Q:

What GPS Watch Should I Buy?

I've been looking into the new Garmin Fenix. Is it any good?

We deployed some "gear kids" to determine the usability of the Garmin Fenix.     Photo: Bob Parks

A:To try out one of the most sophisticated mountaineering GPS watches to date—the $399 Garmin Fenix, which hit stores this week—we mapped a hiking route that would serve as a guide for our testers. We made the route a little tortuous, with over a mile of twisty logging roads and trails disappearing into overgrown grass. Then we had our young assistants—call them the Gear Kids—try to reach the destination. Our testers aren’t very tech savvy, so they needed help understanding how to get around the Fenix screens, but once they understood the buttons, they had no trouble following the maps to the spot. The Fenix is actually pretty easy to figure out.

I was at first skeptical about the utility of maps on a 3/4x3/4-inch screen, but I’ve been convinced. Even the shrunken images on the 70x70-pixel screen make a big difference when using a watch as a navigation tool. Previous GPS wristwatches, like Garmin’s Forerunner series, use a directional arrow to show you which way to turn along a “trackback” to a trailhead. But a simple arrowhead doesn’t give you the big idea. The maps on the Fenix showed our testers how the route dog-legs sharply to the left then goes relatively straight for a mile and then takes a sharp switch back. By glancing at the screen, it became easier to use the arrows.

The term “map” may be a little deceptive. Neither Garmin nor Suunto is able to provide professional maps inside these watches. The Garmin device we tried had only the U.S. state borders and major cities labeled (Boston, New York). The only maps you get are ones you create yourself from previous hikes or ones you download from Garmin’s new outdoor adventure community, Garmin Adventures. But it seems likely that the site will soon be populated with common hikes and climbing routes around the country. Out of the gate, Garmin’s site has routes in Zion National Park, Kauai, and the Grand Canyon. And, for what it's worth, our 1.5-mile test route in Vermont, of course. This way, anyone in the New England area can download this route to their watch and walk the not-so-treacherous path to the wreckage of an old plane crash.

After the jump, we’ll go into some of the other features on the Fenix (pronounced like the bird) and how they performed for us.

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