Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Comparative Review- Garmin Fenix 5x with Topo 24k Map Bundle vs. Suunto Spartan Sport Wrist HR Baro

Article by Jeff Valliere

Suunto Spartan Sport Wrist HR Baro - $549 ($599 with HR Smartsensor)
Garmin Fenix 5x - $649.99

After recently reviewing the Suunto Spartan Sport Wrist HR Baro (review here), I was intrigued to test it side by side with the flagship Garmin Fenix 5x to compare GPS accuracy, wrist HR accuracy, navigation capabilities and overall usability and customization options.  Sam has already published an in depth and detailed review of the 5x (review here), so this is a supplemental comparison review. Here I plan to add some additional perspectives from use in mountainous terrain and also review Garmin’s 24k Southwest map bundle that they graciously provided to us.

I have admittedly been a stubborn, loyal die hard Suunto fan for the past few years, using the Ambit3 Peak, which has become my benchmark for accuracy, durability and reliability.  
Though the Ambit3 Peak is quite accurate, has very long battery life and a robust set of features and functionality, I couldn’t help but notice that the newer Suunto models and especially the newer Garmins were coming out with watches that feature wrist HR, 24/7 activity tracking, health monitoring, vibrant color displays and an attractive array of smartwatch options and customization.

In some ways, the Spartan Sport Wrist HR Baro improves upon the Ambit series with a color touch screen, wrist HR and a few modern amenities, but overall, found it to be a bit behind the curve in relation to other GPS watches now in the market.  Wrist HR, though accurate for 24/7 tracking, was very much off the mark during activities (possibly confusing heart rate with cadence), battery life is lacking, especially for such a large watch and tracking metrics such as sleep, steps and overall activity is behind the curve, particularly for long term tracking.  GPS accuracy however is very good and many of my concerns I believe will be remedied over time with software updates.

Form Factor:

Both watches are very close in size, and although quite large, are both very comfortable on my thin (OK, extremely thin) 5.5" circumference wrist.  The Spartan Baro is 30+ grams lighter than the 98 gram Fenix 5x, which is certainly noticeable, but while wearing, I got used to the added weight right away and has not been a burden as it comfortably snugs up well while running.

The Fenix 5x (left) has a slightly shorter and wider band than the Spartan Baro.  In comparison, the band of the Spartan Baro is a bit stretchier and much more sticky, making it a bit of a challenge to put on and get situated just right.  The watch faces are about the same size, but the 5x has smoother lines than the somewhat rough and choppy edges of the Spartan Baro Stealth bezel (though the Amber version of the Spartan Baro does have a smoother bezel).

The thickness of the two watches are about the same.  In the photo below, the sharper edges of the Spartan Baro (top) are evident.

The wrist HR sensor of the Spartan Baro (top) protrudes a millimeter or so in contrast to the flush sensor of the 5x (bottom).  Both are very comfortable though, as the protrusion of the Spartan Baro is not noticeable.  The bodies of both watches are made of a fiber reinforced polymer, however the 5x has a stainless steel backing (to match the bezel), adding some grams, but giving it a very durable and high quality feel to it.

The durability difference between the 5x vs. the Spartan Baro is significant.  I have just slightly bumped the Spartan Baro a few times, each time resulting in a small scratch to the bezel.  I have really whacked the 5x on metal or rock on multiple occasions and there is absolutely no evidence of it whatsoever on either the stainless steel bezel, or the sapphire glass watch face.

In the video below, Sam discusses and demonstrates some key Fenix 5X features:

I also discuss the Suunto Spartan Sport Wrist HR Baro here:

GPS Accuracy:

GPS accuracy comparisons between the Fenix 5x and the Suunto Spartan Wrist HR Baro (or Spartan Baro) are generally quite similar and both compare pretty closely with my tried and true Ambit3 Peak (though I still see the Ambit3 Peak as being the most precise of the bunch, performing better in deep canyons than the 5x and Baro).  On all of my runs over the past month plus, the 3 units will measure within 2/10th of a mile of one another on the majority of my 5-10 mile runs in the mountains.  On flatter, more wide open terrain, the variance will be less, within 1/10th of a mile or less, but it is never really a matter of one watch or the other reading high or low, I think it just depends on the day.

