Garmin Instinct 2 review

Garmin's super tough sports watch gets a fresh splash of fun

Garmin Instinct 2 with white case and band
Editor's Choice
(Image: © Future)

TechRadar Verdict

The Garmin Instinct 2 takes the best features of the original Instinct, including its super tough case and high-contrast dual-screen display, and gives the whole package an overhaul that makes it fun rather than austere. Not only is there a smaller 40mm case option and a range of jazzier new colors, the watch is also slimmer, more customizable, and equipped with advanced fitness training tools and custom workout suggestions. It's not great when it comes to mapping, but that's a small sacrifice that's necessary to achieve its remarkable battery life. If you're in the market for a watch that's both practical and fun to wear, this is the one for you.

Pros

  • +

    Choice of sizes

  • +

    Slimmer, but still tough

  • +

    Advanced training tools

  • +

    Excellent GPS tracking

  • +

    Extra long battery life

Cons

  • -

    Doesn't display maps well

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Two-minute review

What sets the Garmin Instinct 2 apart from other running watches in its price band are its tough build and practical design. It’s thoughtfully crafted and no-nonsense, but unlike the original Garmin Instinct, it’s is fun rather than austere. It’s still hard as nails for tough outdoor use, with exceptional battery life (factors that made the original Instinct one of our all-time favorite running watches), but the Instinct 2 also lends itself well to extreme sports where it’s going to take more than a few knocks and spills. Want a watch for skating or BMX? Look no further.

This fun new direction is reflected in a jazzier color palette, including hues like poppy red and electric lime, and the new ability to download custom apps and faces to make the watch your own. It’s certainly not a subtle watch, but it’s loud in a self-aware way.

Garmin Instinct 2 with white case and band

(Image credit: Future)

Although not cheap, the Instinct 2 is one of the more affordable watches in Garmin’s current lineup, which again makes it an appealing choice if you’re younger and not planning to drop over $500 on a watch like the Fenix 7 or Forerunner 945.

Battery life for all versions of the watch is very impressive, and the models topped with Garmin’s photovoltaic Power Glass are very tough to beat. Even if your lifestyle means you don’t catch enough rays to keep the watch running indefinitely, it’ll easily last weeks between charges rather than days.

The Instinct 2’s monochrome memory-in-pixel (MIP) display is a sensible choice – clearly visible in all lighting conditions and modest in its power consumption – but it does have one significant drawback, and that’s navigation. While the Instinct 2 does allow you to upload your own custom courses via Garmin Connect, and can track your location and lead you back to the start, maps on the screen are very basic. There’s only a line to show your route, and an arrow to lead you in the right direction – no road markings, landmarks, or other details to help you find your way.

GPS accuracy is excellent though, and in our pre-measured 5km test, the Instinct 2 was accurate to within a handful of meters. Heart rate tracking is excellent as well, and thanks to the new smaller 40mm case option, it’s more practical and comfortable to wear at night so you benefit from full 24-hour health tracking.

Garmin Instinct 2 with white case and band

(Image credit: Future)

Price and release date

  • Launched early 2022
  • Mid-range price

The Garmin Instinct 2 launched on February 9, 2022. Prices range from $349.99 / £299.99 / AU$549 for the standard edition watch, through to $499.99 / £429.99 / AU$749 for the solar tactical and surf editions, placing it squarely in the mid-range when it comes to running watches.

The original Instinct retailed at $399 / £269.99 / AU$299.99 when it went on sale in 2018, so the new watch is actually slightly cheaper than the original if you’re based in the US. That’s a pretty great deal considering how much more the second-gen device has to offer. There are Garmin promo codes that could save you more too.

Watch models

  • 45mm and 40mm case options
  • Power Glass models available
  • Tactical, Surf, Camo, and Dezl editions

The Garmin Instinct 2 isn’t a single watch, but an entire series. First of all, there are now two case sizes to consider: the standard 45mm, and a new 40mm diameter model. The watch we tested here was the 40mm Garmin Instinct 2S, and although 5mm shaved off the case size might not sound like much, it makes the watch much more comfortable and practical for smaller wrists.

You can also take your pick from standard or solar models, the latter of which uses Garmin’s Power Glass to gather energy from the sun and extend battery life. You’ll still need to give the watch an initial charge, and heavy use will gradually discharge it, but if your needs are modest and you soak up a decent amount of daylight on a regular basis (Garmin gives the example of working as a lifeguard) then you may never need to charge it up again.

