Gadget

Garmin Instinct 2 Solar review

(Pocket-lint) – Garmin aims to stretch the limits of battery life and make charging a thing of the past with the Instinct 2 Solar. 

Typically, if a company claims its smartwatch has the potential for unlimited battery life, it would be fair to approach it with a good helping of scepticism. With Garmin so often able to pull off what other wearable companies can’t, though, it makes the Solar edition of this basic, rugged GPS watch an intriguing case.

Of course, the battery life isn’t the only thing that makes it appealing, either. Unlike the more feature-packed GPS sports watches from Garmin, this is available at a fairly reasonable price tag.

The question, then, is whether the Instinct 2 Solar can stand up to the rigours of daily tracking and stay away from charging cables.

Is this more of a gimmick than a game-changer? Here’s our verdict.

Our quick take

Where the Garmin Instinct 2 Solar gets it right is in the battery life department, and that’s crucial. As we’ve found with other Garmin devices, as well, this only improves further if you go with the larger model.

So, to answer the question posed in the intro: yes, it succeeds. For those who care about battery life more than anything else, the Instinct 2 Solar is ideal – even more so if you spend a lot of time outside or live somewhere with good levels of sunshine. 

We think it’ll be a watch that appeals to those who crave the look of a classic digital watch but also want a device that acts like an activity-focused smartwatch.

With the bonus of all the advanced metrics and fitness tracking capabilities of a modern Garmin tracker, this is a very good option to consider – even if the design, small display and lack of touchscreen won’t be to everybody’s liking.

Garmin Instinct 2 Solar review: To infinity and beyond

For

  • Superb battery life
  • Excellent fitness tracking capabilities
  • Durable build
  • Garmin Pay support
Against

  • Display is quite small
  • No touchscreen
  • Lacks some proper smartwatch features

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Design 

  • 45 x 45 x 14.5 mm
  • 53g
  • Fibre-inforced polymer case and bezel
  • 10ATM/100m waterproofing

There’s a certain charm to the Garmin Instinct 2’s design, if only because it ditches the typical smartwatch look for more of a classic digital watch vibe.

It has a bit of a Casio G-Shock feel to it, we think, with the case made from a chunky fibre-reinforced polymer (fancy plastic) and designed to take a beating and survive water to 100-metre depths. 

Pocket-lintGarmin Instinct 2 photo 7

It’s also available in a good array of colours. While the standard Solar unit we tested only comes in black, light grey or blue, there are others available if you opt for the non-solar model. You’ll find a luminous Electric Lime, a teal Neo Tropic and an orange/red Poppy colourway.

By default, they come with a colour-matched silicone strap. However, if you use the customisation tool on Garmin’s store, you can mix and choose from a few different case colours and then choose a strap design and material yourself. 

While chunky, the watch is relatively lightweight and very comfortable to wear. Part of that is down to the usual Garmin approach to silicone strap design. As well as being very flexible and a bit stretchy, there are strap holes running up the entire length, making it infinitely adjustable. 

You also get the usual button layout. So, three pushers on the left, two on the right. And, in this case, they’re relatively low profile, while still being textured to make them easy to find and press even if it’s wet and cold. 

Pocket-lintGarmin Instinct 2 photo 14

Those buttons perform the same functions as you’d find on most other five-button Garmin models, too. The top-right starts an activity, the bottom right is a back button (or can be programmed to launch a specific function with a long press). On the left – from top to bottom – there’s the light activation button, then the up and down buttons for scrolling through screens and lists on the watch’s interface. 

It’s an easy system to get used to once you have the basics, and there’s no fiddly touchscreen here working alongside it, either. Just good old-fashioned button presses. Whether you prefer that, of course, is down to personal preference. 

Display

  • Monochrome/black and white display
  • MIP (Memory In Pixel) panel
  • Two window design, 176 x 176 pixel resolution

When it comes to the display, it’s about as basic as one could possibly be while still being compatible with the wide-ranging crop of Garmin features. So, it’s a relatively small monochrome transflective MIP panel, which has a tiny, circular window display cut into the top right. 

Being transflective, and being a Memory-in-Pixel (MIP) display, means it has a couple of key characteristics. It’s always on, for starters, because it doesn’t need a backlight or front light to be visible. It reflects the light around it and shows black and white characters in the same way classic digital watches do, but, of course, it’s slightly more advanced in terms of data and graphical capabilities. 

Pocket-lintGarmin Instinct 2 photo 8

Because it doesn’t need a backlight, that means it’s very battery efficient, and that’s a big part of why this watch can go so long between charges. 

The only downside of this reflective screen is that, if it’s dark, it’s not visible without the backlight activated. In this case, just like those classic digital watches of old, it’s quite a faint blue backlight. It’s not really the brightest, but it’s enough that you can see what’s on the screen when there’s very little ambient light. 

While it has advantages, there are disadvantages to this panel compared to the types used on a lot of other smartwatches. Apart from not being bright, it’s small, as well, and that means that it’s not always easy to find the data point you’re looking for during activity tracking.

Whether it’s distance, pace or heart rate, it often takes a bit more looking and concentrating than we’re used to from the watches with bigger, brighter and more colourful displays. 

