A tale of two Garmins

Earlier this year, I ditched the trusty old Garmin Forerunner 35 that I’ve been using for several years in favour of a Garmin fēnix 6 Pro. Both are great watches actually – and I would recommend them both, but for different reasons. In this post I’ll be giving you my take on the pros and cons of each model.

Before you read any further, it’s worth bearing in mind the kind of features I look for in a running watch. Firstly, I’m not interested in using any of the ‘smart watch’ features – such as music control, messages, and phone notifications. Both watches have these capabilities to some extent but I’ve not used them so they won’t feature in this review. Secondly, I run regularly off-road and often long / ultra distances – if you’re primarily running shorter distances or on a track then other watches might suit you better. Thirdly, I love having lots of of data to geek out on after my run!

Forerunner 35

The Forerunner 35 is what I’d consider to be an entry-level running watch, with more features than activity trackers (Garmin Vivoactive, Fitbit, etc), but still at a very reasonable price-point. In fact, even though the RRP is £130, the watch was released in 2016 and it’s easy to find it for under £70 new, or even less if you go for refurbished or eBay! For an old watch it still packs in a lot of features. All of the basic running features are there, including accurate GPS tracking, cadence counting, lap timing, integrated wrist-based heart rate monitoring and some basic workout profiles including HR and pace zones. As a multi-sport watch there are also activity profiles for cycling, swimming and general workouts. The watch has a small black-and-white LED screen, and an easy-to-use four button system for navigating around the menu system. There is a surprising amount of configurability – for example you can choose which stats you’d like to display during a run – which can be set up on the watch itself and/or using the Garmin Connect software on a computer or phone. The watch comes with Bluetooth for wireless syncing and a combined charging/data USB cable.

For those of you who haven’t used Garmin Connect, it collects and presents all of your data either through the web or mobile app. Personally, I prefer to keep track of my runs in Strava (which integrates seamlessly with Connect), but Connect is great for exploring biometric data such as min/max heart rate, sleep, step count etc. as well as recording weight.

So lots of positives! The main limitations of the watch are two-fold. Firstly, there is no navigation capability so if you want to follow a specific route you’ll need either good old map and compass, or carry a phone with a navigation app on it. Secondly, the battery life. When new, I found that the battery would last for activities up to 8 hours with the HR monitor and GPS enabled and 11 hours with GPS only. Plenty of juice for most runs up to marathon and even short ultra distance, and with my usual training load this means charging (which only takes about 30 mins for a full charge) once or twice a week. After several years of use the battery life started to suffer a bit, dropping to about 5 hours. One brilliant feature of the Forerunner 35 is that, unlike many other similar watches, you can charge midway through an activity, while still recording. The charging cable also happens to clip on to the side of the watch, so if you’re running or hiking for the whole day (or longer) you can easily carry a small power bank in your hand and charge without even needing to remove the watch from your wrist! I used this at several ultras, including the LLCR130 (27 hours), where I probably had to charge 4 or 5 times along the way. The battery indicator also gives you a warning when you drop to the lowest charge level so you have plenty of time to recharge without the activity being auto-saved!

The verdict: still a great all-round running watch at a very compelling price point as long as you don’t want navigation and run up to 50k ultra distance (or are willing to charge on the go). Julie is still using hers, and mine has been handed down to our eldest, who will hopefully get a good few years use out of it yet!

Fēnix 6 Pro

In time for the Lady Anne’s Way 100 miler in January, we decided it would be worth at least one of us having a watch with navigation capability, as the route is quite tricky (and largely unmarked). Some research led us to the Fēnix. Sticking within the Garmin ecosystem that I know and love, the Fēnix is Garmin’s flagship ‘Adventure’ watch – with many more bells and whistles than a ‘Running’ watch like the Forerunners. The Fēnix comes in a range of options – the main one being the 6S, 6 and 6X, which are the small (42mm), medium (47mm) and large (51mm) diameters. The larger the watch, the larger the battery, as well as some others like a solar panel ring, sapphire glass and ‘Pro’ option (larger internal storage, more routing and activity features). I opted for the Fēnix 6 Pro, which offers up to 36 hours battery life in normal GPS mode. The Fēnix 7 has recently come out, which means the 6 is quite well discounted, and I paid £450, compared to £600-1000 for the 7, depending on which model you look at!

