I'm a long-time Apple fan. I'm thoroughly in the ecosystem, with MacBook M1 Max laptop, a Studio Mac, iPad Pro, and iPhone. I've also had the Apple Watch since the first edition and now have a Series 7 Apple Watch planted on my wrist.
Alone among Apple products, I've always felt the Apple Watch did not live up to its full potential. Battery life is pretty horrid (day and a half at best), I've had some physical issues with a couple of my watches (crystal falling off and some odd software glitches), but the watch overall is very good and of course it integrates nicely with the rest of my Apple gear.
As a landscape photographer, I'm outside a lot. Living in Arizona, I get dust storms, torrential rains, and all manner of rugged plant life, which loves to scratch watch crystals.
Someone suggested I look at the Garmin line. I knew about Garmin as early innovators in the portable GPS world. Back in the day, I used to carry one, but a smartphone with maps made short work of those devices. Still, Garmin hung on, and now has a rather complete line of watches, some of which directly challenge and in some ways improve upon the Apple offerings.
I've been testing a Garmin epix Gen 2 smartwatch. The model I'm using is the Titanium, Sapphire Crystal version. It's not cheap, listing at $995, but it offers up to 16 days of battery life, built-in detailed navigation maps, an altimeter, and a host of features that should appeal to photographers who spend a lot of time in the elements. Like the Apple Watch, it can measure your heart rate, sleep quality, number of steps, and the usual health tracking. You can see full specs here.
There are Garmin watches with similar features down in the $179 price range, with prices mostly dependent on the GPS receivers and the build quality of the watch. Likewise, an Apple Watch with a Titanium case like the Garmin epix will top out at about $1,500
Using the Garmin epix Generation 2 Watch
When you get the watch, you'll enter some of your personal data if you want to use the health features. You can pair it to either an iOS or Android phone, and Garmin provides setup apps for either device.
One thing I was sure I'd miss was the find my phone feature that Apple does so well was using an Apple Watch to locate your iPhone. I was surprised to learn Garmin offers the same feature, and when I trigger the feature on the watch, my iPhone emitted some loud tones to let me know where it was hiding. You can also set up the watch for sports scores, stocks etc. Built-in is very good weather data, which I always need outside, including current weather, hourly predictions, wind forecasts, (nice for drone photographers like me),12-hour trends, and humidity. These things are also offered on the Apple Watch, but I was surprised to see them on this Garmin watch.
There are a large quality of watch faces provided by Garmin and third parties, a step Apple has not taken as yet. Some are free, some are available for a small fee.
I'm using a Garmin-included face and set it up to give me my heart rate, current weather, and my altitude. Those so-called "complications" can be chosen from many options, but these work for me when I am outside working, as I'm a click away from stopwatch functions or other apps I might want.
Like the Apple Watch screen, the Garmin epix watch has an AMOLED screen, which is very bright and readable. It can be set to always on like the Apple Watch Series 7, or it can turn on when you turn the watch face toward you. In that mode, Garmin says you'll get about 16 days of battery life or 6 days in the always on mode, and that trounces Apple Watch battery life.
Features like automatic GPS time sync and sunrise and sunset times are useful for an outdoor photographer. There's also a compass and a thermometer. I find myself using the stopwatch a lot for night and Milky Way photography.
The epix also gets notifications, so you'll see anything your Apple Watch gets. The rub is that you can't respond to an email or a text. You just know it's come in and can read it, but not respond.. I did not find that a big problem, as my phone is usually nearby. Still, a small bummer. In general, I found text more readable on the Garmin than the Apple Watch.
The watch has a lot of features for swimmers and athletes, but I was more concerned with it helping with my photography. For an idea of the full feature set, check the link provided above.
Is the Garmin epix Generation 2 Better Than the Apple Watch?
It's a hard question to answer definitively because every photographer has different needs. The epix gen 2 is better built than the average Apple Watch, but it costs more. The built-in features seem to eclipse what Apple offers. It's very water-resistant down to 10 ATM (338 feet), while the Apple Watch is good down to about 150 feet.
The epix 2 is really well built, and despite some unfortunate encounters with nasty vegetation, the crystal emerged unscathed. For hikers/photographers, the epix gen 2 will put breadcrumbs down on a route without needing a connected phone and find various locations with its internal maps.
I really liked the Garmin epix gen 2. It turned my head from just assuming I would buy Apple Watches forever.
What I Liked
- Great build quality
- Very bright screen
- Built-in maps with features photographers will appreciate
- Battery life: never had less than six days of use, even with the always-on display
- Nice integration with Apple notifications and Find my iPhone
- A lot of watch faces, especially third party watch faces, and all are easily customized
What I Wasn't Thrilled About
- The rugged case and crystal are expensive, but Garmin, like Apple, offers a variety of prices depending on case and crystal quality and features
- The Garmin watches are not fully part of the Apple ecosystem, so no responding to text or emails
The Apple Watch is an iOS device. Like an Apple Watch, firmware can be updated. For Garmin, you download firmware on your Mac, plug the Garmin watch into your Mac with the supplied USB cable, and firmware updates are basically drag and drop into the watch, which appears on your desktop.
Garmin has an iOS app called ConnectIQ. From there, you can browse dozens of watch faces and apps, which are easily installed on any Garmin Smart Watch.
In my three weeks of testing, I didn't see any glitches or crashes. I would judge the OS to be of equal quality to WatchOS. I'm amazed that Garmin gets so much battery life on a full-featured smartwatch and wondering why Apple can't match it yet.
I think these new, very capable watches from Garmin are worth a look for outdoor photographers in the Apple ecosystem who would never consider anything but an Apple Watch. Note to Apple: These guys are serious about selling watches. Get that battery life upgraded.