Rise of the Fenix: How Garmin became the Swiss Army Knife of the watch world

How the outdoor watch came to be the go-to companion for adventurers
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2019 marks 30 years since Garmin founders Gary Burrell and Min Kao set out their goal: to help us find our way. Navigation remains at the heart of Garmin's business today, just as much as it did back in those early days when the company was finding its feet.

A big part of that business now lies in wearables, a space Garmin will no doubt tell you it’s been playing in for a long time – way before Apple, Samsung and Fitbit were anywhere on the scene. And its latest quarterly earnings call suggests that bigger wearable push is paying off, with increases seen across all of its divisions.

Brand new: Garmin Fenix 6 in-depth guide

One of those key divisions for Garmin is Outdoor and that’s where you’ll find the Fenix, the watch built for alpinists that launched in 2012. The ABC watch (that meant it had an Altimeter, Barometer and Compass) was designed to bring navigation tools to outdoor enthusiasts, allowing them to plan routes, get real-time environmental data from that trio of sensors, and safely make their way back to where their adventure first started.

Two years after the first Fenix came the Fenix 2, with a bigger emphasis on adding multisport tracking to an already comprehensive toolkit. We only had to wait another year for its successor the Fenix 3, which brought support for Garmin’s new Connect IQ platform and store and saw an evolution into an outdoor watch with rich smartwatch functionality. In 2016, Garmin gave us the Fenix Chronos, its first attempt at dipping its toes into the high-end watch market, which played a part in the story of its new high-end Marq watch range.

In 2019, the Fenix is now a full series of devices that are part sports watch, part smartwatch. While some Suunto watch fans may disagree, for many the Fenix has become the go-to watch for tackling the outdoors.

But it wasn't a hit straight from the start. "It started as an outdoor watch and purely an outdoor watch," Jon Hosler, senior product manager for Fenix tells us. "Then with the Fenix 2, we brought in a lot more multipurpose features like high-end running and cycling features and it became a more multisport watch. It had a support for a lot more sports. It also had this more rugged aesthetic that really appealed. That’s really where it really started to take off."

Rise of the Fenix: How Garmin became the Swiss Army Knife of the watch world

Garmin's first-generation Fenix was launched in 2012

Rise of the Fenix: How Garmin became the Swiss Army Knife of the watch world

The Garmin Fenix 2 followed in 2014 bringing more multisport tracking features

Hosler has been working as product manager on the Fenix brand for five years, but he's been involved since the very first sketch. A former industrial designer for the watch group, he put together some of the first designs of the Fenix and came on board for the second-generation watch.

So why did the first Fenix lack appeal? Hosler believes there are a few reasons, and the company then sought to pay closer attention to what else was out on the market and how that could help the outdoor watch stand out from the crowd. "When we looked at how we could make it more appealing, we saw there wasn’t a watch that offered a lot of different sports in one," he said. "A lot of them do now, but at the time you had watches that were very run-focused watches for instance. We were trying to reach out better to those outdoor types."

In the Fenix 2, we got more tracking modes like snowboard and ski tracking and the ability to monitor swimming. Software niggles were ironed out too, but it was also the first time that smart notifications entered the fold, and it felt like this was more than just a sports watch.

Fenix 3: Where it all changed

Rise of the Fenix: How Garmin became the Swiss Army Knife of the watch world

While the Fenix 2 was the watch that started to gain traction for Garmin, it was arguably the third watch where it found its feet. That coincided with major innovation in the wearable space coupled with Garmin's own ambitions to enhance what you could do with its watches.

Essential reading: Best outdoor watches for hikers, climbers and adventurers

"With the Fenix 3, that was the real turning point where we brought in a lot of new things," says Hosler. "There was a new colour display, we brought in the metal bezel. Nobody was building a metal watch with GPS because it would block the antenna. So we had to create an antenna design where that bezel formed part of the antenna. Having that metal bezel on the front of the watch also added a really nice visual touch.

"We also announced Connect IQ as well, so that was a very big launch for us. That’s when it really started to get mass market appeal. Heart rate was a feature people wanted as well, so we had to scramble to get that in too."

Hosler regards the arrival of Connect IQ, the company's development platform, as playing a major part not only in the current development of Garmin's Fenix watches, but also what the Fenix will be capable of doing in the future.

"The expectation of customers is to be able to enhance their products," Hosler explained. "We strive to offer a great experience from the watch itself, regardless of whether Connect IQ is part of it, but it’s definitely a critical part of our future because there’s so many things that you can get from it. There’s no way we could deliver that all internally. That’s going to be a huge part of the Fenix future."

