For most of my life, I didn’t consider myself a watch person. Sure, I appreciated being able to control my AirPods with my Apple Watch, but it never hooked me because the battery was—and still is—too small to power big adventures. I tested several older Garmin and Suunto watches years ago, but they ended up in the closet because I found the software clunky and nearly impossible to navigate.
Then, about two years ago, I started wearing the Fenix 6 Pro Solar, which finally converted me. The Fenix 6 Pro does so many things well that I started relying on it regularly and felt naked without it on my wrist.
Fast forward to today, and after months of testing the 6’s new big brother—the Fenix 7X Solar ($900)—my watch bond is rock solid. The 7X Solar is now an essential tool that motivates me to move daily and gives me peace of mind in the backcountry, and I don’t have to worry about it getting damaged or the battery running out.
I’m not an Insta-famous adventurer so I originally felt like the 7X might be overkill—or that I would look like a poser with the watch on—but have quickly realized the watch is for anyone who can put it to good use.
I use it daily to track my exercise and am impressed with how many options I get. Take cycling as an example: I normally choose the standard bike ride feature, but if I want to get really specific I can also ask the watch to track stats for indoor, gravel, and cyclocross rides, as well as commuting and touring. For runners, it tracks everything from treadmill workouts to ultras. It also tracks kiteboarding, snowshoeing, bouldering, yoga, and pickleball (yes, pickleball). The watch will give you plenty of sleep data, too.
When tracking, the GPS connects quickly and is incredibly accurate. I recently went on two big backcountry ski tours in the Elk Range outside Aspen, Colorado and was able to look back at my tracks on a satellite map and see exactly where I skied. Those data points included the tiny little pullouts in a big, steep chute where I stationed myself to stay out of a possible avalanche path while the other people in my party took turns skiing the line.
One feature I’ve never had to use (thankfully) but still enable when out in the backcountry is called TracBack, which leaves a digital breadcrumb trail as I move through the mountains. The watch can then use the map and compass features to guide me back along that path to my car if I get turned around or lost. It’s an important insurance policy and one that makes me feel a lot more comfortable tackling new terrain.
I called it gimmicky in my first look at the 7X, but the watch’s built-in flashlight is wildly useful (the flashlight only comes on the 7X, not the regular 7). To create this feature, Garmin included three LEDs—two white and one red—that sit at 12:00 between the bezel and watch strap. Two quick taps of the upper left button turn on the flashlight, and you can then control the intensity or switch from white to red light. The flashlight is just ten lumens but I’ve already used it to do everything from finding dog poop to navigating dark sidewalks. If needed, the light would be just bright enough to get me down a trail if I forgot my headlamp. Runners can also create a de facto blinking light by programming the watch lights to flash white as your wrist moves forward and red as your wrist flies back.
I’m not especially rough on my gear, but I’ve banged the watch around plenty while skiing and doing yard work and it’s no worse for the wear. I’ve yet to drop it on a tile floor, but I’m sure it would be just fine. My screen will eventually get a little scratched, which doesn’t bother me. If that’s something you worry about, you can upgrade to the most expensive sapphire version (an additional $100)—it comes with a screen that’s significantly more scratch resistant.
Many other watches out there feature some or many of the same features I’ve mentioned above, but the 7X is unique because it features all of them, does all of them well, and has a battery and charging system that keeps them running nearly forever. Garmin says the longer battery life is thanks to a more efficient GPS chip, a bigger battery, and a larger solar panel underneath the watch face (compared to the 6 Pro Solar). According to their stats, if I’m wearing the watch and it’s gathering a steady dose of sunlight (around three hours per day), it will give me up to 122 hours of GPS. If I’m not using GPS but using other features, and it’s in the sun for a couple hours each day, it can go around five weeks without a charge.
I haven’t tried to run the GPS for over 100 hours straight, but I have worked hard to test the battery. I last charged my 7X over two weeks ago and have since used the GPS to track those two different seven-hour ski tours in Aspen as well as three, 30-mile gravel rides, and a handful of neighborhood runs. The flashlight has been on for at least 15 minutes at full power, and I wear the watch every day to track my steps, get notifications, listen to music, and the watch currently says I still have six full days of use.
The Fenix 7X Solar is a big watch—it only comes in a 51-millimeter size (the 7 also comes in more modest 42- and 47-millimeter sizes but they don’t come with the flashlight). At six feet and 180 pounds, I’m a medium-sized guy, and the 51-millimeter case sits on my wrist just fine and doesn’t look out of place. The only time it gets in the way is when I’m typing in a non-ergonomic way and my wrist is tilted too far back on the keyboard. Smaller people might find the large size unruly or unattractive.
The 7 series also has a touchscreen, but I wasn’t that impressed with it. After using the 6 Pro Solar for years I was used to the buttons and haven’t found the touchscreen navigation to be that much easier. Garmin’s screen is definitely not as nice as the one on an Apple Watch, so scrolling and choosing features takes a little more intentionality and a harder touch, which pushes me right back to the buttons.
The screen on the 7X isn’t anything to rave about. I can read it in the direct sunlight and never have to work to understand the information. People who want a nicer screen should look at the Garmin Epix 2 that comes with a brighter and higher-res touchscreen OLED.
Garmin’s menus have improved over the years, but I’m still not a huge fan. I was able to find my way around the 7X after a week, but it definitely took some intentionality and little Googling to make everything work the way I wanted. I’m sure there are features on the 7X I’ve never dug up partly because I don’t need them and because they’re buried too deep.
There’s a robust map feature on the 7X and you can download topo maps for every continent. I have not used any maps on the 7X, however, because trying to follow a map on a watch screen drives me crazy. I much prefer to use my phone and any number of mapping apps, including Gaia GPS (which Outside Interactive, Inc. owns). My phone battery will not last as long as the 7X but I’m happy to bring an extra battery charger on longer slogs just so I have more screen real estate.
And finally, there’s the price. I told my friend who likes expensive bikes that I was wearing a $900 watch and he about shit himself. At nearly $1,000, the 7X might carry more of a vanity price tag than a utility one. But the more you wear the thing, the more you understand how nice it is to have such a robust tool on your wrist. Many of us are willing to spend $800 on a new iPhone and I’m guessing the 7X will be relevant for at least another five to 10 years—much longer than your phone will last.
Not everyone can afford a $900 watch. But if you play outside and are used to paying for quality skis, bikes, shoes, tents, etc., then you’ll understand that the 7X is an investment that will pay dividends in performance. Being able to get yourself out of a pickle in the backcountry and track everything you do all while never really having to worry about the battery will make $900 seem like a reasonable price tag to some. This assurance, and ease of use, made the 7X an indispensable part of my everyday carry. It’s why the watch will stay on my wrist for a long time to come.
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