I’ve tested golf watches that cost up to $1,800, so when I strapped on the entry-level Garmin Approach S12, it’s safe to say I had low expectations. But after using the watch for more than a dozen rounds, I’ve come to believe it holds an important spot in Garmin’s golf watch line-up.
The best golf watches can be pricey, and especially for new or casual players, the upfront cost of the game tends to add up. So for the $199 Garmin Approach S12 to pack many of the key game features found in the brand’s higher-tier devices — including 43,000 preloaded courses, shot-distance measurements and compatibility with Garmin’s other golf accessories — its value is hard to beat.
It doesn’t have the finesse I usually like to bring to the green, and it doesn’t replace my everyday smartwatch/fitness tracker. But this Garmin Approach S12 review covers the additional pros and cons you’ll want to consider before buying.
Garmin Approach S12 review: Price and availability
The Garmin Approach S12 is available now and costs $199. It comes in one 43-millimeter size for either Black, Granite Blue and White color options.
Garmin Approach S12 review: Design
The Garmin Approach S12 design is rather lacklustre. Compared to the Garmin Approach S42, which features metallic details and a color, touchscreen display, the S12’s appearance feels pared down.
But I found the S12 priorities function over form. The 43-millimeter width offers a well-fitted size, while the 1.2-ounce weight doesn’t interfere with my swing. The last thing I ever want is an accessory to get in the way of my game, after all.
Out of the box, the silicone straps felt pretty basic. That said, Garmin does sell replacement straps that could tailor the S12 better to my style. Even leather and nylon bands are compatible, meaning you can elevate the device’s appearance and comfort.
Garmin Approach S12 review: Display and interface
The Approach S12 is a button-operated experience. It features four buttons, two on either side of the watch face. If you’re accustomed to a touchscreen, getting used to the buttons might take a bit of time. But if you’re a first-time golf watch user, I think you’ll find the navigation to be highly intuitive.
As you’d expect from a golf watch, the Approach S12’s display is meant to be viewable outdoors in direct sunlight. The data consistently looked clear on the 176 x 176-pixel screen. Even if the graphics are a bit simple, all the numbers were easy to read. There’s no confusion about the metrics you’ll see on-screen either..
Besides golf-tracking, the Approach S12 has some common smartwatch features. Clock features, including an alarm and stopwatch, come in handy. There’s no third-party apps, but you can pair your smartphone (iOS or Android) for mirrored notifications.
Garmin Approach S12 review: Golf playing features
Despite being Garmin’s entry-level golf watch, the Approach S12 packs many of the company’s advanced golfing features. The watch is pre-loaded with 43,000 courses, and it can accurately identify where you’re playing when you launch a round.
Many of the features are accessible in the Garmin Golf app. While the app isn’t essential to using the watch throughout a round, it does provide a complete overview for playing any course in the company’s database. Only the techiest golfers might not be satisfied with all the tools this watch-and-app combination provides. But for me, who has played with ultra-techy golf watches, the S12 has all the features that matter.
In fact, it’s the simplicity that makes me a fan. Whenever I launch golf mode, the satellites quickly find any course I’m playing, even starting me on the hole I’m on when I don’t start on the first, which is common at shotgun golf outings. I have used the watch at a couple courses in multiple time zones and was never let down by either the course's availability or its accuracy, even when I traveled far to play.
During the round, the watch allows me to keep score on my wrist; however, I found it easier to keep score on the Garmin app on my smartphone, where my total can be adjusted for handicap. The S12 does provide distance measuring of your shot, but it requires you to scroll through some options.
A typical hole for me started by looking at the hole’s total distance, then scrolling to find distances to any sand or water hazards. I would take my drive, then switch to shot-measuring mode and travel to my ball. At this point, I can gauge how well I hit it, then switch back to GPS mode to see what my yardage is to the green or next hazards.
I can also change pin placements to the front, middle, or back of the green. This feature is a bit redundant since the main screen gave me good information on the total size of the green. But, if needed, I could also add lay-up yardages quickly. I found this more helpful when simultaneously looking at the hole’s layout on my smartphone.
Most importantly, for any level golfer, the yardages displayed to both the pin and to hazards were almost always spot-on accurate in my testing. I used my reliable laser rangefinder to check that the number on my watch matched the real-time reading, and it was never off by more than a yard or two. This let me put the rangefinder away while playing, keeping the round moving quickly.
Having earned the nickname “gadget guy,” amongst my usual players group, I’m the go-to person for giving carry distances and course advice. Thanks to the S12, I was never at a loss to give accurate and speedy info to my partners, adding to the enjoyment of my rounds. While low handicap and tournament golfers might want some added features, me and my mid-handicap group were never let down by the information Garmin’s watch provided.
One of the better player options available is to add the Approach CT10 sensors. These devices fit onto the grip of your clubs and provide more specific swing data. These sensors are able to map virtually any shot, record them for reference, and use the information to make course and club-selection choices. Garmin packages the S12 with a set of the CT10 sensors as a purchase option.
In regard to other sport features, this golf watch does not make any attempt to replace either your smartwatch or fitness tracker. I suggest looking at either the Garmin Approach S42 or Garmin Approach S62 if you intend on only wearing one watch all day. That said, I liked turning off the outside world when on the course and appreciated being focused on my game.
Garmin Approach S12 review: Battery life
The Garmin Approach S12 battery life is a big reason to recommend the watch. According to Garmin’s estimates, the watch should last for up to 10 weeks in normal watch mode and up to 30 hours in GPS mode. For comparison, my Garmin Approach S42 only lasts 15 hours in GPS mode.
In my testing, the S12 lasted two weeks, covering five rounds, before I had to recharge it for another outing. Not having to worry about battery life meant that I could bring the watch on an out-of-state golf trip without a charger, which gave me one less thing to think about while packing up my equipment.
Garmin Approach S12 review: Verdict
The Garmin Approach S12 is not the most expensive or tech laden watch I have tested. I actually played more rounds using it then I usually do in a testing cycle, and I was never disappointed with the performance along the way.
But here’s what really sold me: I played a round paired with a new golfer, and I had him wear the S12 for the whole experience. The ease in which he was able to start the round, know our location on the course, and receive accurate and relevant information sold him immediately. He even bought his own S12 afterwards.
The price and long battery life also make this watch a winner. All this at a sub-$200 price tag makes this a great gift or upgrade from an older model. From basic yardages on my wrist to notifications mirrored from a smartphone, the Garmin Approach S12 has enough features to get me through my game. I’m comfortable recommending it to anyone but avid or tech-loving players.