Garmin Fenix 5x – Long Term Review
Since 2017, I’ve been using the Garmin Fenix 5x as my primary device for athletic pursuits. When I first got it almost three years ago, I had no idea how invaluable it would be for my burgeoning bikepacking hobby, but it has proved its merit beyond just multi-day events. This multi-purpose watch has helped me navigate and record data for all of my activities over the past three years, from backpacking, to marathons, to trail runs, to bikepacking/mountain biking/road riding, to kayaking trips, and I’m sure the list goes on. On occasion I’ve even used it to check how fast a train I’m on is going or whether my wife is speeding while driving.
All that being said, I figured it was time to do a bit of a long-term review of a device that I’ve used and abused for years. Since this watch is so multi-functional, I’m going to speak specifically to the primary purposes I use it for: biking, running, and hiking.
It’s also important to note that I’m not going to get into the nitty-gritty details of the watch user-face. Garmin explains the functions of the watch on their site pretty adequately, and if you want more, there are all sorts of youtuber that feign athleticism but are secretly just marketing slaves who do that already, so there’s no need (am I being too harsh?). This review is to simply talk about the practical ways I use the watch, what I like, and what could be improved. Okay, with that little caveat, let’s get started.
Garmin Fenix 5x: The Basics
The Fenix 5x series was Garmin’s first watch that allowed users to download GPX files of maps directly onto the device. While this isn’t revolutionary from a GPS device standpoint (most of Garmin’s higher end GPS units allow this) I was immediately drawn to this feature because I liked the idea of having one device that does it all and that I can have with me at all times.
Immediately out of the box, I could tell that this device was special. While not a lightweight, the Garmin Fenix 5x is made mostly of stainless steel for durability and, even after 3 years of serious abuse, my watch looks pretty much brand new unless closely inspected. The glass on the watch has no scratches, thanks to its upgraded sapphire crystal material (vs. the hardened glass that comes stock with the lower level 5 models).
Customer Service Wizards
Before I even get into the watch’s uses, I have to talk about Garmin’s customer service, becase WOW. I’m not sure I’ve ever had a company respond so personally and professionally as Garmin. First of all, I have emailed Garmin’s customer service on multiple occasions for multiple devices and have always gotten a response back within 24 hours with helpful advice or parts replacement. Here are a few examples:
Watch Band Replacement: The silicone watch band that the Fenix 5X comes with is awesome, but SLOWLY, over much use and abuse, my band stretched out and the hole I needed for fit broke. I made Garmin aware of this and they immediately sent me not one, but TWO band replacements. I have no idea why they did this, but it was awesome.
Cable Replacement: I’m hard on my equipment; let me just say that upfront. When I’m bikepacking, which is often, the charging cable I use for my Fenix 5X gets stuffed into a small ziploc with all my other charging cables (mini-usb, iPhone cable, usbc for the GoPro, and others, depending), and over time, it started to have some issues. Again, with few to no questions asked, Garmin sent me a replacement cable at no cost.
Watch Replacement: I bought the Fenix 5X basically as soon as it came out. It was first generation 5X, without a doubt. As such, I think that my particular Fenix 5X had a bit of a defect with the charging cable port – it didn’t lock into the cable as I saw it was supposed to, based on the aforementioned electronics review slaves of youtube.
I originally just assumed this was a build defect of all the watches, and didn’t really question it until WAY past the watch’s warranty; as in, a few months ago. But when I contacted Garmin and sent them a video of the cable play, Garmin sent me a refurbished Fenix 5x for the cost of shipping. That’s right. Past warranty. Almost 3 year old watch. New device, no questions asked.
When making a big investment like a GPS device, it’s nice to know that a company like Garmin has your back and will partner with you when things go wrong. And now, onto the actual review.
As I said before, I bought the Fenix 5X just as I was getting into bikepacking, and it has been my primary GPS unit for all of the major rides I’ve done since 2016, including part of the Colorado Trail, a 6 day Central Oregon backcountry trip, the entire Colorado Trail, the Oregon Timber Trail, the Oregon Outback, the BC Epic race, and countless 2-4 day bikepacking trips as well.
