This isn’t the first Garmin watch reviewed on aBlogtoWatch, but it is the first time I’ve personally reviewed one. On my wrist for this wrist time review is the Garmin Fenix Chronos, in particular the titanium model with the matching bracelet. The “Chronos” variant is currently the most high-end version of the larger Garmin Fenix collection, which is currently marketed as the Fenix 5. Though, interestingly enough the number “5” designation is missing from the Fenix Chronos devices (perhaps they are supposed to be more timeless).
In an era when smartwatches are gaining traction each year with consumers, there is still a relative lack of universal standards when it comes to software, hardware, and how to use the devices. Garmin, not being a novice at all to modern connected wearables, uses their own operating system, which means that anyone new to Garmin smartwatches will be faced with a bit of a learning curve. Having said that, I felt that the time required to learn how to use the watch can really pay off for those people who feel that other activity-themed smartwatch systems don’t offer enough options, customization, and features.
USING THE GARMIN FENIX CHRONOS & WHAT IT IS GOOD AT
Given that my background is mostly in reviewing traditional watches, I will not spend a lot of time talking about the full set of software features that the Garmin Fenix smartwatch collection offers. There are other reviews out there which will do a better job at answering your specific questions about the nuances of its exercise tracking features, GPS, or other finer details of the operating system. I will say that I was impressed by the utility of the Fenix’s operating system, ability to let the user really change the system to their needs, as well as its ability to not make the user feel locked out of being able to customize how they use their device. I say this because often times I feel that in an attempt to make smartwatch software simple and easy to use, users are often left with very limited options if they don’t like how the watch displays data by default.
As I pick up the Fenix Chronos in my hand, the digital watch face I selected has a series of red arrows and the term “Move!” I’ll admit that I haven’t worn the watch in a few days and it justifiably thinks I’m a lazy sack of you know what. We do live in an era when our gadgets judge us, and with something as personal as a smartwatch, the message we get about our lifestyles can be either eerily accurate, or amusingly unfounded. Writing this reminds me of when I wore a first generation Apple Watch and it reminded me to stand up while I was currently driving a car.
In order to test the Garmin Fenix Chronos, I attempted to follow the lead of the device’s software organization, which seems to focus on features designed to track exercise and activity. If you aren’t someone that is very active or likes to track exercise performance and duration, then the vast majority of what the Garmin Fenix is good at will be lost on you.
When initially setting up the Fenix software, you have the option of selecting from a list of sport activities that you personally engage in. The list is accessible via the most prominent of the five buttons used to control the device. This short list was very helpful because I was able to select things I do regularly such as cycling and hiking, which cuts down on your need to sort through a long list of options prior to working out. This is one of the many little customizable ergonomic details that I really appreciated about the Fenix Chronos’ operating system.
Outside of exercising, the features of the Fenix Chronos are actually quite limited if you compare them to the options available in something like an Apple Watch or a smartwatch running Google’s Android Wear. Does that make the Fenix Chronos a less advanced machine? I wouldn’t say that, but the Fenix Chronos is a more purpose-built tool whereas mainstream smartwatches try to cater to so many different types of users that wearers are often left without a lot of direction on how to use them. Once again, if you are interested in a really great exercise or adventure-themed smartwatch, do put the Garmin Fenix Chronos on your list. But if you are mostly interested in accessing messaging accounts and using your smartwatch as a surrogate phone, then there are other options out there better suited to your needs.
Another major difference between the Garmin Fenix and other competitor smartwatches is the lack of a touchscreen. Touchscreens are so common on smart connected devices these days, that you may very well find yourself swiping at the screen in order to scroll through menu options. I’m not entirely clear why the Fenix doesn’t have a touchscreen, but I suspect it is because of the type of screen they use, which they refer to as a “sunlight-visible transreflective memory-in-pixel (MIP)” display. The screen is 1.2 inches across and for the Fenix Chronos collection it is covered with a sapphire crystal.
