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10 best Garmin watches: Smart wristwear for every activity

No longer just for fitness tracking, you’ll always be at the top of your game with one of these up you sleeve

Lydia Willgress
Wednesday 18 August 2021 15:08
<p>The leading brand has a whole host of wearables for tracking everything  from stress levels to mensuration</p>

The leading brand has a whole host of wearables for tracking everything from stress levels to mensuration

Go to any event, race or gym class and most people will be wearing a smartwatch. With millions eager to keep track of activities and boost their training, their use has exploded in recent years. In fact, the Nuffield Health Healthier Nation Index found that just over a fifth of Britons used a smart or GPS watch more than once a week in the year to April.

With the market booming, smartwatches are no longer just fitness trackers. They’re everything in one: from helping you to get healthier and pay for your favourite things, to helping manage stress and navigate over mountains.

One of the top brands on the market is Garmin. Established over 30 years ago, Garmin is responsible for dozens of innovative products – from solar-powered adventure watches (£999.99, Garmin.com) to high quality watches for runners (£179.99, Garmin.com).

Each Garmin is different, so when you are looking to buy one you need to think carefully about what you want to use it for and what you need it to do. To help you decide, we’ve tested 10 Garmins at different price points. We rated them based on their design, functionality, and, of course, their price. So whether you’re a runner, a paddle-boarder or a multi-sport lover, there’s something for you below.

How we tested

We wore each watch for up to five days, using them to track our data 24/7 across a range of activities – from swimming and cycling, to running, yoga and gym classes. We kept an eye on battery life and put all of the additional features – from listening to music to contactless payments and health tracking – through their paces. When it came to the children’s watch, we also got our trusted mini tester to give us a hand so we could report back on just how cool it really is.

The best Garmin watches for 2021 are:

  • Best overall – Garmin venu 2: £349.99, Garmin.com
  • Best for women – Garmin venu 2S: £349.99, Garmin.com
  • Best for runners – Garmin forerunner 245 music: £299.99, Garmin.com
  • Best for cyclists – Garmin edge 1030 plus: £599.99, Garmin.com
  • Best for triathletes – Garmin forerunner 745: £399.99, Garmin.com
  • Best for adventurers – Garmin instinct solar: £319.99, Garmin.com
  • Best for kids – Garmin vivofit jr. 3: £79.99, Garmin.com
  • Best value – Garmin forerunner 55: £179.99, Garmin.com
  • Best for innovation – Garmin fenix 6 – pro solar edition: £729.99, Garmin.com
  • Best for a tight budget – Garmin vivofit 4: £69.99, Garmin.com

Garmin venu 2

Best: Overall

Rating: 9/10

Announced in April, the venu 2 is aimed at helping users live a healthier life. Its focus is on all-day health and wellbeing, with key features including energy monitoring, which shows just how charged your body is, and sleep scores, so you can better understand the quality of your snooze. It tracks your respiration, hydration and stress levels, and also enables you to take a two-minute health snapshot.

We found it balanced this monitoring with advanced activity tracking well, with a responsive touchscreen that makes it super easy to use. In total, it tracks more than 25 activities – from running to rowing, pilates to paddleboarding. The data displayed is tailored to the activity, so you can see things like breath rate, stroke rate, elevation or heart rate, depending on your sport of choice.

The best bit, though, is the AMOLED display, which is little short of beautiful. It has an eye-catchingly high resolution, which makes it a joy to train with. If you do buy the venu 2 we’d recommend getting to grips with the animated workouts or yoga sessions as soon as possible, as it really brings it to life.

In terms of other key specs, you get 11 days of battery life in smartwatch mode (or eight hours if you have the GPS and music on), and it is water resistant up to 50 metres. It is compatible with both Androids and iPhones, connecting via Bluetooth, which means you can get notifications via your watch so you’ll never miss another “like”. It does have Garmin Pay, although we found this was limited. Overall, though, this is a great buy and a clear winner.

Garmin venu 2S

Best: For women

Rating: 8/10

The little sister of our best buy, the venu 2S matches it in pretty much every aspect, apart from size. We loved the stainless steel bezel and attractive silicone strap that blends everyday sports watch with sleek and modern design. The watchcase is half a centimetre smaller than the venu 2 (£349.99, Garmin.com) at 40mm, while it also has a slightly narrower band, meaning it sits better on smaller wrists (the brand recommends it for people with a wrist circumference of 110 -175mm).

You get all of the health monitoring, activity tracking and coaching that you get with the venu 2, which helps to build a picture of your fitness and wellbeing across days, weeks, months or years. It’s also great on women’s health, with the ability to track both menstruation and pregnancy. While it is still touchscreen, it does have a slightly lower display resolution (although we found this didn’t make a huge difference). It’s around 10g lighter, while its battery lasts for 10 days in smartwatch mode. At just under £350, we think this is a great choice for any active women who enjoy tracking their health.

Garmin forerunner 245 music

Best: For runners

Rating: 8/10

We’re currently training for the Royal Parks Half Marathon in London, so we need a watch that will put us through our paces – from Tuesday track sessions to Sunday long runs. The forerunner 245 music does just that.

