Garmin Instinct 2 Solar review

The second-gen Instinct is a better all-rounder
Garmin Instinct 2 Solar
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Garmin has returned with the Instinct 2 – and given its outdoor watch a brand new lease of life.

In the stable of Forerunner, Fenix and Venu sports watches, the Instinct brand has been something of a footnote.

The first Garmin Instinct (released in 2018) was billed as an outdoor alternative to the Garmin Fenix, at a lower price point.

But the Instinct 2 has shifted. Garmin’s not-so-subtle tribute to Casio G-SHOCK watches is now an all-rounder GPS sports watch, with more focus put on fitness metrics, and sports like HIIT and golf added to the ensemble.

It's in many ways a mini Fenix – with some key compromises. And to choose the Instinct 2 is as much a style proposition as it is a sporting one.

We spent three weeks with the Instinct 2 – here are our conclusions.

About our review

All of our reviews adhere to our strict in-depth testing policy. We test every aspect in-depth, and benchmarking against key competitors so you can make an informed choice. You can read our editorial policy to find out why you can trust Wareable reviews.

James Stables is Wareable's editor-in-chief and co-founder, and has tested nearly every wearable over the last decade.

Price and comparison

At $349/£299 the Instinct 2 isn't cheap – but by Garmin standards that's quite mid-ranged, and we do think there's some decent value here. That rises to $449/£329 for the Instinct 2 Solar tested here, which enables the extended battery life – most notable during Ultratrac workouts.

The Fenix 7S comes in at $699/£599, with a better screen, even more sports tracking data and mapping features.

The Forerunner 245 is also a comparable device for those that are primarily road runners, and starting at $299/249 is a little cheaper. It's less rugged and a bit more subtle than the Instinct 2, but battery life is also significantly diminished. You can get music capability, however.

Away from Garmin, natural competitors at the Coros Pace 2 which is $199/£179 – and the Polar Grit X Pro also catches the eye at $429/$379.

Design and comfort

Garmin Instinct 2 Solar Design and comfort

The Instinct 2 certainly looks rugged, and acts it, with a 100m water resistance rating and MIL-820 military standard shock and dust resistance.

But this ruggedness is also part of its identity, with a fibre-reinforced polymer cladding and big pushers that just shouts Casio G-SHOCK. And it’s aimed at the same all-adventure crowd.

At 52g it’s significantly less weighty than a Fenix 7 – but we still found the 45mm version a little cumbersome to sleep with.

Style is a big part of the proposition here, and there are a host of vibrant color options to choose from.

The biggest difference over the first Garmin Instinct is a new case size. Joining the 45mm is a new 40mm aimed at thinner wrists – and should be much more comfortable for both men and women that covet the rugged style of the Instinct 2.

The screen is a low-res 176x176 pixel transflective display, and this is the secret behind the Instinct 2’s battery life prowess. It’s extremely low power and always-on, offering great visibility in direct sunlight – but it’s monochrome and dull – a world away from full AMOLED smartwatches such as the Apple Watch or Garmin Venu 2.

But the neat little inset screen remains, which offers useful information and navigational hints – and is a unique and lovely addition to the Instinct.

There’s no touchscreen, but the five buttons on the bezel will be familiar to any Fenix/Forerunner user.

You get an interchangeable strap with a substantial buckle which offered a good fit, although we did find the end of the strap could flap around a little after slipping out from the loop.

The Instinct 2 won't suit everyone style-wise, but it's rugged and comfortable to wear – and the bold colors add a dose of fun not seen elsewhere in the Garmin selection.

Sport tracking

Garmin Instinct 2 Solar Sport tracking

The first Instinct was plainly an outdoors watch, that was geared towards offering hiking, navigational features and long battery life, at a more reasonable price point than the Fenix 6.

The outdoors prowess of the Instinct 2 still exists, but it’s been widened to become more of a general interest GPS sports watch.

So what’s changed? Firstly, Garmin has added more of its Firstbeat fitness metrics including VO2 Max, recovery time, Training Effect and Training Load. This certainly caught our eye when the Instinct 2 was announced, being some of our favorite features on the Fenix 7.

This data will be of interest runners and cyclists especially, and makes the Instinct 2 a more serious sports device.

One odd thing is that, by default, VO2 Max and performance data isn’t shown on the watch itself, and only presented after a workout or on Garmin Connect. In fact, they can be added as widgets on the watch via the device settings in the Garmin Connect app.

