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Garmin wearables buyer's guide: Devices, features, competition, and more
If you want to learn about Garmin wearables and everything that goes into using one, you’ve come to the right place. We cover which fitness trackers you should buy, what they track, and how they perform. You might also learn something about Garmin Connect, Garmin Pay, and Garmin Coach.
What is Garmin?
Garmin is a company that specializes in GPS technology as well as consumer-grade wearables. It primarily focuses on high-end multisport fitness watches but sells mid-range activity trackers and smartwatches as well. The Kansas-based company’s wearables are more specialized than what you’d get from Fitbit or Apple. Even so, whether you’re a competitive athlete or are just starting on your fitness journey, Garmin likely has something for you.
Why buy from Garmin?
One of the company’s biggest strengths is choice. Take a look at Garmin’s website and you’ll quickly see that it has no shortage of options for all types of budgets and lifestyles. Are you looking for a mid-range watch to track your daily activity? Garmin has you covered. Want something high-end to track your running routes? You got it. What about watches that are geared toward mariners, golfers, or pilots? Yes to all three.
We also recommend Garmin watches so frequently because they last a long time. And we mean a long time. You might need to invest a little money in the initial purchase, but you can rest assured that your watch will serve you for years to come. At least, that’s been our experience. The company also supports each one of its devices for years on end. Not only that, it is constantly rolling out new fitness tracking features to its new and legacy devices. Watches that are years old still receive substantial software updates.
In addition to the device on your wrist, the Garmin Connect companion app is one of the bright spots of the ecosystem. The company’s health tracking app is incredibly feature-dense — almost too dense for some people — and clearly displays the information you need front and center.
What experts think of Garmin products
We’ve reviewed many Garmin wearables. The company is not shy about launching multiple products every year and we do our best to keep up. We try to focus on the wearables targeted at a wide range of users, so we have not covered specialized devices like the Marq, D2, or Tactix series.
We said in our Garmin Venu 2 Plus review that the AMOLED-boasting smartwatch is the best pick for most people and a stellar follow-up to Venu 2 (which was a stellar follow-up to the original Venu). While the price is quite high, the combination of fitness and smartwatch features on the Venu 2 Plus makes for an overall compelling package. If there was ever an Apple Watch competitor in the Garmin world, the Venu 2 Plus is it. If you’re after a smartwatch but don’t want to pay the premium price, check out the Venu Sq 2. It has fewer features but doesn’t sacrifice too much that loses its value.
If you’re primarily focused on running, our pick for the best Garmin running watch is the Forerunner 965. In our opinion, the solar model in particular is the best GPS watch for runners on the market.
A cheaper option is the Forerunner 55, which is currently one of the best running watches you can buy. We called the Forerunner 55 “one of the most well-rounded running watches, even though it’s only $200.” We were also very impressed with the latest Forerunner 265 which we found to be a great update to the series.
Of course, we’d be remiss not to mention the Fenix 7 lineup. These are, hands down, the best multisport watches you can buy. If you’re willing to pay up, you’ll have access to tons of features suited for outdoor enthusiasts. Many models even feature solar charging.
If you have smaller wrists, the Garmin Lily is another device to consider. It’s a fine fitness tracking watch, though it lacks features compared to the company’s similarly priced wearables.
Finally, the Garmin vivosmart 5 is the company’s latest venture into fitness tracker territory. The device offers basic tracking tools and features but falls short with no built-in GPS.
Buying the right Garmin for your needs
When buying a fitness watch, it’s important to know your needs. You don’t want to spend extra cash on things you won’t use, but you also want to make sure the wearable has everything you need. If you’re a runner, consider buying a device with a standalone GPS and long battery life. If you just want something to track your activity, a simple fitness tracker will be more up your alley. We have a dedicated article about the best Garmin watches you can buy, but here’s a quick overview of our top picks:
- Garmin Fenix 7 series: Devices from the Fenix 7 series are the best watches you can buy. These are the company’s everything-but-the-kitchen-sink watches boasting tons of features for outdoor enthusiasts and runners.
- Garmin vivoactive 4 and 4S: At a fraction of the cost, the vivoactive 4 and 4S are the best multisport watch picks if you don’t have $700+ to spend on a Fenix 7.
- Garmin Venu 2 Plus: With even more smart features than before, the Venu 2 Plus is the brand’s best smartwatch thanks to its bright OLED display and onboard music storage.
- Garmin Venu Sq 2: The Venu Sq 2 is the best cheap smartwatch pick. This square-shaped device is similar to the original Venu, only with a few cost-cutting measures thrown in.
