Garmin is a relatively niche player in the global smartwatch market, but it is by far the biggest producer of athletic watches. Its direct competitors include a pair of Finnish companies – Polar, which was the first to offer real-time heart rate monitoring in wearable devices, and Suunto – and US-based Coros. Coros is a relative newcomer in the athletics wearables market having been founded in 2016, but which has already developed a strong reputation that it bolsters by including multiple world champions among a roster of sponsored athletes. Apple has been eyeing the athletic watch market and its recent launch of the Watch Ultra signals its first attempt to muscle in on the scene.
The subject of this review is the Garmin Epix Gen 2 smartwatch. This is not going to be an exhaustive analysis of everything that this watch can do – and it’s a lot – but I will aim to pick out some of the highlights in the way that I use it and what we can learn in more general terms about this particular part of the smartwatch market. As I say, the Epix 2 can do a lot of things and so it should; this is by any measure an expensive watch. So who is the target buyer for the Epix and why would someone buy this watch and what can we infer about the wider smartwatch market?
The Epix feels like a new branch in the Garmin family tree. But as the Gen 2 part of the name implies, it’s actually a re-launch of the Epix range which originally came out in 2015 featuring – back then – a color display and touch control for navigating maps. But Garmin felt that the technology wasn’t ready for prime time in 2015, so back-burnered the model for a few years.
Garmin is clearly happy that display technology has caught up with its vision now, so the Epix Gen 2 features a vibrant, always-on OLED touch display that really makes graphics pop in a way that even the best of its transflective Memory In Pixel (MIP) LCD displays on, for example, the Fenix and top-end Forerunner watches, can’t match.
Where Epix 2 fits into Garmin’s range?
Garmin has been extending its product ranges over the last few years; it sometimes feels like it is creating ever more tightly overlapping circles in a huge Venn diagram. Epix is aimed at dedicated sports enthusiasts – let’s call them athletes. Garmin has two strongly established ranges for athletes. The Forerunner series – that starts from relatively entry-level products through to the Forerunner 955 that retails for around $500 – and the Fenix range, which is targeted at multisport athletes and has a premium ruggedized aesthetic. The Fenix range starts at $700. Epix 2 is essentially a 47mm Fenix 7, but with an OLED display, a somewhat more refined design aesthetic and positioned with more lifestyle messaging. And it is priced at the premium end of the Fenix range, starting at $900.
I chose the Epix in white with the titanium bezel. I did this mostly because the black, that I would otherwise likely have opted for, was not available at the time. However, I have grown to like the white and the colorway works well with the titanium bezel. The 1.3” 416 x 416 pixel display’s cover glass is sapphire, which promises good scratch resistance. I have nevertheless managed to scratch mine already by clattering the metal part of a swimming pool lane marker while doing backstroke – but it’s barely noticeable and it didn’t break!
All its top end watches include detailed topographical maps that can be used for navigating. As the watch was purchased in Europe, it came pre-loaded with 11.5GB of active topo maps that allow me to navigate anywhere in Europe. For example on a recent trip to France, I was able to navigate around the unfamiliar lanes and trails of an obscure part of the Languedoc region with ease. If I travel to another part of the world – the USA for example – I can download maps for free – although they are hefty file sizes and the download process can be long as a result. The titanium Epix models are equipped with 32GB of storage, while the slightly cheaper stainless steel model makes do with 16GB.
The display is attractive. Graphics look great, and the included topographical maps are easy to read. However watch faces are functional but not amazing. Users used to the variety and beauty of, say, Apple Watch faces are likely to be underwhelmed. I am not bothered though – I can tune the face to display what I want it to and if I want to go deeper into any of the displayed data, I just need to tap and hold to access the underlying function.
So, it’s a nice looking watch, but worthy of the $900 price tag? That’s a matter for individual purchasers, but it’s a hefty premium for an OLED display, which is the most obvious point of differentiation over similarly capable watches in the Fenix and Forerunner ranges. And it’s also a $100 premium over the newly launched Apple Watch Ultra.
Garmin gets sports.
Garmin has founded its brand strength on tracking athletic performance. Unlike most other smartwatches, including Apple Watch, it has eschewed following the conventional approach of a touchscreen supported by one or two hardware buttons. Garmin watches are mostly non-touchscreen and have five physical buttons. The Epix has slightly changed the game by including an always-on OLED touchscreen. But it still has the five physical button layout familiar to users of other Garmin watches such as the Forerunner and Fenix series.
