Garmin Fenix 7 Solar review: Can touch this

Garmin has become the go-to name for fitness tracking smartwatches, solidifying its position in recent years by offering a plethora of models to cover specific market requirements. There are Forerunners for runners, Vivo for everyday fitness, Venu for a more traditional smartwatch feel, Instinct for classic digital watch vibes, plus many more.

But if there’s one series that’s very much seen as the all-action hero, it’s the Fenix. It does pretty much everything, with the series’ 2022 update – now in its seventh generation – adding a touchscreen for the first time in the product’s history. Does this more hands-on approach make the Garmin Fenix 7 the top-tier multisport watch to beat?

Fenix aesthetic

  • 47mm case
  • 22mm QuickFit strap
  • Waterproofed to 100m
  • Stainless steel bezel and back
  • Finishes: Silver, Carbon Grey, Slate Grey, Mineral Blue & Titanium

Every time a new Fenix watch is released Garmin doesn’t just launch a couple of different sizes and call it a day, it creates a mini range of products with different features, sizes, colours and materials. There’s no change to that approach here.

There’s a regular Fenix 7 with a 47mm case, the smaller Fenix 7S with a 42mm case, and the larger 7X with a 51mm case. There are also Solar, Solar Sapphire and Pro Solar editions with different combinations of material and solar charging capabilities. And if you opt for any of the 7X versions, you get a built in LED flashlight too.

For this review, however, we’ll be reviewing the Fenix 7 Solar. It’s the middle-size or ‘regular’ model, but with added solar charging. Material and design-wise it’s identical to the Fenix 7, it just has longer battery life thanks to the addition of the Power Glass and a solar charging ring inside the display’s bezel.

For anyone familiar with previous Fenix models, the 7 series will look immediately familiar. It’s got that chunky outdoorsy look, with a metal bezel (stainless steel on this model) and exposed screws.

However, there is a slight difference for the seventh-gen model. Rather than have those exposed screws in the bezel around the display, Garmin has extended the metal plate to cover the watch strap bezels and put the screws in there. It’s a more symmetrical look, meaning the lugs are now more protected from the rough and tumble of your adventurous lifestyle.

Apart from that, from the front and the sides, the Fenix 7 looks largely the same as the Fenix 6. But there are other subtle differences: the red accented protective element that sits around the start/stop button in the top left is a change from the exposed button; the index around the display has far fewer lines on it, now only signalling seconds/minutes, further adding to the cleaner look.

The underside is largely the same too, featuring the classic Garmin pill-shaped connector for charging, alongside a stainless steel plate. What’s different is the optical sensor layout: it’s been upgraded to the Gen 4 edition, which has more diodes/sensors in it and arranged in an ‘X’ shape, rather than a stack of sensors in a straight line of the earlier generation.

As for the strap, again, Garmin has stuck to its usual: the 22mm QuickFit system. This is both good and bad.

Good, because removing the strap and switching it out for another (which you might already own) is really simple and just involves pulling back on a catch and then clicking the new one into place.

Bad, because it’s a proprietary mechanism, so the number of compatible third-party options is slim. Garmin’s own options come in a few different colours and materials, but none of them are easily affordable. If you want a leather one, for instance, you’re looking at £70+ in the UK to get one with the Garmin QuickFit adapter built in.

Our unit shipped with a black rubber band, which is a safe choice, complete with a smooth finish and strap holes extending from right near the tip to about 20mm below the lugs, so it’s good for pretty much any wrist size.

Touchscreen navigation

  • 1.3-inch transflective MIP panel
  • 260 x 260 pixel resolution
  • Touchscreen capable
  • 33mm diameter

The biggest change from previous versions of the Fenix is actually invisible: its touchscreen. While it still retains the five button system that allows you to control all the layers of the interface, you can now also tap and swipe on the screen if you wish.

Being a Fenix means the display itself is a transflective MIP (memory in pixel) display, which brings a couple of key characteristics. Firstly, and most important, is that it’s always on. Secondly, if you have good light around you – for instance you’re out in bright daylight – that makes the screen more visible, not less. Thirdly, it’s extremely efficient. It doesn’t suck a lot of battery life – because it doesn’t rely on backlighting – and so enables long-lasting battery life.

Another characteristic is that it has quite a low refresh rate – compared to the OLED/AMOLED smartwatch screens – so when you do use the touchscreen, you don’t get that super smooth and responsive animation that you’d get on a ‘proper’ colour screen. It’s ever so slightly jittery if you look closely. Still, it’s quick enough that you’re not left experiencing jarring levels of lag.

For the most part, the touchscreen is a handy inclusion, but only really in everyday life situations at work/home (both if they’re the same place?). Using it to check your current day’s snapshots/glances, seeing what your sleep was like the night before, or, we imagine, scrolling through and deleting notifications (we say imagine, because in the run up to launch, we weren’t able to connect it to a smartphone – because Garmin Connect didn’t support the ahead of its official launch).

Where we’ve found touchscreens not useful is during activities, like when running or hiking. This is where the physical button control system comes in handy. You’re not going to get accidental touches, or be forced to try and swipe on a screen with a button-based system. It’s the last thing you want if you’re hiking at high altitudes and are wearing gloves, or when you’re on a run trying to steady your arms enough to interact with a screen.

The good thing is, Garmin knows this too, so when you kick into an activity such as running, you get a little message up top on the screen informing you that touch operation has been disabled. What’s more, if you don’t ever want touchscreen operation, you can easily disable it completely – it has a dedicated toggle in the main functions menu.