Fenix 5x blue, Spartan Baro Purple, Ambit3 Peak Red

Fenix 5x blue, Spartan Baro Purple, Ambit3 Peak Red
As far as pinpoint accuracy, the Fenix 5x is overall consistently more precise than the Spartan Baro, especially in deep canyons and complicated terrain, it more closely tracks switchbacks and minor turns in the trail.  Though not an integral part of this review, the Ambit3 Peak is the most consistent and predictably accurate in the widest variety of terrain (comparing GPS and not factoring in GLONASS which is not a feature on the Ambit).

The purple represents the 5x and the blue is the Spartan Baro in the two screen grabs below.  The 5x follows the actual trail more precisely than the Spartan Baro, which tends to drift and jump a bit more.  Neither are absolutely perfect though.
Purple Fenix 5x  Blue Spartan Baro
Purple Fenix 5x  Blue Spartan Baro
If my GPS (any of them) decides to go haywire or misbehave, it is often here in Fern Canyon on Bear Peak, which it bordered by skyscraper sized rock formations.

The 5x (purple) once again tracks a little more precise where the Spartan Baro (blue) gets a little more confused once or twice.
Purple Fenix 5x  Blue Spartan Baro
Over the course of an 8 mile run that comprised of an 8,461 foot summit, 3,000+ feet of vertical, extended ridge lines and two deep canyons, both the 5x (purple) and the Spartan Baro (blue) recorded an impressively similar track, though the 5x did record with a bit more detailed precision on the tighter turns and switchbacks.  It was ever so slight though, enough to feel like I am splitting hairs on this outing at least.
Purple Fenix 5x  Blue Spartan Baro
On this ridge run to the summit of Mt. Sanitas, the tracks of the 5x and Spartan Baro are essentially identical.
Purple Fenix 5x  Blue Spartan Baro
Barometric Altimeter Accuracy:

Given my nearly exclusive use in the mountains where vertical gain/profile is my #1 metric, having a precise altimeter, preferably a combination of barometric and GPS is of high importance to me.  This is important for tracking my daily/monthly and yearly vertical, but can occasionally come in handy while navigating technical routes where entry/exit points are often navigation-ally assisted by precise altitude readings.

Both units are equally precise, always within a few feet of one another,and within 5 or 10 feet of the actual elevation, but in order to maintain that precision, both watches need to be calibrated periodically at a known elevation.

Wrist HR:

Wrist HR is most often split into 2 categories, 24/7 and activity HR.  Both the 5x and the Spartan Baro show accurate readings for 24/7 tracking, though I have noticed that the Spartan Baro reads 5 or so beats high when resting at my lowest range (confirmed by manual counting of heart beats or using a chest strap).  The 5x (Garmin in general) is also able to better track these readings over time with a more robust user interface and more complete set of tracking metrics (more to come on that below).

Run Activity HR...  I have essentially given up on this completely with both watches.  The Spartan Baro we are convinced is confusing wrist HR with cadence, showing ~30 bpm slow on long sustained climbs and ~30 beats high on longer sustained downhills.  Flatter runs are relatively more accurate, but there are enough irregular spikes along the way, that I simply don't trust it.  Though I had higher hopes for the 5x, I actually found it to be at least as bad as the Spartan Baro or worse, the "worse" being that there is no rhyme or reason to the irregularity.  I think some of it has to do with my skinny wrists and the relatively massive size of these watches, but I think the Spartan Baro still needs some software adjustments and perhaps is a similar case with the Garmin as well.  If looking for accuracy during activities, I'll continue to use a chest strap.

Wrist Heart Rate Tips

These comments apply to all wrist heart rate monitors. With any wrist heart rate monitor smaller wrist sizes, how the watch case fits one your wrist, poor blood flow especially in cold weather, clenching of hands, vibrations such as those on bike rides, and accentuated arm movements such as when running steep downhills can affect accuracy. High spikes tend to occur earlier in runs when blood flow is lower and are largely caused by the units confusing cadence for heart rate.

It is useful to be well warmed up before starting runs to get better accuracy. The watch should be on your dominant wrist and not on the customary left wrist for a watch if you are right handed. Wear it a bit higher than a normal watch to avoid the wrist bones and have it snug so no light or air sneaks under as light and air can interrupt the signal.

