Garmin Fenix 3 HR Review – Is the optical HR sensor worth the cost?

The Fenix 3 its great. It’a my personal watch. What would have made it better is an optical heart rate sensor. Well Garmin have answered my heart’s desire… The question this Garmin Fenix3 HR Review will ask, is it worth the price of admission however?

Garmin Fenix 3 HR Review

The Garmin Fenix3 has been my personal watch since it’s release in 2015, so what does the addition of optical HR bring to the table?

Garmin Fenix3 HR Review

The Garmin Fenix series of watches have always been highly regarded, but with the release of the Fenix3 last year, Garmin simultaneously produced one of the best multi-sport watches on the market today. In my humble opinion. Yet at the same time annoyed every single Garmin 920xt owner. Why did people nash their teeth at the release of a new watch?? The 920XT was released about 4 months prior to the Fenix3 coming out.

Garmin Fenix3 HR Review

The 920Xt and the Fenix3 are essentially the same device, yet the former is plastic, with a plastic screen and a very sporty design, vs the laters metal, glass (or sapphire) screen and distinctly more “every day” stylish looks.

Dont believe me? The Fenix3 is even available with a leather strap, and feels very much like Garmin is positioning this as their “one device to rule them all” product.

Garmin Fenix3 HR Review

OK disclaimer – I own a Fenix3. Purchased myself. No discounts. It’s my every day watch. My regular mechanical watch now sits in a draw. Which is a shame. But the Fenix3 does SO MANY THINGS! So as well as looking at the Fenix3 HR as an overall review, personally the big question for me will be whether the optical HR  upgrade is worth the price? A particularly interesting point, as my opinion on optical heart rate gear is quite clear – I’m a fan:

Epson SF-810

Garmin Vivosmart HR

Mio Fuse

Device Design

The Garmin Fenix3 HR is nearly identical to the regular Fenix3. Yes there is the heart rate sensor on the back, but there are a few other changes too!

The Garmin Fenix3 HR uses Garmin’s in house Elevate optical HR sensor, first seen in the Garmin Vivosmart HR, but having changed from an square to a rounded design

Garmin Fenix3 HR Review

The Elevate sensor uses three LED’s, two green and one yellow to increase accuracy, although with the initial Vivosmart HR review, the initial device accuracy as a little lacking.

The Elevate sensor stands proud of the Fenix3 back, meaning that the unit sits slightly higher, but on your wrist there is no discernible difference

Garmin Fenix3 HR Review

However as a result of the sensor sticking out, the charger also had to be redesigned slightly, by cutting a hole in the back. As such a Fenix3 charger cannot easily juice up an Fenix3 HR, but the new charger will work easily with the older watch – something to keep in mind if you are shopping for extra chargers

Garmin Fenix3 HR Review

The strap has also changed slightly compared to the original Fenix3 (on the right below). The new strap has slightly more stretch, but also appears to have a coating applied to it, which I found rubbed off over a period of weeks, making the strap look quite naff

Garmin Fenix3 HR Review

There are three buttons to the LEFT side of the device,

Garmin Fenix3 HR Review

From LEFT to RIGHT in the above image, is the power/light button, and the upper/down menu buttons

The CENTRE button also doubles as the menu button

The RIGHT side of the watch has the Start and the Back/Lap button. Here you can also see a pair of minor changes on Fenix 3HR

Garmin Fenix3 HR Review

The Fenix3 HR (on top) has a larger speaker grill, and the ring around the Start button is now bare metal rather than red.

The two menu buttons can be used from the watch screen to access the user programmable widget screens

Using the Device


Widgets are transferred directly over from the regular Fenix3 , but with the addition of widgets specific to the optical HR monitor. To choose the different widgets, select the menu screen by long pressing the centre LEFT button

Garmin Fenix3 HR Review

From the menu, you can enter the widgets section, where you can choose which screens you want to be able to quickly access from the watch screen

Garmin Fenix3 HR Review

There are around 20 widget options which come installed, and you can reorder their appearance from the Fenix3 watch face, something I found very useful.Garmin Fenix3 HR ReviewYou can also choose various other widgets from the Garmin IQ store. Some are amazing, others…less so, and make you realise some people have too much time on their hands!

Garmin Fenix3 HR Review

Activity tracking

Activity tracking is now utterly standard on fitness devices, and is a great example of how the widget screens work.

Garmin Fenix3 HR Review

Here you can see your variable goal at the top of the screen, using Garmin “nudge” approach to activity tracking goals.

