Garmin Fenix 5 Plus Fitness Tracker Review

A feature-filled GPS smartwatch that’s built for exploring the great outdoors

(Image: © Unknown)

Our Verdict

Things We Liked The colour maps are clear, and it’s easy to follow directions while running and even create new routes right on your wrist. It’s nothing new with Garmin’s top-end devices, but the Fenix 5 Plus is a brilliant sports tracker, with the ability to track an impressive range of metrics for many different activities. The whole range is built from premium materials and the stylish design helps to makes them great everyday watches. You can store music and podcasts on the watch, and Garmin have linked with Spotify (and Deezer) so you can wirelessly sync your playlists across to the Fenix 5 Plus if you have a Spotify premium account. The range is compatible with Garmin’s TrueUp feature, which means that during set-up it takes all data from past Garmin devices synced to Garmin Connect and pops it on to your new watch so your training status and old activities are available. Things We Didn’t Like The battery life seems to drain faster than on the Garmin Forerunner 935 and past Fenix watches, with a charge required every four to five days even if you’re not playing music on the watch. The Fenix 5 Plus and 5S Plus don’t have the Pulse Ox Acclimation sensor to measure oxygen saturation of your blood at altitude, which is only available on the larger 5X Plus. The list of banks supported by Garmin Pay remains very small, with Santander being the only major high street bank at present. It’s hella expensive (although it does justify its cost).

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Garmin Fenix 5 Plus In-Depth

Using The Garmin Fenix 5 For Running

The Fenix 5 Plus flaunts its exploration credentials by listing Trail Run as the first running option when setting up your sports modes, and it is fair to say that all the running features that set it apart from Garmin’s other trackers revolve around leaving the asphalt behind.

Chief among those are the colour maps that are preloaded on the device. These are a default screen in the running mode so you can scroll down and see your location and the paths around you anywhere. It’s fun (if admittedly fairly pointless) to do this in city parks, which is where I do most of my running, but when you do step even slightly out of your comfort zone the maps become invaluable. I followed a 25km trail route around Epping Forest on the watch without a hitch, and during an adventure race in the Scottish Highlands it was handy to bring up the map from time to time just to judge that I was indeed on a path, because it was often difficult to tell which patch of sodden grass was supposed to be the path.

You can also create round-trip routes to follow on the Fenix 5 Plus. Just put in the distance you want to cover and the general direction you want to head in and the device refers to paths and trails popular with other Garmin users to create a course that avoids busy roads. This is a feature that shines when you’re away from your usual haunts, but even around my house it was fun to try new routes.


(Image credit: Unknown)

ClimbPro is another new feature that will especially benefit trail runners and hikers who head for the mountains. This feature shows the profile of each climb you tackle during an activity, so you can see how much ascent you have left to conquer. It comes into its own when on a switchback trail where you can’t easily tell how far there is to go. This feature will give you a better chance of pacing your effort to complete the climb without having to stop.

The desirability of these map and routing capabilities is probably the best way to tell if the Fenix 5 Plus is the best Garmin option for you. Most city runners probably won’t get much from them, making the cheaper Forerunner 935 or 645 trackers more suitable options, because they have similar capabilities when it comes to run tracking. Let’s not undersell those capabilities, however, because the Fenix 5 Plus offers a remarkably in-depth range of data on your runs. You can set up a multitude of data screens and customise them to show every detail you could wish for, including analysis of your running form if you have a compatible sensor. One highlight of the data available is Garmin’s virtual race pacer mode, which will help you stay on track to hit your target time during races, marking where you are in comparison to your target and providing a predicted finish time.

You can also follow customised workouts on the Fenix 5 Plus. Basic intervals sessions can be set up on the watch itself, while more complicated sessions involving different distance and individual targets for specific intervals (such as a goal pace or heart rate) can be created on the Garmin Connect app or website and synced across to the watch. This feature is particularly useful for runners following training plans with regular workouts, because it takes all the thinking out of the session – just follow what it says on the watch… if you can.

The Fenix 5 Plus also provides feedback on your training status that’s updated after each session. This gives an indication of your overall training load and whether you are training in a productive manner or not. This section of the watch also provides predicted race times for 5K, 10K, half marathon and marathon, although in my experience these are very optimistic.

Garmin’s new TrueUp feature means that this info, along with past activities, is synced across Garmin devices. This meant when I set up the Fenix 5 Plus it was all there already and I could hit the ground running (ahem), whereas in the past you’d need a week or so of tracking for the device to begin displaying your training status.

Having music, podcasts and audiobooks on the Fenix 5 Plus is also useful for runners, as is the ability to pay for items like a drink or energy bar while on the move using the watch. Both those features do have their limitations, however, which I’ll come to in the smartwatch section later.

