Garmin’s watch catalog is vast, with models that range from simple health and fitness trackers to high-end, full titanium tool watches specifically designed for particular sports or endeavors. If you’re after a specialist watch, there’s a good chance Garmin has one in its catalog, from aviation to diving to golf to everything in between. But for those in the market for an all-around GPS watch that can do a bit of everything — and do it extremely well — the Garmin fēnix line is just the ticket. Garmin sent us the Garmin fēnix 7 Pro – Sapphire Solar Edition for a summer of testing in the mountains of British Columbia to see how its top watch in the fēnix lineup stacks up.
One of the attributes of the fēnix 7 that makes it so attractive as a GPS watch is its versatility and the seemingly endless array of activities for which it’s designed. Unfortunately, that’s also what makes the fēnix 7 difficult to review, as the functionality of the watch depends so much on each wearer’s individual use case and what they’re looking to get out of the watch. So, let’s start with a bit of context before diving into the review. I typically mountain bike 2-3 times/week, trail run twice a week, and try to fit in at least some intervals and strength work. I’ll also grudgingly throw in the occasional lap swim or some road runs if I’m traveling. Typically, my runs are around an hour and rides are a couple hours. I’ll do the occasional 10k or half marathon trail running race or an enduro race on my mountain bike, but podiums are few and far between; I consider myself a solid mid-pack contender.
I bring all this in at the start because it directly influences what I’m looking for in a watch like the Garmin fēnix 7 and because it may differ from what you’re looking for. I want easy access to the basics: pace, time elapsed, distance, and elevation. I’m looking for intuitive navigation, and I want to be able to see the data fields clearly, something that’s becoming more important with each passing year (I don’t run with glasses). With that out of the way, let’s move on to the watch itself.
Garmin offers the fēnix 7 in 23 possible iterations, depending on whether you’re after the Standard, Solar, Sapphire Solar, Pro Solar, or Pro Sapphire Solar and whether you’re looking for the 42mm, 47mm, or 51mm size. And don’t forget color. Yes, there are a lot of options, but the website makes it easy to search for the combination that works best for you. The model we have in for review is the 47mm Pro Sapphire Solar. This is the top-of-the-line fēnix 7 model with all the bells and whistles, including solar charging, a titanium and fiber-reinforced polymer case, and sapphire crystal with touchscreen. While those are all great options to have, it’s all about the hardware and software in a watch like this. Luckily, this is something that Garmin knows all about given its extensive history with GPS navigation.
The case of the Garmin Fēnix 7 is constructed from a mix of titanium and polymer, which keeps the watch nice and light on the wrist (73 grams with strap), despite the larger dimensions typical for GPS watches. The aesthetics tend toward aggressive and technical, with exposed screws on the lugs and additional information on the bezel. Personally, I’d prefer a cleaner, simplified case and bezel; even with glasses on I’m hard-pressed to read the minuscule font on the bezel, and I don’t think it adds any functionality.
One of the trends with GPS watches over the past several years has been an arms race in battery technology, and we, the consumers, are definitely winning. Battery life is now superb, though it will depend on how you’re using the watch. Using the watch as a smartwatch will provide you up to 18 days, bumped up to 22 thanks to the added solar charging (note the solar band along the circumference of the dial). That number jumps to nearly half a year of power if you’re simply using the watch as, well, a watch. Of course, if you’re using all the satellite systems and music, the number’s going to drop down substantially. In my case, I found myself charging the watch every week or two, which I find perfectly reasonable given the number of hours I’m using the GPS functionality.
Moving onto hardware, for GPS, you get Garmin’s Satiq technology, which provides multi-band GPS without sapping battery life. Using the watch on my local trails, the tracking was precise and locked onto the satellite almost immediately. Even when traveling across Canada, the GPS connected without lag. Having worn plenty of GPS watches that can take a minute or two to connect when in a new location, this was a pleasant surprise. The elevation readings were accurate and consistent. Given that I’m not navigating the backcountry off-trail, I didn’t spend much time with the ABC (altimeter, barometer, compass) settings, but all are important features and I’m happy to have them as a backup.
In addition to the navigation hardware, you also get heart rate and VO2 max, so there’s no shortage of information on your wrist. While a wrist-based heart rate sensor is never going to be as accurate as a chest strap, it did a good job of minimizing odd spikes and erroneous readings. For runs or bike rides where your heart rate is relatively constant, it does a good job of helping you read your zone (I make sure to have the heart rate and zone rainbow at the top of my data field for most activities) and adjust effort accordingly.
