Friday, November 16, 2018

Garmin Instinct Review: Run and Outdoor Focused GPS/HR Smart Watch. A Rugged Value!

Article by Sam Winebaum with Jeff Beck

Garmin Instinct ($300)

With the new Instinct Garmin heads in a new direction. Garmin has a broad and sometimes confusing array of GPS/HR sport watches given their seemingly infinite variations of features and specs.
The Instinct slots into the Outdoor category as a rugged, lower cost smart watch alternative to the Fenix 5 and 5 Plus. It incorporates a multitude of features for training on land and water, including all the run training features of its Forerunner siblings except the deeper physiology and recovery insights. It includes basic breadcrumb course following and not one but two compass screens, plenty of vertical tracking as well all the usual Garmin features to follow daily activity, sleep, heart rate, stress, while also providing phone notifications and music control

The Look
The overall look is rugged but playful at the same time. We really like the very light sand color Tundra White with black highlighting of our samples. Vaguely military and not the usual black, white or fluo colors, although Black and a cool Flame Red are also available. The watch faces highlighted by the circle window and its data, and with my selected and customized watch face with the HR graph and current HR displayed as well as sunset is a modern take on the classic digital watch of yore.

A key new feature, unique to the Instinct  is a “two window design” screen layout.

A circular window at top right is on all screens: watch faces, activity and otherwise, provides customizable key data and serve up graphic tips for interaction with the watch.

The Instinct does not include the deeper training and recovery physiology insights and multi-sport features of the Forerunners such as the 645 ($400) Forerunner 935 ($500 ) RTR review, or Fenix 5 Plus series ($700 and up but now on sale for $550 and up) RTR review, or the sleek metal bezel styling, color touch screen, on board music option and Garmin Pay of the more lifestyle oriented vivoactive 3 ($270 and up). And no Golf as an activity here as in the Vivoactive, Fenix, and Forerunner. Go out and run, swim, hike, ski, work in the outdoors the message!

34 grams lighter than the Fenix 5 Plus and a minimum of $250 less at Fenix 5 Plus current sale price no less, it weighs about 10 grams more than the 645 and vicoactive 3. I has a lower resolution 128 x 128 monochrome non color and smaller screen than any of its siblings but an incredibly readable one in all light conditions. The case and prominent raised bezel is all fiber reinforced polymer with a well protected, by the bezel, chemically strengthened glass lens, as the Fenix has. Watch faces are limited but customizable, Garmin's Connect IQ store customization of watch faces, widgets, and apps is not available, but you do get that playful and very effective configurable additional circle screen not available on any other Garmin.

We tested the Instinct, and as is almost always the case with new Garmin watches , performance was excellent, bugs few, and all features promoted as far as we could tell working as intended. Read on for the details

Here is how Garmin describes the key features of the Instinct:
Rugged GPS Watch Built to Withstand the Toughest Environments
  • Constructed to U.S. military standard 810G for thermal, shock and water resistance (100 meter).
  • Built-in 3-axis compass and barometric altimeter plus multiple global navigation satellite systems (GPS, GLONASS and Galileo) support helps track in more challenging environments than GPS alone
  • Monitor your heart rate¹, activity and stress; train with preloaded activity profiles
  • Stay connected with smart notifications² and automatic data uploads to the Garmin Connect™ online fitness community
  • Use the TracBack® feature to navigate the same route back to your starting point; use the Garmin Explore™ website and app to plan your trips in advance
  • Battery life: up to 14 days in smartwatch mode, up to 16 hours in GPS mode, up to 40 hours in UltraTrac™ battery saver mode

The Garmin promotional video for the watch features firefighters fighting a wild fire.

Getting the picture? The MIL SPEC construction and navigation features clearly shows that Garmin is not only looking to civilian users for running, hiking, hunting, adventuring and skiing but has also oriented this watch to the military market and other outdoor heavy civilian duty and professional uses where its capabilities and rugged build are needed but Fenix pricing may be daunting.  

You can even walk a perimeter to calculate the area enclosed and set alerts for sunrise, sunset, or imminent storms based on barometer readings, and it includes not one but two built in compass options making it a great backcountry option.  

