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(The Gear Loop) - Before the widespread adoption of silicon in almost everything, watches were powered by quartz. Whilst it is an excellent mechanism to keep time, it does limit the function of a watch. 

"But a watch just needs to tell the time!" we hear you holler from the back. But come on, this is 2022. Thus, the Instinct 2 Solar from Garmin is the latest rugged GPS smartwatch that can analyse more data and body metrics than most medical instruments, navigate via GPS, essentially run forever on a single charge and it tells the time.

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The Instinct 2 Solar is Garmin’s entry level offering in an increasingly busy smartwatch world: this rugged timepiece incorporates many features of Garmin’s more expensive smartwatches but wraps them up in a fibre-reinforced polymer case, rather than the more premium materials. 

The Gear LoopGarmin Instinct 2 Solar review photo 1

It uses toughened Gorilla Glass, meaning it should be able to fend off the worst of what you can throw at it and still look great. The display is monochrome, but we found it to be excellent in all conditions - contrasty and crisp . There’s a backlight too, which is ideal for operating in total darkness, as the display doesn’t emit any light. 

Our quick take

The Garmin Instinct 2 Series is a perfect smart watch for someone looking for a rugged activity tracker that can also monitor workouts and all manner of other activities. Coupled with an array of heart-rate based metrics, the Instinct 2 Solar could become an invaluable tool for those looking to get the most out of their training. Plus, the lack of fancy display keeps costs down and heavily reduces the chances of things breaking when out in the wild and the solar charging equates to insane battery life.

Garmin Instinct 2 Solar review: rugged and unassuming, this solar-powered watch really shines

Garmin Instinct 2 Solar

4.0 stars
For
  • Impressive array of body tracking and metrics
  • Insane battery life
  • Integrates well with smartphones
Against
  • Chunky looks might not be to everyone’s taste
  • Bewildering line-up of features
  • Breadcrumb trails aren’t ideal for techy navigaition.

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In the Loop

Everything you need to know about the Garmin Instinct 2 Solar:

  • Rugged polymer construction
  • 24/7 body monitoring
  • "Unlimited" battery life with solar charging
  • GPS and multi-GNSS-enabled activity tracking
  • Delivers smartphone notifications to your wrist
  • Altimeter, barometer and compass to help navigate trails

Comfort and features

The sleek rubber strap is very comfortable and allows for a perfect fit to be dialled in. There’s no different strap for different wrist sizes like with some competitors. 

Five buttons adorn the bezel and we found them intuitive when used to navigate through menus. 

The Gear LoopGarmin Instinct 2 Solar review photo 10

Flip the watch over and you’ll find this is where the body-tracking action happens. Garmin’s Elevate Gen 4 optical heart rate sensor, which is also found on the Fenix and Epix line, resides here. This sensor provides a host of metrics including heart rate, blood oxygen readings and breathing rate. 

Aside from metrics, the Instinct 2 Solar also pairs with your phone to deliver notifications straight to your wrist and a host of apps increase its functionally even further, with features like Garmin Pay for bank card payments from the wrist and the ability to control music on the smartphone among the headlines. 

Through a range of configurable watch faces via the Garmin IQ store, the face can be customised to display exactly what you want, which is great to help tailor the device to your regular use cases. 

The Gear LoopGarmin Instinct 2 Solar review photo 11

One thing that does frustrate us about Garmin’s smartwatch line-up is that they insist on churning out different editions with slightly different features to appeal to a range of audiences. 

While this in itself isn’t a big deal (we’re all for devices that are tailored to specific niches) it’s the fact that the differences are typically in software-only, so customers could make use of all of them if Garmin chose to. 

But instead the company offers five different editions of the Instinct 2 Series (Surf, Camo, Tactical, Esports and the highly bizarre dēzl model for pro truck drivers), couple that with two dial sizes and solar charging options, and you are faced with a baffling 20 different combinations. For clarity, we’ve been wearing the 45mm Solar version of the Instinct 2 in Solar Blue.

The Gear LoopGarmin Instinct 2 Solar review photo 6

Charging and battery life

The "solar" aspect of the Instinct 2 really caught our attention and it’s safe to say it’s a bit of a game changer. If you’ve ever spent any time with an Apple Watch, you’ll be familiar with the rigamarole of placing it on charge every night as it chews through power. 

