Review: Garmin Instinct GPS Watch

Last Thursday Garmin dropped a brand- new GPS smartwatch, the Instinct. It promises to combine the lightweight design of Garmin’s older Vivoactive watches with the Fēnix range’s sophisticated analytical features.

The release timing was perfect. What better way to test the watch’s running credentials than in Sunday’s Manchester Half Marathon? Race conditions would really expose how easy the watch was to use under pressure and whether it could seriously compete with its more expensive Fēnix cousins.

Manchester Half Marathon

Now, after thirteen very tough miles I can give my verdict. Spoiler Alert: I’m impressed. Garmin have managed to cram power and functionality into a very lightweight device. The Instinct weighs an almost negligible 52 grams. Granted, a lot of this weight-loss has been achieved by using lighter, cheaper materials, with a silicone strap and plastic bezel replacing the heavier Fēnix build.

The Instinct comes in matt black or red and the best comparison for the look and feel is an 80s Casio. If that isn’t something that sounds appealing this may not be the watch for you. If you’re in the mood for a bit of retro in your runs the watch design is a bonus. The downgraded materials also really help when it comes to the checkout, with the Instinct coming in at half the price of the most recent Fēnix 5+.

Garmin Instinct Silicone Strap

Garmin Instinct Main Screen

It’s a big improvement in comfort. The silicone sits smoothly on the wrist so there is no unwieldy jangling against the bone. You can easily to forget the Instinct is there until it beeps to let you know you’ve ticked off another kilometre.

Shedding weight does, inevitably, mean shedding power and there are certainly gaps in what the Instinct can do. The question, though, is how important that missing functionality is when you consider the comfort and the serious price difference.

The Instinct doesn’t have a V02max estimation or analysis of your vertical oscillation. If you like to run but neither of those terms mean much to you, then the Instinct is operating at the right need-to-know level for you. There is no race-pace predictor or recovery advisor, but these are hardly crucial for the everyman runner. The absence of visual maps is a more significant issue, as I like to run in new locations and maps seem to offer a framework that the basic compass navigation doesn’t quite match. So far, however, the visual map is the only difference between the Instinct and its more expensive competitors that has given me pause. And at a few hundred pounds difference, I have to ask myself how often I really use those maps.

Garmin Instinct analytics

Garmin Instinct Running

Garmin Instinct HR ELEVATE sensor

All the standard information is present and easily accessible during a run. You can quickly check your pace, in both a continuing session overview and a kilometre-by-kilometre breakdown. Garmin’s standard ELEVATE heart-rate sensor keeps you updated on your beats-per-minute and your zonal intensity. At the end of an activity the Instinct offers you a slew of more in-depth analytics, including a detailed pace and HR breakdown, elevation change, and cadence review. 

Garmin Instinct Zonal Training

As with the Fēnix, you can cycle through these screens using the side buttons. Equally, as with the Fēnix, the selection of five buttons can lead to some confusion and irritating mis-clicks so it’s best to learn exactly what each button does (especially which ones start/stop your activity recording) before you start running in anger. Once you have mapped the device in your mind the interface quickly becomes intuitive.

The control buttons are placed to fall naturally under the thumb and forefinger, helping you navigate through the watch without interrupting your activity. The screen design helps even more; though there is no colour display the monochrome graphics are easily visible in natural light. I ran on a VERY dim day using only 30% of backlighting and had no problem whatsoever in reading the screen with a simple turn of my wrist. You can see a comparison of day-versus-night visibility below.

Garmin Instinct day visibility

Garmin Instinct night visibility

On top of this, the screen layout has been updated. A circular ‘cut-out’ in the top right corner acts as a miniature screen of its own – changing with each click of the button to present information such as heart-rate, battery-life or the current time. It’s a neat way to cram more information without cluttering the watch face or making the information hard to digest at a glance.

During the race it was helpful to be able to see my pace and HR on the same screen, rather than scrolling between options as on previous Garmin watches. It was much easier to take in a range of information without interrupting my pace or breaking my focus.

Focused running

As with all Garmins, the basic functionality is only the surface and a deeper-dive into the technological strata will reveal a host of sophisticated features. I will aim to update this review with more information on these when I have had time for a fuller exploration of the Instinct.

For the moment I can say with confidence that, having recently progressed into more ‘serious’ running I didn’t find anything lacking in the Instinct that I needed to take on the race. It kept me updated by the second on all of my important stats and beamed them straight into my eyes. It’s lighter than even I expected and immensely comfortable. At up to 16 hours in GPS mode the battery-life is enough for marathons and moderate ultra-races.

Garmin Instinct supports multiple activities

It's important to note that the Instinct isn’t JUST a running watch; it can be used for a host of other activities, including the new addition of open-water swimming. Most people, however, buy a GPS watch for running, with cycling and swimming in second and third place. As a running watch it’s hard to see how this can be beaten for a balance of value, weight and technology.

It may be a coincidence that I took 8 minutes of my previous half marathon best. But who knows…?

Shop the Garmin Instinct GPS Watch

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Neil used to be a bookworm, an "indoor" type if ever there was one. After finishing a PhD he writes short stories about spooky places and odd people. Living in Switzerland, the Canadian Rockies and the north east region of the USA convinced him that there was something to be said for this whole outdoor thing. Now he runs everywhere he can, competing in races most weekends and endlessly planning the next great adventure to some far flung part of the world. Recent trips include Costa Rica, where he tried and failed to surf; Vietnam, where he almost got stuck in an underground tunnel; and back to Canada, where he came face-to-face with a bear. Watch this space for further updates on Neil's global bumblings and the occasional athletic success.

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