One of the good things about not having a touchscreen is that you don’t have to constantly wipe off fingerprints, which in my opinion is a not an insignificant issue with smartwatches that do have touchscreens. Instead, you need to learn what each of the five labeled case buttons do, and when to push them. This feels a bit decidedly old school, and reminds me a bit of trying to guess how to use a feature in a Casio G-Shock that I am not familiar with. With that said, most of the time the buttons have consistent uses in various settings such as the back button, select button, up and down selection button, and the back light.
Once you understand the basics of how to use the Fenix software, using its primary features is simple, but I did find that various things were hard to find, or actually absent. For example, I needed to experiment before learning that certain important functions require you to press down and hold a button to access it. The top right pusher is used to quickly access various exercises, while pressing it down and holding it shows you a chronograph-style stopwatch screen. In order to get to a settings screen where you change important things like the watch faces, you need to hold down the middle pusher on the left-side of the case that is normally your “up” selector when scrolling through options.
Certain features that I was expecting were not there, such as a map of your current location. Actually, this feature might be available in the watch but I wasn’t able to find it. As I said, my review is based on my wearing experience and what I feel a normal user would do while experimenting with the watch for a few weeks. If you spend a lot of time reading the manual, you’ll probably learn a lot more. Anyhow, Garmin – the company so synonymous with excellent GPS devices – left me feeling a bit disappointed that its GPS watch didn’t seem to have a map. What I mean by this is the ability to view a map of your current location, in order to know what is in the area.
Garmin of course does use GPS in the Fenix collection, but it seems to be mostly used for tracking your workouts – and it does this very well. In addition to tracking your distance and location in two dimensions, it is able to use changes in altitude to track your journey in three dimensions. Given that I like to hike, I found this to be really interesting and cool. While there is no built-in map, the sensitive GPS and GLONASS satellite signal receiver plots out your path while you run, bike, or otherwise explore in real time, and of course you can view your journey after the fact if you choose to save your workout. If you want to know more information about your workout or adventure, then Garmin allows you to use various pieces of software (such as the Garmin Connect smartphone app) to see this data when you sync the Fenix Chronos with other devices such as your phone or computer.
Other built-in senors include a compass, altimeter, accelerometer, thermometer, and barometer. None of these are unique to the Fenix, but I love the intelligent way the data is displayed and the focus on giving the user a lot of ways of both knowing current data as well as history graphs. The Fenix collection was clearly designed and continues to be updated by serious workout enthusiasts who also happen to be data junkies. If you are part of this group, then I do think you’ll really like what the Fenix Chronos offers on the exercise front.
Pretty much all smartwatches I’ve tested require you to actively tell the device not only when you are about to start working out, but also what activity you are doing. My hope is that in the near future this process will be increasingly automated. I totally get why smartwatches aren’t yet smart enough to know when you are biking versus running, but I think that it will be a major user convenience breakthrough when the watch is able to learn what you are doing. This can be done via a learning phase when the smartwatch senses activity that could be exercise, and prompts the user with a notification asking to confirm what they are doing.
The Garmin Fenix Chronos, like other smartwatches has appreciably loud audible alerts, as well as a strong vibration alert. To me this signals that if the software to learn about your activities is there, the watch has all the tools it needs to ask relevant questions to the user in order make sure. Let me tell you why I think this is important. First, it is inconvenient to remember to tell your watch you are about to work out. I forget pretty much be every single time, and sometimes 10 or 20 minutes into doing an activity, I remember to tell the watch I am exercising. If the whole point of tracking your activity is to collect valuable data, then you really feel behind if your watch failed to collect data because you forgot to tell it to do so. With that said, I am coming from a background of not tracking my exercise with any great detail, and am not a competitive trainer. There are likely a large number of Garmin Fenix customers who have long ago become accustomed to telling their smartwatch or other activity tracking devices when they are about to start working out.
Once you do remember to tell the watch to track your activity, then it begins to collect as much data as it can using all of its sensors. One of the most important sensors on the Fenix Chronos is the green LED-based heart rate sensor that I found to be very precise. I’m not an expert on these systems, but I will say that the Fenix has three LED lights on the back of the watch case, while most others I’ve used such as the Apple Watch have only two lights.
