Best Garmin watch 2020: running and sport smartwatches compared

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Garmin sports watch buying guide
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The number of Garmin running and fitness watches continues to grow, making the task of choosing the right device for you more difficult.

Our best Garmin GPS running watch for general users is the Forerunner 45, which impressed us with its size, comfort and the amount of data on offer – without costing an absolute fortune.

At the other end of the scale is the incredible Fenix 6S multi sport watch. Simply, this is the best fitness watch in the world - which you'd expect from a device with a $600/Β£600 price tag.

If you're a hiker that wants multi-day battery life and top tracking and mapping smarts, we've been really impressed by the Garmin Instinct and the new Instinct Solar. These showcases the best of Garmin's technology, deliver real world benefits for hikers and offers a big saving over the Fenix 6.

And if you're looking for the best Garmin smartwatch, we'd plump for the brilliant Garmin Vivoactive 4.

The breadth of Garmin's range means there's something for everyone, regardless of your budget. Below, we've tried our best to explain each of Garmin's running, outdoor and multi-sport watches. And if music playback is a key feature you want – we have a guide to music running watches too.

Update: We updated this article to include the new solar powered Garmin devices launched in July 2020, including the Garmin Instinct Solar.

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Garmin watches compared


Price

Sports

VO2/

Analytics

Battery life

(GPS no music)

Music

Forerunner 45

$199.99 Running
Cycling
Cardio (gym)
Yoga

No/No

13 hours

No

Forerunner 35

$199.99

Running

Cycling

Cardio (gym)

Yoga

No/No

13 hours

No

Vivoactive 4

$269.99

Running

Cycling

Swimming

Cardio (gym)

Golf

No/No

15 hours

Yes

(500 songs)

Spotify

Garmin Venu

$399.99

Running

Cycling

Swimming

Cardio (gym)

Golf

No/No

20 hours

Yes

(500 songs)

Forerunner 245 (Music)

$349.99

Running

Cycling

Pool swimming

Cardio

Yes/Yes

Up to 24 hours

Yes

(500 songs)

Forerunner 645

(Music)

$449.99

Running

Cycling

Pool swimming

Cardio (gym)

Yes/Yes

Up to 14 hours

Yes

(1000 songs)


Spotify offline

Forerunner 945

$599.99

Running

Cycling

Pool swimming

Cardio (gym)

Yes/Yes

36 hours

Yes

(1000 songs)

Fenix 6

$699

Running (trail, treadmill),

Hiking, Climbing, Biking,

Cardio (gym)

Golf, Snow sports,

SUP, Rowing, Kayaking,

Jumpmaster, Tactical

Yes/Yes

16 hours GPS

40 hours GPS in power saver

Yes

(Pro versions only)


Spotify offline

Garmin Instinct Solar



$399.99

Running (trail, treadmill),

Hiking, Climbing, Biking,

Cardio (gym)

Golf, Snowsports,

SUP, Rowing, Kayaking,

Jumpmaster, Tactical

No/No

GPS: 30 hours
(38 hours solar)

Max Battery GPS: 70 hours
(145 hours with solar)

Expedition GPS: 28 days
(68 days with solar)

No

Garmin Vivomove 3 $219.99Running, biking
(GPS from phone only),
Pool swimming,
Strength Training,
Cardio Training,
Elliptical Training,
Stair Stepping, Yoga
No/No 5 days smartwatch mode No
Garmin Swim 2 $249.99Pool Swimming,
Open water swimming,
Running,
Biking


No/No Smartwatch mode: Up to 7 days

GPS mode: Up to 13 hours

No

Garmin running watches

Dominated by the Forerunner range - Garmin's running watches aren't just about running. Most will track other kinds of sports – including biking, pool swimming and open cardio. All the company's fitness watches are now water resistant, too.

Put simply, the Forerunner range is huge. The more expensive the watch generally means greater battery life, more advanced analytics based on heart rate and the ability to store/listen to music. Here are our picks.

Top pick: Garmin Forerunner 45

Top pick: Garmin Forerunner 45

Price when reviewed: $199.99 | Forerunner 45 specs page

The Forerunner 45 builds on the all the good work Garmin did with the 35, still packing plenty of features for a pretty great price.

