Garmin Instinct 2 Solar smartwatch review: A highly capable adventure watch

Garmin Instinct 2 Solar smartwatch review: A highly capable adventure watch

While many activity trackers strive for sleek, discreet designs, Garmin created the Instinct 2 Solar for those who like classic outdoor watch styling without sacrificing advanced features. Despite its rugged, rather old-school body and display, the second iteration of this Garmin solar watch is a robust smartwatch with highly accurate GPS, wrist-based heart rate monitoring, and integrated solar charging. While there haven’t been many changes on the exterior, the watch’s software has some updates that many will appreciate, mostly related to activity tracking. The Garmin Instinct 2 Solar promises to give you more accurate training information and keep you from charging as often and, in most respects, it delivers. 

The Garmin Instinct 2 Solar’s design

As already mentioned, the Garmin Instinct 2 Solar doesn’t look very different from the original Instinct Solar. The case is made of the same fiber-reinforced polymer, the display is still Garmin’s transflective memory-in-pixel (MIP) display, and both versions are topped with Corning Gorilla Glass for durability. The Power Glass tech allows the watch to charge by absorbing sunlight through both visible side panels and an invisible layer atop the display. The bezel has been ever so slightly redesigned, though it’s like a spot-the-difference game to see what changed since it’s so subtle. 

Garmin Instinct 2 Solar on Abby's wrist at the beach
The smaller 40mm size option is a nice choice for those with small wrists and hands. Abby Ferguson

The Instinct 2 Solar comes in the original 45mm, 53g case options and a new, smaller 40mm, 43g size (technically designated the 2S). The latter—in the color “Neo Tropic”—is the watch I have been eating, sleeping, and breathing in for the past month or so. Despite my child-sized wrists, it fits well and, thanks to the 13.3 mm thickness, it doesn’t look clunky like other sports watches I’ve used. The band that comes with the smaller size is quite short, however. So while it fits me (just barely), many will likely need to purchase a separate, longer band.

Underside/clasp of the Garmin Instinct 2 Solar smartwatch on Abby's wrist
Though I could loosen the watch some, I’ve almost maxed out the tiny band on the 2S, even with my small wrists.  Abby Ferguson

It is a rugged watch, intended to be put through the wringer. It’s water-rated to 100 meters, so it can stand up to some deep free-dives, making a bit of sweat and rain a piece of cake. And it’s thermal and shock resistant, so if you climb with it on and take some hard falls, it should easily survive. I wore mine to the gym, knocking it on a fair share of weight racks and bushwhacked through some dense forest, and it still looks brand new without so much as a scratch anywhere. 

The display is a slightly higher resolution than the original Instinct Solar (156 x 156 pixels for the 2S vs. 128 x 128 pixels for the original) but, as mentioned, it is still the same old-school, monochrome look. This basic display contributes significantly to the Instinct’s 21-day battery life even when in smartwatch mode. It isn’t very fancy to look at, however.

The watch has a pretty large bezel, which eats up quite a bit of screen real estate. So while it collects tons of data and shows you graphs of certain things, such as sleep quality, I have found it a bit difficult to read and assess the graphs on the watch itself because of the small, monochrome screen. If I really want to see the information, it’s a much better experience to pull it up in the Garmin app instead. 

Setting up the Garmin Instinct 2 Solar

Garmin makes the setup process for any of its watches incredibly easy, especially if you already have a Garmin watch and account. The watch comes with a partial charge right out of the box, so you can get to set up right after opening it. You will need to download the Garmin Connect app (available for iPhone and Android), but the watch guides you through the process step-by-step and makes it very easy to pair with your phone/app using a Bluetooth connection. 

I was already a Garmin user, so the setup took only a few minutes on my Samsung Galaxy S10. But even if you are starting from scratch, it shouldn’t take much longer. Of course, if you want to take the time to customize things like notifications, tones, and watch faces right out the gate, you could spend quite a while in both Garmin Connect (the watch’s settings/metrics hub) and Garmin Connect IQ (the watch’s app, or “widget,” store, which did not work with the original Instinct). When in Connect, you’ll see steps that still need to be completed for full setup by tapping on the watch at the top. However, some, such as connecting to Garmin Pay, can wait or not be done at all, depending on what you want to use. 

