Ever since we started chasing waterfalls over 20 years ago, I had been looking for ways to log our hikes as well as have more accurate in-the-field information for better navigation. I’ve been using a dedicated GPS handheld unit in the form of the Garmin etrex and the Garmin etrex Venture HC devices as that tool for the better part of two decades. However, it suffered from shortcomings that made we wonder if modern GPS devices might finally cause me to ditch my trusty handheld GPS units. So this article is a Garmin Fenix 6X Pro Sapphire Review, where I detail my firsthand experiences with this GPS smart watch after finally buying it and using it extensively in the field.
Was this watch worth the steep price? Did it perform better than my GPS handheld units? How did it compare against using my iPhone as a GPS handheld unit with the Gaia GPS app? Here’s a breakdown of the good and the bad…
What Is the Garmin Fenix 6X Pro Sapphire?
The Garmin Fenix 6X Pro Sapphire is primarily a fitness watch with capabilities of GPS handheld devices that Garmin is known for. Its long name is actually a sort of code that describes the various options and features that come with the watch.
Therefore, the “6X” means that I have a 51mm case, which is the largest one of the 6 series that they make. It might be a bit bulky and heavy for smaller individuals so they do have a “6S” with a 42mm case and a regular “6” with a 47mm case.
All of the Fenix 6 series watches come with a lot of features concerning fitness tracking, climbing tracking, health monitoring sensors, and bunch of other bells and whistles. I thought these features were nice-to-have, but they weren’t reasons that I bought mine.
That said, the watch also comes with an altimeter, barometer, and compass (or “ABC”) as well as GPS capabilities. Thus, it readily displays information concerning the elevation, the air pressure (so it’s a weather indicator), and the direction of movement.
It also can track where I’ve been so I can take that information and load it onto say Google Maps or other map software like Garmin MapSource or BaseCamp. These default features were among the main reasons why I considered replacing my Garmin etrex units with this smart watch.
In addition to the size and standard features, the “Pro” means that the watch comes with a topographic map, and this was the main reason why I wound up buying the pro version of the watch. The map that came with the watch covered North America (called TopoActive Americas, North). That means that I don’t have to download topo maps onto the device as long as my hike is in this continent.
The Pro feature also comes with music playing capabilities, but that was another nice-to-have feature that I didn’t care for.
Finally, the “Sapphire” aspect meant that it was built with scratch-resistant crystal glass for rugged outdoor use. They also have “Solar”, which meant that the watch would have solar cells on it for charging the watch in-the-field (adding additional battery life) while using a coated “gorilla” glass from Corning.
The regular watches that are neither Solar nor Sapphire had the standard “gorilla” glass. I paid extra for the sapphire glass feature because I knew in my hiking experiences that I tend to bump into rocks or trees on my hikes.
How Does The Garmin Fenix 6X Pro Sapphire Solve My Problems?
I primarily looked for something to replace my handheld GPS units. So it was with that in mind that I evaluated the Garmin Fenix 6X Pro Sapphire watch.
Wearability and Instant At-A-Glance In-the-field Info
One of the biggest gripes that I had with my Garmin etrex handheld units was that I either had to find a wearable pouch for them or I had to hold onto it (thereby tying up one hand).
With the way the case was constructed, it was very awkward to try to clip it onto a strap or a pack, which forced me to accessorize (maybe it was intentionally made that way for that reason?!?).
With the Garmin Fenix 6X Pro Sapphire, the watch was wearable so it solved my carrying or mounting issues that I had to put up with.
Faster Satellite Acquisition and Accurate GPS Fix
Another pet peeve of mine when using my Garmin etrex units was the time it took to acquire satellites to determine my position. Often times, it could take upwards of 15 minutes or even longer before finally acquiring satellites for a GPS fix.
In some cases, the etrex would never acquire and so I was left with an excursion without hiking logs since I couldn’t delay any longer just for this device.
Well, the GPS smart watch had the ability to lock onto two separate satellite constellations for a faster acquisition time and determination of my position compared to the standard etrex units.
The reason was because my model had the ability to pair up the GPS satellite constellation with either the Russian GLONASS satellite constellation or the European-based Galileo satellite constellation. So the more satellites the smart watch could track, the faster I could get a GPS fix and the more accurate the location information.
