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Apple Watch SE vs. Garmin Instinct: Which should you buy?

Apple Watch SE Workout
Apple Watch SE Workout (Image credit: Luke Filipowicz / iMore)

It's a face-off between the smartwatch: Apple Watch SE and the adventure watch: Garmin Instinct. Since the Apple Watch SE came out more recently, it hosts newer, more advanced features. It has a larger display, a more sophisticated navigation system, more sensors, and smart tech. However, Garmin Instinct offers some great features at a solid value. Still, it's a bit dated in comparison. So, which should you buy?

Apple Watch SE vs. Garmin Instinct: Breaking down the specs

When it comes down to it, your choice depends on your operating system, budget, and the features you want most. If you want the more all-encompassing wearable, Apple Watch SE is the way to go, but note it comes with a much higher price tag. Garmin Instinct is your best bet if you don't need smart tech and want a solid adventure watch at a good value. Let's break down the specs.

Apple Watch SEGarmin Instinct
DisplayLTPO OLEDTransflective memory-in-display (MIP) monochrome
Display size1.78 inches (44mm) 1.65 inches (40mm)1.2 inches
Always-onNoYes
Customizable watch faceYesYes
Interchangeable bandsYesYes
Water-resistance5 ATM10 ATM
Swim-proofYesYes
Internal storage32GBNo
Bluetooth connectivityYesYes
Wi-FiYesNo
Smart notificationsYesYes
All-day activityYesYes
Floors climbedYesNo
Sleep trackingYesYes
Stress monitoringYesYes
Body Battery energy monitorNoYes
V02 MaxYesYes
Sp02NoNo
ECGNoNo
Preloaded sport modesYesYes
On-screen workoutsNoYes
Safety trackingYesNo
Preloaded mapsYesNo
GPSA-GPS/GLONASS/GALILEO/QZSSGPS/GLONASS/GALILEO
Music streamingYesNo
Loudspeaker + micYesNo
SensorsAccelerometer, altimeter, heart rate monitor, compass, gyroscope, ambient light, pulse oximeter, thermometerAccelerometer, altimeter, heart rate monitor, compass, thermometer
Battery life18 hours14 days (smartwatch mode) 16 hours (GPS mode)
Charge time1-2 hours1-2 hours
Payment systemApple PayNo
CompatibilityiOSAndroid + iOS
Companion appApple WatchGarmin Connect
Voice commandYesNo

As you can see, Apple Watch SE offers more, but at a higher cost. Garmin Instinct is a solid adventure watch, but it lacks some crucial features. Let's break it down further.

Apple Watch SE vs. Garmin Instinct: Apple Watch offers more at a higher price

The Apple Watch SE is the newer of these two wearables. You're going to get smart features like a smart assistant (Siri) with voice command, smart pay (Apple Pay), Wi-Fi, loudspeaker, mic, customizable apps, and media play, stream, and storage with SE that you won't get with Garmin Instinct.

It hosts a slightly more sophisticated navigation system that can pinpoint your location and map your routes worldwide. It communicates with four separate satellite systems: A-GPS, GLONASS, Galileo, and QZSS, while Instinct communicates with three. You have Maps right on your wrist to give turn-by-turn directions with a gentle buzz.

The SE is the only wearable of the two that offers safety tracking and fall detection — worth considering if you're an outdoor adventurer. It can detect if you've taken a hard spill and connect you with emergency services if you're immobile. You can also contact emergency services while traveling internationally by pressing and holding the side button.

The Apple Watch SE hosts 32GB of internal storage so you can fully customize it with all your favorite apps and download audiobooks, podcasts, and tunes to fuel your adventures. The Garmin Instinct does not have any internal storage, media stream, or storage. You can control your smartphone's music with the Instinct, but that's it.

Apple Watch SE vs. Garmin Instinct: Instinct is a bit dated, but a good value

Garmin Instinct Lifestyle

Garmin Instinct Lifestyle (Image credit: Garmin)

The Garmin Instinct shows its age compared to Apple Watch SE, but only a bit. It's a lot less expensive than the SE. It offers notable features like iOS and Android compatibility, an always-on display, better durability, a much deeper water resistance rating, on-screen workouts, Body Battery, and up to 14 days of battery life, depending on your usage.

An always-on display means that the Instinct will continue to show information while it's asleep. The Apple Watch SE will not. The Instinct is extra-durable, built to U.S. military standard 810 for thermal, shock, and water resistance. It's water-resistant up to 10 ATMs, so you can rock it in the shower, pool, lake, and ocean through all your favorite water activities. The SE is only water-resistant up to five ATMs.

Even though the SE communicates with more satellites, Instinct offers an impressive navigation system. It uses GPS, GLONASS, and Galileo to map, track, sync, and share your routes from anywhere with Garmin Connect's exclusive app. Use TracBack Routing to take the guesswork out of your return journey by using this feature to navigate the same route back to your starting point.

The SE might offer more features, but the Garmin Instinct offers a few that you won't get with the SE, like Body Battery and on-screen workouts. Body Battery is an energy monitor that tracks yours throughout the day to let you know when you're ready for a workout or when it's time to rest. On-screen workouts provide on-wrist guidance for proper form and alignment.

Apple Watch SE vs. Garmin Instinct: Compatibility, customization, and battery

Apple Watch Se

Apple Watch Se (Image credit: Apple)

Apple Watch SE is only compatible with iOS, so the Garmin Instinct is your only option if you're an Android user. It's compatible with both iOS and Android. When it comes to customization, both have customizable watch faces, and both use interchangeable bands.

The Instinct comes in four standard factory colors, whereas the Apple Watch SE has a plethora of casing and band options. The Apple Watch SE's watch face is a lot more colorful with its LTPO OLED display. The Instinct has a monochrome MIP display. In a nutshell — if you're really into customization, Apple Watch SE offers far more options and will be more vibrant in comparison.

When it comes to battery life, the Instinct comes out on top. It provides up to 14 days in smartwatch mode, up to 16 hours in GPS mode, and up to 40 hours in UltraTrac battery saver mode. The SE gives up to 18 hours, depending on usage. Remember, operating your watch in media, Wi-Fi, or GPS mode a lot is going to drain the battery much quicker than basic watch mode.

Apple Watch SE vs. Garmin Instinct: Which should you buy?

Garmin Instinct Lifestyle

Garmin Instinct Lifestyle (Image credit: Garmin)

Both wearables offer valuable attributes. The Apple Watch SE comes in at a significantly higher price point, but it's outfitted with more features and a slightly more sophisticated navigation system. The Garmin Instinct has great value and has notable features like longer battery life, iOS and Android compatibility, U.S. Military durability. However, you're not going to get any safety tracking, media stream and storage, and a lot of the smart tech you get with SE.

Your final decision comes down to operating system, budget, and usage. These are two of the best fitness wearables available; you really can't go wrong.

Nicolette Roux
Nicolette Roux

Nicolette is a freelance writer for iMore. With over a decade of high-level experience as a health and fitness professional, Nicolette has become an expert in the industry. As a writer, quadruple-certified master fitness instructor, DJ/MC, and mom; she’s had the pleasure of working with some of the top websites, studios, and brands in the world throughout her career. A dedicated creative, Nicolette enjoys writing about all things: health, fitness, audio, and home. If she’s not working, you can find her sipping a glass of wine, enjoying a concert, or hanging with her family.