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Head to Head with the Apple Watch Ultra and Garmin Fenix 7X

In this age of so-called smart devices, it isn't easy to know which wearable is going to be best for the kind of training paddle athletes do. Over the course of the last six months, I have had the opportunity to compare the new Apple Ultra with the Garmin Fenix 7X, and though injury has prevented me from getting into the serious meat of Paddle Monster training, I have enough experience with both devices to offer this answer. And it's not going to be especially helpful, I am afraid.

It all depends on what you want and need.

Or alternatively: It's complicated.

Background

First, on me as a user.  I love, love, love tech. I have been a loyal Garmin user since the first Fenix watches came out. I am also a loyal Apple user when it comes to phones and computers. Living in both these "environments" is often not easy, especially when it comes to the watches and their functionality. Last Fall, I put my Fenix away and started wearing the Ultra after I dislocated my knee and knew I would not be able to train as I have been accustomed for some time. Seeing my fitness level decrease on the Garmin Connect app was not conducive to my rehab mental health.

Just so we are clear - the commentary that follows is all anecdotal.  If you are looking for a true head-to-head comparison, look elsewhere. I always recommend folks read what DC Rainmaker has to say about anything sport-tech related.  He does a great job breaking it down in detail.

I'm not going to talk about the physical design of the two watches.  I believe in form following function and do not care how big my watch is.  If you do and prefer a smaller, slimmer watch, then the Ultra is the better choice for you.

If you do not use an iPhone, most of this isn't going to be relevant.  For you, Garmin devices are the only way to go.

Big Differences Right off the Bat

Battery Life

One of the deal breakers for me when it comes to previous versions of the Apple Watch has been battery life.  It just could not compete with Garmin. The Ultra was supposed to change all of that. And it does, to a certain extent.  I can get away with charging it up every two days or so, and once I got into that habit - and the habit of remembering to charge it up when I am not active (like when I do computer work) it's not so bad.  But, I could get away with not charging my Fenix for two weeks or so.  Yes, my Fenix has solar charging capabilities.  Yes, it is not as graphics and color heavy.  Yes, you have more options to turn juice-zapping functions off or down - most notably, the level of GPS power you use. The Garmin will be the watch I use in backcountry situations, no doubt, for this reason.  So for now, before a paddle session, I ensure I have enough battery level on my Ultra.  Not something I really had to do with the Garmin.

So, while there are significant improvements in the Apple Watch battery life, it is still not as good as Garmin. Keep this in mind as you determine exactly what you need a smart device for and how you are going to use it.  For daily Paddle Monster workouts, it should be just fine as long as you keep tabs on battery levels.

General Fitness Feature Comparisons

Both watches record heart rate, blood oxygen rates, distance, and speed. Both watches now offer touchscreen capabilities.  But, the Apple Ultra seems to excel in this department.  After a quick learning period, I've concluded the Ultra is more user-friendly than the Garmin Fenix.  And the display of data and information is just better.  Also, you can design the look and feel of your Ultra watch face and the functions it puts right at your fingertip.  This is extremely useful if you need quick access to information like weather, wind, tides, and surf reports.

Integration with other Apps and Devices

If you like getting text messages on your watch, reading emails, and generally being able to have your phone connected to your wrist, Garmin offers some of that functionality. But if you are an iPhone user, this is probably the biggest reason to use the Apple Ultra. It just offers more when it comes to watch-phone connection.  From a safety standpoint, I find the Ultra's emergency calling features a big plus. The other safety features are also easier to use and set up on the Ultra than on the Garmin. After dislocating my knee sup surfing and wondering what I would have done had I not been with friends, this is an attractive feature.  And one of the main reasons I upgraded and switched over.