Put simply, this lightweight watch includes pretty much everything you need as a runner. Accurate GPS tracking means you know your distance and speed, while your heart rate is measured from your wrist so you know how hard you’ve pushed. It will also tell you your training status (we were very disappointed when ours went from “maintaining” to “detraining”), and your training load to ensure you’re not doing too much. Plus, it advises on recovery time and body battery, so you can track your body’s energy levels.

There are plenty of nice extras too. If you want to crosstrain, you can switch up your workout routine and track activities including cycling, swimming, yoga and strength workouts. We loved being able to sync our playlists from Spotify to our watch, which can store up to 500 songs (it can also sync with Deezer and Amazon Music).

It also connects to your phone so you can easily see incoming messages. Plus, there are plenty of safety features, such as LiveTrack, which lets your friends and family know where you are, and incident detection, which enables you to send your location to contacts at the press of a button.

The brand says that it has six hours of battery in GPS mode with music – but without music this is extended to 24 hours. If you’re an advanced runner, you might want to look at one of the other watches which has more “race day” features. But it has been our go-to watch for the last six months – and we can’t see how that’ll change any time soon.

Garmin edge 1030 plus

Best: For cyclists

Rating: 9/10

OK, so it’s not a smartwatch. But it wouldn’t be a “best Garmins” list without at least one cycling computer, would it? And when it comes to data on your handlebars, the phrase “size doesn’t matter” simply doesn’t apply.

We absolutely loved the giant screen on the Garmin edge 1030 plus. It’s visible in your peripheral vision, which makes it simple and, crucially, safe to follow your data while riding, especially compared to the smaller head units we’ve used before.

Not sure how far or fast you want to ride? Garmin’s coach function will look at your previous uploads and suggest a workout, which is simple to follow because of the huge screen. It also allows you to create custom layouts, so you can easily see all the key metrics you want. From speed to distance, heart rate, cadence, power and Strava live segments, there’s virtually no limit to the amount of data you can fit on there because, did we mention, it has an absolutely massive screen?

This also makes navigation easy to follow, and the battery life is impressive – we went out all day using the usually battery-draining navigation system, and there was still plenty of juice left for another ride the next morning. Yes, it’s pricey, but this really is the all-singing, all-dancing bike computer. And for those who run with a Garmin wearable, there’s the added bonus that all your workout data is in the Garmin eco-system, so you can properly measure your workload and recovery.

Garmin forerunner 745

Best: For triathletes

Rating: 7/10

If you’re a multi-sport lover or a triathlete, you want a watch that can track plenty of activities and allow you to swap between them during an event at the touch of a button. That’s exactly what the forerunner 745 allows.

This attractive, lightweight smartwatch is bursting with plenty of features that will help you boost your training and build your fitness. The first thing to mention is the pre-loaded triathlon mode. It means you can record a whole race, pressing one button at the beginning and end of each transition to ensure you’re capturing each leg effectively. We found that was much better than having to start different sport modes for the swim, bike and run.

If that’s not enough, there are plenty of other activities for you to choose from, plus it has all the training perks you could want. Our favourite features were the daily workout suggestions, which are personalised depending on your fitness level, the VO2 max indicator and the training load feature, which told us when we were overdoing it. You can also use it to navigate a pre-loaded route.

Other features worth noting are the Garmin Pay feature, with the same caveat as with the venu 2 (£349.99, Garmin.com). You can also sync your music playlists, storing up to 500 songs, and receive smart notifications to your wrist. The battery life wasn’t the best (up to six hours on GPS mode with music) but it does extend significantly if you ignore the music feature.

Garmin instinct solar

Best: For adventurers

Rating: 9/10

Whether you’re traversing up the side of a mountain in Patagonia… or maybe just Wales, the instinct solar is the only thing real adventurers will want on their wrist. The interface has a main focus on navigation, with access to three global navigation systems, a GPS button that tells you your coordinates, sunset time on the watch-face, and an accessible altimeter so you know how high up you are.

We really liked the instinct’s dialled-back screen, which is a simple black and white display. It has a setback circle in the top-right displaying heart-rate, the date, or maybe a symbol so you know what you’re looking at – a cloud for the weather, for example. No doubt the simplicity of the watch-face contributes to the monster battery-life of this wearable – Garmin claims it holds charge up to 24 days, and up to 30 more if you get the most out of its solar charging function. Yes, that’s a potential battery life of 54 days, which Garmin calls “unprecedented”.

It’s tested to U.S. Military standards for thermal, shock and water resistance – and rated waterproof up to 100 metres. And although it seems to have an adventure-focus, it has some great lifestyle features too, with smart notifications for messages and various other apps, and access to your digital calendar. But who really cares about all that when you’re trekking through the Amazon? If you’re a hardcore adventurer, relying on your wits and guile in the great outdoors, it’s all about “Instinct” when you’re buying a Garmin.

Garmin vivofit jr. 3

Best: For kids

Rating: 7/10

Garmin describes the vivofit jr. 3 as not just "a fitness tracker for kids – it’s an interactive experience”. Using the tried-and-tested superhero theme, it encourages children to “go anywhere in the quantum realm”, track activities and move more by providing challenges and incentives via an app. The more they do, the more Marvel Avengers or Disney Princess adventures they unlock.

