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(Pocket-lint) - The original Garmin Venu was Garmin's stab at something more like a smartwatch. It was designed to address the display above all things, sporting an AMOLED panel - and looking better than all the other devices in Garmin's range.

The Venu 2 continues down the same line, looking to add a boost the display credentials over the company's Vivoactive 4 - which is similar in design and features, but without the glorious display and some bespoke visuals. So does it succeed?

Design and build

  • Dimensions: 45.4 x 45.4 x 12.2mm / Weight: 49g
  • Sizes: 40mm and 45mm
  • Stainless steel bezel
  • Changeable straps

Glance at the Venu 2 and you might not know if you're looking at a new watch or the old model. The overall design is pretty much that same - and it's a safe design.

The watch case sticks to polymer for the body, topped with a stainless steel bezel to give a premium look around the display. The big change is that there's now two sizes - 40mm or 45mm - so there's a Venu 2 for every wrist. That also sees a change in the straps you can attach to it, with 18mm and 22mm supported respectively, allowing you to chop and change to get the look you want.

That stainless steel bezel isn't just for decoration. Over the course of wearing this watch we've picked paint off the bezel where we've scraped it against doorframes and other surfaces. The bezel takes these knocks without damage, saving the display from scrapes that you might otherwise have to live with.

As we said of the original Venu, the design is rather safe. It doesn't quite reach the premium looks that you get from the Apple Watch, but it's conventional enough. We suspect much comes from the close relationship to the Vivoactive - with the Vivoactive 4 also coming in the same sizes.

Pocket-lintGarmin Venu 2 photo 8

There's a difference, however. The case of the Venu 2 now appears to be one piece, whereas previous models had a separate backplate and body, not that that makes a huge difference. For those who like to examine sensors, there's also a new arrangement to the Elevate heart rate sensor on the back, which we've not seen in other Garmin devices.

There are two buttons on the right-hand side of the body and these are oblong rather than the round buttons usually found on the Forerunner models, but the interaction is a mixture of touch and buttons.

Display

  • 33mm diameter AMOLED touchscreen
  • 416 x 416 pixel resolution
  • Always-on option

The 45mm model of the Venu 2 has a display that's 33mm in diameter for the visible area. There's some bezel area under the glass that's not active display, but Garmin has now added some markers on this area which help to disguise that fact. Fortunately, because this is AMOLED, the deep black of the display and that surrounding area merge together so you really don't notice it.

Pocket-lintGarmin Venu 2 photo 11

There are plenty of watch faces on the device and many more available through Connect IQ, but we were quickly taken by the Matrix-style face. You can choose something more classical if you prefer, you can have 'complications' on the watch face to show you stats like steps or floors climbed - basically, you can make the watch your own.

There are three brightness levels and an ambient sensor that will adjust the screen to suit the conditions you're in. These can be accessed via a swipe in from the left, so they are really easy to access - perhaps too easy, as we frequently looked at the watch only to find it on the brightness adjustment screen, because it's so easy to trigger.

There's the option for always-on display hiding in the menu under the Timeout settings, which will dictate how long the display is on before it returns to inky darkness. It illuminates easily with a twist of the wrist, but you might want to move from the short option if you find it turning off too quickly.

It's a touchscreen display, but you'll have to use a combination of buttons and touch to navigate around. We're torn on this interaction: being a regular wearer of the Fenix without a touchscreen, using touch and buttons does just become a little more fiddly than it needs to be - but you soon get used to it and often the touch aspects are to scroll or select, which works well enough.

Pocket-lintGarmin Venu 2 photo 10

The display really is the reason to buy the Venu 2 over some of Garmin's other devices. It better, visually, than devices in the Forerunner or Vivoactive categories - so if you think that those devices don't have the punch or vibrancy that you want, you'll certainly get it here. There are custom animations on the Venu, so you'll find it a little more engaging that some of Garmin's other devices too.

The comparison is often made to the Apple Watch, but it's worth considering the wide range of devices from other manufacturers too. The Venu 2 holds its own against Samsung or Huawei device when it comes to that display - the important thing beyond that is whether it does what you want it to.

