Smart Watches for the Fitness Minded |
Garmin Fenix versus Apple Watch
I remember my very first digital watch. It was a Timex Ironman watch. It told time and date, and had a stopwatch, a timer, and an alarm clock. From the very first Casio digital watch until around 10 years ago, that’s about as far as watches got. Sure there were GPS watches before that (the Garmin Forerunner 305 was my first one), but they were clunky, took forever to find GPS, had poor battery life, and no one in their right mind would wear them for any time beyond their activity.
To say that consumers are spoiled in this day and age when it comes to wearable tech would be an understatement. Over the past decade we’ve entered what I’d call a renaissance of wrist based technology making it abundantly clear that GPS, activity tracking, and instant notifications, are here to stay.
Two companies stand out in particular in the war of the wrists. Neither company owes its origin to timepieces, but both have become standouts in consumer electronics and created the standards by which others are judged today.
Garmin leads in market share against brands like Apple, fitbit, Samsung, and Suunto, to take market. To attribute to their success Garmin holds far greater breadth across their wearable tech product line than any of their rivals with entry level products like the Vivo series, and high end pieces like the Marq.
For the sake of this comparison, we’re looking at the Garmin fenix. Garmin has marketed the fenix series of watches to cover everything from sports to activity tracking in a stylish package. Apple on the other hand essentially one product with various versions to the market, the Apple Watch.
This review will compare and contrast the Garmin fenix 6 series against the Apple Series 5. Both came into the market in 2019 and each represents the fifth generation of product line (there was never a Garmin fenix 4).
To be fair, I own a Garmin fenix 6. My firsthand experience wearing the current generation of the Apple watch can be measured in days, maybe weeks, whereas I’ve had the fenix 6 for several months now. Based on my experience I’ll be comparing the two devices on the basis of sports performance, activity and wellness tracking, apps and connectivity, battery life, and of course I’ll touch on design.
Who is this review written for?
If you’re an undying Apple enthusiast who waits in line days before the next generation iPhone hits the shelves so that you can have friendly people in blue polo shirts clap for you as you shell out $1500 for a new phone, this review probably isn’t for you. If you think $500 is an outrageous amount of money to spend on a watch because you just need it to tell time, then this review probably isn’t for you either.
I’m writing this review through the lens of an athlete who stays current on tech trends and really likes to track data that pertain to health, wellness, and performance. I’ve owned many Apple products and am typing this on my Macbook Air right now. I was the first person I know to ditch BBM Messenger (Blackberry) for an iPhone, if you ask me, Apple rocks. I’ve also owned several Garmins and think they’re rad too.
I’m trying to tell you I’m being objective, and I hope that comes across in this review. And if you’re looking for a truly in depth review on either piece, head over to DC Rainmaker’s reviews of the Garmin fenix 6 and the Apple Watch Series 5.
I’m addressing this first because as an athlete, its what matters to me the most personally. At $400 for the Apple Watch, and $600 for the Garmin fenix, neither of these watches are in any remote danger of ever becoming economical investments. Because of that, it should come as no surprise that I have yet to meet an athlete who bounces back and forth between the two wearables interchangeably.
Sweating with the Apple Watch
Apple has come a long way towards appealing to the fitness crowd and they’ve done so with measured success.
While Garmin beat Apple to the punch with the integration of a HRM into their devices several generations ago, the heart rate monitoring that Apple uses is widely regarded as the benchmark by which all other devices are judged.
And when it comes to GPS, in the previous generations of both these watches (the fenix 5 and Apple Series 4), Apple seemed to be beating Garmin and Suunto at their own game. Several critics were right to point out that when you really dialled in to GPS tracks post activity, Apple turned out to perform slightly better than Garmin. And in the water, the Apple watch would beat Garmin handily with open water swim accuracy.
That does seem to have changed however as Garmin moved to a Sony based GPS chip, but props here do go to Apple. That being said, when Apple was “beating” Garmin with GPS accuracy in previous generations, we were still talking about 30 or 40 meters over a 10km run that would result from deviation from the actual course. Today, I’d go so far as to say that in all but the most extreme scenarios (read, running through the middle of a downtown), both the Apple and Garmin are boringly accurate.
Its Still Garmin’s House
In spite of the progress Apple has made, there are still few compelling reasons that Garmin dominates the market when it comes to GPS watches for athletes. Show up to the start line of a triathlon or marathon, and its Garmins that endurance athletes have their fingers ready to hit start on when the horn goes. Its still Garmin’s market, and in the distance, other brands like Apple, Suunto, Polar fight to be the best of the rest.