The Garmin Instinct 2 Solar’s features

The Instinct 2 Solar is a comparatively simple smartwatch despite costing $450, lacking some of the fancier features of higher-end, Garmin offerings like the multisport fēnix 7 Sapphire Solar and premium running Forerunner 955. Those watches offer color touchscreens, more advanced training suggestions, and more detailed navigation maps. But the Instinct 2 Solar is still plenty feature-rich and provides loads of insights and data.   

Battery life

I would be remiss if I didn’t start out with the feature advertised in the name since “Solar” is one of the main selling points of this watch. Because of the basic display and the solar charging, it can last a seriously long time, though that seems to be with some caveats. 

Garmin Instinct 2S Solar in the sand displaying solar intensity
You can track how much solar life your watch is taking advantage of (and how much sun you’re soaking up, too) in the Solar Intensity Glance. Abby Ferguson

According to Garmin, the Instinct 2 models improve slightly on the original and the 40mm Instinct 2S can last 21 days in smartwatch mode/51 days with solar and has potentially unlimited battery life when in battery saver mode (more in the standard-sized model). However, I have not been able to get that kind of battery life out of it, partially because it assumes the watch gets 3 hours of 50,000 lux sunlight conditions a day and partially because that number is based on general wear, with no or at least limited activity tracking. With a GPS-enabled activity nearly every day, and sometimes more than one, I have to charge it about once a week (running GPS nonstop, battery life is rated at 22 hours/28 with solar). Admittedly, I’m also not spending much time in the most intense sun right now, thanks to the summer heat, so I’ve not been able to take full advantage of the solar functionality—though I plan to gauge the battery life claims more as I evaluate other sports watches, so this section will be updated. Even without taking full advantage of solar, however, it still lasts longer than my much-loved Forerunner 745, and some time on the window sill or a sunbaked rock will keep it running for a day or two in a pinch.

You can change how often and what sensors pull from the battery, so you can customize it to get more battery life. And when the battery is running low, the watch prompts you to switch it to battery saver mode, which gives you a very pared-down display with no smartwatch functionality. And when you need to plug it in for a charge with the provided proprietary multi-pin USB cable (though no wall adapter), it bounces back quickly. I was able to fully charge the battery from 0% to 100% in about three-and-a-half hours, so it’s quick to top off the battery when you need to.

Activity tracker

If you’re buying a Garmin watch, it’s almost certainly for its acumen as a fitness tracker. The Instinct 2 Solar offers activity modes for just about every type of exercise, workout, and sport you could imagine, from treadmill and trail running and cycling (road, eBike, indoors, mountain, etc.) to climbing, swimming, and even breathwork and multi-day expeditions. HIIT timers are in the newer model, as well. Some you will need to add to the watch, but doing so hardly takes any time at all and can be done on the watch itself or the app.

Garmin also makes a few different editions of this watch, which have unique, hyper-specific modes. For example, the Surf Edition has specific tracking for surfing, kitesurfing, and windsurfing, along with tide data that you can’t access on the Standard Edition. There’s also a Tactical Edition, with Jumpmaster activity, waypoint projection, dual-position GPS format, preloaded tactical activity, and a stealth mode. Of course, the Standard Edition has just about everything other than some of those specialized activities so, for most, it will be the one to get.

No matter what type of activity you do, it is straightforward to track it. Different activities offer specific information on the watch face, though all of that is customizable, so you can choose what information is most important to see while tracking. For example, I like to have my heart rate and distance prominently displayed when on runs, while things like cadence and lap time aren’t important to me. 

You can also choose to silence tones and notifications during workouts. For example, if I’m out for a run, I don’t want to be notified that someone liked my Instagram post, so I can easily choose to block those during that activity. 