Navigation and Memory
As far as a navigational aid, the Garmin etrex required me to download topographic maps into the device, but its limited memory of 24MB meant that I had to load a new map for each hike, especially if they’re not close to each other.
With the amount of time that this exercise can consume, I often didn’t bother navigating with it, and I just used the device as a breadcrumbs trip logger.
Since my Garmin Fenix 6X Pro Sapphire came with a topographic map of all of North America, I didn’t need to wrangle with trying to import a map in most situations that I would encounter.
However, if I needed to import something even more detailed and specialized (assuming it’s compatible with this device through the Basecamp software) or for something outside North America, then there is that possibility.
The watch had a bigger memory of 32GB of storage capacity so it could store more than what my Garmin etrex units could handle. This meant that even for trip logging, I didn’t have to worry about clearing the track log as often like I did with the etrex units.
Thus, if there was a snag in downloading tracks or waypoints (more on this later), I didn’t have to stress about any of my historical data being gone forever as a result of being able to keep them around longer.
While the Garmin etrex handheld units were also waterproof, I found that the waterproof capability of the Garmin Fenix 6X Pro Sapphire Watch to be particularly useful when compared against say an iPhone.
Case in point, while pursuing a waterfall, I had to hike through a rather deep, standing pool obstacle. This obstacle carried a lot of risk in terms of inundating my electronics in water, which was ordinarily be a recipe for disaster.
And in the case of my adventure, I actually had the misfortune of making a misstep, which caused me to fall over and dunk everything in water!
In the face of such calamity, I immediately had to shut off the iPhone (among other things) to ensure that no further damage would come to that device nor the battery case that was attached to it.
However, the Garmin Fenix 6X Pro Sapphire watch didn’t miss a beat, and it continued to record as if nothing out-of-the-ordinary happened. So based on this experience, I was convinced that I had to at least have the watch unit on me every time I went hiking.
What Don’t I Like About the Garmin Fenix 6X Pro Sapphire?
The Garmin Fenix 6X Pro Sapphire watch was by no means a perfect product. In this section, I go through the things that I didn’t like about it. That said, many of these gripes were largely due to the size of the watch itself, which it can’t do anything about. It’s just a byproduct of fitting in so much functionality into a watch!
Topo Map Detail and Finicky Integration
Even though the TopoActive Americas, North map that came included with my watch was pretty good, and my purchased maps from Garmin for Mapsource and Basecamp were of similar quality, they were vastly inferior to the premium maps on Gaia GPS.
The Garmin topographic maps tended to have old or outdated information, and their lack of detail made some of the more obscure hikes less useful as far as being a navigational in-the-field aid.
Even when it came to trip planning, I found that Gaia GPS maps were every bit better than the Garmin maps.
Unfortunately, there wasn’t a straightforward way to import Gaia GPS maps onto the Garmin Fenix 6X Pro watch so I couldn’t have that important at-a-glance information on the watch.
Instead, I’d have to stop and check my iPhone every once in a while, in order to see the Gaia GPS maps (and move around in the map app), which kind of defeated the key benefit of wearing my GPS on my wrist!
Garmin watches would benefit tremendously if they’d make it easier to import the Gaia GPS maps into the watch. But until then, I’m more comfortable keeping the iPhone around for navigation when I have to stop and assess (assuming the iPhone battery can last long enough even with the battery case).
Complicated and Awkward Interfacing
As a result of the compact form of the Garmin Fenix 6X Pro Sapphire watch (and I have the largest-sized model), I found the interface to require a fairly steep learning curve to effectively use. That meant that to truly get the most out of the watch and not have mistakes on a far-flung trip that you won’t get back, I had to try to use it on local hikes and try to anticipate every issue that might come up on the upcoming trip.
Needless to say, that takes time, and you don’t know what you don’t know. So there will undoubtedly be unforeseen mistakes. Case in point, I found out after the fact that my saved locations or waypoints were snapped to the nearest road instead of exactly where I was.
Unfortunately given the default setting to snap saved locations to the nearest road, I learned too late that buried deep under the settings of the watch under “Activity Map Settings” that I had to turn off “Lock on Road”. This adversely affected all of my saved locations taken in the field during my Rocky Mountains road trip, and as a result, they were useless.
