In a move cleverly designed to command the attention of all gear testers and social media simultaneously, on January 18 Garmin launched two complete series of its top-end adventure/multi-sport GPS watches: the Fenix 7 series and the second generation Epix series. Although the concurrent release pretty much worked as planned, it generated some robust side discussions about which series option (Fenix vs Epix) was better suited for particular users.
In basic terms, the Epix is virtually identical to the Fenix 7 but with an AMOLED display that is dramatically brighter and more detailed. The tradeoff for this is a lower battery life across the product line, but even the reduced battery life is higher than many GPS watches out there. Our decision was simple, as we only have one test model available – the Fenix 7X – but we’ll share some thoughts on the series comparison at the end. Otherwise, this review is based solely off our experience testing the Fenix 7X (Solar Sapphire version – more on this below).
The Fenix 7 series consists of three subset model lines: the regular Fenix 7, the 7S which is slightly smaller and the 7X, which is a bit larger. Selecting the right watch gets complicated because there are some key discrepancies in feature sets and battery life between model lines, and also differences in features within each model, all with different MSRPs ranging from $699 to $999. Two key options within the 7 and 7S models are the inclusion of solar charging and a sapphire/titanium casing, while the 7X comes standard with solar but not sapphire. Garmin created a couple of handy graphics that lay out all the product line options.
Some upgrades are consistent across the entire series, such as slightly thinner and lighter casings, revised protective lug covers on the casing and a button guard on the top right button to prevent accidental presses. They all have advanced health metric software that enhances commonly used widgets and an improved optical HR sensor mechanism. All Fenix 7 watches support Garmin Pay, wi-fi and onboard music storage. There are also a slew of new activity profiles and sport-specific features, but to simplify things a bit, we’ve focused on the new features that are most pertinent to an audience of ultrarunners, with a short overview of each.
Ultrarunning-Specific New Features
- Touchscreen functionality option
- Increased solar surface area by 54% and increased solar panel efficiency (solar units only)
- Increased overall battery life from 33% to 66% (see chart below)
- Phone configuration in addition to wrist-based configuration
- Free worldwide downloadable TopoActive maps
- Map Manager for managing and downloading maps
- Up Ahead feature for real-time distances to pre-established waypoints
- Multi-band GPS (Sapphire units only)
- Real time Stamina assessment
- Internal flashlight (7X model only)
The fact that Garmin’s new watches all feature touchscreen operation isn’t remarkable on its own. After all, other sports watches have had this feature for years. Instead, the cool aspect here is that you can customize when you want the touchscreen to be operable or more precisely, when you don’t. You can specify whether it works during normal use, during specific activity types and while you’re sleeping. And even when the touchscreen mode is activated, you can still use the traditional five-button functions that are unchanged from all Garmin devices.
When activated, the touchscreen function works smoothly, even when wet, and with touchscreen-capable gloves. We noticed some accidental swiping, particularly when wearing long sleeves, and it takes a bit of precision to avoid over-scrolling or under-scrolling at times. For this reason, we prefer to disable the touchscreen during activity, with the caveat that we activate it again when interacting with wrist-based maps, because it’s way easier to zoom or scroll through maps with a touchscreen than with button navigation. It’s simple to enable or disable the touchscreen even in the middle of an activity, so switching between modes while navigating isn’t cumbersome at all.
One of the most exciting developments in GPS watches over the past few years is the incorporation of solar charging. In that period of time, it has evolved from a top-end feature that had only marginal functional impact into something more efficient, with significant impact on battery life. It’s not out of the question that a once-theoretical end point of unlimited battery life is on the horizon; in fact, Garmin is already marketing this for their less-feature rich Instinct watch series.
Solar function is an option on the Fenix 7S and 7, but standard on the 7X. Solar capability is increased by up to 54% over the Fenix 6 Pro Solar, thanks to more efficient solar cell technology that occupies a larger surface area of the watch. As with the Fenix 6 and Enduro watches, there are two different types of solar panels. First is a rim around the perimeter of the watch face which is noticeably thicker than on those earlier watches. Second is a thin transparent layer below the glass but above the display. The perimeter panels are less prevalent but can collect 100% of solar exposure, while the layer below the display occupies the entire face but only collects 7-10% of the sun’s rays, depending on whether it’s a sapphire or standard glass model (sapphire is lower).
