Garmin Fenix 5 or Forerunner 935: the battle of the heavyweights

Garmin has been keeping busy this year. To the delight of triathletes or for that matter anyone with a running addition, at CES 2017 in Las Vegas the company announced three new watches in the Fenix 5 series. The new line packs bumped up specs into a slightly slimmer body.

Essential reading: Top GPS watches for running and training 

A few months later, Garmin was back again. This time with the Forerunner 935, a fully featured running and triathlon GPS sports watch. Arguably its most exciting sports wearable for a while, the lightweight device comes crammed with performance monitoring tools and a host of sensors.

Here is how the Fenix 5 stacks up against the Forerunner 935.


Garmin Fenix 5 or Forerunner 935: Design

Both of these watches are aimed at serious athletes or those aspiring to become one. The Fenix 5 and Forerunner 935 have pretty much the exact same user interface and functionality, but because of the material it comes in the Forerunner 935 comes at a slightly lower price.

With their slimmer designs, 2017 seems to be all about making Garmin sports watches more appealing to a broad userbase. They’ve become wearables that can easily replace your standard watch to become your every-day companion. While undeniably sporty looking, they would not be out of place in a formal setting such as an office or an evening out as evidenced in the picture below.

The Fenix 5 line comes in three variants. All three come in a variety of stainless steel bezel finishes, glass or sapphire crystal lens material and colorful watch band combinations.

First off we have the standard Fenix 5 which measures 47.0 x 47.0 x 15.5 mm and weighs 85 grams. The diameter of the watch is down from 51mm on the Fenix 3, but it still manages to pack all the sensors we’ve come to expect from the Fenix range. The 5S is Garmin’s first Fenix watch designed with the female sports enthusiast in mind. It sports a smaller footprint for smaller wrists (42.0 x 42.0 x 14.5 mm, 67 grams). And finally, the Fenix 5X packs even more functionality, but its heavier and bigger (51.0 x 51.0 x 17.5 mm, 98 grams).

While not as sleek as the Fenix 5 line, the Forerunner 935 is not far behind in terms of looks. Not by a long shot. Measuring just 46.7 x 53.8 x 13.9mm and coming in at 49 grams, the watch is incredibly comfortable to wear 24/7. After a day or two, you will forget its sitting on your wrist.

The base unit is black and just like the Fenix 5 line sports a linear edging and 1.2-inch, 240 x 240 pixel 64 colour display (1.1 inch, 218 x 218 for Fenix 5s). The customizable watch face is a nice size which makes the numbers large and easy to read in the sunlight, also helped by the transflective display.

Rather than a touchscreen for all these sports watches, Garmin has opted for five metallic buttons on the sides. On the left you’ll find a button that switches on the back-light, along with an up and down button to scroll through the menus. On the right you’ll find a start/stop button and a back button. After a bit of getting used to, they become easy to navigate.

The best features, however, can be found under the hood. Rather impressively, Garmin has managed to squeeze quite a bit of stuff into such a small space!

You’ll find the usual Elevate wrist-based heart rate, barometric altimeter, compass, gyroscope, accelerometer, and thermometer. Crucially, the optical heart rate sensor doesn’t protrude as much from the back as it does with some other Garmin watches. In terms of connectivity, the watches have built-in GPS and GLONASS coverage, Bluetooth, ANT+ and on the Forerunner 935 and Sapphire versions of the Fenix 5 – WiFi.


Garmin Fenix 5 or Forerunner 935: Battery life and water resistance

You can rest safe you will not be charging these watches too often. With GPS switched on the Forerunner 935 will keep going up to 24 hours or 60 hours in UltraTrac battery saver mode. If you’re just using it just as a standard activity tracker, it can go an impressive two weeks without charging. The Fenix 5 comes in with a similar battery specs. The only difference is that UltraTrac will keep going for 75 hours.

With its smaller size, the 5S has sacrificed some of the battery life. It will keep going up to 9 days in smartwatch mode, 14 hours in GPS mode, and 40 hours in UltraTrac mode. The 5X is good for up to 12 days in smartwatch mode, 20 hours in GPS mode, and 50 hours in UltraTrac battery saver mode

Garmin Fenix 5
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You also won’t have to worry about getting these watches wet. The entire Fenix 5 line is 10 ATM rated, meaning that its water resistant down to 100 metres. The Forerunner 935 will survive down to perfectly respectable depths of around 50 metres.


