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Garmin Instinct vs Garmin Fenix 6: choose the right sports watch for you

Garmin Instinct vs Garmin Fenix 6
(Image credit: Garmin)

If you're looking for a serious sports watch, the Garmin Fenix 6 and Garmin Instinct are likely to be on your shortlist, but how can you choose the right one for you? They're both among the best Garmin watches you can buy, but are built with different uses in mind, so here we've rounded up all the most important points to help you make the right decision.

Summary

Summary

The Fenix 6 is the higher-end of these two Garmin watches, and at the time of writing it's the company's flagship watch. Not only does it look particularly smart thanks to its metal bezel, it features a bright color display, and is packed with advanced training and mapping features.

It's also a great everyday smartwatch. Although it's not as sleek as an Apple Watch, it supports NFC for contactless payments through Garmin Pay (something you won't get with the Instinct) and can be customized with dozens of extra apps from Garmin Connect ID.

It is, however, a big investment, and costs around twice as much as the Garmin Instinct. If you're putting in serious event training, then it could be exactly what you need, but if you won't be using all those advanced tools then you can save a lot of cash by opting for a different watch.

The Garmin Instinct is one such option. It's not as stylish as the Fenix 6, with an all-plastic case, but it's extremely tough and has the same excellent satellite navigation as the Fenix 6, making it a good choice for rough-and-tumble outdoor pursuits like trail running, hiking, rock climbing and kayaking (these are both multi-sports watches, with a wide range of activity profiles).

The Instinct also has exceptional battery life, which is partly made possible by its well designed monochrome display. If you pay extra for the Instinct Solar, it'll keep running for weeks between charges rather than days.

If premium looks and advanced features (including detailed maps) are most important, then the Fenix 6 is the watch for you. If you're on a tighter budget or appreciate no-frills practicality, you'll enjoy the Instinct.

Display and design

Display

  • Garmin Fenix 6 is color; Instinct is monochrome
  • Fenix 6 is higher resolution

Both watches have memory-in-pixel displays. The most obvious difference is that the Fenix 6 boasts a 260 x 260 pixel color screen, while the Instinct has a 128 x 128 pixel monochrome display. However, that doesn't necessarily give the Fenix the upper hand; it depends on your preferences.

While the lower resolution of the Instinct means less data can be displayed at once, its dual-screen design (with a small sub-screen cut out of the main one) allows for extra stats to be displayed in a way that's clear and easy to interpret at a glance. You can choose what to show in this mini display, and its icon changes as you browse through the watch's many menus, making it refreshingly easy to navigate.

The black-and-white display also contributes to the Instinct's impressive battery life (more on that in a moment).

However, if you want to use your watch for navigation then the color display of the Fenix 6 will really come into its own, allowing you to identify your location, follow routes, use Garmin's golf maps, and plot real-time breadcrumb trails.

Garmin Fenix 6

The color screen of the Garmin Fenix 6 makes it the top choice for mapping and navigation (Image credit: Garmin)

Design

  • Fenix 6 available in range of sizes
  • Fenix 6 Pro comes in various premium materials
  • Instinct is rugged, but less stylish

The standard Garmin Fenix 6 comes in two case sizes: 42mm and 47mm. If you choose the Pro version, you can also opt for an extra-large 52mm case.

The standard edition has a smart stainless steel bezel, and a case made from fiber-reinforced polymer with a metal back. The strap is silicone, though others are available to buy separately. The Pro edition has a case made from stainless steel, titanium, or diamond-like carbon (DLC) coated titanium, and a band made from silicone, leather, titanium or nylon.

The Garmin Instinct is more rugged in appearance, with a fibre-reinforced polymer bezel and case and silicone case. It does, however, come in a wide range of colors.

Features

Smartwatch features

  • Both support Bluetooth and ANT+
  • Only Fenix 6 has Wi-Fi
  • Instinct doesn't support Garmin Pay

Here we're looking at the features of the standard Fenix 6 and Instinct models; the special edition, Solar and Pro devices all have slightly different configurations.

The Fenix 6 is the more advanced of the pair, with lots of extra tools and enhanced connectivity. Both watches support Bluetooth and ANT+ for connecting to your phone, chest strap heart rate monitors and other devices (more on that below), but the Fenix 6 also has Wi-Fi, which is very handy for transferring training plans and routes before you set out.

The Fenix 6 allows you to download additional apps and watch faces, which aren't suitable for the Instinct's dual-screen display configuration and monochrome screen. The Fenix 6 is the only one of the pair with NFC, so you can make contactless purchases through Garmin Pay.

Both can be used to control music on your phone, and offer weather and calendar widgets. They can also both receive app, text and call notifications, though only the Fenix 6 can send a text response, or reject a call with a text while you're working out if you're an Android user.

Garmin Instinct

The Garmin Instinct lets you receive notifications on the move (Image credit: Garmin)

Fitness tracking features

  • Both offer wide range of activity profiles
  • Fenix 6 has more advanced training tools
  • Fenix 6 connects with more third-party sensors

Both of these Garmin watches are packed with serious fitness tracking and training features, but the Fenix 6 is the more sophisticated of the pair. Again, we're focusing on the standard models here, rather than the Pro, Solar or special editions.

Garmin made its name in satellite navigation, and both watches excel here, with GPS, Galileo and GLONASS for accurate location tracking anywhere in the world, plus a barometric altimeter for tracking changes in height (essential for hill sessions). 

Both watches also feature a wide range of profiles for tracking indoor and outdoor workouts, including cardio and strength sessions. However, the Fenix 6 has a lot more training and analytics tools, particularly for runners, including a heart rate variability stress test, heat and altitude acclimation, training load calculations, and customizable alerts.

You'll get even more stats if you pair the Fenix 6 with a Garmin Footpod, including real-time cadence and vertical oscillation. Cyclists can pair it with compatible Varia lights and sensors, which can then be controlled directly from the watch. It can also link to cadence sensors and power meters via ANT+.

The Fenix 6 is also a fully-featured golf watch, and comes pre-loaded with maps for 42,000 courses. It measures shot distance, tracks stats, and serves as a digital scorecard while you play.

Garmin Fenix 6

The Garmin Fenix 6 has a wide range of training tools for running, swimming, cycling and more (Image credit: Garmin)

Price

Price

  • Garmin Fenix 6 is roughly twice the price of the Instinct
  • Both are frequently discounted, particularly around Black Friday

As you'd expect considering its higher specs, the Garmin Fenix 6 is the more expensive of the pair, costing $549.99 / £529.99 / AU$999 for the basic 42mm or 47mm editions. The standard Garmin Instinct retails at $299.99 / £269.99 / AU$399. 

Both watches are also available in various special and premium editions, at an extra cost. There are also versions with solar glass, which tops up the battery and extends its life between charges. With all power-saving options enabled and sufficient sunlight, the Garmin Instinct Solar can maintain its charge indefinitely.

You'll find that both devices are subject to regular discounts, both on Garmin's own website and at third-party retailers. If you're able to wait, you're almost certain to see some great deals around Black Friday and Cyber Monday (and possibly Amazon Prime Day too).

Cat Ellis

Cat is the fitness and wellbeing editor at TechRadar. She's a trained run leader, and enjoys nothing more than lacing up and hitting the pavement. If you have a story about fitness trackers, treadmills, running shoes, e-bikes, or any other fitness tech, drop her a line!