March 8, 2023
by Ariel Adams
American Garmin continues to be one of the most prolific smartwatch innovators on the market. Each year, the company comes out with a slew of entry-level to premium-priced smartwatches in a truly diverse range of styles and themes. In fact, there are really only a few companies on the market that are truly advancing the smartwatch field, with most of the lower-priced competitors in the space simply copying the leaders. How many smartwatches on the market are relatively uninspired Garmin emulators? I can’t review all Garmin’s new smartwatches, but I do like to sample the range and check out the models I feel are the most important, including its top-end MARQ smartwatches and interesting niche models like this Garmin Instinct Crossover Solar Tactical Edition watch.
What I think needs to be said about this smartwatch is that it merges Garmin’s work to advance the smartwatch as a consumer product, as well as play with new concepts that are more about emotion and fashion, and less about pure utility. More so, I will comment that smartwatches, in general, come out of a desire for a tool like this, as opposed to finding a new use for available technology. Quite the contrary, as smartwatch functionality has been a techie dream for many decades — limited only by the technology that has really come a long way over the last decade. What I have found is that this status quo means that designers with dreams of particular smartwatch designs carefully watch emerging technology and manufacturing techniques to determine if “now” is the time to try to make their design dream a reality. Is the Garmin Instinct Crossover Solar the result of just such a dream? I’d like to think it is.
At its core, this is an upper-mid-range, full-featured smartwatch with a hybrid analog/digital dial and solar-power charging. It also happens to be the type of product that enthusiasts have dreamed about for years: a tool watch that is fashionable, provides useful data in a discreet way, and is useful enough that it can survive away from a charger (i.e., is solar-powered). Casio was probably the first to learn that even though digital-only dials are practical and useful, many consumers seem to prefer analog hangs on watch dials. Since the late 1980s, Casio has developed an incredibly robust volume of analog/digital watches in order to provide consumers with the functionality they need and the style they want. Since the birth of the modern smartwatch era, the market has seen concept art of watches like this Instinct Crossover that combine physical hands and a digital dial. For whatever reason, consumers really like the idea of smartwatches that still look like analog instruments. Practically speaking, there is little need for physical hands if you have an entirely digital dial, but emotionally, we really like it.
The Instinct Crossover Solar actually comes out of the range of Garmin Instinct watches that only have digital dials. There are a few styles of the Instinct Crossover, and this Garmin Instinct Crossover Solar Tactical Edition is currently at the top of the heap in terms of price. The watch case itself is 45mm-wide and just over 16mm-thick with a water-resistance rating of 100 meters. Over the dial is a “Power Glass” crystal, and the case material is a fiber-reinforced polymer (fancy plastic) along with pieces of black-colored steel. Even though this watch might seem large when reading the specs, it actually wears small for a smartwatch, and I think is ideal for people who may be concerned about wearing a smartwatch that is too large.
Part of the wearing comfort comes from the strap, which is a double-edged sword. The good news is that the strap attaches directly against the case and also slopes directly downward. This is ideal for medium to smaller wrists. The bad news is that the black silicone strap doesn’t have a quick release to easily remove as other Garmin straps have. That said, you can remove the stock 22mm Instinct Crossover Solar strap and replace it with other 22mm-wide Garmin (or third party) straps.
Technically speaking, the Garmin Instinct Crossover Solar is full-featured and comes with most software tools that you’d expect from a modern Garmin smartwatch, including top-quality GPS satellite communication, a heart-rate monitor, Bluetooth phone connection, complete fitness and activity tracking, and a range of other tools.
What the watch does not seem to have internally are sensors such as a compass and altimeter, which are available on other Garmin models, though these are tools that aren’t always needed and can be found on other devices, such as your phone. UPDATE: I orginally reported that Instinct Crossover Solar does not have certain features including the “ABC” suite of sensors (altimeter, barometer, compass). This turned out not to be correct. What is correct is that the “stock” (default) interface for the smartwatch does not have these features displayed. What someone needs to do is edit this menu in order to add additional available features that are included in the watch. Given that I like to review the “out of the box experience” with most smartwatches, I did not edit the menu when I originally reviewed the watch and thus didn’t notice those features. It is great that these and other software features are available in the Instinct Crossover Solar, but it is still a bit strange to me that these otherwise desirable and popular tools would be relatively hidden within the software’s system. Again, this is a system that is exclusively accessible on the smartwatch itself and not available to edit or explore on the companion smartphone app (something which I have advised Garmin to work on in the future). The operating system is otherwise similar to what you’ll find on most modern Garmin watches and is rather straightforward once you spend some time learning about it. Everything is controlled via the five pushers on the case. This watch does not have a touch-screen, but if it did, then Garmin would have to call it the G-Touch.
