Sunday, January 26, 2020

Garmin Fenix 6S Pro In-Depth Review - A Small & Mighty, Rugged, Feature PACKED GPS Multi-Sport Watch!

Article by Jeff Valliere
Garmin Fenix 6S Pro ($700-$800)

The Fenix 6 Series is the latest iteration of the Fenix line, a rugged outdoor GPS and wrist heart rate watch offering a robust set of sports features for almost any sport, deep training metrics, fitness and health tracking, navigational features, seemingly endless customization and basic smartwatch functionality.  This is the 3rd Fenix model we have reviewed, starting with the 5X (RTR Review), then the 5 Plus (RTR Review) and now the 6S Pro.  

The changes/upgrades to the 6 series over previous versions are significant, although not necessarily groundbreaking and if you are already a Fenix user, the decision to upgrade or not will of course be personal, depending on use, preferences and of course budget.  

I have found the Fenix series to be the ideal GPS watch for the running that I do (mostly rugged mountain trails), as it is durable, accurate, has maps, adequate battery life for my use, more training/health and fitness metrics than I could ever keep up with and basic smartwatch functionality for day to day use.  As is often the case, Sam composed an initial test/review of the 6S Pro after using for 2 months and also provided a great comparison to the Forerunner 945, 245 and 45 (RTR Article).  When he was finished, he sent to me and I have been wearing the 6S Pro on my wrist for the past 2 months, 24/7, only removing IT to charge.  Testing has been mostly in the foothills above Boulder, Colorado and also a week in Southern California.

Notable upgrades/new features/changes:

Widget Glances  
Improved ClimbPro
Reduced Thickness/Weight
New Sony Chipset
Improved battery life across all models including a Solar charge 6X model
Larger screen on 6 and 6X (up from 1.2” to 1.3” and 1.4” respectively)
More data fields (up to 8 on 6X and 6 on the 6S/6)
Map themes as well as ski resort maps
Expedition mode (battery sipping option with 1 ping per hour for weeks of tracking)
Trendline popularity routing
Pro and Base model options, with the Pro adding on board Music, Topo and Ski Area Maps, and WiFi Pulse Ox across all models

Comparison Chart:

Pros:  Very small size/light weight of 6S model, increased battery life, leading GPS accuracy and altimeter accuracy, Widget Glances, easy operation, customization, watch faces, maps, music, contactless payments, zillions of activity modes and add on apps/widgets/features crossing into light smartwatch territory.

Cons:  HR accuracy, price, 24k maps should be included (adding to an already premium price).

Tester Profile
Jeff Valliere is a former pro cyclist who now runs and climbs the mountains of Colorado. He has been top 5 Masters, top 25 overall, at the Pike's Peak Marathon several times, finishing 3d Masters this year. Jeff loves vertical accumulating more than 500,000 vertical feet per year, has climbed all the 14's and 200 of the 13's and has held FKT on several.  He often runs and climbs at night. Passionate about the sport but also the gear he has reviewed hundred of shoes for various magazines and sites and participated in product testing for many brands.  Formerly a bike mechanic he has recently worked in Satellite Imagery. He has twin 9 year old daughters who keep him ever busier yet.

left to right, 5X, 5 Plus, 6S Pro

The thickness/weight of all Fenix 6 models has been reduced and the 6S Pro is the smallest of the bunch.  Weighing in at 58 grams with a 42 mm bezel, yet still managing to fit in a 1.2” screen, the 6S Pro is a wonder of efficiency.  For an adult male, I have abnormally thin wrists at 5.5” in circumference and have most often found GPS watches to be a bit bulky and obtrusive on my wrist.  

The Fenix 5X with a 51mm bezel and 98 grams (while still only providing a 1.2” screen) was really bulky on my wrist, so bulky that I was pretty much always aware of it and could barely fit under any sleeves.  Forget about wearing it to bed.  

The Fenix 5 Plus is a much more reasonable size for most at 47 mm and 86 grams (still with a 1.2” screen).  Though only 12 grams less than the 5X, the 5 Plus felt much lighter and smaller than the 5X, but still a bit bulky.  

