A touchscreen GPS navigator that works in the wilderness and that you can wear on your wrist? That’s a great idea, but not one that Garmin’s been able to realise with this new Epix. Allow me to explain.
Looking for a powerful fitness tracker? Let’s go ahead and spoil this review by saying that the Garmin Fenix 3 has all deep fitness tracking capabilities as the Epix, in a slimmer, more affordable, nicer looking package. Corey also put together a great, in-depth review of those capabilities. In this review of the Epix, I’m going to focus on what it attempts to do over that Fenix 3; namely, its mapping and navigation functions.
What Is It?
“Epix is the first-of-its-kind, high-resolution, color, touchscreen GPS/GLONASS mapping watch with worldwide, shaded relief basemap and 1-year BirdsEye Satellite Imagery subscription. Some models also feature preloaded TOPO 100K maps. Eight GB of built-in memory supports additional mapping, including BirdsEye Satellite Imagery and regional TOPO U.S. 24K maps. The revolutionary, stainless steel EXO antenna combined with GPS and GLONASS reception mean better signal strength and quicker position fixes.”
“The epix touchscreen display gives you fingertip pan/swipe access to vivid, detailed maps, including the built-in worldwide shaded relief basemaps. And with 8 GB internal memory and extensive mapping support, you’ll have plenty of room to add (and interact with) compatible maps, including TOPO 24K, BirdsEye Satellite Imagery, City Navigator® and BlueChart® g2 maps.”
We wouldn’t typically quote a manufacturer’s press release, but bear with me this time, I’m doing it for a reason.
In addition to those functions, the Epix has all the same fitness tracking functions as the Fenix 3. So consider it a Fenix 3 that’s considerably larger, square-shaped and comes with a colour touchscreen that’s there so you can use its navigation functions.
So it can follow you around and make a map. But so can the Fenix 3.
Who’s it For?
Honestly, the only people who need fitness tracking this powerful and in-depth are people who take athletics very, very seriously. Do you care about your cadence and heart rate while mountain biking? Do you want to record your interval times while running? Do you need to determine your V02 Max? Do you want to compare your lap times against those of others?
Garmin’s smart watches can do all that and much more, making them the most powerful fitness tracking gadgets on the market. But, that power is matched by the clunkiness of the user interface. Seriously, even with the 28-page owner’s manual, you should expect to have the technical ability of an engineer, software developer or systems admin in order to operate this thing.
You’ll also have to committed enough to wear or use sensors that you buy separately to track things like heart rate and pedalling cadence. The upshot of that is that they deliver much more accurate (or, actually accurate) data than the heart rate sensors built into other smartwatches, but the downside is obviously that it’s another gadget to buy, keep fresh batteries in, to avoid losing and to setup and use.
The navigation and mapping functions are targeted at people who do those activities in the wilderness, outside of mobile range, where Google Maps and such on your phone cease to function.
So, the Epix is a powerful, in-depth fitness tracker for committed athletes who are serious about tracking and sharing their performance, who also happen to be at least amateur techs on the side and who spend a lot of time out in the wilderness. Did someone say shrinking target market?
As an aside on my use and therefore testing methodologies, I’m a half-arsed amateur athlete that does everything from mountain biking, to hiking, to archery, to spearfishing to motorcycle racing. I like to keep fit and I like to track my progress, but I more typically do so with a spreadsheet in Google Docs on my phone. So, the Epix’s fitness tracking functions are a bit lost on me. I am, however, someone who gets to call spending time in the outdoors “work,” so I was mostly excited for the navigation and mapping abilities.
I guess the silver bezel is made from metal and serves as a GPS antenna, at least according to Garmin’s marketing material. Feels like plastic to me.
At least the buttons are knurled aluminium, the rest of the watch is a giant, 2-inch square brick of black plastic surrounding a tiny 1.4-inch colour screen that only has a 205 x 148px resolution. Compare that to the 38mm Apple Watch’s 272 x 340px and you can begin to understand how low-res Garmin’s is in comparison. It feels more like the LCD display on an old triathlon watch than it does something modern.
There’s a variety of custom designed watch faces you can download from Garmin’s proprietary Connect IQ app store, most of which appear to be riffs on Star Trek TNG bridge designs.
Garmin’s user interfaces are frustrating and buggy at every level. Here, I’m attempting to access the Connect IQ store from the Connect IQ app. Doing so loads a web page in the app prompting me to download the app! And it won’t let me login anymore.
