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The Garmin Fenix 5S is the fitness watch I don't want to take off

It turns out that a giant multisport watch doesn’t have to be a giant multisport watch.

Case in point: the new Garmin Fenix 5. Garmin has taken its big, aggressive, I Am A Serious Outdoors Person line of Fenix multisport watches and shrunk it into something that looks a little less obtrusive. It was also designed with women in mind. (Yay!) The Fenix 5 model has a 47mm face, compared with the 51mm face of the Fenix 3; and the Fenix 5S, aimed at women and anyone with smaller wrists, has a 42mm face. The Fenix 5X is the only one in this series that has maintained its massive size, due to its advanced mapping features.

Almost more important than size is the fact that the Fenix 5 knows what it is and what it’s supposed to do. It’s not a smartwatch posing as a fitness watch, and it’s not a fitness watch that has co-opted the app platforms and battery-sucking touchscreen displays of smartwatches. It’s a fitness tracking watch with all of the stuff that you would expect from a high-end Garmin.

This all sounds great! The gut punch comes when you consider the price: the Fenix 5 starts at $599, and only goes up when you move into the Sapphire glass models. That’s more than Garmin’s Forerunner running watches, more than its triathlon watches, more than Polar’s multisport V800 watch, more than Suunto’s Spartan Sport watch, more than… okay, you get the idea. The Fenix 5 is a very expensive sport watch. For that price, you’d want to to track every activity under the sun. Fortunately, it pretty much does that.

Photo by Vjeran Pavic / The Verge

For the past month I’ve been wearing the Fenix 5S during both workouts and day-to-day life. It’s relatively small and light, weighing in at just 2.4 ounces with a silicone band, the lightest of all the Fenix models. The model I have is white; it also comes in black and teal. Over time the watch body and silicone strap have started to look dingy, so I’d recommend getting another color unless you have your heart set on a white watch.

For people interested in the Fenix 5: the 5 and the 5S record the exact same activities, differing only in size, display resolution, and battery life. (See pic above for a size comparison; the 5S is on the left.) Not surprisingly, the Fenix 5S’s smaller size equates to shorter battery life. The Fenix 5S is supposed to last nine days on a charge in smartwatch mode, and up to 14 hours in GPS mode; the Fenix 5, on the other hand, will last two weeks in standard mode and 24 hours in GPS mode. In my experience the Fenix 5S lasted closer to a week in smartwatch mode; coupled with consistent GPS workouts, I was looking at charging it around every five days.

The 5S has a round face, a fiber-reinforced polymer body, and a stainless steel bezel. It’s still fairly thick, with a swollen underside and flashing green heart rate sensors, but it’s not quite the monstrosity that is the LG Watch Sport.

Photo by Vjeran Pavic / The Verge

The button on the upper right brings you to sport options; the bottom right button brings you back a step in the watch interface and lets you mark laps. On the left side of the face, there’s a backlight button and two more buttons that act as both up / down buttons and shortcuts to data pages (showing things like daily step count, calories burned, local weather, altitude, and recent notifications). TL;DR: these buttons take time to learn, even with button identifiers etched on the bezel.

The 1.1-inch display is the same multicolor, transflective display you’ll find on other newer Garmin watches, but it’s worth noting that the Fenix 5S didn’t get a resolution upgrade. The 5S has a resolution of 218 x 218 pixels, while the 5 and 5X now have a slightly higher resolution of 240 x 240 pixels.

Okay, so you can see it in sunlight, and there’s not much innovation around the display. Let’s talk about what it actually does. It has GPS, Glonass, an accelerometer, a gyroscope, an altimeter, a barometer, a compass, and built-in heart rate sensors. It records running, trail running, treadmill running, hiking, climbing, cycling, indoor cycling, mountain biking, pool swims, open water swims, downhill skiing, cross-country skiing, snowboarding, triathlons, stand up paddleboarding, strength training, and more. Also: sleeping.

If your sport isn’t listed as an option, you can create a new one — letter by letter using the watch’s buttons, which is about as fun as entering in a password using a TV remote — and assign GPS to it. I did the bulk of my Fenix 5S testing during a weeklong trip to Montana, when I was snowshoeing, downhill skiing, and occasionally doing other workouts, and I was able to customize a GPS-enabled “Snowshoe” option. The watch’s barometric altimeter also came in handy that week when I realized that a bout of dizziness and shortness of breath was likely the result of climbing past 8,400 feet. Amateur, am I right?

