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Apple Watch 7 vs. Garmin Instinct 2: Which smartwatch should you buy?

Apple Watch 7 vs. Garmin Instinct 2 smartwatch comparsion
(Image credit: Future)

I often get asked whether Apple Watch vs. Garmin makes the better smartwatch, but the answer depends on your preferences and needs. Take the Apple Watch 7 and Garmin Instinct 2, for example. Both smartwatches are highly capable and cost around $400, but have different features that make one better than the other for certain shoppers.

In my Apple Watch 7 review and Garmin Instinct 2 review, each smartwatch earned a near-perfect 4.5/5 stars. The current-gen Apple Watch is our favorite smartwatch overall, providing a well-rounded experience and working effortlessly with other Apple devices. The latest Instinct, meanwhile, is one of the best sports watches you can find for the price. It’s designed with outdoor enthusiasts in mind, though it also has basic smartwatch features.

So which is the best smartwatch for you based on how the Apple Watch 7 vs. Garmin Instinct 2 stack up? Here are the key differences, from price and design to activity tracking and battery life.

Apple Watch 7 vs. Garmin Instinct 2: Price

The 41mm Apple Watch 7 starts at $399, while the larger 45mm size starts at $429. You can pay $100 more for Cellular support, which lets your Apple Watch stay connected when it's separated from your iPhone. You’ll need to pay a monthly carrier fee for connection, though.

The 45mm Instinct 2 starts at $349, and comes in a new 40mm size for those with smaller wrists at the same price. Upgrading to the Instinct 2 with solar power starts at $449, but you’ll want to pay attention to the dozen different available configurations. Garmin sells versions of the Instinct 2 made specifically for surfers, truck drivers and more, but none include LTE or cellular options.

For the most up-to-date pricing information, check out the best Apple Watch deals and best Garmin deals.

Apple Watch 7 vs. Garmin Instinct 2: Specs compared

Apple Watch 7 Garmin Instinct 2
Starting price$399$349
Sizes41mm, 45mm40mm (2S), 45mm
Display resolution430 x 352 pixels (41mm); 484 x 396 pixels (45mm) 156 x 156 px (2S); 176 x 176 px (2)
Cellular optionYesNo
Color optionsSilver, Black, Green, Blue, RedGraphite, Lime, Orchid, Poppy, Camo, Grey, Blue and more
Special featuresECG, SpO2, heart rate alerts, fall-detection, compass, Apple PayBody battery, Health Snapshot, SpO2, heart rate monitoring, compass, Garmin Pay
Waterproof?5 ATM10 ATM
CompatibilityiOSiOS, Android
Voice AssistantSiriNone

Apple Watch 7 vs. Garmin Instinct 2: Design and display

The Apple Watch 7 design is highly recognizable, even though it’s a bit different compared to past models. Granted, it's not a major change from any of the best Apple Watch models — the iconic curved squircle holds strong — but it's clear Apple wanted a softer overall aesthetic for its smartwatch while increasing the Apple Watch 7 sizes. It comes in 41mm and 45mm sizes for the first time. The Apple Watch 7 display is nearly 20% larger than the Series 6 display, and more than 50% larger than the Series 3 display. The display borders are 40% thinner than before, too.

Apple Watch 7 review

(Image credit: Future)

The Instinct 2 kind of looks like a Casio G-Shock with perforated straps and a large chassis, and I think that’s part of the appeal. It provides a sense of adventure and durability, in case a Military Standard 810 rating against extreme environments and temperatures isn’t convincing enough. It can also be safely submerged in water to 328 feet (10 ATM). The Apple Watch 7 is rated 5 ATM, even though it has better dust-resistance than the Apple Watch 6.

As for display, the Apple Watch 7 has a color touchscreen with an always-on mode. The Instinct 2 display is grayscale and button control-only. Side-by-side, the Instinct 2’s screen holds up better in direct sunlight, showing almost no glare which is not always the case with the Apple Watch. If I’m exercising outside, I want to be able to see my screen no matter the ambient conditions.

A photo of the maps on the Garmin Instinct 2

(Image credit: Future/Tom's Guide)

Both the Apple Watch 7 and Garmin Instinct 2 come in a variety of colors, letting you find a style that best suits you. Each smartwatch comes with removable straps you can swap out whenever you want as well.

Apple Watch 7 vs. Garmin Instinct 2: Fitness tracking features

The Instinct 2 is outfitted with the upgraded heart rate sensor found in the Garmin Fenix 7, and provides tracking for just over 40 activity types. That’s much fewer than the Apple Watch 7 and even some of the best cheap smartwatches. That said, both smartwatches come with the regular suite of fitness tracking metrics. Mid-workout I could see time elapsed, calories burned, and heart rate while I lifted weights or took a class on an exercise bike while wearing both watches. 

