The Fenix 2 is the watch Garmin has made to appeal to active people who might end up doing… well, just about anything outdoors. It’s not just for runners, just for swimmers, just for snowboarders, or just for hikers, it’s for people who want a single watch to track their complete athletic lifestyle. The good news is that the Fenix 2 is truly fantastic for almost all of those things. Almost.
- Screen: 1.2-inch/3.1cm diameter, 70×70 pixel monochrome LCD
- Touchscreen: No
- Weight: 90 grams
- Size: 4.9 x 4.9 x 1.7 cm
- GPS enabled: Yes
- Battery: 500mAh li-ion (rechargable, 50 hours life time specified)
Garmin bills the Fenix as a “full-featured training watch for multisport athletes,” and that’s actually a very accurate description. It has a high sensitivity GPS radio, an altimeter, barometer, 3-axis compass, an accelerometer, a thermometer, and both ANT+ and Bluetooth radios.
It’s for running, riding, hiking, swimming, paddling, climbing, skiing, snowboarding, triathlon, and sure why the hell not, skydiving. In case you’re wondering, Fenix is pronounced like the city in Arizona, or the bird rising from the ashes.
Why Does It Matter?
If you’re an active outdoorsy type who engages in a lot of different activities, you don’t want to buy a separate watch for each activity or even a couple of multisport watches you have to swap on a regular basis. The Fenix 2 is intended to be the “one watch to rule them all” kind of deal. It also matters because it’s Garmin: the company has kind of been killing it lately on the GPS watch front.
This is definitely a watch one would describe as “big.” It weighs in at a cool 90 grams and it’s round and thick, like a miniature hockey puck with wrist straps. If you hucked it at someone’s face it would definitely cause a black eye or a lost tooth, so don’t do that. The rubber strap is also on the thick side to help stabilise the watch’s heft and to spread pressure out more evenly across your wrist.
From a physical hardware perspective, the watch is essentially identical to the original Fenix. In fact, other than a couple tweaks in the colours of the buttons, it’s the exact same hardware on the outside. That said, the button functionality has been remapped, so now the start/stop button is where the up button was, and the back button is where the down button was. Trust me, it makes sense when you’re using it.
The watch’s backlight is a deep red, and while it’s not as bright as an Indiglo-style backlight, it lights evenly and it will be even less prone to screw with your night vision, an important feature if you’re camping or running at night.
The Fenix 2 charges via a USB cable with a proprietary docking clip on one end of it. You can also upload your data this way, but the clip takes some fidgeting to get a proper connection, so you’ll probably want to just upload via the iOS or Android app. The whole shebang is waterproof to 164 feet (5 atmospheres).
For testing I took this watch on a couple short hikes, an indoor swim, an ocean swim, a trek across Zion National Park, a couple bike rides, and somewhere around a dozen outdoor runs. I’d hoped to take it snowboarding but I was skunked by the California drought. The difference between indoor vs outdoor swimming is significant because open water swims use the GPS for distance and position, whereas the indoor swims use accelerometers.
The UI on the original Fenix was, frankly, a mess. It was extremely unintuitive, which made the watch very awkward to use. Thankfully, things have definitely been improved in the Fenix 2. The menu system is laid out much more cleanly, and the way the buttons are organised makes it much easier to use.. That said, there are so many options and features that it can still feel very overwhelming. I’m going to try to just focus on the ones we think matter most. We’re sure you have better things to do than read a 5000 word review!
From the homescreen which displays the time, you hit the red button on the upper right and you’ll be taken into the activity launch menu where you pick the sport you want. Your options are cross-country ski, downhill ski/snowboard, rock climb, hike, navigate, trail run, run, bike, swim, workout, indoor run/cycle, multisport, or custom. Clicking any of those will either take you to a sub-menu full of options (i.e. are you swimming indoors or in open water?), or give you the Go screen where you can just launch right into the activity. Generally, this is very painless, though there are certainly more menus to wade through compared to a dedicated single-sport watch.
What really separates this watch from competitors is the amount of insanely detailed data you can get for your activities. In fact, it’s borrowed some of the best features from other Garmin watches and Voltronned them into one. Take swimming, for example. It doesn’t just time you as you go, but it counts your laps and your strokes per lap. In fact, using the built-in accelerometers, it can even tell what type of stroke you’re doing and will log it accordingly. In my testing it nailed the stroke-type with 100-per cent accuracy. These are features you find on Garmin’s top-shelf triathlon watch (the Forerunner 910XT), but they have been helpfully borrowed here.