Garmin Connect v Apple Health

Apple Health will monitor my heart rate and sleep as Garmin does. Both will track sleep respiration, HRV, resting heart rate and times spent in the different sleep stages. The results are pretty comparable. Or close enough for my liking. However, I do need additional apps on the Ultra to get the deep dive data Connect provides all in one place - like body battery and training load levels.  And you have to make sure you don't duplicate data input by allowing too many apps that do the same monitoring to write data to Health.  That skews the overall results.  Pick one and stick with it.  The one thing I really miss on the Garmin is the body battery function.  Apple doesn't seem to have anything quite as good and the third-party options just don't seem as accurate or as elegant.

Overall, the Apple watch works with more apps I already use on my phone - including wind and tide forecasts - whereas you are at the mercy of what might be in the Connect IQ store when it comes to functional apps that will work with Garmin Connect and your watch.  Again,  if you are not an iPhone user, then none of this is going to be relevant.  In the words of Ferris Bueller, at the end of the movie, during the credits, "you're still here?...go!"

Bottom line: If you want to get more overall out of your watch and you are an iPhone user, the Ultra edges out the Fenix when total usability is taken into account, beyond just workout applications. This isn't something to scoff at when considering the price tag of both these devices -  $800 and up.

Recording Workouts

For Paddle Monsters, this is where the rubber meets the road.  Neither platform is especially user-friendly when it comes to creating custom interval workouts for the watch, but Garmin has gotten better.  Garmin allows you to create workouts on both the desktop and iPhone and then export them to the watch.  As far as I can discern, there isn't an option like that for the Apple Ultra. You have to do it all on the watch itself.

I also noticed that when using Ultra's onboard workout app to record my paddle sessions, I get speed, distance, and heart rate info but NOT a GPS map of where I paddled. Now, that isn't really necessary most of the time, but sometimes it is nice to see where you were faster or slower or working harder. I could use a third-party app to record that, but it might not give me the heart rate data. Plus, it's more buttons I have to remember to push.  Garmin definitely edges out the Ultra here unless I am just missing something.  I will be able to test this out further when my knee situation is resolved enough, and I can get back to my hard-core training.  But for right now, I can live with the data I get from my Ultra.

Both watches have wrist-based heart rate monitors, or you can connect a Bluetooth-enabled strap for better accuracy. I have not done this yet, but the wrist-based readings on my Ultra are in line with Garmin's readings.

Cross-training

The Apple Ultra is fine for recording other types of workouts, like gym sessions, cycling, and running. But again, I think you can dial in your workout and get more granular data in return much better on the Garmin.

Surfing

Here is where the Ultra kicks Garmin's butt. Garmin rushed to create a surfing workout function when Apple started offering integration with Surfline's Dawn Patrol app.  It works much better than some of the third-party apps that used to be available on Connect IQ, but it still has issues.  At least for me.  Its ability to accurately record caught waves is definitely inferior to Dawn Patrol. The user interface and resulting presentation of surf session data are also pretty boring.

Wrapping it Up

Apple Ultra Wins:

  • Overall look and feel
  • Integration with non-workout specific tools and apps
  • Flexibility of use
  • Surfing data

Garmin Fenix Wins:

  • One-stop shopping for workout management and data collection
  • Battery life
  • GPS options

How to decide?

Determine what functions/data are important to you. Do you want integration of non-workout apps on your watch? Do you want to be able to design a workout on your desktop and then send it to your watch? Are you a big data fiend? Will you use the watch in extreme conditions or longer events? Do you want to be able to call 9-1-1 quickly if necessary?

If you are more casual about the data you collect or need from your workouts and like your iPhone features, then the Ultra is probably perfect for you.  If you surf a lot, you'll like the Ultra better.

If you are really into crunching all your numbers and want the cleanest way to set up your Paddle Monster workouts, then the Garmin Fenix is probably the better choice.  If you intend to use it for other long distances activities like backpacking, definitely go with the Fenix because of battery life.

I am nowhere near ready to start training at the same level I was before my knee issues, but if and when I am, it will be hard for me to decide whether to go back to the Garmin.  Hopefully, I can find a seamless workaround to let either me continue to use the Ultra or to use both in tandem with Apple Health.

 

 

 

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