It’s been two-and-a-half years since Garmin released the last major update to its vaunted Fenix line—this month they went from Fenix 6 Pro Solar up to the Fenix 7 line. And this is a pretty serious update with a lot of interesting additions (touch screen, free maps, a flashlight on some models, better health tracking, better open-water swimming accuracy, and much more, below).
For those who aren’t familiar, the Fenix series is the big, burly, metal, GI Joe-style of watch. Though its styling is geared more towards the “outdoor enthusiast,” its battery life and its slew of sports and navigation functions actually make it a surprisingly excellent choice for triathletes. Where the Forerunner series is technically Garmin’s “multisport” watch, the Fenix line probably suits triathletes slightly better (if you can get past the size).
Garmin Fenix 7: The Basics
To start, Garmin’s Fenix line has always had pretty much everything a smartwatch could have: tri-friendly sports features like swimming (pool and open water, which is vastly improved, by the way, more below), biking (with advanced cycling dynamics features), running (with some great pacing functions), triathlon, multisport, swimrun, and much much more. It also has excellent navigation/mapping (also improved vastly, more on that below), routing, stores/plays music (including downloading from Spotify, which is awesome), big battery life, and way more. This is all stuff that the Fenix line has had for a while, so that’s where we’re starting from.
Finally, readers should understand that like the rest of the Fenix line, the Fenix 7 line is a big, big watch. Yes, they make the Fenix 7S with a 42mm case, but if you want the flashlight (which is cool) or the solar charging (which is pretty cool), you’ll need to spring for some big wristwear. For comparison, look below to see the Fenix 7X Solar (middle) against the Forerunner 945LTE (left) and the Coros Vertix 2 (right)—bear in mind the Fenix 7X Solar weighs in at a hefty 96g, 7g more than the monstrous Vertix 2.
Garmin Fenix 7: What’s New
We’ll break down all of the tri-important features, in depth, below, but there are a few new things worth quickly mentioning with the Fenix 7 line. First, and most notably, all of the watches on the new line—from the $700 base model to the $1k 7X Sapphire Solar—have a touchscreen. This is a big deal for a few reasons, but we’ll get to that next. You also get free topo maps (that you can download), all models have music, all models have a new glass-covered optical heart-rate monitor case (we’ve actually cracked one of the plastic ones), and better battery life; also all models have some new software updates like RealTime Stamina tracker, the ability to edit a sport activity via a smartphone (this is actually a big deal), health snapshot, and a cool walk/stand measurement feature in most activities.
The upper-end models have some really cool hardware additions like an actual built-in LED flashlight (7X and above), solar charging (7S Solar and above), and multi-band GPS (Sapphire Solar and above). The upper-end versions also get into that sweet four-week smartwatch/80+ hours GPS battery zone that was once only reserved for the (mapless) Garmin Enduro and the Coros Vertix/Vertix 2 line.
Garmin Fenix 7: The Features
Because the Fenix 7 is one of those it-has-everything smartwatches, rather than list out all of the features (which you can simply find on Garmin’s website), we’re going to dig into the newest/most-exciting/tri-related features in the list below.
Touchscreen (All models) – Though Garmin has seemingly lagged behind the times in the smartwatch touchscreen department, they’ve finally joined the party. We’ll get into the good and bad of the new touchscreen below, but the biggest benefit of the touchscreen on the Fenix 7 line is that you can use their excellent maps way, way more easily. It’s great to use the touchscreen to navigate the menus, but moving around maps while you’re on the move is where the touchscreen really shines.
Flashlight (Fenix 7X and up) – Ok, this seems like a hokey gimmick at first, but bear with me. For triathletes who often (very often) end up at a transition area early in the morning and usually (always, for me) forget a headlamp, having a hands-free flashlight that’s literally as bright as your smartphone LED is worth its weight in gold. It also acts as a flashing safety light while running, and can be used as a flashing distress beacon when activated. You can change modes pretty easily between flashing, solid (with multiple intensities), and even a red version for covert ops. I’d be willing to bet we see this on other smartwatches in the future.
