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Garmin Instinct 2 review

The Garmin Instinct 2 is a near-perfect GPS smartwatch for outdoor sport enthusiasts.

a photo of the Garmin Instinct 2 on a rock
(Image: © Future/Tom's Guide)

Tom's Guide Verdict

The Garmin Instinct 2 is a near-perfect GPS smartwatch for outdoor sport enthusiasts. It borrows several features from higher-end Garmin devices and promises “unlimited” solar-powered battery life, plus we love the new size option.

Pros

  • +

    New smaller size option

  • +

    Killer battery life

  • +

    Has Health Snapshot

  • +

    Has Garmin Pay + Garmin Connect

  • +

Cons

  • -

    Limited sport types

The Garmin Instinct 2 has infinite battery life. Though many of the best Garmin watches can go days (if not weeks) before being recharged, the Instinct 2 is the first from the brand to last forever using solar power. Talk about stamina.

Garmin Instinct 2 Specifications

Starting price: $349 (non-Solar); $449 (Solar)
Size: 40 x 40 x 13.3 mm (2S); 45 x 45 x 14.2 mm (2)
Display resolution: 156 x 156 px (2S); 176 x 176 px (2)
Weight: 1.5 oz (2S); 1.9 oz (2)
Water rating: 10 ATM
Battery life: 21 days (2S); 51 days (2)
Solar Battery life: 28 days (2S); Unlimited (2)
Memory: 32 MB
Smartphone compatibility: iPhone; Android 

There are a few catches, from which features work on solar power, to which versions of the Garmin Instinct 2 even pack a solar panel, to how many hours a day the watch needs to be exposed to sunlight. But beyond that, the Instinct 2 is better than the first Garmin Instinct in almost every way. It retains a rugged, adventure-inspiring design and borrows several features from Garmin’s best GPS watches that cost well over $500. The Instinct starts at just $349, plus comes in a new 40mm size for those with smaller wrists (including yours truly). You’ll see how much I appreciated the slimmer fit later in this Garmin Instinct 2 review.

Whether you dabble in outdoor sports like or have grand plans to scale El Captian, the Instinct 2 is an excellent accessory for your next excursion. Here’s everything else you’ll want to know before setting out.

Garmin Instinct 2 review: Price and availability

The Garmin Instinct 2 is available now and comes in a dozen different configurations. In addition to Solar-powered options, Garmin offers Surf, Tactical, dezl and Camo editions with special color variations and dedicated features. The Surf Edition comes loaded with a tide widget and Surfline Sessions compatibility, for example. The Garmin Instinct 2 dezl Edition, meanwhile, was created for truckers.  

  • Garmin Instinct 2/2S: $349 
  • Garmin Instinct 2/2S Solar: $449
  • Garmin Instinct 2/2S Camo Edition: $399
  • Garmin Instinct 2 Solar Tactical Edition: $499
  • Garmin Instinct 2/2S Surf Edition: $399     
  • Garmin Instinct 2/2S Solar Surf Edition: $499 
  • Garmin Instinct 2 dezl Edition: $399 

In addition to special editions, the Instinct is available in an “S” version, (or a smaller size option) for the first time. The Instinct 2S is 40mm while the Instinct 2 is 45mm. We’ve seen this branding system employed on one of the best smartwatches from Garmin before, the Garmin Venu 2.

a photo of the Garmin Instinct 2 on the wrist

(Image credit: Future/Tom's Guide)

Garmin Instinct 2 review: Design and display

The Instinct 2 still kind of looks like a Casio G-Shock with perforated straps and fun color options, and I think that’s part of the lineup’s 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). 

compass on Garmin Instinct 2

(Image credit: Future/Tom's Guide)

Although Garmin increased the display resolution from 126 x 126 pixels on the first Instinct to 156 x 156 pixels for Instinct 2S (and 176 x 176 pixels for the Instinct 2), there’s no touchscreen like Garmin recently added to the Garmin Fenix 7. Instead a five-button array is used to navigate the various menus and workout displays. Button-only controls take a bit of getting used to, but it’s an effective way to prevent accidental actions while you’re moving around. It also allows for a functional secondary display in the top right area that zooms in on icons and prompts navigation. Brightness is a major perk of the entire screen — the legibility of the Instinct’s display in direct sunlight is still among the most impressive in the category, looking much brighter than my Apple Watch 7 side-by-side. Do check out our showdown of the Apple Watch 7 vs. Garmin Instinct 2.

a photo of the Garmin Instinct 2 with the Apple Watch 7

(Image credit: Future/Toms Guide)

Since my 45mm Apple Watch 7 makes a statement, I could also appreciate the unobtrusive profile of the 40mm Instinct 2S review unit by contrast. I haven’t seen many sports watches that might perhaps be considered one of the best smartwatches for women, since they’re often large and bulky. While it’s not as quaint as, say, the Garmin Lily, the smaller size option feels more inclusive. GPS watches are designed to be worn for long periods of time, and often require direct skin contact for accurate sensor readings. I look for a watch to be comfortable all the while, and the Instinct 2 definitely meets my expectations.

Garmin Instinct 2 review: Battery life 

Normally battery life is one of the later specs I’d discuss, but it’s a clear selling point for the Instinct 2 and a reason someone might be torn between Apple Watch vs. Garmin. The Instinct 2 is indeed Garmin’s first smartwatch to tout “unlimited” battery life, which is something the Apple Watch could never match.