We asked our seven-year old tester to put it through the test over the course of a week. “I liked knowing how many steps I’d done in a day,” she told us. “The timer is good ‘cause you can use it for anything – me and my friend timed ourselves doing challenges.” She was also a fan of receiving the challenges set by her dad via the easy-to-use app (which parents can use to view activities and assign things like chores). And, much to her parents joy, she even enjoyed the toothbrush timer, as it made her evening routine “fun”.

There was one area of improvement she suggested, though. “I would like it if it beeped or something when I completed my active moments instead of just showing a picture on the screen.”

In terms of the need-to-know bits, the vivofit jr. 3 has a replaceable battery that lasts up to one year. It can also be updated to include a child’s emergency contact, while its special “kid mode” allows you to limit access. At £79.99, it is also reasonably priced in comparison to some other children’s smartwatches.

Garmin forerunner 55

Best: Value

Rating: 9/10

The forerunner 55 is one of Garmin’s cheapest smartwatches – but we found it punches well above its price tag. For £179.99, you get a high quality product, which not only tracks your activities but also monitors your health more generally.

We found it does favour runners (which we obviously had no complaints about), with activity tracking from track to treadmill. It also has a race predictor, cadence alerts and special tech to help you plan your race day strategy. For those who don’t like to pound the pavements, you can track more than 15 activities including Pilates, HIIT and walking. It offers the usual body battery tool, as well as tracking your heart rate, stress, steps and respiration (as well as menstruation and pregnancy for those who need it).

The built-in GPS is just as good as the other Garmins on the market, despite the cheaper price point, meaning you get accurate stats. And the battery life is pretty decent too – up to two weeks in smartwatch mode, and 20 hours if you have the GPS on.

In comparison to some of the more expensive watches, the screen isn’t as clear due to the lower resolution and it’s not a touchscreen. You also can’t store music, although you can easily link it to your phone, so you can still carry out crucial actions like skipping to the next track when that song you just hate comes on. Overall, we thought the forerunner 55 was an absolute steal, offering true value and plenty of innovative features to get stuck into.

Garmin fenix 6 – pro solar edition

Best: For innovation

Rating: 8/10

Rugged is the word for this high-end wearable. Like the instinct solar (£319.99, Garmin.com), it’s been tested to U.S. Military standards for thermal, shock, and water resistance. And, similarly, it can charge its own battery using sunlight – if you’re lucky enough to get it during the British summer. In fact, there isn’t much this watch can’t do.

It comes with smart notifications, as well as all the usual activity features – Strava live segments and multiple metrics. Plus, it has a large, high-resolution watch-face which is good enough to really utilise things like turn-by-turn navigation and animated work-outs. The fenix 6 also has a number of lifestyle features, such as Garmin Pay and space for music. This means you don’t really need to take anything but your watch out on a long run or ride.

With the solar charge feature, Garmin says the battery will last up to 24 days, which is a three-week expedition. Of course, it will be significantly less if you’re expecting it to navigate your trip and play Beyoncé at the same time. But, despite this, we were pretty impressed with its staying power over a number of days and activities. Yes, it’s scarily expensive, but this is a no-compromise wearable. And, for those who want a cheaper option, the fenix 6 is available without the solar add-on for £529.99.

Garmin vivofit 4

Best: For a tight budget

Rating: 7/10

If you’re looking to get on the Garmin bandwagon without breaking the bank, then this nifty little activity tracker could be the one for you. It looks and feels very different to some of the other smartwatches we tried – but it can tell you a surprising amount. While the vivofit 4 doesn’t have GPS, it can track your steps, distance and calories burned, as well as monitoring your sleep.

The best thing for us however, was the fact it automatically recognises things like running, walking and cycling. We didn’t have to fiddle about with starting a timer before a workout, instead, it sends the data through to the easy-to-use Garmin Connect app so you can check through your stats once you’re done. It’s also suitable to wear while swimming or in the shower, so it’s perfect for those who want uninterrupted data. Plus, as it’s battery operated (which the brand says lasts a year) there’s no need for a charger.

Obviously, the screen is fairly limited. Although, it is in colour and the “always on” mode means you can easily take a glimpse at the time (or your step count). You do need to live without heart rate tracking and the design is fairly simplistic, but it sits nicely on the wrist and is pretty affordable. A nice one to finish our list with.

The verdict: Garmin watches

You know what you’re going to get with Garmin: a high-quality, easy-to-use smartwatch no matter how much you have to spend. We thought the venu 2 and venu 2S were the best all-rounders, with their beautiful touchscreens and huge range of pre-loaded activities putting them just out of reach of the rest.

If you’re a runner, the forerunner 245 music or forerunner 55 will get you round any park or race. The edge 1030 plus is expensive, but it is great if you’re a keen cyclist looking to navigate new routes. And the forerunner 745 is the one for triathletes.

Voucher codes

For the latest discounts on fitness trackers and other tech offers, try the links below:

For more smart, sporty tech, try our edit of the best fitness watches to help you track your goals

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