Four years later, why the Garmin Instinct Solar is still my favorite sports watch
Opinion: the first-gen Garmin Instinct was released back in 2018, but if you want a no-frills watch, it's still one of the best
I've been lucky enough to try some of the best GPS watches around during my career, from entry-level devices like the Coros Pace, right through to super premium models like this year's Garmin Epix, which has luxury looks and a price tag to match. However, despite all that, my all-time favorite watch is one of the least flashy, and it's now celebrating its fourth birthday.
The first-generation Garmin Instinct was released back in 2018, and I was fortunate enough to test it for Advnture's sister site TechRadar. At the time, its solar edition was groundbreaking – a sports watch that, in the right conditions, could be charged just once and then keep running indefinitely.
That infinite battery life had a few caveats: you had to ensure you caught a good amount of sun each day, enable the watch's maximum battery saving mode, and not use any of its best features like GPS activity monitoring. Nevertheless, real-world performance was still extremely impressive, and I happily used my review watch for weeks on end without worrying about finding the charging cable.
You don't have to be on the trails all day, either; the watch will happily soak up some rays on days when you're stuck inside as well.
The tough build is another selling point in my book. It's no glamorous, and certainly not a watch you'll be wearing for smart occasions, but the original Instinct is built like a tank. Its fiber-reinforced polymer case will shrug off the kind of knocks that would leave fancier stainless steel bezels scuffed and scratched.
In fact, it's tougher than me. When I managed to fall while hiking in the mountains and break my ankle, the Instinct was utterly unscathed (and later informed me that I'd had 'very few restful moments' during the day).
Once the review was done, I packaged the watch up, returned it to the company, and bought one of my own. It was just that good.
Back to basics
Earlier this year I was able to test the new and improved Garmin Instinct 2, and it does indeed offer several big upgrades on the original. One of the Instinct 2's best features is a choice of two case sizes, with a new 42mm option that's better suited to smaller wrists. The watch's case is a little slimmer as well, and not quite so prone to catching on cuffs as the original.
Garmin has also eked out a little extra battery life, so you don't have to be quite so frugal with the power settings to get indefinite use out of a single charge. The company reckons someone like a beach lifeguard could reasonably expect to get that kind of performance in real life.
However, once I'd finished the review, I happily returned to the chunky charm of the first-generation Instinct. It still looks like new, and delivers everything you could want from a practical outdoor watch. Its GPS is supremely accurate (as you'd expect from a company that made its name in satellite navigation systems), and although its monochrome display isn't flashy, it has great contrast that makes it easy to read in any type of lighting. I was surprised to find it was clearer to read than the higher end Garmin Fenix 7.
Finally, there's the matter of price. The original Instinct has had some serious price cuts since its launch, and you can now find it easily for well under $200 / £200. That's extremely good value for such a well-specced watch, and its sheer toughness means you won't need to open your wallet for a replacement any time soon.
It's not flashy, but the Instinct 2 still shines, and I'll be taking it on backcountry adventures for many years to come.
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Cat is the editor of Advnture, She’s been a journalist for 13 years, and was fitness and wellbeing editor on TechRadar before joining the Advnture team in 2022. She’s a UK Athletics qualified run leader, and in her spare time enjoys nothing more than lacing up her shoes and hitting the roads and trails (the muddier, the better).