Apple Watch 7 workout test outdoor cycling automatic tracking

(Image credit: Future)

When I went hiking in an area in Los Angeles with limited cell service, I could rely on the Instinct 2’s GPS to keep tabs on my treks. With an onboard compass, saved waypoints, and TrackBack, I could easily navigate my downloaded maps of Runyon Canyon, as well as tread my courses in reverse. The Apple Watch 7 can also track my location, but a long hike drains the battery life — more on that below.

The Instinct 2 and Apple Watch 7 both offer sleep tracking, VO2 Max readings and a pulse oximeter for measuring blood oxygen (SpO2) levels. Only the Apple Watch has the ability to spot possible signs of atrial fibrillation (irregular heart rhythm) via ECG. To see an overview of multiple health metrics collected from the Apple Watch in one spot, you need to use the Health app on your iPhone. Alternatively, the Instinct 2 has Garmin’s Health Snapshot feature, which logs a two-minute window of key health stats, showing you multiple important metrics on a single screen. 

A photo of the solar tracking on the Garmin Instinct 2

(Image credit: Future/Tom's Guide)

Body Battery is among the metrics recorded in Health Snapshot. Garmin’s energy monitoring score can help keep tabs on how sleep, stress, and exercise impact your "readiness." You might not want to take on a physically demanding adventure if your body battery is low, not just for efficiency but for safety too. Apple doesn’t have a version of a readiness or recovery score, though you can take some relaxing Cool Down or Yoga classes in Apple Fitness Plus ($9.99/month) to close your Apple Watch rings

Apple Watch 7 vs. Garmin Instinct 2: Other smartwatch features

When it comes to smartwatch features other than fitness tracking, there are key differences between the Apple Watch 7 vs. Garmin Instinct 2. Compared to the original Garmin Instinct, the Instinct 2 earned some upgrades like support for Garmin Pay. It also works with Garmin Connect IQ, expanding the app options to third-party selections like Starbucks, AccuWeather and more. It can mirror your notifications, help you set a stopwatch, and be customized with a few watch faces, but that’s about it.

Apple Watch 7 keyboard

(Image credit: Future)

Meanwhile the Apple Watch 7 is loaded with communication, productivity and entertainment tools. Not only are the best Apple Watch apps part of a bountiful app store — the Apple Watch can do a lot of what the iPhone can do such as answer phone calls, look at photo albums, control music players, stream directly to AirPods and make transactions with Apple Pay

With the Apple Watch 7’s QWERTY keyboard, you can even type out entire text messages. The Garmin Instinct 2 can’t do any of those things, though there are Garmin watches with music storage and the ability answer calls like the Garmin Venu 2 Plus.

a photo of the Garmin Instinct 2 on a rock

(Image credit: Future/Tom's Guide)

An important thing to note: The Apple Watch only works with an iPhone, whereas the Garmin Instinct 2 is compatible with iOS while also being one of the best smartwatches for Android

Apple Watch 7 vs. Garmin Instinct 2: Battery life

It’s almost unfair to compare the Apple Watch 7 vs. Garmin Instinct 2 battery life. The 45mm Instinct 2 Solar Edition literally lasts forever in smartwatch mode powered by the Sun, while you can get several days of battery life with the GPS running in certain battery-saver modes. The Apple Watch could never match that, with constant GPS causing quick battery drain — you'd be lucky to get a full day out of Apple's device.

That said, the Instinct 2’s battery life is inconsistent depending on how much sunlight it’s getting, what features you have enabled and which battery mode you’re using. The Apple Watch’s all-day battery life is nothing if not reliable.

Apple Watch 7 vs. Garmin Instinct 2: Which is best for you?

More often than not, if you’re into outdoor sports, I recommend getting any of the best Garmin watches designed to last many, many hours while maintaining your location. Most like the Instinct 2 also have different battery modes for optimizing your adventures, even if they take place over multiple days. And that’s before upgrading to the solar powered option. The Apple Watch running GPS constantly won’t last past 6 hours, especially not when you’re also getting notifications or using it to play music. 

But if your regular activity doesn’t demand non-stop GPS, and you’re an iPhone user looking for an extension of your smartphone on your wrist, the Apple Watch can’t be topped. As long as you know how to use the Apple Watch there are endless features, ample ways to communicate and more than enough activity-tracking tools for the average gym-goer. 

Looking for more options? See our roundup of the best fitness trackers. Also check out our smartwatch buying guide for more shopping advice.

Kate Kozuch is an editor at Tom’s Guide covering smartwatches, TVs and everything smart-home related. Kate also appears on Fox News to talk tech trends and runs the Tom's Guide TikTok account, which you should be following. When she’s not filming tech videos, you can find her on an exercise bike, mastering the NYT Crossword or channeling her inner celebrity chef.