While big name contenders like the Apple Watch and Samsung Galaxy may top the charts as far as all purpose smart watches are concerned, GPS manufacturer Garmin has done a surprisingly capable job of carving out a unique niche in the market for themselves. Garmin’s watches are largely focused on the needs of athletes, but there’s an intimidatingly large catalog of products available.
That’s what Hot Rate is here for. We’ve winnowed down the list to the 11 best Garmin watches of 2020 so that you can find a choice that matches your needs. And those 11 models cover a surprising range of possibilities. Our Garmin watch reviews can help you find the best model for you, and our guide can help you find savvy shopping advice.
- The Best Garmin Watch
- Garmin Watch Buying Guide
The Best Garmin Watch
1. Garmin Forerunner 35
You'll see a lot of the Forerunner series on our list. It's the premiere line for sports watches offered by Garmin, and the Forerunner 35 offers all the essentials at a great starting price of right around $100. This Garmin watch really does cover all the essential bases. While the interface may be a bit basic, it comes with a heart rate monitor, multiple exercise modes, and GPS, and it's designed to be comfortable even when you wear it 24/7.
The Forerunner 35 also does a decent job of replicating standard smart watch features. You get both music streaming and smart notifications, and the trademark Garmin Connect functionality allows you to automatically upload all of your exercise metrics into the cloud. It's not the best Garmin watch on the market, but it finds a happy medium between pricing and features and arguably offers the best value around.
2. Garmin Forerunner 935
The Forerunner 935 is like the 35 super charged. But along with a whole host of new features and slick design sensibilities is a significantly more intimidating price tag. If you want the best of the best, the Forerunner 935 will fit the bill, but it could understandably be a little too pricey for a lot of customers.
The surprising thing is that the 935 looks like a pretty ordinary watch on the surface. But it offers some of the most sophisticated metrics you'll find in a multi sport watch. This can work as a Garmin triathlon watch or traditional running watch, and the inclusion of a barometer, altimeter, and compass only expand on the truly sweeping data that this watch tracks. Combine that with the fact that it offers an incredibly long battery life and you're left with a watch that earns its hefty price tag.
3. Garmin vivofit 3
It doesn't get much simpler than the vivofit 3, and you don't have to spend much money at all to get this slim and sensible Garmin fitness watch. This isn't a model that's exactly packed with features, but it's not supposed to be. It's a straightforward and to the point Garmin wrist GPS that sticks to the fundamentals of a fitness wearable. That's reflected in the price tag of around $50, making it the best Garmin watch if you're on a budget.
And while it may be focused on the basics, there's a lot to love here. The vivofit 3 can last for over a year on a single battery, and its automatic activity tracking means you can for the most part just strap it on and forget about it. It may not be the most technologically advanced watch that Garmin produces, but it's distinct for how refreshingly low key it is.
4. Garmin Instinct
While most Garmin GPS watches are designed to be used for athletes, the Instinct is a waterproof Garmin watch designed explicitly to meet the needs of outdoor adventurers. Whether you're intending to venture out on a months long hiking expedition or take it with you on a treacherous climb up a mountain, it's equipped to suit your needs. This is a watch that makes use of three different satellite tracking systems to ensure that you accurately know where you are no matter how far afield you venture.
It's also one of the most rugged and durable outdoor watches you'll find. It may not be fitted with all of the modern conveniences, but it can definitely take a licking and keep on ticking. Instead of focusing on more general purpose smartwatch needs, it comes with some cool assistance features that help you plan out a trip and not get lost.
5. Garmin Forerunner 735XT
The third highlighted watch in the Forerunner series is designed explicitly with the needs of triathletes in mind. If you're a triathlete looking for a dedicated tool for tracking your training, you won't find a more worthwhile specialized model on the market, but those with more general purpose needs may want to look at one of the other Garmin running watches.
The specifically triathlon focused feature set here is incredibly dense. The running, cycling, and swimming metrics are as thorough as you'll find anywhere, and the ability to upload all of your information to Garmin Connect means that you can evaluate your growth in real time and learn from your training in ways that few other tools allow. And Garmin Connect provides further motivation by allowing you to share your goals and accomplishments with your friends so you can find the drive to push yourself to your limits.
6. Garmin vívoactive 3
The vivoactive 3 may share a similar name to the vivofit 3, but they're actually dramatically different models. Where the latter is a fitness tracker trimmed down to its bare essentials, the vivoactive 3 represents Garmin's budget priced entry into the crossover smart watch market. It's still very well suited for the needs of athletes, but it also includes the bells and whistles you'd expect from a traditional smart watch, and it comes in at a very appealing price point.
The exercise tracking might not be as thorough as what you'd find in something like the Forerunner 935, but you can't fault this watch for lacking in features. It provides one touch payment with its Garmin Pay compatibility and smart notification features. But this is still a fitness watch at its heart, and you'll find a ton of different exercise modes, data uploading, and the ever reliable LiveTrack.
7. Garmin Forerunner 235
The Forerunner 235 occupies a happy medium between the baseline 35 and the top shelf 935. It leans significantly more towards the former than the latter and doesn't come with a whole slew of new features, but there are some small but meaningful quality of life features that make it still worth the price tag. Most obviously is the fact that it trades out the 35's black and white screen for a full color alternative, and an aesthetic change to a rounded face is significantly more appealing in terms of pure looks.
Those changes are about more than just aesthetics too. The larger face is both more expressive in a way that makes it both easier to read and easier to navigate, and that's especially important when you're trying to read relevant information with just a glance. And compatibility with the IQ Store gives you a ton of customization options.
