While the Garmin Instinct might lack some of the richer outdoor features you’ll find on Garmin’s Fenix watches and the bigger battery life on the Instinct 2 and Instinct Solar, it still has all of the key things you’d want from an outdoor watch that’s kind on your bank balance and delivers where it matters.
Fun, light and comfortable design
Solid sports tracking performance
Lacks full mapping features
No payment support
No Connect IQ app support
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Two minute review
The Garmin Instinct, even though it's been superceded by the Instinct 2, still has a lot to offer as a rugged sports watch in its own right, and remains a worthy addition to the best Garmin watches, an already extensive collection of watches designed for the great outdoors.
While the Garmin Fenix exists to offer something to take on hikes, trail runs and out for open water swims, it’s not cheap. So the Instinct offers an affordable alternative that offers the core features you’ll find on the Fenix with some bigger features missing out.
The Instinct offers a design that’s very different to anything else in Garmin’s watch range. It offers a brighter, more colorful case look and a screen that uses a small sub display to show off your stats in a more unique way. It’s a transflective screen, so offers good viability in bright light and stays on 24/7 too.
It comes packed with all the key sensors including built-in GPS and other outdoor and environmental sensors like a compass and thermometer for that additional hit of data. There’s a heart rate monitor on board too for continuous monitoring and heart rate during exercise, which should be fine for big hikes and steady trail runs but can struggle for accuracy for high-intensity activity. One thing that has missed out is the pulse ox sensor, which does appear on the newer Garmin Instinct Solar watch.
While you do miss out on the topographic mapping support you get on Garmin’s Fenix range, you do still have some navigation features on board here like real-time breadcrumb trails, TracBack and Back to Start features. It’s a basic experience that would benefit from a larger screen, but does a good enough job offering that extra navigation assistance.
If you’re turning to it for traditional sports tracking like running, swimming and cycling, it offers a very similar experience to your typical Garmin Forerunner watch, giving you reliable real-time stats on land and in the water. You do also have support for automatic rep counting, though it’s a bit of a fiddly process using the mode and you can use it for strength and cardio-based workouts too.
As a smartwatch, it’s best for displaying notifications, viewing weather updates and choosing from the onboard data-rich watch faces at your disposal. Unlike cheaper Garmins, you don’t get a music player, payments though most crucially, there isn’t support for Garmin’s Connect IQ store to add extra apps, data fields or watch faces.
Overall though, the Instinct is a surprisingly great watch to live with. Even without the extras you get on the Solar model, the standard Instinct still has a lot to offer for outdoor lovers for less money.
Garmin Instinct price and release date
- Costs $399 / £269.99 / AU$299.99
The Garmin Instinct first went on sale in 2018 and is available to buy from Garmin’s website for $399 / £269.99 / AU$299.99. It’s the cheapest of the five different versions of the Instinct, and comes in substantially cheaper than the Instinct with solar charging.
Garmin Instinct: Design and display
- 45mm case
- 1.3-inch color display with always-on mode
- Safe for pool and open water swimming
- Interchangeable straps
Design score: 5/5
The Garmin Instinct is built for the outdoors, and on that basis you’d probably expect it to be big and bulky, but that couldn’t be further from the case. It does tick those durability boxes, but also does it while offering a look that makes it stand out of Garmin’s collection for the right reasons.
It’s available in four different colors, and we had an attractive pastel blue Seafoam option to live with. It’s a 45mm sized polymer case with matching polymer bezel and it weighs 52g. That’s partnered up with a 22mm silicone strap, which is removable and uses Garmin’s QuickFit mechanism, making it a lot easier to swap out for official and third party straps.
As a package, the Instinct doesn’t dominate space on your wrist. It’s one that those with slimmer wrists will definitely appreciate and it’s just overall a really fun, comfortable watch to live with.
To boost things in the durability department, it’s also been slapped with a 10ATM water resistant rating, making it safe for a dip in the pool or open water up to ten metres depth and you can safely wear it in the shower.
At the heart of the Instinct is a 23mm x 23mm, transflective display that promises a 128 x 128 pixel resolution. It’s not a touchscreen, so you’re relying on five physical buttons, which have an added textured finish to make them easier to use in all conditions. Garmin traditionally uses this type of display on its watches, though the Instinct’s one is designed a little differently.
It’s a fully round display, but also tucks away a smaller secondary display that can be used to show off additional information like battery status or real-time heart rate data. It does mean you sacrifice some screen space for features like navigation, but it actually works quite nicely and still offers good screen visibility and displays data in a way that’s not problematic to absorb.
It’s an always-on mode screen as well, and there’s a backlight here that can either stay on just while tracking a timed activity, or the time in between as well.
Garmin Instinct: Outdoor and fitness features
- Point-to-point navigation
- Breadcrumb trail in real time
- Pool and open water swimming supported
- Plenty of outdoor tracking modes
Fitness features score: 4/5
In typical Garmin fashion, there’s no shortage of activities you can track, there’s data aplenty to dive into during and post activity and it also doubles up as a fitness tracker to keep tabs on steps and monitor sleep.
Core tracking modes are running, cycling and swimming (pool and open water) and it’s also about taking some of the useful outdoor features included on the Fenix and packing it into the Instinct’s smaller frame.
There are dedicated modes for activities like hiking, climbing and even skiing. The real appeal here is the navigation features that mean it’s a watch to help you find your way. You can upload courses to follow on the watch with the point-to-point navigation support. You’re also getting breadcrumb trails in real time and features like Back to Start and TracBack to get you back home. There are also widgets to show off the built-in compass and elevation data and the ability to set sunrise and sunset alerts.
