Garmin Instinct Solar first look review: Rugged outdoor GPS sports watch powered by the sun

In 2018, Garmin launched the Instinct line of GPS sports watches with a focus on rugged design for unrestricted outdoor adventures. It's latest announcement brings solar charging capability to three editions, with solar support also launching on the Fenix 6/6S and tactix Delta.

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For many years I have been using Garmin wearables to track my running, cycling, hiking, and other outdoor activities, but I've never tried out one of the Instinct models. That changed a couple of weeks ago when Garmin sent out the new Garmin Instinct Solar, with beta software, for evaluation.

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While my primary form of exercise is running, I also ride my bike, hike, get on the elliptical, and play other sports. In addition, I enjoy fly fishing on the rivers of Washington State. In the past, my Garmin product use included Forerunner, Fenix, and Edge devices, so I was curious about the Instinct as it took a bit of a different approach in regards to the watch design and focus.

Also: Garmin Forerunner 945 review: Music, mapping, payments, pulse, and incident detection

After more than a week with the Instinct Solar, I honestly may be a convert to the Instinct line for several reasons. These include:

  • Long battery life: After years of using wearables, I've realized that long battery life ensures a device stays mounted on my wrist for the long term. One or two-day battery life on a wearable is now unacceptable for my needs. The Instinct Solar boasts battery life in GPS tracking mode goes up to more than 50 days, even offering unlimited in Battery Saver mode with solar exposure.
  • Rugged design: 100-meter water resistance and MIL-STD-810G shock ratings ensure the Instinct is built to take on anything. It has a fiber-reinforced polymer case and a scratch-resistant display that is set down from the front face.
  • Unique outdoor activities: In addition to a plethora of typical activities like running, cycling, hiking, kayaking, yoga, and many more the Garmin Instinct supports fishing, tactical, boating, hunting, area calculation, and more outdoor-focused adventures. The expedition mode supports a multi-day activity with reduced need to charge with track points recorded once an hour by default.
  • Practical display design: A major reason the Garmin Instinct has a great battery life is the monochrome display. I've come to love the top right circle, two-window design, that provides essential information at a glance. For example, while fishing it showed my fish count, in heart rate mode, it shows your current heart rate, and in compass mode, it shows the direction in angles.
  • Reasonable price: The Garmin Instinct Solar starts at $399.99. Considering all that this GPS sports watch has to offer, that is a fair price.

See also: Garmin Vivoactive 4 review: Touchscreen, advanced health-tracking, golf, music, and more

Specifications

  • Display: 23mm diameter 128 x 128 pixels resolution monochrome, sunlight-visible
  • Watch materials: Fiber-reinforced polymer with silicone band
  • Water resistance: 10 ATM (100 meters)
  • Bands: Supports Quickfit 22mm bands.
  • Connectivity and sensors: Bluetooth, ANT+, GPS/GLONASS/GALILEO, Garmin Elevate optical HR, pulse Ox, barometric altimeter, three-axis compass, accelerometer, thermometer
  • Battery: Rated for 30 hours in GPS training mode or 38 hours when using solar charging. 24 days in smartwatch mode, and 54 days with sufficient solar exposure. In Battery Saver mode with sufficient solar exposure, Garmin states the Instinct can achieve unlimited battery life.
  • Dimensions: 45 x 45 x 15.3 mm and 53 grams

Hardware

The Garmin Instinct Solar is not a slim and sleek GPS sports watch, as it is focused on providing a rugged device that excels in various environmental conditions for days and weeks. I'm personally a fan of big watches and find that the Instinct Solar works well on my wrist.

To be honest, I barely noticed that the Garmin Instinct Solar doesn't have a color display. I've never found color displays to be an essential element of a GPS sports watch. I just need a display that is easy to read outside with a backlight available when needed and the Instinct Solar provides exactly that.

The part of the display that has swayed me towards favoring the Garmin Instinct Solar is the small circle "second" display. I find this highlighted area to be useful for providing key information and making it clear what a single press of the GPS button will provide.

There are five buttons on the Instinct Solar, just like most Garmin GPS sports watches. The top-left button toggles the backlight with a press and hold launching the controls display. The middle left button moves up while the bottom left moves down. A press and hold of the middle left button takes you into the various settings. You can also customize the hotkeys in the settings to make the device optimized for your usage.

The top right button, GPS, will take you to your favorite activites with another press launching that activity. While scrolling through widgets you can also press this button to select that widget and see more detailed data. The bottom right button, Set, serves primarily as the back button. Again, this can also be customized with the hot keys setting.

A Garmin Elevate heart rate monitor is centered on the back. The traditional four-pin Garmin connector is also found on the back for charging the watch.

A silicone watch band, matching the color of the watch, is provided. Two loops are present on the bitter end of the band to keep it securely on your wrist. Like the Garmin Instinct, Garmin's 22mm Quickfit bands are also supported with this watch.