It's now available in a round design that comes in 39mm and 42mm sizes. You're getting the same transflective display you get on all of Garmin's watches, water resistance up to 50 meters deep (but no swim tracking) and a heart rate monitor that should be good for most.

The Android- and iOS-friendly sports watch focuses its tracking skills on running and cycling, offering full satellite mapping support and the core metrics, as well as some advanced ones, like VO2 Max.

Smartwatch features include notification support, while Connect IQ compatibility only extends to bringing watch faces to the entry level watch.

If you're new to running and don't want to spend big, the Forerunner 45 (or smaller 45S) is the one to go for.

What we love...

  • The thin design
  • Water resistance
  • Great price
  • More than enough metrics for even passionate runners

What we don't love

  • Limited multi-sport features
  • Limited battery life
  • No music

In-depth: Read our full Garmin Forerunner 45 review


Garmin Forerunner 35

Garmin Forerunner 35

Price when reviewed: $169.99 | Forerunner 35 specs page

The Forerunner 35 has been upgraded in the shape of the Forerunner 45.

However, you can still buy it, and it's still worth considering for first time runners – especially at rock bottom prices. Savvy buyers can grab a Forerunner 35 for less than $100, and we can see the appeal.

Ideal for beginners, couch to 5k-ers and those who want a little more info on their regular runs without being overwhelmed by data, it also has activity tracking, bridging the divide between an inexpensive tracker and a serious sports watch.

It packs in all the bare essentials for runners: distance, pace, time, calories, splits and an optical heart rate monitor. Plus, it also delivers smartphone notifications to your wrist.

Everything you need if you're a recreational runner who just wants to keep tabs on how far and fast you've gone. And it even does smartwatch notifications and better-than-basic fitness tracking, including tracking resting heart rate.

So what don't you get? There's not a wide range of other sports - just running, swimming and biking - and the data is simple. You won't get insights into training load, the effect of sessions or recovery. Also, things like cadence are out, as well. But, if you're thinking about moving beyond tracking runs on your phone, this is the next step up.

We love...

  • The price
  • The simplicity

We don't love...

  • Ugly as sin
  • Light on features
  • No music

In-depth: Read our full Garmin Forerunner 35 review


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Garmin Forerunner 245 Music

Garmin Forerunner 245 Music

Price when reviewed: $349.99 | Forerunner 245 specs page

The Forerunner 245 Music is the natural successor to the 235, which was just put out to pasture (and has been thoroughly superseded by the Forerunner 45). It still tracks running, biking, swimming and cardio – thanks to its 5ATM water resistance.

But the Forerunner 245 adds some serious new features – and is firmly a mid-range running device for those who have progressed in their training and are now starting to obsess over their PBs.

It leverages the optical heart rate sensor to take VO2 Max readings – which is then turned into insights on your recovery, the effect of each session and how much load you're putting your body through. It's also just been given the PacePro feature, which uses GPS data to pace races to your desired finishing times – even taking hills into account.

The built-in music player support works much in the same way as other Garmin watches, with music features outside of controlling playback from your phone. You can transfer over your own music or playlists from streaming services like Spotify and Deezer to the watch.

Then, you can pair some Bluetooth headphones and leave that phone behind. You've got enough for around 500 songs, which is not as many as the 945 can hold (1,000 songs), but it should still be enough for most.

Battery life is around 7 days, though hammering the music features will dent that. But if you just save the audio for your workouts, it'll make it through the week. It does lack payment support and an altimeter, but, overall, it's a great running watch for anyone that has been looking for those music features, too.

We love...

  • VO2 Max data
  • Advanced training and recovery metrics
  • PacePro
  • Spotify playlists and MP3 playback

We don't like...

  • Pricey
  • Not so stylish

Wareable verdict: Our full Garmin Forerunner 245 Music review

Garmin Forerunner 645 Music

Garmin Forerunner 645 Music

Price when reviewed: $449.99 | Forerunner 645 Music specs page

The Forerunner 645 Music was the first Garmin to offer music features and unlike the 245 Music, it does have payment support and a more stylish design. It also has a barometric altimeter, which will please trail runners for all that elevation data. Check out our Garmin Forerunner 245 vs 645 guide for all the key differences.

