Picture: Chantel Erfort
Picture: Chantel Erfort

Just how much data can you handle? We review the Garmin fēnix 6S Pro Solar

By Chantel Erfort Time of article published Aug 17, 2020

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Cape Town - Just how much data can you handle?

Somewhere in the great big web of information that is the internet, are countless pieces of information about me – and the many others who are happy to hand over their data and allow their wearables to track and record their metrics.

What these wearables track is wildly variable, but at some point, there is an imbalance between how much information you can capture about your workouts, physical function and sleep, and how much of this you are able to analyse and use.

So, while I was excited about all the features the new Garmin fēnix 6S Pro Solar boasted, after using it for two weeks, I was humbled by how few of its capabilities I was actually able to test.

Among its standard features are TopoActive Europe maps for outdoor adventures, ski maps for more than 2 000 ski resorts, 41 000 golf courses, Garmin Pay and on-device music storage for up to 2 000 songs as well as the capability to sync playlists from music services without your phone.

Garmin released its first solar charging multisport watch, the fēnix 6X Pro Solar last year, and recently announced the expansion of its solar charging technology to the Instinct, fēnix 6 and 6S and tactix Delta smartwatches. Their main new features include increased battery life and “purpose-built functionality” for sports such as surfing, mountain biking and climbing.

Looks and size

Garmin’s most recent release is a technological beast, but thankfully not a beast in terms of its looks, size and user-friendliness.

I have small hands and thin wrists, so when I get a new watch, among my key concerns are looks and comfort – and high-end sports watches sometimes tend to be a bit clunky. I need not have worried though. The fēnix 6S, with its 42mm diameter is the smallest in the fēnix 6 series, with the 6 measuring 47mm across and the 6X, 51mm. The fēnix 6S Pro Solar is just about the same size as my current watch – Garmin’s Forerunner 245 - albeit 22.5g heavier. While I was very conscious of the weight difference initially, I quickly became accustomed to the fēnix and didn’t find it uncomfortable to wear during sleep or yoga, which I thought it may be.

It’s a rugged, durable watch, but not an ugly one. And let’s be honest, if you’re someone who wears their smartwatch all the time, that’s an important consideration. My review unit came with a shale grey band with quick release, making it easier to swap out straps.

Battery life

The fēnix 6S Pro Solar promises battery life of up to nine days indoors, in smartwatch mode, and up to 10.5 days with sufficient solar exposure, and 25 hours in GPS mode, with an additional 3 hours out in the sun. The watch also features a Power Manager based on different usage profiles, which are fully customisable.

How significant your increased battery life is, of course, depends on how many of the watch’s nifty features you have activated. I turned on most of these, including all-day pulse oximetry (Pulse Ox) monitoring which measures the oxygen levels of your blood by shining a light into your skin and measuring how much light is absorbed. While I don’t usually sleep with my watch on, for review purposes, I did so with the fēnix 6S Pro Solar and also activated advanced sleep monitoring – which gives you a detailed breakdown of your light, deep and REM sleep stages as well as Pulse Ox and respiration data.

When I unboxed the watch, I immediately charged it to 100%. And with these features turned on, as well as notifications, wi-fi and music features activated, and tracking indoor and outdoor activities at least four times a week, I had to charge the fēnix 6S Pro Solar three times during the two weeks I tested it. I didn’t think this was too bad, but was slightly irritated when the unit turned off without warning.

I found I wasn’t able to make full use of the solar charging capabilities as I spent large parts of my day indoors and felt unsafe running with the watch exposed, as Garmin suggests you do to enable to the watch to absorb and convert the maximum amount of solar energy via its Garmin Power Glass solar charging lens. That’s an unfortunate reality for many runners, particularly those of us who run alone.

The manual, however, does say you can leave the unit in direct sunlight or another light source… which I did. But then of course you’d have to take the watch off your wrist, defeating the purpose of all-day monitoring.

New activity profiles

The fēnix 6S Pro Solar also has three new activity profiles for surfing, mountain biking and indoor climbing, which I unfortunately didn’t get to put to the test.

But for those who are keen on these sports, here’s what Garmin’s new tech promises.

The surf activity profile allows you to track total number of waves, surf time, total time, max speed and your longest wave; mountain bikers can track specialised grit and flow measurements that rate trail difficulty and how smoothly users descend; while indoor climbers can track the number of routes, vertical distance climbed, climbing time, and difficultly of each route.

Functionality

While a number of reviewers criticise Garmin’s button configuration and menu set-up, I found the fēnix 6S Solar Pro fairly easy to use, but this may be because I have been using a Garmin for a few years. What did take a bit of googling, however, was knowing which functions were accessible directly on the watch, which in the Garmin Connect app, and which in Garmin Express which I had to download and install on my laptop.

Particularly frustrating for me on this front, was that the unit was delivered to me on the first day of the global Garmin outage, caused by a ransomware attack. For the four days the servers were down, Garmin users had no access to any of its online services, which was inconvenient, but it gave me the opportunity to acquaint myself with the unit’s built-in features.

So, should you buy it?

My overall impression of the Garmin fēnix 6S Pro Solar? It’s a beautiful, powerful piece of technology that can track just about any metric you throw in its way. Highly customisable, and with features like turn-by-turn navigation, pace-pro racing strategies and the option to let Garmin create a course for you based on location and the distance you’d like to cover, I can’t see any reason an outdoors or fitness fanatic wouldn’t want it.

So, if you have about R19 000 to throw at it, I’d say go ahead. Don’t think twice. However, if cost is a consideration, think carefully about whether you’ll actually make use of all the amazing features this watch has to offer. With Garmin’s extensive range of high-quality sports watches, there’s likely to be one in your price range, with features you’re more likely to get good use of.

Retail price: R18 499

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