- 4 months ago
Garmin’s Fenix 7S Sapphire Solar makes the case for smaller fitness watchesNews
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While While multisport smartwatches are the best option for training or outdoor activity, I often don’t enjoy using them. I’m a small person with tiny wrists, and rugged fitness watches tend to be bulky behemoths. They snag on jacket sleeves, irritate my skin, and distract me during workouts. I’ve woken up in the middle of the night to rip them off and had to re-do tests because bad fits led to inaccurate data. So I was genuinely surprised when these problems evaporated into thin air while testing the surprisingly wearable $899.99 Garmin Fenix 7S Sapphire Solar. If all smartwatches came in multiple sizes, perhaps people would have an easier time finding one they actually like.
Fit is an underrated factor when picking a smartwatch. It’s easy (and more fun) to get carried away poring over features, aesthetics, and performance. Garmin stands out as one of the few companies that offer oodles of options for each product line. Seriously, there are 16 watches in the Fenix 7 lineup. The 7S is the smallest at 42mm, while the 7 measures 47mm, and the 7X is a whopping 51mm. Not only does the Fenix 7 series come in three sizes, but you can also opt for standard, Solar, or Sapphire Solar versions with more premium materials. Style-wise, they all come in a wide range of colors to suit different aesthetics.
It was a challenge when Garmin asked which Fenix 7 Series watch I wanted to test, but this time around I wanted to try something different.
I picked the watch that would be most comfortable.
That might seem like a no-brainer, but it’s not always a choice I get to make. Most wearable makers prefer the one-size-fits-all approach. Also, companies occasionally exclude features on smaller models in favor of a sleeker design. If I wanted to test every new feature Garmin introduced for the Fenix 7 watches, I’d have to opt for the gargantuan 7X. It’s the only one that has the new built-in flashlight. I’ve already wrestled with that size before. With the last-gen Fenix watches, I tested the 51mm Fenix 6X Pro solely to try the new Solar charging. It wasn’t the best experience. So given that the 7S has every other feature — improved Solar charging, the new touchscreen, better GPS mapping, and real-time stamina — I wanted to see how prioritizing fit would play out.
After a month of testing, this was absolutely the right choice. The 7S’ smaller size made a huge difference in my day-to-day life. It didn’t catch on my sleeves or distract me during workouts. I could comfortably wear it all night and the design didn’t make my eyes bleed. For about a week, I tested it simultaneously with the larger 47mm Polar Grit X Pro and it wasn’t a contest. The 7S was far more pleasant to wear.
My review unit was the pricier Solar Sapphire edition. In theory, it should be more durable and lightweight thanks to the sapphire glass display and titanium case. In reality, it’s a mixed bag. The 7S Sapphire Solar is lightweight at 58 grams, but the stainless steel standard and solar versions are only 5g heavier. I’ve also got a few nicks and scratches on the case from all the times I dropped it or accidentally scraped it against hard surfaces. They’re minor, but it’s still not something I want to happen on a $900 rugged gadget.
While I was pleased at how comfortable the 7S was, I was also struck by how rare it is for a fitness watch this size to have this many features. It’s got built-in multi-band GPS, has continuous heart rate monitoring and SpO2 sensors, and just about every health and fitness tracking feature that doesn’t require FDA clearance. You also get safety features like Garmin’s Incident Detection, which works with a paired phone to call emergency contacts in case something happens to you. Topographic maps come preloaded.
Garmin’s also recently been bolstering its watches’ smart capabilities. The 7S supports Garmin Pay, alarms, timers, onboard music storage, support for music apps including Spotify, and better watch faces via the Garmin Connect IQ store. That said, expect some limitations. For instance, you won’t get LTE connectivity, a voice assistant, or the ability to take calls from the wrist. (This is even though Garmin has introduced these features on other smartwatches). Crucially, the Fenix 7S adds a touchscreen.
You can see how much brighter the Epix 2 (right) is in direct sunlight Photo by Victoria Song / The Verge and Photo by Thomas Ricker / The Verge
Touchscreens are divisive among fitness nerds. They’re more intuitive for looking at maps, tapping widgets, and scrolling through menus. (Plus, you don’t have to memorize what button does what!) But they don’t work reliably underwater, and are easily foiled by sweat or gloves. Don’t worry, Garmin opted for a hybrid approach as the 7S also has physical buttons. There are also neat flourishes, like button guards to prevent accidental presses. You can also easily disable the touchscreen during a workout from the settings menu.
However, having used the Venu 2 Plus and other OLED smartwatches, the Fenix 7S’ transflective display is hard on the eyes. It’s a sentiment shared by my colleague Thomas Ricker, who went into it in his Garmin Epix 2 review. The transflective display is fine when it’s bright and sunny, and even on overcast days. There’s also a backlight for running at night. It’s just too dim for indoor use, and let’s face it, many of us spend our working hours hunched over a desk in dubious lighting. It’s not that I hate the screen — OLED is just better.
Thomas makes a really strong case for the Epix’s OLED display in his review, to the point where I felt FOMO while waiting for my test unit of that model to arrive. That said, the Fenix 7S still has the edge when it comes to battery life. In the month I’ve had it, I’ve only had to charge it twice and I got close to two weeks on each charge. And, this is while amping up my training. We’re talking 3-5 hours of GPS runs per week, and a few hours of treadmill walks, yoga, and strength training.Touchscreens and buttons can coexist. You can see the button guard on the start/stop button. You can also see the solar charging bezel.
