About two months ago I started to dread my upcoming birthday, and if I am being honest, feel a little depressed about it. It was going to be one of those big decade birthdays, my wife was excited, my kids were excited, and me? I was dreading it. 50… How did I get here? It seems like yesterday when I was turning 21?
Well normally my wife and I don’t really go all out on our birthdays, but this particular one she wanted to do something special for me (I really don’t deserve this woman). My aging Garmin Forerunner watch was starting to act up, so I thought a replacement might be a good idea.
But what to buy, and how much to spend?
When it comes to gear these two little questions can send me down a rabbit hole that can last weeks and cause me countless hours of internal debate. As I’ve gotten older this review process has gradually gotten longer and longer. In my youth money felt like it was burning a hole in my pocket, and I did a lot of impulse buys. Now I find myself enjoying turning the question of what to buy over in my head, reviewing it from every angle and then just letting it stew until I come to a decision.
But this time I found myself stuck. Gridlocked on what to buy with a birthday quickly approaching and I was starting to sweat a little bit.
The question came down to whether I should buy an Apple Watch 5 or a Garmin Fenix 6/6X. Two dramatically different sport/fitness/smart watches with a litany of shared and unique features between the two. Complicating the matter was a coupon code I had for Garmin from my health care provider that would lower its price I believe somewhere around twenty percent.
So I did what anyone would do, I turned to the internet to devour every scrap of information about the products, opinions, posts, etc. hoping that through this distillation process I would emerge with a clear and decisive answer on what to purchase.
I try to stay away from relying purely on Amazon reviews because while there are a lot of gems in there, there are also a lot of questionable reviews that make we question their validity. So I decided to jump into the support forums and reddit to see what people had to say, and this was where things got surprisingly ugly.
Garmin Fenix 6/6X
The Garmin Fenix 6/6X appears to be an outdoor enthusiasts wet dream. Its huge, round, has an insane battery life, built in maps for the entire US, supports a billion different activities, and on the Garmin website looks sexy as hell.
This was it, the watch for me. But the price! Holy Hell was this an expensive watch. Did I really need it? Above 5 months ago I started taking my health seriously in an effort to lose weight and get my blood sugar under control. Exercise, primarily walking and hiking became a more active part of my life, and at that time I set a personal goal that when I reached my goal weight, I would go on a solo backpacking trip to the Isle Royale in Michigan.
I had visions in my head of going on a week long backpacking trip to Isle Royale with this watch and it laughing in the face of whatever the Isle could throw at it. The Garmin marketing for this watch was perfect, it made me feel like the weathered adventurers they depict. But I felt I was getting ahead of myself, I needed to do more research.
My first stop was the Garmin user forums. I expected to see many people gushing about this watch and how it had changed their lives. Instead what I found was chaos. A battle really, between a core group of very pissed off people and another group of die-hard defenders of Garmin. This was the embodiment of brand loyalty vs. disenchanted users and it went on for weeks, is still going on.
What was the big deal?
I can summarize the issues that the Fenix 6/6X was facing in four bullet points:
- Blue/Pink Back-light Issues
- Button Hardware Issues
- Sapphire Issues
- A Multitude of Software Issues
Blue/Pink Back-light Issues
This issues for me was one of the most troubling. Garmin marketing was making a big deal about their Fenix display readability both during the day and at night. But reports coming in from users was that the display back-lights were anywhere from minor blue/pink to drastically so, with major contrast issues. Here are two images from the “Two Sapphire Fenix 6 Pro’s, backlight / contrast issues” forum post.
This was really concerning for me. On one hand I could understand if all the watches had this faded display. As a Forerunner owner the backlight and trans-reflective screen isn’t great, and absolutely has a blue hue to it. But the forerunner cost a fraction of the Fenix, and their marketing material didn’t tell a dramatically different story.
And here were examples of people who did get a good display without this issue by somehow ordering multiple units until they received one with a good display. Speculation in the forum was running rampant, the most likely cause that many people believed was that Garmin had outsourced the displays to multiple suppliers and at least one had very poor quality control.
As a potential buyer who rarely buys extravagant gifts for myself, the potential to receive a bad unit scared the shit out of me. I found myself almost wishing I had never ever seen/gone to the forums. Ignorance to this issue might have been bliss. But things continued to get worse.
