Garmin Fenix 3 HR review: Train, explore, and track life without compromise

  • Editors' rating
    9.9 Spectacular
  • $599.99

Pros

  • Stunning rock solid hardware
  • Comfortable fit despite its size
  • Long battery life
  • Accurate GPS and activity tracker
  • Clear and crisp color display
  • Easy to use interface
  • Support for a vast number of sports and activities
  • Outstanding software providing all the data you could ever want

Cons

  • It's a big watch that won't fit everyone

I've spent hundreds of dollars, maybe thousands actually, over the past 15 years trying to find the perfect wearable to meet my needs and after spending three weeks with the Garmin Fenix 3 HR I may have finally found the one.

As discussed last year, there are activity trackers, GPS sport watches, and smartwatches to meet the varied needs of all of us. After years of using wearables, and filling my desk drawer with them, I've been able to develop the criteria needed for a device to stay mounted on my wrist. The Garmin Fenix 3 HR is one of the most expensive wearables you can buy, but it ticks all but one of the boxes of my criteria and I'll be purchasing one soon.

Specifications

  • Display: 1.2 inch (30.4mm) 218 218 pixels resolution transflective color screen with sapphire glass lens
  • Storage: 32MB internal for maps, routes, and 100 hours of activity data
  • Water resistance: 10 ATM
  • Connectivity and sensors: WiFi, Bluetooth 4.0 LE, ANT+, GPS, GLONASS, optical HR, barometer, compass
  • Battery: 300 mAh rechargeable lithium-ion. 40 hours in UltraTrac mode, 16 hours in GPS training mode, and 2 weeks in smartwatch mode with 24/7 HR monitoring
  • Dimensions: 51.5 x 51.5 x 16 mm and 86.1 grams

The one thing missing that I would like on a wearable is the ability to store and stream music to my Bluetooth headset while I run. However, my training philosophy is changing a bit as I get older and I now prefer to mount a phone on my arm for safety reasons. I also run when I travel and enjoy taking photos when I go out to run so want my phone camera with me all the time. Rather than having a limited audio experience with a GPS watch, I just use my phone when I want to get motivated with music.

Hardware

The Garmin Fenix 3 and Fenix 3 Sapphire were released in early 2015 and a year later Garmin announced the Fenix 3 HR at CES 2016. The Fenix 3 HR adds an integrated optical heart rate monitor, along with the latest Fenix 3 software.

I've tested Garmin GPS watches in the past, but never ended up purchasing one since I was never fully satisfied with the fit and finish. I had a Vivoactive for a couple weeks, but was not satisfied with the display. The other GPS watch models always felt a bit light and bulky with too much plastic for my personal satisfaction. I thought the Polar V800 was a more refined device so have been using that for the past several months.

The Garmin Fenix 3 HR changed my opinion about the Garmin GPS sport watches thanks to its use of stainless steel and matte black hard plastic with a very comfortable silicone band. The sapphire glass has remained scratch free and the color display works well in the bright sun and night time running environments.

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The Garmin Fenix 3 HR is a big watch, but it fits my 6 foot-1 inch, 250 pound frame well and has a high end watch look to it. It fits comfortably on my wrist, doesn't slide around, and even though it is big I hardly notice it's even mounted there 24/7.

The display is not a touchscreen so all interactions are carried out through the use of five buttons; three on the left and two on the right. Since I'm new to the Garmin UI, it took me a couple of days to get used to navigating around on the Fenix 3 HR. However, after three weeks I am a pro at navigation and find using buttons much better than a touchscreen that can be tempermental in the rain or when covered with sweat.

The buttons are used for the following, moving from the top right and going clockwise: start/stop/select, back/lap, down, up, and light. You can also press and hold on the light button to access options to lock device, do not disturb, and power down. Pressing and holding in on the up button provides access to settings, training, clock, save location, navigation, history, and my stats.

The silicone band has a number of openings to fully adjust to your wrist size. The clasp is substantial while the retainer loop has a nub in it to help secure the band loose end so you don't have to worry about it ever falling off in even the most intense activity.

