Apple Watch vs Garmin: Which is best for Apple Fitness Plus, workout tracking and beyond?

Apple and Garmin are two of the biggest names in wearables. If you’re after a smartwatch, sports watch, or fitness tracker, these two juggernauts are responsible for making some of the best smartwatches in the business.

Both offer multiple options to pick from, especially in the case of Garmin, to make sure you get something that’s a good fit for you. Whether you’re after rich smartwatch features like payments and music or want to keep much closer tabs on your health and fitness, these two smartwatch platforms can do it. 

The question is, if you have to choose between the two, which one should you turn to for your first or next smartwatch? Both have their strengths and weaknesses in the hardware and software departments that’s for sure and there are plenty of reasons you’d opt for a Garmin watch and vice versa for the Apple Watch.

Here’s how the two smartwatch rivals compare in the key areas to help the decision to pick between them a far easier one.

Apple Watch vs Garmin: Design and displays

Apple Watch vs Garmin

(Image credit: Future)

When it comes to comparing what these watches are like to wear there are some clear differences. Apple has three main Watch models and all adopt more of a square look. Most of Garmin’s watches are round, bar watches like the Venu Sq series, and it also has a significantly larger number of watches in its collection.

Some Garmin watches seem to match up better with Apple’s key ones. The Apple Watch Series 9 is very close in price to the Garmin Venu 3, the Garmin Vivoactive 5 and Garmin Forerunner 165 are strong Apple Watch SE equivalents while the Apple Watch Ultra 2 is as pricey as something like the Garmin Epix Pro.

All of those watches mentioned have color displays, something that Apple offered from the first Watch, while AMOLED displays have only recently started to filter into Garmin’s range. That means if you want color, vibrancy, and something punchy, both Garmin and Apple can offer that.

Materials in use are similar as well. Take the Apple Watch Series 9, which offers aluminum or stainless steel looks, while the Venu 3 offers a stainless steel finish. You’re also getting case color options and straps that can be removed. Apple has a more extensive collection of official straps compared to Garmin, along with a host of other retailers that make Apple Watch straps. So if you want variety, Apple has more to offer on that front.

Of the models mentioned, both offer a mix of touchscreen and physical button navigation. Garmin’s watches typically offer more buttons on its watches, with Apple placing a much stronger emphasis on swiping and tapping on that screen. It does also have Siri in its locker and its new Double Tap feature for more hands-free control.

If you’re planning to knock these watches around on rides and adventures, both Apple and Garmin do a fine job of offering some extra protection. The Apple Watch Ultra 2 for example is water resistant up to 100 metres, has been tested to military standards for scenarios like being operated in low temperatures, and does offer defence against dust. The similarly priced Garmin Epix Pro is also waterproof up to 100 meters and offers a titanium bezel and a sapphire crystal display like the Ultra to better protect the case and display.

Apple Watch vs Garmin: Health and fitness features

Apple Watch vs Garmin

(Image credit: Future)

This is likely to be a decisive topic for the majority of people looking at whether to pick up a Garmin or Apple smartwatch. This has very much been Garmin’s territory for a while now, though Apple has learned quickly how to build a smartwatch for tracking your health and fitness and in many ways has matched what Garmin offers on the tracking front.

If you’re looking at these smartwatches as being ways to count your steps, track sleep, and motivate you to move more during the day, both can do that. Apple wants you to Close Your Activity Rings daily and helps you to do that in a really subtle yet purposeful way. Most, if not all Garmin watches will let you count daily step goals and can automatically adjust daily step goals based on progress, all while nudging you like the Apple Watch does to stay active through inactivity alerts.

Sleep tracking is also supported across Apple and Garmin’s watches, with Garmin a little further ahead in terms of the level of data and insights it offers natively. Apple only added its own sleep-tracking support when it launched watchOS 7 back in 2020. It does also have access to a range of third-party sleep tracking apps to make up for its more limited support. Accuracy-wise though, Apple has felt a touch more reliable in our testing, so if it’s accuracy over insights that matters, the Apple Watch has performed better for us.

If you care about serious health tracking, Apple’s latest watches (Series 9 and Ultra) offer ECG sensors that can be used to help detect signs of serious heart conditions like atrial fibrillation. Apple also includes optical heart rate sensors for continuous heart rate monitoring and a blood oxygen sensor though as highly documented has had to drop this feature from future Watches amid a patent dispute. 

Garmin’s watches do offer a blood oxygen sensor and optical heart rate sensor for most of its latest models. It has also added ECG sensors to a small number of its watches too, including the Garmin Epix Pro, Venu 2, and Venu 3, which come in similarly priced to Apple’s Series 9 and Ultra watches. Garmin is certainly playing catch up with Apple in terms of being utilized as serious health monitoring devices though.

Then we get into sports tracking and the good news is that both Apple and Garmin offer plenty on this front. If you want something to track runs, swims, hikes, and even more niche pursuits, both have you well covered.

Both include dual-band GPS modes, which offer improved outdoor tracking accuracy and offer two of the best examples of this new dual-band GPS mode. Heart rate monitoring during exercise is generally very good across Apple and Garmin’s watches, though we’ve found smaller Garmin and Apple models offer the best accuracy, with scope to pair up external heart rate sensors among other sensors well supported.

