Garmin Fenix 7 – Will the Sony chips go?
Edit: Answer – Yes ! Garmin really has dumped the much-maligned, Sony GNSS chips.
Years ago I gave in on relying on Garmin for accurate pace from GPS (I use stryd). On Strava, Garmin gives me a pretty-enough picture of where I have run but down at the detail level, they have rarely been great at telling me EXACTLY where I have run or exactly how fast I was running at any given time.
Over the last few months, I have, however, been looking more closely at the GPS performance of my Fenix 6 Pro and I have been using it as a comparator device in tests. I’ve used it against other watches I’m testing right now and as far back to the 2x Apple Watch 7 models I tested in November 2021. I’ve been a little bit shocked to be reminded of the consistent poorness of the track compared to just about all the other devices and I’m still not quite sure how Garmin has gotten away with this for so long.
There HAVE been some good moments with Garmin GPS accuracy. The Forerunner 745 was great and, after some awful open-water swim performances, Garmin found the magic button a couple of years ago and started to produce the best open water swim tracks I’d seen from any device (it was on the 935 or 945, I can’t remember which, maybe the 745?).
You can Google around to see I am not alone in these observations. Although most review sites will say that Garmin’s GPS accuracy is ‘alright’, probably because they want you to buy something 😉 Anyway, it’s not alright. If you care about GPS accuracy you already knew that. You don’t have to care if you use Stryd, IMO, and the majority of Garmin users either don’t realise or don’t care in any case.
I suspect that Garmin DOES care about GPS accuracy and I further suspect that a big part of the reception quality problem might be the low-powered, Sony GNSS chipset itself, rather than antenna, metal casings and the like.
From several conversations with industry players, it seems that Sony is not held in quite such high regard as it was a few years ago.
Perhaps Garmin was lured into using the first Sony chipsets because they offered significant power savings? Remember 3-4 years ago was the start of Garmin’s massive jump in battery life claims. At that time battery life for sports usage was (is?) a critical aspect of watch performance that affected both sales and customer satisfaction.
The improved battery lives that followed the introduction of Sony chips were not solely due to more power-efficient GNSS chipsets, other tech factors conspired to get battery lives to the point where Garmin effectively solved the battery life conundrum for its chosen screen tech.
Now, we have arrived at a point where it makes sense to start giving us the options to selectively lower battery lives to enable us to use other power-hungry hardware features that we value more…the obvious and clear example here is the introduction of AMOLED screens. Thus, in talks with some of the GNSS Chipset competitors like U-BLOX, it became clear that all GNSS chipset manufacturers can give us options to, essentially, boost reception quality by using more power.
Garmin Fenix 7 GNSS capabilities
My working assumption for quite some time has been that Garmin will continue to use the latest Sony (Japan) chipsets that relatively recently introduced the ability to use multiple frequencies within a given satellite constellation eg two frequencies of Galileo.
However, a few commenters on this site got me thinking (thank you!).
What Else Could be Used?
Note that Coros use the Airoha chip which gives multiple frequency support as well as multi/tri-constellation support (GPS, GLONASS, Galileo, QZSS and others). It does that by consuming sensibly low levels of power. Initially, I wrongly dismissed in my mind Airoha as a niche chip company that branched out into GNSS chips. A few 10s of seconds with Mr Google led to the realisation that Airoha (Taiwan) is/was MEDIATEK.
As I hinted at above, U-BLOX (Switzerland) also have this multi-frequency/constellation capability as do Qualcomm SiRFstar (USA) and Broadcomm (USA).
Qualcomm (USA) might be the GNSS chip supplier for Apple Watch and my experience with the Apple Watch 6 (7 isn’t as good) is that Apple has the most accurate location setup for sports usage of any current watch. That said, Qualcomm’s SnapDragon processors are used in Wear OS watches and they tend to have distinctly average GPS accuracy.
To give Qualcomm more credit, their SiRFstar IV/V was perhaps the best ever chip in years gone by with Polar & Suunto. It just needed about 3 AA batteries’ worth of power for every hour of running 😉 (I exaggerate)
The Fenix 7 GNSS Chip
I have a sneaking suspicion that Garmin may be about to offer us the exact-same GNSS features that Coros already offer with the exact-same Mediatek chip. (Edit, they have)
Years ago, Garmin used to use Airoha/MediaTek as their supplier and both Garmin and Airoha/MediaTek have production facilities in Taiwan. Maybe that is another reason that Garmin could revert back to Airoha/Mediatek?
In the near future, maybe Garmin’s GNSS performance will improve and offer us more flexibility in how WE want the performance/battery saving compromise to be dealt with for our own individual sports.
Edit: Garmin switches to Airoha/MediaTek for Fenix 7 & Epix 2
(Source: @Ray for the inside Garmin+Airoha confirmation)