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review

Garmin Fenix 6 Pro Solar

7
£739.99

VERDICT:

7
10
Vastly capable sports smartwatch let down by complexity, ineffective solar charging and challenging battery management
Huge range of functions and sensors
Very rugged build
Quick-release straps
Great turn-by-turn navigation, and ability to sync external sensors like satellite, power and heart rate devices
Bewildering user interface
Poor software update strategy/support
Solar charging function disappointing (and £140 extra)
Weight: 
85g
Contact: 

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The Garmin Fenix 6 Pro Solar is one of the world's most capable and advanced smart sports watches. With a huge array of functions and military-grade ruggedness, it will do more than you could likely imagine. Unfortunately with capability comes complexity and hard-to-manage battery life.

The Garmin Fenix series of smartwatches can be seen across the sporting world in use by every sort of athlete. With only 8% of the overall smartwatch market, Garmin is nevertheless seen as the go-to device for connected outdoors data. Its reputation for great cycling devices and approach to integration make it a sensible choice for cyclists looking to branch out into other sports, or to double down on their technology brand choice.

> Find your nearest dealer here

If you visit the Fenix page on Garmin's website you'll be presented with a bewildering array of activities and information it can display, from mountain bike 'grit' and 'flow' to looming bad weather to the number of burpees to do next (complete with animated explanation of what a burpee is). Being a 'smartwatch', the possibilities for the display and connection of devices is pretty much endless. There's no way in even 10,000 words I could cover all the options, so I'll focus instead on a section of the cycling functionality, and in particular navigation – as I see this being the main reason you might want to purchase a Fenix 6 Pro Solar.

Garmin Fenix 6 Pro Solar - activity select 2.jpg

The Fenix can access the US GPS, the European Galileo and the Russian GLONASS satellite systems. Read the full technical and feature specification here.

Bike mount

Firstly, for bike use you'll really be wanting the £27 Quarter-Turn Bikemount. A watch this chunky and heavy (85g) is quite noticeable on the wrist – particularly over rough ground or when you are riding with your wrist bent, like on the tops or gripping a flat handlebar. The Bikemount is a plastic bracket that fits to any existing Garmin mount (the basic handlebar mount is included along with rubber rings).

2020 Garmin Fenix bike mount 1.JPG

The Fenix wristband is easy to remove without tools by triggering a small catch under the band. This leaves the pins free to engage with the mount, the watch snapping into place with a solid click. Once there it's not coming out, even over the roughest of trails, so you can ride assured it's safe.

It's expensive for a small bracket, though, and annoyingly Garmin includes three of different sizes in the pack. The Fenix comes in three sizes (this is the middle 42mm version) so you're left with two mounts to share/sell/recycle. Can definitely do better there, Garmin. Raceware Direct sells Fenix mounts for £18, not including the Garmin mount.

The wristband itself is serviceable enough, but I found it caught my arm hair something shocking. Fortunately a huge range of aftermarket straps are available.

Garmin Fenix 6 Pro Solar 3.jpg

Niggles

Smartwatches work best paired to a phone, but I did experience issues getting the Garmin Connect app to see the watch once paired. Garmin doesn't list this basic problem-solver, but the way to get your phone to see the watch if it's missing is to delete it from your phone's Bluetooth list and re-add. Suffice to say, I got to know my way around the Garmin support forums rather well.

While on the issue of Garmin support, you should immediately turn off automatic software updates. Halfway through what had been a successful test period Garmin sent out an update that broke much of the watch's connectivity and HRM functionality – and it took two months to get a new version released that fixed the issues. During this time the watch was basically unusable for anything besides being a watch, and despite asking Garmin's support operatives multiple times I only learned of the new software by trawling the Garmin forums. Not a great customer service experience, and Garmin really could learn a lot here.

One of the most useful non-sporty features of smartwatches for me is contactless payment, but the Garmin Pay ecosystem doesn't support either of my banks (HSBC/Barclays) and at the time of writing the only mainstream bank included is Santander.

