Something to wear on the wrist: Garmin Instinct first impression

I have been looking for a more versatile thing to wear on my wrist that doesn’t cost a month’s wages. I need it to track long cross country ski efforts, the occasional run, hiking, and to be a backup on canoe trips.

I am aware that all of these activities are not cycling. That part of my life is covered.

I have been using a Garmin Vivosport. The Vivosport cannot GPS-track a day in the Adirondacks or a long ski in Gatineau Park (the device’s promised six hour GPS tracking battery life has never materialized). And it only tracks heart rate when touching skin. Which makes it useless for winter.

I was looking at Fenix 5 plus series and the new Garmin Instinct. The Fenix series looked like it could actually work to find a new route and would be easier to use to get un-lost. Their battery life has improved over previous editions. But holy crow are they expensive.

I was also looking at the Suunto Baro 9 and Suunto Traverse because of their unparalelled battery life — double or triple the Fenix series. But their software universe just seems like such a trainwreck. Two different apps, both of which you need to use the device’s full range of functionality, both of which rate as somewhere between “Homely” and “Impossible” in the User Experience department. Plus, I’m pretty much already all-in in the Garmin universe — I already have their HRM, for example, and will get to see all my data in one place (well, three places if you count Strava and TrainingPeaks).

The differences between the Fenix and the Instinct that matter to me seem to be:

  • Battery Life: 16 vs 32 hours of quality time with the GPS
  • Mapping: breadcrumbs on the Instinct, actual maps on the Fenix 5 Plus series and the 5X
  • Temperature recording: the Instinct needs an external sensor

The Instinct is less than half the price of the Fenix that I was looking at

The thing is, the Instinct is less than half the price of the cheapest Fenix. And it can accept a re-charge mid activity from a USB battery charger. I would look pretty silly skiing with the cable, the watch and the charger strapped to my arm. But you gotta do what you gotta do. And Numbers or it Didn’t Happen™.

And the Fenix does a lot more than I need it to do. Structured workouts, VO2 Max, recovery time, multi-sport, controlling bike lights, running dynamics, indoor workouts, swimming — all important things for triathletes and runners. And I didn’t feel like paying for that.

So I reckoned that even if the GPS tracking time was really only 12 hours, I could deal with that. I bought the Instinct. Despite the name. As in, it’s great to trust your Instinct, but me I’d rather have a GPS.

DC Rainmaker warned me this watch has a retro look to it. (Think 1980s Casio digital watch). It does. That doesn’t bother me. What bothers me is that it has a retro interface. Buttons. All buttons.

This worked for 1980s digital watches because there wasn’t much you could do with them. Start. Stop. Lap. Set the alarm. Turn on the light.

But this is a contemporary, feature-rich sport watch. Imagine how hard it would be to cram all the controls for the many many things this watch can do into five buttons. And yet that’s what Garmin has attempted to do with this.

And it’s possible they’ve done as well as is practical or possible here.

I write this to warn you, though, that if you’re used to a touch screen, you will hate this watch. As I do.

I am earnestly trying to get over my dislike for it. And with every function I figure out I warm to it a little.

I hope that I am friends with it by the time it breaks, is hopelessly obsolete or I’m hopelessly Jonesing for the next big thing.

It’s not clear to me I’ll get there.

Five years later… I am still wearing it

I have indeed adapted to the button-based interface of the Garmin Instinct. It’s still on my wrist as I type and I use it constantly. Not just because it’s my watch. In ski season it records all my workouts. I wear it at night to track sleep and heart rate. It’s the most successful wrist-based activity monitor I’ve ever had — and I’ve been through a number of them.

I have to say, though. I’ve never tried to use it to follow a course. It can, but I think the screen would be too small and my use cases (on skis, in winter, wearing mitts) don’t make manipulating it a practical option. For long skis where I don’t know where I’m going or where keeping to the course is important for timing, I still print a cue sheet, cover it in packing tape, and attach it to my pass card. Very dorky, I know. But the prospect of stopping, pulling off mitts in the cold, poking at the buttons and squinting at the possibly snow-covered screen is not appealing.

Some day I’ll try it.