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Using The Garmin Fenix 5 Plus For Cycling

As with running, you can set up as many data screens as you could wish for to show all the stats on your ride. The Fenix 5 Plus also connects to ANT+ and Bluetooth sensors and supports cycling power meters, unlike the Forerunner 645. Support for several sensors is always useful for cyclists, because wrist heart rate tracking tends to be less accurate when holding handlebars, and a wrist sensor can’t provide the data on your cycling cadence and power.

If you’re chasing a Strava KOM you can also follow segments live on the Fenix 5 Plus while riding, so you’ll know if top spot is within range and if it’s worth making a huge effort to finish the segment strong.

Using The Garmin Fenix 5 Plus For Swimming

The Fenix 5 Plus is a full triathlon watch and has modes for pool and open-water swimming, along with a multisport mode for when you’re planning on undertaking different activities back-to-back. As on Garmin’s other watches, the heart rate monitor is disabled during swimming and you have to link to a waterproof chest-strap sensor instead. Optical heart rate monitors do struggle in the water, but many other companies’ trackers do make a stab at recording your heart rate while swimming.

Another small limitation of the Fenix 5 Plus is that the minimum pool size is 17m, which is pretty short, but not as short as many pools you’ll find in gyms. Once you’ve set the pool length you can use the buttons to scroll through your data screens while swimming, and you can also follow workouts on the watch while in the water.

In open-water mode you’ll get a GPS track of your swim, which like all outdoor activities on the Fenix 5 Plus can use Galileo or GLONASS satellites along with GPS.

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Using The Garmin Fenix 5 Plus To Track Activity

The Fenix 5 Plus is designed to be worn as your everyday watch as well as for sports, so the chances are you’ll be keeping an eye on your daily activity with it. All the standard activity stats are available – steps, active minutes, calories burned, floors climbed – and you can set the watch face to show them in three little chronograph-style circles. You can pick your targets for each of them and the steps target can also be set to adjust itself automatically in line with how active you are.

More advanced everyday tracking comes in the form of 24/7 heart rate tracking and a graph showing your resting heart rate over recent days, and stress tracking using a heart rate variability measurement. Each day you’ll get a chart showing your average stress level plus how time you spend in low, medium, high or resting stress zones.

It’s all well done and easily available on the Fenix 5 Plus itself, as well as being engagingly presented in the Garmin Connect app. If you’re going to buy a GPS watch of this calibre you’re probably not hugely concerned about your step count, but it’s there if you want it.

Using The Garmin Fenix 5 Plus As A Smartwatch

Aside from the extra mapping capabilities in the Fenix 5 Plus range, the new smartwatch features are what set it apart from the previous generation. There is space for up to 500 songs and you can also link the watch with a Spotify or Deezer premium account and sync playlists across.

The link with Spotify is especially significant, because it’s something that Fitbit and Apple haven’t been able or willing to set up with their smartwatches. Samsung’s wearables are compatible with Spotify, but they are not close to being as good for sports tracking as the Fenix 5 Plus.

To get Spotify on the Fenix 5 Plus you first install the Spotify Connect IQ app on the watch, then sign into your account through the Garmin Connect app, like you would to link it with Strava. You can then sync your existing playlists to the Fenix 5 Plus, providing the watch is connected to WiFi and you have a Spotify Premium account. It’s easy and reasonably quick – a 50-track playlist will sync across in around five minutes or so. There’s also the option to “Update Downloads” in the Spotify app on the watch. Click that when you’re on WiFi and it will update your playlists to take into account any changes you’ve made to them on Spotify.

Music does hit battery life hard and you only get eight hours of GPS plus music playback compared with 18 using just GPS. That’s still enough to get you through most activities though, even a 100-mile cycle or marathon, though maybe take a separate MP3 player if you’re into ultramarathons.

Garmin Pay is also available on the watch and this is great news if you bank with Santander. If you use any other major bank you’ll have to keep carrying a wallet, though some smaller banks like Starling Bank are also on Garmin Pay. The Fenix 5 Plus is not a full smartwatch like the Apple Watch or an Android Wear device, with well-populated app stores to back them up, so you can somewhat forgive its deficiencies in this area. That said, it is a £600 watch and Garmin Pay has been around for almost a year, so it would be nice for contactless payments to be available to more than just Santander customers.

Using The Garmin Fenix 5 Plus As A Heart Rate Monitor

The Fenix 5 Plus tracks your heart rate 24/7 and uses that data to provide an estimate of your resting heart rate, which is a good measure of your cardiovascular fitness. During exercise you can see what heart rate zone you are in using the gauge data screen, which makes it easy to ensure you’re working at the right effort level. You can also set up workouts where different intervals have a set heart rate target to hit. A useful option for HIIT and fartlek fans.

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Using The Garmin Fenix 5 Plus For Sleep Tracking

Despite its chunky frame it wasn’t annoying to sleep with it on and I didn’t get sweaty under the strap. In the past I wouldn’t have been too fussed about whether I could wear it or not, but Garmin’s devices are much more useful at night since the addition of advanced sleep tracking in mid-2018.