Many activity trackers have a bar that you fill up across the day, seen around the outside of the widget in grey, but this widget also has an Inactivity meter, seen one the BOTTOM edge of the widget in red. The device will buzz to say you haven’t been active within 50mins giving you chance to “save the hour”. But you can also easily ignore it – Garmin don’t send The Boys round!

As for your goal, you can either set the standard 10,000 steps or the option for dynamic (i.e. the device nudges you to do a little more the day after you hit your goal, or reduces it slightly if you didnt manage to get to the goal), which can become quite a challenge, if it is nudging you towards 12,000+ steps at times!

Pressing the start button from the activity widget, will give your last 7 day history of steps, with green bars indicating you pleasingly exceeded your goal.

Garmin Fenix3 HR Review

The device can also estimate from this data how far you’ve probably gone in a day. You can increase the accuracy of this estimation by adding in your correct stride length

Accuracy of Tracking

All tracking devices have a slight level of variability to them, and it is difficult to state which is the most accurate.

Compared the to the FitBit charge, the Fenix 3HR and Fenix3 both record about 1000-1500 steps fewer in a day, which is more likely down to a companies particular recording algorithms than anything else. It is worth noting that both Garmin devices routinely would be within 500 steps of each other, being worn on different wrists.

Garmin Fenix3 HR Review

Intensity Tracking

But just saying you are moving around isnt really enough. The Fenix3 HR is able to comment on the intensity of your activity

Garmin Fenix3 HR Review

Intensity is another currently Garmin specific metric. The idea is to try and get go beyond step tracking, trying to get people to increase their activity levels in a more meaningful way. There is some debate as to what this actually means as a health target. In the UK, we tend to advise patients to aim to get 20-30mins a day of activity which makes your slightly short of breath.

Garmin devices record this through two methods:

“Your Garmin HR/HR+ device calculates intensity minutes by comparing your heart rate data during an activity to your average resting heart rate. If heart rate is turned off, the device calculates moderate intensity minutes by analyzing your steps per minute.

Which actually seems like a much more scientific method that just advising patients to try and become short of breath

24Hr heart rate recording

I just dont get it. I understand HR recording when doing sports, and as a passing interest calculating more accurate resting HR is good, but overall, I’m not sure that it adds a huge amount to training and sports. However the function is here, and it is very nice to be able to scroll up from through the widget screens to see what the last 4 hours of your day has looked like. Sometimes quite entertainingly… as you find you’ve been wearing a heart rate monitor when you normally wouldnt.

You can view your instant HR from another widget.

Garmin Fenix3 HR Review

You might notice that some of the graph is a little blocky, whilst some appears to show a lot of detail to the heart rate. Garmin saves battery power by reducing how often the devices checks your pulse depending on how active you are – determined from the accelerometer. So the more active, the greater the frequency of HR recordings. SIMPLES!

Like the activity tracking widget, hitting the start button will also give a historical overview of your resting heart rate over the last week

Garmin Fenix3 HR Review

As to accuracy, the Fenix3 MOSTLY agrees with recordings from other devices I have used, which normally place my resting HR ~50 BPM.


The Fenix3 HR, like the regular Fenix3 can be used for indoors, or outdoors swimming

Garmin Fenix3 HR Review

You get access to more metrics with the Pool swim, after telling the device how long the pool is

  • Lap count
  • Lengths
  • Distance
  • Swim pace
  • Recording resting time
  • Strokes per minute

Using the length of the pool you have put in, the accelerometer records the number of lengths, and thus calculates your distance. However if you stop, and have a flail around of your arms, or wave at someone, the unit can think you are actually turning around.

Unfortunately you can’t then edit this data later.

The optical HR completely switches off when using any swimming modes, just giving a blank field – which is a real shame

Garmin Fenix3 HR Review

Garmin are currently trying to improve the accuracy of the optical HRM for swimming, but currently is not activated on public release firmwares, so you need to continue using a swim/tri HRM

Garmin Fenix3 HR Review

General Use

As mentioned, I usual use a Garmin Fenix3, both as a comparison device, and my every day watch. As such I’ve been using the Fenix3 HR for 24/7 since the parcel arrived, and can give a very good idea how this device compares to the regular Fenix3

The Fenix3 HR stood up to ToughMudder well.