So what’s new and improved compared to the Forerunner 35? Quite a lot! The larger, colour screen is put to good use and there are endless choices of data to display during and outwith activities. It’s also possible to see a lot more activity data directly on the watch – for example the route (including elevation), historical heart rate data and much more. Navigating the many menus and screens is complex to start with, and it takes a little practice to learn to use the 5 buttons effectively but I soon got used to it. Even more data can be be accessed in Garmin Connect such as stress, “body battery”, more detailed sleep stats and respiration rate. Whether these are actually useful I’m not so sure, but they’re interesting to look at! The only measurement I found not so good was the pulse oximeter, which never seemed to give reliable readings and is said to use up a lot of battery – so I turned it off. There is probably a lot more that can be done on the watch too with the addition of apps that can be downloaded via the Connect IQ store and then synced to the watch.

The navigation functionality is also really great. It’s possible to create routes (Garmin calls them courses) either in Connect or Strava (note – the route needs to be public and ‘starred’) and then sync them to the watch. Alternatively, you can generate routes from a particular starting location on the watch itself – including mid-run options like “shortest route back to start”. When running on a course, additional stats become available such as the estimated time of completion as well as really useful info on upcoming climbs (how long and how high), and how much of the total climb in the course has been completed. It’s great on a long ultra or run to know when you’ve done more than half the climbing, or that the next climb is only half a mile long! Actually panning and zooming the map view is a bit awkward, but the default zoom level is absolutely fine most of the time, and combined with the turn indicator which notifies you of upcoming turns it’s very straightforward and definitely helped us out at several points during the LAW100. There is also an electronic compass widget, which is handy – although I’d always rely on a real compass and map as a backup!

A couple of other features are worth mentioning. As well as Bluetooth, the Fēnix 6 has inbuilt WiFi, so you can download software updates direct to the watch as well as fetch live weather data. Unlike the Forerunner 35, the Fēnix 6 has Garmin’s training advisor enabled (both on the watch and in the app). This tracks your weekly training load, split into low/high aerobic and anaerobic, and provides workout – and rest day – suggestions. I haven’t really used the workout plans as I prefer to make my own training plan, but it has definitely been helpful to make sure I run enough in the low aerobic zone.

Finally, let’s talk about battery life. As mentioned, the 6 Pro claims up to 36 hours of battery life. From our experience at LAW100, it lasted about 18. To be fair, this was with GPS tracking, HR monitoring and crucially, I used the map view quite extensively with the screen backlight turned on (as much of the run was at night). Unfortunately, the default battery settings don’t provide you with a low battery warning, and the watch just stopped and auto-saved my run part-way through! There are some fairly extensive power management settings that you can adjust. There is an ‘expedition mode’ GPS, which uses less power but is significantly less accurate according to my testing. It’s also possible to set a battery warning (e.g. at 30 mins remaining), at which point you can have the watch switch to expedition mode and connect it up to a power bank for charging. Unfortunately the charging port on the Fēnix 6 is on the back of the watch face, so you do need to take it off while charging and pop it in your pocket. However, it took less than an hour to charge up to 75%, which saw me through the remaining 9 hours of the race. It will still record while charging too, of course!

As I mentioned earlier, the Fēnix 7 is now out so it’s worth considering what more you’d get by buying the 7 instead of the 6. The most major change is the introduction of a touch screen. This will make navigating the map view much easier via swiping/pinching but to be honest I rarely need to do this. This reviewer also mentioned there are some additional software features, the battery life is a bit longer too, but in my opinion sticking with the 6 is the best option right now!

The verdict: a significant upgrade over the Forerunner 35, both in cost and in features. If you need navigation and/or longer battery life, or just want more data to play with I totally recommend it!