For tracking, it will cover running, cycling, pool swimming (yes, 5ATM water resistance is here), walking and much more. If you're serious about running, you can tap into the likes of cadence, stride length, ground contact time and balance, vertical oscillation and vertical ratio. And no matter what kind of training you're involved in, you can also access the Training Status, Training Effect and Training Load features for aiding recovery between workouts.

But, crucially, while being a heavyweight in the tracking department, this was the first Garmin that allowed for music streaming directly from the wrist. There's enough storage to load 500 songs, while offline playlists can be accessed from Deezer, iHeartRadio and now Spotify.

Like the Vivoactive 4 (below) and Forerunner 245, Garmin does offer a Forerunner 645 without music, and, again, it should save you some money if music isn't an essential feature for you.

We love...

  • Spotify support
  • More stylish look
  • VO2 and advanced training analysis

We don't love...

  • Forerunner 245 is better and cheaper
  • No PacePro...yet

In-depth: Our full Garmin Forerunner 645 Music review


Garmin multi-sport watches

A slightly confusing concept, as even the most basic watches are capable of tracking more than one type of activity – Garmin's multi-sport watches tend to include more than just running, cycling and pool swimming. We've also classified its two "smartwatches" here. Essentially - look into this list if running is just one part of your weekly fitness schedule.

Garmin Vivoactive 4

Garmin Vivoactive 4

Price when reviewed: $269.99 | Garmin Vivoactive 4 specs page

The Vivoactive 4 is Garmin's sport focused smartwatch, designed to offer the benefits of notifications and smart features with a jack-of-all-trades sports tracking which supports up to 20 activities.


Like its main rivals, the Apple Watch Series 5 and Fitbit Ionic, this is a watch that's aiming to bring more than just fitness smarts to your wrist. An upgrade to the Vivoactive 3, it still boasts a relatively low resolution transflective display, but this time it's been given a glossy screen that makes the whole package a lot more stylish.

It still has Garmin Pay and support for Spotify, as you'd expect, and you can install apps via Connect IQ, which also does a roaring trade in watch faces and widgets, too.

In terms of sports tracking, it's pretty comprehensive – you get running (indoor, outdoor, treadmill), cycling (indoor and outdoor), swimming (pool only), golf, strength, cardio, elliptical, indoor rowing, yoga and more. That enough for you? And, yes, you guessed it, 5ATM water resistance is on board.

None are tracked with the insane level of detail used by the specialist Forerunner or Fenix devices – so you'll miss out on stuff like recovery, training load, training status, VO2 Max and the like.

You will get decent fitness tracking, and sleep is aided by the pulse ox sensor that will deliver advanced sleep stages and information on your respiration as you sleep. Hardcore stuff.

And when you think that the Apple Watch Series 5 will only last a single day and won't get you through a marathon unless you turn off the heart rate monitor, you get a week in smartwatch mode with 13 hours of GPS. That's pretty excellent.

  • We love...
  • Loads of tracked sports
  • Shiny new display
  • Crammed with features
  • Music and Spotify

We don't love...

  • Lack of VO2 Max
  • Data light

Full test: Garmin Vivoactive 4 review


Garmin Venu

Garmin Venu

Price when reviewed: $399.99 | Garmin Venu specs page

If you want to up the style stakes even further then the Garmin Venu could be your preferred option.

It's really the same watch as the Vivoactive 4, but with a glossy AMOLED display for those getting their eye turned by the Apple Watch. It's a nice bit of kit and the screen is really punchy – making those runs in the dark easier to read. And notifications and health data look really great, too.

In terms of sports and health tracking, you get the same as the Vivoactive 4. Running (indoor, outdoor, treadmill), cycling (jndoor/outdoor), swimming (pool only thanks to 5ATM water resistance), golf, strength, cardio, elliptical, indoor rowing, yoga and more – and there's support for underwater reading of heart rate.

