When it comes to multisport watches, Garmin rules the roost – but now in its third generation the Apple Watch Series 3 is proving itself a worthy competitor. But how does it compare to Garmin's leading light: the Fenix 5 Plus – or the older Garmin Fenix 5?
Which is the better smartwatch, and just 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
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 here.
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.
The Fenix 5 Plus (which inhabits the same body as the standard Fenix 5) is a behemoth at 47mm, but thankfully you can also explore the Garmin Fenix 5S if you're looking for a 42mm 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.
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: Sports features
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 exercises 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 Fenix 5 Plus goes even further, adding detailed TOPO maps, Garmin Pay and the ability to store music and play straight to a pair of Bluetooth headphones. TOPO maps offer way more detail than the feature-less, uploaded waypoints from the original Fenix 5.
Of course the Apple Watch already benefits from Apple Maps, which is great for the city – but not so good for the wilderness. Again, it highlights the key difference between these two devices and their use cases.
And that extends to the Apple Watch's sports tracking, 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.
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.
Things like 24/7 heart rate and VO2 Max data are chucked out to the Apple Health app on your iPhone, and it's an increasingly powerful companion for looking at health data. What's more, its sports credentials are boosted by third party apps – for example, while the Fenix 5 has a golf mode, Apple Watch golfers can take advantage of top apps such as Hole 19.
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 from Apple Music (and iTunes if you're old school), but now streaming from the Watch itself is possible if you have the LTE version. The Fenix 5 Plus offers offline music capabilities, but iHeartRadio is the only streaming service live right now that supports offline syncing.
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
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.
Not sound like enough? Well, Garmin claims that you can get around a month of life from the Fenix 5, and we'd say that's about on the money. Continuous GPS tracking will last around 24 hours, and if you use Garmin's more power efficient UltraTrac mode that will boost to over 60 hours. The new Fenix 5 Plus with its extra features suffers slightly, with 43 hours of UltraTrac and 18 hours of full tracking – which is still plenty.
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.
The Fenix 5 Plus will come in roughly four or five variations, depending on your region, with prices starting at $699.99. If you want one of the many smaller 5S Plus variations, you can shell out $699.99, while the 5X Plus behemoth will be available for $849.99. Eye-watering.
As you might expect, the arrival of the 5 Plus means you can now get some decent deals on the original Fenix 5. Eagle-eyed shoppers should be able to pay $549.99.
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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.
The Garmin comes into its own for performance users, though. Those who are really serious about their performance training in running and cycling – and want the full gamut of navigation and music features – shouldn't look further than the Garmin Fenix 5. If you're looking for proper VO2 max, recovery, GPX features and top-notch battery life, it's the best out there.
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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