Garmin does a great job of creating an attractive smartwatch display for the Instinct Crossover Solar using a low-power MIP (memory in pixel) display that sits underneath the hour and minute hands (which, like the hour markers, are painted in luminant). Around the dial is the exposed photovoltaic cell responsible for charging the battery (more on that in a bit). While you can customize the information on the watch face, I think it is important to review what Garmin has in store for users, right out of the box. Here’s what my Garmin Instinct Cross Over Solar dial has indicated on it, in addition to the local time in analog format: On the dial is displayed the 1) battery life, 2) light lux intensity, 3) day and date, 4) running seconds, 5) Zulu time, 6) sunrise or sunset time, and 6) the current weather conditions and temperature. All of this is relatively elegantly displayed but also discreet so that it doesn’t take away much from the analog elegance of the overall composition.
As a smartwatch, the Instinct Crossover solar can, of course, beep and notify you about incoming messages and notifications. Personally, I turn off sound notifications, but do like it when the watch vibrates (which this Garmin does). When notifications come in, the analog hands automatically move out of the way in order to make the dial easy to read, which is a nice feature and helps keep the overall experience of this product refined and fun.
One of the things I wanted to do with Instinct Crossover Solar was take it on a trip without the charger. I wanted to see what it was like to keep the watch powered using only light. The watch can be charged entirely with solar power, but you do need to spend a lot of time in the sun. Garmin says that to use the Instinct Crossover Solar without light-power generation you need an average of three hours in direct sunlight per day, or rather a 50,000 lux rating. That might be a lot for some people, and you can use an included USB charging cable to keep it powered. Garmin’s lux rating tool in the watch helps you understand how much light you are exposing the watch to and also helps you understand how much power you are using (which can vary wildly depending on the connectivity you need and how often you use GPS. What I also think is very important to say is how long the standard battery life is — which, according to the watch dial, is about 25 days under “normal” usage conditions. That’s pretty good news for those people who dislike charging their devices very often.
If you had to explain the market need for this Crossover version of the Garmin Instinct Solar, it would be difficult to do on paper, since the addition of the hands doesn’t advance a lot of functional value. That said, there is an undeniable emotional and fashion value to the resultant look of this combination of elements and features. With the promise of “unlimited solar power” and science fiction video game looks, I think this latest Garmin smartwatch is going to be perfect for certain consumers. I, for one, have enjoyed wearing it quite a bit — I just think that Garmin might want to spruce it up with bolder colors and further develop its “Crossover” smartwatches if the market responds positively. The brand does that with other smartwatches, and I think it would make sense with Crossover models. More so, I think that if Garmin likes this type of smartwatch style, it might want to follow Casio’s lead and continue to improve the quality of the case and dial. Casio has done an admirable job making very high-end analog/digital watches with extremely fine attention to detail. Garmin might have the upper hand on modern connected functionality, but if it is serious about this segment, there is plenty of room to bridge the gap between what it currently offers and the materials sophistication of Casio’s physical dials and cases.
While it isn’t perfect, the Instinct Crossover Solar is a smile-inducing watch that is very easy to live with, and utilitarian. Even though Garmin doesn’t use the “hybrid” term to refer to this type of watch, it very much is and could be a real crossover product (in the way Garmin actually intends it), which can bring more non-smartwatch people into the smartwatch market. I just like wearing it because I think it is cool, and it also happens to do much of the sports smartwatch stuff I want. Price for the Garmin reference 010-02730-10 Instinct Crossover Solar Tactical Edition watch is $599.99 USD. Learn more at the Garmin website.