Moving on to the 6S Pro, dropping 31 grams from the 5 Plus with a 42 mm diameter it is a much more appropriate watch for me.  I may have chosen this size watch sooner, though battery life for the 5S and 5S Plus was limited. With the jump to ~22 hours in the 6S Pro, this was the game changer I was looking for.  The 6S Pro fits me well and lays across my wrist such that it is perfectly flat with nothing poking or digging in and being more low profile and about 30 grams lighter than the 5 Plus, I hardly am aware that I am wearing it.  I had trouble wearing the 5X or 5 Plus to bed, but I do not even really notice the 6S Pro on my wrist at night. The silicone strap, while stiff and plasticy in feel out of the box, broke in nicely over time to feel more like the strap I am used to on the 5 Plus, though still not quite as pliable or compliant.

Garmin’s size comparison chart:

Below, upper left 6S Pro, upper right 5 Plus, bottom 5X.  
I took the 3 photos with the camera on a tripod and my arm positioned identically to best represent the size difference.  The 6S is much more reasonably proportionate on my scrawny wrist, not to mention the thinner body, band and 30-40 gram reduction in weight over the other two make a huge difference in feel/comfort.  The mid sized 5 Plus actually does not feel overly bulky on me, just heavy, but they both pale in comparison to the 5X, which really looks and feels out of place on my wrist. I personally could make a case for one of the larger watches solely based on having a larger screen for larger/more data fields and especially map reading (1.3” for 6 and 1.4” on 6X), and as they are also a bit thinner/lighter than previous models and have longer battery life.  So many choices.

Below, from top to bottom, 6S Pro, 5 Plus, 5X Plus.  It was hard to accurately capture, but the 6S Pro is thinner than the others, with the distance between the strap pins much less, providing a much better fit for small wrists.

Looking at (left to right) the 5X, 5 Plus and 6S Pro from the back.  All have the quick fit band (26mm, 22mm and 20mm respectively) with the optical heart rate sensor revamped on the 6S.

The 1.2” display is sharp and clear in all lighting conditions and seems remarkably large in contrast to the very small body of the watch, encompassing seemingly all of the face of the watch.  This of course means a very thin bezel, which looks more elegant and less rugged as the 6 or 6X models with thicker bezels (and also now larger 1.3” and 1.4” screens respectively). I personally prefer a watch that has more screen and less bezel, utilizing as much space as possible and the 6S Pro does that very well. The 6 and 6X have seen improvements in this area as well.  The digits have also been reconfigured to be slightly larger and easier to read. The 6S Pro we are reviewing has Gorilla Glass instead of Sapphire Glass. I do not think I have really bumped it on anything enough to risk a scratch, but will say the Gorilla Glass is much less reflective than the Sapphire, a plus in bright sunlight conditions.

Garmin’s comparison of Gorilla Glass to. Sapphire:

6S Pro with Gorilla Glass

5 Plus with Sapphire Glass in the picture below reflecting significantly more glare than the 6S Pro above. 
 I was used to Sapphire after almost exclusively using the 5X and 5 Plus over the past 2 years and was really surprised by the difference between the two.  I am still not entirely sure whether or not I prefer the durability of the sapphire, or no glare of the Gorilla Glass. Maybe a Gorilla Glass / Diamond Like Coating (DCL) for the bezel hardening combo would be a good compromise?

I am generally very careful with my watches, even when adventuring/scrambling in rocky terrain, but have certainly had mishaps and still do not have a nick or scratch on either the 5X or 5 Plus, either the sapphire glass face or the DLC bezel.  I have no scratches on the glass of the 6S Pro yet, however I did stupidly rub the 6S Pro, (which is NOT DLC hardened) between my lap and the underside of a stone table, not once, but twice while eating fish and chips at an outdoor table next to a marina while on vacation in San Diego, resulting in a nice scratch.

Data Fields: The data field configuration has also changed, with more layout options, including new configurations and as many a 6 fields on one screen.  Depending on the fields I am displaying, I prefer 4 fields on the screen I refer to most, then 3 for all the others. I have tried 6 fields and while it is not really a problem, I think it is a bit small and too much for me to mentally sort when running fast on technical trails.  If I were running on roads or hiking, I could easily go with 6 data fields on a screen.

