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Ultra-marathon Runner Reviews the Garmin Instinct Outdoor GPS Smartwatch

Garmin Instinct

SGD 499
8.8

Form Factor

9.0/10

Build Quality

9.2/10

Functionality

8.5/10

Battery Life

8.3/10

Value

8.9/10

Pros

  • Many navigation options
  • Accurate GPS
  • Decent battery life
  • Very rugged

Cons

  • Software/UI issues
  • No ConnectIQ
  • Black-and-white display

The Garmin Instinct retails for SGD 499, yet claims to have many of the features of Garmin’s flagship outdoor wearable Fenix series. It’s marketed as a rugged outdoor adventure watch, built to US Military Standard 810G, to endure high and low temperatures, impact, and immersion. You’re here because you’ve heard of the Instinct, and want to find out how it actually feels – so there’s

And that’s why I got my hand on one to test out on a 70km mountain/jungle run through pristine virgin trails in Malaysia.

First impressions

Picking up the Instinct, it definitely gives off the old-school Casio look, complete with the small circle in the top right. The fibre-reinforced polymer body is a lot lighter than the metal face of the Fenix series, but definitely lacks the “oomph” or “oo-la-la” classiness on the wrist. Putting it on, the silicone strap on the Instinct is soft and comfortable, and the watch sits so comfortably that I completely forgot to loosen it for two days (oops).

The bonus of this is that the green wrist HR light sits comfortably in the nook between my wristbones, and doesn’t leak out annoyingly as I’ve seen a couple of the larger watches are prone to. This supposedly increases the accuracy of the HR. The strap has two retaining bands, which are a bit fiddly at first, but they are a lot better at keeping the strap in place, especially when out and about.  The five buttons are placed in an identical  arrangement to the Fenix, three on the left (light, up, down), and two on the right (enter, back), but have a larger, textured plastic surface, with a lighter button press that is more comfortable on the fingers.

The default screen on the Garmin Instinct. Image: Jens Wira

There’s no colour on the display on the Instinct, which is a step down from the Fenix, but the screen has a beautiful high contrast that’s easy on the eyes, especially in bright direct sunlight. Additionally, the font that they use is also easy to read, making the small screen work for quick time-telling, the most important function in watch.

The interface is pleasantly responsive, with little lag between button presses and the screen moving, a problem I was mildly annoyed with in older smart-watches.  It can put quite a bit of information into that small screen too, with the factory watch face able to fit four data fields such as the heartrate graph, date, sunset/rise and battery, around the big time digits, without feeling too cramped.  I opted for a watch face that was a little more roomy, since I don’t need so much information on a day-to-day basis.

First setup wasn’t too difficult, although I annoyingly wasn’t able to copy and paste my settings from my old Fenix 3 into it. Otherwise, I still managed to complete the setup within ten minutes. A lot of personal settings like height, weight, are transferred from the Garmin Connect app so that eases the upgrade process reasonably. Accessing the menu on the watch works the same way as on the Fenix, by holding the up button, but the menu is a lot cleaner here, and it changes depending on which widget is active in order to offer the most relevant options.

For example, on the normal watch face, accessing the menu gives the customise watch face, settings and history options, the last two standard on all screens. But on the HR screen widget, the menu allows you to turn on and off the HR, and on the ABC (altimeter, barometer, compass), it allows you to change the plots, all this is very intuitive.

The first GPS signal acquisition took about 3 minutes, which is normal for all watches as it has to figure out where the satellites are. Subsequently, it takes less than 10 seconds to acquire a lock.  I found that I could get a decent lock even under cloud cover, which is nice.

Daily Use

The watch works great for daily use, with all the information you need easily visible, with the date and time easily visible. If you’re so inclined, you can put your heart rate or current altitude on the main watch face, but I feel the former is too much, and the latter isn’t really needed on a regular basis, so it’s just good for satisfying your curiosity. It’s very unintrusive on the wrist compared to many of the other outdoor-dedicated watches, its small size meant it got caught on bags and jackets less than my old Fenix. This is a big plus in my opinion since even when putting on and taking off my school/work backpack, my Fenix and probably all the other large watches will get stuck on the strap, not to mention if I’m trying to remove a waterproof jacket cuff.

