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17 Mar 2021

Garmin vs Apple Watch: which smartwatches are best for sports?

Find out how the Garmin Forerunner 745, Garmin Venu Sq and Garmin Venu Sq Music compare with an Apple Watch for tracking exercise
Running with a smartwatch

Apple and Garmin are both big names in the world of smartwatches, but while the Apple Watch has enjoyed greater popularity, Garmin is certainly no slouch when it comes to tracking activity.

We've put three of Garmin's latest through our test labs - the Garmin Forerunner 745, Garmin Venu Sq and Garmin Venu Sq Music. And to see how seriously Apple's offering can really be treated for sports, we look at how each of them fare against the Apple Watch Series 6.

Accuracy is key if you're serious about sport. Read our guide to smartwatch and fitness tracker accuracyor head to our list of best smartwatches we've tested

Garmin Forerunner 745, £399.99

Garmin Forerunner 745

The Garmin Forerunner 745 is a GPS watch aimed squarely at super-keen runners and triathletes wanting to dive deep into their personal data. As such, it's packed with sensors for analysing your pace, cadence (how many steps you take per minute), heart rate, heart-rate variability, performance condition after running and much more.

You'll get feedback on your 'training effect', so you can see how your workouts influence your endurance, speed and power, and your 'training load' - the strain placed on your body from exercise over the past week compared with the optimum amount someone of that fitness level should be training. You'll also get a 'training status': whether you're training productively or overdoing it.

It can estimate your Vo2 max: the maximum amount of oxygen your body can use, and, by extension, an indicator of your overall fitness; there's a compass for navigation when you're exercising off-piste; 'body battery' energy monitoring and a race predictor tool. All in all, it's pretty feature-packed.

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Para athlete running with a Garmin smartwatch

While the Forerunner 745 is primarily for runners and triathletes, there are preloaded activity profiles for other exercises, including snowboarding. And, if it's not enough, you can also buy a compatible Garmin device, such as a chest belt, for even more accurate heart-rate monitoring, and an underwater chest belt for swimming or clip-on running dynamics pod for more running analytics.

If, on the other hand, that all sounds overwhelming, consider the Garmin Venu Sq, Garmin Venu Sq Music or the Apple Watch Series 6 instead (more on these below).

How does the Apple Watch compare?

The Apple Watch Series 6 also has GPS, advanced heart-rate monitoring and workouts for everything from core training to yoga. The analysis you'll get is more top-level than with the Forerunner 745, though.

Like with many Garmins, the Forerunner 745 doesn't have a touchscreen, which might be hard to get used to if you've had one in the past. If so, you might be happier with the likes of an Apple Watch.

It's not necessarily a bad thing, though. If you're hardcore enough to exercise in all kinds of weather then you'll know that rain, gloves and/or sweaty fingers don't mix well with touchscreens anyway. Plus, it's easy enough navigate the Forerunner 745 using the buttons.

Read our full review of the Garmin Forerunner 745 and the Apple Watch Series 6 to find out more.

Garmin Venu Sq, £179.99

Garmin Venu Sq smartwatch

If you're looking for a feature-packed watch, but without the running focus of the Garmin Forerunner 745 (and a £200 saving) the Venu Sq could be a good bet.

It has a compass, built-in heart rate monitor, GPS, VO2 max estimates and 'body battery' monitoring and exercise modes for different sports. Runners will get distance, exercise time, pace, cadence and calories.

In keeping with its broader and more mainstream appeal, the Venu Sq does have a touchscreen. It also looks more Apple-esque and less visibly sporty than the Forerunner 745.

How does the Apple Watch compare?

Both have a long list of trackable activities, but none as in depth as the Forerunner 745, so they're pretty similar in that regard.

The Apple Watch 6 can track open water swimming, so is a better choice for lake or sea swimmers who want GPS data. If you're more likely to be doing laps in your local pool, you can opt for either watch.

Unlike the Series 6 and the Forerunner 745, the Venu Sq doesn't have an altimeter, which would have come in handy for hikers and climbers, or if you're wanting to log how many flights of stairs you've climbed.

Measuring blood oxygen with the Apple Watch Series

Both also offer features like an SpO2 sensor for measuring your blood oxygen (pulse oximetry) and incident detection, whereby an emergency contact will get notified if you have an accident such as a hard fall.

Find out what everything we liked and disliked in our Garmin Venu Sq review.

Exercising with a smartwatch

Garmin Venu Sq Music, £229.99

If you can't muster up the motivation to run without your workout playlist, but you find it a nuisance to run with your phone, it's worth investing in a music watch.

You can use the Garmin Venu Sq, and Garmin Forerunner 745, to control music playing from your tethered phone, but you'd still need your handset with you.

Garmin Venu Sq Music

The Garmin Venu Sq Music is near-identical to the Garmin Venu Sq, but, as its name tells you, it has more music options. You can download up to 500 songs on to it from Amazon Music, Deezer or Spotify (or your own collection - but only via a computer, not a phone). You'll then be able to listen later through Bluetooth connected headphones, while you run unfettered by your phone.

How does the Apple Watch compare?

With the Series 6, you can play music from your iPhone or from your Apple Watch directly, including from your music library or from Apple Music (if you have a subscription).

Head over to our Garmin Venu Sq Music review to discover all its features, including whether it records your stats accurately and whether it's easy to use when your brain is tired from exercise.

Prefer to keep your phone handy a run? We can reveal the best running armbands and phone holders

How good is the Apple Watch Series 6?

Although it's pricey, with the 40mm version starting from £379, the Series 6 isn't short on fitness features either. Its famous ring system is great for motivation, the idea being that you have onscreen rings for movement, exercise and standing: each day you should aim to 'close' them.

You'll get personalised suggestions for closing your rings and digital trophies when you reach milestones. You've also got plenty of options for sharing your progress with friends and taking part in competitions.

Apple Watch Series 6 fitness rings

If you're a fitness devotee with serious goals, you'll get more from the Forerunner 745, or another watch in the Forerunner line.

If your ambition is less to compete in a race than to complete one in reasonable time, and you're after a sophisticated all-round lifestyle watch that will also spur you on to care more about your health and fitness, opt for the Apple Watch Series 6, Garmin Venu Sq or Garmin Venu Sq Music.

There's also the option to subscribe to Apple's Fitness+ for workout videos and recommendations on your watch, phone, iPad or Apple TV. That could be a good option if you're already a lover of the Apple ecosystem and free YouTube tutorials don't inspire you enough.

Fitness+ costs £9.99/month, with three months free if you're buying a new Apple Watch.

Bear in mind that generally speaking, you can't use an Apple Watch with an Android phone - so if you have one, that might help to make the decision about a Garmin model for you.

Decided on an Apple Watch, but not sure which one is right for you? Our guide to which Apple Watch to buy demystifies the differences between them

Apple vs Garmin battery life

A final thing to consider is that Apple Watches have a notoriously short battery life.

The average battery life for the Garmin watches we've tested was 236.6 hours: nearly 10 days.Under the exact same conditions, the Apple Watches we've tested lasted on average 44.4 hours: less than two days.

That's without GPS enabled - bear in mind that it will be shorter (for both brands) the more features you're using.

Still, you can see that, even if you're not draining the battery faster through using GPS, you'll be tied into charging your Apple Watch pretty much daily.That's worth knowing in advance if you always feel busy and overwhelmed with things to do. And it could scupper any plans you have to take your watch on a multi-day hike.

How to buy the best smartwatch - the features you need to optimise your workouts and stay connected.