The characters on the display screen are more chunky than before and very easy to read, clarity and legibility are improved.

For the huge list of available data fields (and features) on the 6S as compared to the Forerunner 45, 245, and 945 see Sam's listing here

Operation:  Operation is exactly the same and previous Fenix models and Forerunners, with the 5 button configuration.  Cycling through menus and functions is easy and intuitive. While not necessarily a complaint, I have noticed that due to the smaller size of the 6S Pro, the buttons are smaller and closer to my wrist, so they require just a SLIGHT bit more precision to operate and also sometimes pulls the hair on my wrist. 

GPS Accuracy:  Now on to the new Sony GPS chipset in the 6S.  I have found GPS accuracy to be exceptional, far better than the 5X, better than the 5 Plus and even a little bit better than the Suunto 9 Baro, which had become the standard by which I measure against other GPS units.  The 6S Pro tracks accurately along with the Suunto 9 Baro and most notably, contours more precisely around sharper turns and especially on tight switchbacks. Of course like on any other GPS watch, there are times where the track drifts slightly to either side or does something totally stupid without any apparant reason, but maybe that has happened once or twice since I began testing in mid November.  Acquiring satellites is reasonably quick, anywhere from 10-20 seconds in wide open areas near where I run frequently, up to a minute or two in tighter canyons with limited view of the sky.

In the comparison below, the 6S Pro (purple) tracks along the trail more accurately than the S9 Baro (green), most notably on the tight switchbacks.

The following screenshots are all comparisons between the Fenix 5 Plus and the 6S Pro, with the 6S Pro as the purple line and the 5 Plus as blue.

Again, the 6S Pro excels in tracking switchbacks, as can be seen in the next two shots:

A zoom from the shot above, the 5 Plus going a bit off on the curves, where the 6S Pro really follows nicely.

In canyons, both watches do very well.  Below is Fern Canyon on Bear Peak, surrounded by towering Flatiron Rock formations.  In my many years of testing, if a watch is going to go wonky in a canyon, it will often happens here.
And in more open areas and in straight lines, they both track well, with each diverting a few feet off the path on either side, but overall pretty close and with distances at the end very close.
Above and below 6S purple and 5 Plus blue
Altimeter Accuracy:  The 6S Pro has a barometric altimeter and is more consistently precise than my other watches.  I live at 5,415 feet and the 6S Pro is most often reading within 10 or 15 feet on either side, which I consider to be very little drift.  My most frequently visited summit is Green Mountain at 8,144 feet and it is quite often spot on or just within a few feet. I calibrate once every week or two, but find this to be very minimal drift compared to other barometric watches that drift more drastically.

Below the 6S Pro (purple) and S9 Baro tracking very close together. (Graphs: DC Analyzer)

Below the 6S Pro (purple) compared with 5 Plus (blue)

Optical Heart Rate Accuracy:  This was a real surprise to me, as with a revamped sensor and much lighter weight watch than the 5 Plus, Suunto 9 Baro and even the Suunto 5, I have observed very poor results while running.  On mountain ascents, when I am working hard and know that my HR is in the 150’s or 160’s, the optical HR will read in the 90’s to ~105 bpm. On descents, my HR may be in the 120’s or 130’s, but HR is reading in the 150’s or 160’s.  

This behaviour was very reminiscent of the Suunto Spartan Sport Wrist HR Baro, where we concluded the Valencel sensor was confusing cadence for HR.  Comparing HR graphs and overlaying with cadence graphs, the numbers look suspiciously parallel. For further confirmation, on multiple occasions, I manually compared by counting my steps and comparing to the readout on the 6S Pro and they were nearly exact (while confirming true HR on separate watch using chest strap).  Of course results may vary depending on wrist thickness, skin color, skin thickness, circulation, temperature, humidity, fit, etc…
Otherwise, day to day accuracy is very good and I wear it around the clock to track and graph my HR over time so as to recognize any variations that may indicate overtraining, a sickness coming on or anything else abnormal.
When graphing OHR and Elevation (below), Optical HR trends lower on the ascents and much higher on the descents, which is in conflict with logic and reality.

Another graph comparing Cadence and Elevation looks suspiciously like the above.