It's a tidy smartwatch that gives you Garmin levels of sports tracking in a good-looking package. You sacrifice some battery life for the AMOLED screen, but you should still get five days of wear as a smartwatch with one or two shorter runs thrown in. GPS battery life is 8 hours – so significantly less than the Vivoactive - but this is no doubt the better looking watch.

We love...

  • The screen
  • The sports tracking
  • Music and Spotify

We don't love...

  • Lower battery life
  • Touchscreen is a little fiddly

Read all about it: Full Garmin Venu review


Garmin Fenix 6/6 Pro

Garmin Fenix 6/6 Pro

Price when reviewed: $599 (6) / $699 (6 Pro)
Fenix 6 specs page

The Fenix range is the pinnacle of the Garmin line-up, and the new Garmin Fenix 6 is one of the best all-action sports watches you can buy.

The watch built for the outdoors features modes to track hiking, climbing, cross country skiing, regular skiing, cycling, swimming, open water swimming, running, trail running, indoor workouts, triathlon, golf and more. If there's something you want to track, the Fenix 6 series watches likely can.

If you love swimming, it's set for open water and pool dips with 10ATM water resistance.

All the new Fenix 6 models take tracked metrics to the extreme, offering full insights for VO2 Max, race prediction, stress scores, Training Effect and Training Status: they're all found here and they're seriously meaningful. Data-loving runners will be in heaven.

Runners will love the PacePro feature, which uses a library of user generated GPS routes to help you pace your running races, even up and down hills.

And for trekkers there's the TOPO mapping – so you can see what's around you, including major trails and navigate to points of interest right from the wrist.

There's also a new Garmin Fenix 6 Solar (and 6S Solar) which adds 4 hours of standard GPS tracking, upping tracking to 40 hours (from 36), with Max Battery mode at 93 hours (up from 72 hours) and Expedition Mode at 36 days (up from 28 days).

We love

  • Lighter design
  • Incredible array of tracked sports
  • So. Much. Data.
  • Music and Spotify

We don't love...

  • Crazy price
  • Very masculine design
  • Big Solar price increase adds comparatively little for most users

Wareable verdicts: Garmin Fenix 6 review | Garmin Fenix 6X review


Garmin Forerunner 945

Garmin Forerunner 945

Price when reviewed: $599.99 | Forerunner 945 specs page

The Forerunner 935 was our top running watch pick for a long time, but with even more functionality packed into the 945, its successor has taken the crown.

However, while it carries the Forerunner branding, it's an incredibly effective multisport watch designed for triathletes – and serious ones at that – aimed at those who run long, fast and need to pay particular attention to load and recovery.

The triathlon-friendly watch essentially squeezes in everything you get in the latest Fenix watch, including multi-sport tracking, payments, a built-in music player, navigation features and full color maps.

On the running front, it covers everything from the treadmill to trail running and provides plenty of metrics to pore over after your training session.

It still has stellar battery life, while the built-in heart rate monitoring and great new training effect, load and focus features make sure you're not over-exerting yourself.

It's another top notch multi-sport GPS watch that makes a fine running companion for serious athletes.

We love...

  • Advanced analytics
  • Triathlon tracking
  • Cheaper than Fenix
  • Music and Spotify

We don't love...

  • Not quite as stylish as Fenix 6
  • Big price tag

In-depth: Read our full Garmin Forerunner 945 review


Best Garmin outdoor watch

If you're looking for a true outdoors watch then you have two main options in the Garmin range. The pinnacle is the Fenix 6, which we've named a top pick above. But its price tag is outrageous – which is why Garmin has launched cheaper alternatives that don't skimp on the stuff trekkers need.

Garmin Instinct Solar

Garmin Instinct Solar

Price when reviewed: $399.99 | Garmin Instinct specs page

The Garmin Instinct is a rugged outdoor sports watch that comes with the same DNA as Garmin's Fenix range.

The Instinct has just been updated to the Instinct Solar, which offers hikers and outdoors types significant battery life improvements over the standard Instinct.

The Instinct already provides many of the power saving modes only found on the Fenix range. UltraTrac will extend battery life from 16 to 40 hours of hiking by reducing pings to the satellite, which is great for walkers and acceptable for ultra-distance trail runners.