One of the main reasons Garmin takes the edge is battery life. The numbers vary based on model and usage scenario, but to illustrate the point, I can run my fenix 6x Pro Solar for nearly 50 continuous hours in the Run activity mode using GPS, compared to just about three with the Apple Watch. When you start talking about endurance sports, that basically makes the Apple Watch a non-starter.
Another reason that Garmin has the edge, is the breadth of sports Garmin can track. Its sport modes include; Trail Run, Run, Hike, Bike, Bike Indoor, Open Water Swim, Triathlon, Golf, Navigate, Track Me, Map, Multisport, Treadmill, Indoor Track, Climb, MTB, Pool Swim, Ski, Snowboard, XC Ski, SUP, Row, Row Indoor, TruSwing (Golf related), Project Waypoint, Walk, SwimRun, Kayak, Strength, Cardio, Yoga, Floor Climb, Elliptical, Stair Stepper, Clocks, Boat, Tactical, Jumpmaster, and Other [Custom].
And finally, lets remember that when it comes to GPS, this is Garmin’s house. Because of that Garmin’s native support for mapping gives it a big leg up when it comes to anything where Point A to Point B is involved.
For runners and cyclists, either on the trail or on pavement, the integration of apps like TrailForks in combination with Garmin’s own heatmapping data gathered from millions of activities around the world from its broad user base allows users to plot routes based on trail and route popularity right from their wrist. Additionally, Garmin adds in maps and runs for over 2,000 ski resorts on the fenix 6 pro, again making it the device of choice for people who always say “the mountains are calling, I must go”.
And for golfers, Garmin puts maps for over 41,000 golf courses worldwide on your wrist right out of the box. Allowing it to calculate distance to pin, and even provide you with club suggestions so you don’t sound like a complete idiot to your friends if you never ever golf, like me.
Health, Wellness, and Activity Tracking
Call this one a Draw… and a lot of untapped potential
When it comes to activity tracking and keeping track of your overall wellness levels, I have a hard time declaring a favourite between the fenix and Apple watch. Features like step counters, activity alerts, and heart rate monitoring seem elementary now compared to the series of features that these devices come packed with.
On the one hand, Apple brings to the table ECG monitoring, and noise level monitoring. Introduced in WatchOS 5 and on the Series 4 Apple Watch, electrocardiogram (ECG) monitoring is now available for most owners around the world, following an early U.S.-only launch. It’s easy to use but is really only designed for use when you feel an irregularity in your heart rate. It’s not like the heart rate monitor — which is useful for fitness tracking as well as for medical purposes — and instead falls into the same category as the Watch’s fall detection mode: something you may not know you need until you do. Having it there will provide peace of mind to anyone with concerns over an irregular heartbeat, as it will send a notification if one is detected.
The Series 5 Apple Watch still does not include sleep tracking. Whether this is considered a downside depends on the importance you place on it. And while there are apps which will monitor sleep using the Apple Watch, both these and any future official Apple feature, require you to wear the watch in bed. This means making alternative plans to charge the Watch, other than overnight. I think the omission of a native sleep tracking app is a glaring miss from the watch, but until the device’s battery life extends beyond less than a day, I can see why Apple isn’t making it a priority.
On the other hand, while Apple introduced ECG monitoring this past year, Garmin introduced PulseOX which measures your blood oxygen saturation levels (SpO2), and Respiration Rate which measures how many breaths you take in a minute, to compliment its own suite of wellness tracking features. When combined with Garmin’s sleep tracker which monitors movement and heart rate, SpO2 and Respiration Rate during sleep can provide some very meaningful data for people with conditions like sleep apnea.
Another feature which Garmin brings to the table this year is Body Battery, which uses Heart Rate Variability monitoring or “HRV Stress”, to gauge a user’s rest/stress levels. Powered by Firstbeat Analytics, it originally appeared on the Suunto Fitness 3 sports-watch. The feature takes 24/7 stress tracking to the next level. Its aim is to help people make better training, rest, and sleep decisions.
Body Battery is an interesting and useful feature that seems to be underrated by many users. I’ve found that on days where I haven’t slept well, or am coming down with a cold (or a flu that I had earlier in the year), or even if I got a little to festive (drank too much) the day before, Body Battery effectively translates how good or bad I’m feeling qualitatively, into a number that can be looked at and acknowledged as a confirmation of what I’m feeling quantitatively. For training, this means that if I’m feeling a little fatigued and my Body Battery is showing 60% when I wake up, maybe this is a day to trade a hard workout in for a recovery run. Or if I’m crushing it in training volume, and my Body Battery is showing 100% when I wake up, I can feel pretty good about how my body is adapting to the stresses of an increased load.
