the main attraction of course and the Fenix offers both performance and tunability. In GPS mode the Fenix will show you how many satellites it’s tracking and deliver an accurate grid reference for your position. I’ve been testing it for two months and if I walk a metre on the ground the Fenix registers it quickly and reliably every time. This makes it a great tool for a quick I-am-here check to refer back to your map or to take a bearing, which you can then follow using the large compass arrow display. You can plan and record your movements in much more detail, however, using Garmin’s own Basecamp software. Here you can plan your route in advance and the Fenix will update you as you go, giving directions and distance to every waypoint on your route. You can make routes with up to 1,000 waypoints and the Fenix can also store up to 10,000 trackpoints. With this capacity you’re really only limited by battery life, which in heavy use of GPS mode is up to 50 hours. Charging is via a simple clip-in cradle with a USB connection that is small and light to carry, so you have the possibility of easy charging on a trip.
The Garmin Fenix has many other modes and features that you would expect on a GPS, such as sun and moon times, geocache locations and fine tuning options, plus it features a sensor-driven altimeter, a barometer and an electronic compass.
The Fenix is also compatible with various remote devices such as heart rate monitors and the Tempe temperature sensor, which is a good tool for winter camping as you can monitor just how cold it’s getting without having your watch on your rucksack strap or in the tent porch.
Actual display 30mm
Battery rechargeable lithium-ion
Battery life 50 hours GPS; 2 weeks Sensor mode; 6 weeks Watch mode
Memory 20Mb, 50 routes, 100 waypoint/locations, 10,000 track log points, 100 tracks
The Garmin Fenix is a fully functional GPS with all the geek-friendly features of a hand-held model to delight tech fans, who will just have to adapt to the limited display. At its core it’s an accurate navigation device that is easy to use, fast and reliable.
Review by Peter Macfarlane
First published in Trail magazine March 2013