It receives texts and notifications just like any other smartwatch, and Garmin did well to include a bedtime function for that, so that notifications during a time you set don’t show up on the watch. Usability is a lot like the Fenix, so if you’re an old user of Garmin you’d have no issues adapting. The raise to light feature is useful, but sometimes doesn’t work 100% of the time.  For those uninitiated, the raise to light feature detects when your watch is lifted to be checked, and the backlight is turned on just in case you need it. This feature can also be set to be only be active during sundown. You can pick up phone calls with it, useful while using earphones and the phone is in the pocket. The notifications come as vibrations, or a beep, or both. I turned off the sound as the vibrations are enough for daily use, and the sound can get annoying at times.

One of the most interesting things about this watch is that little circle sub-display on the top right, much like the alarm indicator on our old army watches. My personal feel is that while usually well thought out and  executed, there are times where it’s obvious they forgot somethings. It is usually used as a slot for additional data, such as a compass bearing in the compass mode, to highlight your current HR in the HR mode, or as a battery indicator while elsewhere. I did like that when they remembered they had that extra space, it was well used and often intuitive. But when things like notifications come in, it becomes obvious that it’s just a circle printed over the screen. Words get cut out behind the circle, the message isn’t fully displayed, it’s like they forgot that that space couldn’t be used. In fact, for the whole screen it is sometimes painfully obvious that they took a square display, and covered it with a round frame, such that at the other corners too, you get words and displays cut off at times. I’m sure this is just an UI fix, but it was slightly annoying at times.

The battery lasted me about 10-12 days from a full charge before flashing the low battery warning. They claim a 14-day battery life, but I had the Bluetooth and HR constantly on, so that probably took a chunk of battery out. Note that this 14-day figure is with GPS turned off, as that is the main battery drain on most GPS watches, and I’ll discuss that later on.  You can’t wear and charge the device at the same time, which sounds like a feature you would like to have, but honestly doesn’t matter cause if you’re wearing and charging at the same time you have a wire running down your arm. The good thing is that it charges really fast, fully charged in about 30 minutes or so in my experience.

Navigation 

Now the Instinct has a bunch of navigation related features, same as a lot of the other outdoor oriented watches. Many of these features are only useful for some expert and backcountry users, and wouldn’t be used regularly in a built-up country like Singapore. I’m saying that as the regular team navigator for my adventure racing teams, having navigated for 24 hour, up to multi-day races.

Following a GPX trail provided by someone is useful, as I’ll show later. But things like Sight’n’go, follow waypoints, etc, are things that you’re better off not using unless you knew what you were doing.

Actually Racing

First step in most trail ultramarathons is downloading the GPX file, and uploading it to the watch. This is basically a series of GPS coordinates mapping the entire route that is displayed on the watch for you to follow. I tried to perform this with the traditional method, which is to download it onto the computer, and using Garmin BaseCamp, transfer it into the watch through the wired connection. BaseCamp is Garmin’s own map-handling software, as opposed to Garmin Express, its device handling software, and Garmin Connect, its other device handling software.

The first major hiccups with the watch occurred here. After trying to transfer the GPX file provided by the organizer, the watch just didn’t start up again. It got stuck on the Garmin logo, and every press just got a beep in response. Even soft resetting the watch didn’t work, and I had to hard reset it, then set up the whole system again. The only saving grace here is that the buttons are nicer to press, and so were less painful to keep on pressing and pressing.

This happened 2-3 times, so I tried to shrink the GPX file by removing half the points in the middle, but even when it was a tiny 200kb file it still wouldn’t transfer onto the watch without it going into that same stuck screen. After about 3-4 hours of fussing about, I gave up and went online to find another way. Apparently they recently enabled transfer via Bluetooth from the phone to the watch, but that meant I had to go onto the computer, export the GPX from BaseCamp, upload it to Garmin Connect on the PC, then download on Connect on my phone, then transfer it to the watch – only then did it finally work. I’m not sure what the issue is here, since my peers could upload the same file without a problem.