Charging

The Fenix is charged via an 18-inch USB-A cable, with a proprietary connector that clicks into the back of the watch. This means you can't wear or mount the watch and charge it at the same time, but the battery life is long enough that this really shouldn't be an issue with good management.

Charging takes about 2.5 hours from flat, drawing just 0.13A in the process. While this is a trifling amount, you may find it is an issue out in the wilds because some power banks will auto-shut off below certain current flows – as did the SKS Compit+ after about 30 minutes charging.

Garmin Fenix 6 Pro Solar - home screen.jpg

Whilst charging, the display tells you the percentage and how many days estimated use remains for the watch's app setup. Given the watch battery only holds about 350mAh, topping it up isn't going to kill even a small powerbank.

A flagship benefit of the Fenix 6 Pro Solar is the 'Solar' bit, but you're paying an extra £140 for getting maybe 5-10% improved battery life, even in bright sunlight with the watch on the handlebar all day. Or you could see no noticeable difference at all. Chances are, if you are relying on the solar boost to complete a ride, you've really mucked up your charging routine.

Garmin Fenix 6 Pro Solar - info screen 6.jpg

Apps and accessories

One of the major challenges with the Fenix is which apps and connectivity to enable for which tasks. There's an included app called 'Power Manager' which allows you to create various profiles to customise what's connected, when. For example, in an ultra-low-power consumption mode you could turn off WiFi, music sync/stream, phone sync, the heart rate sensor under the watch and so on.

Using this process I was able to extend the battery life from about a week to 18 days with basic sports and nav features, and a whopping 40 days in pure 'watch only' mode. If you have GPS recording turned on and are listening to music over Bluetooth headphones, expect just 8-10 hours of life. As a typical use case, after two days of wearing the Fenix all the time, sleep tracking, with WiFi on and phone alerts enabled, it was down to 50% – so if you are a full-on user expect to be charging it every few days for an hour or so.

> 29 of the best cycling apps

I paired the Fenix with both Bluetooth and Ant+ heart rate straps for use off the wrist, and experienced no issues. I'm a Whoop heart rate/sleep tracking wristband user, and used that most of the time to get heart rate data to the Fenix when on the bike. Comparing the Fenix HRM with the Whoop sensor, both were within a few beats of each other and were similarly slower to react to efforts on the turbo than a chest strap – it takes a while for blood to get to your wrists, obvs.

Garmin Fenix 6 Pro Solar - info screen 2.jpg

Another accessory I used was a set of Jaybird Run Bluetooth headphones. They paired easily, and the sound quality was good. I installed the Spotify app and synced a few playlists – annoyingly, you cannot multitask away from music sync and have it continue to download, so best to do while charging. The Fenix holds around 2,000 songs, and there are many other audio apps including podcast managers, free and premium. Expect sync time to be really slow, mind – like several minutes per album.

My final paired accessory was a Garmin InReach Mini GPS communicator. This tiny miracle fits into a closed fist and weighs 100g, yet can talk to satellites 780km out in space. Stashed in a pocket or bikepacking bag (near the top) it's out of the way and not taking up handlebar space. The paired Fenix can then be used to send the free preset 'I'm OK/late/dying in a tree' customisable messages to friends and family or an actual SOS alert that will summon Mountain Rescue, and can also display inbound messages. This was handy to keep my wife updated on progress when on the move out in the remote Cairngorms, where this sort of device really is a godsend for peace of mind and safety.

The Fenix can pair with Garmin's Vector power-reading pedals and various other Garmin accessories, as you'd expect, so you are pretty much covered for any sport metric it supports.

The Fenix includes 'Incident Detection' which, when connected to a phone and in coverage, can send a message to family/friends that you've had an off through detection by the gyroscope and accelerometer.

You can also share your location constantly using 'Live Tracking', so others can watch your progress.