- Garmin Forerunner 965: The AMOLED-touting 965, is one of the best running watches we’ve tested. The device offers a colorful display, incredible battery life, and plenty of running-specific features.
- Garmin Forerunner 55: For runners on a budget, the best cheap running watch is the Forerunner 55. It offers a $200 price point.
What do Garmin devices track?
Tracking features vary from device to device. Some watches only offer basic activity details, while others keep track of everything on the list below.
- Steps: Every Garmin wearable will track your steps. You can also see how your step count reflects in your caloric burn metrics. Garmin Connect breaks down step counts into daily, weekly, monthly, and yearly timelines, too.
- Distance: Garmin wearables utilize a few ways to calculate distance. Most come with standalone GPS connectivity and additional tracking systems like GLONASS, Beidou, and Galileo. Other devices can track distance using connected GPS, which uses your phone’s GPS signal to track distance.
- Floors climbed: Most higher-end devices track your floors climbed with built-in barometric altimeters. In the companion app, you’ll see your weekly, monthly, and yearly floor metrics, as well as averages.
- Calories in/out: All the devices track your caloric burn throughout the day, and you can log your calorie consumption in the companion app. The app does all the math for you and gives you a daily calorie burn goal to help you stay on target. Additionally, you can log your calories in MyFitnessPal and have your data automatically uploaded.
- Intensity minutes: All the company’s wearables track your intensity minutes or the number of minutes you spend with an elevated heart rate during activities. You can also fine-tune your intensity minutes by adjusting your heart rate zones in the companion app.
- Heart rate: All watches come with the company’s Elevate optical heart rate sensor to track your resting heart rate throughout the day and active heart rate during exercise. You can also view details on your heart rate zones. The Venu 2 Plus also features an FDA-approved ECG app for on-demand readings.
- Sleep: Wear your device to bed, and it’ll track your sleep quantity and quality. You’ll get metrics on your total time asleep, time spent in sleep stages (deep, light, and REM), time awake, and how much you moved throughout the night.
- Pulse ox (SpO2): Some devices will measure your oxygen saturation with a built-in pulse oximeter. On these devices, you’ll see an SpO2 graph every morning after wearing your watch to bed. The graph shows your overall blood oxygen percentage as well as weekly and monthly trends.
- Respiration: Garmin devices also track your respiration rate or the number of breaths you take per minute throughout the day. This metric is tracked all day and night.
- Stress: Most watches will automatically record your stress levels throughout the day on a scale from 1-100. The devices use heart rate variability to determine your stress score.
- Guided breathing: Most recent Garmin wearables allow you to use guided breathing exercises if you sense yourself becoming too stressed out.
- Menstrual cycles and pregnancies: The company rolled out menstrual cycle tracking to its devices in 2019, allowing women to keep track of their cycle phase and physical and emotional symptoms. The program can also be customized based on whether your cycle is regular, irregular, or transitioning into menopause. Furthermore, devices can also keep track of pregnancies, allowing moms-to-be to track their daily symptoms, their child’s movement, and more.
- Hydration: The companion app also lets you monitor your fluid intake each day. The companion app presents hydration details in weekly, monthly, and yearly views.
- Body Battery: Garmin’s Body Battery metric assigns you a number from 1-100 for how much energy you should have based on your activity and recovery metrics. Body Battery is calculated with your heart rate variability, stress, sleep quality, and activity.
- VO2 max: Some devices will give you an estimation of your VO2 max, which is a good indicator of your cardiovascular fitness. Technically, it’s the maximum volume of oxygen (in milliliters) you can consume per minute per kilogram of body weight at your maximum performance. Garmin devices use your exercise and heart rate data to calculate VO2 max.
- Training status: Some of the brand’s wearables calculate your training status based on your VO2 max and training load. If you’re training too hard, your watch might tell you you’re overreaching. If you’re at an acceptable level, you might fall into the “productive” or “maintaining” categories. It’s usually a good estimate as to how your training might be affecting your body.
- Training effect: Compatible watches will give you a training effect score based on how your activities impact your overall training.
- Recovery time: After your workout, you’ll see an estimated recovery time displayed on your watch. Recovery time is calculated based on your training effect for your just-completed activity as well as any outstanding recovery time estimations when you start your next activity. So, if you go out for an intense run while Garmin thinks you should be taking it easy, your recovery time might be much longer than normal when you complete your activity.