Garmin Fenix3 HR Review

If you really want to test the durability of ANY sports gadget, ToughMudder is probably the most strain a device is going to get.Garmin Fenix3 HR Review

Not just because its on obstacle race, every device should be able to deal with that. Once you drop and hit the water and mud, it gets everywhere, but the issue is the mud is so abrasive

Garmin Fenix3 HR Review

Did the optical HR sensor hold up with all the mud, and WATER?

Garmin Fenix3 HR Review

Well it certainly seemed to record something, but I’m not sure whether 87BPM, whilst running at under 4mins per km could be considered an accurate recording.

Garmin Fenix3 HR ReviewHeart Rate Broadcast

You active the heart rate broadcast option from within the Sensor menu.

Garmin Fenix3 HR Review

This menu also contains the optical heart rate sensor settings, mainly the auto function and the toggle for broadcast

Garmin Fenix3 HR Review

When you activate HR broadcast you see the below screen, you transmit your pulse data over ANT+, but are then limited in using other functions of the watch

Garmin Fenix3 HR Review

Optical HR during activities…

This is basically the focus of the Fenix3 HR, if the optical sensors isnt as good as a chest strap, its essentially a pointless expense.

As a result, I’ve tried to do many work outs, using a regular Fenix3 with Garmin HRM, compared with a Fenix3 HR. So how did things look?

My biggest surprise… that the optical HR on the Fenix3 HR is DEACTIVATED for swimming. So if you are thinking of doing a triathlon, and have a Fenix3 HR, you still need a strap!

Garmin Fenix3 HR Review

The first Elevate sensor I tested from Garmin tended to work best on the bike, and wasn’t too happy with running. Apparently recent firmware updates have improved the accuracy.

The Fenix3 HR on a 9Km bike ride on the way back from Stratford – the Strava activity is here – gave the following graph:

Garmin Fenix3 HR Review

Broadly the Fenix 3 tracks acceptably. There is a brief delay over the first 500m, but then it settles down to match nicely.

However there are two anomalies, a big drop, and conversely a large spike as well, neither of which were seen with the HRM.

Indoors I got a much better tracking using Zwift, but then that does greatly reduce the number of environmental variables

Garmin Fenix3 HR Review


I have trashed enough devices doing ToughMudder in the past, that I was only going to use one device at a time here! As an aside though, the sapphire screen on the Fenix3 HR held up much more effectively than my original Fenix3 when I did the Wolf Run in November. That is not to say the original Fenix3 was trashed, but you could see if you looked closely, minor scratches on the glass. There were no scratches to the Fenix3 HR sapphire.

Interestingly enough, the paint on the outside of the Fenix3 HR bezel, also survived ToughMudder without a scratch, my original Fenix3 paint scratches if you look at it.

Garmin Fenix3 HR Review

However, by the end of the Garmin Fenix3 HR Review it too had developed scratches on the bezel

Garmin Fenix3 HR Review

There will be lots of people who genuinely don’t mind the scratches. I personally DO. My advice, if you are looking at Garmin Fenix 3, by either of the unpainted models – that’s the Titanium or the sliver bezels.

Garmin Fenix3 HR Review

Unfortunately the Fenix3 HR is ONLY available in the painted bezel currently – SHAME

Another area of wear highlighted by this Garmin Fenix3 HR Review is the actual strap wearing over time. Many of you might consider that to be an exceptionally minor point, but at a watch costing nearly £500, it wasn’t impressed with the coating wearing off the Fenix3 HR strap

Garmin Fenix3 HR Review

This wear occurs when the strap rubs on things, like desks etc. It is not from the buckle wearing the rubber coating away


Good product – yet an EXPENSIVE product

SO WHY USE SUCH THIN AND NAFF PAINT ON THE BEZEL? Especially for a device which costs as much as the Fenix3 HR does?!

Ultimately, whilst there is only one colour choice for the Garmin Fenix3 HR, I’d actually advise against buying it, if you are dead set on having an optical HR.

Personally the optical HR was nice, as was having my resting HR calculated. BUT there is a big price difference with the Garmin Fenix3 HR. The elevate sensor is not as accurate as a normal chest strap, and not being able to use the sensor when swimming, reduces the attractiveness further

Personally, I’d say pick up the silver or titanium bezelled Fenix 3 with a sapphire screen, and save your money. With smaller devices like the Mio Fuse, it’s easier to forgive a few errors given their lower price. But the Fenix3 HR is an expensive device.

