Garmin’s latest rugged solar-powered smartwatch, the Instinct 2, promises unlimited battery life. You just have to stay in the sun.
Looking more like a rugged digital watch such as Casio’s legendary G-Shock than an Apple or Samsung smartwatch, the Garmin feels made to take a beating with its monochrome screen, physical buttons and sturdy body.
It costs from £299.99 ($349.99/A$549) and comes in various versions such as one for surfing and even one for professional truck drivers. But it is the solar charging models, costing £389.99, that promise never to need to be plugged in for power.
The Instinct 2 comes in various two or three-tone colours, all with a similar rugged or standout aesthetic, here shown in mist grey. Photograph: Samuel Gibbs/The Guardian
Underneath the rugged exterior is Garmin’s smartwatch tech, featuring market-leading sport, health and location-tracking. It has smartphone connectivity for notifications, alerts and syncing your data via the Connect app on an Android or iPhone.
It is very similar to many other Garmin sport watches, but what sets the Instinct 2 apart is its promise of incredible battery life even without the power of the sun.
The standard 45mm model without solar will last up to 28 days used as a general smartwatch, which is 10 days longer than the already impressive Fenix 7 and about 14 times longer than an Apple Watch.
The solar version, which charges using a transparent “power glass” covering the screen and panels around the edge of the display, promises to keep the battery topped up for essentially unlimited battery life as long as you spend at least three hours in direct sunlight (50,000 lux of light).
There are plenty of high-contrast watchface designs to choose from with more available in the Connect IQ store, each of which can display data such steps, calories or battery life, too. Photograph: Samuel Gibbs/The Guardian
How realistic that is depends on your day-to-day activities. On a sunny winter’s day in London the watch received 40,000 lux of direct sunlight through a window, so if you spend your days outside rather than locked in an office it seems more than feasible.
For mainly indoor usage during winter without much in the way of solar charging, the watch lasted about 15 days between charges, including five hours of workout-tracking. I wore it 24 hours a day with message alerts, heart rate, stress, calories, general activity and health monitoring, plus sleep and blood oxygen (SpO2) tracking overnight. Turning off the Sp02 sensor added days to the life as did limiting workouts. The solar charging would add at least 24 hours battery for each sunny spring day spent outside, too.
Screen: monochrome transflective MIP LCD
Case size: 40 or 45mm
Case thickness: 13.3 to 14.5mm
Band size: standard 20 or 22mm quick fit
Weight: 42 to 53g
Water resistance: 100 metres (10ATM)
Sensors: GNSS (GPS, Glonass, Galileo), compass, thermometer, heart rate, pulse Ox
Connectivity: Bluetooth, ANT+
When it eventually comes to charging or syncing the watch to a computer, the USB cable plugs into the port on the back below the heart rate sensor. Photograph: Samuel Gibbs/The Guardian
Of course its battery prowess comes at the cost of features on fancier-looking Garmin watches such as the Fenix 7 or rivals like the Apple Watch. The Instinct 2 lacks a touchscreen, though the button-based interface is fast and logical. It lacks the new high-accuracy multi-band GPS tracking technology, but still has an altimeter, barometer and compass.
The biggest missing features are offline music playback, such as Spotify without having to use your phone, and offline maps. It can plot breadcrumb trails of where you have been on an activity to help you get back to the start, guide you in the direction of points of interest and even measure the area of a space by walking its perimeter, but it has no maps available.
The watch tracks a vast number of activities including various forms of running, walking, cycling, swimming, strength, cardio, Hiit and more exotic ones such as paddle boarding, hunting, fishing, backcountry skiing and bouldering.
General smartwatch features include stopwatches, timers and alarms, the weather, calendars, smartphone notifications, music control and various quick settings menus. Photograph: Samuel Gibbs/The Guardian
Some activities are restricted to special versions of the watch, such as the jumpmaster mode for skydiving being only available on the “tactical edition”, surfing and tide information on the “surf edition” and the truck-driver tools on the “dēzl edition” to plan breaks and workouts. Only the solar models have Garmin Pay for contactless payments too, which supports few UK banks but is useful in emergencies when out on excursions without a credit card or phone.
On the health front, it has Garmin’s excellent body battery, which makes it easy to understand the impact of sleep, activity and rest on your day, plus stress tracking, abnormal heart rate alerts, daily workout suggestions, Vo2 Max fitness measurement and recovery estimation after exercise and many other features.
All the activity and health information the watch collects is sent via Bluetooth to the excellent Garmin Connect app on your phone, within which you can pore over mountains of data, graphs and insights. Plus you can connect it straight to social networks such as Strava.
For running, walking, cycling and swimming, the Instinct 2 provides much of the same data as the top Fenix 7 with similarly easy-to-read data screens available. Photograph: Samuel Gibbs/The Guardian
The Garmin Instinct 2 comes in two sizes and various models, starting at £299.99 ($349.99/A$549) for the standard version or £389.99 ($449.99/A$699) with solar charging.
For comparison, the Garmin Forerunner 55 costs £149.99, Venu 2 costs from £349.99, Fenix 7 costs from £599.99, Epix costs from £799.99, the Coros Apex costs £299.99 and the Polar Grit X costs £369.
The Instinct 2 Solar is the closest model so far to what is the holy grail of smartwatch makers – a watch which you never have to plug into the charger.
It looks and feels more like a traditional digital watch, but is backed by Garmin’s comprehensive activity and general health tracking, and simple smartphone notifications. It lacks a few bells and whistles you get with less rugged smartwatch rivals, such as voice assistants, maps, offline music or ECG (heart rhythm) measurement, but its features will probably be more than enough for those not looking for an Apple Watch or similar.
If you spend long enough each day in the sun or bright environments you may never need to charge it. For those of us more often confined to the indoors, it’ll still last close to a month or longer with some less necessary features disabled.
The Instinct 2 is expensive and certainly not for everyone, but if you’re an outdoors person or looking for a smarter health-tracking version of a digital watch, the Garmin is great.
Pros: potentially unlimited battery life with solar charging, tracks lots of activities and health metrics, cross-platform phone notifications, 100m water resistance, durable design, choice of colours and versions.
Cons: expensive, no offline music or maps, limited smartwatch features compared with Apple or Samsung, no voice control, screen basic compared to OLED or other Garmins.