Garmin has also added some new sports modes to the Instinct 2, which makes it a much better all-rounder.

The new HIIT 2.0 mode is present, and you can track workouts such as AMRAP and EMOM.

And golf also debuts on the Instinct 2 – and you can add any of the 40,000 supported courses via Garmin Connect to get distances to the pin and hazards, as well as scoring and a shot measure feature. We tested golf mode, and it worked solidly and accurately, with the exact experience you’ll find on Fenix, although you don’t get features like green mapping and smart caddy that you’ll find on Garmin Approach golf watches.

Cycling has also been given an update, with Garmin’s proprietary Grit and Flow metrics added to the mountain bike profile, which rates the difficulty of a train and how smoothly you descend.

Swimming is supported, backed up by 100m of water resistance – and is the same experience you’ll get on Fenix and Forerunner 745. That means detection of strokes, stroke rate and the Garmin SWOLF measure of efficiency, although you can’t track swimrun sessions.

Running

Garmin Instinct 2 Solar review

We ran extensively with Instinct 2 – and found GPS accuracy to be top notch – thanks in part to the multi-channel GNSS on-board. Across 5km and 10km runs we had no qualms about accuracy, even on measured courses during races.

The data you see live is fairly basic. You can scroll through to get live pace/distance/time and split times. You can also get a heart rate widget – but that’s your lot. The second inset screen is used well to show live heart rate, which is a nice touch.

Afterwards you get the juicy data. VO2 Max is shown, and while these are estimates, we have found Garmin’s to be accurate against a lab test In the past.

You'll also get Training Effect data – how much the workout affected your aerobic and anaerobic fitness, and advice on recovery time.

This puts it ahead of Garmin’s Forerunner 245 and Forerunner 55 in terms of tracked data – although Forerunner 245 does have PacePro, which helps you manage race speed. But the upshot is that the Instinct 2 is a good GPS watch for runners.

The Daily Workout Suggestion also kicks in to suggest a workout target pace and distance to maximise training effect. One day we might give ourselves up to the logic of Garmin’s workout coach, but primarily our running is based on how much time we have between work, childcare and other commitments, and having to dismiss the suggestion was an unwelcome interruption.

Hiking

Garmin Instinct 2 Solar review

Hiking is also a fairly simple on-watch experience – with distance, timer and ascent augmented by a breadcrumb and compass, thanks to the The ABC (altimeter, barometer and compass).

You can upload also GPX files via Garmin Connect, so you can follow breadcrumb waypoints for pre-prepared routes.

And there’s trackback, which will direct you back to the start (as the crow flies) – if you decide you’ve had enough of the wilderness, which is a useful safety feature.

However, you don’t get mapping on-board, which is reserved for the top-of-the-range Fenix 7 and Epix watches.

Wellness and heart rate accuracy

Garmin Instinct 2 Solar review

The Garmin experience also incorporates increasing amounts of wellness features, and they’re all here on the Instinct 2.

There’s a heart rate monitor that will keep tabs on 24/7 bpm and track resting heart rate as well.

Heart rate variability (HRV) is also tracked and presented as Body Battery data – which is a measure of energy levels and recovery. This is an interesting figure, but one that needs to be presented with more insight to be something we pay attention to.

And there’s also Stress Tracking, again via HRV, that scores your stress levels out of 100. Again, the number can come across as arbitrary, and with little read-world use.

The numbers also tended to be quite static over long periods with stress usually around 20-30/100 and body battery around 60 – and we didn’t derive too much usefulness from the data.

Much of this is underpinned by sleep tracking – but we had a mixed experience with this on the Instinct 2 that also calls into question the validity of the above data. Of course, without a sleep lab then analysis is subjective, but we compared to Whoop 4.0, which has seemed a reliable indicator.

Time asleep was tracked well, but our sleep was subject to some absurdly low analysis and sleep scores that call the entire data into question.

A good night’s sleep of 8 hours was rated as ‘fair’, and Garmin registered 0 minutes of deep sleep, which seems impossible given that we woke quite well rested. Whoop recorded a much more realistic 90 minutes for the same night.

Again, on slightly unsettled night with a head cold, Garmin recognised 6hr 32, which was rated 39/100 and “poor” for being “unbalanced” – with no deep sleep tracked at all. Whoop recorded 1:42 of deep sleep.

