The new Garmin Instinct 2 has all of the features triathletes need: swim (open water and pool), cycling (power meter compatible), and run. The latest version also has triathlon, multisport, and swimrun modes, making it Garmin’s least-expensive multisport-capable option. The solar version also has infinite battery life in certain situations.
All tri-related sports functions
Updated heart rate sensor
Ability to edit activity screens in smartphone app (finally)
Actually effective little “mini-screen” bubble
Best-in-class battery life
Garmin Instinct 2 Series: The Basics
OK, it’s not often that we post two releases from one brand in one week, but this smartwatch is an exception. Just a few days ago, we reviewed the new Garmin Fenix 7 line—which we loved for every reason, except its price tag. Today, Garmin has released a sleeper smartwatch, meant to target the tactical/adventure crowd, but it also happens to be one of the most affordable multisport-friendly options we’ve seen. So if you’re looking to spend $700-plus on one of the most complete tri watches we’ve ever reviewed, please check out our writeup of the Fenix 7 series; if you’re in the market for an excellent multisport watch for about half that price, then keep reading.
To start, the Instinct line has been a favorite since we first tested it last year, and all of the key features that a triathlete needs remain—open-water swim, pool swim, bike (plus it now reads external power meters), and run (with Stryd running-with-power compatibility forthcoming). It comes in both 45mm bezel size and a new tiny-little-triathlete friendly 40mm option on the Instinct 2S. It’s tough (810 military spec, whatever that means), and it’s got simple breadcrumb navigation (no mapping, however) and smartphone music control (no onboard storage, however).
The big news with the Instinct 2 is the new monstrous battery life on the regular version (28 days on smartwatch mode, 30 hours with GPS) and potentially infinite battery life in smartwatch mode (a staggering 48 hours of GPS that can be extended, infinitely, in expedition GPS mode) with the solar version. That’s actually something we haven’t seen in a multisport-capable smartwatch. Like ever.
The Instinct 2 also added triathlon, multisport, and swimrun mode to its list of sports activities—something that was missing from the previous version and made it a tough sell for triathletes. (In fact, we listed “No tri/multisport mode” as the Instinct’s kryptonite in our recent Jan/Feb issue of Triathlete.)
Garmin Instinct 2 Series: What We Loved
It’s important to note, that similar to the Fenix 6 series that was replaced by the new Fenix 7 series, we really loved the last version of this watch. The Instinct 1 was something that was right on the cusp of hitting the perfect price/feature inflection point for triathletes. Triathletes need lots of battery, they need something tough, they need something that’s both simple to use, but also massively sports-capable. The newest version has all of that—along with the tiny little “bubble” window that’s shockingly useful as an additional way to break out data—plus the modes that triathletes really need for race day or brick training.
Open-water accuracy was also quite good—on our highly unscientific test below with a fixed buoy and fixed shore point, results were less than 10% off spread on a straight swim with good sighting and no current. While not quite as good as the Fenix 7 we tested earlier, it’s still good enough for almost all uses.
But while adding tri/multisport/swimrun is a minor victory, we loved the fact that the Solar version (which runs $400) has absolutely insane battery life. While Garmin says in some conditions it has infinite battery life (like when only using smartwatch mode and exposed to three hours of light/day), we estimate upwards of 30-plus days of real-world tri use with regular GPS workouts. That puts this watch in super rare company alongside the scary huge (in battery life and size/weight) Coros Vertix 2 and Fenix 7X Solar. Keep in mind, however, that both of those watches cost roughly twice the price as the Instinct 2 and weigh almost twice as much.
We also loved the full breadth of Garmin’s physio offerings—like the new health snapshot, the sleep analysis, body battery, performance analytics, and more—along with the lifestyle functions that you’d find on most of their mid- to upper-end watches. Having the breadth of Connect IQ’s apps at hand is also another boon that other brands struggle to match. And the fact that (finally) Garmin has allowed editing sport activities in the smartphone app is a small detail that makes a huge difference.
Garmin Instinct 2: What We Didn’t Love
This is tough, because for the price, you’re comparing the Instinct 2 to watches like the Coros Apex Premium, Polar Vantage M2, Suunto 5 Peak, Wahoo Rival, and Apple Watch series 7. You’re even comparing it to Garmin’s own Forerunner 245, which doesn’t have multisport or open-water swimming modes (or even 1/3 of the battery life). With that said, it’s tough to nitpick this one.
Of course, there are a few inherent things that people might take issue with, like the super small screen, but even that is remedied by good fonts and the interesting screen bubble in the upper-right corner. The Instinct 2’s screen remains the same size as the Instinct 1 at 0.9″ (23mm), whereas even the smallest screen on the list of competitors above is 1.1″ (28mm).
You could also argue that for $400 (the price of the Solar version), onboard music and WiFi would be nice, but that’s only something you’d find in the lifestyle-focused Apple Watch from the above list—and of course the Apple Watch’s battery life is virtually nonexistent when compared to the Instinct 2.
Even though it may not look like a tri watch, the new Garmin Instinct 2 line is actually a triathlete’s smartwatch—and a damn good one at that. It’s been a while since Garmin hit the price/feature matrix dead center for multisporters, but with the Instinct 2 they did. It’s also worth noting that on this line, there are fun little options like the “Your Watch, Your Way” program, which allows you to customize the bezel and band—great for triathletes who like to bling their wrists as much as their bikes (or go as stealth as a blank set of wheels). They also offer the “surf edition” that could be essential for ocean-facing triathletes who need to know the tides to time their swim or run.
There’s pretty much nothing missing on the Instinct 2 for triathletes, and the price isn’t too tough a pill to swallow given the breadth of functions for sports, physio, and lifestyle—alongside the staggering battery life. It’s rare that we give a smartwatch five stars at this pricepoint, but in this case, it’s fully warranted.