On one of my outings with the Garmin Fenix 5S watch, I took it out in Forest Park, a large park in my hometown of Portland, Oregon. The park is easily accessible from the city, but large and dense enough that a father and daughter lived there, undetected, for years.
I parked in an unfamiliar lot, started the GPS, and wound my way through Forest Park's trails with my dogs. When I turned around, I selected “TracBack” in the navigation settings and attempted to return to my car.
When I got to a trail crossing, the arrow pointed me back in exactly the opposite direction that looked familiar to me. I thought for a minute and for the heck of it, started to head the wrong way. Immediately, the watch started buzzing. “Off course!” it warned me.
The buzzing was so insistent that, against every inclination, I turned around. An hour down the trail, I finally recognized a trash can, and further down, my car. Garmin, you win this round.
You Say You Will Save Me
In order to explain why I think the Garmin Fenix 5S is the best multisport watch, I have to give some personal context: When it comes to outdoor navigation, I am what is known in technical parlance as “that guy.” I have a tendency to get helplessly, hilariously, hopelessly lost.
With all due respect to Brent Rose, who reviewed the bulkier 5X, I never get lost in the backcountry. If there’s the slightest chance of exposure, I usually have a destination, maps, and a handheld GPS, maybe an emergency beacon, and companions who are keener way-finders than I am.
No, it usually happens when I drive past a new trailhead and think, “That looks like a good place to take the dogs out for an hour!” Or when a routine 7-mile trail run becomes an accidental 15-miler when a herd of cows wanders across my path back.
I may be directionally challenged, but I’m not alone. Many people vanish into the woods every year, and most under fairly routine circumstances—visiting friends at another campsite after dinner, or trying to check out a nearby vista.
If you’re outside daily, as I am, you need a watch with navigational capabilities that is comfortable, easy-to-use, with robust battery life. You need a watch that you're likely to be actually wearing the next time you pass by that alluring trailhead with no water bottle in your car. You probably need the 5S.
Garmin’s topographic maps are top-of-the-line, but unfortunately, you can’t view them on the 5S. The 5S packs a smaller display—218 pixels wide versus the 5X’s 240. The tester model I tried had a case size of 42 millimeters, which fit my small wrist perfectly, and a depth of 15 millimeters let it slip easily in and out of my jacket sleeves.
The watch’s display is not nearly as beautiful as the Suunto Spartan HR Baro, with its vivid touchscreen. You won’t be scrolling through the 5S just for the sheer pleasure of looking at it, and I did miss tapping it with my finger to return home.
That said, it's easy to remember what each button does since the instructions are precisely engraved in the stainless steel bezel. Since it’s reflective, the display was a cinch to read indoors, and the Garmin Connect app is much, much easier to use than competing watches.
As painful as it is to suggest paying more for an already-expensive watch, I highly suggest springing for the Sapphire version, which I had with the tester model. It comes with a scratch-resistant sapphire crystal lens and Wi-Fi connectivity.
In a month of daily wear, I never had any problems syncing the watch to the app on my iPhone. It's tough, too—I even gave it to my nine-month-old son to chew on, in a dark hour of desperation during a five-hour cross-country flight. Sorry, Garmin! He gnaws worse than my dogs do, but when I got home, I just washed it off in the sink and it was as good as new.
It took between two and three hours to charge the watch each time, and I found that one charge (with a daily workout) lasted about a week. A five-hour hike with constant GPS use ran the battery down to 60 percent, which seems consistent with its advertised 14 hours of use in GPS mode.
When it comes to navigation, I found both the trackback and straight-line navigational features in the 5S to be comparable to competing watches like the Suunto HR Baro. Both use GPS and GLONASS, and my paths through familiar trails overlapped with a reasonable degree of accuracy.
However, I particularly liked lap-swimming with the 5S. It stayed secure on my wrist, and Garmin Connect calculates your SWOLF (a name which, hilariously, combines “swimming” and “golf”) score for you, and indicates your stroke efficiency.
Also—perhaps because of the much better fit—I found the 5S’s heart-rate monitor to be much more accurate than the HR Baro. I never got wildly inaccurate HR readings, even while sleeping, and it synced very quickly. It was entertaining to keep the app open during meetings and watch my heart rate spike within a second or two of having to talk in public.
And as much as I love my Nokia Steel, the step counter on the 5S was so much better. I have a very small house—for example, it’s only seven steps from my bedroom to the kitchen—and with the Steel, smaller journeys tend to get outright ignored. It was a pleasant surprise to find my daily step counts to be an average of 1,000 steps higher with the 5S.
Everyday It's Getting Closer
The 5S isn’t perfect. At $650 for the sapphire edition, it is heartbreakingly expensive. It’s also not the most attractive watch out there, nor does it have the best-looking display, or the most fun app. You can’t reply to text messages with it, either. If you forget to select a workout mode, the 5S makes amusing mistakes as it tries and fails to identify what you're doing.
For example, when I checked my calendar to see what had happened on a particularly crazy day, I saw that it had registered about an hour’s worth of boulder-hopping on a hike as several ten- or fifteen-minute elliptical sessions. I never would have made that connection. I guess that makes sense, but it was still wrong.
It can be difficult to describe who the 5S is meant for, so I’ll start by describing who it’s not. If you are a burly, rugged outdoorsperson, you will probably want to spring for the 5X, or save a couple hundred bucks by going with the Suunto HR Baro or Ambit3. If you’re looking for a multisport watch that can pull double or triple duty as a fitness tracker and smartphone accessory, something from Fitbit or Nokia might be more up your alley.
But if you, like me, don’t consider yourself particularly hardcore, but enjoy being outside as much as possible, then the 5S is perfect for you. I suspect that description includes most of us.
After all, $650 is pricey, but it’s definitely less than paying for a search-and-rescue team in a helicopter. It’s also less embarrassing than explaining that you made such a long detour because you’re terrified of cows. One day, Garmin, you and I will show those cows what’s what.
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