The optical heart rate monitor is centered on the back of the Garmin Fenix 3 HR, extending out from the back about a mm or so. I never felt any discomfort caused by the heart rate monitor pressing against my left wrist.

There are also four charging pins recessed on the side of the back. A proprietary USB charging dock is included with the Garmin Fenix 3. Given the long battery life, I only chaged up the watch once a week. I was able to go on three 40-60 minute runs and track my activity 24/7 during a week with something like 15 to 20 percent battery remaining.

HRM-Run accessory: The retail evaluation package that Garmin sent along came with the HRM-Run heart rate monitor strap, a $99.99 accessory. While the Fenix 3 HR provides 24/7 heart rate monitoring and monitoring while performing activities, the HRM-Run provides an addition six running dynamics metrics. These include cadence, vertical oscillation, ground contact time, ground contact time balance, stride length, and vertical ratio.

These advanced metrics may not be for the casual runner, but it's great to see the option available for those who want to improve their running form. As a data geek, I find the data collected by the HRM-Run to be very interesting and am pleased to see that my running appears to be fairly well balanced.

I generally do not like using heart rate straps as they tend to chafe my chest. However, the Garmin HRM-Run has a rather small module that fits within the strap width and it is very comfortable to wear without cuasing any chafing.

The HRM-Run is an ANT+ strap, powered by a CR2032 battery that should last up to a year with one hour of use per day.

Watch software

At first, I was a bit overwhelmed by the five buttons and all that is provided on the Garmin Fenix 3 HR out of the box. However, after installing the Garmin smartphone application and discovering I could remove activities and widgets I didn't plan on using I was able to streamline what appeared on the watch.

It also only took me a short period of pressing the different buttons on the Fenix 3 HR to figure out how to navigate around and find everything. There is a lot going on here with the Fenix 3 HR, but the words that appear as you navigate are clear and easy to understand.

The main watch display from Garmin is good, but I quickly discovered the Connect IQ store and installed a couple of cool watch faces that provide a guick glance at the daily activity tracking that is important to me. BTW, I'm currently using the X-WF watch face.

You can use the Garmin Fenix 3 HR to track running, biking, hiking, triathlon, rowing, stand-up paddling (SUP), open water or pool swimming, climbing, snow skiing, trail running, golfing, and even jumping out of an airplane. In my three weeks of testing, I tried the running, biking, and hiking functionality.

The Fenix 3 HR also offers the ability to track your phone by sending a signal to it via Bluetooth so that an audible alarm sounds to help you find your connected phone. You can even download maps and use the watch to navigate routes. I found it helpful to mark my vehicle and then select the option to return to the spot after hiking around all day.

Available widgets, views of your data, include steps, altimeter, weather, notifications, heart rate, last sport, music controls, compass, barometer, temperature, VIRB camera, calendar, and more are available to you. The music controls are handy and let me control the music playing on my phone when I run so I don't have to pull my phone out of my arm band. You can select the default music app through the smartphone application.

Like my old MOTACTV, the Fenix 3 HR has an integrated WiFi radio so you can have your activity data synced to your Garmin Connect account when you return to a WiFi zone previously established. It's great to enter my house after working out and have my data synced automatically to my Garmin account.

There are an incredible number of settings and customization options available that I cannot begin to cover them all here in this review. For example, in the running app you can customize up to 10 data screens in a layout from one to four fields with timer, distance, pace, speed, heart rate, dynamics, cadence, temperature, elevation, compass, navigation, and other fields. I recommend you spend some quality time customizing everything exactly how you want it and then be ready to tweak things as you perform your activity and find you want to view your data differently.

You can setup alerts, train to a metronome, select auto laps and auto pause, view 3D speed or distance, have your data fields auto scroll, and even change up all of the colors. It's actually rather stunning how much customization is available on the Fenix 3 HR, which means it will satisfy every user's needs.