Button Hardware Issue
A lesser reported hardware issues, but still prominent was a number of reports of “mushy” buttons. Buttons that required extra clicks or repeated clicks to activate, buttons that felt mushy whatever that meant, and in one case, a unit where a button fell out. What the ** was going on? This was a high adventure watch right?
At least one person had an issue with the coating on their sapphire crystal version coming off and looking like hell. Others complained about poor visibility issues. I think around this point I was pulling my hair out between posts about how essential having the protective crystal was and how much worse it looked over the non-sapphire version.
Last but not least were the large number of software and firmware bugs that people were encountering. Now I get it, its a new product and bound to have issues to be fixed, but people were raging over these issues, and when Garmin did come out with an update, let me just say that the inclusion of “Emojis” and lack of some bug fixes people were waiting on was not well received by the community.
And during all of this the community continued to war against each other. It honestly was somewhat interesting to see how Garmin loyalists would attempt to justify the situations that people were encountering.
For myself, the entire situation was causing myself agony because through it all, I was still considering buying this watch. I found myself trying to justify these issues in my head, trying to convince myself that they weren’t issues. A younger me would have probably never made it to the forum and had just bought the watch on impulse. The older me expanded the ring out and hit Reddit /r/garminfenix sub-reddit only to find similar issues.
So I started to give the alternative some consideration…
Enter the Apple Watch
We have been an Apple family for decades, and for a brief period when the Apple Watch first came out, I owned one until I smacked it against a maple banister and destroyed it. So I wasn’t in any hurry to get another one. The interesting thing about the Apple Watch was that I knew it’s quality was beyond reproach. Apple is in large part consistent. The product I buy will be the same build quality of the product that you buy.
But the Apple Watch and the Fenix are two completely different beasts. The central theme there I found in the Garmin forums was this:
“The Apple Watch is for people who want a smartWatch first, and a fitness watch second. The Garmin Fenix is for people who want a fitness watch with some smartwatch features.”
Initially I bought this line of thinking, but as the issues I have described earlier became more and more concerning for me, I found myself turning this comment over in my head more and more.
A major argument made in the Garmin world to support this claim came down to battery life. Here there was no comparison. People were lucky to get 1-2 days of batter life out of the Apple Watch, the Fenix could easily go over a month. But did I need a watch that could go a month? What if I went backpacking with the Apple Watch? I’d likely be taking a portable battery to recharge my phone, how much extra would the Apple Watch drain it?
Compass / GPS / Maps
GPS comparisons were somewhat all over the place, the Fenix seemed to do better than the Apple Watch and in a number of reviews Apple track smoothing was pointed out. But in other apps (such as WorkOutdoors) the track smoothing wasn’t apparent speaking more to a decision Apple made for its native workout app to look smoother than to be an actual issue. I was happy to see that the Apple Watch 5 came with a hardware compass, this was a very interesting feature for me because the whole point of buying something was to not have to rely on my phone. I felt having a watch that could do mapping would benefit from having a compass like the Fenix did.
To be honest, both watches support more sports than I would ever possibly participate in. When all you are looking for is walking, running, hiking and maybe cycling the rest becomes inconsequential.
Having destroyed one Apple Watch before, this was a huge concern for me. I felt like with a Fenix I would have a tank that would last me forever. With the Apple Watch I had legitimate concerns that my dumb ass would turn it into a useless pile of slag. To get a model that I felt would have more durability I would have to go to the stainless steel model that featured a sapphire crystal, but with these features came cost. A lot more cost, essentially making the Apple Watch 5 equal in cost to the Fenix.
More Internal Debate & A Decision
So I spent a few more weeks before my birthday having internal debates about what to do. I suspect that many of you find yourself doing similar research and consideration when trying to decide on what to buy. In the end I decided to buy the stainless steel Apple Watch 5. I wanted to have the hardware compass and the added durability. The Fenix 6/6X issues continued to plague the forum and disenchant me. I just could not risk it. It was a real shame because I really wanted to buy this watch. I am a Garmin supporter, have had their products for decades, but this is case the problems pushed me away.
I think I made the right choice, and have been happy with the performance and features that the Apple Watch has. As it turns out the smartwatch features are something that I do enjoy, and the fitness tracking is enough for me. I do want to say that from all accounts on the Garmin forums their customer support/RMA process sounds exceptional and have a 30 day return policy.
Garmin has not made a public statement about the display backlight issue people are having concerns about, so its known if this is normal or abnormal. At this point its up to the buyer to decide, in my case I went another direction, others may not. In the end you have to make a decision that is right for you.