Garmin’s user interface presents a steep learning curve when first encountered. But once known, it becomes relatively intuitive. In the case of the Epix, the touchscreen allows for an additional and welcome level of control. But when a training session starts, the touchscreen becomes inactive and the watch is controlled solely by the hardware buttons. This is absolutely the way it should be and I would argue that any watch that relies on a touch interface to manage workouts is not aimed at serious fitness enthusiasts. A control interaction that seems simple when sat at a desk, becomes difficult in the depths of running reps when sweat is dripping from shaking fingers, or doing laps in the pool; hardware buttons are the only interface that makes sense in this context, so Garmin turns-off the touch interface during activities by default. But the user can change this in settings, along with more or less everything else.
And this is another benefit of Garmin compared to most other ‘standard’ smartwatches. It offers almost limitless customisation potential. A user can prioritise those sports they engage in most, change the layout of data screens to show only the data they want to see. And they can even change the functions assigned to the various buttons. This likely means that no two Garmin devices are exactly alike once the user has had time to personalize their device to their own preferences. The value of this capability only becomes fully apparent once you try another watch that doesn’t offer this level of personalization.
And while personalization can be managed on the device, it can be a bit fiddly. So Garmin has made it possible to make the changes in the Garmin Connect app, and then synchronize them to the watch. This is a good and long overdue innovation.
Battery performance – the display costs power as well as $
Garmin watches last a long time. The 47mm Fenix 7 will do 18 days between charges. The Epix manages only six days with the display in always-on mode. Switching to a mode where the screen lights up when you lift your wrist – which works amazingly well (no false negatives) – extends the battery life considerably, up to 16 days. With always-on display, full multiband satellite navigation, full-time heart-rate monitoring it will last up to 15 hours. In my experience, this seems about right. I did an ultra-marathon event in the mountains of Wales, with the display on full time, heart rate monitoring, location tracking and navigation. The event took me 12 hours to complete and I still had 35% battery capacity at the end. In endurance mode, when the GPS is used intermittently, and the display is not on full time, battery life can be extended to many days. Nevertheless, if you really want to maximize battery life, Garmin’s Enduro watch offers up to 77 days in ‘expedition’ mode.
Overall, I find the battery life tolerable. I do on average around an hour of activity per day and up to three hours per day on the weekend. I have the watch set so the display is always on. I have to recharge the watch once every four or five days or so. Recharging is relatively quick – although I haven’t timed how long it takes. For someone used to something like an Apple Watch, recharging once or twice a week might feel revolutionary, but for someone coming off of using one of Garmin’s other watches where you might only charge once in two weeks, it feels like a backward step.
Health and wellness – the (only) killer app for smartwatches
Optimal health is founded on three pillars: good sleep, good exercise and good nutrition. Tracking all three, accurately, is the holy grail for health and wellness applications. None that I have found can do them all well. Most wearables attempt to track the first two, sleep and exercise, but even with these it’s not straightforward.
Garmin has a strong track record in helping users to manage the exercise pillar. It was a long time licensee of First Beat, and then went on to acquire the company outright in 2020. First Beat provides the algorithms that power Garmin’s analysis of not only a person’s exercise and other physical activities, but also how rest and recuperation play a role in building fitness. Fitness improves through stressing the body through exercise and then allowing it to rebuild itself, which it does to a marginally stronger level than before. But the body can only do this through resting. This means that rest is as an important component in building fitness as any workout.
The Epix’s multiple sensors track activities as well as the body’s levels of, for example, fatigue. These are summarized in multiple ways, but the easiest to grasp, at a glance is the Body Battery that shows the level of overall resource depletion and then recovery. Another valuable indicator is Garmin’s Training Readiness index which takes into account sleep and sleep history, recovery time since the last workout, heart-rate variability – which is a key marker of fatigue – training load and stress levels. All are good markers to track. And I have noticed that when I am feeling fatigued or achy following a period of strenuous activities, and I then check, the Training Readiness index shows levels consistent with how I feel. This is good for determining whether to do a planned workout, to shift to something lighter, or skip the workout altogether.