Using solar charging built into the watch face, the Instinct has an almost unlimited battery life. The best thing is that you don’t even have to take it off… it charges on the go. If you’re unlucky enough to not see the sun for 28 days, then you’ll need to plug it in for a charge.

This solar charging functionality is a huge benefit to those active types, as the Instinct 2 can be used to track a range of activities and record the route via GPS. 

The Gear LoopGarmin Instinct 2 Solar review photo 19

From running (trail, road, indoor, track or virtual) to cycling (mountain bike, road, track, virtual, gravel, E gravel, E mountain bike, E road, cyclocross, commute and touring), the Instinct 2 has you covered. 

It goes beyond just tracking your GPS and heart rate, though. Take mountain biking for example. The Instinct 2 will score you on your “Grit and Flow”, which essentially measures how smoothly you descend and provides a score to beat next time.

How useful this is for hardcore athletes were not sure, but for the enthusiast, this gamification is sure to add another dimension to rides.

The Gear LoopGarmin Instinct 2 Solar review photo 8

Performance in the wild

We found the GPS to be accurate down to a few metres when it eventually got a satellite fix and tracked our activities to a reasonable level. It was a little slow at times, something we thought might be ironed out mby multi-GNSS support.

Unlike the more expensive models in the Garmin range, the Instinct 2 doesn’t display a "proper" map, but instead shows a breadcrumb trail of the route and beeps and vibrates when you stray from it. 

That said, the lack of a proper map didn’t really faze us, as trying to navigate tricky, technical terrain is best left to dedicated GPS devices or even a paper map rather than a tiny screen on your wrist.

The Gear LoopGarmin Instinct 2 Solar review photo 14

Garmin also includes its "TracBack" feature, which will navigate you back to the starting point of any given route. 

Unlike most of the other features, we didn’t find this particularly useful, as it assumes you can travel in a straight line, which is ideal for the sea, not so much when mountains and rivers are between you and the start point. GPS co-ordinates can also be inputted and navigated to, but again, only in a straight line. Boooo

Workouts and fitness tracking

Having emptied the tank on your workout of choice, the Instinct 2 Solar will provide an indication of recovery time based on your exertion during the workout, and throughout the week, to ensure you’re in the best possible place for the next time. 

The Gear LoopGarmin Instinct 2 Solar review photo 20

We found this feature to be one of the best in Garmin’s current arsenal of training tools, as it provides a really good indicator of when your body needs to rest, or when you need to mix up training with more aerobic or anaerobic workouts.

The accessibility of the body metrics is something that really impressed us, too - applying scores and ratings to quite abstract concepts made it easy to understand what we needed to do to improve our performance and recovery. 

The sleep tracking is another example of this, as it uses heart rate and motion data to quantify your sleep and coupled with the body battery metric, it can predict whether you’ll end the day exhausted or revitalised. 

The Gear LoopGarmin Instinct 2 Solar review photo 4

All this might sound a bit pointless, because why do we need data to tell us if we slept well, anyway? Quantifying this data is really helpful for long term training aspirations and even in daily life; knowing how our body reacts to certain things is the foundation for healthier living and can form the basis of the type of workout or activity you choose to tackle. Tired, run down and Body Battery drained? Maybe its best to leave that Snowdon summit for another day.

The Instinct 2 Series connects to your smartphone via Bluetooth and all the data is viewable on the Garmin Connect smartphone app, which is much easier to view than pouring over the small screen to check out your metrics. Garmin Connect can also be configured to automatically upload activities to Strava and other third party apps.

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To recap

We enjoyed our time with the Garmin Instinct 2 Solar, as it proved unobtrusive when it needed to be, but provided a wealth of information that helped shape weekly workouts and outdoor activities. Although it lacks the beautifully crisp touchscreen of the recent Garmin Epix, or the bespoke outdoor features of the Marq Adventurer, it still does pretty much everything you need, just in a more rugged and unobtrusive manner. If you’re one to avoid enormous bezels and blingy features, this is a great option, and those tackling technical terrain and complicated hikes will likely use a dedicated GPS navigation tool or paper map anyway, so the techy mapping features that are missing here aren’t actually missed that much. This reviewer doesn’t normally wear a watch, but the Instinct 2 has barely been off our wrist. It’s a perfect smartwatch for those looking for a rugged device to wear in all conditions and we found it easily withstood some terrible weather and a hell of a beating in the Welsh mountains. The price is also much more palatable than some of Garmin’s fancier models. 

Writing by Matt Buckley. Editing by Leon Poultney.