Or take running. Garmin continued the trend of pilfering from its flagship watches and basically took all of the best features from the Forerunner 620 and added them to the Fenix 2. The watch alone will give you a lot of data (including your cadence a.k.a. steps per minute, which is a rare feature), but if you pair it with Garmin’s HRM-Run chest-strap heart rate monitor the level of detail is astonishing. It’s got everything from your average vertical oscillation (how high you’re bouncing as you run), to average ground contact time (how long your foot is on the pavement), and average stride length (how far you go with each step).
Now, what do you do with this data? Probably very little! Really, most of these somewhat obscure metrics are for people training at a much higher level than most of us will ever need. But if you’re actually a serious runner, then you might find a missing piece to the puzzle of your lack of speed, or early onset fatigue buried in the numbers. For runners who geek-out on stuff like that, this watch is a treasure trove.
Where the watch is less successful, unfortunately, is on the navigational front. It has some undeniably great features in its hiking mode. One such feature is breadcrumbs, where you hike wherever you want and the watch makes little digital waypoints every so often so you can retrace your way to the trailhead, Hansel and Gretel style. And of course there’s a digital compass, which I found to be adequately accurate, and a barometer so you know if a storm is coming. But when it comes to following a route or getting to a predetermined point, that’s where things get ugly.
For starters, the simple act of loading a map onto the watch is a gigantic pain in the arse. You have to install no fewer than three applications on your desktop (Garmin Map Manager, Garmin MapInstall, and Garmin BaseCamp) each of which are roughly as intuitive as doing your own liver biopsy. For my multi-day Zion trek I loaded in a full map of the park, then I tried a couple different way of making routes. Some were just lists of strategic waypoints with names, so we could try to get from one point to the next point, and so on. For other segments of the trail I created custom routes which in theory should have been extremely simple for us to follow. They weren’t.
First off, the size and resolution of the black and white screen makes it all but impossible to tell what you’re looking at on the map, even when zooming way in or way out (which was far from intuitive to do, by the way). Instead, I more often found myself using a screen that tells you how close you are to the waypoints you’ve entered. Unfortunately, that merely gives you distances to the waypoints as the crow flies, completely ignoring trails and terrain. This means that sometimes it would tell us the closest waypoint was one we’d already passed half an hour ago and was now 500 feet below us. Fun. It also re-sorts the waypoints by proximity, which makes them much harder to keep track of. Even using the route I had meticulously drawn out using the desktop software didn’t help.
Then there was the problem of tracking accuracy. Now, to be fair, in Zion you’re often surrounded by steep rock walls, which no handheld GPS is built for, but holy crap the Fenix 2 failed spectacularly here. Instead of just saying “I’m not sure where you are at the moment so I’m going to wait until I have a good satellite lock,” it basically wildly guessed, sometimes putting us many miles away. For example, it once thought we’d hiked 22 miles and 6,000 vertical feet in just over an hour, with an average moving speed of 36 MPH. No, we six guys in our mid-late 30s carrying heavy backpacks do not hike faster than Usain Bolt with a rocket up his arse. That said, when hiking in more average terrain around Los Angeles and the Yucatan Peninsula, the GPS did just fine.
That Zion anecdote is funny on the surface, but in reality it felt quite dangerous. There’s no way to undo a false waypoint once the watch has set it. At the time, I was using the Garmin to monitor our distance traveled because we knew there was a turn coming up at mile 5.4, and we were worried the turn might not be well-marked. Sure enough, it wasn’t. The glitch screwed up our mileage so badly that we essentially had no idea how far we’d gone, and thus we didn’t know when the turn was coming. This is why you should always, always have a map and compass (which we did) and make sure you know how to use them. Even so, this watch should be smart enough to know that nobody moves Roadrunner fast while hiking, and eliminate the bad data.
Also on the negative side, the smartphone app and the web portal are both really bad. It feels like Garmin spent no time on design or UI — it’s simultaneously too basic and too convoluted. Both are basically a firehose of information and neither are intuitive or visually appealing. Compare it to a slick app/website like Runtastic and you wonder why a comparatively giant company like Garmin can’t get it together on this front.