Battery life always depends on personal usage, but in this case, it also depends on how much sun you get. Garmin says the Fenix 7 lineup has 54 percent more solar surface area than the previous generation. If you squint at the display, you can see a thin strip around the edge, sort of like a bezel. (But one that actually does something.) It’s been an overcast month, and winter means less sunlight hours so I didn’t see much of an impact overall. However, I did notice that long runs didn’t zap as much battery. An hour long 10K on a shady afternoon only ate up 4 percent. It also let me get away with another 45-minute jog with 15 percent battery. Solar charging will probably be more impressive during the summer, but if you like longer hikes or are training for a marathon, I can see it coming in handy.
Speaking of lengthy races, I like many of Garmin’s training and recovery features but I love the real-time stamina tool introduced on the Fenix 7 and Epix 2 watches. When I’m doing my weekly long run, I turn into an antsy kid on a road trip. I’m glancing down at my wrist every two miles wondering, “How much longer? How much farther? Can I keep this pace up or should I conserve my energy?” The real-time stamina tool is so helpful in answering those questions. Once you’ve established a VO2 Max score within the Garmin Connect app, you’ll get readouts of your potential stamina and your actual stamina based on your current effort level.
I’m training for my first half marathon, and while I’ve got a lot of experience running 10Ks, I spent most of 2021 either injured or improving my 5K times. Pacing comes intuitively to some runners, but I’m not one of them. I always end up going too fast out the gate. I genuinely credit the new stamina tool for helping me not do that while rebuilding my mileage and endurance. It also was good for reviewing previous runs — I could easily see at what point I was getting tired, and where I could improve for future runs. I’ve improved so quickly and painlessly, I can hardly believe it.
Another thing I appreciated during training was how quickly the Fenix 7S can find a GPS signal. That might be because Garmin’s added the L5 frequency band to the Fenix 7 family. It already supported the major satellite systems, but L5 is one of three “modernized” GPS signals set aside for civilian use. The gist is you get better accuracy in difficult areas. I live near both water and tall buildings, and some smartwatches I test struggle to accurately record runs. (A few have put me running in the middle of a river...) Not the Fenix 7S. This baby never left me shivering in the cold, searching in vain for a patch of open sky.
For distance tracking, the Fenix 7S was consistent compared to the Runkeeper app and the Apple Watch Series 7. I ran three identical 4-mile runs recorded on Runkeeper. The Fenix 7S recorded 4.03, 4, and 4.02 miles. The Apple Watch logged 3.98, 3.99, and 4 miles. During spot checks with the Polar H10 chest strap and the Apple Watch Series 7, heart rate was always within 5 bpm. Consistency in a running watch? You love to see it.
While the fitness metrics were on point, I had a few hiccups with sleep tracking and blood oxygen. Sleep tracking was also broadly accurate, but it’s not as precise as what you’ll find on some dedicated sleep trackers. For instance, one night I binge read a book until 4AM. While the Fenix 7S incorrectly logged that time as light sleep, it rated my sleep quality poorly and suggested I take it easy the next day. Meanwhile, I routinely got abnormally low blood oxygen levels compared to other sleep trackers. I’m normally somewhere between 97 and 99 percent. The Fenix 7S has me somewhere between 91 and 93 percent. This is true for all Garmin watches I’ve tested though, so I’m inclined to believe it’s their particular algorithm.
Along a similar vein, other failings of the Fenix 7S are shared with all of Garmin’s watches. The app is still badly organized. Adding third-party music apps is a pain because you have to go through the Connect IQ store. Editing settings is a tedious journey through app menus. There are also so many features and metrics stashed here and there, I’d have to write a Moby Dick-length review to cover all of them. You probably won’t know 95 percent of them are there. So while the watch is highly customizable, getting it just the way you like it is a slog.
But the worst thing about the Fenix 7S — and all the other Fenix 7 watches — is the price. The 7S and 7 start at $699.99 and go all the way up to $899.99. The larger 7X starts at $799.99 and goes up to $999.99. This is typical for multisport fitness watches, but you could buy a laptop for those prices. The sticker shock is worse if you’re new to this space, but the Fenix series is meant for people who are already committed outdoor enthusiasts. If that’s not you, I promise there are several cheaper alternatives out there.I’ll deal with a dim screen if it means a comfortable watch and better overall experience.
I hinted at it earlier, but Garmin also muddied the waters by launching the $899.99 Epix at the same time as the Fenix 7 series. These are incredibly similar watches for about the same price. The main difference is the Fenix 7S gets you solar power and the Epix gets you an OLED with six-plus days of battery life. If I were a larger person, I’d probably agree with Thomas that the Epix threatens to upend the entire Fenix line. But I’m not and I loved my time with the 7S in large part because of its size and comfort. Unless the Epix — and other flagship fitness watches — start coming in smaller sizes, I’m OK with the dimmer screen. (Though if you really want an OLED, the smaller 43mm Venu 2 Plus is an excellent alternative for $449.99.)
Truthfully, I wracked my brain thinking of other top-of-the-line, premium flagship fitness watches under 42mm that could compete with the 7S. I came up with the last-generation Fenix 6S. I’m bummed at how limited my choices are. Perhaps one day I won’t have to choose between comfort, style, and features. Until then, you can pry the Fenix 7S from my cold, dead fingers.
Photography by Victoria Song / The Verge