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Garmin Fenix 3 HR or 1st Gen Garmin Fenix 3?

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Garmin Fenix 3 HR

Garmin Fenix 3 HR front View
Garmin Fenix 3 HR Rear View

Many people may have been surprised when Garmin announced at CES that their next Garmin Fenix Model was not going to be the Fenix 4.   Instead, they announced that they were adding their Elevate optical heart rate sensor to the Fenix 3 and branding it as the Garmin Fenix 3 HR.

Optical Heart Rate Sensors

Optical heart rate sensors are all the rage right now because it is sometimes uncomfortable to wear a chest heart rate strap.   The problem with optical heart rate sensors is that they vary in quality based on the hardware components and even more drastically depending on the software.  It can be incredibly difficult to gather consistent heart rate readings during workout activities due to many factors.  The sensors can’t slide across the skin during readings/recordings if you want accurate data and that is nearly impossible during physical activities.  The software has to be intelligent enough filter out the biological(movement) and environmental noise that are unrelated to the readings.  The optical lights have to deal with different skin tones, types and even noise like arm hair.  In online reviews of  optical heart rate sensors, you often read that the sensors by Valencell and Mio are often very accurate compared to chest straps. I’m not sure if Mio licenses its technology from Valencell or if they produce their own sensors and software.  The Garmin Fenix 3 HR is using Garmin’s in-house Elevate sensor that is fairly new and still in need of some tweaking and improving, according to some online reviewers.

Is the Optical Heart Rate Sensor Worth an Upgrade From the 1st Gen Garmin Fenix 3?

If you already own a Garmin Fenix 3, I don’t think that the Fenix 3 HR is worth the upgrade unless you can sell your unit for very close to the price that you paid for it.  If you have a non-sapphire version of the Fenix 3, the Fenix 3 HR comes standard with Sapphire glass and the optical heart rate sensor for the $100 price increase over last year’s standard Garmin Fenix 3 version.  One of the main benefits that I see from the included Elevate sensor is that it performs all day long heart readings and that is some very valuable information if the data is accurate.  On the negative side, all day heart rate readings will translate to decreased battery life.   The battery in smart watch mode goes from 6 weeks in the 1st Generation Garmin Fenix 3 to 2 weeks in the Garmin Fenix 3 HR with 24/7 heart rate monitoring turned on.   That is a drastic change in battery life, so that should be a factor that you take into consideration when purchasing one of these devices.


You can see the images below that the new Garmin Fenix 3 HR has added Physiological Measurements and SUP/Rowing to the list of capabilities.


Fenix 3 (1st Generation) Non-Sapphire
Fenix 3 HR

The only major change appears to be the heart rate sensor, so you really won’t need the upgrade unless you really have a problem wearing the chest strap HR or really want those few additional physiological measurements.



What Software Will the 1st Generation Garmin Fenix 3 and  the New Garmin Fenix 3 HR Get?

According to a Garmin International Press release:

All watches are also getting a software update with new activity profiles for golf, stand up paddleboarding and rowing, as well as the latest advanced running dynamics and physiological measurements. This free update will be available to all current fēnix 3 owners, so all fēnix 3 users can download the new profiles. 

And continues with:

Building off the previous version of advanced running dynamics like cadence, vertical oscillation and ground contact time; fēnix 3 users will be able to utilize more data and physiological measurements. The new metrics include:

  • Stride Length: Measures the length of a runner’s stride in real time.
  • Ground Contact Time Balance: Measures a runner’s ground contact symmetry, which some runners have found to correlate with injuries or strength imbalances.
  • Vertical Ratio: The cost-benefit ratio of vertical oscillation to stride length, serving as one indicator of a runner’s efficiency.
  • Lactate Threshold: Estimates the level of effort at which fatigue rapidly increases in terms of a runner’s heart rate and pace.
  • Stress Score: Measures heart rate variability to make an assessment of a user’s overall level of stress.
  • Performance Condition: Provides a real-time fitness-level measurement relative to a runner’s average baseline, which indicates performance readiness for the day’s workout or race.

All current fēnix 3 owners will have access to a software update that will include the updated advanced running dynamics, as well as new activity profiles for golf, SUP and rowing. With the recently updated Garmin Connect mobile app, users can download more than 40,000 worldwide golf courses for precise course data and use their watch as a digital scorecard. With the new SUP/Rowing mode, users can measure their paddle stroke count, stroke rate and distance per stroke to gauge their efficiency. The fēnix 3 software update will come preloaded on new units and is available for current users to download now.

How Will the Elevate Sensor Improve the Fenix 3 HR?

Garmin’s press release gave these details:

Now featuring Garmin Elevate wrist-based heart rate technology, fēnix 3 HR users now have the freedom to measure heart rate 24/7 at the wrist. Fēnix 3 HR users can get credit for their workouts and extra effort with the Intensity Minutes. By tracking daily Intensity Minutes, users can monitor their progress against weekly aerobic activity goals recommended by leading health organizations like the American Heart Association, World Health Organization, and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Depending on settings, fēnix 3 HR can get up to 40 hours of battery life in UltraTrac mode, 16 hours in GPS training mode, 3 weeks in watch mode and 2 weeks in smartwatch mode.


Who Benefits Most From the Elevate HR sensor?

The Elevate HR sensor is being used to compete against the Polar and Fitbits of the world rather than direct fitness GPS watch competitors like Suunto.  This is Garmin’s approach to close the gap in the activity band sensors that are flooding the market.  They have been taking this approach since early in 2014 when they launched their Vivofit device.  The Garmin Fenix 3 HR is an attractive buy for someone who does not want to wear multiple devices at the same time.  The biggest barrier for this device is the hefty price tag that places it in the $600 and up range.  If you are very concerned with your daily activity data, you may find the Fenix 3 HR with the Elevate sensor very attractive.   At this point, if you are obsessed with your activity data, you probably already own a Fitbit at this point.   Garmin’s Connect web portal and apps are great acceptable if you are already invested in Garmin Products, but the system isn’t something I can see appealing to the Fitbit crowd.   Garmin is doing better with the Fenix 3 lineup because it is already capable of tracking some basic sleep metrics and Garmin recently added Insights to the iOS and Android apps.

What are Garmin Connect Insights?

Garmin had this to say about Garmin Connect Insights:

We’re excited to today announce Garmin Connect Insights, smart wellness insights to help Garmin Connect users beat yesterday and achieve their goals. Leveraging millions of hours of sleep and billions of steps logged every day, Garmin Connect Insights provide cues to help users reach health and wellness goals and shout-outs when milestones have been met. The smart insights also provide relevant healthy tips from experts and show users how they are doing in comparison to people like them for extra motivation.

*Note: Garmin Connect Insights are also available to Garmin Fenix 3 users.



Our Take

The best deal seems to be to wait for the wide release of the Garmin Fenix 3 Hr and purchase the previous generation Garmin Fenix 3(standard or sapphire) at a huge discount of  up to $100-$200.


Garmin Fenix 3 – Pricing and Reviews on Clever Training

Garmin Fenix 3 HR – Pricing and Reviews on Amazon