Light intensity for these panels to operate at full capacity are measured in “lux,” and Garmin says that full strength requires 50,000 lux – equivalent to a moderately sunny, intermittently overcast sky – for 3 hours per day. You can check your sun exposure in real time on the watch face, as a widget or in the app to see how various conditions register on the scale – but for practical purposes, it doesn’t take much for the solar panels to soak up a charge while you’re going about your day.
Solar technology radically alters the battery specs of a watch, which are also impacted by the number of features in use at any particular time. Gone are the days when we could simply list three battery life specs for normal mode, 1-second GPS and battery saver modes. Instead, Garmin created a graphic delineating the battery life of Fenix 7 watches, dependent on whether or not solar technology is incorporated and also what GPS mode is used.
Note that even the baseline non-solar battery life values above are still pretty impressive; we’ve officially entered the era where you shouldn’t need to carry a GPS charging cable during an ultra event anymore. Garmin has stated that the overall operating efficiency of the Fenix 7 series is improved from the six models, meaning the base power draw for daily operation is lower, further enhancing battery life even for non-solar models.
One functional feature we’ve always loved about Garmin watches is the ability to modify all settings from the watch itself, even to the point of changing activity settings in the middle of that same activity. What’s overlooked is that there has been very little configuration available from the Garmin Connect app, but this is remedied with the Fenix 7 watches. If you prefer changing things like system settings, activity profiles and data fields, or widget configurations from the phone, you can now do so. Watch-based modifications still exist as before, though, and there are still a few processes like downloading maps or music that have to be done from the watch, but this feature is a nice addition to further increase the overall ease of use.
Fenix 7 watches include upgraded access to a large inventory of maps, as well as a new mechanism for accessing them. This is where we start to see some feature distinctions between the various Fenix 7 models, as the standard versions have 16GB storage with free access to the entire Garmin map catalog, while Sapphire versions of all three models come with 32GB of storage and global maps are pre-loaded. Previous Fenix watches included maps for your continent, but if you wanted other maps in advance of international travel you had to pay an additional fee for each map set.
Access to new maps is done through the new map manager feature, which shows you the TopoActive maps that are currently on your watch or available for download. Maps are then downloaded by the watch over wi-fi, which is a very slow process, or can be done more quickly through the desktop Garmin Express page with a USB cable. Once your maps are downloaded, you have the same full-feature navigation capabilities that were present on previous Fenix watches, plus the new Up Ahead feature that might be your new best friend on race day.
Up Ahead Feature
Through the Garmin Express website, downloaded maps can be marked with a variety of points of interest, such as a scenic overlook or water access point. Then, when you are using that downloaded route for navigation, the Up Ahead screen will display the real-time mileage to each of those points. One of the icons you can select is aid station, so if you load a course map onto your watch before race day with those locations identified, you’ll never again have to wonder just how much farther that aid station is. It’s generally a great feature, but we noticed one quirk on a course that looped back to the same aid station more than once. The distance was only listed for the first pass-through, but not the second.
After the fact, we realized that if you want the same point to show up twice, you have to zoom in tight on the online map and click and label the aid station twice, with two points just slightly apart. Still, we’ve had enough long desperate marches through the night wondering how much farther some destination is to understand what a reassuring feature Up Ahead can be.
Multi-band is next generation technology for GPS accuracy, and its premise is fairly simple: instead of locking into one satellite network, the watch locks into multiple satellite frequencies simultaneously. The benefit is that if one signal drops momentarily for some reason, another can remain to ensure that signal integrity remains. In all of our testing with the Fenix 7X, we have been impressed with the accuracy of GPS tracks in challenging trail conditions as well as urban environments, but to be honest, it’s not dramatically different than the same tracks on our Enduro and Forerunner watches. That’s not to say the multi-band technology isn’t effective, but the traditional systems utilized by those other watches remain pretty strong.
Garmin isn’t the first to utilize a multi-band feature, as it is included with the Coros Vertix 2, released last fall. More interestingly, multi-band isn’t included on the entire Fenix 7 series, it’s only on the sapphire editions. That seems like a mistake to us for a line of watches geared toward outdoor athletes. For that demographic, top of the line GPS accuracy should be standard instead of an upgrade. We’re hopeful that this will be added to the non-sapphire versions at some point with a software update, but in the meantime, you’ll have to splurge for the highest price models to use the multi-band.