Garmin Instinct 2S Solar display on a wrist on a run
On suggested runs, the data displayed varies from normal runs. It shows you if your pace is falling within the recommended range.  Abby Ferguson

The watch can also give you suggested running workouts to help improve your fitness. When you click to start a run, a screen will pop up with “Today’s Suggestion” that provides a brief summary of the run and its training effect. It’s a nice way to mix up your workouts without paying for a coach or doing your own extensive research. 

Data collection and insights

The watch obviously collects quite a lot of data while recording activities, relying on the plethora of sensors built into it. It connects with three Global Navigation Satellite Systems (GNSS)—GPS, GLONASS, and Galileo—for better accuracy, has the newer Garmin Elevate Gen4 optical heart rate sensor, plus includes a barometric altimeter, compass, accelerometer, and thermometer. But it also collects lots of data when you aren’t explicitly recording an activity. For example, you can always see your heart rate and step count. 

Back/sensors of the Garmin Instinct 2S Solar
Garmin’s Elevate Gen4 optical heart rate sensor is one of several on the back of the watch. Abby Ferguson

If you wear the watch to bed, it will also track your sleep, giving you insight into your sleep stages throughout the night. I have found the sleep tracking to be hit and miss in terms of accuracy, with some nights showing as excellent sleep even though I most definitely was awake for chunks of time and do not feel rested in the morning. 

Though it’s not always accurate, wearing the watch during sleep allows Garmin to get a more complete picture of your fitness and recovery status, which is new on this Instinct 2 Solar. On this second version, you can now access Garmin’s Training Status, VO2 max, and Recovery time. If you are serious about your training, these are all very helpful. 

While the provided VO2 max value relies on an algorithm and heart rate data, the estimation yields similar results to a proper VO2 max test, which relies on indirect calorimetry and requires expensive lab equipment. And, if you click on the Training Status on either the watch or the app, it will tell you if you need to adjust your training in any particular way to improve your fitness. Of course, it is generalized, so if you are training for something specific, it may not be very accurate, but it does a great job for general fitness. 

Smartwatch features

Like most fitness trackers these days, the Instinct 2 Solar is a full smartwatch. That means it pairs with your phone to provide notifications on the watch’s display. Any notification you get on your phone can come through, though some allow more interaction than others. It’s handy when you are in a situation where you can’t or don’t want to pick up your phone but you want to know if any important calls or messages are coming through. When out and about, I typically leave my phone in my purse when out and about and only take it out if it’s something I care to deal with right then. 

The Instinct 2 Solar doesn’t have a cellular connection and it lacks a microphone, so you can’t take calls or use a voice assistant, etc. But, you can set up prewritten responses to texts or calls and respond from the watch, which is ideal for when you are in the middle of something. You can also like Instagram messages from the watch, should you care to do that. 

Safety features

One of the things that I love about the Instinct 2 Solar is the safety features. Garmin added Incident Detection to this second iteration, which uses the sensors in your watch to detect if a fall or crash may have occurred on a walk, run, or ride. If it does detect an event, it will text your emergency contact, which you can set up in the app.

There is also the ability to request assistance manually, though quickly, if needed. By simply holding the top left button for three seconds, the watch will send a text or email to your emergency contact with your exact location. It will continue to send your location until you end it and can even send an “I’m OK” text if things resolve themselves. You will need to have your phone on you and have service to use it, but it is very nice to know that feature is there if I ever find myself in a dicey situation. 

Garmin Instinct 2S Solar on a wrist on a colorful trail
The TracBack feature lets you easily navigate back to your starting point. Abby Ferguson

As a robust GPS watch, you’ll also be able to use Garmin’s TracBack. It is an extremely beneficial tool for any backcountry activities, as it allows you to follow your traveled path without needing to place waypoints as you go. Should you get lost, it makes it much easier to find your way back even if you don’t have expert-level navigation skills.

Lastly, you’ll also have access to Garmin’s LiveTrack. When you start a run, hike, or bike ride, you can send LiveTrack information to whomever. It’s an excellent feature for backcountry activities so that someone can know where you are and if your outing takes as long as expected. All these extra layers of protection make me feel safer when out alone on runs, bike rides, or hikes, and make my husband more comfortable with my solo trips as well. 