WiFi / Bluetooth Connectivity:

Uploading, downloading and updating with Garmin is super easy, as Bluetooth connectivity is for the most part, very stable with my iPhone/Garmin Connect app. (though every so often I have to re-connect).  If my activity happens to not update on it's own, uploads happen fast, in a minute or less after pressing the update button within the app.  Otherwise, when I get home, anything that needs to be uploaded or downloaded over WiFi does so automatically without me even knowing it.  At first I was quite indifferent over the WiFi feature, but have found it to be quite handy, as any software updates happen automatically.  I don't even keep my charge/data cable connected to my computer anymore.

The connectivity with the Spartan Baro and Movescount app. is good, in that it stays connected in order to receive messages and alerts, but after every run, I have to deliberately sync the watch with the app., which can take 5-10 minutes, or sometimes longer.  This is not unique to the Spartan Baro, but also was the case with my Ambit.

Smartwatch Functionality and Overall Day to Day Non Running Use:

The Spartan Baro is a step up over the Ambit series with more detailed alerts, wrist HR for 24/7 tracking and vibrating alerts as to not bother others around you when worn day to day, but in the big picture has very limited smartwatch functionality.  I am also somewhat mystified that to the best of my knowledge, I am unable to find any evidence that there are apps available for the newer Spartan series, allowing for almost no customization at this point for the user.

Garmin has an impressive amount of apps, widgets, data fields and watch faces to help you customize your watch to suit your athletic and day to day needs.  I'll have to admit, that 2+ years ago I was impressed by the selection of apps within Suunto Movescount, all of which are only compatible with the Ambit series, simple apps such as temperature, incline percentage, storm alert and the like.  The wide array of fun stuff that Garmin now offers is quite impressive and in a whole new category.

With the vast choices of Garmin apps, you can track an Uber arrival, find your own car or control the lights in your house.

You can add pretty much any combination of data fields for any activity or non activity you could ever dream of.

I know this is minor, but having 19 pages of watch faces to choose from is pretty cool from both a functionality standpoint and just for the sake of fun.  My 7 year old daughters really get a kick out of the holiday themed watch faces.

Also a zillion handy widgets to choose from depending on your wants/needs.

When synced with a smartphone, the 5x (like the other watches in the Fenix series, the 935 and various other Garmins) provides in impressive interactive experience, perhaps not equal to something like the latest Apple Watch with its even wider array of apps, two way communication, on board music storage although this just arrived with the Garmin 645M (RTR preview) , etc..., but for a tough, durable and accurate outdoor GPS watch with long battery life, the 5x does a great job at masquerading as a smart watch.

I love having weather at my fingertips.

I find it most handy to receive notification such as texts, emails and phone calls, especially on the run and not have to dig out my phone.  Both the 5x and Spartan Baro do this, but I appreciate that with the 5x, the messages/alerts are stored and you can go through each one and read/delete as necessary.  With the Spartan Baro, notifications come and go with no way read them later if you happen to miss a message while on the go.  Both have settings for vibrate/sound while giving alerts, but the 5x has more options to customize how you want to receive your alerts and the vibration is a bit more obvious, where I can easily miss the vibration with the Spartan Baro.
Beyond the alerts, I find it handy to have weather, HR/24/7 tracking data, step/distance measuring, music controls, a variety of watch faces and with the 5x, maps at the ready.  The 5x seems to do most of what I want and do it well, whereas the Spartan Baro is comparatively limited.
A cool sunrise app/sunset app that I loaded from Connect IQ
Some of these apps are fluff I'll admit, if you are simply using the watch for tracking your day to day runs and activities, but with more and more features available, it is becoming increasingly common to wear a GPS watch beyond athletic activity.  Combining smartwatch functionality , style and dedicated GPS functionality with longer battery life and overall reliability is something I would like to see more of.