Throughout these rides, I’ve found that the watch usually lasts between 10-12 continuous hours if I’m following a downloaded route. If I’m doing a bikepacking trip this means that it usually lasts me the entire day. For something like the BC Epic 1,000 race, however, I would have to charge the device each evening to make it to 2 or 3am. This is pretty understandable, since the watch is much smaller than most GPS units that boast bigger battery lives.
If I’m not following a downloaded route, the watch lasts closer to 20 hours before needing to be charged. Garmin advertises the watch as lasting up to 24 hours before needing a charge, and they must be referring to using the watch without a route pulled up.
When riding, I usually keep the GPS zoomed out to either 800 feet or .2 miles. This allows me to anticipate upcoming turns while still seeing the details of the roads or trails around me – the perfect sweet spot. Since the watch face itself is smaller than most GPS units, you do have to get it up pretty close to your face to see the route, but that’s the beauty of having the route on your wrist; you can get it as close or as far away as needed.
Limit that Screen Time!
The other benefit to having a watch GPS unit, in my opinion, is that you have to be intentional about looking over your ‘data’ while riding. If I’m out for a training ride, I usually keep my basic information pulled up (distance, time, speed) or my secondary data (distance, average speed, average heart rate). If I’m doing hill repeats, I’ll keep lap data pulled up as well. But while bikepacking, I mostly view the map.
The reason I like sticking mostly to one screen is that I don’t engage in on-the-bike screen time like I would when I used my Touring Edge+. While it’s not hard to navigate between screens while riding, it takes just a bit more juggling than a standard hands-free GPS unit, and because of this, I find that I’m not a slave to my ride data and can focus on the ride instead of my on-board personal TV.
About to attempt a strava KOM on a big climb? I switch to the heart rate screen and try to red line the entire time. Doing timed laps on my favorite 2 mile flat segment? I switch to the laps screen and try to get negative splits. Whatever my focus is for the ride, that’s the screen I use and stick with throughout that portion of the workout.
If you want the common cure for electronics-induced ADHD, the watch GPS is the way to go.
Ride with GPS and Garmin – the Perfect Marriage
I used to use the Turn-by-Turn navigation on my Garmin, where it would buzz on my wrist before each turn and have big arrows on the screen for easier navigation. I slowly became disenchanted with this feature, however, as it gets a little confused sometimes if you make a wrong turn.
The device would try to recalculate and get me back to exactly where I left the course, and this wasn’t always what I wanted. I would usually be off course intentionally, stopping at a coffee shop or pulling over at a viewpoint not on my route, but then the GPS would go kind of crazy until I was back on course, and even then would take some time to properly display my intended route.
Enter Ride with GPS. Ride with GPS features a Google Maps inspired voice navigation. Now my go-to GPS pairing is Ride with GPS giving me voice commands without the screen on and my watch zoomed out to 800 feet for an overview of what lays ahead.
I find that this is the perfect combo for navigation: Ride with GPS wakes me up from my pedal-pushing zen to inform me that in a quarter mile there will be a turn, and then I can make sure I take the right turn by following along with my watch. It’s great.
While most of my Fenix 5X review revolves around biking, it’s a great tool for running as well. I’m sure other athletes can relate to the feeling that, unless it’s a recorded workout, it doesn’t feel like it counted.
With running, I really appreciate being able to monitor my workouts. The main things I watch for are average heart rate, mile splits, and VO2 max increase. I’m not sure how accurate the actual VO2 max indicator on the watch is, but I’ve found that, for me, if it’s reading between 66 and 70 for an upcoming race, I’m where I need to be.
The wrist heart rate monitor is really accurate for running, and even though I use a heart rate monitor for most of my workouts, for running, I wouldn’t need to, as it usually is the exact same as it is with my heart rate monitor.
Trail running is especially handy with the Fenix 5X, as I can download my longer trail runs into the watch and know, with certainty, that I won’t get lost out in the boonies of a trail system.
I used this feature a ton for my Silver Falls Marathon training, and it was really helpful because I could create routes that met my mileage goals for each week on different parts of the Silver Falls Trail system, slowly knocking out all the major trails related to the marathon.
With downloaded routes, I was able to familiarize myself with all of the more technical bits of the race. Outside of that feature, I use the watch in similar ways for trail running as I do for normal running.