Also safety-related, the barometer in the Fenix can give you alerts of impending bad weather by detecting sharp drops in atmospheric pressure. This may sound like a gimmick, but if you are far from mobile coverage for long days, having advance warning can help with clothing choice and other trip plans. I confess it was a bit exciting to hear the loud storm alert trill when it went off.

If you are a Strava Pro subscriber you can sync select segments using the Garmin Connect app and be given real-time KOM or PR-chasing analysis of whether you are on track for the crown/PR or lagging sadly behind. When these did pop up the competitive idiot in me did leap to the task, but inevitably fell short – no fault of the Garmin, but fun and motivating nonetheless.

Navigating

My main reason for wanting the Fenix on a bike was for turn-by-turn navigation guidance, removing the need for a mobile phone on the handlebar with the associated clutter and risk of damage/battery drain. In this regard, I rate the Fenix highly – in rural areas; about town the display lags your position by too much to be useful where there are many streets and turns in close proximity.

Somewhat annoyingly, if you start a planned loop partway along instead of at the start, once at the original end point you cannot restart the course to finish without stopping and saving the track, thereby splitting it. This will cause great consternation among ride data geeks.

Garmin Fenix 6 Pro Solar - map.jpg

The act of uploading a GPX route to follow is pretty simple from a phone. I use the rather excellent Viewranger app to plot and manage my routes, and getting a route from Viewranger into the Fenix is easy. In Viewranger you click Share As GPX > Garmin Connect > Save. Then you Open Course > Send to device > Sync. To follow the new course, click the Red button > Navigate > Courses > Select Course – easy. And critically, with no reliance on having an internet connection, if you can plot the route (or if you have it saved as a GPX on your phone already) you can get it onto the Fenix.

> GPS cycle route planning made easy – how to plan and follow a bike route

This ability to transfer from phone to watch meant that on-the-fly replanning of long, complex routes out in the middle of nowhere was a doddle. If your plans change you can edit or create a whole new route covering an entire day's riding in the time it takes to drink a coffee. This might sound trivial, but the alternative could be 100 miles of endlessly referring to a zoomed-in/zoomed-out map to make sure you are on track at every one of a hundred intersections, badly breaking the flow of riding, draining your phone battery and slowing you down.

The default Garmin map will almost certainly not show you good enough off-road trail detail, but fortunately there are freely available alternatives like the excellent OpenStreetMap-based TalkyToaster map. I found this more than good enough for rides across rural Highlands wilderness.

Battery life

My experience of doing long multi-day rides using the Fenix as a navigation and GPS/heart rate recording device is that you'll get roughly two days travel out of it. So if you're going on a two-day ride, pack the charging cable and use it overnight to be safe. As an example, doing the 200km Cairngorms Carousel gravel/mountain bike/hikeabike loop, the Fenix performed flawlessly but died 30 minutes from the end after 13 hours of riding. If you're bikepacking, chances are you're carrying a battery pack already, so adding in the 14g charging cable isn't going to slow you down any.

Conclusion

At £740 for the solar version (or £600 for the standard), the Fenix 6 Pro is quite a niche use-case device. You'll either really want smartwatch features like notifications, health tracking and so on, or the ability to leave your phone behind but still have navigation, heart rate and music/podcasts. If you just want navigation and heart rate on a bike, and to be able to update routes by creating and exporting GPX files to your device, then a far cheaper traditional bike computer device will do.

As I use a Whoop wristband for health tracking (activity and sleep) and its battery life is a consistent five days, with a much smaller form factor, I don't see the Fenix replacing it for that functionality. I looked into the Garmin sleep/health tracking and reporting features, but Garmin still has a way to go to make them really user-friendly and justify not paying a Whoop subscription, and the impact on battery life of tracking sleep using the Fenix is considerable.

> Buyer’s Guide: 15 of the best cycling GPS units

Looking at other smartwatches we've tested on road.cc, if you are after on-screen mapping and navigation functionality, the Ticwatch Pro 3 can run Viewranger, but battery life isn't great and you can't pair the load of external sensors and devices supported by Garmin. For less than half the Fenix price you can get the Suunto 5 watch, but again no ANT+ support, only half the battery life, limited connectivity and a lower-res display.