24/7 Tracking:

24/7 tracking, though improved in the Spartan Baro is a bit limited in comparison to Garmin.  Any information gathered in the Spartan watches is pretty basic, sleep, steps, calories, etc... and is shown on a weekly graph to see a comparison day to day.  Sleep tracking is good and I found it to be accurate most nights, but occasionally would show some sort of discrepancy, though most likely was just from me sleeping on the watch in some awkward position.  I did notice however, when I wake up in the morning, the watch will show the overnight sleep information one time, then it is gone forever.  I found it easy to miss this too in my early morning stupor, either looking at it and not really registering the numbers, or, mistakenly press a button, then pfft....  gone!  Additionally, your 24/7 stats are not stored over time, you essentially just  get a running tally of the past week. 

Within the Movescount app., you can view a longer term 30 day trend of your activities, but still a very rudimentary overview of activity stats.  I was surprised that I could not dig into any details or broken down specifics.  Also, as of this writing, 24/7 data can not be stored over time. Suunto is updating its app this spring so we expect big changes which I will update as they are known.

Garmin on the other hand, not just with the 5x, but just about all of their GPS and fitness watches provide a very detailed and deep look into 24/7 data.

Of course on the watch itself, you can view weekly trends, like average resting HR.

 Weekly distance trend.

Actual steps in relation to goal steps.
Then, if you really want to dig in some more, just go to the mobile app. (or PC) and you can really go down the rabbit hole.

An overall snapshot view of activities and stats in the Garmin Connect app.

Touch on any one and you can get daily specifics.

With the overall calendar view, you can get a big picture snapshot and easily click on any day you would like to see specifics of both sport activities and 24/7 stuff.

Then you can keep on digging and digging and digging.

Battery Life:

This is a biggie for me.  Though I do not run, bike or hike beyond 8 or 10 hours as much as I used to, occasionally I do and when I do, I don't want to worry about whether or not my GPS battery will last.  Many in the hiking/cycling/ultrarunning/triathlon communities want/need a battery that will last more than 8 or 10 hours without having to charge on the go or trade watches mid activity.

Also, with automatic WiFit sync on the Fenix 5x (as well as sapphire editions of the 5 and 5s) and bluetooth sync with all models, I have to deliberately go out of my way to get my watch on the charger, which is something I don't always think to do as often as when I was plugging into the computer to sync.  When travelling, it is also nice to not have to bring along yet another charging cable on shorter trips.

The 5x is advertised as having 20 hour battery life while using best GPS at 1 sec. tracking mode which I have found to be accurate.  This is especially impressive, given the vibrant color display, vibrating alerts and constant HR tracking.

Suunto claims 10 hours for the Spartan Baro, but I was only able to eek out 8 hours and 4 minutes of best GPS tracking, with optical HR on.  For such a large watch, I find it surprising that Suunto has been unable to extend the battery life in this watch.  During normal day to day use with an hour or two of activity each day, it is hard not to notice the battery level drop like a rock and obsess about it a bit, constantly topping it off on the charger.


This is one area where Spartan Baro has an advantage, with its low profile, secure magnetic charging interface vs. the very protruding cable of the Fenix.  The Spartan Baro can easily be plugged into a mobile USB battery charging pack and still be worn on the wrist with minimal discomfort or interference.

Spartan Baro charging on the go in the photo below, actually not too bad, though you will most likely sacrifice wrist HR while charging.

The 5x (as well as the others in the Fenix series and 935) have what I find to be a somewhat awkward charging method, a very stiff cable connector that plugs into the back of the watch.  For home use, this works fine, but if you want to charge on the go (as is not entirely uncommon in 100 mile or longer ultrarunning events), it is quite unlikely one could charge on the go while functionally wearing on the wrist.  However, with 20 hours of battery life, you are less likely to need to do so, yet it is still entirely possible depending on the race or activity.

I tried wearing  it with the charging cable connected as more of a gag, as it is quite uncomfortable and would certainly damage the charging interface before too long and rub a deep groove in my bony wrist.

Or, if you were really determined to keep the 5x on your wrist while charging, you could take advantage of the Quick Fit band by flipping the band with the D ring and pin 180 degrees and still wear on the wrist (though the screen is unreadable).

Or, the most practical solution, just clip to a key biner and hang from your running vest or something similar (or just stuff in a pocket, but don't forget to lock the screen).