- Running dynamics: Garmin groups seven different metrics together and calls the combination “running dynamics.” These metrics are ground contact time, ground contact time balance, cadence, stride length, vertical oscillation, vertical ratio, and running power. To track running dynamics, you’ll need a compatible watch as well as an HRM-Pro, HRM-Tri, or Running Dynamics Pod.
- Performance condition: Select watches can track your real-time performance condition or your ability to perform compared to your average fitness level.
- Lactate threshold: Certain watches can track your lactate threshold. You’ll see one-month, six-month, and year-long lactate threshold graphs in the Performance Stats section of Garmin Connect.
- Blood glucose levels: Garmin wearables can’t track blood glucose levels on their own, but they can show and log data if you’re a Dexcom G6 user.
And that’s not all. Some Garmin devices also allow you to create training plans, download maps for offline use, and utilize golf course maps. The brand’s running watches feature PacePro, a running feature to help you stay on track when trying to hit a specific training goal. TracBack (aka breadcrumb navigation) is another cool feature that lets certain watches navigate you back to your starting point by following previously recorded routes. Even more niche features are available for some devices, but this list is getting quite long already.
What smartwatch features do these devices offer?
Generally speaking, Garmin watches offer basic smartwatch features. Some devices offer all of the features listed below, while others only offer a few. The Garmin Venu 2 Plus, however, also supports on-wrist phone calls and offers the ability to sync your device with the voice assistant on your paired phone.
- Smartphone notifications: Just about all watches will mirror your smartphone notifications. When you receive a WhatsApp message on your phone, for instance, that same message will show up on your Garmin watch. Unlike other smartwatch platforms, dismissing the notification on your watch does not dismiss it from your phone. However, you can set up canned messages in the Garmin Connect app and reply to messages from your wrist. It’s limited, but it works.
- Third-party apps and watch faces: There are hundreds of additional apps, widgets, and watch faces to download for your watch. You can find both first- and third-party options on the Garmin Connect IQ Store. If you’d rather browse on your smartphone, you can access Connect IQ from the Android or iOS apps. Depending on the developer, you might need to pay a few dollars to download a certain app or watch face, though many are free.
- Offline music playback: Some watches allow you to store music for offline playback. If you don’t like taking your phone with you when you exercise, this feature is for you. Garmin watches are compatible with Spotify, Deezer, Amazon Music, and iHeartRadio. You can also store music on your Garmin watch.
- Incident detection: Garmin devices can notify your emergency contacts if something happens to you during your exercise. Using the brand’s LiveTrack location tracking feature, your compatible watch will send your name and location to your pre-defined emergency contacts if it senses an incident. You can also trigger this feature manually.
- Garmin Pay: Garmin has its own contactless payment system called Garmin Pay. We’ll touch more on this later.
What is Garmin Connect?
Garmin Connect is Garmin’s fitness- and health-tracking app. It’s available on Android, iOS, and desktop. You will need access to Garmin Connect to pair your Garmin watch with your smartphone. It’s a necessary part of using your device. The app is where you can access all of your health and activity data. The mobile versions are quite detailed and should offer most of what you need, but we’d recommend using the desktop version if you really need to dig into your data.
Additionally, the mobile app can be a little daunting if you’ve never used it. Garmin tries to pack a ton of information into its app, resulting in visual clutter and potential difficulties finding certain menus. It gets easier to navigate the more frequently you use it, but new users might struggle.
Five different tabs (and a lengthy overflow menu) make up the Garmin Connect app: My Day, Challenges, Calendar, News Feed, and Notifications.
My Day: Essentially your home screen, My Day contains all your health and fitness stats, insights, and more for the current day. Here, you’ll see heart rate data, training status, step counts, and even summaries for yesterday and the previous week. You can tap on any of these metrics to bring up more detailed overviews of each one.
Challenges: You can join different challenges, browse your progress, and see how your connected friends are doing on their challenges.
Calendar: The Calendar tab is our favorite part of the companion app. This page lets you view historical data for any metric tracked on any date. You’re presented with a month-view calendar. Tap on a day of the week, and you’ll see everything your device tracked — exercise, heart rate, Body Battery, stress, sleep, steps, and more — for that particular day. It’s handy when trying to find the last time you exercised or what your stress levels were like during a certain time. This contrasts with many other fitness apps, which only let you browse historical data by the day.
News Feed: This tab shows you a rolling feed of activities completed by you and your connections. It’s presented as a slightly more basic version of the feed you’d see in an app like Strava.
Notifications: Simply a notification hub, this tab houses information about any new feature the company pushes to the app. It likely won’t come in handy every day, but it’s there if you want to stay up to date.