One of my personal favorites that has already shown serious results is the ability to setup a virtual partner. I run alone so found having a virtual partner with an aggressive pace a great way to push me to go faster. I typically run something like an 8:40 to 9:00 pace over 5+ miles, but want to get faster and feel I can push myself. I setup an 8:30 paced virtual partner and ended up running an 8:20 pace for more than five miles. I then bumped that virtual partner pace to 8:20 and blew myself away with an 8:00 pace for five miles. That's the fastest I have ran in years and I attribute that to the motivation provided by the virtual partner on the Garmin Fenix 3 HR.

Smartphone software and website

Collecting the data is important, but using that data for tracking trends, improving performance, challenging friends, and identifying problem areas is also very important. Garmin is one of the few companies that offers the Garmin Connect app for iOS, Android, and Windows 10 Mobile. The app was recently updated and looks fantastic.

When you first launch the smartphone app you will see the snapshots home screen that shows your step and sleep progress, active calories, intensity minutes, activities, and floors climbed. You can also choose to show your food intake via a connection to MyFitnessPal.

You can choose to customize the snapshots by selecting activities and then placing them in the order you prefer to view them. From the snapshots home screen simply swipe left or right to scroll through the various activity screens with much more detail.

You can also tap the upper left menu icon to jump to leaderboard, calendar, news feed, insights, activity stats, health stats, workouts, course, segments, gear, connections, groups, LiveTrack, download golf courses, Connect IQ store, Garmin devices, settings, and help. As you can see the smartphone application is very powerful and presents all of your data in vibrant colors. You can view data over different time frames, see your records, view the badges you earned, see totals and averages, and much more.

On an Android smartphone you can also fine tune your smart notifications by selecting the specific apps that will be allowed to send notifications to your Garmin Fenix 3 HR. On iOS, you get whatever notifications you have enabled in the iOS settings so I personally prefer the Android smartphone experience.

The Garmin Connect website experience is very similar to what you see in the smartphone application, with even more capability to generate reports, import or export data, setup connections to other applications (such as Strava, RunKeeper, and MyFitnessPal), and more. Similar to the snapshots interface on the phone, you have a dashboard on Garmin Connect that you can customize.

I created dashboard tabs for daily activity, running, cycling, and hiking since those are my primary activities. You can then customize the view that appears in your dashboard or choose to jump to a full page view of the selected data.

Over on the left you will find the three line button that opens up a massive list of options you can navigate to for more data and information. Another option lets you manage your profile, settings, and 3rd party connections.

Pricing and competition

You can purchase the Fenix 3 HR now for $599.99. The performer bundle option includes the HRM-Run strap with a total cost of $649.99. That's a $50 savings if you were to purchase the HRM-Run separately.

Polar hasn't yet launched a high end GPS watch with integrated heart rate monitor. It's Polar V800 has a MSRP of $499.95, but it can be found online in the $350 range.

Suunto has an overwhelming number of high end GPS sport watches, ranging in price from $469 to $649. I'm not that familiar with the Suunto offerings, but looking at the Suunto website and press page I cannot find any that have an integrated optical heart rate monitor.

The best competition for the Garmin Fenix 3 HR may be Garmin's own Forerunner 235 that has an integrated heart rate monitor. The Forerunner 235 is available for $329.99, but it is primarily focused only on running so doesn't offer nearly as much capability as the Fenix 3 HR.

Daily usage experiences and conclusion

In the intro I mentioned a set of criteria that I have established for myself so let me share that criteria and how the Fenix 3 HR matched up.