Garmin Instinct 2 with white case and band

(Image credit: Future)

The solar models are a little more expensive, but the photovoltaic material doesn’t have any effect on the look of the display, so it’s well worth considering the extra investment to avoid frequent charging.

As with the original Instinct, there are also special Surf, Tactical, and Camo editions of the Instinct 2. The Surf edition adds extra tools including tide data and a dedicated surf tracking mode that records details including waves surfed, maximum height, and distance travelled. It also comes with Garmin’s Surfline app pre-installed, showing conditions at your five nearest surf spots.

The Tactical edition has a stealth mode that cuts off all wireless communications, a screen mode designed for reading with night vision goggles, and a killswitch that deletes all data stored on the watch, including location information. It also has Garmin’s Jumpmaster app installed for skydiving.

The Camo edition doesn’t add any extra functions or apps, but has a camouflage patterned band and case.

The Instinct 2 is also available in a Dezl edition for professional truck drivers, which connects to Garmin’s in-cab navigation systems and can show important health stats and alerts on the bigger screen. It syncs with a new Dezl app, which can guide truckers through simple exercise routines while they’re taking a break.

Garmin Instinct 2 with white case and band

(Image credit: Future)

Design and display

  • Slimmer than original Instinct
  • Relatively lightweight
  • Monochrome MIP display

Garmin is leaning on the youth angle with the Instinct 2, and the watch’s overall look is leaner than its predecessor, even if you opt for the classic 45mm resin case rather than the compact 40mm. There’s no difference in weight (both old and new watches weigh 52g), but while the original Instinct was 15.3mm thick, the second-gen watch has been slimmed down to 14.5mm. That’s a tiny difference, but paired with a slightly simplified bezel design, it makes the new watch feel significantly less cumbersome.

The 40mm Instinct 2 S we tested is leaner still at 13.3mm, and when placed on the scales it weighed 43g including the silicone band. Garmin’s quoted weight is 42g, but there’s always a little variability between devices.

For comparison, the 41mm Apple Watch 7 weighs 32g in aluminum, 42.3g in stainless steel, and 37g in titanium. Its 45mm counterpart is 38.8g in aluminum, 51.5g in stainless steel, and  41.5g in titanium.

Garmin Instinct 2 with white case and band

(Image credit: Future)

While the original Instinct came in a fairly sober range of colors, the second-gen watch is available in some much brighter shades including poppy red and electric lime – there are even some dual-color options if you choose the Surf edition, or you can switch the band for something different using the quick release pins on the back.

Like the original Instinct, the Instinct 2 has a monochrome memory-in-pixel display, with a small circular cut-out that shows contextual information while you’re navigating through menus, and can show data like the current date, your step count, or calories burned while you’re using the device in smartwatch mode.

The Instinct 2’s display has a much higher resolution than its predecessor – 176 x 176 pixels compared to 128 x 128 pixels for the original. This results in clearer text and icons, and means Garmin has been able to fit more data onto the display at once without sacrificing legibility,

Garmin Instinct 2 with white case and band

(Image credit: Future)

A monochrome face might seem an odd choice when more and more smartwatches are arriving with bright color displays, but it makes a lot of sense for the Instinct 2. It uses far less power than an AMOLED display (like that of the Garmin Epix and Venu 2), and it offers more contrast than a color MIP screen (which was one of our few complaints about the Garmin Fenix 7).

There are a few drawbacks, though. It can be tougher to differentiate between different stats at a glance – you can’t check your heart rate zone by simply glancing at a color-coded icon, for example – and it’s not so great for maps.

The lack of a touchscreen isn’t ideal for maps either, as it makes panning tricky, though the five-button interface is handy for all other functions and works well with wet or gloved hands. All buttons are clearly labelled, too

Battery life

  • Indefinite for solar models
  • Longer for 45mm watches than 40mm

As always, the longevity of this watch's battery will vary depending on how you use it. Functions like SpO2 monitoring and GPS will drain power more rapidly, but if you've opted for one of the solar models, you can expect your Instinct 2 to last much, much longer between charges.