The experience of using these features is good on the whole, but can be compromised by the small nature of the screen. When you’re following a route, it’s just a simple line to your destination, with room to show off distance left to reach a destination. It also makes use of that secondary screen to clearly point you in the right direction. It would definitely be nicer to have a bigger screen at play here, but it makes good use of that smaller space to still make it a good navigating experience.
When you’re not out exploring the trails and climbing up mountains, the Instinct does pretty much all the things you’d expect from a Garmin sports watch. There’s built-in GPS to reliably track runs, and it held up well for accuracy against the Garmin Venu 2 and Garmin Enduro. You can fire over workouts to the watch once built in Garmin Connect and it does work with Garmin Coach if you want to make use of Garmin’s adaptive run training plans.
There’s an optical heart monitor on board here, though based on our testing even on steady-paced workouts, it generated significantly higher maximum heart rate readings compared to Garmin’s HRM-Pro chest strap. You can pair up an external heart rate monitor to address that, and that sensor support extends to speed and cadence sensors for cycling too.
One sensor that doesn’t make the cut is the pulse ox sensor that’s started to appear on Garmin’s watches and is actually available on the new Instinct Solar model. While it’s definitely a feature that hogs the battery, it’s one that would be useful to have at your disposal when you’re training or exploring at altitude.
As a fitness tracker and keeping tabs on your general health, you’re getting most of what Garmin has to offer in these departments. Daily activity tracking gets you something to count steps, distance covered and the onboard altimeter means you can track elevation as well. There’s Garmin’s great Move Bar and Auto Goal features that are ways to motivate you to move more during the day.
Accuracy-wise, step counts were a few hundred steps out from a Fitbit Sense. When you get into bed with it, you’re getting a breakdown of sleep stages though like a lot of Garmin watches, accuracy generally was a little off on recognizing sleep duration periods.
It also finds room for all-day stress tracking based on heart rate variability measurements. There’s also daily resting heart rate insights and Garmin’s Body Battery Energy Monitor that uses those same HRV measurements along with stress scores and activity to tell you how much energy you have to take on your day. Continuous heart rate monitoring seems a lot more reliable than using it for exercise, so this is data you can largely rely on to offer useful and valuable insights into your general wellbeing.
Garmin Instinct: Smartwatch features
- Works with Android and iOS
- View notifications
- View weather forecasts
Smartwatch features score: 5/5
While the pricier Fenix gets you pretty much the best that Garmin has to offer in smartwatch features, things are a bit more limited on the Instinct. It does still work with Android and iOS devices and it can dish out notifications, let you control music playing on your phone and check things like your calendar.
You don’t get payment support, a music player or support for Garmin’s Connect IQ Store to download additional apps, data fields and widgets. Based on the very unique look of the Instinct, it’s perhaps not all that surprising this one hasn’t been opened up to developers, but that doesn’t make it any less disappointing to see the missing support.
As far as what does make the cut, it largely works well and is well optimised for the Instinct’s display. Despite initial concerns that notifications would feel a little cramped to view, the Instinct handles that feature well and will let you respond to messages when paired to an Android phone. It’s a similar story for viewing your calendar or weather updates. You can add additional widgets (screens) to show off that data and if you can live with the smartwatch basics, the Instinct does a solid job overall.
Garmin Instinct: Battery life
- Garmin Instinct battery life
- 16 hours in GPS mode
- Up to 40 hours in UltraTrac mode
Battery life score: 4/5
If you want an outdoor watch that you don’t have to charge everyday or think about carrying around a charger with you, that’s something you don’t need to worry about with the Instinct.
Garmin says you can expect anywhere up to 14 days in smartwatch mode, 16 hours when putting the GPS to use and there’s also the promise of up to 40 hours in UltraTrac mode. That’ll sample GPS data less frequently than it does in full GPS mode to get you bigger battery life at the expense of distance tracking accuracy.
It does of course lack the Power Glass solar lens technology used on the Instinct Solar that helps to offer a battery boost with ample exposure to the sun. It also lacks the Expedition mode also included on the Instinct Solar as well. The smartwatch and max GPS battery numbers on the Solar are essentially double of what you get on the standard Instinct.
While you might look enviously at those numbers, the Instinct still holds well on the battery front. Even with regular use of GPS, tracking sleep and using it for indoor workouts, those promised numbers seem to live up to their promise. It’ll comfortably give you a full week with heavy usage and more if you’re more sparing with features.
There are no power-sapping features like music streaming or the pulse ox sensor or full mapping support to put a dent in battery life. It’s one that can hold up for a day of tracking and more. GPS tracking offered a similar drop off to another Garmin running watch.
One minor gripe we do have, which has been addressed on the solar version, is the ability to view battery status percentage. It’s not a deal breaker obviously, but it’s a slight annoyance Garmin doesn’t offer that alternative to the battery bars.
Buy it if
You want a reliable, feature-packed outdoor watch
Missing maps aside, the Instinct still has a great set of features to make it one to head out into the great outdoors.
You like the idea of a light outdoor watch
Unlike a lot of watches built for adventuring, the Instinct goes light and small over a big and bulky. If that sounds ideal to you, then the Instinct is worth looking at.
You don’t want that typical Garmin watch look
The pastel colors and different style screen setup makes the Instinct unique and like no other watch in Garmin’s extensive range.
Don’t buy it if
You want to view detailed maps
The Instinct misses out on the topographic maps you can view on Garmin’s pricier Fenix range
You want lots of smartwatch features
If you want to store music or make payments, there are Garmin watches that will offer you those richer smartwatch features for less money.
You want to measure blood oxygen levels
Unlike the Instinct Solar, you miss out on a Pulse Ox sensor, which allows you to monitor blood oxygen during sleep and at altitude.
First reviewed: May 2021
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