One more graph comparing Cadence and OHR further confirms.  These results are consistent across all runs I have done with the 6S Pro and while I might be tempted to question whether this could be seasonal (sometimes less accurate in Winter due to lower temperatures, less humiidty and less blood flow to the arms), the Fenix 5 Plus and Suunto S9 Baro have simultaneously and consistently provided much more accurate readings and I have also tested in much warmer days in Southern California.

Comparison graph between the 5 Plus and 6S Pro (5 Plus purple, 6S Pro pink).  From the start to 16 minutes they were in somewhat agreement where I was warming up.  I hit the run up Green Mountain hard at 17 minutes where you can see the 5 Plus spike to the upper 160’s and the 6S stayed well below 140 but often down to 100 and below even.  I arrived at the summit around the 57 minute mark and after a short rest, both watches were closer to one another on the descent with some occasional variance on small rolling ascents.
PulseOx:  Previously only offered on the 5X Plus, Pulse Ox is now offered across the Fenix line, as well as on the Forerunner 945 and 245.  You can toggle the settings to take your pulse ox around the clock (leading to increased battery use), just while you sleep, or as I prefer, just when I open up the widget.  Getting a reading however takes a surprisingly long amount of time, actually more than I would want to spend holding completely still on top of a mountain. Also, mountain climbing can be time consuming, especially expeditions on major peaks, where PulseOx would be most handy and ironically, where you would least be able to regularly charge the watch and sit still long enough for a reading.  
It is accurate though, as I have cross referenced with devices at the doctor’s office at my annual physical and the readings coincided to within 1%, 98% for the hospital device vs. 97% for the 6S Pro.  Curiously, my reading are always 96-98% at elevations between 5,000 and 9,000 feet, however at sea level, readings were consistently around 94% which I found interesting.

Battery Life/Power Manager/Power Modes: 
Battery life is estimated at 25 hours in GPS mode and 9 days in smart watch mode.  I am not quite seeing the full 25 hours, but am easily estimating ~22-23 hours of battery life for my use using GPS, maps, bluetooth on, and optical HR.  There are so many variables that affect battery life, but I am finding this to be a few hours of improvement over the Fenix 5X and about 10 hours better than the Fenix 5 Plus (advertised as 18 hours, but ~13 hours in reality).  

Similar to the customizable battery options on the Suunto 9 Baro, with the 6S Pro has a Power Manager menu where you can easily toggle on/off different settings such as maps, music, optical heart rate, pulse ox, phone connection and toggle to battery sipping Ultratrac mode (though less accurate with 1 minute ping intervals).  For further battery saving options, there is an Expedition Mode that conserves battery even further, extending battery life to weeks taking a satellite reading at a customizable rate varying from 15-90 minutes (though of course there will be an even greater accuracy penalty).

Maps/Navigation:  Maps are now optional depending on the model selected, available on the Pro versions of the Fenix 6 series (but not included on the lesser priced base versions).  Mapping and navigation are the same as we have described in previous reviews. Also, as has been the case, all map equipped watches come with 100k maps preloaded. 

If you want greater detail 24k maps, then you have to purchase the supplemental map package dependent on your region for an additional charge.  I have the 24k SouthWest map package (Colorado, Utah, NM, AZ) that retails for $99 and provides a much higher level of detail. I find it handy, if not essential to have that greater detail when navigating in steep mountainous terrain, as it displays higher detail topo as well as landmarks that may not otherwise be shown on the 100k maps.  I think the 100k maps are adequate for most people most of the time, but if you adventure off the beaten track regularly, then invest in the 24k maps. New for the 6 series are map themes, where you can select between default, marine, high contrast, dark, popularity or resort ski trails mapping.

Following a predetermined route that I created, .49 to the next turn.

Being a map geek and adventuring off trail often, I love knowing EXACTLY where I am at all times with an easy glance at my wrist and not having to dig out my phone.  You can navigate completely from the watch, but for more serious navigating, I’ll use my phone with Earthmate, Gaia or Caltopo. For me, when moving fast, negotiating rugged terrain, or in bad weather, I am reluctant to dig out the phone, so maps on the wrist is the perfect way to quickly keep tabs on progress and location.