Here are Garmin's quoted figures for the regular and solar editions of the Instinct 2 and the smaller Instinct 2S:

Swipe to scroll horizontally
Maximum battery life
Header Cell - Column 0 Garmin Instinct 2Garmin Instinct 2 SolarGarmin Instinct 2SGarmin Instinct 2S Solar
Smartwatch28 daysUnlimited21 days51 days
Battery saver watch65 daysUnlimited50 daysUnlimited
GPS30 hours48 hours22 hours28 hours
Max battery GPS70 hours370 hours54 hours114 hours
Expedition GPS32 daysUnlimited25 days105 days

Those are the most impressive figures we've seen for any running watch to date, and Garmin assures us that for the solar 45mm model, indefinite battery life is a real possibility,

In our tests, the Garmin Instinct 2S Solar lasted approximately two weeks with no sunlight exposure and an average of one workout per week. When exposed to sunlight, however, the battery meter barely dropped, even with SpO2 monitoring and regular use of GPS for activity tracking. Although the power level is gradually declining and won't last forever, at the time of writing we've not needed to give it a second charge.

When you eventually do need to juice it up, the Garmin Instinct 2 and Instinct 2S both use the same proprietary USB cable as the rest of Garmin's watches, which plugs securely into the back of the case.

Garmin Instinct 2 with white case and band

(Image credit: Future)

Smartwatch features

  • 24-hour health monitoring
  • Garmin Pay
  • Remote music controls

The original Garmin Instinct was a brilliant sports watch, but its chunky, utilitarian design meant it wasn’t one we were inclined to wear it as a regular timepiece. The Garmin Instinct 2’s slimmer profile, optional 40mm case and new colorways mean it’s fun rather than purely functional, so you’re more likely to wear it as an everyday smartwatch.

When you do, you’ll benefit from a wealth of everyday health monitoring features, including Garmin's Body Battery tool, which tracks factors including heart rate, sleep, and activity to tell you how much energy you have for the day ahead. It’s not unlike Fitbit and Oura’s readiness scores, but unlike those metrics, your Body Battery score is updated throughout the day so you can balance activity and rest on the fly.

There’s no microphone, so you can’t take calls or use your phone’s voice assistant from your wrist as you can with the Garmin Venu 2 Plus, but if you own an Android phone then you can automatically reject calls with a text message. Like many of the watch’s more advanced features, that’s easy to set up and customize in the Garmin Connect app.

Unlike the original Instinct, the Instinct 2 allows you to download additional faces and apps from Garmin Connect IQ. The watch’s dual-screen design means it’s not compatible with Garmin’s custom face designer, but the extra options let you prioritize the data and tools that really matter to you – or just pick something that looks a bit slicker than the default design.

Garmin Instinct 2

(Image credit: Future)

The Instinct 2 also supports Garmin Pay for making contactless purchases and paying for public transport, and you can use it to control the music on your phone without digging through your pockets for your handset. That's particularly useful in cold weather, as the watch's buttons are easy to operate while wearing gloves.

Fitness tracking

  • Wide range of activities (plus multi-sports mode)
  • Advanced training tools for running, cycling, swimming
  • Screen doesn't work well for mapping

Like all Garmin watches, the Instinct 2 offers extremely accurate GPS; in our measured 5km test it was accurate to within 50 meters, which is one of the best results we’ve ever seen from a running watch. It’s quick to establish a satellite lock as well, so you won’t be waiting around in the cold before you start your run, walk or ride.

There are profiles for a huge range of activities, with a multi-sport mode for events like triathlons and duathlons so you don't have to stop tracking between each stage. You can take your pick from the entire list any time, but when setting up the watch you’ll be prompted to choose just a handful that you use most frequently. When you press the activity button (top right) it’ll select the activity in the middle rather than the top of the list to minimize scrolling – the type of small but thoughtful touch that characterizes the Instinct 2.

Garmin Instinct 2 with white case and band

(Image credit: Future)

The watch will detect certain activities automatically, and while some older Garmin watches had a habit of recording unknown workouts as elliptical training, the Instinct 2 does a great job of differentiating between them.

As is usually the case, though, it's runners, cyclists and swimmers who get the most training tools. These include suggested run workouts (a handy way to ensure you're mixing up your training and not getting stuck in a rut), training load (so you can avoid under- or over-training), and training effect (so you can see whether your last workout was chiefly aerobic or anaerobic).

