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Garmin Fenix 5 Plus review: The best multisport watch now comes with added smarts

Our Rating 
Price when reviewed 
600
inc VAT

Garmin's Fenix 5 Plus delivers a combination of features and performance that you simply won't find anywhere else

Pros 
Brilliant sports tracking
Full-colour maps and on-the-go routing
Spotify support
Cons 
Heart rate accuracy is hit-and-miss
Expensive
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The Garmin Fenix 5 Plus is the most complete sports watch you can buy today, save perhaps for its bigger brother the Fenix 5X Plus. It’s a major upgrade on the Fenix 5, adding smart features such as music storage and NFC payments, as well as maps and more sophisticated navigation tools.

All of this is on top of the exceptional sports tracking you’d expect from Garmin’s flagship GPS watch. Although other wearables have attempted to bridge the divide between sports tracking and smart features, not one has offered as complete a package as the Fenix 5 Plus.

Garmin Fenix 5 Plus review: What you need to know

The Fenix 5 Plus is one of a trio of models (alongside 5X Plus and 5S Plus) that make up the Fenix 5 Plus family, which offers a substantial update over the Fenix 5 line of devices. It’s a watch that’s built for getting active in the great outdoors, with full-colour maps and brilliant routing capabilities, including the ability to create round-trip courses on the fly and get directions home.

The 5 Plus is waterproof to 10ATM (100m) and has GPS, GLONASS and Galileo to provide maximum coverage for outdoor tracking, along with a host of sensors including Garmin’s Elevate optical heart rate monitor, a barometric altimeter and a thermometer. The Fenix 5 Plus also connects via ANT+ and Bluetooth to external heart rate monitors, footpods and cycling power meters.

It’s a multisport watch that will satisfy the needs of even the most ardent athletes, but it also has the looks and smart features required to make it something you’ll want to wear all the time, even if it’s not a true smartwatch like the Apple Watch.

Garmin Fenix 5 Plus review: Price and competition

The main competition for the Fenix 5 Plus comes from its siblings – the Fenix 5S Plus and the 5X Plus. The 5S Plus is smaller than the 5 Plus and the 5X Plus is larger. All three devices have the same screen size, with battery life being the main difference between the trio – larger devices get bigger batteries – although the 5X Plus does also have an extra trick up its sleeve in the shape of a Pulse Ox Acclimation sensor. This measures your blood oxygen saturation levels and can be useful for checking how your body is adjusting at high altitudes.

All three devices are very expensive, with the Fenix 5S Plus and 5 Plus starting from around £600, and the 5X Plus costing from £750 when bought directly from Garmin. Having said that, all three models are occasionally discounted by third-party retailers and you can currently pick the Fenix 5 Plus up for just £480 at John Lewis.

If you look outside the range, you’ll find watches that can compete with the Fenix 5 Plus’s sports tracking – such as the Suunto 9 (from £499), Garmin Forerunner 935 (£390) and the Polar Vantage V (£439) – and wearables that can outsmart it, like the Apple Watch Series 4 (from £399) and the Samsung Galaxy Watch (from £279), but you won’t find a watch that can do both.

Alternatively, if you're simply looking for a tough MIL-STD tested smartwatch that you can use in the great outdoors,  you might consider the Garmin Instinct (£280) or indeed the Mobvoi Ticwatch S2

Garmin Fenix 5 Plus review: Design and features

The Fenix 5 Plus is a beast, with its chunky steel body weighing in at 86g (or 76g, if you opt for the titanium version). That’s a lot heavier than a plastic tracker such as the Garmin Forerunner 935, which is 49g, but irrespective of its bulk it’s a good-looking, comfortable watch that can be worn everywhere. The watch is also compatible with Garmin’s QuickFit 22m bands, so you can swap out the sporty silicone band for a metal or leather alternative if you want something smarter.

When buying your Fenix 5 Plus from Garmin, you can opt for a scratch-resistant sapphire glass screen, which costs £100 more than the standard glass. The regular glass on the sample I was sent quickly picks up fingerprint grease, but despite this I found the watch’s 240 x 240 full-colour transflective screen easy to read in all weather conditions, including bright sunlight.

You shouldn’t expect anything as bright and vibrant as the screens on the Apple Watch and Samsung Galaxy Watch, but the Garmin Fenix 5 Plus’ display is always on and you can easily enable an LED backlight with a press of the watch’s top-left button.