Feature Comparisons
The official Garmin Comparison of the Forerunner 645, Vivoactive 3, Instinct, and Fenix 5 Plus is  here but we will try to summarize the key differences between Instinct and the others above below:

Instinct does not include
Connect IQ apps, watch faces and widgets and to date has more limited but customizable watch faces
Garmin Pay
Music option version
Golf features as Fenix and vivoactive have but 645 does not
Race Predictor, Training Status and Load.Training Effect, Performance Condition test, Tri features etc.. which Forerunner and Fenix have.
VO2 max estimate which vivo, Forerunner, and Fenix all have.
Color Topo and other maps of the Fenix 5 Plus series and Fenix 5x and road turn by turn directions,

Instinct Includes
Interval training workout set up and run, training plans, advanced workouts, auto pause, etc..of Forerunner and Fenix. Vivoactive 3 does not have interval training.
All Outdoor Rec features of the Fenix including UltraTrac longer battery life with more infrequent GPS sampling, breadcrumb courses and loaded and followed.
Swim features of the Fenix including open water, unlike forerunner 645 or Vivoactive which does not have open water
Cycling speed and cadence sensor support
Barometric Altimeter with Baro Trend indicator and storm alerts of Fenix
Cadence as a data field which Vivoactive doesn’t have
Complete vertical features of the Fenix except Climb Pro Ascent Planner

The screen is a 0.9” 23mm x 23mm rectangular shape within the round case so smaller than the 1.2” diameter screens in the vivoactive, most Forerunners and Fenix. It is very similar in size and brightness to the excellent display in the Polar M430 (RTR review), a pure running training watch at a lower price yet. It is also half the resolution at 128 x 128 pixels of any of the other Garmin mentioned above. The screen is monochrome with no touch capabilities, all buttons. Not to worry as it is a highly readable screen.
In fact while the screen is also trans-reflective LCD as the other Garmin are it was actually more readable in dim light than our Forerunner 935 and vivoactive 3 as illustrated in the photo above.
We noticed that in the power off position the screen unlike the vivoactive, Fenix and Forerunner is not dark, potentially indicating a more powerful trans reflective capability meaning it could reflect more ambient light back, as shown in the comparison photo above.

Case, Strap and Fit
The watch case is entirely made of fiber reinforced polymer with the bezel broad standing above the watch more prominently than the Forerunners or vivoactive to help better catch bumps.
The watch case diameter at 45 x 45 x 15.3 is slightly larger than the Forerunner 645 and vivoactive 3 and slightly heavier, but smaller overall than the Fenix 5 Plus and of course lighter by 34 grams.
The strap is fairly stiff and more rugged than the Forerunners’ with case and watch designed together with more curvature than normal for Garmin. The fit is excellent on my thin wrist. The strap is not a standard 20mm strap.
The watch is extremely comfortable on the wrist and is just not noticed on the run and while sleeping, often an issue for me with heavier watches with prominent buttons and large diameters such as the Fenix 5X and to a lesser extent Fenix 5 Plus and even Forerunner 935.

The 5 operating buttons follow Garmin’s usual conventions:
Top left: single press light, long press access shortcuts including music control, power off, etc..
Middle left: single press scroll up, long press access watch face selection, history, and settings including activity settings. Activity settings can also be accessed here when in activity or prior to starting. As with all Garmin activity data field set up is via the watch.
Bottom left: single press scroll down, long press and speaking to outdoor focus access to compass, elevation profile over the last 4 hours, compass in 2 forms including one also showing current elevation and barometric trend
Top right: single press, choose activity, navigate a course, walk a perimeter to find area, project a waypoint  and then with a second press launch activity screen and then press again to start and stop activity, Top right is also used to select actions l once you have scroll to choices
Bottom right: single press in activity marks a lap, long press accesses on/off alert choices for sunset, sundown, and storm as well as alarm set ups.

The buttons themselves are flatter/lower profile than the Fenix or Forerunner and broader. They don’t quite have the tactile easy to find and activate feel of the others. The vivoactive only has one button with most features accessed via the touch screen, trickier in wet and cold conditions,

See Jeff Beck Operating Demonstration and Review at RoadTrailRun's YouTube Channel

Battery Life
Up to 14 days smartwatch mode (we assume this includes no GPS/HR training sessions but all walk activity and sleep), GPS mode up to 16 hours, UltraTrac up to 40 hours.

Our Experience:
Unlike other Garmin the Instinct does not appear to have a numerical battery gauge. or as of yet. We ran a test from 100% charge to 0% charge. The battery lasted 1.5 hours shy of 6 days. During that time with the watch set to factory defaults we monitored heart rate 24/7 as well as all sleep and activity, received phone notifications, and ran for a total of just over 8 hours with GPS and optical heart rate at best quality in mostly colder conditions. By and large, these are excellent results. We believe if a numerical gauge was available we would not training battery life as per the spec.