8. Garmin vívosmart HR Activity Tracker
You can think of the vivosmart HR as essentially an upgraded version of the vivofit 3, but the extra tricks it has up its sleeve could justify the increased price of around $30. One of the biggest changes is in the name. The vivosmart HR has a wrist-based heart rate monitor built in, although it still neglects to include GPS into its critical components.
But if you're looking for an all day heart rate monitor and fitness tracking wearable that doesn't have to serve as a dedicated smartwatch, this is a model to look for. The touchscreen is always on and sports a relatively long battery life, and the vivosmart HR can even take notifications from your phone. This is another watch that's designed to be worn all way, a design that's complemented by the waterproof design and a band that's more comfortable and secure than the vivofit 3's.
9. Garmin Approach S20
The Approach S20 isn't just a Garmin smart watch. It's a specific attempt at piercing the golf GPS watch market, and it manages to perform admirably in that respect. With a price tag of almost $150, it's well within the budget side of pricing for these types of models. That makes it a great steal for regular golfers, but the most impressive features aren't going to be of much valuable for anyone who doesn't hit the links seriously.
Garmin's top of the line GPS satellite systems are even more advantageous for golf watches as they are for running watches since they play a major role in evaluating the green and hole distance, but Garmin has also invested as much energy into stat tracking as they do with their more traditional athletic watches. The Garmin Connect service gives you incredibly in-depth post-round analysis for improving your game and comparing with friends.
10. Garmin Fenix 5X Sapphire
The Fenix 5X is in contention with the Forerunner 935 as the most lavish watch that Garmin offers. No doubt it's going to cost you a few hundred dollars to invest in this futuristic little gadget, but you'd be hard pressed to find a better specialized fitness watch anywhere in the world. In terms of both design and functionality, both of these watches are pretty similar, so what's the main difference? The Fenix 5X veers a little more into traditional smartwatch territory.
There are a few prominent features here that allow this watch to more effectively double as a casual use smartwatch. The remote functionality for your phone's camera is especially cool, but perhaps more useful is the depth of social media integration and notifications that you can receive through the 5X. It does a great job of bridging the gap between a multisport wearable and the Apple Watch.
11. Garmin Forerunner 645 GPS Running Watch
In case you haven't noticed, the Garmin Forerunner line is pretty stacked with options, but they've also done a good job of distinguishing the models from one another. And while the 635 comes in at a relatively expensive price point of around $400. That puts it significantly cheaper than the 935, but it manages to distinguish itself by more than just being less than for less money.
That's because while this watch is lacking some of the features that are suited to the needs of triathletes, golfers, and other serious athletes, it comes with some general quality of life features that you simply won't find in the 935. That includes the ability to save your music directly to the device and listen to it without the need for a tethered smartphone. It also includes Garmin Pay so you can pay at the register with a simple tap of your wrist.
Garmin Watch Buying Guide
Garmin watches may seem like a very specific category to write a buying guide for, but the variety of their product lines makes a Garmin watch comparison a necessity, and the company has earned a serious reputation in the running community for the quality of their products. If you’re looking for more general advice, check out our guides to the best smartwatches and triathlon watches. Keep reading for more pertinent info on Garmin’s watches.
What Are the Advantages of Garmin Watches?
Fitbit may have the most brand recognition in the fitness wearables market, but Garmin is arguably the most beloved brand among serious athletes. There’s quite a few reasons for this. The first is the accuracy of the GPS systems that Garmin offers. They were dealing in satellite tracking systems years before they ever got into the smartwatch market, and they offer some of the fastest and most precise satellite tracking around. Many Garmin watches even offer connectivity with other satellite systems like GLONASS to provide better accuracy out in the wild.
Then there’s the sheer quality of the fitness tracking tools built into Garmin devices. There aren’t many brands that offer the incredibly tight stat tracking built right into their devices, but Garmin manages to do it without the need to download separate apps from the store. Combine this with Garmin Connect – which allows you to upload all of your data online for later analysis – and you’re left with some incredibly powerful training tools.
The company is also well regarded for their Garmin heart rate monitor watch models. All but the most basic and cheapest models are going to come with Garmin watch HR built in.
The bottom line is this. If you want a general purpose smartwatch, Garmin probably isn’t the right choice for you. But if you take your health seriously and want fitness tracking that goes beyond the typical pace keeping of a Fitbit, Garmin is one of the few watches out there that can seriously match your needs.
How Do You Choose the Best Garmin Watch for You?
There are a huge number of Garmin watches on the market, and they can vary wildly both in terms of pricing and features. The former is obviously going to be the biggest hurdle for most people. How much you’re willing to spend on a Garmin sports watch is likely set largely in stone. With watches ranging in price from about $50 to 10 times that, winnowing down the options should be pretty easy.
When shopping models, it’s best to look at two qualities available with Garmin: general use and fitness specific feature. The former includes cool modern systems like the ability to pay bills wirelessly with Garmin Pay or the option to store music locally from your streaming services. The latter can include some incredibly in-depth options for specialized athletes like triathletes and golfers.
Since fitness in Garmin’s bread and butter, the fitness features should be the first things to consider. Look at what you need for your training regimen, and look for a watch that matches your needs. For golfers, there’s only one real option on our list. For other athletes, the possibilities are a little more vast, but you should look at what you need for your training first and foremost, and then start examining quality of life features once you have that nailed down.
The fact that Garmin has managed to sustain themselves with such a large catalog for such a seemingly narrow market should tell you a lot about the quality of their products. If you want a fitness watch, there’s no one who beats Garmin. The real trick is finding the perfect model for you. We hope our guide will help you figure that out.