November 26, 2021

Review of the Garmin Instinct

Back in December of 2016, I received a Fitbit Charge 2 as a gift. The Garmin Instinct recently caught my attention. I have been able to borrow one, and I find it impossible not to compare the two watches.

At this time, it is possible to buy an Instinct for $169. Full retail was $399 back in 2018 when it was first released, and the price dropped to $299 in short order. At the current price of $169 it is quite a bargain. The Charge 2 sold for $150 back in 2016 when it was originally purchased for me. At this time the Fitbit "versa 3" sells for $179, has GPS and might be a better item to compare to the Instinct.

Let me say this right up front. I am almost tempted to say that I hate my fitbit. It has always had this "barely good enough" feel about it. If you have a below average IQ and are confused by anything with more than one button and more than one mode, it might be for you. It is a bare bones step counter with added heart rate monitor.

By contrast, the Instinct has so far struck me as a very polished product. It has lots of capabilities and they seem to be well thought out. It may be unfair to be comparing the Charge 2 (released in 2016) with the Instinct (released in 2018 for twice the price), but I am going to do it anyway, given that I have experience with both units. Based on my experience with the Charge 2, I would never buy anything from fitbit again.

The fitbit is slim, whereas the garmin is a bit chunky, but honestly the Garmin is almost unnoticeable on my wrist. The fitbit band was always an obnoxious nuisance to get on and off, whereas the garmin is pleasant. The fitbit screen is always doing something and displaying something you don't want to see, whereas the garmin screen is well designed, always on and showing you what you want to see.

As I have said already, being able to buy the Instinct for $169 is simply amazing. So, let us forget about the fitbit. Those memories are unpleasant and annoying. Let us just look at the Instinct.

Garmin Instinct features

There are other variants of the Instinct. There is a tactical, solar, and surf model and perhaps more. I am going to ignore all of those and talk about the base model. Here are some features: It has a 1 year warranty, which is pretty mediocre in my opinion.

Just having a temperature sensor and the ability to see historical high and low temperatures are enough to sell me on the watch. There are some unhappy issues. The "bubble" on the watch face shows temperature from some weather station obtained somehow over the internet. Also the history seems to default to 4 hours. There is talk about a "Tempe" sensor which you can buy for $25 to measure temperatures without influence of body heat.

I am ignoring almost entirely what you can do with it when it is paired with some kind of cellphone app. Apparently "Garmin Connect" is what you want, and as far as I know that app will not run on my older Android phone, so if you have an old phone (like me), you are screwed.

Unlike the fitbit, which targets an urban officeworker, the instinct is clearly designed with outdoor activities in mind.

Battery life is always a critical issue.

Compare the 14 day battery life with 5 days for the fitbit (sorry, I said I was going to stop talking about the fitbit).

Some reviews

One guy says the Instinct rivals the Fenix 5x for 1/3 the money.

The so called fatal flaw is having the barometer port against your skin where sweat and crud may clog the port. Some people sweat like crazy (and typically need to lose weight), but I don't. I'll let you know if this becomes an issue for me.

One reviewer says that he can use the watch for a week with occasional GPS use (about 1 hour per day).

Some negatives. It does not support Connect IQ. Nobody knows why (i.e. Garmin isn't saying). This means you cannot use various nice 3rd party apps. I don't care (and/or don't know what I am missing).

You will find complaints about the heart rate monitor and accuracy during serious workouts. I believe this is just the name of the game with these optical HR monitor devices and if you are some kind of hard core athlete for which that is important, you will have to use other technology. In other words, I think this complaints are unreasonable and should be ignored.

Trouble with the Altimeter

This boils down to the strategy implemented by Garmin in their software. Here is how I understand it:

The unit only turns on GPS and gets an accurate elevation when you start some kind of activity tracking. If you are like me, you may do this once a week or even less often sometimes. Between these activity tracking "calibrations" the unit depends on a barometric sensor, so the elevation drifts up and down with the weather.

My house is a 2400 feet elevation. So when I see elevation dropping (say to 2300 feet), I know we have high pressure. When the elevation climbs (say to 2550 feet) I know we have low pressure and typically bad weather. This is interesting and instructive, but probably confusing until you understand it.

The above article purports to clarify things, but really just adds more confusion if you ask me. I have my watch locked into what they call altimeter mode, so all pressure changes impact the elevation reading. This is fine now that I understand it.

I was going to argue that the watch should periodically perform a GPS calibration. This might not be a bad idea, but what if it attemped to do it when you were in a place where there was no GPS signal? The software could just recognize this and abandon the scheduled calibration and try again later. Perhaps Garmin considered this and decided that it introduced more problems than it solved. Or maybe they were just lazy, who knows.

So, if I am just itching to recalibrate the thing, I walk out in the front yard, start an activity, wait for it to acquire GPS and start the activity, then stop and discard the activity. Easy. Sort of. Usually more trouble than it is worth.

Have any comments? Questions? Drop me a line!

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