Updated HR Monitor/GPS – This is high up on the list for a few specific reasons: First, we’ve personally cracked the plastic optical heart-rate monitor case on another high-end Garmin, so the glass upgrade is very notable. Second, both heart rate and GPS—specifically in the open water—were lagging a bit on such a high-end watch. We preliminarily tested the updated GPS in the frigid waters of the Pacific just last week, in response to members’ questions on Team Triathlete (you’re welcome!). The results below were very very encouraging. With a set buoy and an on-land mark to ensure consistency, in calm water with excellent sighting, the distances are about as accurate as you can get, but obviously more testing will tell the tale.
Modify Activities on Smartphone App – Even though this seems minor, it’s a big deal because it was so ridiculous that Garmin didn’t let users edit their sport activities—like data screens and other settings while training/racing—on a smartphone. Rather, we were forced to click through the endless screens (without even a touchscreen!) to customize our things like open-water swim, bike, run, etc. The bad news? Garmin confirmed that this feature will not be coming to previous models. Ouch.
Health Snapshot – Though this feature is also being rolled out to Fenix 6 models, it’s still a very cool, heart rate variability-based way to evaluate triathletes’ rest and recovery. By just taking two minutes to sit still and get accurate data from your wrist (no chest strap required), you’ll get a bevy of data with varying levels of usefulness. We’ll get into this more below, but it’s an exciting feature for those looking at more health functions on a Garmin device.
Free Topo Maps – Topo maps were previously available either as an add-on or only on upper-end Fenix models, so allowing all Fenix 7 users to access them via the watch’s built-in WiFi and new map management system is a huge blessing. Assuming you want the Fenix for the navigation, and especially with the new touchscreen addition, topo maps are pretty much essential. Just note that only the Sapphire model comes preloaded, and the other models require a (very) lengthy download process for your region that will take up much of the watch’s internal storage.
Walk/Stand Metric – Even though this is arguably a minor addition, automatically knowing how much time you spent standing or walking (even when paused) during your workout helps paint a much more realistic picture of how your workout went. This is an especially useful metric when triathletes are thinking about Ironman racing.
Garmin Fenix 7: The Good
There are a lot of long-time-coming updates to the Fenix line that Garmin knocked out with the Fenix 7 series. While you could argue Garmin should have accomplished some of these years ago is one thing, but here we are. First off, we loved the flashlight—not just for the gimmicky-ness of it, but for how powerful (literally and figuratively) they made it. Having an extra free hand because you don’t have to reach for your smartphone flashlight is huge for triathletes (it is as powerful if not more powerful than an iPhone LED by our tests). Early morning transitions is one thing, but having a strobe on you when your run/ride goes too late by accident is more than just convenience—it’s essential. Just like anything, there are some places where it could be better (more on that below), but it’s actually quite customizable, allowing even for a cadence setting that blinks with each step. And with a beast battery, you don’t have to worry about using it as much as you need. Again, if Garmin can add a small LED to their Fenix 7, I’d be willing to bet other brands can do the same.
Elsewhere, the touch function is one of those FINALLY moments that we’ve been waiting for from Garmin. While menu scrolling and changing screens with touch is a nice thing, the Fenix’s maps/navigation just leveled up in usefulness. One of my chief complaints for the Fenix line versus the Coros Vertix/Vertix 2 was that Coros’ navigation/maps had touch to move the map around. Better yet, Garmin’s touch is fast and responsive, unlike some other brands (Polar, I’m looking at you).
In more minor areas, the addition of editing your data screens on the smartwatch app is also something other brands have had…well, forever. And the Real Time Stamina data is cool, but for triathletes who are probably on the fringes of the physiological spectrum, it’s usefulness is probably pretty varied. I’m guessing this makes more sense for athletes who are doing long rides or runs—not necessarily racing—or people trekking in the outdoors.