Customization of Activity Data Fields:

Customization of data fields is another category where in my opinion, Suunto clearly excels over Garmin.  Within the Suunto Movescount app. or PC interface, it is very easy to select any activity you are looking to customize, quickly change each screen from displaying 3 - 7 data fields, add or delete screens and simply sync to update.

With Garmin however, there is no way to do this in the app, it all has to be done with the watch, digging into menus and pressing buttons to scroll for each data field and screen display option, which is a bit tedious and troublesome in my opinion.  In a perfect world, I would love to see both options available on any unit vs. either or.

Data Field Display Within Activity:

Again, the Suunto Spartan Baro does slightly better here.  Though the overall diameter/circumference of the two watches are about the same, the Spartan Baro more efficiently utilizes available space leading to a larger and more usable screen.  I personally prefer a maximum of 4 data fields per screen for my typical technical trail running, as anything more than 4 fields is too busy and small to register easily while focusing on the trail.

With the Spartan Baro, I find 4 data fields to be absolutely perfect and easy to read and the screen displays with excellent clarity, even in bright sunshine.

Either way, both displays work very well.
Below is a Data Field app. I loaded from the Garmin ConnectIQ store (one of many that cater to a variety of sports).  I have trouble with this much data on one screen during trail runs, but use it sometimes on less technical runs.

Navigation and Supplemental Topo 24k Maps:

The on board mapping capabilities are what sets the Fenix 5x apart from all other watches.  If you run/hike or do any activities in remote areas, off trail, water sports or simply travel to new and unfamiliar areas, the 5x is very much worth the added expense and weight/size penalty.

I frequently explore and adventure off trail in the mountains and have employed various methods of navigation, from good ole map and compass, followed by supplementing with Garmin handheld GPS units and then over the past few years, using my iPhone with pre-loaded maps that are accessible even when far outside the reaches of cell phone coverage.  This works very well, as the iPhone has a large, bright and easy to read color screen, but also has it's limitations.

I really dislike having to pull out the iPhone when I am in rough, off trail technical terrain, which is often the case when I am in the need to navigate.  It is especially inconvenient when it is cold (cold hands and cold kills iPhone batteries), when it is rainy/wet/snowy and when I just don't feel like delaying, so having maps on the wrist works as a great supplement and very much lessens the frequency of which I need to refer to the phone or the map/compass.  Though the 5x screen is small, it is easy to read and get a very good reference as to where you are at any given moment and depending on zoom level, a great overview of your surroundings.

The Fenix 5x comes loaded with a Worldwide DEM Basemap, which displays major roads and highways, cities, towns, train tracks, major rivers (but not lakes), state lines and is quite basic, but could help you navigate through states or urban areas. It essentially is an auto GPS unit loaded lock stock and barrel onto a watch.

In the photo below, just the Worldwide DEM Basemap is displayed and is centered over mountainous terrain just West of Boulder.  Essentially there is nothing there to see outside of the surrounding primary roads.

Major roads around Boulder as displayed using Worldwide DEM Basemap

Now I toggle on the included Topo US 100K on top of the Worldwide DEM Basemap which adds a much higher level of detail.  Added are secondary roads, dirt roads, creeks, streams, bodies of water, points of interest, major trails and paths and a level of Topographical detail that should satisfy most users.

Garmin provided us with a 24k Topo Map Southwest ($99.99), which they directly added to my Garmin Connect profile and I was able to easily load it on the 5x.  This map bundle covers my home state of Colorado, Utah, Arizona and New Mexico in great detail.

With the 24k Topo Map bundle, you get a much higher level of detailed terrain contours, topo elevations, summits, routable roads and trails, parks, coastlines, rivers, lakes and geographical points.

From the Garmin site:

  • Provides detailed digital topographic maps, comparable to 1:24,000 scale USGS maps.
  • Contains detailed hydrographic features, including, coastlines, lake and river shorelines, wetlands and perennial and seasonal streams.
  • Search by points of interest, including cities, summit, lakes and campsites.
  • Provides elevation profile on compatible devices to estimate terrain difficulty.
  • Contains many routable trails, rural roads, city neighborhood roads, major highways and interstates.
  • Displays national, state and local parks, forests, conservation areas, and wilderness areas.
  • Includes points of interests such as parks, campgrounds, scenic lookouts and picnic sites.
  • Displays Bureau of Land Management township, range and section information and USGS quad locations.
Having the 24k Topo on board really helps a lot in the backcountry, especially in mountainous terrain where the more detailed topo can help aid in navigation quickly help correlate your position in real time accurately.  You can also select a wider range of features, points of interest and routes that are pre loaded that make it very simple to follow.