Also within that menu, however, is the option to enable touchscreen for activities (and per activity, it’s granular), so if you want touchscreen maps control, for example, that is indeed possible – which many may find a very useful feature indeed. However, there’s no pinch-to-zoom in maps, it’s just controlled via a little +/- control on the screen, but given the scale of the display this is hardly a surprise.

Super battery life

  • From 18 to 22 days of battery life (Solar model)
  • Up to 73 hours GPS use (Solar model)
  • Up to 18 days battery life (non-Solar)
  • Up to 57 hours GPS use (non-Solar)

It’s rare in the world of wearables to have a watch with a battery that lasts for an age, to the point you could easily forget it needs charging at all. But that’s what Garmin has managed with the Solar edition of the Fenix 7.

In our testing of the device a full battery would comfortably get us to around 20 days of use before needing a refill. This was with two-to-three running sessions a week – ranging from around 40- to 60-minutes each time – and this was with the watch on at night time tracking our sleep for four-to-five nights a week as well.

Again, it’s worth reiterating that this was with the watch not connected by Bluetooth to a smartphone. We’re unsure the exact impact this will have, but assume it will mean the watch will drain a little faster.

On the flip side, the testing occurred during the shortest days of the year, between Christmas and the middle of January. That means most of our runs were in the dark, and we didn’t get to benefit from using the higher solar intensity that would occur naturally in the summer months. So didn’t get the extended battery that would lead to, thanks to the solar glass. So there’s more energy-providing potential there.

Fitness and health data

  • GPS, Galileo and Glonass navigation
  • HIIT workouts, Golf maps, MTB performance
  • PacePro, Body Battery, Garmin Coach, Suggested Workouts
  • Breathing, sleep, stress, heart rate, SpO2 blood oxygen measure

Garmin’s strength, particularly over the last two or three years, hasn’t just been accurately tracking individual and daily activities. It’s using that data to feed into a more holistic view of your body. It uses the metrics to understand how well rested you are, how stressed you are, and has its useful Body Battery metric to indicate when you’re running on empty – and maybe should take a rest day.

It’s a system that works really well on the Fenix 7, particularly when you use your watch to track exercise. For instance, when you use it for running it’ll measure how hard an activity was, use it to determine your training status and how long you need to recover before attempting the next session. With this effort and intensity data processed alongside your daily 24 hour heart-rate and sleep tracking data, it understands when you need rest and when you’re good to go.

Sleep tracking seems more reliable than it has been previously as well. We’ve had no instances of it mistaking sitting still (while bingeing Netflix) as sleeping, with it accurately determining when we put our head down to sleep proper, and when we wake up.

In the context of determining how well rested you are, that’s an important metric. But even if you don’t want to wear the Fenix 7 night after night, its ability to measure and track your heart rate all day, every day will give it a good indication of how tired/stressed you are. Good sleep data just helps add to that picture.

One thing we particularly love from Garmin is that you’re not just left to your own devices when it comes to deciding what kind of running session you want to do. You can sign up to a Garmin Coach plan – which we’ve done multiple times over the past few years. You can sign up to a 5K, 10K, half marathon or full marathon plan, and it’ll build a schedule for you which mixes up long easy runs with interval sessions, cadence drills, hill repeats and other sessions to build your endurance and pace.

If you don’t want to commit to a coaching plan, you can just use the Suggested Workout feature, which can be accessed at any time when you begin a running session. This is based on your current fitness level, how long it’s been since your last run, and changes each day.

Running familiar routes that we’ve been testing various watches on – including the Fenix 7’s predecessor – the new model seems just as reliable and accurate as any previous Fenix. Heart rate monitoring is solid, showing the expected levels of heart activity during the day and during specific activities. We didn’t face any issues of it showing lower or higher than expected beats-per-minute, or any erratic jumping around.

GPS is similarly strong. On running over some of our most worn running routes, distances were near enough identical to previous efforts with other watches and the prior Garmin model. More importantly, it was consistent with itself: we didn’t see any unusual or glaring irregularities with the distance, effort and pace information.

Fenix isn’t just for runners though. It’s well suited to any outdoor (or even indoor) sport, offering advanced data for MTB (mountain biking), road cycling and indoor treadmill/stationary bike activities. It even has cardio and HIIT activity options. There’s not a lot it can’t track, on or off the track. Golfers are catered for too, with golf maps available and the sensors able to track and detect how good your swing is.

A big part of Fenix’s appeal is also its built-in maps and navigation qualities. Along with the aforementioned long battery life, that makes it an ideal companion for hiking in the mountains. If you’re planning to be out all day, it’ll more than handle it. Whether you want to use it to navigate a pre-planned route, or just check where you are on the built-in map and find your bearings and track your way back to the start point. Downloadable maps make it even more capable in that regard.

All the usual bells and whistles

  • Garmin Pay contactless payment support
  • Smartphone notifications
  • Offline music playback

The Fenix 7 is Garmin’s do everything flagship, so that means it comes with support for a lot of lifestyle functions that you’d expect from a modern day smartwatch. As we’ve said previously, however, we’ve been unable to test such aspects since it’s not been possible to set it up without a phone (this won’t affect consumer units, however, it’s just we’ve been testing prior to official launch)

However, they’re all features we’ve used for a good couple of years on a number of older Garmin models. You get support for offline music playback from Spotify, Deezer and Amazon Music. With Bluetooth support too, you can simply download a playlist of your choice, and head out with your favourite earbuds and listen to music while you work out.

You also get contactless payment support with Garmin Pay, although that’s yet to receive the same kind of support from UK banks as the likes of Apple, Google and Samsung’s contactless payment services. With Curve, Starling, Santander and Revolut supported, however, there’s a good number of consumers catered for.

When paired with your smartphone, the Fenix 7 will also offer notifications on your wrist, as well as calendar events and weather.

Original Article