Luckily, Gaia GPS, which I used as a backup, didn’t have such issues so I was still able to determine the actual location of my saved locations that were captured on my iPhone using that app. Yet, this was one example of the complicated settings on the Fenix 6X Pro that can easily cause undesired behavior without figuring them out (often with costly consequences like in my case).
Other issues with the watch interface involved having a very tedious and awkward time panning and zooming the map on the watch, which involved lots of steps pushing the correct buttons in order to even get to panning and zooming controls in map mode.
Under such circumstances, if I needed in-the-field information, I just whipped out the iPhone with Gaia GPS loaded and swiped around the map in there as needed.
Another example of the awkward and tedious watch interfacing while in the field involved naming a location that I had just saved on the map. It could easily take several minutes trying to name a saved location on the spot, which can really be a waste of time.
So I learned instead to just save the location using the default date and time stamp, and then write down the reason why I saved that location on a notepad for reference later on. It’s not ideal, and it’s yet another drawback to trying to do things in the field with the Garmin Fenix 6X Pro watch.
Alternatively, this was another case where I just whipped out the iPhone with Gaia GPS, used the app to take a picture, which also saved the waypoint using the photo itself as the metadata description, and then know exactly what that waypoint is for when I look at it on the Gaia GPS online map tool. Indeed, a picture’s worth a thousand words!
Poor Integration with USB and Basecamp
Unlike my other devices from Garmin, BaseCamp could easily download tracks and waypoints directly through the software itself. This worked pretty fairly seamlessly (except sometimes it took a a few tries for the device to be detected through the USB interface) for my Garmin etrex handheld units and my Garmin Nuvi car GPS units.
However, in my experiences, for some reason, the Garmin Fenix 6X Pro watch didn’t seem to behave as well when trying to interface with BaseCamp.
Even if the device was detected, I often found that waypoints and saved locations were empty when I tried to “Receive from Device” in BaseCamp.
In order to get around this issue, I learned by trial and error as well as lots of digging around that I first had to make sure in the watch’s settings, that USB Mode was set to MTP (Media Transfer Protocol). That would at least allow the watch to act like a memory stick or drive. I’m still not clear on what the Garmin mode does nor what benefit it has over the MTP mode.
Then, in Windows Explorer, with the watch plugged in via the USB cable (either the tiny one provided with the watch or a better aftermarket one), I then navigated to the directory “fenix 6x sapphire/Primary/Garmin/” where there’s a bunch of folders in there.
There were two subfolders that I cared about – “Activity/” and “Location/”.
The Activity subfolder contained .fit files that stored all my tracks recorded while it was active in the field.
The Location subfolder contained a file called Lctns.fit, which stored all of my saved waypoints.
Knowing these file locations, I could then import these .fit files into BaseCamp for offline viewing as well as conversion into .gpx format so I could then look at this information in any other application like Google Maps, Gaia GPS, and even legacy programs like Garmin MapSource.
Needless to say, it’s a bit tedious to get data off of my watch using the USB port, and maybe this was intentional.
Now while it seems like most users have no problems using Bluetooth to pair up their watch with their smart phone, or trying to use Garmin Connect to manage information recorded from the watch, I am a bit more protective about my privacy.
So this is why I care a lot about the functionality of the USB interface and how it integrates with BaseCamp (the only program left from Garmin that seems to at least work with data recorded on their more modern GPS devices). In fact, knowing that I could bypass all the wireless and online stuff to get at my watch data and put it on my computer was another reason why I bought this watch.
Moreover, the data breach that happened with Garmin Connect back in July 2020 should be a major warning about how vulnerable such data can be. And former NSA employee Edward Snowden already revealed how easily metadata collected on a smart phone can be leaked and even manipulated by unintended personnel for devious purposes.
Tenuous USB Connection
Speaking of the USB interface, I’ve learned that the cable has a very tenuous connection with my laptop’s USB hub or my desktop’s USB port.
Thus, I’ve had episodes of spontaneous disconnections of my watch to my computer even when I’m in the middle of a data transfer. And I suspect this might have been the primary reason why I may have some corrupted update files on my watch! Then, once the connection has been re-established, it takes forever (at least a half-hour or more) for the TopoActive Americas maps to show up in BaseCamp!
