Apple Watch Series 3 v Garmin Fenix 5: Smartwatch royalty goes head to head

We pit the everyday smartwatch and multi-sport champions against one another

With the crop of smartwatch options stronger and more varied than ever, picking out the right wrist companion has never been more challenging.

And among the best in the space are options from Apple and Garmin, despite the pair offering largely different packages. On one hand is the Cupertino company's well rounded, stylish Series 3 smartwatch, and on the other is the headline act in Garmin's stable of rugged tracking beasts.

Wareable verdict: Apple Watch Series 3 | Garmin Fenix 5

But which is the better smartwatch, and how do the two compare when put head to head? Well, we've spent extensive time with both in order to find out where they rank. Read on to find out.

Apple Watch Series 3 v Garmin Fenix 5: Design

Apple Watch Series 3 v Garmin Fenix 5: Smartwatch royalty goes head to head

Let's kick things off in the looks department. And as you've probably already figured out, these watches couldn't be any more different.

While the Apple Watch Series 3 continues the company's string of square-faced designs, the Garmin Fenix 5 opts for a more traditional, circular bezel. In truth, neither are that different from their predecessors.

However, what the Fenix 5 has achieved from the previous generation is a bit of weight loss. It's still a behemoth at 47mm, but thankfully you can also explore the Garmin Fenix 5S if you're looking for a slightly smaller alternative (or even the 51mm Fenix 5X if you need a giant). The display on the screen, meanwhile, clocks in at 240 x 240. It's not the most colourful, but things are certainly sharp enough here to get by in pretty much all lighting.

In contrast, the Apple Watch comes in two size variants – 38mm or 42mm. For our money, it's still one of the sleekest looking smartwatches, and the 1,000-nit OLED display rivals Samsung's watches for the best in the business, giving you bright visuals with watchOS.

The Apple Watch Series 3 is also waterproof to 5ATM (which is roughly 50m), a rating which is enough for pretty much every swimmer out there, though the Fenix 5 takes this a notch further to 10ATM (roughly 100m). Both, of course, also harbour GPS sensors in order to keep track on your activity, and the Apple Watch Series 3 also comes with the option to include LTE, meaning you don't need your phone around in order to pick up texts, calls or other notifications.

Apple Watch Series 3 v Garmin Fenix 5: Smartwatch royalty goes head to head

Speaking of options, there's also plenty more in regard to customisation with the Apple Watch. Not only can you change the band from sporty to dressy in a matter of seconds, but you also have the choice to pick out an aluminium or stainless steel space grey, gold or silver case from the start. Band changing, granted, is simpler on the Fenix 5 than in previous generations, but the options at your disposal can't compare.

When you weigh up both designs, it's hard to call it a contest. In terms of pure looks, the Apple Watch wins out here. And it's a design which is backed up by ample waterproofing, more sensors and customisation potential. But that's not to say there isn't a place for the Fenix 5 and its whole screws-in-the-bezel deal. If you're outdoorsy and want something which leans more rugged than svelte, you'll almost certainly feel more comfortable with Garmin's design.

Apple Watch Series 3 v Garmin Fenix 5: Features and tracking

Apple Watch Series 3 v Garmin Fenix 5: Smartwatch royalty goes head to head

We understand that design is often a personal preference, but more concrete is the features that each pack in – it's here where smartwatch battles are generally decided.

And as far as watches go, they don't come more feature-packed than the Fenix 5, with its sports tracking being the headline act. Seriously, it's hard to find a sport this thing doesn't track, and its heart rate data is among the deepest in the business. It's not just about tracking your run, cycle or swim, either, with after-activity metrics bolstering your daily overview. We've found Garmin's VO2 Max estimates to be the most accurate in comparison to a lab environment, and the Training Effect measurement is a great way to gain a perspective on how your body is handling your exercise.

Read next: We test the best VO2 Max wearables in a lab

Those more interested in hiking than shorter exercise are also catered for, with basic metrics backed up by the likes of GPX routes, live mapping and a very strong battery life (more on that later).