One of the main new features of the watch is navigation, and the Fenix 5 Plus comes pre-loaded with Garmin’s full-colour TOPO maps for all of Europe (you’ll have to buy them for other regions). The Fenix 5X had this functionality, but not the 5 or 5S.

These maps make it easy to follow running and cycling courses you’ve created on Garmin Connect and synced to your watch via Bluetooth, but, better still, you can create courses right from your wrist. Indeed, wherever you are, the watch lets you choose a direction and distance and then creates three round-trip routes to choose from.

The watch uses Garmin’s Trendline popularity routing to generate routes that avoid busy roads in favour of smaller roads and trails used by runners, cyclists and hikers. Although I found this to be very useful in new cities, in the countryside it would sometimes struggle to find trails and instead route me via roads that I’d rather avoid on foot.

You can also navigate to points of interest stored in the watch, and if you’re out on a run and find yourself completely lost, it will devise a route home on the fly. This takes just a few seconds and you can ask for a direct route home or to retrace your steps.

Another new feature on the watch is ClimbPro, which analyses the route you’re following and finds all the climbs you’ll have to tackle. When you reach those individual climbs, you can use the ClimbPro screen to see how much more uphill work you have to do. It’s brilliant for long trail runs in hilly environments, where knowing what’s around the corner can help you to decide whether to take it easy or push on harder.

Other devices such as the Fenix 5 have breadcrumb trails without the maps and these are usually enough to steer you through a run, but having the maps to provide context is invaluable. I’ve made a wrong turn many times using breadcrumb navigation, but having all the different tracks marked clearly on your wrist makes it easy to pick the right one.

These navigation features enhance the already excellent sports tracking on the Fenix 5 Plus, which I’ll come to in detail below, but first let’s dive in on the other big new feature on the Fenix 5 Plus: music storage and contactless payments.

When it first launched, the music features of the Fenix 5 Plus were solid but limited to transferring your songs, podcasts and audiobooks across via a cable, or streaming via platforms such as iHeartRadio and Deezer. This all works well, and I’ve had no trouble connecting Bluetooth headphones to the watch and maintaining that connection.

However, the killer feature arrived late in 2018 when Garmin added Spotify support to the Fenix 5 Plus. If you’re a Spotify Premium user, this allows you to sync your playlists across and update them wirelessly, and you can even find a good variety of podcasts on Spotify to sync across to the Fenix 5 Plus. That’s hugely appealing if you like to be able to leave your phone behind when you go out for a walk or run.

The only downside of this is that the Fenix 5 Plus takes a big battery hit when playing music. It normally delivers around 18 hours of GPS usage but this drops to just eight hours if you’re also listening to music. Even without music playback, the Fenix 5 Plus can’t match the original Fenix 5’s superb 24-hour GPS tracking, but there’s still plenty enough juice to get you through any single activity, and more often than not I found myself only needing to charge the Fenix 5 Plus once a week.

Unfortunately, the other smart feature that has been introduced to the Fenix 5 Plus – NFC payments – is less successful. Santander is still the only UK high street bank partnered with Garmin Pay and although you can work around the problem by using the boon. by Wirecard app, it’s nothing like as straightforward as using Apple or Google Pay.

The Fenix 5 Plus also shows notifications from your phone and, if you’re an Android user, you can use canned responses to reply to messages from your wrist. You can also check the weather and calendar entries and download apps and new watchfaces from the ConnectIQ app store – although this isn’t in the same league as the App Store or Google Play, with just a handful of useful apps such as Spotify and Uber ETA available.

Garmin Fenix 5 Plus review: Sports tracking and performance

The Fenix 5 Plus tracks all manner of indoor and outdoor activities, but it’s clearly a watch built for the great outdoors, whether you’re running, cycling or swimming, or doing a combination of the three. The addition of Galileo tracking should help to ensure you have no satellite black spots on your run, and I was impressed that the accuracy of its distance tracking never seemed to dip when running in forests or city centres, where trees and tall buildings can play havoc with GPS.

It also locks on to those satellites quickly at the start of every run. Indeed, I can’t ever remember waiting more than ten seconds over the months I’ve used it. The Fenix 5 Plus also finds external sensors quickly, and the ability to connect via Bluetooth and ANT+ is a major plus – the Suunto 9 and Polar Vantage V both only connect via Bluetooth, which makes a number of sensors redundant right away.

