Seen @ Macworld/iWorld 2013: Garmin fenix watch and BaseCamp app

Sections: Conferences, Features, Hands On / First Looks, iDevice Accessories, iDevice Apps, Macworld, Press Events

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Seen @ Macworld is Appletell’s column highlighting our experiences at the recent Macworld/iWorld Expo. Appletell stopped by several booths that featured interesting products; some were longtime pillars of Macworld with updates to established products, many were new companies showing innovative and exciting product for the first time, and a few featured accessories, apps, and products we didn’t even know we needed before we hit the Moscone West show floor. Here we feature buzz from the show floor and details of our conversations with the makers, inventors, and companies whose products were on display. Be sure to check out our coverage of other exhibitors from Macworld/iWorld 2013.

Garmin is a perennial favorite at Macworld, though it comes as something of a surprise given that one of their core markets seems to be under constant attack from smartphone makers. First there were smartphone maps with directions, then turn-by-turn spoken directions, basically obviating the need for a standalone Garmin GPS device (though their overall business encompasses healthy markets in navigation for aviation and marine industries).

The car isn’t the only place where consumers need directions, though, and rather than bemoan the loss of one market, Garmin is actively expanding into multiple markets where smartphones either can’t go or are missing features. Hikers, bikers, and other outdoor enthusiasts can now track their progress with the fēnix watch, which provides longer battery life, water resistance, and additional sensors missing from your iPhone.

Garmin Fenix Watch

Not Afraid of Heights

Garmin’s fenix watch is a pretty standard looking sports watch, with a black and white LCD and four buttons. Operation during the demo was intuitive and very responsive as we flipped through various functions, though we obviously couldn’t make a truly thorough test of all the features, as Moscone is a big building with poor GPS reception. You can use the fēnix in one of two modes, by either loading a map from Garmin’s BaseCamp desktop app and letting the watch be your guide, or by using the fēnix to track your progress along a trail for later analysis. As an avid kayaker, the trip tracking is very appealing, especially the ability to set flags at various points of interest along your route. Now you can see the route you took and the elevation change during your trip, and take a look on a satellite map for any flagged points of interest (using the desktop or mobile BaseCamp apps).

In addition to being a GPS device, the fēnix incorporates a number of sensors (chiefly Altimeter, Barometer, and Compass) as well as the ability to connect to other Garmin products like their heart rate monitor and pedometer. Lost your way on the trail but know you need to be headed in a north-westerly direction? The fēnix can keep you easily pointed in the right direction with its compass, showing you not only current heading but where you should go to get back on course. Want a heads up when bad weather is rolling in? The barometer and temperature sensors can help give you a little advanced notice of storm clouds. All sensors are auto-calibrating, and the watch even sets the date/time based on your GPS coordinates.

Not Afraid to Accessorize

Compared to an iPhone’s Retina display with satellite imagery for mapping, Garmin’s fēnix is positively archaic looking. That’s a good thing, though, because the limited display functionality provides just the essentials, and the upside is a battery life of up to 50 hours in GPS mode (with a small enough battery to be solar rechargeable). Rather than force you to review your trips on a minuscule screen,  the fēnix can connect via Bluetooth to your iPhone and sync data with the BaseCamp mobile app. Your tiny snake of a trail comes alive on the iPhone with interactive maps, including satellite imagery, renameable routes, waypoints, and graphs plotting elevation changes during a trip.

For preplanning/sharing rips, Garmin’s BaseCamp desktop app lets you lay out your route and send it to the fēnix, which then serves as your trail map. This really is a great example of an appcessory device, where a dedicated device is interacting with an iPhone app to extend its functionality.

Pricing and Other Details

The fēnix comes in at a hefty $400, but you do get a great deal of functionality for that price, and the accompanying BaseCamp app is free. In sensor mode (non-GPS), the watch has a two week battery life, and in watch mode alone it can go six weeks between charges; in addition to GPS and sensor duties, the watch function includes standards like multiple alarms, vibration alerts, a timer, stopwatch, and world clock. The GPS functionality includes a host of features, including Points of Interest, performance data like pace and calories burned, geocache tagging, and TracBack, which provides return routing directions if you need to retrace your steps.

Available from the Garmin store, fēnix is a great gift for the enthusiastic outdoor technophile (at least until Apple adds a bundle of new sensors and magical batteries that never die to the iPhone 15).

Be sure to check out our coverage of other exhibitors from Macworld / iWorld 2013.

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