The Garmin Fenix 5S isn’t the sports watch for everyone, given how expensive it is and how granular its activity-tracking features are. But for people looking for a specific kind of smartwatch — one that’s more focused on fitness than literally any other feature — it’s the best one out this year.
The Garmin Fenix 5S is as notable for what it isn’t as for what it is. It’s not a massive, overbearing, tactical-looking thing like the Fenix watches of Garmin’s past. With the Fenix 5 series (there are three models in this series; I wore the 5S), Garmin managed to shrink them significantly from the previous line, the Fenix 3. And the 5S is the smallest of the new series, designed specifically for people with smallish wrists, like me.
Occasionally, people still asked me, “What’s that watch on your wrist?” while I was wearing it. It does still have some bulk, and lacks the clean, now-familiar lines of the Apple Watch. But it’s packed with enough sensors to track every activity you could possibly imagine, and still didn’t feel like I had special ops gear attached to my wrist.
The larger point that the Garmin watch underscores, though, is that wearables right now are all about choosing a feature and making a decision around that, since connected watches a) all make some sort of sacrifice in a key area, and b) aren’t as ubiquitous, nor nearly as useful, as the smartphones we carry with us everywhere. The features of phones are all bleeding into one another. The same can’t be said for wrist wearables.
Do you want a pretty touchscreen on your wrist, or do you want week-long battery life? Do you want something that’s tightly integrated with one platform, or something that works with both iOS and Android phones? Do you want third-party apps, or do you want something that does basic notifications? Do you count steps, or do you work out?
With the Garmin Fenix 5S, it’s a case of the latter options. It doesn’t have a rich-looking touchscreen display; it has the same, dull-ish, transflective LCD display you see on a lot of sport watches. But that translates to visibility in direct sunlight — and also lasts a week on a single charge. It runs some third-party apps, but it mostly just shows quick notifications from the apps running on your smartphone (and I honestly never felt the need to run Uber from the Fenix 5S, in the months that I wore it).
The Fenix 5S does all of the basic stuff you’d want from a fitness tracker, like counting steps, monitoring heart rate, and tracking sleep. But thanks to a variety of sensors, including GPS, Glonass, an altimeter, a barometer, a compass, and more, it has capabilities well beyond your standard Fitbit. Being able to track elevation directly from your wrist is key for outdoors enthusiasts, and it’s the same with being able to preload maps.
Will you inevitably only use it for a fraction of these, even if you are a fitness fanatic? Yes. But it’s nice to have the options. And you can manually add any other sport you’d like to your list of activities to track.
It’s not a perfect watch. It lacks the soft edges of the Apple Watch, the flatness of the Fitbit Blaze watch, and the is-it-a-smartwatch-or-is-it-a-normal-watch look of some Android Wear models. An early version of the Fenix 5S completely froze up while I was out snowshoeing, forcing a hard reset. And the physical buttons on the sides means it’s not suitable for all sports: when I wore the Fenix 5S surfing, I inadvertently kept stopping and starting activities when I was flexing my wrists on the board.
And, while smartphone notifications come through reliably on the watch, there’s not much you can do with them beyond see them. The Fenix 5S has no touchscreen, no microphone, and no other kind of tactile option for sending quick replies or responses from the watch. That’s one of the things that I missed over time.
Finally, the Fenix 5S’s price — $600 — is wince-inducing. That’s more than pretty much any other fitness-focused watch you’re going to find out there. If someone were to forgo all of the bells and whistles of the Fenix 5 series and buy a Fitbit or Apple Watch instead, I couldn’t blame them. In fact, I’d even say that Apple Watch is also an excellent choice for a fitness-tracking smartwatch (provided you’re on iOS).
But Editor’s Choice isn’t necessarily about the best bargain; it’s about things that manage to work their way into your life without having to change your life in order to get used to the things. It’s the product you don’t want to power down, give back, or take off, because it served its purpose so darn well while you were using it. When I first reviewed the back in March, I called it the fitness watch “I don’t want to take off.” Sometimes, when we review things, statements like that don’t always hold up. In this case, it did.
Vox Media has affiliate partnerships. These do not influence editorial content, though Vox Media may earn commissions for products purchased via affiliate links. For more information, see our ethics policy.