As for fitness and performance, the most interesting new feature on the Fenix 7 watches (all of them) is the real-time stamina assessment. It’s geared primarily toward interval training and there are two main components: current stamina indicates short-term energy, while potential stamina estimates long-term energy in conjunction with recent fitness and health metrics such as VO2 max and sleep data. Each component is expressed as a percentage, like a real-time body battery during your workout, and each one estimates how much longer you can continue at the current pace, expressed in both time and distance.
If you’re moving at a casual pace, these two components are identical, but as you intermittently increase your pace, the current stamina reading begins to decrease at a faster rate, reflecting an estimate of how long you can sustain the current pace. When you slow back down, the current stamina slowly rises back to the level of the potential stamina, which drains at a gradual steady rate and represents how much energy you have left for the entire day. It sounds confusing, but is much easier to visualize with a graph of the two stamina measurements, as seen on the app after an interval workout.
For training purposes, having stamina readings at your wrist starts as more of a curiosity rather than something to guide a workout, but the idea is that after several workouts you can get a better sense of what paces are sustainable for certain lengths of time and how long your recovery between intervals should be before you’re ready to push again. We’re very interested to see how stamina numbers play out over the course of an ultra, because the longest distance it has told us we could complete is around 30 miles. Ultrarunners are comfortable with making relentless forward progress even when there’s nothing left in the tank, so during our next 100-miler we’ll be intrigued to see at what point the potential stamina reading drops to zero – and hopefully it won’t be too discouraging to see that number when there’s still more than 50k to go. On second thought, it might be best to use this feature for training only, then cover it up during a race.
The Fenix 7X contains a mini flashlight. Initially, this seemed like an unnecessary add-on, but we’ve actually found it convenient more often than we anticipated. The light consists of three small LEDs that project from the top of the watch in the arc between the strap anchors; two of the LEDs are white, and the third is red. There is a running mode designed to flash the white lights when your arm is swinging forward and the red light on the backswing, but we didn’t find this feature dependable. Otherwise, the lamp has three intensity levels that can be set and adjusted at the wrist, and it can flash an SOS signal in emergency situations.
The brightest level of the flashlight isn’t enough for you to keep running if your headlamp dies in the middle of the night – it’s not even as bright as a standard phone flashlight – but it’s enough to let you walk the trail safely back to the trailhead or the next aid station. The main utility we’ve found is for lighting your path when your phone isn’t handy or you don’t want to fumble around for a headlamp, such as getting up to use the bathroom in an unfamiliar setting or getting dressed before dawn without waking up your spouse. It’s also super helpful for digging through a drop bag in the dark. Again, it’s not nearly enough to replace a headlamp in these scenarios, but it’s kind of cool to have another option at your disposal every now and then.
Fenix vs Epix
The main decision point between the Fenix 7 and second generation Epix line is the question of battery life vs display. We’re familiar with Garmin’s AMOLED display technology, used on the Epix, from other watches, and there is no question it is dramatically brighter than the Fenix, particularly when viewing color maps. This is especially true when using Sapphire versions of these watches, as sapphire glass has a very slight cloudiness to it that acts to dim the display, particularly indoors. The tradeoff for such a bright and beautiful Epix display is a significant decrease in battery life, ranging from one-third to one-half lower than the Fenix models depending on a lot of variables. Our statement of “not needing a charging cable for ultra races anymore” doesn’t apply to the Epix, especially in the multi-band GPS mode which gives you about 15 hours of life. In other words, way less than most of us need for a 100-miler.
In our testing of the Sapphire Fenix 7X, the display is never difficult to see or read during activity and very rarely when at rest; the brightness is more than adequate in any circumstance. Non-Sapphire versions of the Fenix 7 series would be even easier to read. And even if you’re not running 100-milers all the time, robust battery life allows you to simultaneously use many features such as music, navigation, Bluetooth, cell coverage, continuous HR tracking and best-accuracy GPS without worrying about battery drain. Our guess is that many ultrarunners will opt for the battery life over a beautiful display, but runners who don’t anticipate bumping up against battery limits of the Epix should definitely lean toward that series.
Garmin Fenix 7 series watches are now available at www.garmin.com.