The Fenix 5 Plus now uses extra data like your heart rate variability to add stats on the time spent in REM sleep each night. The full breakdown of your sleep now lists the time spent in light, deep and REM sleep, along with any time awake, and plots it in a pie chart and a graph showing the different stages of your night’s rest. You also get a graph of your movement throughout the night, a really useful feature that can really bring home how something like alcohol can make you more restless.

One problem I’ve had with other Garmin trackers remains, though: I found the Fenix would often overestimate how long my sleep was, adding an hour or two when I was reading or watching TV before falling asleep. It’s easy to spot when you actually fell asleep on the graphs provided, but this does skew your overall “time asleep” stats when you just glance at them.

I also noticed that on a couple of occasions when I’d woken up in the wee hours and gone back to sleep 30 to 60 minutes later, this had been completely missed by the Fenix 5 Plus, which logged that time as light sleep.

It’s a pretty solid offering, though lacking the advice and extra info you can get on Fitbit trackers, which compare your sleep with other people’s and provide tips on how you might sleep better. What I’d really like is for Garmin to start feeding sleep data into the recovery and training status features the devices have, so you might be told to rest for a couple more hours or only run at an easy pace if you haven’t been getting enough good-quality sleep. I might well ignore the advice anyway, but it would provide a more holistic take on your training status than just factoring in the effect of past exercise.

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How Often Am I Going To Have To Charge It?

This was slightly disappointing, especially since I’m used to the Garmin Forerunner 935, which offers up to 24 hours of GPS tracking or two weeks of life in watch mode. On paper the Fenix 5 Plus offers 18 hours of GPS and 12 days in watch mode, but I found it would need to be plugged in every four to five days when running most days and cycling once or twice during that period. Start listening to music during your activities and you’ll need two or three charges a week. It’s not a bad state of affairs, but it’s also not quite good enough that you can mostly forget about battery life, especially if you have a big activity lined up and do want to listen to music with it.

The Garmin Connect App

Garmin’s partner app does a tremendous job of distilling all the information recorded by the Fenix 5 Plus and showing it to you in an accessible and useful way. The homepage details all the activity you’ve undertaken that day in a series of colourful tiles that can be clicked on for more information. Dig even deeper into the app and you’ll be able to see long-term trends for stats like your VO2 max or resting heart rate.

You can also create complicated workouts easily on the app, including repeats and steps with intensity targets based on different factors like pace or heart rate, and sync them over to the watch wirelessly. Syncing with the Fenix 5 Plus was very fast 99% of the time, though every now and again I’d have to turn off my phone and the watch to get them to talk to one another.

Where Can I Wear It Without People Laughing At Me?

This is a terrific-looking watch and assuming you don’t opt for a bright orange wristband it can be worn anywhere. You can replace the straps on the Fenix 5 Plus for different-coloured silicone or metal bands, so you have something fit for all occasions. The only thing I would say about the design is that the Fenix 5 Plus is a chunky watch, so if you’d rather something more svelte then the 5S Plus might be more up your street, while those who want the biggest watch possible should check out the 5X Plus.

Should I Consider Buying Something Else?

The Fenix 5 Plus is an excellent GPS tracker that boasts a horde of impressive features, but it’s certainly not cheap and it’s worth asking yourself if you really need those features. Trail runners and mountain hikers will certainly benefit most from its mapping credentials, though those who are constantly in high places might consider the Fenix 5X Plus a worthwhile upgrade because it has a PulseOx sensor which will monitor how your blood oxygen levels are affected by higher altitudes. The 5S Plus might also be more attractive to many people because it has the same size screen and mapping capabilities as the 5 Plus in a smaller frame, though it has a shorter battery life as a result.

There aren’t many premium trackers like the Fenix 5 Plus around and outside of the rest of Garmin’s own range the main competition comes from the Suunto 9, which has similar tracking and mapping capabilities and 25 hours of GPS battery life. The Suunto 9 also costs £100 less than the 5 Plus at £499. However, it doesn’t offer space for music or NFC payments, and in general I’d say Garmin’s software is more impressive than Suunto’s.

If you decide you don’t need quite so many navigation features and that music isn’t a big deal to you, the Garmin Forerunner 935 is an excellent triathlon and running watch that is considerably cheaper than the Fenix 5 Plus at £439.99. If it’s the music and smart features you’re really after, the Forerunner 645 Music has them for £399, though it does not currently link to Spotify.

Nick Harris-Fry
Senior writer

Nick Harris-Fry is a journalist who has been covering health and fitness since 2015. Nick is an avid runner, covering 70-110km a week, which gives him ample opportunity to test a wide range of running shoes and running gear. He is also the chief tester for fitness trackers and running watches, treadmills and exercise bikes, and workout headphones.