Everything else is found in the overflow menu. This menu contains activity data like steps, walking, running, and intensity minutes; health stats like sleep, pulse ox (SpO2), respiration, heart rate, and stress; performance stats like training status, VO2 max, training effect, and HRV stress; training plans, insights, and a settings menu.
The overflow menu is a lot. However, those metrics need to be included somewhere. In some cases, companies offload features from the mobile app to the desktop version to provide a simpler experience for mobile users. We’re happy there are so many options in the mobile app; we just wish things were a bit easier to find.
What is Garmin Pay?
Garmin Pay is the company’s own contactless payment system. It allows you to pay for things in physical stores and transit systems using your watch’s NFC chip. Once it’s set up, you can simply hold your wrist to a compatible payment terminal to complete your purchase. It’s really that easy.
Garmin Pay is supported on most of the company’s devices introduced in the last couple of years. Here’s a definitive list of the watches that support the feature:
- Garmin Forerunner 965, Forerunner 955, Forerunner 945, Forerunner 945 LTE, Forerunner 745, Forerunner 645, Forerunner 645 Music, Forerunner 265, Forerunner 255
- Garmin Fenix 7, Fenix 7S, Fenix 7X
- Garmin Fenix 6, Fenix 6 Pro series, Fenix 6S, Fenix 6S Pro series, Fenix 6X, Fenix 6X Pro series
- Garmin Fenix 5 Plus, Fenix 5S Plus, Fenix 5X Plus
- Garmin Instinct Crossover
- Garmin Instinct 2 Solar models
- Garmin Instinct 2X
- Garmin vivoactive 3 Music, vivoactive 3, vivoactive 4, vivoactive 4S
- Garmin vivomove Style, vivomove Luxe, vivomove Trend
- Garmin Venu 2 Plus, Venu 2, Venu, Venu Sq 2, Venu Sq
- Garmin D2 Delta S, D2 Delta, D2 Delta PX
- Garmin Marq Driver, Marq Aviator, Marq Captain, Marq Expedition, Marq Athlete, Marq Commander, Marq Adventurer, Marq Golfer
- Garmin Legacy Saga and Legacy Hero series
- Garmin Approach S62
- Garmin Descent Mk2, Descent Mk2i
- Garmin D2 Delta, D2 Delta S, D2 Delta PX
- Garmin Quatix 6, Quatix 6X
- Garmin Tactix Delta series
You must also have a supported bank or card to use Garmin Pay. Hundreds of banks are supported in 66 countries around the world. The majority of supported banks are located in the US.
Garmin Coach: What is it?
One of the most underrated parts of the ecosystem is Garmin Coach. As long as you have a compatible wearable, you can train for a running or cycling race with the help of a professional athlete’s training program. Garmin Coach has programs for running a 5K, 10K, or half marathon and cycling programs for Century, Gran Fondo, and Metric Century races. Users will find generic race, time trial, and mountain biking programs for cycling, as well.
Training plans are completely dynamic, so they change based on your performance. You select a coach and their custom training plan and do your best to stick with it over the coming months. If you skip workouts (hey, it happens) or exceed the plan’s expectations, your plan will adjust.
The best part? They’re completely free. Again, as long as you have a compatible device, you’ll have access to these plans. Here are all the devices compatible with Garmin Coach:
- Garmin D2 Air
- Garmin Descent MK1
- Garmin Fenix 5 series, Fenix 5 Plus series
- Garmin Fenix 6 series
- Germin Fenix 7 series
- Garmin Fenix Chronos
- Garmin Forerunner 45 / 45S, 55, 245 series, 255 series, 265 series, 645 series, 745, 935, 945 series, 955 series, 965
- Garmin Instinct series
- Garmin Instinct 2 series
- Garmin Instinct 2X
- Garmin Instinct Crossover
- Garmin Legacy Hero / Legacy Saga series
- Garmin Marq series
- Garmin Quatix 6
- Garmin Tactix Delta
- Garmin Venu 2 Plus, Venu 2, Venu, Venu Sq 2, Venu Sq
- Garmin vivoactive 3 series, vivoactive 4 / 4S
The data hack of 2020
Garmin experienced a massive outage on July 23, 2020, that affected its website, call centers, and Garmin Connect. Most people could not access any of Garmin’s services until later that week, on July 27. Why are we bringing this up here? For one, it affected nearly all Garmin users. But most importantly, the outage was caused by a ransomware attack that resulted in Garmin paying a reported “multi-million dollar” sum of money to the hackers. Notably, the company has not officially stated it was a ransomware attack, but multiple reports — including employees’ personal accounts — described the situation as such.