Garmin Instinct 2 with white case and band

(Image credit: Future)

These are all tools we've seen in other recent Garmin running watches, and we're pleased to see that they've made their way to the mid-range Instinct as well. This isn't a watch built with seriously competitive athletes in mind, but those at an earlier stage in their fitness journey stand to gain a lot from this kind of bespoke guidance.

Recovery time is also an extremely useful tool; even if you're a regular runner or rider, you might be surprised just how long it can take to recover from an intense effort, and if you don't get sufficient rest then the Instinct 2 will factor this in and extend your recovery period.

Garmin Instinct 2

(Image credit: Future)

We put the watch to the test for several sweaty indoor cycling sessions, and found that the watch quickly detected changes in heart rate throughout the workout, and once we were done, accurately identified which heart rate zones we were training in. The watch remained comfortable throughout, and sat comfortable against our skin as the temperature rose – something recorded by the watch’s built-in thermometer.

The Instinct 2 will also track your respiration rate, which is useful during workouts and at night, when it can be a handy indicator of how deeply you're sleeping.

The only real downside for the Instinct 2 is mapping. It’s possible to create routes in Garmin Connect and transfer them to to watch (a process that’s quick and easy), but when you come to use them, the lack of on-screen detail means finding your way can be surprisingly tricky.

Garmin Instinct 2

(Image credit: Future)

The screen’s small sub-window provides a useful directional arrow to help you get your bearing, but the lack of information on-screen means you’ll have to really pay attention to make sure you’re going the right way. If you’re hoping to use your watch to navigate new areas regularly, you’ll be much better served by the Garmin Fenix 7, which absolutely excels here.

Companion app

  • Deep insights into historic data
  • Biometrics clearly presented and explained

The Garmin Instinct 2 syncs with the excellent Garmin Connect app, which is one of the most refined and well developed of its kind. All your daily stats are presented in a fully customizable dashboard, with panels to show metrics such as heart rate, Body Battery (your current energy level), sleep score, stress recent workouts, and much more. You can add, remove, and rearrange panels to suit your preferences, and any changes will be saved for future use.

Garmin Instinct 2

(Image credit: Future)

Tapping a panel will open a more detailed view, showing information from the last day, week, month, and even further back. Unlike some apps (we’re looking at you, Fitbit) there’s no separate fee to pay in order to review historic data and look for trends that can give you a better understanding of your habits and their effects. Every metric is clearly explained, with an information screen describing exactly what it means for your health; unlike some apps, Garmin Connect doesn't expect prior knowledge.

If you don’t have time to browse through historic stats, that’s not an issue – the app will provide you with occasional ‘insights’ based on your lifestyle and workouts. For example, if you tend to take fewer steps on a Thursday, the app will nudge you to get outside and take a stroll before the day is out. 

There's also no charge to use the various workout programs included with Garmin Connect, including the bespoke cycling and running plans that can help you prepare for a new event, or aim for a personal best.

Just enter a few key details including the time you hope to achieve, and how many times per week you want to train, then select a coach and the app will put together a personalized plan just for you, which you can sync with your Instinct 2. The plan will adapt on the fly based on your performance in training sessions, and will even shift workouts around if you decide you need to skip a day.

Garmin Instinct 2

(Image credit: Future)

As we mentioned earlier, you can also use Garmin Connect to plan routes and transfer them to your running watch, but that's a feature that works best with watches like the Fenix 7 or Epix (Gen 2); to get the most out of the navigation tools, you really need a high-res color display that can show streets, paths, and landmarks.

The app will, however, tell you a lot about yourself, and taking time to drill through the various options in the Training, Health Stats, and Performance Stats menus will show you the impact your efforts are having on your health, and spur you on to tweak your regular workouts.

Buy it if

You're hard on your watches
The Instinct 2 might be slimmer than its predecessor, but it's still built like a tank and will shrug off serious knocks.

You want to leave the charger at home
The Instinct 2 offers extremely long battery life, and the solar edition can keep running indefinitely with sufficient sunlight.

Don't buy it if

You want to go exploring
The Garmin Instinct 2's monchrome MIP display means it doesn't handle maps all that well. Sure, you can upload routes, but with limited detail visible on-screen, you might have a hard time following them.