Fitness features and performance

  • Heart-rate, blood oxygen, GPS, ABC
  • Sleep, step, stress tracking

Despite pitching this watch as a smartwatch, the Venu 2 is loaded with all the sensors to feed Garmin's data machine. It will keep track of your activities - from your steps to your HIIT workouts - and give you loads of information. Essentially, this is a fitness device first - and that's what you'd expect from a Garmin.

The mainstay is the heart rate (HR) sensor, which can keep track of your beats per minute (bpm) through the day and night to give you a complete picture of what's happening with your body. It will help you get in the zone when you're working out, it will help spot when you're stressed, and it will also measure blood oxygen levels (SpO2) - although be warned that this demands a lot of battery life, so probably isn't worth the sacrifice, because it's not a hugely useful metric.

We've found the heart rate sensor to return results in line with what we'd except, comparing favourably to the Fenix 6 Pro and the Polar Verity Sense, all delivering close averages. That information is then processed to make it meaningful, letting you swipe to see what zone you're in, so you can ensure that you're training at the correct intensity.

GPS provides your location for accurate route tracing, so you know how far and how fast when tracking all those outdoor activities; the accelerometer will detect motion, like steps or movements during sleep; the barometer can detect altitude change; while the compass can sense which direction you're moving in.

All the data collected feeds a number of systems, which is where Garmin really becomes more than just a fitness tracker. Your activity can be set in the context of your rest and recovery, with the Body Battery system giving you an idea of how well rested you are. You can perform fitness tests or get a glimpse at your fitness age, with some advice on how to change the score in your favour and make a lifestyle change for the better.

You can use Garmin's coaching features, meaning you can sign-up to a programme on Garmin Connect and have that pushed to your watch, so you'll see what you're supposed to be doing in your workout for that day.

Garmin will present plenty of data on the watch, which it calls Glances. These will let you check on things like your steps or floors climbed, but are customisable so you can see the information you want, each letting you tap through to see a little more. That can also include your calendar - synced from your phone - and give you quick access to music controls, which is really useful.

There's a full selection of sports supported, reaching beyond the mainstay of running, swimming and cycling. Again this is fully customisable, allowing you to choose yoga, indoor rowing or crosscountry skiing (and many others) if that's what you're doing. That not only tailors the display to the sport, but makes it really easy to keep track of your workouts in Garmin Connect once you've finished, or via other synced services, such as Strava.

Sleep tracking is offered, giving you breakdown of sleep stages and providing feedback on how you slept and advice to improve sleep. But that means wearing the watch to bed, which we're not huge fans of doing. Some might be able to sleep while wearing it, but we just find it too large to be comfortable. If you can sleep in it, it will provide the data for Body Battery. You can also add sleep data manually in Garmin Connect, if you have another sleep tracking system.

As a system it's hard to knock Garmin's fitness offering. Its comprehensive, it's accurate and for most, the data gathered by the Venu 2 will suit the vast majority of fitness fanatics or athletes. Some devices higher up the spectrum in the Forerunner series will offer more specific data, particularly for runners with greater training needs, or onboard mapping (something the Venu 2 doesn't offer) - but the biggest differentiator is longevity per charge.

Battery life

  • 11 days in smartwatch mode
  • GPS up to 8 days

Battery life is the biggest casualty of the boost that comes from the Venu 2's display. A brighter and more active display simply means that this watch won't last as long as the Garmin Vivoactive 4 or a comparable Forerunner model. That said, however, Garmin is actually good with battery management. 

The official stats say that you'll be able to track a GPS event for 8 hours; that you can run this as a smartwatch for 11 days. Neither of those represent typical use - you'll probably workout three times a week for an hour and between those times you'll be wearing the Venu 2 as a smartwatch. That means that typically you'll get away with charging it weekly, perhaps, but that drops the more you ask it to do - especially if you're doing long events, like tracking long cycles or long days hiking.

There are things you can do to extend life - limit the screen brightness, shorten the screen-on time - and reduce the notifications that the watch delivers. Each of these can be switched off through Garmin Connect, saving interactions you don't need. You can also turn off PulseOx - the blood oxygen sensor - if you don't need it (it's not a hugely useful measure for most people and it does use a lot of battery life).