The Apple Watch's sports tracking, on the other hand, doesn't match up in quite the same way. Sure, there's solid GPS tracking for most of the major activities, but the data just isn't on the same level. Once it's been tracked and synced, the Watch's involvement is pretty much done. There's no indication of how your fitness is improving, or when your body is ready to go at it again.

Apple Watch Series 3 v Garmin Fenix 5: Smartwatch royalty goes head to head

And in fairness, it's not surprising that an everyday smartwatch can't compete against a comprehensive multi-sport device. Thankfully, it makes up for its relative shortcomings in sports tracking with wellness features.

For example, the device's heart rate monitor isn't just restricted to tracking activity (something which has now itself been improved with the heart rate recovery metric and data splits), but also in the background to make sure your BPM doesn't spike to dangerous levels. In everyday use, you can also use it to focus on your Breathing and relax. And it's in areas such as this where the Apple Watch excels, as well as through the App Store and its smorgasbord of third-party, standalone apps.

With companion apps, although Garmin Connect has cleaned itself up and become a stronger hub for your daily activity, it's still not without its flaws. The same could be said for Apple's Watch and Activity iOS apps, but the experience and layout is more friendly, in our view – you only need to try changing a watch face on both devices to know what we mean.

And on the subject of watch faces, this once again brings things back to customisation and just simply having more options. Apple Watch users can change up their faces, add complications and have a more rounded experience on the watch itself. Notifications are available through both of these devices, but only the Apple Watch will let you reply from your wrist.

And as for music, well, there's again no debate. Not only did Apple already let you sync across playlists to the Watch, but now streaming from the Watch itself is possible, too. The Fenix 5 offers nothing of the sort, with only the Garmin Forerunner 645 Music offering any kind of music capabilities.

Both are fleshed out devices, but in different ways. If you're more likely to only strap on your smartwatch when taking part in a range of activities, the Fenix 5 could be the bet here. But for those who want more than just a tracking monster on their wrist, the Apple Watch is a more versatile smartwatch in the features department.

Apple Watch Series 3 v Garmin Fenix 5: Battery life

Apple Watch Series 3 v Garmin Fenix 5: Smartwatch royalty goes head to head

Usually when we compare smartwatches, there isn't much difference when it comes to battery life. That isn't the case with this pair.

As we've alluded to throughout this comparison, the Apple Watch is a more rounded experience aimed at the everyday user. But covering so many different bases comes at a price, and it's the battery life that suffers. In our experience, you're set to receive around two days max from the Apple Watch, though naturally this varies depending on a multitude of factors. For example, the LTE edition will gobble up juice much faster when using that data connection.

Read: The top sports watches for endurance events

Not sound like enough? Well, Garmin claims that you can get around two weeks of life from the Fenix 5, and we'd say that's about on the money. Interestingly, during continuous GPS tracking, you can also keep things going for around 14 hours, and even longer if you use Garmin's more power efficient UltraTrac mode and tweak a few additional settings. That means it's an ideal option for ultra-marathoners.

Apple Watch Series 3 v Garmin Fenix 5: Price

As the Apple Watch comes with a variety of different options, the price can quite literally double depending on which strap and casing you opt for. But if you're just looking for the entry-level Series 3, you'll be shelling out $329, with an additional $70 if you want the LTE model.

Getting in on the ground floor of the Fenix 5, though, will cost $549.99, with the sapphire edition being tagged at $799.99. Yeesh.


Apple Watch Series 3 v Garmin Fenix 5: Verdict

Whichever smartwatch you decide to side with here, you're getting one of the best packages in the space. But the one takeaway from this comparison is that the pair's strengths sit in very different areas.

If you're looking for the best overall smartwatch to buy right now – one that does a bit of everything to a high standard – it's hard to argue against the Apple Watch Series 3. But while it's more of a jack of all trades than the Fenix 5, Garmin's entry is tough to beat in the multi-sport arena.

Those serious about their tracking who don't mind paying top dollar will want to explore the entire Fenix 5 range in order to find the best fit for their wrist, but the everyday user will more than likely be better suited to Apple's latest smartwatch.


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