On the summit of Bear Peak, following an 8 mile route I created and loaded into the 5x

There are many Navigational functions built into the 5x. You can load gpx files or created routes, choose a wide variety of points around you to navigate to (pictured below), enter in coordinates, pre determined points of interest or waypoints, back to start/track back (one which I use often).

Once a point is selected, route created or gpx file loaded, the route will be drawn on the map and show your position relative to the destination.  The bottom 1/3 of the screen is dedicated to pertinent information such as distance to destination, distance to next turn and navigational directions.

In the below photo, I was getting a distance countdown to the summit of Bear Peak, as well as predicted time to arrive.  The distances were spot on, though the time was never close given the range of variables.

A handy elevation profile is also created to give an overview of what you are looking at for vertical challenge along your given route.

Turn by turn directions are also a very handy feature which Sam discusses in detail in the below video:

Baro Navigation 

How does the Spartan Baro compare in terms of Navigation?  Like most watches, it is hard to compete with the 5x in this realm.  The Spartan Baro has improved over the previous Ambit series watches, with an easier to read and interpret screen, easier to access navigational functions and you can easily create/follow routes, navigate at pre determined waypoints and trackback, but you are really only following a simple line with no visual information as to your surroundings, such as with the 5x.

Another minor quibble I have with Suunto navigation is that within the navigational mapping screen the maximum zoom is only down to 150 feet.  This is OK for most applications and circumstances, but when I am navigating in steep, complicated, off trail terrain (especially if visibility is bad) and trying to follow a route or track back, the150 feet zoom level only roughly gets you within the same vicinity of your track.  In most cases this does not matter, but sometimes it can cause a bit of searching to find exactly where you need to be especially if you have to thread the needle so to speak to find the path of least resistance.

With the 5x (as well as other Garmin models with breadcrumb navigation), one can zoom in to within 20 feet, which gives a much closer pinpoint indication of your location in relation to your intended path, so you can more easily be on it or within feet of it with more efficiency and fewer corrections and guesswork.  The advantage of the closer zoom however can be somewhat offset by GPS accuracy, which is not always pinpoint.


It is almost unfair to put these two watches head to head, but the Suunto Spartan series is aimed to compete with the Garmin Fenix line in the rugged, outdoor, mountain use category of GPS watches, so here it goes.  

If you have made it this far, it is probably obvious that I am leaning toward Garmin, which is saying a lot.  In the not too distant past (just a few short months ago), my loyalty to Suunto had me a touch blind and naive, as the writing was on the wall, but I was not really accepting or closely reading what it said.  In keeping in close contact with Sam and reading all of his reviews, my interest in comparing was increasingly piqued and I just needed to prove it to myself one way or the other.

Suunto Spartan Sport Wrist HR Baro

The Spartan Baro really had me excited, as it is a full featured, competent, very high quality GPS watch with a few modern improvements over my Ambit3 Peak, such as wrist HR, better notification capabilities, a color touch screen, vibration alerts, slightly better navigation capabilities (easier to access and use on the run and the color screen helps too).  Add with basic 24/7 activity and Hr tracking and more readable and more configurable data fields, there is a lot to like.  

However, given the inaccuracies of the wrist HR, I often found myself wearing a chest strap for accuracy.  Messages, though you can read more of the message than the Ambit, they are not stored anywhere to read later if a message comes at an inopportune time.  The vibrating alerts are nice, but so subtle that I would miss them half of the time.  24/7 is interesting too, but really did not go deep enough to be of that much use.

Add to that, the Ambit3 Peak has more than twice the battery life, has slightly more accurate GPS tracking, has many apps that can be loaded from Movescount and can now be found on discount for about half the price of the Spartan Baro, I was not entirely convinced.