Running the course

So remember that small little circle on the watch face? During activities, that becomes a really convenient place to put an extra data point. The Fenix was maxed out at four data fields on a screen. Here, despite the smaller screen, they have managed to fit up to five data fields, without feeling cramped or too small. However, one of the biggest drawbacks of the Instinct in my opinion is the lack of ConnectIQ, basically the App Store for watches/Garmin devices, which includes the ability to download custom data screens, fit more data or graphs on the same page. When I’m running I like to view the timer, time of day, distance covered, pacing, heart rate and battery remaining all on the same screen, but as you can see that’s one more than the Instinct can show. Good thing during races I don’t check my heart rate, so I could make do without that. But the lack of ConnectIQ takes out a lot more functionality than just that, with custom timers, workout counters, etc being unable to be uploaded to the watch.

Just before the race (70km, 4km vertical gain, 24-hour cutoff time), I gave the battery a full charge, then acquired the satellite signals within a couple seconds, and waited at the start line for the race to begin at 9pm. In case 70km sounds like a long run, what actually stands out about this race is the 24 hour cutoff time, which is really long for a 70km race. This meant that the organisers were throwing at us some really technical, difficult, scrambly jungle trails. Perfect place to test the Instinct for what it claims to be.

For the first three hours or so, everything went smoothly. Fell onto my bottom a couple of times due to the muddy and steep slopes, as well as trekked through several river/stream crossings. Some of the slopes were too steep and slippery, but they mostly had ropes to climb through. The first checkpoint was at 13km, and the GPS distance was almost spot on, which I was pleasantly surprised by.

The backlight and contrast were easy to read even in the dark night, with or without a headlamp shining on it. The only point of contention I have with the display is the fact that the hour counter in the timer is tiny. I remember several times in the race where I looked at the watch and was confused as to why I had only run 40 minutes, simply cause the hour character was 1/3 the size of the rest. But other than that, I was able to read the rest of my data easily, so I’d say its pretty well done.

Then after that 3 hours, some massive insect decided it had enough of me, and just flew straight into my eye, stinging my eyelid. Couldn’t tell what it was, but it hurt like hell. Medic gave me the OK to continue, so I did. Hours 3-7 consisted of one long, long up hill climb, which still gave me a bunch of falls, as well as some bashing to do. At one point, we missed a turn, and couldn’t see any of the trail markers. So I fired up the navigation function on the Instinct, and it quickly guided us back to the actual trail. Fantastically accurate, I like!

Of course, my motivation to keep running was fading cause my eye hurt, but that basically meant I kept on falling down. I slammed the Instinct into trees, rocks etc, but that thing just kept ticking, barely showing a scratch, which impressed me greatly! The plastic casing fared quite well against the dense jungle of Malaysia, I must say. Unfortunately, I didn’t. After four more hours, the pain wasn’t going away, and I still had exams to take in two days, so I pulled out of the race, having only completed 30km in 7 hours.

Impressively, the GPS distance readout also displayed 30km, even with the dense jungle cover through maybe 70% of the distance. Pretty accurate!  At this point, I was running the watch for about 7.5 hours, and was down to about 40% battery, so while the 15 hour promise seems a bit of a stretch, it is still definitely possible.

In Conclusion

I brought the Garmin Instinct on a pretty brutal course to test how tough it was.

What stands out is its toughness – it probably survived the course better than me. It is a pretty good piece of kit, from what I’ve seen – reliable, quite user-friendly, lightweight & comfortable, and definitely useful. It is let down slightly by its lack of ConnectIQ, a bit of software issues, and the design of the printed on screen. With this price point and toolset, I feel it is of good value, and definitely something I would consider when it comes time to replace my current GPS watch.

Review written by Jens Wira, adventurer, ultramarathon-runner and undergraduate student.

Ian Ling
http://uncommontragedy.com
Ian is the resident Tech Monkey and Head of Content at VR Zone. His training in Economics and Political Science is at the basis of his love for journalism and storytelling. A photographer by passion, and an audiophile by obsession, Ian is captivated by all forms of tech that makes enthusiasts tick.

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