The Fenix 2 has both ANT+ and Bluetooth 4.0 radios which means it can pair with an extremely wide range of accessories, from heart rate monitors and power meters to external thermometers and bike cadence sensors. It also pairs with most modern smartphones, allowing you to not only upload your workouts, but also live-update your location in a race should you so desire, so friends and family can follow you on a map. The catch is that you can’t use ANT+ and Bluetooth simultaneously, so don’t expect to use a connected heart-rate monitor and pair the watch with your phone at the same time.
I’m still disappointed that I didn’t get to try the watch while snowboarding, but it sounds awesome. The watch will not only track your routes, but it will record your 3D speed. That’s significant because if you were only looking at the horizontal plane, when you’re going down a steep incline it wouldn’t look like you’re going very fast. Factor in drop, though, and you can see just how much arse you’re hauling. Then when you get to the bottom and get on the lift it will create an auto-lap. When you’re back at the top, it starts up again, and you can try to beat your previous best time. You can also use the watch as a remote control to start and stop recording with Garmin’s Virb Elite action camera, which is a slick feature.
Obviously, there’s much more than we can go into here, but in addition to all of the advanced features, you can expect the standard watch fare, like a stopwatch, a timer, multiple time zones, alarm clocks, and all of that. Battery life is rated for 10 hours of GPS navigation, which you can extend a bit by having it ping the satellites less frequently. For longer days of hiking, though, it just couldn’t keep up. I ended up strapping a Goal Zero Nomad 7 solar charger to my backpack and running a cable to the watch on my wrist to charge as we hiked, which worked very well, though it was pretty awkward.
Simply put, the workout data you can get from this thing is second to none. I love the more advanced running metrics, and being able to monitor my cadence in real time helps ensure my form stays solid when my legs are starting to burn. The swimming data is arguably even cooler. Tracking my strokes per lap gives me a great look at my efficiency and shows me where I could improve. Also, it turns out that when my arms start to tire my breaststroke is almost as fast as my freestyle. That’s crazy!
It pairs with almost every accessory under the sun, and it even has a bike mount for using it in triathlons. Being able to quickly upload workouts via the app is way more convenient than doing it over a USB cable (which multisport watches have traditionally used). The backlight won’t screw up your night vision. If you get the HRM-Run heart rate monitor (which has a bunch of accelerometers in it) it adds advanced features like a VO2 Max test, recovery recommendations, and even a race-time predictor. Also, the display is generally easy to read.
The apps and website are both a mess. It’s extremely difficult to load maps and routes onto the watch. I found it to be unreliable in navigational situations. While it did help sometimes, it wasn’t something I could count on. I also experienced some random resets while using it in the wild, though the firmware has been updated since then.
The charging connector is annoying to deal with. The fact that you can’t use ANT+ and Bluetooth simultaneously is a real face-palm situation. The watch is definitely bulky and you certainly won’t forget you have it on, especially while swimming. It will also make tighter-fitting layers tricky to get on and off, just because your cuffs get caught on its heft. It has an internal thermometer, but its data is completely thrown off by the heat your body gives off, so it’s effectively useless and could lead you to underdress for some challenging conditions outside your tent if you trust it.
Should You Buy It?
In general, I think this watch is awesome, but it depends what you’re into. If you’re just a casual runner, then this is definitely overkill. Or if you want a watch for navigating backcountry, then this ain’t it (check out the upcoming Suunto Ambit 3 instead). That said, if you’re into running, swimming, kayaking, skiing, snowboarding, cycling, and rock climbing, then yeah, this is probably the watch for you. It’s just incredibly versatile and it packs in so many excellent features.
Now, it costs $499. That isn’t cheap, but consider this: It basically packs in all the features of the Forerunner 910XT (aka the best triathlon watch for several years running), which also costs around $500, and all the advanced running dynamics from the Forerunner 620 (Garmin’s flagship running watch), which also costs roughly the same. Plus you get skiing and all those other activities. $499 isn’t cheap, but you’re getting a lot for your money, and comparable watches from other brands are typically closer to $550+, give or take. If you’re a quasi-serious outdoors athlete, you’ll be hard-pressed to find a better watch than this. [Garmin Fenix 2]