Nick Elson climbing in Garmin Fenix 5X Plus watch

Test run: Overview of the Garmin Fenix 5X Plus Sapphire

When we learned the Garmin Fenix 5X Plus watch was first popping up in Canada at MEC, we wanted to get in on the wrist of someone who knows serious watches and logs serious kilometres outside ASAP. Enter: MEC Ambassador Nick Elson. We sent him out with freshly unpacked Garmin Fenix 5X to try it on some outdoor test runs.

The Fenix 5X Plus Sapphire is Garmin’s latest top-of-the-line sport and outdoor oriented GPS watch (and retails for $1100). I’ve used four previous iterations of the Fenix series, so I was excited to test the 5X Plus and see how it compared. In this short overview, I’ve tried to focus on the watch’s distinguishing or new characteristics instead of covering every nuance or feature in detail.

First up: the basics

Nick Elson looking up at a rocky summit

Photographer: Eric Carter

As you’d expect, the Fenix 5X Plus allows you to record your outdoor activities. You can do this by using either the pre-programmed sport modes or by customizing your own modes so that you see exactly the data that you want during your activity. The watch includes a new GPS chipset and support for Galileo, which Garmin says will result in improved accuracy. I was generally happy with the tracks that I recorded; when I was in the forest next to cliffs I had some typical GPS glitches since there wasn’t a clear view of the sky and satellites.

Like many of Garmin’s watches, it includes activity tracking that will count your steps as well as things such as sleep and resting heart rate (through the optical heart rate monitor). It’ll also connect with your phone to give you notifications via Bluetooth, which allows you to surreptitiously glance down at your watch to see who liked your Facebook post when you should probably be paying attention to something else.

Finally, the watch has an impressive 32 hours of battery life while recording in 1-second GPS mode. If – heaven forbid – you’re planning to be moving for longer than that, then you can sacrifice some GPS accuracy and get up to 85 hours in UltraTrack mode.

Maps and navigation

Close-up of map on Garmin Fenix 5X Plus

The Fenix 5 Plus series include full-colour maps. I think these maps and the navigation features that they enable are really the primary reason to buy one of these watches.

Not surprisingly, using the maps is a little different on a watch than on a full-sized GPS unit or a smartphone. However, once you get accustomed to toggling in and out and up and down using the watch’s buttons, they function much as you would expect from a larger device. Overall, the included maps work well and I found I could quickly glance down at the watch to orient myself to the terrain or to check which way to go if I came to a fork in an unfamiliar trail.

Because the maps contain roads and trails, the watch can actually create routes for you to follow. You put in the distance and direction that you want to go or choose a destination and, using data from other Garmin users, the watch will provide suggested courses that you can then select and follow. When I experimented with this around Squamish, BC, it tended to point me toward roads for route options (instead of trails). Knowing that, this feature could come in handy if you find yourself in an unfamiliar place; if you’re hunting for a specific route along certain trails, though, nothing beats your own route research before you head out the door.

If you’re following a course on the watch, the ClimbPro feature kicks in on the uphills to tell you stats specific to the climb that you’re on – things like how big it is and how far you are from the top. This info could be nice to know, especially during a race.

Photographer: Eric Carter

Music

The Fenix 5X Plus has the ability to play music via Bluetooth. With a full set of maps installed, I found that I had about 9GB of space on the watch, which was plenty of room to store many hours worth of podcasts or bad pop music.

I was initially somewhat skeptical about this feature. I don’t listen to music that often and when I do, my phone seems to work perfectly fine. However, I did come to appreciate it on days where I felt like listening to music on a short run without having to worry about carrying my phone. To load audio files onto the watch, you need to plug it into your computer, so that process takes some time.

Close-up of music feature on Garmin Fenix 5X Plus

PulseOx

One of the distinguishing features of the 5X Plus is the addition of a PulseOx function that uses a small red light to measure your blood oxygen saturation (SO2). This reading provides a piece of data not available from any other watch. But what I wanted to know is: is it useful data?

I’ve done previous expeditions at higher altitudes, and I didn’t know anything about my SO2 on those trips. To learn more about SO2, I reached out to my friend Eric, who’s currently a PhD candidate studying the effects of altitude on athletic performance. He confirmed that while SO2 does change as you go to higher altitudes, it’s also important to know that it’s highly individual and is far from a simple measure of whether or not you’re acclimatized – and listening to your body is an accurate indication of how well you’re adjusting.

For those planning to go on high-altitude expeditions, measuring your SO2 will give you some numbers to compare with how you’re feeling (and also give you an interesting diversion if you remain stuck in your tent for days on end).

Other features

Other notable features on the Fenix 5X Plus include the ability to display live Strava segments, measure heart rate variability, and software that will predict your race times and VO2 Max. It will also connect to third-party sensors including cycling power meters and the new Garmin Inreach Mini.

The Fenix 5X Plus watch also has Garmin Pay, which allows for contactless payments through the same technology that you would use to tap your credit card. (At the time of writing, there are no Canadian banks signed on to apply this technology here yet.)

Other things to know

Nick Elson wearing Garmin Fenix 5X Plus and climbing rocky slope

Photographer: Eric Carter

The Fenix 5X Plus is quite likely the most technologically advanced sport-oriented GPS watch currently on the market – it’s essentially an elegant and rugged wrist-based computer. Although I found the interface to be quite intuitive, it is a complex tool and there are lots of innovative features and functions that take a bit of time to figure out.

Like a lot of high-tech watches out there, the Fenix 5X Plus is a big, solid watch and may feel on the large side for some people. If you’re looking for a smaller package, its close cousin – the Fenix 5S Plus – has many of the same features, minus PulseOx and with a slightly shorter battery life. The Garmin 645 Music is another lighterweight option that I use for my day-to-day running.

Who will love this watch?

With all this in mind, I’d recommend this watch to anyone who enjoys experimenting with the latest technology. It’s a lot of watch – if you’re someone who wants to take advantage of all the advanced features, and is a serious outdoor user looking for the latest and greatest in GPS watches, the Fenix 5X Plus is an excellent choice.

On the other hand, if you’re someone who just wants to pull a watch out of its box, press a single button and don’t want to dig into details, there are lots of other watch options with a set of simple features – the nice thing about watches and activity trackers is that you can choose how deep into data and tech you want to be.

Nick Elson 1x1 Bio
Nick Elson

Inspired by adventures that blur the lines between different mountain disciplines and require a combo of physical fitness, technical skill and mental toughness.