  • Battery life: Every device that lasts just a day ends up in my office drawer or gets sold. I've learned over the years that I need an activity tracker that lasts close to a week, or more, to be completely satisfied. The Fenix 3 HR easily lasts a week, even when I track three runs or rides a week.
  • Integrated heart rate monitoring: I haven't yet embraced using my heart rate to train at a specific level, but I do find it helpful and interesting to track my heart rate throughout the day. The Fenix 3 HR provides an accurate view of my heart rate in all of my tested activities.
  • Readable and customizable activity display: I like to have three or four fields show up on my wrist so I can glance down at my status and adjust to meet my activity goal. The Fenix 3 HR is completely customizable and is the best I've seen at providing this personalization.
  • Automatic sleep tracking: I sleep more when I track it, but if I have to push a button or enable sleep tracking I often forget to do it. The Fenix 3 HR has proven to get it right most of the time and if it misses on either end I can quickly and easily edit the start or end time to capture my sleep accurately.
  • Half marathon battery life with daily tracking: I run about a 2 hour half marathon pace and while this should be able to be met by all GPS watches, when you add on daily tracking I've seen other devices die on my runs. There are no worries at all with the Fenix 3 HR when it comes to battery life and that peace of mind is valuable to me.
  • Basic smartphone notifications: Data has shown that most people use their smartwatch for notifications and to view the time. I have yet to find any compelling reason to use apps on a smartwatch so if a GPS sport watch can provide me with call, text, and basic notifications then that's all I need. The Garmin Fenix 3 HR actually supports a vast number of application notifications and more than meets my basic smartwatch needs.
  • Silent alarm: My wife would like to through all of my phones out the door when they blare out at 4:35 am each morning. Thankfully, the Garmin Fenix 3 HR can be setup to provide a vibration alert when it's time to get up. I would like to see it wake me during a light time of my sleep like some other activity trackers will, but having the vibration at a set time is better than a phone alarm.
  • Solid ecosystem and apps to access data: Capturing the data is valuable, but I also want a device that has an ecosystem for me to view the details of the data, create reports, track trends, and help me improve my performance and health. Garmin has great apps for iOS, Android, and Windows 10 Mobile, as well as a very functional web site dashboard for viewing and using the collected data.

While my primary fitness activity is running, I also ride my bike, hike in the mountains, and fly fish. Using the Garmin Fenix 3 HR has actually motivated me to start riding my bike into work occasionally and last week I rode more than 30 miles in one day's commute.

I used the Fenix 3 HR to mark good fishing spots and plan to use it to help me return to my vehicle after a day spent wandering through the woods fishing various river bends and mountain lakes. There is even a fishing app in the Connect IQ store that lets you know the best times for fishing and what the rating for the day ahead is. Hiking in Washington State is a wonderful experience and the functionality provided by the Fenix 3 HR lets you use it as a GPS navigation devices while also capturing the fitness aspect of the hike.

While I try to cover my experiences and details of wearables here on ZDNet, no one beats Mr. Ray Maker when it comes to wearable tech reviews. I highly recommend you check out the DC Rainmaker full review of the Garmin Fenix 3 HR.

Nothing's ever perfect, but the Garmin Fenix 3 HR gets as close to perfection as possible with the ability to track multiple sports, serve as an outdoor GPS tracker, track your activity and sleep 24/7 for weeks, and serve as a basic smartwatch for essential notifications. Maybe I should have awarded it a perfect 10, but since it's a big watch that won't fit everyone I'll knock it down a 10th to 9.9.

Specifications

Miscellaneous
Sensors accelerometer, altimeter, barometric altimeter, digital compass, heart rate, thermometer
Color black
Color Category black
Protection waterproof
Battery
Run Time (Up To) 16 sec
Rechargeable Battery rechargeable
Style
Product type GPS Sport watch
Header
Brand Garmin
Product Line Garmin fenix
Model 3 HR
Kit Performer Bundle
Packaged Quantity 1
Features
Sensors accelerometer, altimeter, barometric altimeter, digital compass, heart rate, thermometer
Dimensions & Weight
Width 2 in
Depth 0.6 in
Height 2 in
Weight 3.04 oz
Flash Memory
Installed Size 32 MB
Battery Life Details
Run Time (Up To) 16 sec, 336 sec, 40 sec

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Where To Buy

Garmin fenix 3 HR Performer Bundle

Part Number: 010-01338-73
Price
$599.99

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