There's another thing that really chews through the battery life: syncing music. We downloaded a 200 song playlist from Spotify (which you have to do over Wi-Fi) and this will essentially eat all the battery, as it's a very intensive task for the Venu 2. When you want to sync music, it's best to be connected to power and give it some time to move all that data over.

Overall, we've been pleasantly surprised by the battery life of the Venu 2. As a seasoned Fenix wearer (with a reliable 14 day battery life), it's great that you can still get a week from the Venu 2 with plenty of use. That's a far cry from the charge-every-night experience that many Apple Watch wearers live with, but at the same time, the Venu 2 doesn't go quite as far with its smartwatch experience.

Smartwatch features

  • Custom graphics
  • Garmin Pay
  • Music support
  • Smartphone notifications

Garmin offers a range of features that are less sporty and more smartwatchy. These aren't new or unique to the Venu 2, indeed most have been refined across top Forerunner and Fenix models over the years. But these do complete the picture and ensure that you're not missing out on essentials. There's support for downloaded music from Spotify (as we mentioned), Deezer or Amazon Music, letting you sync up to 650 tracks - which is an increase over the previous Venu model.

Pocket-lintGarmin Venu 2 photo 5

That means you can arrange playlists and have them sync to your watch, so you can listen to music phone-free via Bluetooth headphones. You can also control music you might have on your phone, but for that disconnected experience, nothing quite beats running out the door and leaving your phone at home. We found the headphone connection to be solid and playback smooth. You can control music from the watch when exercising, but we've always found it easier to control that playback using the controls on the headphones - which works perfectly well.

Garmin Pay allows for mobile payments, so you can pay for that coffee on your way home from a long run - although there's not a wide range of support for banks outside the USA, so it's worth checking to see if you'll be able to use your card.

We've mentioned Garmin Connect a couple of times already and once setup on your phone, you'll be able to control notifications on your watch so you can stay informed. Those using an Android phone will be able to use Quick Replies to respond to messages too - these can be customised so you can send the exact message you want, meaning that when a text message comes in, you can shoot off the appropriate reply. 

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That's really the extent of the offering and it means that you're not overloaded with functions that replicate experiences from your phone - but on an impossibly small screen. Yes, there are things you'll get from Apple or other WearOS devices - such as voice controls - that Garmin doesn't offer, but we still rate Garmin as offering a great smartwatch experience. Rather than other platforms running away from Garmin, many have crawled closer, offering well-being functions that Garmin has refined over a number of generations, with health and fitness being the core offering.

Verdict

The Garmin Venu 2 is a great all-round watch, fusing together a great display that will outshine the rest of the Garmin family, without sacrificing the core fitness offering that Garmin is known for. It's backed up by the essential smartwatch functions - notifications, payments, music - meaning that you're not missing out by selecting a device that's mostly about fitness. 

Some might find that the design is a little safe - we think some of the more aggressive Forerunner designs are more appealing - but we can't help feeling that the aim here was to design a watch to appeal to the broadest group of users. You won't get the full range of strap options that you'll find on an Apple Watch, but using universal sizes and connections means you'll still be able to customise easily.

Ultimately, the Venu 2 delivers on its aims. Sure, other Garmin devices will offer greater battery life, other Garmin devices will offer more detailed sports and mapping options, but if it's a better display that you crave then the Venu 2 is well worth considering.

Also consider

Apple Watch SE

Apple's SE version of the Watch is cheaper than the Watch 6, losing a couple of functions, but making it more affordable and a better choice for many. Apple Watch offers the closest experience to the iPhone for Apple users.

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Garmin Vivoactive 4

The Vivoactive range has proved hugely popular for Garmin, offering a more lifestyle approach for those not entirely convinced they want a Forerunner-like device. That means you'll get touchscreen interation, with a design that's slightly less sporty than some other Garmin models.

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Writing by Chris Hall. Editing by Cam Bunton. Originally published on 22 April 2021.