Using the Garmin Fenix 3 off the grid (updated)

Fenix 3

Update: This article is outdated. The Garmin Connect Mobile app now (February 2018) requests your consent to upload your data. It is not necessary anymore to use the options below. This page is here for reference.

This brilliant multisport GPS + ABC (altimeter, barometer, compass) has a color screen, excellent battery life, can be used as a fitness tracker and has smartwatch functions as well. How do you stay in control of where all the data goes? And can you have it all: a GPS/ABC watch, smartwatch, activity tracker AND privacy, all in one device?
To receive smartphone notifications on the Fenix 3, you have to use the smartphone app Garmin Connect Mobile. And this app uploads all of the data on the Fenix 3, always. (There used to be a switch in the app that disabled or enabled uploading. This switch has been disabled since April 2016 and uploading is always done).

If you use Garmin Connect Mobile on Android the following data is uploaded: GPS tracks, heartrate data, stepcounter and sleep logs, and some statistics as lactate threshold. Some of that data can be deleted by the user and some not. Steps, sleep data, “burned calories” and low-resolution heartrate data from the activity tracking option cannot be removed.

Not everyone likes, needs, or can use the Connect website, and not everyone wants their data stored forever on servers outside of their control.

How to use the Fenix 3 without pumping data in the lake?

It’s either smartphone functions or activity tracking, not both at the same time.

To have smartphone notifications (and music controls, and the weather widget): Before enabling Bluetooth: make sure that there are no activities stored on the device, set activity tracking to off, remove files from \Garmin\Monitor.

You can leave Bluetooth on during an activity, as long as you don’t save it. Select Resume Later when you are done, then -within the next 8 hours or the Fenix 3 will autosave it- switch off Bluetooth, save the activity, retrieve the file via USB, remove it and start Bluetooth again. Of course you can only do one activity at a time in that way.

To have activity tracking: Disable Bluetooth and leave it off always. Retrieve the monitor files via USB. There is no software that processes these, so it means a lot of DIY.

Using HRM-Tri and HRM-Swim

These heartrate monitor belts have built-in memory and are designed to record and store heartrate data under water. The data is uploaded to the Fenix 3 after a (swim) activity. But if you don’t use Garmin Connect, there are limitations to their use.

The FIT files from these sessions contain the heartrate in two types of records; the usual way (as it is received by the watch during the activity) and a new way (as it is uploaded later). Most software does not process the second set of data and uses only the usual heartrate recording, but that is almost all empty during a swim, as no data is received in real time under water. So there will be a disappointingly near-empty HR trace in GoldenCheetah.

Of course, Garmin Connect does a great job displaying the data from these HR belts, but it won’t let you download a version of the file that other software can work with. The only extra information you will obtain with a HRM-Swim or Tri is the summary data on the Fenix 3 itself.

Visualizing data

GoldenCheetah logo

GoldenCheetah on Linux imports FIT files, and provides visualization and all kinds of statistics. GoldenCheetah is geared towards cyclists and triathletes, but can be used with any activity type.

You can also view and convert GPS tracks from FIT files online, on for example GPS Visualizer. This site does not store the tracks.

With the FITCSVTool.jar (part of the freely downloadable FIT SDK) it is easy to convert FIT files to .CSV text files (on any platform, because it’s Java), for use with any spreadsheet. That said, working with data from swims, runs and bike rides is not difficult, but processing the fitness tracking data is hard.

Connect IQ appstore

The GCM app and the Express program are the only ways access the Garmin Connect IQ Appstore. Wipe the Fenix 3 as described above and then use the appstore.

Using activity tracking

Activity trackers are affordable and plentiful. Especially the cheaper ones only store data on your phone and not in a cloud. Do research before buying: make sure you know which app the tracker uses. Veryfit and Verifit 2 are apps that do not require any registration and have no backup or sharing facilities: local storage only. People often complain about that in reviews, but it’s exactly what the privacy conscious consumer is looking for.

If you know what app the tracker uses, install it before ordering. Does it start with a “create account” screen? Deinstall and look further. Found the perfect combination of tracker and app? Set auto-update for that app to Off. Buy a spare of the same brand and type. They are not waterproof, they break, and are not on the market for long. Apps that don’t have a cloud behind them are becoming rare.

Updating the software on the Fenix 3 manually

To update the firmware, the easiest is to install beta firmware, because Garmin posts direct links to new beta’s on the Fenix 3 forum. Links to stable releases are too well hidden on the Garmin site (you’re supposed to use Garmin Express to install them). But all firmwares (betas and stable releases) are mirrored here.
The procedure for “manually” updating is:
Place the file GUPDATE.RGN file in the \Garmin directory (you may have to rename it first, sometimes the name will be GUPDATE_xxx.RGN where xxx is the version number)
Place the GUPxxxx.bin file(s) in the \Garmin\RemoteSW directory (there may be more than one, updates for the display, GPS chip and ANT+ sensors are separately delivered)
Disconnect the Fenix 3 from the computer.
The Fenix 3 will now prompt for the update to start.
After the update, the new version is displayed under Settings -> System -> About. The update files will be removed from the filesystem, except when they are for an external device as a heart rate monitor belt, the file is then kept in case another HRM has to be updated in the future.

Keeping the satellite orbit prediction data current

The Fenix 3 uses a file with predicted satellite orbit data, which makes obtaining a GPS position really quick. The file is named EPO.BIN just as on the other Fenix models. If you use Garmin Connect Mobile in any way, this file is regularly updated. Otherwise, you have to download it (about once a week will do) from Javawa.nl and place it on the USB storage in \Garmin\RemoteSW.
Under Settings -> System -> About (all the way down) is displayed if the EPO is current or outdated.

Updating user settings

All of the user settings except “Activity Class” can be set on the Fenix 3 itself. The user settings are used to estimate Training Effect, calorie use and probably more. Activity class is probably not used by the Fenix 3. BUT.. if you use Bluetooth and the Connect Mobile app syncs with the (empty or not) Fenix 3, settings from Garmin Connect are written to the device. Having a Garmin account with nonsense or default data will mess up the settings in the Fenix 3. No way around it.

Some notes

Uploading data without the users consent is at odds with Garmin’s privacy statement: “Some Garmin websites and mobile applications (such as Garmin Connect and Garmin Connect Mobile) allow you to voluntarily upload activities (for example, runs, walks, [..] ) and activity data (for example, steps, location, [..] ) from your Garmin device.” (Emphasis mine).

Garmin Support Netherlands admits that there is a problem with the removed AutoUpload switch in GCM Android, but they do not say if and when this will be fixed.

According to the article Every step you take: “Garmin Connect does not employ basic data transmission security practices for its iOS or Android applications and consequently exposes fitness information to surveillance or tampering” the data isn’t secure while it is in transit.

Processing “monitor” files with fitness tracker data is difficult, because they contain many different types of avaraged and summarized data; steps, sleep, activity types, intensity minutes, calories, and all that 24 hours per day, in different intervals.

Garmin mentioned (on their forum) to plan for selective uploads for fitness data and activity data from GCM for Android, but cannot say when this will be realized.

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