While navigating with the map, you can also overlay datafields of your choice as to avoid toggling back and forth.  
Sam used a pre loaded route (with turns indicated) and data fields for a hike in Maine last fall on his Forerunner 945 with identical mapping functionality.

While handy, I find they take up valuable real estate over the already small map screen.

Pace Pro:  
As described on the Garmin Fenix 6 description page:
Sam covered Pace Pro for road running well in his comparison article here, and to compliment his findings, I was able to test out Pace Pro on mountainous trails with lots of vertical gain.  I find that even with a conservative goal, Pace Pro quickly falls behind on long, steep climbs, showing as much as 25 minutes behind on a 3 mile, 2,800 foot climb, but then I can slowly claw back some time on the descent.  Depending on the trail and how technical the terrain, I can often claw back most of the time.  
Of course the time estimates I enter are based on many years of local trail/terrain/conditions knowledge and knowledge of my own historical time ranges, so with that knowledge, I don’t worry if I get behind.  If on unfamiliar terrain however, I could see how it may be discouraging keeping an eye on the Pace Pro estimates on long climbs. You can however use slide bars to dial up or down your intended climbing effort, as well as for favoring a negative or positive split, probably more useful for road race pacing.

In the screenshot below, I have the route I have created and loaded into PacePro using the Garmin Connect app.
The estimates here are reasonably close to what I am trying to achieve.

The screenshot below shows the PacePro creation page in the Garmin Connect app and the aforementioned slide bars to toggle pacing strategy and uphill effort.

Climb Pro:  The Climb Pro feature is a great feature, breaking down the individual climbs on a loaded route as they come, showing the elevation gain of each climb, gradient, distance and distance remaining.  
Of course this presumes that you have preloaded a course to follow along.

Widget Glances:  Widget glances is a great new method of scrolling through widgets 3 at a time.  
Previously, scrolling through the widgets required viewing one screen at a time and could get a bit tedious if you have a lot of widgets loaded, but now with widget glances, you can see 3 at a time and then easily select one and dig into more data/details.  Additionally, instead of having 3 separate widgets for HR, Rest and Body Battery, you can remove them from your list of widgets and add health stats, wrapping them all into one, like a sub menu where you can dive deeper into the stats. I find this to be super handy for a quick glance and much more easy to navigate.

Watch Sam's Video on 6S Default Face, Operation and Widget Glances (4:00)

Smartwatch Functionality:  True smartwatch users may find features lacking, but compared to other manufacturers of serious GPS sport watches, I believe the Fenix 6 series to be the best of both worlds.  Perhaps I am somewhat ignorant of much of the cool smartwatch functionality true smartwatches offer, but I am really happy with getting phone, text and email alerts (though frustratingly cannot reply, but that is an Apple issue and works on Android).  There are quite a few add on apps, widgets and customizable screens or watch faces to choose from through the Garmin Connect IQ store, many of them free and easy to upload.
Music Integration:  Up to 2,000 songs can be stored on the 6S Pro and be easily managed with the Garmin Express PC app., or, if you have premium paid subscriptions to Spotify ($10/mo) or Deezer ($10/mo), you can connect to these streaming services for near unlimited music choices when connected to phone and cell coverage, or easily download playlists for music on the go.  Pairing wireless bluetooth headphones is easy and the connection reliable.

Garmin inReach Mini Integration and additional safety features:  
No differences here and the same as we described in 5 Plus and our two way satellite communicator inReach Mini review.  As always, this is a super handy way to operate the inReach, where you can clip the inReach in a safe spot on your pack, even if not easy to access or read, then start/stop tracking, read stats, view and send messages, as well as initiate an SOS if necessary.

The Incident detection feature is also a great safety add on, where if you fall or are impacted in some manner, the watch detects this along with lack of movement and your pre-determined contacts would be notified with coordinates.  This feature however depends on a Bluetooth connection to phone, as well as phone reception.  
You can also trigger this as well at will with the long press of a button if you feel you are in danger.

I am wildly impressed with the new Fenix 6 series and find them to be the most advanced GPS watches on the market with an incredibly robust feature set that will please anyone from the most casual user to the most intense, data obsessed elite athlete.  The 6S Pro is particularly remarkable given how much functionality and now battery life is packed into such a small watch and appreciate having this smaller size for my thin wrist while maintaining a respectable 1.2” screen.  

