Live Science Verdict
A small screen and some poor map functionality let down this otherwise excellent watch, which packs a rugged design and excellent battery life.
Advanced tracking and training metrics
Map function could be better
Design won’t be to all tastes
Why you can trust Live Science Our expert reviewers spend hours testing and comparing products and services so you can choose the best ones for you. Find out more about how we test.
If you’re an avid runner or triathlete who loves all things outdoors, with a generous slice of adventure, then the Garmin Instinct 2S will be a match for you. This GPS smartwatch is a newer member in Garmin’s family of rugged wearables and has a few features worth shouting about.
The most appealing addition is the solar charging: as long as you have access to sunshine you don’t need a charger. This fitness tracker is built to US-military standards and after testing it ourselves we’d be surprised if you managed to break it. It has a masculine and rugged look, and heaps of the health- and location-tracking features that you’ll find on the best fitness trackers.
As it is a smartwatch, you can rely on the device to deliver your notifications and alerts when out and about, as well as during training sessions and explorations – though the catch is you can’t make or receive calls. You can, however, sync all of your data with the Garmin Connect app on Android and iPhone to take a real in-depth look at all your training sessions and health metrics.
Price and release date
The Garmin Instinct 2 Solar launched on February 9, 2022. For this Solar model, you’ll pay $499.99 in the US and £429.99 in the UK. This may be eye-watering, but considering all it has to offer – and when you compare it with the likes of a $700/£700+ Fenix 7 model – you’re getting a lot of bang your buck.
Design and display
This second generation of Instinct fitness trackers from Garmin comes in a large selection of colors. We tested out the Instinct 2S in mist gray, though you may be enticed by the more adventurous sounding shades, such as Neo-tropic, Flame Red, or Electric Lime.
The watch face has a monochrome memory-in-pixel display and inside this, there is a little circular block displaying relevant information as you maneuver around the watch menu. The predecessor only had a resolution of 128 x 128 pixels, whereas this version has 176 x 176 pixels. After recently reviewing a fitness tracker with a color screen display, we wondered if we’d be underwhelmed by the monochrome display but the crispness of the display compensated for this. Text and icons appeared strong and legible no matter the climate or level of brightness. The times where this did let us down a little occurred when viewing heart rate and maps – as color can help differentiate between stats and icons.
The Instinct 2S’s screen uses less power than an AMOLED display, which matters most when you are on a long trail run or stand-up paddleboarding, which is an activity this sports watch can track. Some may think it backward that this isn’t a touchscreen, but we found the traditional three-button set-up perfect. Again, touchscreens may help navigate maps better but it just takes getting more familiar and speedy with the buttons to overcome this.
I was impressed at how promptly the GPS was attained when pressing record before an activity. No one likes prolonging their warm-up or starting their run without GPS working. I took it out on a 5K run while tracking the same run on my other wrist using a Polar device. This was on my usual 5K route, which I’ve measured runs with countless times and the Instinct 2 Solar didn’t disappoint in terms of accuracy.
The setup of the activity-tracking part of this Instinct prompts you to pick the activities that you use most frequently. This is a handy feature, as many of the activities weren’t relevant to me, such as fishing, stand-up paddleboarding or bouldering but now when I press the activity button I don’t have to scroll through them all again. The multisport mode is handy for triathletes or, if you’re like me and like to track your run to the gym, your workout, and the run back. This means you don’t have to break up tracking between each stage of your exercise or event.
We do think that people who enjoy more traditional activities, such as running, swimming, and cycling will benefit most from the Instinct 2S and this is pretty standard for Garmin fitness trackers. The watch is great for tracking your heart rate and all its zones as you train and overall the Instinct 2S is a good option for beginners who need guidance with their training. For example, I took advantage of the suggested run workouts and found that this will help beginner runners keep their training varied. Another helpful feature is the ability to view your training effect: this tells you if your workout was more aerobic or anaerobic. Plus, I’m sure there are plenty of people who tend to underestimate their recovery time, but the Instinct 2S will monitor and analyze your training and factor this into your suggested recovery times.
Among the more technical tracking features, you can also use the Garmin Body Battery Tool. This is a great way to monitor your more standard health metrics such as sleep, heart rate, and general activity and will report on your energy and the readiness of your body for training.
The main disappointment with the Instinct 2S came up during testing when we experienced niggles with the mapping function. The Garmin connect app enables you to create your own routes, which sounds useful on paper but when you come to use the routes the actual help of the watch is poor – just showing a small line to mark the route and an arrow pointing you in the right direction. Thankfully, back-to-start navigation is available, though it's a fairly small map to work with. This meant I had a few navigational issues while out running. For those who are more reliant on maps when out running or cycling, a tracker like the Garmin Forerunner offers more advanced mapping services.
You also can’t play music offline, but you can use the watch to control the music playing on your phone. I like carrying my phone with me when I’m out on long trails, so this wasn’t an inconvenience for me and it’s still handy being able to change songs from my wrist while on the move. The Instinct 2S has Garmin Pay available on it – but do check your bank is compatible with this before trying to use this feature.
The tracker uses Garmin’s Power Glass to soak up energy from the sun, so it’s pretty hard to fault the battery life on this smartwatch. If you spend enough time outside – and it’s sunny where you live – then you’ll rarely have to charge it. My office and work-from-home work situation didn’t always allow me to hit the required daily measure of sunlight (about three hours) but I didn’t have to plug this watch in to charge until around a fortnight of wearing – and that was using GPS regularly.
The Garmin Instinct 2 Solar is a perfect watch for outdoorsy exercisers and anyone keen to get into sports such as running, cycling, and triathlons. It’s an expensive watch but one that doesn’t skimp on health-tracking features, accuracy, or reliability.
It looks ready to thrive in any weather condition you throw at it and is made to last, so it is not the kind of watch you’ll find yourself having to replace quickly. However, although it's durable, the features that are available could be better – such as the ability to make and receive calls, and accessing offline music.
The battery life is fantastic, and impressive considering the many time-consuming activities that you can track with the Instinct 2S. Plus, the watch can act as a virtual coach on your wrist, advising you on when, and how hard, to train, and how much to rest. It also offers a solid snapshot of your overall health.
If you’re looking to spend less but still want a fitness tracker that will support your training then look at the Huawei GT3. This watch is more sleek and stylish than the Instinct 2S, yet it still offers lots of useful reports on your performance and health, such as its upgraded optical heart rate sensor, which can detect changes in your heart rate during intense workouts. Recreational runners can benefit from the AI trainer and it also has essential smartwatch features, enabling you to make and receive calls via Bluetooth.
Alternatively, if you take your training even more seriously and aren’t sold on the Instinct 2S – because of its lack of detail in mapping functions – then take a look at the Garmin Fenix 7 (pictured above). This watch offers more in-depth navigation tools and features a high-res color display helping you view streets, parks, and landmarks better. It’s a bigger investment, but perhaps worth it if you eat, sleep and breathe your sport.
Jessica is a Staff Writer at our sister site Fit&Well. Her love for keeping fit and fueling her body with healthy and enjoyable food led her to write about all things fitness and health-related. If she isn’t out testing the latest fitness products such as the latest running shoe or yoga mat then she can be found on the Fit&Well news desk writing news and features on the best ways to build strength, active aging, female health, and anything in between. Before then she had a small stint writing in local news, has also written for Runners World UK (print and digital), and gained experience with global content marketing agency, Cedar Communications.