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Garmin Instinct vs. Instinct 2: Should you upgrade?

Pulse ox rating of 96% and heart rate on Garmin Instinct 2 Solar
(Image credit: Michael Hicks / Android Central)

The Garmin Instinct series has all the trademarks of a reliable adventure watch, from a rugged design to unstoppable battery life and reliable tracking. If you compare the Garmin Instinct vs. Garmin Instinct 2, however, it's no contest: the newer model makes some significant improvements in specs and software that make it the better purchase. So the question then becomes whether these new features justify an upgrade, or if you should stick to your current model. We're here to help you decide.

Garmin Instinct vs. Instinct 2: Battery life

Solar intensity readings on the Garmin Instinct 2 Solar

Solar intensity readings on the Garmin Instinct 2 Solar. (Image credit: Michael Hicks / Android Central)

Both the Garmin Instinct and Garmin Instinct 2 come in both Standard and Solar varieties; the latter adds a Solar panel that massively increases battery life estimates, assuming you spend about three hours a day outdoors in 50,000-lux conditions. Garmin says the Instinct Solar has "Unlimited" battery life" in Battery Saver mode if you spend your time outside, while the Instinct 2 Solar has "Unlimited" battery life in the standard smartwatch mode as well as Battery Saver.

Below, we've collected all of Garmin's battery estimates for the Garmin Instinct (Solar), Garmin Instinct 2 (Solar), and Garmin Instinct 2S (Solar).

Battery categoryGarmin InstinctGarmin Instinct SolarGarmin Instinct 2 (Solar)Garmin Instinct 2S (Solar)
Smartwatch mode14 days24 days / 54 days w/ solar28 days / Unlimited w/ solar21 days / 51 days w/ solar
Battery saver watch mode🚫56 days / Unlimited w/ solar65 days / Unlimited w/ solar50 days / Unlimited w/ solar
GPS16 hours30 hours / 38 hours w/ solar30 hours / 48 hours w/ solar22 hours / 28 hours w/ solar
Max Battery GPS Mode40 hours70 hours / 145 hours w/ solar70 hours / 370 hours w/ solar54 hours / 114 hours w/ solar
Expedition GPS Activity🚫28 days / 68 days w/ solar32 days / Unlimited w/ solar25 days / 105 days w/ solar

If you own the non-Solar Garmin Instinct, the mediocre battery life alone is enough to justify an upgrade. 16 GPS hours or two weeks in standby is decent enough compared to some fitness smartwatches, but falls well short of what you can get with most Garmin watches these days.

Garmin Instinct Solar owners, on the other hand, aren't nearly as bad off. 30 hours matches the Instinct 2 and beats the smaller 2S handily. Its Solar Panel clearly isn't as efficient as the newer panel, only adding 8 GPS hours instead of 18 hours. But it does add an extra month of standard use, more than enough for most people.

That being said, the Instinct 2 Solar is the clear battery winner in every category. In our Garmin Instinct 2 Solar review, we found it would last for weeks even with frequent GPS tracking and not much time outside. But when it does run low, you can get days of charge back simply by keeping it in direct sunlight. If you're an outdoorsy type, the Solar panel will give you triple the GPS span of a typical fitness watch, and an absurd 370 hours in Max Battery mode — almost double the Instinct Solar.

The Garmin Instinct 2S had to make battery compromises to offer its more petite 40mm case. Because of its smaller display, it also catches less sunlight, making the panel less effective for offering more GPS hours. It does more than double standard smartwatch life but this is perhaps the one model for which you could save the $100 upcharge and skip the solar panel without a feeling of missing out.

Garmin Instinct vs. Instinct 2: Specs

The Garmin Instinct 2 Solar

(Image credit: Michael Hicks / Android Central)

Both the Garmin Instinct and Instinct 2 are tanks, built to handle the elements or any major falls. The thick raised bezel in particular will ensure the screen won't take many direct hits — especially useful for the Instinct, since the newer model added Gorilla Glass.

Thanks to the giant bezel, each has a compact 0.9-inch display that's very small compared to most smartwatches, along with a circular window that highlights certain information like your heart rate. Neither monochromatic memory-in-pixel (MIP) display is particularly pixel-dense, but the original Instinct is particularly lacking in this area. Thankfully, the Instinct 2 is slightly more pixel-dense.