While not necessarily a revolutionary upgrade over the 5 Plus series an upgrade should be considered, even if not for a  host of new features, but for increased battery life on all models and particularly the 6S version, or for the increased screen size of the 6 and 6X models for more data fields and better map reading, not to mention the more slim and lightweight designs.  

I personally love the rugged, yet classy look, the ability to customize watch faces and have a wide range of widget/app options lending to smartwatch crossover.  If the Fenix 6 series is within your budget, I highly recommend one. If not in your budget, then consider the 5 Plus series at a discount, or the lesser priced, but near equally functional (and MUCH lighter than 5 Plus) Forerunner 945.

Link to official Garmin 6S Pro feature and spec list HERE


Fenix 5 Plus (RTR Review)
Aside from lacking the new features listed above for the 6 series and not quite as good GPS primarily on tight turns, the 5 Plus series are still incredible in their functionality and most would likely not notice a difference.  Battery life is the chief concern, as the 5 Plus (mid sized model) is only around 13 hours in GPS mode vs. 22 on the small size 6S. If not participating in ultra events though, might not be a huge concern other than more frequent battery charging.  If optical heart rate accuracy is a concern, then the 5 Plus may be more appealing.

Suunto 9 Baro (RTR Review
A very good watch with great battery life and accuracy, but which has no customization and not than great for day to day smartwatch crossover.  Wrist HR is more accurate than the 6S and the its battery save features are appealing for ultra athletes. The new Suunto app and Movescount discontinuance is a bit of an issue as well, whereas Garmin has a much better app./website and tracking.

Comparisons of the Garmin 6S Pro to Forerunner 945, 245M, and 45 (RTR Article here)

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Read reviewers' full run bios here
The product reviewed was provided at no cost. The opinions herein are the authors'.
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Anonymous said...

Hi Jeff thanks for the great review! What program are you using to create your routes and how do you get them onto the Fenix to follow?

Jeff Valliere said...

I just use the Garmin Connect app. on phone or on PC, where I can create freehand, choose a route from the popularity routing or find a route I have previously run. It takes a little practice, but is not too difficult. You can also find routes or have it create routes for you straight from the watch if you want (though I prefer planning ahead and doing it from the computer or phone app.).

Unknown said...

Great review Jeff.... One of the very few reviews that talk about the usability of watch for slender wrists, like I have. I have abut 6 inch wrists, and undecided between ^s pro vs 6 pro. I like the biiger screen and battery fife of 6 pro but the only thing netiave is how it may look on my wrist and the additonal weight. I dont't do climbing an mosly need it for 5-10 k runs, gym and sleeping.

I also see blue dull contract in 6s when backlit in on. Is that normal?

Jeff Valliere said...

I could easily convince myself one way or the other between the midsize and small Fenix. Midsize is appealing for slightly larger screen and longer battery life and does not feel excessively bulky on my tiny wrist. That said, I have come to really appreciate the lighter weight and slimmer profile of the small version. It runs smoothly under sleeves, jackets, I can easily sleep with it and overall less likely to whack it on things. Basically with the small version, I am hardly (if ever) aware that I am wearing it, vs. the medium version where I am often aware and the X or larger version, I am almost always aware.

As far as the blue hue, it exists slightly I guess, never really think about it and perhaps exaggerated in photos.

Jeff Valliere said...

I should also note, the small version looks appropriate on my wrist, where the mid size looks too big and large is almost comical.

Battery life of the S has really improved, 20+ hours is plenty for my normal use and just charge once or twice per week depending.

Anonymous said...

I find komoot to be an easy app to create a route. Then export it as gps coordinate file using the garmin connect app. Once the file is open, send to device and it will show as a course on the watch.

Gene said...

Excellent thorough review. But I don't know if it's because this was written Jan. 2020 and I am reading this on Feb. 7, 2022, but none of the graphs and charts are loading. I've tried all 3 of the usual browsers.

Jeff Valliere said...

Thanks Gene, not sure why that is, but the links are clearly broken for this review and we are currently looking into it. In the meantime, we hope to have a full review of the Garmin Epix 2 up soon, so stay tuned!