But only the Instinct 2 Solar can live up to Garmin’s claim, and even then you won’t have unlimited GPS or workout-tracking — just standard ‘smartwatch mode’ features like notifications, step counting and heart rate readings. Here’s how Garmin breaks down battery estimates for Solar and Non-Solar versions of each size Instinct 2:

Instinct 2Instinct 2 Solar Instinct 2SInstinct 2S Solar
Smartwatch mode 28 days Unlimited 21 days51 days
Standard GPS30 hours 48 hours 22 hours 28 hours
Max battery GPS70 hours 370 hours 54 hours 11 hours
Battery saver mode65 hours Unlimited 50 hoursUnlimited

Solar charging estimates arrange for three hours in 50,000 lux conditions per day. Max battery GPS is different from standard GPS use in that it disables all customizable power features and pings your location as infrequently as possible to still provide accurate location information.

A photo of the solar tracking on the Garmin Instinct 2

(Image credit: Future/Tom's Guide)

I tested the 2S, so I couldn’t unlock true unlimited power. I will say the sun provided a good boost, keeping the watch going after three days of the estimate reading “LOW.” Besides going on hikes using GPS, I noticed 24/7 SpO2 readings drained battery life the fastest, dropping the estimate at times from two weeks to just two days. Nothing unusual for smartwatches, but goes to show the importance of tempering Garmin’s “unlimited power” hype.

Garmin Instinct 2 review: Health and fitness tracking

The Instinct 2 is outfitted with the upgraded heart rate sensor found in the Venu 2 and Fenix 7, and provides tracking for just over 40 activity types. That’s much fewer than higher-end Garmin watches and even some of the best cheap smartwatches, but all the basics and more outdoor sport types are there. When I went hiking in an area in New Jersey 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 Eagle Rock Reservation, as well as tread my courses in reverse. 

A photo of the maps on the Garmin Instinct 2

(Image credit: Future/Tom's Guide)

When you’re not out in the mountains or oceans, the Instinct 2 wants to keep up with the best fitness trackers. The GPS struggled to accurately map my city walks and runs, as is often the case where clusters of tall buildings impact signals. But in the gym it fared just fine, showing me time elapsed, calories burned, and heart rate while I lifted weights or took a class on an exercise bike. Compared to the first Instinct, there’s now support for HIIT workouts, run pacing, multisport activity tracking as well as Daily Suggested Workouts for inspiration on how to get moving.

a photo of an activity on the Garmin Instinct 2

(Image credit: Future/Tom's Guide)

The Instinct 2 also has VO2 Max readings and a pulse oximeter for measuring blood oxygen (SpO2) levels, which you can set to monitor 24/7, though it’ll cut down battery life. SpO2 is one of the metrics included in Health Snapshot, a fairly-new Garmin feature that logs a two-minute window of key health stats, showing you multiple important metrics on a single screen. I first saw a version of all-in-one readings on the Amazfit GTR 3 Pro, but I’m glad to see Garmin expanding its iteration through its lineup.

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. I took care to check in on my Body Battery every morning.

a photo of the sleep screen on the Garmin Instinct 2

(Image credit: Future/Tom's Guide)

And that’s after wearing the Garmin Instinct 2 to bed. The original Instinct’s sleep metrics didn’t impress me much, so I was glad to see that Instinct 2 offered on-screen analysis and better understood my overnight behavior. It picked up on my early-morning trip to the kitchen for water and subsequent hour-long Twitter before I headed back to dreamland. I’m starting to wish Garmin would introduce a wind-down or bedtime reminder like the Apple Watch offers, though. Fixing my night time routine would no doubt help with my 2 a.m. doom scrolling. 

a photo of the tracking modes on the Garmin Instinct 2

(Image credit: Future/Tom's Guide)

Garmin Instinct 2 review: Smartwatch features

The Garmin Instinct 2 has some key smartwatch upgrades. For one, it now supports Garmin Pay, so you can use the watch for contactless payments. It also works with Garmin Connect IQ, expanding the app options to third-party selections like Starbucks, AccuWeather and more. I didn’t miss these features much on the original Instinct, but they’re welcome additions for everyday needs. You can further customize the watch face now too.

a photo of an activity on the Garmin Instinct 2

(Image credit: Future/Tom's Guide)

There are well over a dozen widgets total built into the watch, so I found everything I’d expect from an outdoorsy smartwatch, with ample information built into each widget. On the previous Instinct, I felt like I needed to use the Garmin Connect app to review any data, but now I notice I can see almost everything I need on the screen. That includes my notifications and alerts when I’m getting a phone call.

a photo of the sensors on the Garmin Instinct 2

(Image credit: Future/Tom's Guide)

Garmin Instinct 2 review: Verdict 

As I often opt for indoor workouts on one of the best exercise bikes or at the gym, I know I'm not the Instinct 2’s target user, but I have immense appreciation for a sports watch finally designed for smaller wrists, meaning the Instinct 2S. The other editions are extremely niche, but if you’re a surfer or trucker, why wouldn’t you want a smartwatch made to keep up with your lifestyle? 

While the Garmin Fenix 7 obviously stands out with it’s color touchscreen display, support for more workout types and more functional maps across all kinds of sport trails, for half the price, the Instinct 2 is a worthy alternative. It gives you everything you’d need out of a GPS watch, from a rugged design and new smartwatch tools to Garmin’s latest fitness-tracking features and epic battery life — sorry, did I say epic? I meant unlimited. 

Kate Kozuch is a senior writer at Tom’s Guide covering wearables, TVs and everything smart-home related. When she’s not in cyborg mode, you can find her on an exercise bike or channeling her inner celebrity chef. She and her robot army will rule the world one day, but until then, reach her at kate.kozuch@futurenet.com.