The issue is that sleep data feeds into Body Battery and into the workout recommendations – which then suggested a recovery workout due to poor sleep. So if you're basing your training around sleep tracking that's producing quite extreme analysis, that could cause issues.

Breathing rate was also recorded and in-line with Whoop – which we’ve found to be reliable. This data is quite buried in Garmin Connect, so its usefulness is questionable.

And resting heart rate was also tracked between 45 and 50 – which is the normal range found on Fitbit and Whoop.

Instinct 2 will also track fitness age as well – however, after three weeks a d multiple run tracking it still caveated that it needed more data to estimate.

Heart rate accuracy

Heart rate accuracy

As usual we compared the accuracy of the Garmin Instinct 2 Solar to a heart rate chest strap – and got some surprising results.

One of our comparison runs saw the Garmin HRM-Pro garble the first 10 minutes of the run, proving that chest straps aren’t infallible against bad data.

But the Instinct 2 Solar has been a reliable and accurate heart rate monitor.

We’ve found steady runs to be within 1-3bpm of a chest strap, which is too close to derive any accuracy superiority.

Some of the malfunctions we’ve seen early in Garmin wrist-tracked run seem to have been ironed out, and the Instinct provided stable and reliable data throughout our testing time.

Overall it’s a good performing heart rate monitor in a host of different activities, but as ever with optical heart rate technology – it's suited to steady workouts, and any HIIT workouts that flex the arm can cause issues – and using a chest strap is advisable.

Smartwatch features

Garmin Instinct 2 Solar review

In terms of smartwatch features, the Garmin Instinct 2 is up to spec with most of Garmin’s features.

You get notifications on the wrist – which are well-presented and easy-to-read.

It’s a little all-or-nothing, and there’s only light editing of notifications available in Garmin Connect.

You can toggle off/on calls, texts or apps – but that doesn’t differentiate for things like WhatsApp. Any app that buzzes your smartphone will hit the Instinct, so if you want to trim things down, you’ll have to cut them off at source on your smartphone.

Essentially, we found the notifications a little intrusive, and used the do not disturb feature extensively, before just turning notifications off. That’s certainly personal preference.

There’s Connect IQ on board, so you can add to the experience from Garmin’s store of apps and watch faces.

There’s no music support here, so you can’t offline sync Spotify.

Garmin Pay is available – but you need to opt for the more expensive Instinct 2 Solar to get that. We’ve also found banking support, in the UK at least, to be fairly patchy.

Battery life

Garmin Instinct 2 Solar review

One of the biggest talking points of the Instinct 2 Solar edition is battery life – so we put it to the test.

First, the normal Instinct 2. We found 3% drop off per day, which equates to around 28 days battery life, which happens to be exactly the promise from Garmin. Super stuff.

Three hours of running with full dual band GNSS will take 10% off the Instinct 2. Again, that correlates with the 30 hours promised by Garmin.

And power management features also make it over from Fenix, which is also very welcome.

Now onto Solar. The Solar 45mm edition has the allure of being able to offer unlimited battery life in smartwatch mode – if subjected to 3 hours of daylight per day. Easy right? Actually, not so much.

It’s hard to quantify how effective Solar is in real life given the variables at play, but sadly it does seem unrealistic to never have to charge your Instinct 2 Solar.

In UK winter, most adventures outside saw our clothes blocking the watch – and thus getting no-where near enough exposure to keep the levels topped up.

That made it very hard to test the validity of Garmin's claims that Ultratrac GPS workouts would be subjected too unlimited battery life.

Of course you could wear it over your coat if you really want that charge time – but that’s not for us.

Placing it on the windowsill on a sunny day also didn’t really work, so while technically the Instinct 2 Solar may be able to sustain itself on three hours of outdoor use, that was extremely difficult to achieve in February.

Perhaps in summer things will be different, and we’ll be testing and updating on our experiences.


Garmin Instinct 2
By Garmin
A superb all-round sports and fitness watch, the Instinct 2 is a mini Fenix – offering so much of the experience for far less money. You have to love the design, and it's not for everyone – and we do feel that Garmin's health and wellness experience is starting to lag the competition. But if you can't be pinned down to one type of fitness, Instinct 2 offers great battery life and a super fitness experience.

Hit
  • New workout stats
  • Great battery life
  • Extremely versatile
Miss
  • Design won't be for everyone
  • Sleep tracking questionable