The Instinct Solar changes things dramatically. GPS lasts 30 days rising to 38 hours if you expose it to three hours of strong sunlight. There's now Max Battery GPS mode, which lasts 70 hours and up to 145 hours with solar.

And finally, there's an Expedition battery setting that can provide tracking for 28 days, rising to 68 days with solar. That's huge numbers and a huge boost for the Solar Edition.

The Instinct will track running, hiking, cycling and swimming, hiking, climbing and even skiing, boating and other types of outdoor pursuit. There's also a new Instinct Solar Surf edition, which packs specialist tracking and things like tide times.

Built to withstand the toughest of elements, the Instinct has all the usual skills you'd expect to see from one of Garmin's outdoor-friendly watches.
There's GPS along with GLONASS and Galileo support to offer plenty of mapping coverage. There's a barometric altimeter to measure elevation when you're climbing up mountains, a heart rate monitor and the Instinct Solar adds a pulse oximeter, which it uses to check elevation against blood oxygen on its new Acclimatisation Widget.

Unsurprisingly, this hardcore outdoor aid places a big emphasis on features that should come in handy when you're trekking or hiking. Course navigation, the ability to import GPX routes and Garmin's TrackBack feature, that guides you to the start of your workout using breadcrumbs.

Sitting in between the Vivoactive and Fenix ranges, it's priced at $299.99, with the Solar Edition rising to $399.99.

We love...

  • UltraTrac GPS for long hikes
  • General running and workout modes for everyday fitness
  • Battery life on Solar Edition

We don't love...

  • Not the most stylish
  • Low res display
  • No music

Read more: Garmin Instinct review | Garmin Instinct Solar review


Garmin swimming watches

Garmin Swim 2

Garmin Swim 2

Price when reviewed: $249.99 | Garmin Swim 2 specs

The Garmin Swim 2 is in no uncertain terms a massive upgrade on the first Swim as far as what it’s capable of when you’re in the water.

It’s the cheapest Garmin you can buy to get open water and pool swimming features though it would be even more attractive at a slightly lower price.

If you can’t stomach paying for a top end Forerunner or Fenix, this is the swimming-focused Garmin watch to go for instead.

There are more metrics, settings to play with and of course a smattering of smartwatch features to make it useful when you're not swimming. The Swim 2 will track lengths, distance, pace, stroke count and SWOLF.

It can also detect stroke type, offer pace alerts, critical swim speed insights and a handy auto rest feature.

Many of these can be viewed in in real-time on the watch, but you'll get a better overview in the Garmin Connect app. Like most Garmin watches, it'll also play nice with Strava.

Check out our Garmin Swim 2 review.

What we love...

  • Easy to use
  • Plenty of swim metrics
  • Accurate tracking

What we don't love

  • Basic smartwatch features
  • Doesn’t have full Connect IQ support
  • Screen a bit on the small side

Garmin hybrid watches

Garmin Vivomove 3

Vivomove 3

Price when reviewed: From $219.99 | Garmin Vivomove 3 specs page

The Vivomove 3 is undoubtedly one of the best looking smartwatches you can get your hands on, and, in a slightly weak field, is probably the best hybrid on the market, too.

It mixes an analogue face with a digital display on the dial that will show essential information, such as heart rate, steps and call notificaitons – and you get a week of battery life.

There's no GPS, so those who want accurate run or cycle tracking will have to do so with their phone, but you do get a healthy array of overall tracking. Long-pressing the screen will bring up the option to select activities, at which point you can cycle between runs, cycles, walks, gym workouts and more.

It's definitely susceptible to the odd software hiccup, but generally the hidden screen technology responds extremely well and is home to a wide array of features.

We wouldn't recommend serious sporty types pick up one of the Vivomove 3 devices - that's for the rest of Garmin's range - but it's a more than capable fitness tracker for regular users.

Read our full Garmin Vivomove 3 review.

What we love...

  • Stylish design
  • Software works beautifully
  • Gamut of features

What we don't love

  • Mild software hiccups
  • Sleep tracking issues
  • Style and Luxe models are pricey



This article was first published in July 2015. However, we update it frequently to reflect the newest Garmin devices, making sure that we've tested the latest and greatest devices available to buy.