The company says it has no indication that any customer data — including Garmin Pay payment information — was accessed, lost, or stolen. There’s no telling if they will experience another attack of this scale in the future, but the company is likely making sure something like this never happens again.
What accessories are available?
There are tons of Garmin accessories available to supplement your wrist wear including chest straps, and other dedicated sensors. It’s also easy to add some flair to your wearable by way of a new strap. The company offers replacement straps for most of its wearables on its website. You can buy new quick-release and QuickFit straps (Garmin’s proprietary connector) in multiple sizes. A word of warning: they’re expensive. Silicone straps run anywhere from $30-$50, leather straps start at $60, metal straps are $150, and those fancy Jacquard-woven nylon straps are a whopping $200.
Good news! You can find replacement watch straps on other websites for far less. Buying a strap from a third-party seller can not only save you money, but you’ll also likely find a wider variety of styles and colors if you buy from a website like Amazon.
Common Garmin problems and solutions
Without going too in-depth on bugs that only affect certain Garmin devices, we’ll try to stick to common Garmin watch problems and solutions that affect the vast majority of users. A lot of those problems have to do with Garmin Connect syncing issues. Of course, many problems could potentially be avoided if the company has already issued a fix. Ensure your device’s software is up to date, just in case.
If your watch is paired to your smartphone but not syncing with Garmin Connect:
- Close Garmin Connect and remove it from your phone’s memory, then reopen the app to see if you can sync.
- If that doesn’t work, try turning off your phone’s Bluetooth, then turning it back on again.
- Finally, you can also try powering your watch off for a few seconds and turning it back on.
If you’re having trouble connecting your Bluetooth earbuds to your watch:
- Turn your watch off and on again, then try connecting again.
- If that doesn’t work, try unpairing your earbuds from your watch. To do so, navigate to the settings menu on your watch, select the Sensors & Accessories menu, select the earbuds you’d like to remove, then scroll down and select Remove. Then, try pairing them to your watch.
Garmin has many competitors that make comparable or sometimes better products for the money. The company’s main competitors are Polar, Apple, Samsung, Suunto, Fitbit, and even Garmin itself! Read more below:
- Garmin’s last-gen multisport watches are the best Garmin Fenix 7 Pro alternatives. We’d recommend checking out the Fenix 6 Pro $434.48 at Amazon). The Suunto 9 Baro ($319 at Amazon) comes close, but its software is lagging behind competitors like Garmin.
- The Apple Watch Series 8 ($359 at Amazon) and SE 2 ($269.99 at Amazon) are the best Garmin Venu 2 Plus and vivoactive 4 alternatives. They’re both accurate and fully featured smartwatches that have plenty of multisport tracking modes. If you’re looking for a Venu 2 Plus alternative on Android, check out the Samsung Galaxy Watch 5 Pro ($449.99 at Amazon).
- The Polar Vantage V2 ($446.97 at Amazon) is the best Garmin Forerunner 965 alternative. This is Polar’s latest flagship running watch and comes with premium features like Recovery Pro, various performance tests, and much more.
- The Coros Pace 2 () is the best Garmin Forerunner 55 and 265 alternative. This light-and-comfortable running watch can often be found cheaper than the Forerunner 245/Music and supports on-device running power metrics.
- The Fitbit Charge 5 ($99.95 at Amazon) is the best Garmin Lily alternative. Fitbit’s fitness tracker is customizable, offers standalone GPS, and fits well on most people’s wrists.
Frequently asked questions and answers
There’s no doubt Garmin watches are expensive — sometimes too expensive. However, while most of their watches cost hundreds of dollars, the company has a great track record of updating watches over time and rolling out new and useful features to older devices. Plus, they’re made to last — you likely won’t need to upgrade your watch for years.
Yes you can connect Garmin to Strava. To do so, open Garmin Connect, select settings, then connected apps. Select Strava, then sign in to your Strava account.
Yes, Garmin watches and trackers can connect to iPhones. To do so, you’ll need the Garmin Connect app for iOS.
A select few Garmin watches can answer phone calls when paired with a nearby smartphone. Others notify you that you have an incoming call.
No device is completely waterproof, however, most Garmin wearables are water-resistant to 5ATM.
Every Garmin watch that supports onboard music storage also supports Spotify.
We’d argue each company aims for a unique user experience. Garmin devices are largely better fitness watches with extensive training and recovery data. Meanwhile, Apple Watches are loaded with smart features in addition to fitness tools. Read our Garmin vs Apple guide to dig deeper.