Garmin app

Though you can do a lot on the watch, the Garmin Connect app provides the best method for viewing and analyzing data collected by the device. As mentioned, it can be hard to decipher some data on the watch, so being able to see all that information in the app is very useful. The app also provides even more information and training data than the watch does, so you can really nerd out and get into the nitty-gritty. 

The app also lets you fully customize your watch, from downloading specialized faces to changing notification settings and enabling safety features. You can do much of that on the watch itself, but it may be easier for some to do on the app. 

For those who like the social aspects of staying active, Garmin also has its own platform for that within the app. You can connect with other Garmin users, with options to “like” or comment on their activities. There are even challenges that you can join to stay motivated. It’s not as feature-rich as apps like Strava, but connecting with others can be a big motivator. And you can also link your Garmin account to Strava, should you want your data to sync there. 

Usability and accuracy

Overall, the watch is easy and intuitive to use. The labels on the bezel help identify what key functions fall under each button (labeled Control, Menu, ABC, GPS, Set), but you will want to read through the manual or do a walkthrough to figure out where certain settings are hiding. I did find the menus slightly more confusing than on my Forerunner 745, but not overly so.

I had some lagging issues when pushing buttons for the first time in a while, resulting in me waiting for it to go to the right menu when wanting to start a workout or view certain stats. It isn’t terribly long, but it is enough to be a bit annoying and hasn’t been an issue on other Garmin watches I’ve used. 

Forerunner 955 Solar next to Garmin Instinct 2S Solar on Abby's wrist
The Instinct 2S Solar’s display looks very old school next to the Forerunner 955’s large, colorful screen, but the data gathered by both is consistent and insightful. Abby Ferguson

I wore both the Instinct Solar 2S and Forerunner 955 Solar (which I’m also reviewing) on a handful of runs—both on my left wrist, though I also had a chest-based heart rate monitor that I only had paired with the Instinct. Results did vary slightly across pretty much all fields when I examined them in Garmin Connect, but it was all well within the margin of error. So, I would fully trust the results from both watches. I anticipated any heart rate-related fields to be different since chest straps provide much more accurate and reliable data than wrist-based. 

Garmin will suggest workouts for you when starting a run, and interestingly those varied slightly between the two watches as well. The Forerunner 955’s recommendations seemed to align better with my current fitness level and pacing abilities, though that is strictly based on perceived effort type insight. The Instinct Solar 2S also didn’t have any motivational type messages pop up after a run as the Forerunner 955 did. Although small and perhaps somewhat silly, it made me prefer running with the Forerunner. 

So, who should buy the Garmin Instinct 2 Solar?

There are other fitness-tracking smartwatches that are sleeker and thus better suited for blending into everyday wear (such as the Apple Watch Series 7). The rugged styling of the Garmin Instinct 2 Solar means that it doesn’t necessarily fit well with fancy attire, though I have to admit I am one of those who wear their Garmin no matter what the outfit, so this is a matter of personal preference.

Though the watch fully tracks activities and collects loads of data, it doesn’t present the information quite as elegantly or thoroughly as some of Garmin’s more specialized watches. As a result, it probably isn’t the best option if you are an intensely focused, multisport athlete (that’s where the fēnix 7 and even more expressive EPIX Gen. 2 series come in). And, as a runner, I much prefer the Forerunner 955, as it provides better workout suggestions and gives me more information about my preferred type of training. The higher-resolution color screen on the Forerunner also makes it easier to see data while running, which I appreciate. 

The durability and long battery life when outside, however, make the Garmin Instinct 2 Solar a truly fantastic smartwatch for outdoor enthusiasts looking for a more casual but still comprehensive activity tracker. It also has navigation modes that are helpful for activities. I definitely see the advantages of this watch for longer hikes, climbs, or multi-day adventures and plan on using it for such trips in the future. You can trust that it will survive some serious trips and that the battery life, once settings are customized, will keep up with your lifestyle.

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