I’m not sure if this flaky connection issue is with the USB cable that came with the watch or the watch itself, but for a new watch, it feels like this shouldn’t be this way.
Typically, what I try to do is that before I do any kind of transfers to and from my watch, I try to plug it in with my computer, and then let the devices sort themselves out. Once that happens, then I don’t touch anything! I don’t move the watch, I don’t touch the computer, and I definitely don’t touch the cable!
The jury’s still out on whether an aftermarket USB cable can solve this problem or if I have to get it exchanged through Garmin. But this has been my experiences so far, and I find it very frustrating.
Can’t Swap Batteries
One thing that I’m not really keen about regarding the Garmin sports watches is that I can’t swap out the batteries if they run low.
This limits my ability to go on a multi-day backpack while logging my activity accurately on the watch (so Expedition mode won’t do for me) because I can’t recharge the watch when I’m disconnected from the grid!
With the old Garmin etrex handheld units, I could always swap out AA batteries as I’d carry a few spares with me in the event that it would run out of charge (often a fresh pair would last about a day or longer).
That said, so far my watch hasn’t indicated under 48-50 hours remaining (out of 62 hrs at full charge) even after a long day of hiking. The jury’s also still out on how long I can make this watch last in the field without recharging it (despite what the estimates say).
I’ve seen some claim that 36 hours of continued use instead of 62 hours is a more realistic indication of the watch’s battery life. Nevertheless, until I can truly test the battery life on an overnight backpack that I’ve done before where I can finally at least test its longevity safely, I’ll have to update this review once that is done.
The Garmin Fenix 6X Pro Sapphire watch was not cheap. With my Medical Insurance (Blue Cross Blue Shield at the time that I bought my watch), they had a program where I got a 20% discount through their Blue365 program when buying direct through Garmin. Thus, what would have ordinarily costed me about $850 USD without the discount, it wound up costing me about $680 (or about $750 with taxes).
The no frills base model costs about $600 USD. However, the 51mm “X” case and making it the pro version (for the pre-loaded map) costed an extra $150, and the sapphire glass costed an additional $100. It would have costed me $1150 USD for their top-of-the-line solar model with 51mm case, but they also had a smaller 47mm case solar version for $850 USD.
So with the higher price came the higher expectations (fair or not), and if you think this review was a bit harsh and critical, well the expensive price was a major reason why.
Regarding the extra $100 I paid for the sapphire glass, I was a bit disappointed to see that there was a persistent scratch or crack on my watch face. Wasn’t the sapphire glass supposed to be resistant to this? Then again, maybe if this was the regular gorilla glass, this blemish on the watch face might have been even more pronounced than what I’m showing in the photo above.
Final Thoughts / Conclusions
When it comes to something as small as a wristwatch, I really had to temper my expectations.
However, with the price that I paid for my Garmin Fenix 6X Pro Sapphire sports watch, I ended up with a bit of a love-hate relationship with it.
Nevertheless, as critical as I am with this watch and some of the interface shortcomings (both on the watch itself and on extracting the data from the watch into my computer), I still view this as a solid buy.
It certainly accomplished the objective of making me ditch my Garmin etrex handheld units after 15-20 years of use.
It was also the only device that still worked when I had a water-dunking accident that compromised all of my other electronics including my iPhone.
That said, I still really wish that Garmin and Gaia GPS can work together to allow the vastly superior Gaia GPS maps to be downloadable onto the Garmin Fenix 6 Pro watches. That combination would make getting this watch a total no-brainer.
But until Gaia GPS sorts out their integration issues with the Apple SmartWatch, that opens the door for the Apple product to eventually overtake Garmin’s offerings as far as GPS functionality is concerned.
Personally, I don’t know when that’s going to happen so I’m just going to milk my sports watch for as long as its product life lasts, and I’m hoping it would be another 15-20 years like my old Garmin etrex units.
Only time will tell…
Garmin Fenix 6X Pro Sapphire$850 (price subject to change)
User Interface and Features5.0/10
Weight / Wearability9.0/10
- Rugged and Waterproof
- Wearable (hands-free)
- Comes with Topo Map
- Fast Satellite Fix
- No Need to Compromise Privacy
- Limited to Garmin-compatible Maps
- Concerned with Battery Life
- Complicated & Awkward Interface
- Poor USB Integration with BaseCamp
- Very Expensive