These metrics can be looked at on the device itself, but a richer and more interactive experience can be garnered from the Garmin Connect application that enables a wide range of analyses. It also links to partner apps such as Strava and Training Peaks with which it shares data seamlessly. And the app can also be used to source additional workout and training programs, and more.
The ecosystem benefits also come through in the integration with, for example, Training Peaks. I have a coach to help me with running. She shares my running programme with me on Training Peaks. This automatically syncs with the Epix, so when I select a ‘Run’ on the watch it shows the planned workout for the day and off I go. If I am wearing headphones to listen to music from the watch or through a paired smartphone, I get voice prompts that tell me times and paces for each section of the workout. This is excellent and means I just have to lace-up my shoes and head-out.
After a workout, the watch gives an indication of how much rest is needed. This takes account of the workout intensity as well as environmental factors such as a heat, altitude and how well rested I was before the exercise session. If I take things particularly easy in the hours following a workout, the watch sometimes says that due to my good rest, I am recovering faster and can therefore train again sooner.
Sleep tracking – it tries
Sleep tracking is complex. To do it accurately requires the placing of electrodes on the scalp to carefully monitor brain activity that changes dramatically in different phases of the sleep cycle. A wrist-worn wearable can only approximate what is going on by monitoring heart rate, respiration, movement etc. Garmin wearables do a decent job of this and I can certainly see a correlation between my sense of whether I slept well and what Garmin reports. But it’s not fool proof. A few nights ago I found myself wide-awake in the middle of the night. I didn’t move, but lay quietly until sleep returned – but I was awake for five or ten minutes or so. In the morning the watch didn’t report any wakefulness, presumably because I remained absolutely still. So, as with all wearable devices it provides an approximation of sleep quality, but the Garmin Epix is likely as good as any and better than many.
And to track sleep, the watch needs to be on your wrist, so any watch that needs daily recharging is likely to be useless for sleep tracking as most people will opt to recharge overnight, although, I tend to recharge when sat at my desk during the day so the watch is ready to monitor my sleep.
Nutrition – nope, not really.
While sleep is likely the most important health pillar – actually more like a foundation on which everything else is based – nutrition also has a crucial role in determining health outcomes. However, Garmin’s smart watches are not equipped to track nutrition. The watch will estimate the calories expended during an activity and Garmin offers connected weight scales (Garmin Index) to track body weight and body composition. But for actually tracking calorie intake, Garmin has partnered with MyFitnessPal to exchange workout and nutrition information. MyFitnessPal has a great database and a well-designed app, but it’s tedious and time-consuming to log everything one consumes in a day, especially if making everything from scratch, so I rarely do it. But equally, most people are creatures of habit, so once you establish your own personal database of foods, checking the boxes next to each item can be relatively quick.
And as a smartwatch..?
The Epix delivers notifications from a partner smartphone and includes the ability to respond, albeit with canned messages and then only with Android devices; iOS doesn’t support this capability. The Epix (along with most higher-end Garmin watches) can store music playlists from Spotify and a few other music applications that can be listened to through Bluetooth headphones. It doesn’t support Audible, which is a shame, because I listen to books on longer runs, but I can download podcasts.
Garmin does have an app store of sorts, however few of the apps are particularly inspiring; most only offer variations on watch faces. There are a few professional apps, such as Spotify, Komoot, Amazon Music, Deezer etc, but these are limited in extent. However, the standard core functions are sufficiently complete that I don’t feel like I am missing anything significant.
Garmin Pay is incorporated in the watch, but few banks where I live in the UK support Garmin Pay, so it’s essentially useless.
Summary – goodness, it’s pricey
Apple is coming after Garmin’s market with its Watch Ultra – a do-it-all watch that counters Garmin’s fine-grained and often confusing application-specific offerings. I will be testing Apple’s newly launched contender in the next few weeks and will share my thoughts in due course. For now, I am happily making good use of the Epix to manage my training and recovery. It’s a definite step up from my previous Garmin Forerunner 935. But considering the latest Forerunner, the 955, does more or less everything the Epix can do, but for several hundred fewer dollars, and the Fenix 7 is almost identical, but just lacks the OLED display, and is again quite a bit cheaper – the question of value for money is a difficult one to get over. Were I choosing again, I would think twice about opting for the Epix, but it’s a near-run thing.