Finally, something that’s not minor is the increased battery life across all models. For triathletes, battery life is hardly trivial, as many of us train for a few hours each day and some race for 10 hours-plus. To make actual use of all of these functions, you need a pretty hefty battery if you’re not going to be charging it every week, and we’ve found that the three-week barrier of real, multisport use is about the sweetspot. In the Fenix 7X Solar we tested, real-world battery life was around three weeks when training pretty steadily, just above two weeks if you’re using things like music, GPS, and mapping while you train. That’s actually pretty important and makes the Fenix quite a bit more valuable than the Forerunner models that typically go for about a week in full function mode. It also knocks on the door of the behemoth full-function nav watches like the Coros Vertix and Vertix 2.
Garmin Fenix 7: The Ok
This is one of those rare high-end watches where it’s tough to find a big flaw—aside from the laptop-computer-level price, of course. And as such, most of the issues are minor, which could be fixed, probably easily, in a software update. Regardless, there are a few.
One great thing about the Coros line is that they use their touchscreen very very sparingly, for better or for worse. They only make it active when navigating maps. This is further supplemented by their rotating bezel for menu navigation—which of course, Garmin doesn’t have. While you can turn touchscreen on and off, even based on activity, you can’t activate touchscreen only for maps within an activity. For instance, I’m epically annoyed if I accidentally switch screens or activate something by touch when training/racing, but I also can’t bear the thought of going back to that awful map navigation situation with buttons. Garmin has assured me they feel my pain and are “working on it.” Hopefully not for the Fenix 8.
Elsewhere, the flashlight is super close to perfect, but the distress function—which also displays your contact info/emergency contact info once set up in the Connect app—is pretty tough to find and activate in the maze of menus. The distress function would be a million times more effective if you could access it from a hotkey, since you’ll likely be…in distress. Again, Garmin said they hear me on this.
Finally, while I appreciate Garmin’s foray into a greater collection of HRV data with their Health Snapshot function, it’s not necessarily super easy to decode. For many (smarter than me), this won’t be an issue, because some people likely understand the raw HRV data and are religious about checking it for two minutes every day. For everyone else, this is one of those functions that’ll likely gather dust until Garmin can provide a little more guidance or better data parsing. Also, I’d love to see Garmin add onboard running with power to their line, but my guess is that probably won’t happen any time soon.
And yeah, these watches are expensive…like super, super expensive.
Garmin Fenix 7: Conclusions
In some ways, this feels like a major update made up of lots of tiny little “finally” updates. The good news is that if Garmin has these features baked into this line, there’s a good chance they’ll trickle down to a smartwatch that doesn’t require selling an organ to buy. That said, Garmin can take some credit for thinking outside the box with the flashlight (and its customizable functions) and for executing the touchscreen very well.
But of course, like previous Fenixii (?) and upper-end Forerunners, there are a staggering amount of features, not all of which are super easy to get to and use. There’s a good chance any given person will only discover about 60% of the features that are even of use to them, and from that consistently use only like a quarter of those, at most. Even knowing the features I wanted to explore and use, it was tough to get to them and set them up in a way that would be usable on a daily basis. After a few weeks of playing with it, I’d already forgotten about some of the features I really liked and—worse yet—forgotten how to get to them/use them. Bookmark the user’s manual and refer to it often (at least it’s comprehensive).
That said, I had been on the Coros Vertix/Vertix 2 train pretty heavily when it came to my top pick for “all in” smartwatches. I cited their excellent, industry-beating battery, their easy-to-use (and free) mapping, and the fact that they had a novel concept no one else did (the scrolling bezel). With the release of the Fenix 7, I can safely say that Garmin has finally closed the gap on 95% of those details that made me reach for a Vertix over a Fenix. With just a touch of refinement, Garmin may have made the perfect smartwatch for triathletes.