Photo by Vjeran Pavic / The Verge

That’s the thing that makes the Fenix the Fenix: it doesn’t just track your sport, it gives you a crazy amount of granular data around that. Since I’m not a super competitive runner or cyclist, simply getting an accurate reading on outdoor distance and pace are enough for me, along with having an easy way to change data screens while I’m working out. The 5S delivered that, although it tended to give conservative readings on non-GPS indoor runs compared with what the treadmill recorded.

Also, while accurate heart rate readings tend to be sketchy on a wristwatch, in my workout tests on a spin bike, the Fenix 5S generally matched or was within a few beats per minute of the reading from a Polar chest strap. Garmin says it also upped its sampling rate for non-workout heart rate readings on the Fenix 5, which means it’s now reading the data more frequently throughout the day, and in theory should offer better readings.

But there are plenty of other features that fitness freaks go nuts for. The new Fenix breaks your workouts down into aerobic vs. anaerobic training zones when you’re done, which is a new feature. Like other sport watches, it gives you a VO2 max estimation; it will also now tell you your current training status — whether you’re overdoing it or whether you should train as usual — as well as your training load over a longer period of time. You can create interval workouts, and load them onto the watch. You can customize the watch’s multisport mode to have it track basically anything you want.

The one area where I regretfully didn’t get to test the Fenix 5S was in the pool or ocean, due to a minor injury that’s made swimming unfeasible. But it is waterproof rated up to 100 meters, and is supposed to record lengths, distance, pace, stroke count, and calories burned.

Photo by Lauren Goode / The Verge

As for its flaws, the Fenix 5S has all of the same downsides as previous Garmin sport watches — like the inability to interact much with notifications, or a less-than-awesome mobile app. This is both maddening, given that Garmin has had years to work on its app and “smart” features, and also forgivable when you remember what the express purpose of a device like this is.

It’s not that the Garmin Connect mobile app is terrible; it runs on almost all smartphones. And it does freely share data with other popular health and fitness apps. But there’s little about Garmin Connect that draws me to open it on a regular basis aside from syncing the watch. At the end of the day it still feels like a super-detailed desktop dashboard that’s been compressed into a mobile app. There are 10 — 10! — different Snapshot pages in the app to swipe through, showing things like daily steps, specific workouts, your weight, your intensity minutes, and more.

Photo by Vjeran Pavic / The Verge

The more prescriptive advice is either buried in the app, or happens on the watch itself. For example: there’s an Insights option in the app that will compare your workouts with other Garmin users in your age and gender group, but in order to get truly interesting info (like “You tend to log fewer steps on Fridays” or “You sleep six hours during the week but nine on weekends”) you need to go a step beyond that, tapping on a tiny “View All Insights” option. Occasionally, the mobile app will send an alert: “You are moving more than a typical Monday.”

While the watch itself gives plenty of guidance after intense workouts, it lacks finesse when it comes to day-to-day activity alerts. “Move!” the watchface says when you’ve been sedentary for too long, vibrating on your wrist. “Move bar cleared!” it says when you get up and move around. Garmin does not mince words. For whatever reason, despite its multitude of sensors, the watch could not tell the difference between sitting down for an hour and taking a yoga class for the same amount of time. “Move!” it would tell me in the middle of class.

And for people who care about onboard music: the Fenix 5 watches still don’t have this. You can control your music from the watch, but you can’t load it up onto the watch itself and run phone-free.

Photo by Vjeran Pavic / The Verge

The watch also froze up entirely during one outing, while I was snowshoeing through Yellowstone National Park, and really, really wanted to record the activity. Exactly 23 minutes in, the watch stopped working, with an incoming Slack notification frozen on the screen. (Guess the watch doesn’t like getting work alerts on vacation, either.) It only worked again after a hard reset. Garmin said it may have been an early software glitch, since I’ve been testing a preproduction watch. I’m inclined to believe that was the case, because I didn’t experience any other issues after that.

Despite all that, this new Garmin very well could be the 2017 multisport GPS watch to beat. At $600, this is not a Fitbit or even an Apple Watch; it’s a commitment watch. And generally speaking, it’s still a thick, heavy-duty sport watch. But the Fenix’s smaller size now allows it to be a little bit more aspirational. Someone might buy this watch not because they’ve already arrived at their fitness peak, but because they want to. And they might just wear it every day, too.

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