I may have swung to upgrade myself, even knowing about the occasional inconsistencies, but the scratching on the bezels drives me nuts. So whilst there is one one colour option on the Fenix3 HR, I’ll stick with my trusty Fenix3 and chest strap.

UPDATE 31/08/16

Garmin Fenix3 HR Review

I dont often do updates to posts, however Garmin have now released a silver Fenix3 HR, this new watch DOES NOT include the sapphire glass. The bear metal bezel also removes the issue of scratches to the paint, and without the sapphire drops the price nicely as well. I personally picked one up from Amazon at £339 – but as ever, keep an eye on Amazons prices as they change, but if you can find one at that price, then the silver is the one to buy

If you want to check, look at the back of the watch – dark grey Fenix3 HR has SAPPHIRE written on the rear

Garmin Fenix3 HR Review

Whereas the new silver Fenix3 HR, has a regular glass screen, and no mention of sapphire on the rear

Garmin Fenix3 HR Review

About James Gill

A runner first, a cyclist second, and when pushed a swimmer. Working as a GP registrar, I found that I went from walking 12miles a day on the hospital corridors to sitting in a chair. Whilst at medical school, I'd run 10km in an evening just for fun, but having lost the general activity required to be a hospital SHO, consciously being active has now become more important - well until I broke myself!

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  • Raphael Ragaven

    Thanks for letting us know about the Silver NOT being Sapphire. I nearly bought one… Cheers and keep up the good work!

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  • Damian

    Sapphire or not???

    Just checked Garmin’s UK website. They clearly state that the Silver Fenix 3 HR does NOT have sapphire glass.

    Go to page below to see table

    Copied from the page
    Fenix 3 Mineral lens
    Fenix 3 Sapphire Sapphire lens
    Fenix 3 Titanium Sapphire lens
    Fenix 3 HR Sapphire lens
    Fenix 3 HR Silver Mineral lens
    Fenix Chronos Sapphire lens

    Garmin definitely missing a trick here.

  • I can confirm that I was told by Garmin Canada that the Fenix 3 HR “Titanium” does NOT have the sapphire. The “Dark Gray” edition of the Fenix 3 HR DOES have the sapphire glass. A shame, as I’d like to have both Ti and Sapphire but I ended up with the Sapphire version for myself. I decided a scratch across the face of the glass where I’d need to read daily would bother me more than scuffs on the finish of the watch case.

  • Chris

    I have the same one from sams, I called garmin and they told me that all hr models have sapphire even if it’s not printed on the back, although I have yet to find a way to confirm

  • Tu Dao

    I’m like Matt. Got the samsclub Fenix 3 hr version but the back does not say sapphire. I’m not sure I want to keep this if it’s not. Thanks.

  • Matt

    James. I recently bought the Fenix 3 HR Titanium version (010-01338-76). I don’t want to put the link here, but I bought it from Samsclub. In the specs it says sapphire lens, but when I see in the rear of my watch it says “316 STAINLESS STEEL”. I asked to Garmin and they told me that all the HR model are Sapphire, but how can I be sure that is not the same version without sapphire lens that you talked about in this post?

    Even when it says STAINLESS STEEL if it is HR it is Sapphire?, so your Silver edition has Sapphire lens too?

    Thanks in advance.

  • No issues at all. I’ve done a 1:15 ride and then left the watch running on GPS mode with the HR running for a further 7 hours, and still 35% battery remaining

  • It’s the GPS which would be the battery killer. Let me try at work today.

  • Star Boy

    Do you think that the battery would last on a 7 hour ride, with GPS, HR monitor, cadence and notifications on?

  • The one on my wrist currently is the silver model and is NOT sapphire

  • Yes. The silver one to the best of my knowledge is NOT sapphire

  • Luis

    So it is a shot in the dark to buy that silver willing for a sapphire screen. 🙁 Would like a silver one with sapphire…

  • The sapphire screen is mentioned on the rear of the watch.

    On the silver, non-sapphire version, it DOESNT say sapphire on the rear case

  • Luis

    Ok… So I have a dilemma: there are two shops where I can buy the garmin.
    Garmin Fenix 3 hr with silver bezel 499€
    Garmin Fenix 3 hr sapphire with black bezel was 599€ now is 499€

    Is there any way to see if the screen is sapphire?