Perhaps the biggest competitor to Garmin at this time is Suunto – whose Spartan Ultra smartwatch is another device that I will also review. Also a great timepiece in its own right, the Suunto Spartan Ultra does not have a built-in heart rate monitor, but rather uses an external chest band accessory which I don’t personally like to use. Having said that, Garmin sells no less than three different heart-rate monitor chest bands that will connect to the Fenix Chronos for special activities.
Going back to the senors, in addition to the hardware being of a very good quality, the data collected by the Fenix Chronos is robust. After your workout, or simply as you wear the watch throughout the day, you can access graphs and real-time details on lots of things ranging from the temperature to your heat rate. Some of these details are easier to access than others, but as a data collection tool for adventurers, I feel that Garmin currently edges out the competition.
Almost as a side-thought, Garmin also included basic phone and message notification features in the Fenix. You can get alerts about your calls and read through some of your e-mails and text messages on the watch. The large screen makes it pretty easy, but as I said above, if messaging and communication are your main priorities with a smartwatch, then other devices do all that a bit better.
When it comes to apps and expansion, Garmin has its own app market via the Garmin Connect IQ store. I haven’t played too much with this since I prefer to review watches “stock” right outside of the box. With that said, the most promising area of the Connect IQ store for the Fenix Chronos is the intelligent selection of digital watch dials – many of which are genuinely cool and useful. The process to download these apps and watch faces isn’t as simple and quick as on other devices, which is an area I think Garmin can improve on.
GARMIN FENIX CHRONOS HARDWARE & ERGONOMICS
Garmin produces versions of the Fenix in several sizes, including 42mm, 47mm, 49mm, and 51mm wide. Yes, that is a lot of options, but not all variants are produced in each of these sizes. The Fenix Chronos is only available in the 49mm wide size, which is big but wears quite comfortably. You also have the option of getting the Fenix Chronos in either a steel or titanium case. The model I reviewed came in the Grade 2 titanium case, and I have to say that it is the nicest looking Garmin Fenix yet.
Let me state again that the Chronos is the high-end version of the Fenix. While the Fenix Chronos models don’t appear to have any added functionality, they do boast a better design and materials. Garmin is particularly proud of the “premium experience” offered when getting the Chronos, which includes a fancy wood presentation box. Unfortunately, the pretty box will only get attention when you first receive the timepiece. I would have really liked it if Garmin also included a travel case (especially one with room for the charging cable to be attached to the watch, while it is in the case).
On the topic of the charging cable, I have good things to say about it. Garmin seems to be the only smartwatch maker I know to use a clip versus a magnet system to attach the charging cable to the back of the watch. This is so important because if you are charging the watch in a bag (the charging cable connects via USB, so it can connect to a battery easily), the watch will not accidentally disconnect from the charger. The charging cable might not be fancy, but it gets the job done really well and seems pretty sturdy.
The 49mm wide case is also 15mm thick and water-resistant to 100m (about 50m more than most other durable smartwatches out there). The watch is big, but so are most smartwatches these days, and at this size it pretty much just wears like a G-Shock. The light weight of the titanium helps it to be comfortable, and I have nothing but positive things to say about the bracelet.
The bracelet is a combination of titanium links with a rubberized interior. The bracelet also has quick-release pins if you want to put the Fenix Chronos on any other strap or the included black silicone strap. The titanium bracelet is clearly more stylish, and benefits from having end-links which go right up to the case. One of the most appealing parts of the bracelet is its engineered ability to bend and twist a bit. The little bit of “give” goes a long way in helping it feel surprisingly comfortable after even long periods of wear.
Garmin rates the Fenix Chronos as having anywhere from 13 hours to 8 days of use – mostly related to how often you rely on GPS. You’ll get 13 hours when a GPS signal connection is happening constantly – and honestly that is a fair amount of time given how small the battery in a watch is, and how power-intensive a constant connection with GPS can be. I think it is safe to say that you can easily get one full “awake day” per charge with pretty heavy use.
