Face Off: Two Midrange Smartwatches, Suunto 5 Peak and Garmin Instinct 2

Not looking to spend as much on your smartwatch as you would on a laptop? The good news is that the Suunto 5 Peak and the Garmin Instinct 2 have everything a triathlete might need for under $400. But which watch wins?

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Sure, there’s something super fun about reviewing—and reading about—supersmartwatches (no, that’s not a real marketing term, yet). Those $800+ GPS devices that can literally do as much as your computer, plus a little bit more. But not that many people are willing to forego a new power meter in order to fund their wristtop bling needs—the rest of us need a multisport watch that tracks all of our metrics but doesn’t mean our kids miss a month of daycare.

Fortunately, brands have a “sweet spot” smartwatch—a watch that has all of the tri needs, like open-water swimming, multisport/tri modes, sleep/recovery tracking, and more—but that also skips some of the more superfluous functions. This year, smartwatch heavy hitters Suunto and Garmin have both released worthy updates to their extensive line, and we’re going to dig into two of them, the Suunto 5 Peak and the Garmin Instinct 2.

Related: Reviewed: The Garmin Instinct 2 Series Has Infinite Battery Life

The Facts and Similarities

There is a lot that’s different between these two watches, but aside from price tag, they also have quite a few similarities. Before we dig into what sets them apart, we’ll look at the basic specs of each—what the numbers say—and what ties them together.

Suunto 5 Peak Garmin Instinct 2
Screen Size 28mm 23mm
Bezel Size 43mm 45mm
Battery Life 7 days smartwatch/20-100 hours GPS 28 days smartwatch/30-700+ hours GPS
Time To Charge 1h 1h
Weight (measured) 39g 53g
Open-Water Swimming Yes Yes
Tri Mode Yes Yes
Multisport Mode Yes Yes
Running With Power With Stryd Coming Soon
Cycling Power Via Bluetooth Via Bluetooth/ANT+
Touchscreen No No
Music Smartphone Control Smartphone Control
Price $330 $350

After looking at the above specs, there’s actually a lot that makes these watches similar. Both have a complete menu of uses for triathletes—in terms of necessary sport modes (the original Instinct did not have tri/multisport mode). Neither have built-in running power, music storage, or mapping—though both will support running power meters (soon), control smartphone music, and do basic point-to-point GPS navigation, sans maps.

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Suunto 5 Peak

Before we get into the software in this midpriced smartwatch, let’s take a look at the hardware. First, the Suunto 5 Peak is a small, almost diminutive smartwatch—if you’re a car/truck person, think Fiat, while the Instinct 2 is more Chevy Silverado. The 5 Peak is crazy lightweight, has a very small case footprint—great for tiny wrists—and the form factor is decidedly European (Finnish to be precise). Most of the watch is plastic, but the bezel itself is stainless steel, so it feels lightweight but acts durable.

In terms of actual, tri-use battery life, the 5 Peak advertises seven days in smartwatch mode with tracking and notifications, but if you’re a triathlete actually using it to track your runs and swims (and maybe a bike or two), the battery life is more like four days. While that’s markedly better than its pricepoint competitor the Apple Watch, you’re still keeping an eye on the battery pretty often to make sure it doesn’t bite the dust midrun.

When it comes to menu navigation, the Suunto platform is pretty straightforward and uncomplicated. By using the Suunto smartphone app, you can adjust most of the would-be annoying settings, and the color screen helps display information well on the watch itself. You won’t get lost in menus like some watches (we’ll get to that below). It also does a good job of sleep tracking and stress/recovery metrics, but keep in mind the battery life will go faster if you wear it 24/7.

While we never had any connectivity issues with the 5 Peak, the software system did have a pretty noticeable lag when switching from screen to screen, starting an activity, loading an in-watch program, or saving an activity (see below). It’s likely due to the color screen refresh, because with lap times, there was no delay in marking, but it did make the watch feel a little unpolished (not great for those who are impatient, too).

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Garmin Instinct 2

Here we’re going to talk mostly about the standard 45mm version of the Instinct 2, but there is also a similarly priced 40mm “2S” version that’s physically smaller but has a lower battery life. Garmin also makes the super impressive Instinct 2 Solar for $450 with an even bigger base battery life plus a solar charging feature that theoretically gives it infinite battery—which is obviously pretty cool. Regardless, the Instinct 2 has a decidedly “tactical” look and feel, think: Casio G-Shock. In fact, it’s suspiciously similar to the G-Shock—with its little circular digital window and rugged styling. Obviously it’s a bigger, heavier watch than the Suunto 5 Peak and something a little more…”American-looking.” And though the entire watch body is plastic construction, it’s got very very beefy construction, and is one of the more durable watches we’ve tried.

Instinct 2 Solar pictured

But where the Instinct 2 might turn away people with smaller wrists (check out the 40mm version, but it’s still a bit chunky), battery life where the Instinct shines. We found an hour of charging nets this watch at least two weeks of real, actual tri training use—maybe even more depending on how long you’re going/how clear the GPS signal is. Two weeks is just about the sweet spot for battery life when you don’t have to keep an eye on the charge at all times. Of course there are ways to extend the battery life, but two-to-three weeks is a killer baseline for multisporters.

However, like most Garmni devices, the menus can be a little tough to navigate—sure there are lots of options, but the smartphone app is only moderately useful (thank God it allows you to edit activity data screens, finally!). The good news is that you can navigate the menus quickly, unlike the Suunto, because the software is more crisp and the buttons more responsive than almost any other smartwatch we’ve tried.

The reason for that, however, is likely due to the Game Boy-like screen size and resolution. Twenty-three millimeters is shockingly tiny for a smartwatch—especially one with such a large footprint on your wrist—and it doesn’t help that a tiny circular window (which is otherwise kind of neat) takes up permanent real estate in the upper-right corner. For triathletes with excellent vision, the Instinct 2’s fonts do a nice job of condensing information into that tiny screen, but if you need glasses and don’t always wear them when you work out? You could be in trouble.

Instinct 2 Solar pictured
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The Winner

If you read our recent review of the Instinct 2 Solar, there’s a good chance you know where this is going: While the Suunto 5 Peak is a great compact smartwatch that’s surprisingly capable given its size and price, for triathletes’ specific needs, it’s hard to beat the almost-perfect Instinct 2. In terms of battery life (which is nearly quadruple that of the 5 Peak) and “this-is-a-tool” functionality, the Instinct 2 wins hands down. Of course that’s not to say it’s for everyone.

For triathletes who have small wrists, don’t like the G-Shock form factor, or (and this is a very big “or”) don’t appreciate a super tiny screen, you won’t like the Instinct 2, no matter how big the battery is or how fast you can flip through the many menus. For this triathlete, the Suunto 5 Peak is a very well-made smartwatch with simple navigation, a nice, moderately sized color screen, and literally every function/activity a triathlete could need. Suunto’s smartwatch app is also a huge winner compared to Garmin’s, but sadly it’s not enough to tip the scales far enough into the 5 Peak’s favor to take the prize in this face off. Congrats G-Shock…er Instinct 2.