Chest straps, in particular, are a popular accessory for serious athletes, and if you’re keen to get the very best accuracy as far as heart rate tracking is concerned, I’d definitely recommend using one with the Fenix 5 Plus. The optical monitor on board is okay during the day and low intensity runs, but the accuracy drops when you increase your effort. It was still usually within 10-20bpm of the reading a chest strap gave me, but lags behind sudden changes during sprint intervals.

This problem isn’t unique to Garmin, but I’ve been impressed with the reliability of its Elevate monitor in devices such as the Forerunner 935, which makes me think it might be the extra bulk of the Fenix 5 Plus that’s making it move around more on my wrist during runs, hence the inaccurate readings.

During activities, you can set up as many screens as you want, each with up to four data fields. The setup looks the same for all sports, but there are some sport-specific data fields available such as stroke rate in swimming. There are also dedicated screens you can add for navigation, music and running dynamics. The latter shows stats such as ground contact time, cadence and stride length when you run with a compatible footpod or one of Garmin’s HRM-Run or HRM-Tri chest strap heart rate monitors.

You can also create custom workouts in the Garmin Connect app and sync them to the watch, or create simple interval workouts from the Fenix 5 Plus itself. I use Garmin’s workouts feature a couple of times a week with whichever of its watches I’m testing and I've yet to find another app from another sports watch brand that makes it as easy as Garmin Connect does.

Another handy feature is Garmin’s race pacer, which lets you set a time and distance target and gives you cues to keep you on track. These include distance remaining, how far ahead or behind your target pace you are, an estimated finish time and even a little virtual figure that moves across the screen at the target pace so you can tell if you’re falling behind.

Once you finish your training session, you’re given immediate feedback on its effect in terms of aerobic and anaerobic fitness, each scored from zero to five, along with an indication of how long you should recover for before your next workout. Broadly speaking, these scores signify your general cardiovascular fitness and your ability to exercise at high intensities respectively, and a good training plan should work on improving both.

This information can also be found on the watch in a handy widget that also describes your training load over the past seven days, estimates your VO2 max and takes a stab at what your running race times would be over 5K, 10K, half marathon and marathon distances.

This widget also shows your training status, which gives you a one-word appraisal of your training based on how your fitness is progressing (based on VO2 max) and your overall load. There are several different statuses, including “Productive” if your fitness is improving, “Overreaching” if your load is too high and it’s negatively affecting your fitness, and “Peaking”, which means you’re in top form to smash a race after tapering your workouts in the necessary fashion.

Garmin Fenix 5 Plus: Activity and sleep tracking

Sports tracking is the Fenix 5 Plus’s bread and butter, but since this is a watch designed to be worn everywhere it doesn’t sell you short on everyday activity tracking, either. You get all the vital metrics – steps, calories burned, active minutes and floors climbed – which are available in the My Day screen or on your watch face if you set it up to show them. The step target adjusts automatically over time, which means regular runners quickly find themselves facing a goal of over 15,000 steps. Understandably, you’ll rarely meet this goal on rest days.

The Fenix 5 Plus also offers Garmin’s advanced sleep tracking, which means it breaks down your night’s rest into light, deep and REM sleep, along with any periods you were awake. It also records how much you move during the night. I wasn’t bowled over by the sleep tracking because it tended to overestimate how much time I spent asleep, with any time in bed reading or watching TV nudging up the total. I also had a couple of nights where I woke up for an hour or so during the night and found this had been logged as light sleep the next day.

All your daily activity, sports and sleep stats are engagingly presented in the Garmin Connect app, which gives you all the key info on the homepage through a series of colourful tiles, and these can then be tapped for more in-depth detail and long term trends.

Garmin Fenix 5 Plus review: Verdict

Garmin threw everything at the wall with the Fenix 5 Plus and most of it has stuck, with the new navigation and music features both having been terrifically implemented. Garmin Pay is still a bit of a dud and it’s a shame battery has taken a hit compared to the original Fenix 5, but any complaints I have about the Fenix 5 Plus after several months of testing it are small.

Overall, it’s a sensational bit of kit that justifies its price, which is no small statement when you consider it costs £600. If you’re looking for the best multisport watch there is, look no further.

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