If you’re a runner or cyclist looking for a training plan for your next race, Garmin offers its Coach platform, which is free to access. Apple offers strong Watch integration with its Apple Fitness Plus platform, but you will have to pay extra for access to the very slick workout app. 

The core sports tracking experience is great across both, but where you’ll start to see some disparity is with the preloaded training and analysis features. With Garmin, and again, this depends on the watch model, it will natively offer more insight into your workouts and training. You’ll get that from Apple too, but you’ll need to seek out a third-party app from the App Store to get something that comes close to rivalling what you get from a Garmin out of the box.

Apple Watch vs Garmin: Smartwatch features

Apple Watch vs Garmin

(Image credit: Future)

What these two wearable platforms offer in terms of smartwatches and when you’re not using them to track your swims or hikes is an important area to discuss.

Compatibility is an obvious thing to address first in that Apple’s Watch will of course only work with iPhones. That is not the case for Garmin watches, which work with both iPhones and Android phones. Using it with an Android phone will get you a little more smartwatch functionality, particularly with notification support and having the ability to respond to notifications, or view images in messages sent to you. Again, that’s dependent on the model.

The notification support is very good on the whole, though the presentation of notifications perhaps feels a touch more polished on the Apple Watch. If you care about music, you’re going to be able to have access to music controls and model dependent in the case of Garmin, you can also get built-in music players with support for offline playlist syncing from streaming services like Spotify and Deezer. Apple does work with Apple Music in that manner where Garmin unsurprisingly doesn’t. It’s the same story for contactless payment support, though Apple’s payment approach does feel slicker overall.

If you want your smartwatch to standalone through cellular connectivity, it’s an LTE variant of an Apple Watch you want to do that. Garmin does offer LTE functionality on a few of its watches, but that connectivity isn’t used in the same way as it is on Apple Watches and is actually reserved for using emergency features.

If you care about apps, Garmin and Apple both have storefronts, and they can help to elevate the software and hardware on both smartwatches. Ultimately though, Apple has more in the way of apps while Garmin’s focus is more on offering watch faces, extra data fields, and making sure it offers compatibility with third-party apps to share your data to.

Both watches offer a strong experience when you’re not tracking, with Apple perhaps just edging things in terms of slickness and the execution of similar features available on both. Garmin has stepped its game up on this front as well, and it certainly doesn’t shirk its duties to give you a good smartwatch feeling that doesn’t feel jarring or challenging to use.

Apple Watch vs Garmin: Battery life

Apple Watch vs Garmin

(Image credit: Future)

We imagine this is going to be a decisive factor for a lot of people looking at whether to go Apple or Garmin. How regularly you’re going to have to charge it. 

If you generally want the best battery life on offer between the two, it’s the Garmin that’s going to give you that. Whether you go for a similarly priced alternative to the Apple Watch Series 9, Watch SE, or the pricier Ultra, a Garmin that’s going to cost you the same is going to give you more watch time in between charges.

That includes the newer Garmin watches that offer an AMOLED display, whether you use it in always-on mode, or you opt for the more battery-friendly raise to wake mode.

Take the Apple Watch Series 9 which offers up to 18 hours battery life or 36 hours in low battery mode. The similarly priced Garmin Venu 3 offers up to 14 days or up to 5 days when you have the AMOLED screen on 24/7.

It’s a similar story with the Ultra 2, which offers up to 36 hours or 72 hours in its low-power mode. The 47mm version of Garmin’s Epix Pro (Gen 2) offers up to 16 days of battery or up to 6 days with the screen set to always-on.

Whichever way you slice it, Garmin’s watches are going to give you more battery to play with across the board.

Apple Watch vs Garmin: Which should you go for?

Apple Watch vs Garmin

(Image credit: Future)

The big question. We’ll start by saying that Apple quite clearly makes one of the best if not the best smartwatch and while Garmin has come to embrace smartwatch features later, it now offers a strong, feature-rich experience across its watches.

Here’s how we see it. If you’re an iPhone user locked into that Apple ecosystem and care mostly about those core smartwatch features like notifications, music, payments, apps, connectivity, and having a smartwatch that seamlessly integrates with your other Apple gear, then grabbing an Apple Watch is the way to go.

Garmin’s support for those features does vary across watches, though you can get something that delivers notifications, music, payments, and connectivity, and do it in a really polished fashion. Garmin’s watches are going to give you more battery life, iOS and Android compatibility, more in the way of preloaded sports tracking support (model dependent) and more on the training analysis front. Apple’s Watches are certainly no slouches on the sports tracking front and can leverage a host of apps to fill in the gaps, but this is what Garmin is known for and where it shines.

Whether you go Apple Watch Series 9 or Garmin Venu 3, Epix Pro, or Ultra 2, you’re going to get a great experience across the board. It just depends on what you value most from that smartwatch time.

Michael Sawh

Michael is a freelance journalist who has covered consumer technology for over a decade and specializes in wearable and fitness tech. Previously editor of Wareable, he also co-ran the features and reviews sections of T3, and has a long list of bylines in the world of consumer tech sites.

With a focus on fitness trackers, headphones, running wearables, phones, and tablet, he has written for numerous publications including Wired UK, GQ, Men's Fitness, BBC Science Focus, Metro and Stuff, and has appeared on the BBC Travel Show. Michael is a keen swimmer, a runner with a number of marathons under his belt, and is also the co-founder of YouTube channel The Run Testers.