Then there were three

Rise of the Fenix: How Garmin became the Swiss Army Knife of the watch world

There was no Fenix 4, Garmin tells us, because of the phonetic pronunciation issues related to the combination of Fenix and 4 in certain dialects of Mandarin. So the Fenix 5 was ushered into the world in January 2017 instead, and for the first time it was broken out into three different models: the 5, 5X and 5S. It brought different price points and a top-end model, the 5X, which arrived with features you couldn't find on the other two devices. Crucially, it also now came in different sizes. It was the introduction of new sizes that proved to be the most crucial change, as Garmin sought to bring a Fenix option for women.

"We were looking at our gender demographic, who was using our watches," Hosler says. "It was very obvious that the slant was more towards to our male users. We were appealing more to men than women. But we know that the split for the sports that we cover on our watches is pretty even.

"So we saw that there was clearly an opportunity to appeal to women. We very deliberately made smaller watches to appeal to women. We introduced a lot of different styles and on the whole it has been very successful."

Along with the change in design and sizing philosophy, the 5 series also saw a ramp up in smartwatch features. The 5 Series Plus, which was unveiled midway through 2018, brought music features and contactless payment support, while colour mapping came to all three watch models and a pulse oximeter sensor was added to the top-end 5X Plus.

We very deliberately made smaller watches to appeal to women

So does that mean there's an increasing need or demand for the Fenix to evolve more into a smartwatch-type of device? "We will continue to improve our smartwatch capability and it’s a huge part of our watch," explains Hosler. "It’s not our core focus. We want to make sure that when people buy our watch it’s a useful tool they can use for all their sports. That’s our primary differentiator."

Hosler recognises the shift that has occurred in the wearable and connected watch industry over the past five years, as many a new smartwatch competitor has entered the space but has then also faded away. "We definitely see that shift from a general smartwatch to a watch with more specific purpose and companies trying to tell a story with their devices," he says. "There has definitely been a shift towards what we are doing with Fenix, but I think a lot of companies are artificially trying to tell that story. That’s where we are trying to stand out."

Mapping out the future

Rise of the Fenix: How Garmin became the Swiss Army Knife of the watch world

Unsurprisingly, Garmin will not be drawn on talk of a Fenix 6 or what big features it's currently working on, but it is keen to share how it believes it can remain on top of the outdoor watch pile, and where it thinks it can do better.

Mapping is one feature where Garmin believes it's doing a better job than most, as Hosler tells it. "It's been a big part of differentiating the Fenix from its competitors," he says. "There’s a lot of features with maps that probably a lot of people do not know about. A lot of mapping features that will continue to separate the Fenix from other watches. It's the area I’m personally most proud of."

Dealing with the rafts of data that the Fenix can produce is also an area of focus. The Fenix comes packed with data-churning sensors including the new pulse oximeter sensor that first appeared on the Fenix, before it started to find its way onto other devices in the family including the Vivosmart 4 fitness tracker and the new Forerunner 245 Music.

"We are thinking about how can we take the data, say the topography data for example or performance metrics. How can we combine that data and make it simple and intuitive, which can benefit you in the moment," Hosler said. "There’s a lot of calculations happening behind the scenes. That’s a general principle. To let customers focus on the performance during these activities. Let’s worry about what’s going on in the background so you can focus on being your best."

While Garmin, like most other companies, has one eye on the future, it doesn't forget the story that started it all and how those early experiences can help shape the future of those new devices.

"It has been fun being part of this team and seeing how committed we are to focusing delivering valuable and purpose built products," says Hosler. "That focus and that buy-in from the top of the company all the way to the bottom has been really useful and valuable. That’s something that differentiates us. Our team is full of people that use it, that makes us focus on features that our customers can be proud of."

TAGGED Garmin Running

How we test

Michael Sawh


Michael Sawh has been covering the wearable tech industry since the very first Fitbit landed back in 2011. Previously the resident wearable tech expert at Trusted Reviews, he also marshaled the features section of T3.com.

He also regularly contributed to T3 magazine when they needed someone to talk about fitness trackers, running watches, headphones, tablets, and phones.

Michael writes for GQ, Wired, Coach Mag, Metro, MSN, BBC Focus, Stuff, TechRadar and has made several appearances on the BBC Travel Show to talk all things tech. 

Michael is a lover of all things sports and fitness-tech related, clocking up over 15 marathons and has put in serious hours in the pool all in the name of testing every fitness wearable going. Expect to see him with a minimum of two wearables at any given time.

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