The Spartan Sport Wrist HR Baro , despite some of the shortcomings mentioned above however, is still a great GPS watch that should please all but the most discerning, ultra distance athletes.  In fact, even though I have a Fenix 5x on my shelf to grab, I often enjoy using the Spartan Baro when I am not planning to use the 5x maps and just want a watch that is a little lighter and less noticeable on the wrist.  Suunto makes a very solid, accurate and reliable no frills GPS watch, but being priced at $549, I don't see this as a particularly great value in relation to other GPS watches on the market, including it's now close in price Suunto predecessor, the Ambit3 Peak.

Garmin Fenix 5x

The Fenix 5x however in my opinion and for my use and preferences, is the best GPS watch on the market.  Right away, the great looks and quality feel of the watch drew me in, but that is the least of its virtues.  Factor in the on board mapping, accurate GPS and Barometric altimeter, 20 hour battery life, seemingly endless customization and configuration possibilities, sapphire glass, Quickfit band interchangeability, it is really hard to beat the Fenix 5x .  Yes, $649 is a LOT of money to plunk down for a GPS watch, but in relation to other high end watches on the market from competitors, the price is not completely outlandish considering all that the 5x offers.  

If mapping is not a concern, you can save $100 and get nearly the exact same watch, the lighter and smaller (though with same size screen) Fenix 5, which aside from maps and size (sapphire is an add on), is the exact same as the 5x, or the Forerunner 935 at $499 (all the same, though sans maps and all plastic vs. stainless, but weights less than half the weight and has a 24 hour training battery life (RTR review and comparison to 5x here).

Improvements for the 5x?  Though this is the best GPS watch out there, I think there is still room for improvement.  

Just in case Garmin is reading and taking notes , some improvements I would love to see are:
  • Slimming this watch a bit and making lighter, without compromising battery life or its elegant looks and durability would be amazing.  At 98 grams, this is a big watch (how quickly we forget the 201 and the 305! ;) ).
  • Better utilizing screen space, slimming the bezel some as well as the buffer around the screen (that shows the analog seconds).  The analog seconds is in my opinion, a misuse of valuable screen space and could be an option to have on screen.  I would prefer/expect more screen given the size of the 5x for more map viewing and larger numbers for data fields.
  • A touch screen would make using the maps much easier.  I realize that is a tough pitch when wet or with gloves, so keeping all 5 buttons for those circumstances would be ideal, so having both touch and button options.
  • Wrist HR accuracy improvements.  It might have something to do with the size of the watch in relation to my small wrists, but it just does not work when running for me (and for many others).  Would love to be able to rely on it and never feel inclined to wear a chest strap again .
  • When locked in activity mode, allow for scrolling through data screens without having to unlock.
  • Adding music like with the new 645m.
For Jeff's run bios see our Reviewers Bio Page here.
The Baro and Fenix 5X were provided at no cost.The opinions herein are entirely the authors'.
Comparative overlay analysis via DCR Analyzer

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Jeff Valliere said...


Thomsd said...

One comment regarding the altimeter comparison. Suunto supports continuous calibration, which works very well, especially in the mountains and long lasting activities. garmin does not. The drift is noticeable with the garmin. You could end up in the summit with 50 or more meters off. Happened to me a lot. Suunto always within 1 to 5 meters

Anonymous said...

"Suunto supports continuous calibration". Yeah. Every night my home is on different alt. Once 63m, other day 97m.

Jeff Valliere said...

Interesting to hear different perspectives. I personally notice my 3 watches (the two reviewed here and my Ambit3 Peak) drift from my true elevation at home of 5,415, but do agree, the Garmin swings a bit more extreme to more than 100 feet high. Either way, they all need to be corrected periodically if I am looking for better precision, which I really only do once in a while for review purposes, or if I think that precision will make a difference on the mountain. Otherwise, I don't get overly concerned with it, as I am more looking for vertical gained/lost than I am the precise elevation at any given time.

Thomsd said...

Continuous calibration needs gps. Apparently it only works when in an activity with the gps active

Anonymous said...

thanks for the great review and the effort , i guess the garmin will sute me better .

Anonymous said...

Hi, thanks for that in depth review and compersion. One question, ive been reading alot about inconsistencys and flaws related to the gps tracker. Has garmin adressed those issues since your gps readings are so precise? Thanks!