Optical Heart Rate
BLUE Garmin Instinct PURPLE Polar Vantage V (Analysis by DCR Analyzer) 
The Instinct has Garmin’s excellent Elevate wrist optical heart rate monitoring. We ran it side by side with the new Polar Vantage V in a recent half marathon and ended up with nearly identical average heart rate for the race of 161.3 for the Instinct and 160.07 for the Polar Vantage V.
We see one high spike mid way through the race for the Instinct while the Polar Vantage V had a high spike early and several low spikes. In the end they both performed well on a cold day.

Significantly, the Instinct was on our thinner lower blood flow non dominant wrist and it was a cold day in the mid 30’s with lots of wind. In other testing, with a multitude of watch brands and watch sizes, Garmin in general, and the Instinct included tends to outperform the others in cold, including the Vantage race day when it was on my optical heart rate problematic skinny non dominant wrist whereas the Polar was on my stronger dominant wrist. Instinct had shorter early high spikes and actually none in the race in the early going and one mid race. High spikes most often caused by the sensing confusing running cadence with pulse when blood flow to the extremities is lower in cold conditions.

As always with wrist heart rate, we recommend training with the watch on the dominant wrist, 24/7 non training readings are fine on the non dominant. Optical heart rate sensing quality can be affected by low blood flow, colder drier weather, non dominant wrist, wind, and water sneaking in all factors. Further clenching of hands such as on bike handlebars or weights, vibrations while riding bikes, and extreme terrain taken fast can all cause issues with optical sensing. If need be you can pair a Garmin chest strap to the Instinct but we rarely do. While many say chest straps are more reliable, at least in my experience in cold dry conditions they are not much better and certainly less comfortable.

Run Performance & GPS Tracking

As illustrated in the photo above one can configure for no shortage of data with up to five fields, including the circle window . Of course each screen can be configured for fewer fields per screen. Except for the bottom field in bright or very dim light I found the transreflective screen and thick fonts very legible. The buttons are a bit low and not as tactile as my Fenix or Forerunners but perfectly fine although I do have some concerns with thicker gloves easily finding and pressing them.

During the half marathon the Instinct measured 13.27 miles (23.35 km) and Vantage V 13.32 miles (21.44 km) and non GPS uncalibrated Run Scribe pods, also in the mix and worn concurrently, measured 13.26 miles (21.34 km). The prior year, same course my Garmin Forerunner 935 measured 13.32 miles (21.44 km).  You will say wait this was a half marathon and all those distances are high. This particular generally loop course with mostly winding roads requires running on the right side of the road almost the entire way so tangents as wheel measured can’t be taken. The course is also generally counter clockwise so one would as such expect long measurements as we ran the right side of the road or exterior of the "circle".
I did note as in the example shown above that the Garmin tended to drift off the road occasionally more than the Vantage and generally in a southerly direction on curves. Not a big deal in the general scheme of things, as unless on a straight section unobstructed by hills or bulidings as illustrated bottom left above where most watches tend to do well, no GPS is always perfect in its track.

Overall on many daily runs I found the GPS and overall performance what one expects from Garmin, solid. Only on one run, just after an update did the Instinct behave unusually continually auto pausing while on the go. I rebooted the watch and all was well after that.

Garmin Connect App
While the Instinct does not have access to the multitude of customization options, watch faces, data fields of the others through the Connect IQ store, the rest of the excellent if busy Garmin app and web site features are available.
Courses can be set up on the app or web site and transferred to the watch as with other Garmin.Unlike the full topo maps and turn by turn direction of the Fenix 5 Plus you will follow “breadcrumbs” on the Instinct. We recommend setting up courses on the web site as the app only provides distance and compass direction options and then calculates based on popularity, while the web site allows you to adopt courses based on heat mapped courses and segments run by others including trails. You thus create your own courses on the maps then load to the watch. Workouts and Interval Training are easily set up on either the watch, app or at the web site.  

Overall Impressions and Conclusions
The Instinct mpressed me far more than I thought it would. It is incredibly comfortable to wear, the screen is easy to see, and the home screen is set up to show lots information at a glance. I have spent the last two years wearing an Apple Watch Series 2, and for day to day wear there are pros and cons between the watches. The best thing the Apple Watch has going for it is Siri integration (barking an order at my wrist to have my virtual assistant create a calendar reminder made me feel like futuristic Dick Tracy every single time), but the always on screen and massive battery life boost more than makes up for missing out on Siri.