Similar to trail running, being able to download routes and have it visible with a simple flick of the wrist is amazing. Every trail junction, every trail name, and every notable landmark, they’re all on the GPS.
If we’re looking at a mountain just off to our left, I can zoom in to that spot on the map and help us identify the mountain. If we’re wondering what lake we’re approaching, I can name it without stopping to pull out the paper map.
Hiking is definitely a strength of the Fenix 5X.
While I obviously am pretty enamored with this watch, there are a couple things I don’t love about it.
Weight: The Fenix 5x is HEAVY. You get used to the weight after a while, but the silicone watch band that it comes stock with SLOWLY stretches over time. If you’re an endurance athlete like me with dainty wrists, there are only a handful of tightening holes already, and you will have to ratchet the watch ever tighter as time goes on. Like I said, this is a slow process. My band has been tightened up two notches since I bought it, but it is something worth noting.
Course Loading Lag: As mentioned previously, if you have a MASSIVE route you’re following downloaded as one segment (not split up into multiple segments), you may experience some lag time while the map loads. In fact, sometimes the Loading screen freezes altogether. I have had it frozen for minutes at a time before it either sorts things out itself or I have to do a soft restart.
Generally speaking, though, any route 200 miles or less shouldn’t have any freezing issues, so this only applies to multi-day rides.
Default Zoom on the Map: This is a small gripe, but I don’t like that the default zoom when starting a course you have downloaded is 200 feet – that’s simply too close to be able to effectively navigate. Whenever I start a ride, I zoom out to 800 feet, as this allows me to see upcoming turns while still being able to see the roads and significant features of the surrounding area.
Heart Rate Inconsistency: The heart rate monitor works well for MOST sports, but there are a few scenarios that I’ve found it’s not accurate. With high intensity weight lifting classes, the heart rate monitor sometimes reads lower than my resting heart rate, dropping as low as the 30s in extreme cases, but more commonly sitting in the 50-70s range; completely inaccurate, since my average during weights classes is somewhere in the 120s with the heart rate monitor.
Similarly, with high intensity bike rides where I’m pushing max heart rate for a Strava KOM climb, sometimes the HR monitor won’t register the uptick in intensity and will continue to hover in the 140s, occasionally even dropping as I’m hardly able to pull in breath from my effort.
Those are the only two scenarios where I’ve seen relatively consistent inaccuracies, but it’s frustrating that the 5X is advertised as a multi-functional device but then doesn’t work accurately in some of those diverse activities. An inaccurate heart rate average affects the watch’s accuracy for VO2 max, rest recommendations, and workload, all things that I also monitor closely. This obviously has been one of my biggest frustrations.
Charging Foibles: With Garmin’s other bike/hike/run GPS units, the charging cable doesn’t interfere with the unit itself, meaning you can charge while you do your activity and the device doesn’t have to be altered from its mount. With their watches, however, most of the time the charging mount is located on the underside of the watchface, meaning you have to take it off when charging.
This is fine, but with the Fenix 5X and other higher end Garmin watches, the charger they use sticks way out from the underside of the watch, meaning that when it’s time to charge, I have to take the watch off and find a safe place to store it on the bike where the cable will not disengage from bumps along the road.
Garmin use to use a much less intrusive clamp charger that was easier to store away while charging that I like better. I’m not sure why they switched to this new one. This probably only affects bikers using the watch, or more specifically ultra endurance athletes pushing the watch passed its 12 hour battery life, but if you’re thinking about replacing your nonwearable Garmin device with a watch, this is worth considering.
I always try to find constructive criticism in any long-term review I do, but in the process, I feel like it sometimes makes it sound like I haven’t liked the product. Let me be clear: the Garmin Fenix 5X is the best GPS device out there, in my opinion, for people considering a multi-functional device that works great for day-to-day activities but can also be used for multi-day events and trips.
It is truly the swiss-army knife of Garmin’s arsenal of GPS devices. It does everything, and does it all pretty well. While the display itself is smaller than other mounted devices, having a multi-use device that can download routes, built into the convenience of a watch, is amazing.
This will continue to be my GPS device of choice for the coming years, and is worth considering if you are a multi-sport or ultra-endurance athlete.
Categories: Bikes and Gear