With the Garmin fēnix 7, you get a host of smartwatch features through Bluetooth and WiFi, like email and phone notifications. You can also download apps for podcasts, Spotify, and other options like additional maps, watch faces, etc. I carry a phone while exercising, so Bluetooth notifications are sufficient, and I don’t need separate connectivity. If your adventures take you far from your phone and you still want to stay connected, you’ll be better off with a full-fledged smartwatch like an Apple Watch. Personally, that’s not what I’m after in a GPS watch, so the Bluetooth connectivity is more than enough, and I appreciate being able to glance down at my wrist quickly during a run to see whether I really need to stop and answer the phone or text or if it can wait until later.
Though equipped with a touchscreen, the fēnix 7 also has five buttons (three on the 9 o’clock side, two on the 3 o’clock side) that provide the same functionality, so you’re not obligated to use the touchscreen for navigation — an important consideration if it’s raining or you’re wearing gloves. Personally, I rarely used the touchscreen, as I found navigating with the buttons simpler and more intuitive. Overall, the fēnix 7 offers a high-quality and easy-to-understand user interface. The data fields for the apps themselves are fine as they come pre-loaded, but the key is the relatively easy customizability (but see below) to fit your own needs and what you want on each screen.
One thing I greatly appreciate about the 47mm Fēnix 7 is the large text for all data fields. I’m far-sighted and don’t exercise with glasses, so it’s important for me to be able to actually read the information on the watch. The fēnix 7 does a great job of that and it’s not just the size of the screen, it’s also how information is presented. Of course, that gets a bit trickier with the map screen, but the legibility is still as good as can be hoped for. The fēnix 7 comes pre-loaded with maps, and Garmin makes it easy to load additional maps from various sources for navigation — something the brand has plenty of experience with over years as a leader in the navigation industry.
I mentioned the five buttons on the fēnix 7, and my favorite of all is located at 10 o’clock. One push brightens up the display, but two quick pushes and the built-in LED flashlight comes on. I admit, when I read about the flashlight, I thought it was a little silly and unnecessary, but I will freely admit to being entirely wrong. It’s super convenient, easier than fishing out your phone to use the flashlight and was the perfect thing to have while camping and just needing a quick light to navigate around the campsite. It’s a small, but brilliant detail that I never knew I needed until I had it.
The other half of the equation with the fēnix 7 is the Garmin Connect app. Overall, the user experience with the app is excellent, with easy navigation, ample stats and training plans, and more information than most of us will ever need. While you can always customize the different settings via the watch itself, it’s much easier to change the fields, settings, and display options via the app.
One of the major frustrations with early GPS watches was their use of proprietary integrated straps. Given that these watches are often used in harsh situations, the straps were typically the first part to be destroyed, leading to either having to scrap the watch or search fruitlessly for a replacement. Luckily, we’ve come a long way since those days. The fēnix 7 comes mounted on a 22mm silicone strap that uses a quick-release system (QuickFit) that attaches to fixed lug bars. There are plenty of color options for switching up the silicone strap, and Garmin also offers titanium, leather, and fabric options if you want to change up the look. Personally, I’d be looking at getting the stretchy nylon hook and loop strap for running and biking, as it’s the lightest option with infinite adjustability. That said, the silicone strap is soft and comfortable and has close spacing for the buckle holes, which double as venting, allowing you to get the right fit without much trouble. Still, it would be nice if the lug bars were removable to allow for more aftermarket options.
With the fēnix 7 Pro – Sapphire Solar Edition, Garmin continues its tradition of making best-in-class GPS watches. Unless you have specific needs and are only planning on using the watch for one dedicated activity, it’s hard not to recommend the Garmin fēnix 7. It has excellent GPS capability, reliable heart rate and VO2 max, and ABC settings in case you’re heading far afield. The fēnix 7 provides functionality for an almost endless range of activities, has all the hardware and software the vast majority of us will ever need and has an intuitive interface with both the watch and the Garmin Connect app. The Garmin fēnix 7 Pro – Sapphire Solar Edition is priced at $899 USD, though the base model 7S Standard Edition starts at $649 USD. To learn more about the Garmin fēnix 7 lineup, please visit the brand’s website.
>Model: fēnix 7 Pro – Sapphire Solar Edition
>Price: $899 USD
>Size: 47mm width, 14.5mm height, 22mm lug width
>When reviewer would personally wear it: During any exercise or outdoor activity.
>Friend we’d recommend it to first: Someone looking for a GPS watch for a wide range of activities.
>Best characteristic of watch: Ideal watch for a do-everything GPS watch; plus, the flashlight is surprisingly useful.
>Worst characteristic of watch: Though the Garmin strap options are good, I’d prefer screwed lug bars rather than a fixed lug bar to accommodate more aftermarket strap options. I’d also like to see a cleaner bezel without text and a more streamlined form factor.