Garmin tends to throw the kitchen sink at devices like the Fenix, and the result is a bewildering array of options that require many, many hours of study to correctly enable and manage. Add on the general smartwatch customisations and even after months of daily use I feel the Fenix could be better, that it could be giving me more information with longer battery life. I feel I've reached a setup stasis where it does what I need regarding navigation/data, and that's fine. Notifications are nice to have instead of picking up the phone, but I can't say they're a gamechanger. And no, the solar charging is not worth the extra £140.

In summary, if you want one device that will do smartwatch, health tracking, long-day PC-free navigation, and be compact, quick to charge and more or less infinitely customisable, the Fenix 6 Pro might be for you. Save £140 and go for the non-solar version, though.

Verdict

Vastly capable sports smartwatch let down by complexity, ineffective solar charging and challenging battery management

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road.cc test report

Make and model: Garmin Fenix 6 Pro Solar

Size tested: One size

Tell us what the product is for and who it's aimed at. What do the manufacturers say about it? How does that compare to your own feelings about it?

It's for people wanting the best-possible sports metrics, navigation and smartwatch functionality in one.

Garmin says:

Featuring a Power Glass™ solar charging lens and customisable power manager modes, this smartwatch can stay on and be performance-ready for weeks.

Get a battery boost from the sunlight, so you can go longer between charges.

How is your body holding up? Wrist-based heart rate1 and Pulse Ox2 will let you know.

Need running pace guidance that knows the terrain? Check out the PacePro™ feature.

Navigate every adventure with TopoActive Europe maps right on your wrist.

Music on your wrist, and no phone weighing you down.

Leave the cord at home. Solar charging lets you get up to 14 days of battery life – and then some!

Tell us some more about the technical aspects of the product?

See https://buy.garmin.com/en-GB/GB/p/702902/pn/010-02410-11#specs

Rate the product for quality of construction:
 
10/10

Excellent.

Rate the product for performance:
 
7/10

Really focused on battery here – could/should be better.

Rate the product for durability:
 
9/10
Rate the product for weight (if applicable)
 
7/10

Worn as a watch, it's fine.

Rate the product for comfort (if applicable)
 
7/10

The strap really does rip at your arm hairs when putting it on and sliding the bands around. Otherwise comfy.

Rate the product for value:
 
4/10

Many cheaper options exist that may well suit your needs. Also, £740 for the solar version... go for the non-solar one at £600.

Tell us how the product performed overall when used for its designed purpose

Aside from software updates going wrong, pretty much flawlessly.

Tell us what you particularly liked about the product

The ability to have super-compact, all-day turn and map navigation on the handlebar.

Tell us what you particularly disliked about the product

The overall complexity. It's baffling. The software needs a jolly good Apple-ising.

How does the price compare to that of similar products in the market, including ones recently tested on road.cc?

There's no denying it, the Fenix 6 Pro Solar is about the most expensive sport smartwatch you can buy. Many cheaper options exist that may well suit your needs.

Did you enjoy using the product? Yes

Would you consider buying the product? Not really.

Would you recommend the product to a friend? Yes, but with caveats.

Use this box to explain your overall score

I rate the Fenix 6 Pro Solar as 'Good' with the use case in mind of wanting a capable smartwatch that can also do advanced health and sport metrics, but critically all-day turn-by-turn navigation. The solar charging is pretty much pointless, mind.

Overall rating: 7/10

About the tester

Age: 47  Height: 183cm  Weight: 77kg

I usually ride: Sonder Camino Gravelaxe  My best bike is: Nah bro that's it

I've been riding for: Over 20 years  I ride: A few times a week  I would class myself as: Expert

I regularly do the following types of riding: cyclo cross, general fitness riding, mtb, G-R-A-V-E-L

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