  • The statement all Fenix 3 HR watches are sapphire was true BEFORE the lower cost silver HR was released, which has a regular glass screen

  • Luis

    Great review, I’m from Portugal and there’s only one site where I can buy the silver one (I don’t want to have scratches on the bear metal bezel) but I would like to have a sapphire glass…

    On the update you say hr silver does not include sapphire, but on the comments you say all hr are sapphire. Can you help me?

    PS here in Portugal, the hr silver is the same price as the hr black sapphire…

  • Yes that is with the HR activated. There have been a few recent firmware updates, so I’m getting an easy 7 days at least now

    I don’t *think* there is a difference in battery size between the HR and Reg fenix3, so yes, you should get the same battery life

  • Guillaume


    Thanks for your review 🙂
    I have questions about battery life
    – If I disable HR, is that autonomy is the same between the Fenix 3 et Fenix 3 HR ?
    – You say that with the new fenix 3 you have 5-7 days battery life. Is it with HR activated H24 7/7 ?


  • Tech&Hobby

    And i am like you, if i see marks i can’t stop think about it. SO silver is much better on that part, my favorite so far is Tactix Bravo in all Black. But to bad they not make that one in Hr, because that Black keep take hard damage without get marks..:)

  • Tech&Hobby

    Yes, as of Sweden Garmin say “All” Hr had Sapphire. I have no problem with mine, but they say “All” and the silver here not have sapphire..then it is a problem. And you pay even more for the silver one, so i hope Garmin around here know what they talk about 🙂

  • I will double check with Garmin

  • Tech&Hobby

    I had the “standard” darker Hr when it came out, but did get the Silver later on. And i did call Garmin and they told me where i live “ALL” HR is Sapphire, the silver one did not say Sapphire on the box but the dark did. And therefor i did call Garmin self and they told me they had remove the Sapphire but it still was sapphire on all Hr. And where i live the silver cost like 100$ more than the dark standard that have Sapphire printed on box.

  • This is one reason why I tend not do do updates on posts. But given the new price, I thought I had to update – I’ve added a new picture this morning so you can see the back and the lack of sapphire writing more clearly

  • I’ve purchased the new silver sapphire – my older grey fenix3 is currently listen on eBay.

    I’m more bothered about functionality. But the price of the sapphire fenix3 just didn’t make sense. For me, at £339 a week ago on Amazon, the new silver one made much more sense.

    But it all depends on what you can afford.

    My take a £250 fenix and a £50 great rate strap separately, I’m happy for pay £39 for constant hr monitoring

  • Nick

    Awesome, thanks James. Final question. You mention you prefer the sapphire glass but also seem to recommend the silver version… Is the choice between visible scratches on the bezel (grey/sapphire) or on the watch face/glass (silver)?

    Which do you recommend would show less damage over a longer period? What would you choose given the choice now?


  • No the silver edition is NOT sapphire glass, hens why is costs less

  • Nick

    Hi. Great review! Awesome work. 1 question, it’s a little unclear after the update. Do all the HR editions come with Sapphire glass?

    It’s not really clear anywhere, even on the chain reaction website listed on the features of the ‘silver edition’ is both sapphire glass and normal protected crystal?!?

    If I go for the silver edition Fenix 3 HR, will it have the sapphire glass or not?

    Thanks in advance.

  • All the HR models come with sapphire glass. And it’s MUCH better for it.

    I won’t personally buy another sports without the sapphire glass – when the option is availabek

  • The Fenix 3 sapphire (not hr) is the same. Just different glass.

    I found over a year you do pick up more scratches on the screen with the straight forward glass. The sapphire is much better choice,

  • Louis

    Thanks for the insights…Just like you, the scratches on the bezel would drive me nuts! So, I’ve opted for a Fenix 3 hr silver. But I can’t seem to accurately determine what the difference is with this and the other models (aside from the colour of course!) – is the only difference the sapphire glass? And if so, is it a big mistake not getting the sapphire glass model?


  • My regular Fenix 3 gets recharged about every 7-10 days assuming 1-2 activities. The Fenix3 was about 5-7 days.

    The issue for me was reactivity. The optical HR is *generally* good. But doesn’t react as fast as the chest HR. Plus depending on what you are doing, I found that occasionally the optical HR would be slow to detect when going on a run, e.g. 5 mins in an blank read out.

  • Jacob Neumann

    Hey!!! Great review, very thorough with great points. I was wondering about the accuracy of the optical heart rate reading while performing runs.. Im beginning to run ultra marathons and the difference in battery life is a big deal for me. Did you notice that there was a difference? Also did you try toggling the optical HR reader off on it as well?