I think that there are a lot of people out there who consider this stuff to be kind of gimmicky but I couldn’t disagree more. I’ve had several conversations with people in fields from medicine to sports physiology and if one thing is clear its that 24/7 activity tracking en-masse promises to provide individuals and athletes in the future a much clearer picture of their overall health and well being.
Imagine going in for your annual medical or check up and rather than your physician or coach having a picture of your wellness based on measurements collected in that moment, they’re able look at metrics like your resting heart rate, activity levels, ECG, SpO2, and respiration rates over time. The ability to identify trends, understand identify illness or fatigue, or understand an individual’s overall wellness changes dramatically, and I think, for the better.
I’m going to call this one a draw between Garmin and Apple because they’re both just so damn good.
Apps and Connectivity
Too Close to Call?
Apple brings a lot to the table with Apps available for purchase in the Apple ecosystem. With that in mind, its hard to argue against the cool factor of being able to Shazam a tune from your wrist, or reply to a text message by speaking into your watch. So I’m not going to dig in to all the cool apps and features you get here, I’ll let Apple do that for themselves on their website.
What I will tell you is that Garmin has taken some big steps forward over the past two years to keep up with their tech rival. Through their ConnectIQ Store, Garmin makes apps such as Spotify and Strava available, and as mentioned earlier, a range of apps and widgets are native to Garmin such as VO2 max measurement, weather, and a long list of sports and activities.
So really the app question comes down to what specifically do you need out of your watch?
- Do you want to be able to see your latest texts or notifications that appear on your phone? Well both the Garmin and Apple Watch will do that.
- Do you want to be able to reply to those texts from your device? Only Apple has got ya covered.
- Looking for something that’ll track your sleep and movement? Gotta go with Garmin since the Apple needs to sit in a charger every 18 hours, presumably over night
- Need a watch that can Bluetooth music to your earbuds during a long hike or run? Well, both will do that but if you’re on the trails for longer than 2 or 3 hours, then you’ve got to go with the Garmin.
With that in mind, this is a good time to point out fundamental differences between the two wearables that serve as each other’s strengths and weaknesses.
What makes the Apple watch GUI (graphical user interface) so beautiful is a high colour touch screen that costs battery life dearly. On the flip side, the fenix’s sunlight-visible, transflective memory-in-pixel (MIP) screen is far more limited across the colour spectrum.
Garmin’s face isn’t a touch screen, and while that characteristic may make it slightly less intuitive to some, its also the feature allows you to navigate through menus while in the water, or while wearing gloves (the kinds that Canadians use on cold days, not the touch screen friendly ones that are great for running in but that’s about it), or while you’re dropping in to a trail on the mountain bike.
Make no mistake, these are very different watches that approach fitness and activity tracking from opposite ends of the spectrum. The Garmin’s lineage is sports and navigation, the Apple’s lineage is usability and lifestyle focused integration. Determining which is better for your lifestyle is like deciding whether a Land Rover Defender or a Tesla Model S suits you better.
The Verdict | Apple Watch Series 5 vs Garmin Fenix 6
If you’re looking for the answer to “which watch is better?”, then the most comprehensive answer I can give is… it depends.
I’d encourage consumers to think about the one or two features that are most important to them, and think about how those features or characteristics of the device would weave into their lifestyle.
For instance, if connectivity is key for you and you have visions of a world where you can speak into your watch and reply to texts with ultimate ease, then Apple is for you. If you’re looking for a watch that you can run with, ride with, and wear for two weeks without recharging, then the fenix is for you. Or if endurance sports are your jam, then you probably already know that the Garmin fenix and the Garmin fitness ecosystem is more of a fit.
The Apple Watch is a great smart watch that has rock solid features as a fitness watch, whereas the Garmin fenix is a benchmark fitness watch that will certainly turn heads as a smart watch.
Buy the Apple Watch if…
- Ultimate connectivity with your phone, your apps, and other cool things in your life like your AirPods is key
- You don’t mind charging your watch every night (its not that big of a deal)
- You’re fitness minded, you like the look of something a little more elegant, and you want something to track your overall health and wellness
- PRICE: $529-$1060 CAD
Buy the Garmin fenix if…
- You’re not just “fitness minded”, you live and breathe based on performance, metrics, training, and goals
- You don’t mind something with good, but not best in class connectivity
- You’re happy to trade sleek and stylish form for function, durability, and longevity
- PRICE: $820-$1300