CategoryGarmin InstinctGarmin Instinct 2
Display0.9-inch MIP, 128x1280.9-inch MIP, 176x176; 0.79-inch, 156x156 (2S)
Water rating10ATM10ATM
ProtectionMIL-STD-810GMIL-STD-810G, Gorilla Glass 3
Memory16MB32MB
HRMGarmin ElevateGarmin Elevate Gen 4
Pulse OxSolar version only✔️
SensorsGPS, GLONASS, GALILEO, barometric altimeter, compass, accelerometer, thermometerGPS, GLONASS, GALILEO, barometric altimeter, compass, accelerometer, thermometer
Connect IQ🚫✔️
Incident detection🚫✔️
MaterialsFiber-reinforced polymer case and bezel; silicone strapFiber-reinforced polymer case and bezel; silicone strap
Dimensions45 x 45 x 15.3mm45 x 45 x 14.5mm; 40 x 40 x 13.3mm (2S)
Watch Band22mm22mm; 20mm (2S)
Weight52g / 1.8oz52g / 1.8oz; 42g / 1.5oz (2S)
ModelsStandard, Camo, Tactical, Surf, EsportsStandard, Camo, Tactical, Surf, Dēzl

Generally speaking, the Instinct Solar and Instinct 2 Solar aren't that different in terms of specs, with the same dimensions, weight, polymer materials, band size, and sensors. The original Instinct lacked a Pulse Ox sensor for blood oxygen readings, which can be especially useful for people training or hiking at high altitudes.

The Garmin Instinct 2 does upgrade to the latest Garmin Elevate Gen 4 sensor, which Garmin claims has the most accurate heart rate readings yet. We're not sure which Elevate generation the Instinct or Instinct Solar uses, but it may not be quite as accurate for health and stress tracking.

You might be able to live with these spec and battery downgrades if you own the Instinct Solar. But it's in the Instinct 2's new features where you'll find the most compelling reasons to upgrade.

New Garmin Instinct 2 features

Estimated training effect for suggested workout on Garmin Instinct 2 Solar

(Image credit: Michael Hicks / Android Central)

The original Garmin Instinct offers the baseline you'd expect on any Garmin watch. You get Garmin Body Battery, stress tracking, ABC sensors for directions and conditions, simple phone notifications, and Tracback routing. You get core sports modes that'll give you a general sense of how hard you worked out.

With the Garmin Instinct 2, it's still not as specialized as other Garmin watches but goes far beyond its predecessor. For starters, only it can use Connect IQ to add custom watch faces and widgets, even though its screen doesn't leave much room for creativity. Perhaps more useful is Incident detection, which sends a warning and your last known location to your emergency contact if you appear to stop moving suddenly during a run, bike ride, or hike.

The Garmin Instinct has a few gym profiles and workouts, while the newer model adds HIIT timers like AMRAP, EMOM, and Tabata. That way you can create customized workouts that time you more effectively. For cyclists, you'll have access to several more modes like triathalon and road biking, along with metrics like MTB Grit & Flow and Functional Threshold Power. It even adds new golf features if that's how you get your steps in.

Runners will benefit from a ton of new Garmin tools. Your VO2 Max and fitness age will give you a better knowledge of your own capabilities, coupled with Garmin's daily workout suggestions that take your age, body battery score, and past workouts to devise a daily regimen. Then, once you complete your run, you'll be shown the aerobic and anaerobic training effect and a suggested recovery time before you run again.

Add in new tools like Women's health tracking and Garmin Pay, and you can see how the Instinct 2 crushes the original model in terms of actual usefulness. The Instinct 1 tracks your health data, but the Instinct 2 tells you what to do with that data.

Should you upgrade to the Garmin Instinct 2?

The Garmin Instinct 2 Solar backlit by a sunset

(Image credit: Michael Hicks / Android Central)

As of publication, you can get the original Instinct or Instinct Solar at a significant discount, but the base model just isn't worth buying in 2022, and the Solar model doesn't have much going for it aside from the excellent battery life. If you're buying a new rugged watch to last you through years of epic outdoor adventures, you should indulge yourself with the latest Garmin software and a slightly better display.

Say you own the Garmin Instinct Solar already? You can still make a strong case for an upgrade, though the Instinct 2 Solar isn't exactly affordable. You'll get a respectable battery upgrade paired with new tools that'll make wearing it for weeks at a time more productive. But if you can't afford an upgrade at the moment, the Instinct Solar isn't obsolete yet, even if the standard Instinct is.

As for which Garmin Instinct 2 you should buy, the Instinct 2S costs the same despite offering much less battery. If you're looking for a non-Solar option to save some money, the regular 2S doesn't fall too far short and won't be quite as heavy on your wrist. But for a true solar marathoner of a watch, you can't go wrong with the larger Instinct 2 Solar and its "unlimited" battery. It's undoubtedly one of the best Garmin watches available.

Michael spent years freelancing on every tech topic under the sun before settling down on the real exciting stuff: virtual reality, fitness wearables, gaming, and how tech intersects with our world. He's a semi-reformed Apple-to-Android user who loves running, D&D, and Star Wars. Find him on Twitter at @Michael_L_Hicks.