Fenix 5 or Forerunner 935: Features

When you get into the actual functions and features, you find that there is hardly anything to separate the bunch.

While the watches are intended for serious sports enthusiasts, Garmin has not held back on standard 24/7 activity tracking features. You’ll find the usual tracking of steps, distance, calories, floors and intensity minutes. At night, they keep tabs on total sleep time, deep sleep, light sleep, movement and awake time. No buttons to push, just strap them on and watch them quietly go about collecting activity data.

The Fenix 5 line and Forerunner 935 also monitor your ticker every few seconds, and they will do so around the clock. You’ll get info on your resting heart rate in the morning, perhaps the best indicator of a person’s overall health and fitness. The heart rate data is fairly accurate, but once you get into higher intensity activities, such as for example indoor rowing or interval training, you’ll find that the quality may deteriorate slightly at peak effort.

Essential reading: Best heart rate training chest straps

Nevertheless, the accuracy of heart rate data would probably suffice for the vast majority of users. It is only those that are very serious about heart rate zone training who may opt to suppliment the device with an external heart rate monitor for certain activities.

You can also view altimeter, barometer and compass data. The built-in altimeter provides real-time elevation information, while the barometer can predict weather changes by showing short-term trends in air pressure. The compass ensures you never get lost. If you are not happy with these, there are hundreds of other widgets and watch faces you can add from Garmin’s Connect IQ store.

Furthermore, just like any self-respecting smartwatch, the Fenix 5 line and Forerunner 935 will display notifications from smartphones. This includes incoming texts, emails, calendar reminders and social media alerts and more. To read them in full, in most cases you will need to head over to your smartphone.

But these are watches intended for serious sports enthusiasts, designed to track virtually everything under the sun. You can rely on auto-recognition for running, swimming and cycling or opt to transition between sports by pressing a button. Additional built-in activities include hiking, trail running, skiing, paddle sports, golf and much more.

It gets even more exciting when we come to the performance metrics. And there are a few new ones.

Thanks to Firstbeat technology, the watches aggregate past training results and then use that data to evaluate the amount of effort you’ve used in your fitness sessions, i.e. if you are slacking off or overdoing it. They do this through two new additional metrics, Training Load and Training Status.

Training load looks at users’ exercise activity over the last seven days and compares it to the optimal range for your fitness and recent training history. Training status does the same thing with a more short-term view, and lets you know if you’re training productively, peaking or overreaching.

Additionally, the Training Effect metric monitors and reviews the aerobic and anaerobic benefit of a training session. There are also other advanced dynamics for running, cycling and swimming, including FTP, VO2 max, cadence and others.

If you’re like me, a short while after you start using one of the watches, feelings of guilt will start to creep in if your Training Status is only in the ‘maintaining’ stage, or if your Training Load dropped below the optimal level. Rather than meaningless data, you get information that gets you moving.

There is also a Recovery Advisor. Essentially a count-down clock that taps into the above metrics to let you know how long you should wait before engaging in your next run, swim or cycle. And you’ll find race predictor’ times for 5K, 10K, half and marathon. This is based on your VO2 max and performance data.

Finally, there is one further important difference worth noting, and it only applies to the Fenix 5X watch. This is the only one in this bunch that comes pre-loaded with maps, hence the larger size and higher price. You get get full-colour topographic maps, routable cycling maps, option to receive guidance cues for upcoming turns, suggested courses for runs and more.


Garmin Fenix 5 or Forerunner 935: The bottom line

You’ll find everything you could ever hope for in terms of connectivity, training features and performance metrics on any of these watches. With their long battery life and comfortable design, they make excellent everyday activity trackers.

However most people who decide to buy them, will primarily be concerned with their advanced performance metrics rather than just a step or calorie count. And the watches fully definitely deliver on this count. If you’re a data junkie, you’ll feel right at home.

Garmin Forerunner 935
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On the negative side, you’ll find a fairly hefty price tag attached to each of these. But it can’t be cheap to make something this advanced. And its not likely to be replaced with anything much better at least for a year or two.

The Forerunner 935 is essentially a cheaper version of the Fenix 5, that comes in a slimmer plastic body but with pretty much the same functionality. If, however, looks are important and a bit of extra weight and size does not bother you, throw in an additional $100 and opt for one of the Fenix 5 watches instead.

Click here to compare Fenix 3 HR/ Fenix 5 / Fenix 5S / Fenix 5X / Forerunner 935 technical specs

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