There are four variations of the Instinct Solar, with various color options. These include:

  • Instinct Solar: Graphite, Tidal Blue, Orchid, Sunburst, Flame Red
  • Instinct Solar - Camo: Graphite Camo and Lichen Camo
  • Instinct Solar - Tactical Edition: Black and Moss
  • Instinct Solar - Surf Edition: Pipeline and Cloudbreak

Watch software

To navigate the device, you press the five buttons. Moving up and down from the watch face will scroll you through various widgets available (solar intensity, heart rate, My Day, notifications, weather, stress, ABC, last run, Body Battery, and more). The widgets are selected in the settings right on the watch.

You can use the Garmin Instinct Solar watch to track running, biking, elliptical, open water or pool swimming, fishing, hunting, MTB, skiing, snowboarding, yoga, rowing, and many more focused exercises. The one sport missing that I would have liked to have seen is golf.

There are a large number of settings and customization options available for each type of activity. For example, in the running app, you can customize up to four data screens in a layout from one to four fields with timer, distance, pace, speed, heart rate, cadence, temperature, elevation, compass, navigation, and other fields. I recommend you spend some quality time customizing everything exactly how you want it and then be ready to tweak things as you perform your activity and find you want to view your data differently.

In addition to custom data fields for each activity, you can control alerts, auto-pause, laps, auto-scroll, and much more. The experience can be quick and simple using the defaults or as specific as you desire with a bit of time spent customizing the watch data fields and settings.

Also: Garmin Forerunner 945 review: Music, mapping, payments, pulse, and incident detection

To get started on a run, lift up your arm, press the upper right button, select Run, and then press the button again after GPS is connected. Press the button again to pause. If you want to continue, press the button again.

There are several unique activities you can track with the Garmin Instinct Solar, and I had a great time using the Fish option. After launching this activity, you select to start fishing and the watch will track your GPS location. You can manually mark locations, set fishing timers, navigate to locations, and more. Since I was fly fishing on a small river while wading into the river, I started the day, and then as I caught each fish I pressed the GPS button twice to log the catch. After the day was done, I was able to see exactly where each fish was caught on a map. That particular day I landed 19 rainbow trout so thoroughly enjoyed using the Garmin Instinct Solar to track the day. I can't wait to go fly fishing again and develop a history of my catches to plan future trips.

Many other activities are supported, including navigation, and I plan to spend many more hours discovering all of the capabilities of the watch.

Smartphone software and website

Collecting the data is important, but using that data for tracking trends, improving performance, challenging friends, and identifying problem areas is also very important. Garmin offers the Garmin Connect app for iOS and Android.

When you first launch the smartphone app, you will see the My Day screen that shows your most recent workout, heart rate, stress level, body battery, hydration, steps, floors, sleep, calories in/out, weight, yesterday's stats, stats for last 7 days, and more. Options are available to choose what is displayed and in what order.

Other tabs include challenges, calendar, news feed, and notifications. Tapping on the device itself gives you options for music, Garmin Pay, text responses (Android only), activities, appearance, sounds & alerts, activity tracking, and much more.

Also: Garmin Edge 530 and Varia RTL510 review: Keeping your bike commute safe and enhancing your outdoor fun

On an Android smartphone, you can also fine-tune your smart notifications by selecting the specific apps that will be allowed to send notifications to your Garmin Instinct Solar. On iOS, you get whatever notifications you have enabled in the iOS settings so I personally prefer the Android smartphone experience.

The Garmin Connect website experience is very similar to what you see in the smartphone application, with even more capability to generate reports, import or export data, set up connections to other applications (such as Strava, RunKeeper, and MyFitnessPal), and more. Similar to the snapshots interface on the phone, you have a dashboard on Garmin Connect that you can customize.

I created dashboard tabs for daily activity, running, cycling, and hiking since those are my primary activities. Now with the Instinct, I am also working on a fishing dashboard to target my future fly fishing outings. You can then customize the view that appears in your dashboard or choose to jump to a full page view of the selected data.

Also: Garmin Venu review: Vibrant AMOLED display makes this one of the best GPS sports watches for the masses

Daily usage experiences

Compared to the other Garmin wearables I've tested over the past couple of years, the Garmin Instinct Solar does not support onboard music, Garmin Pay, or Connect IQ apps, watch faces, or data fields. For my usage, this doesn't really matter, as I use my phone for music and Garmin Pay still doesn't support my bank. However, these may be limitations for others so be aware of what is missing on the Instinct Solar.

The new Garmin Instinct Solar supports some of the latest Garmin features that I find valuable to understanding my health and well-being. These features include Body Battery, stress tracking, sleep monitoring with REM details, smartphone notifications with text response from an Android phone, and more.

A wearable I rarely have to think of charging that captures all of my daily activity, including sleep, and focused GPS events is refreshing and key to remaining on my wrist. When that wearable also supports my niche activities, such as fly fishing, it's tough to beat. The Garmin Instinct Solar also can stay topped off with the sun, making this one of the best wearables for adventurists and athletes focused on outdoor activities.