Jeff Valliere said...

Not sure, it sounds like they had some issues early on around the time of release, but perhaps software updates have improved accuracy? The displayed track of the Fenix 5x makes my runs appear slightly off of my exact tracks on ground steps, but is pretty darn close most of the time. The overall distance when compared to the Ambit3 Peak, which more often reflects my actual track more precisely, is always very close at the end, so I think it is recording distance accurately, it may appear to be feet off when looking on the map.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for reply, this is a dealbreaker for me. Ive been reading forums about gps issues which is causing wrong speed showing up on display and inconsistent disctances on lnown routes. Probably pulling the trigger on a 5x since it seems to be ok now =]

Jeff Valliere said...

Good call, I don't think you will be disappointed. The 5x is an impressive watch, a bit pricey, but not really out of line with the competition and given all that the Fenix series offers (especially the 5x with the maps), it is well worth it. If you do, consider clicking through the links on this review page, which helps support RoadTrailRun, a win/win for all. Thanks again for reading!

Anonymous said...

Great review/comparison. What is the name of the custom watch face and developer on the 5X? Thanks!

Jeff Valliere said...

SC7 or 8 I think, by Stanislav Bures. Should be easy to find in ConnectIQ, near the top of most popular. I found it to be a bit busy and now like the "No Frills" watch face.

PatrickCT said...

Jeff - super helpful review...this long-time Suunto customer will be purchasing the 5x, based on the above...

Jeff Valliere said...

Thanks for reading Patrick! The 5x is an amazing watch, I don't think you will be disappointed. Please consider clicking through the links on our site if you do purchase, every little bit helps. Thanks again.

Tomsy said...

Jeff, great review! I currently have a Spartan Ultra but I'm not a fan of wearing a heart rate belt all the time, would you say the Fenix 5 Sapphire is a good call? There is a good deal for the tri bundle near me at the moment.

Jeff Valliere said...

Unknown, I would certainly recommend the 5x, but if you want HR accuracy during workouts, you'll still need to wear a chest strap, as wrist HR can be very unpredictable during activities. It seems to be reasonably accurate enough for 24/7 monitoring though and all around is a much more full featured, customizable watch with greater smart watch capabilities.

Anonymous said...

Jeff, Thanks for a great comparison. I'm gearing up for the Grand Traverse (CB to Aspen) and my current old Garmin 220 may not have the chops for the race. My biggest complaint about the 220 is the lack of altitude/vert data. I'm also never really used the watch from mapping and normally carry a map :). The HR is nice, but not a must-have for me or my training style. Mainly I'm focused on usable data when running (maybe hiking or skiing). If you discount the smartwatch-like/connected features and focus on the data (pace, weather, alt, stats and so on), what watch would you go with?

Jeff Valliere said...

If not interested in the whiz bang cool features of the newer Garmins, I would have to recommend the Suunto Ambit3 Peak. GPS is the most accurate of the watches I have used, alti is as or more accurate than any of the others, battery life is top notch, has all the different sports, stats, metrics you would ever need and can be found new for under $300.

Anonymous said...

Wondering - your wrists are 5.5"? I have 6.3" (or so) and would absolutely love to try the 5X but... I don't even know how it would look! Do you wear the watch 24/7?

Jeff Valliere said...

I wear it all day long, as the smart watch features are really handy, but with such a small wrist, it is indeed a lot of watch. I love it for the mapping, which is handy to me on occasion, but given the fact that I don't actually use the maps on the majority of my runs, I would probably be better off with a 5 or even a 5s, or a 935 or a 645. Another option which I think would be great would be an Apple watch for all day stuff and just put on the large GPS watch for running. So many options out there.

Anonymous said...

Thanks! I have a 235 now... hard to justify an upgrade, as all I do is run, but I'm doing my best... not sure I'll get there. Maybe I'll be patient and wait for the F6! I appreciate the quick response!

demian said...

Have you guys checked out Stryd and running with power yet?

Anonymous said...

Unfortunately, after 5 years you'll be throwing away the Garmin, because the battery in non-serviceable by them, unlike the Sunnto.

Jeff Valliere said...

Perhaps, but at the rate technology advances, after 5 years, I might be looking for something more up to date anyways.