Pocket-lintGarmin Instinct 2 photo 3

Being smaller also means it can’t fit as much of the data on view at once, so you end up scrolling through the different data screens during activities more than, for example, the Vivoactive, Venu or Fenix watches. It’s definitely a pain point. However, it is one that you eventually get accustomed to after living with it for a while. 

Health and fitness 

  • Galileo, Glonass and GPS satellite support
  • Accelerometer, thermometer and barometric altimeter
  • Pulse Ox blood oxygen saturation and heart-rate

When it comes to fitness tracking, the joy of the Instinct 2 is that it does pretty much everything we’ve come to expect from a Garmin. It does it well, too, and features a similar array of sensors to the Fenix 7 built into the underside. It’s not really missing anything here. 

Regardless of your activity, then, it can track your heart rate accurately, as well as your location, altitude and temperature. It then collates this data into a detailed view of your activity in Garmin Connect. 

More than this, though, it also uses the data to give you a better picture of your overall health and energy levels – just like the more expensive models. Garmin’s Body Battery is a core part of this, using your rest and recovery data, alongside your effort put into activities, to predict how much energy you have in the tank. 

Pocket-lintGarmin Instinct 2 photo 16

We primarily tested the Instinct 2 Solar’s tracking capabilities when running, and it’s a highly accomplished tracker in that regard. You can, of course, just start a run on the watch and track it as you go about your normal routes, and it will track your steps, cadence, pace, heart rate, effort and distance all with very solid accuracy.

However, Garmin’s strength is also in suggesting workouts for you to do, as well as offering up coaching plans on Garmin Connect. 

With a Garmin Coach training plan enabled, it loads your scheduled workouts directly onto your wrist. So, when it’s a training day, you can start your run and it’ll ask if you want to do that day’s workout.

The plan is built based on your ability, as well. Whether you want to get to a 5k distance for the first time or go for a 10k in under an hour, it’ll help you achieve your goals with a mix of long easy runs and various drills. 

Pocket-lintGarmin Instinct 2 photo 10

For the most part, we found the data it tracked matched the other Garmin and Huawei watches we were wearing alongside it. When starting a run, it did feel a tiny bit slower at locking onto our location, but we weren’t waiting long. Maybe just 10-15 seconds or so. 

It’s not just a running watch, of course. It can track any number of activities, including hiking, MTB (with dedicated metrics), strength training and HIIT, among many others. And, once you’ve done your activity, it’ll know how hard the session was based on your heart rate and duration of the workout, then suggest a recovery time for you.

Plus, if it detects you’re having a really chill day and recovering faster, it’ll update that time. You can also have all this data synced with Strava and MyFitnessPal, so it can be viewed in the context of your food tracking. It’s comprehensive stuff.

Battery and solar recharging

  • 28 days (or unlimited with solar) – 45mm 
  • 21 days (51 days with solar) – 40mm

Of course, when Garmin claims this battery can last forever, that comes with a bit of an asterisk – as you would expect.

Solar recharging needs the right conditions to hit the unlimited mark, but it was possible in our experience. If you live somewhere that gets lots of strong sunlight all year round, and spend a couple of hours or more per day outdoors, you may find you rarely, if ever, have to charge it.

Naturally, we still think it’ll be difficult for most people to achieve this, and, sadly, those who opt for the smaller 40mm model will be limited to a 51-day maximum. 

Pocket-lintGarmin Instinct 2 photo 5

We tested our unit over a few weeks in spring, with one of those weeks being uncharacteristically warm and sunny. On one of those days, we spent two or three hours out on the local mountainside in bright daylight in the afternoon. In that time, the battery regained the power it had lost the day before. 

No day is exactly the same, of course, but, in a hypothetical world where most days are like this, the watch could last forever without needing to be plugged in to charge. And if you’re ever in doubt about how good the levels of sunlight are at any particular time, there’s a ‘Solar Intensity’ card that shows you how much sunlight the watch has been able to draw in. 

Even without strong sunlight and the benefits of its solar charging capabilities, you get very solid battery life levels. So, even in the darker months of winter, when the opportunities for good sunlight levels are slim, the watch can go up to 28 days on a full charge. 

In real life, then, presuming you get outside during daylight at some points during most weeks, you should get more than a month on a full charge. And certainly more than that in the summer.

Lifestyle smarts

  • Calendar and weather
  • Smartphone notifications with quick replies
  • Garmin Pay for contactless payments
  • Compatible with iPhone and Android

As far as the more lifestyle-centric elements of a smartwatch experience, Garmin has the basics covered. The watch will mirror your smartphone notifications on both iPhone and Android, and will even offer up a few quick reply options to quickly fire off an answer. You don’t get Apple Watch levels of interaction and message creation, of course, but it’s enough to get by. 

You also get weather updates, based on your location, and calendar access so you can see your next appointments on your wrist. Plus, there’s Garmin Pay support for wrist-based contactless payments.

Sadly, there’s no offline music support for popular streaming services like Spotify, Deezer or Amazon Music. That’s probably the one big thing missing on this model compared to some of Garmin’s other devices. 

To recap

If your main desire when looking at fitness watches is to get one you never have to think about charging, the Instinct 2 Solar is the one for you. Its battery life is ridiculously good, and it has a proper array of fitness tracking sensors.

Writing by Cam Bunton.


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