Garmin Instinct Solar review: A superstar in the sunshine

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For the most part, when you look at the fitness tracker or smartwatch market you’ll generally see a device which looks something like a traditional watch, but with a single colour screen taking up all the space on the front. There aren’t too many that look and feel like a digital watch that also feature all the same features as a smartwatch. That’s the little slice of market that the Garmin Instinct Solar has for itself. 

The Instinct Solar’s casing is chunky, with design cues seemingly taken from those proper digital watches we used back in the 90s to time our runs. It’s similar in approach to the G-Shock Move from Casio, except because it’s a Garmin, it takes advantage of all of the company’s expertise in fitness tracking and data – which is currently miles ahead of Casio’s offering. 

Design & Display

  • 10ATM water resistance
  • Monochrome display (128 x 128 pixels)
  • Fibre-reinforced polymer case and bezel
  • Finishes: Black, Orchid, Tidal Blue, Sunburst, Flame Red

The Instinct Solar is quite plasticky in appearance and feel. Technically it’s a ‘fibre-reinforced polymer’, but it just looks and feels like plastic. It doesn’t have any of that premium brushed or polished stainless steel or aluminium you find on Garmin’s more lifestyle/fashion focused watches. There’s some practicality in that though: it’s designed to feel lightweight but also be durable. 

Its chunky bezel surrounding the round display area is raised a decent distance from the screen, to make sure that if and when you knock it, you’ll more than likely hit the plastic framing of the watch, rather than the glass over the display.

In classic Garmin fashion, there are five buttons around the outside for controlling the onscreen interface with corresponding primary and secondary function labels printed and etched into the display and bezel.

It really is all about practicality here. The watch is light enough that you don’t really feel you’re wearing anything most of the day, and with its ‘military standard’ durability and water resistance up to 100 metres, it can get you through anything you want to throw at it.

Even the strap, which has holes all the way up to the watch case, is designed to make sure it’s adjustable to any wrist size, even really small and really big ones.

Apart from its design, what sets the Instinct apart from other Garmin models is the monochrome display. Or, rather, displays.

It has two-window design, so there’s the main round display, plus a smaller round window in the top right corner designed for small complications. Being a black-and-white panel means you don’t get a fast refresh rate or any fancy graphics, but it does enable one of the Instinct’s biggest appeals: epic battery life.

The interface is very similar to some of the other Garmin devices too. Press-and-hold the middle button on the right and you can dive into the settings to customise the watchface and other aspects, including choosing what information you want in the tiny complication window. 

During an activity that combination of displays is useful to some extent, but often feels like it’s missing some information.

Fitness & Features

  • GPS, heart-rate and Pulse Ox
  • Sleep & daily activity tracking
  • Lacks Garmin Pay or music

One of the great things about the Instinct is that – function wise – it offers a lot of the same tools and capabilities available on the more expensive watches. You get smartphone notifications on your wrist, and pretty much any sports metric you could want, plus a multitude of activity modes.

The only things missing – compared to some of the more lifestyle-oriented devices – is offline music playback on your wrist and Garmin Pay. That means you can use the watch to control music on your phone, but you can’t have Spotify, Amazon or Deezer playlists directly stored on the watch itself. So if you want music on a run, you need to take your smartphone with you. 

We used ours primarily for running and – as always – the versatility is there in buckets. One of our long-time favourite tools to use is Garmin Coach. In previous years we’d use it to improve our pace for set distances like 5K and 10K runs, but being 2020 it was a little different. Instead, having lost a lot of fitness, we opted to just try and get back up to 5K distance again, and found the Garmin training plans to be so useful. 

When you setup the plan you tell the app what distance you want to achieve – whether you have a time goal or not – and then input how often you currently run and how many kilometres you do each week on average. It then builds a plan for you with virtual guidance from a coach in form of weekly videos explaining the benefits of various running session types, resting and diet.

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