At the risk of making this sound like a half-baked review, I’m going to go ahead and tell you that I struggle to use this watch. I’ve been wearing it for about a month now and I only just figured out how to get the thing to help me navigate to a waypoint. It does that in a straight line, as the bird flies, only, failing to take into account stuff like streets, buildings or even topographical obstructions like giant fucking mountains when you’re using it out in the middle of nowhere.
Allegedly there’s a function called “City Navigator” that gives traditional turn-by-turn directions, but I have been unable to find any mention of that in the device’s instructions, in the watch’s various menus, through the ConnectIQ phone app or even the Garmin Express desktop app.
The same is true of the other various navigation functions, including the topo maps, and satellite imagery. I apologise if this makes it seem like I’m a numpty, but I’m not and if I can’t access those functions, many of you will be unable to as well.
This also highlights a frustration with operating the Epix: doing so requires using both a phone and your computer for different functions. And the watch won’t sync with your phone unless that phone has a data connection. If you are, for instance, mountain biking in the alps a long ways from mobile signal, the phone and watch will refuse to talk to each other. That’s incredibly frustrating for a device intended for wilderness use.
In fact, all I’ve really been able to do with the Epix’s map function is get it to (slowly) pinpoint my position on a poorly detailed road map. This seems to work in other countries, but includes such little detail that, unless you’re familiar with the area in which you’re travelling, is largely useless.
Other metrics like the barometer, altimeter and compass are native to the device and work well where you don’t have cell coverage. Which is more than you can say of any phone, but are jobs handled with equal aplomb again by that Fenix 3.
Doubling the watch’s frustration level are a clunky user interface that requires you to cycle through menu trees. It’s very hard to remember where various functions lie and takes real time to access and use them. You can do all of the Epix’s functions using the five external buttons, which is good because the touchscreen is again inaccurate and frustrating. Sometimes a press results in a click. Sometimes it doesn’t. Sometimes a swipe will move the map around, sometimes it won’t. The touchscreen adds only frustration to the experience.
In short, manually divining your location with a chronometer and sextant would be easier and less time consuming. I’ve been getting around for the last month using the stars.
Users will be seeing this alert a lot. Like every time you switch your phone on and off, into airplane mode or when you’ve walked out of the room containing your phone for a split second. Buzzzz, “Phone Disconnected.” Buzzz, “Phone Connected.” Every. Single. Time.
- I haven’t been able to kill this thing. Or even scratch it. It’ll work down to 50 metres beneath the sea, resist salt water, survive epic mountain bike crashes and even withstand Wiley bites.
- Wearing something with a prominent “Garmin” label on your wrist instantly makes people with Apple Watches feel like sissies.
- It’s really easy to tell the time when you’re wearing inch-high numbers on your wrist.
- Battery life has been pretty good. It’ll go about two weeks if you don’t really use any of the GPS functions and last at least two days, if not three, of continual GPS-on.
- Separate sensors provide genuinely accurate data and Ant+ compatibility opens the door to non-Garmin products too.
- Yay, GLONASS. Satellite location acquisition is faster and easier.
- Doesn’t do half the navigation stuff it’s claimed to.
- Great at drawing a straight line to coordinates you manually type in. But you could probably halve the time invested by simply glancing at a map.
- Low-res screen makes any sort of map you can actually manage to make it display virtually worthless.
- The entire package is simply huge. In a bad way. You could literally wear a GoPro on your wrist and it’d be smaller.
- Requires an advanced degree in computer engineering from Garmin University just to operate the fitness tracker functions.
- Adds a level of stress to my everyday life that likely cancels any benefits achieved by tracking fitness.
- Really just augments your smartphone, which is the problem with virtually every smart watch out there. And I don’t need a remote for something I keep in my pocket anyways.
The pink dot is the point I’m trying to navigate to. What the fuck is the point of this? I’d be better off asking a passing tourist for directions.
Should You Buy It?
If you have much experience with Garmin products and user interfaces, have a degree in computer science, aren’t intimidated by the need to figure out or wait for the promised map and navigation functionality, need a really good fitness tracker, don’t want a Fenix 3 and have £419 to burn, then yes, go ahead and buy one. But don’t say we didn’t warn you.
The rest of you will be better served by the Fenix 3 if you really care about fitness tracking and trusting your innate sense of direction should you want a navigator you can take with you anywhere.
Garmin, for Christ’s sake, hire a UI designer who can make you some human friendly designs. The power of your devices is utterly lost if people can’t use them.
By Wes Siler
This article originally appeared on Indefinitely Wild, Gizmodo's blog on adventure travel and the gear that gets us there