The screen is an interesting element on the Fenix watch, and another item that sets Garmin’s high-end smartwatch apart from others. The non-touch screen face is an always-on full color display that Garmin likes because they say it can be read in bright sunlight, and because it prevents the dial from ever being plain and blank (which I appreciate since I really dislike blank watch dials).
How well does the screen perform? That is an important question since there are pluses and minuses with Garmin’s approach to the screen. On the plus side there is pretty good contrast and legibility, a quality always-on state, as well as relatively modest power consumption. On the down side, the screen isn’t as vivid as more energy demanding screens and it isn’t a touch-screen. Personally I was pretty happy with the screen on the Fenix Chronos given the purpose of the watch, and in particular liked how it performed outside. Though if I was to spend a lot of time looking at minor details on the screen and needed to work with the menus a lot, I would prefer something a bit more modern and brighter. I do want to mention again that Garmin includes a backlight feature, which helps you read the dial in the dark with ease.
Around the face of the Fenix Chronos are three different bezel options depending on the model that you choose. The pictured model has one of two different tachymeter scales. This is probably the only “design element” on the watch which to me feels vestigial at best. Tachymeter scales look far cooler than they are, and I would bet good money that no one using a Garmin Fenix device will ever use one. This scale can only be used with an analog-style chronograph seconds hand, and is a tool to determine the speed of a moving object assuming you can reference its passage through two distance markers. Yes, its utility is vanishingly thin in today’s world.
Why then did Garmin design not one, but two different tachymeter scale options for its high-end Fenix Chronos smartwatch? I’m not really sure, save for the fact that it looked better than a clean bezel devoid of any decoration or markings. I feel that this is Garmin’s homage to traditional sport watches – a romantic theme which I generally enjoy. Though for me I would have far preferred that the markings on the bezel be more readily useful to some other function or feature on the watch. Then again, at least the scale is a bit prettier than the asymmetric screw layout on the bezels of most non-Chronos Garmin Fenix watches.
Serious exercise and activity enthusiasts will really enjoy the Garmin given its sole focus on being the best activity sensor watch that it can be. With the world of accessories Garmin offers, as well as additional software, the Fenix Chronos can be even better suited to specific activities such as running, swimming, cycling, golfing, etc… I’ve not yet tested a better device for these purposes, and for the exercise I do, have found myself reaching for the Garmin Fenix Chronos before the other options at my disposal.
Having said that, Garmin’s pricing and marketing around the Fenix Chronos are decidedly “lifestyle.” That means they envision well-to-do weekend warriors choosing the Fenix Chronos for use also during the week, at work, in a suit, and during meetings. The device is about as pretty as you can get these days for a smartwatch activity device, but I’m not sure it has enough utility in these areas to merit constant use. Again, the smartwatch features are primarily designed around exercising, and unless your job requires you to monitor changes in barometric pressure and your altitude, the Fenix Chronos might be best swapped out with something a bit more traditional, or at least messaging-based during office hours.
The Garmin Fenix collection has prices which start at about $600 USD, and the Fenix Chronos collection starts at about $900 USD. This particular Garmin Fenix Chronos with the Titanium Hybrid Band has a price of $1,499 USD. garmin.com
>Model: Fenix Chronos with Titanium Hybrid Band
>Price: $1,499 USD
>Size: 49mm wide, 15mm thick
>Would reviewer personally wear it: Yes.
>Friend we’d recommend it to first: Outdoor activity and workout enthusiast who likes to use data to push their performance further, with the budget for premium tech toys.
>Best characteristic of watch: As a purpose-built activity smartwatch with GPS, the Fenix Chronos is mostly unrivaled. Comfortable to wear with a clever and attractive bracelet. Screen sells itself the first time you are outdoors and can see it without having to manually activate the screen. Clip-on charging cable is a plus.
>Worst characteristic of watch: Price will be high for many. Tachymeter bezel design doesn’t add to utility. If technically possible, could benefit from the option to input commands via either a touchscreen or the pushers.