The durability is also nice, as I inevitably bang my watch on something most days and with the Instinct that isn't a concern. While the Instinct is somewhat close to the Apple Watch for day to day use, its use during activities make it a slam dunk. Touch screens were not meant for running watches, let alone ones with a screen that turns itself on and off based on your hand position. While it may look like the 2018 version of a Casio G-Shock, this is a Garmin through and through, and they are one of the best when it comes to GPS performance.

Tracking a previously made course isn't perfect, but with some trial and error works reasonably well. The fit and finish is excellent, and the band is the most comfortable watch band I have ever worn. While the watch is missing a number of the cooler features its upscale siblings have, the massive difference in price is hard to reconcile for me. The nice thing is Garmin now has so many options, it is up to each athlete to assign value to the different options and features, and can rest assured that regardless of their choice they are getting a great device.

The Instinct headline for me is “Rugged and a Great Value”  joining all the features and solid execution one expects from Garmin.  A modern and attractive sports smartwatch, not too big and not to heavy, Instinct is a new take on the classic digital watch. Its new second window screen is a simple and clever innovation providing a new data view and well-thought out interaction tips. Leaning for sure to the outdoors side of things by style, features, and construction, the Instinct slots nicely into the Garmin line up not as as a very solid a run watch although minus some of the physiology and recovery features of the Forerunner and Fenix. At $300 it provides a reasonably priced option to upgrade from older watches such as the Forerunner 235. Given its ruggedized construction, highly readable screen, navigation, and vertical features it for sure and as intended also is a great companion on the trail, in the woods, and on the job.

Reviewer Bios 
Jeff Beck is the token slow fat guy runner. Wasting his youth on such endeavors as playing golf and writing, he only started running in his thirties, and has a marathon PR of 4:15 to prove it. A full-time property manager, this part-time author and cold brew coffee maker lives in Phoenix, AZ with his wife and daughter. He enjoys running desert trails as well as the road, and is trying to get his 5K time to sub-twenty. 
Sam Winebaum is the Editor and Founder of RoadTrailRun. He has been running and shoe geeking for 45 years. As he turned 60 in 2017 he was thrilled to clock a 1:35.24 half and as he turned 61 a 3:40 marathon to qualify for Boston. Sam runs his roads and trails in coastal New Hampshire and Park City, Utah.
One of the Instinct reviewed in this article was provided at no cost, the other was a personal purchase. The opinions herein are entirely the authors'.
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mnthomp said...

Thanks for the excellent review, guys. I've been on the fence about getting a GPS running watch for a few months now, and I think you've convinced me to spring for this one. It's not as pretty as the Forerunner 645 that I was considering, but it seems to be more durable and significantly less expensive. And hopefully the magnetic compass will help me not get lost as often!

Anonymous said...

Great review guys, I was trying to figure out which one of the watches would be right for me. Kind of overwhelming. But between the Vívoactive 3 Music, 735xt and the Instinct. Looks like the Instinct is more what I’m looking for. Thanks again.

Anonymous said...

Excellent review, but the grammar is painful to read. Please get a good editor.

Agnes said...

Hey there,
I’m a bit unsure which Garmin device is better for me, Instinct or vivoactive 3….Generally, i tun in the city till max. half marathon, doing intervals/speed workouts, strength training, trail running till max half marathon with max 800 elevation so nothing very extreme and i don’t plan in the close future to go further because i simply don’t have time for training more and longer……And I have to mention that as a girl I’m afraid a bit from the instinct cuz maybe it is a bit bulky…but maybe it is just my impression from the photos…also in the vivoactive intervals are not include as a training? can i create intervals in the app and download it on the watch ? That should solve the problem i guess if intervals are not pre-loaded on the watch…
thanks a lot for helping 🙂

Karsu said...

Would you recommend this as a watch for a ultra runner on a budget?

Sam Winebaum said...

Hi Karsu,
Yes Instinct is a good and rugged value. You might also consider the brand new Garmin Forerunner 245 with a 24 hour best mode battery life vs 16 for Instinct. Instinct does have an a 40 hour UltraTrak battery mode and baro altimeter which 245 doesn't although elevation (via GPS) is a 245 data field. Both do breadcrumb navigation. Also look at Coros Apex with 30 hour plus battery.
Sam, Editor

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