Am I Wrong For Wanting A Better Screen On A $2,000 Smartwatch?

Photo: Andrew Liszewski, Gizmodo

You can get a very capable smartwatch for a few hundred bucks now, as long as you’re not overly concerned with aesthetics. Following luxury watchmakers like TAG Heuer, Garmin’s new MARQ line strives to finally bridge the gap between stylish analogue timepieces and less stylish smartwatches. But with a price tag ranging from $US1,500 ($2,181) to $US2,500 ($3,635), a disappointing display lets down the nicest smartwatch I’ve ever strapped to my wrist.

Editor's Note: While it does seem possible to the get Garmin MARQ Athlete Smartwatch in Australia, its not easy and pricing is not forthcoming. Expect it to be over $2,000 though.

Garmin MARQ Athlete Smartwatch

WHAT IS IT?

A premium smartwatch with a strong focus on aesthetics.

PRICE

$US1,500 ($2,181)

LIKE

Built like a tank with robust functionality.

DISLIKE

Its always-on screen is often very hard to see.

Garmin designed the MARQ line to emulate analogue tool watches, made by companies like Breitling and TAG Heuer, which include additional functionality and complications tailored to specific sports or activities. For the MARQ line that includes five different pieces: the Aviator, Driver, Captain, Expedition, and Athlete. At $US1,500 ($2,181), the Athlete, which we got to spend time with, is the most affordable option in Garmin’s lineup, but it in no way feels like the company cheaped out on the base model.

The Apple Watch has a beautiful aesthetic and is a great example of Apple’s attention to detail when it comes to product design and materials. But while I wouldn’t describe it as frail, I also tend to avoid wearing it during more physical activities like cycling, kayaking, or swimming as I’ve seen friends’ Apple Watches bite the dust during an accident. By comparison, I feel I could run head first into a hurricane with the MARQ Athlete strapped to my wrist, and it would be the only thing that didn’t come out the other side without a scratch.

Made from actual titanium, the same stuff the Air Force builds fighter jets from, the MARQ Athlete genuinely feels like you’re strapping a tank to your wrist. It’s also got a sapphire glass screen, so you’ll need to do more than just fall off a bike to shatter or even scratch the watch’s face, and an equally Tonka-tough ceramic bezel. The five buttons used to navigate the watch’s user interface feel even more solid than those on the Apple Watch. There’s no wiggle whatsoever, and they respond with a firm but satisfying click when pressed. However, aside from giving you something to fidget with, I can’t figure out why the MARQ Athlete’s crown dial actually turns.

Since it falls at the most affordable end of the MARQ line, the Athlete comes with a strap made from firm silicone rubber instead of a more exotic material like leather. But I prefer rubber straps, and I’m almost certain the silicone used here is strong enough to tow a truck.

Functionally, the MARQ line includes almost every last navigation, fitness, and activity tracking feature Garmin has developed for its other wearables to date. The Athlete has an optical heart rate/pulse oximeter sensor built in which should be more than enough for even die-hard gym rats, but the watch can be connected to other hardware as well, such as chest strap heart rate monitors, or bicycle cadence trackers. It can also track rides and runs using Sony’s GPS hardware which Garmin adopted to help improve the MARQ Athlete’s battery life. All of your metrics also sync to the Garmin Connect mobile app, giving you a more robust look and breakdown of your recent performances. And when connected to a smartphone, the MARQ Athlete will mirror your notifications so you can keep your phone buried during a workout—you just can’t respond to any of them like the Apple Watch or WearOS smartwatches allow.

It’s not packing as many pixels as the Apple Watch’s display does, but the MARQ Athlete can still squeeze a lot of data on screen. (Photo: Andrew Liszewski, Gizmodo)

The watch runs its own custom operating system and UI, and unless you’re familiar with Garmin’s other wearables, it will take some time to find your way around the various apps and menus used to customise the watch’s appearance and functionality. As with the Apple Watch, I wish the MARQ Athlete could be customised using the mobile app instead, as I often found myself getting frustrated when an incorrect button press suddenly sent me back to the home screen and away from a menu that took a while to find.

But overall, the MARQ Athlete seems to check every box for fitness buffs wanting a smartwatch they can wear to both the office and the gym. Garmin has opted for premium materials almost everywhere on the timepiece. Yet I think its decision to go with a reflective LCD screen was a mistake and a disappointment.

I partially understand why Garmin made this decision; screens are one of the biggest power draws on wearable devices, and even with it being turned off most of the day, the vibrant OLED display can still kill the Apple Watch’s battery in just a day. In comparison, even with features like scrolling maps and standalone GPS tracking, the MARQ Athlete can run for well over a week on a single charge with its LCD display on all the time. The extra fitness-focused complications on the MARQ Athlete’s face allow an athlete to quickly check their metrics as often as they need, but unfortunately the watch’s display is almost always difficult to see.

The MARQ Athlete’s dim screen also makes it easily obscured by reflections. (Photo: Andrew Liszewski, Gizmodo)

The reflective LCD screen works great in direct sunlight with the watch held up to your face. The display is bright, crisp, and has excellent contrast. But find yourself in the shade, or indoors, or out at night, or next to a bright window, or not able to look directly at the watch when riding a bike, and the screen becomes washed out and all but impossible to read at a glance. That not only goes for trying to discern tiny numbers like your heart rate, but even the moving hands on the face that show the time can be very hard to see, and are often obscured by something as common as a bright reflection.

After taking several rides with both Apple and Garmin’s smartwatches strapped to each wrist, the Apple Watch’s OLED display far outperformed the MARQ Athlete’s reflective LCD no matter what the conditions were. My cycling metrics on the OLED were visible even with bright reflections washing out the Apple Watch’s face, but quickly checking the MARQ Athlete required me to take my hand off the handlebar, which wasn’t exactly safe on a bumpy trail.

Despite the $US1,500 ($2,181) price tag, which is also what TAG Heuer wants for its smartwatch, I really liked the MARQ Athlete and would have actually recommended it to someone who likes the functionality of a smartwatch but prefers something more traditional looking, and more durable, on their wrist. Only that screen is as much a heart breaker as it is a deal breaker. I would wait for the next generation of the MARQ line, and cross your fingers that Garmin switches to OLED to round out an otherwise excellent modern timepiece.

README

  • An expensive smartwatch that, for the most part, manages to justify its price tag with premium materials and excellent build quality.

  • Features just about every kind of fitness and activity tracking an athlete could need, including sleep tracking, and robust stat analysis through the Garmin Connect app.

  • Garmin’s OS and UI could use a bit more polish. Customising the watch, and digging through deep menus, can be a bit confusing using the watch’s five unlabeled buttons.

  • That reflective LCD screen is a heart breaker, and probably a deal breaker for most. The always-on functionality is nice (in theory) but it comes at the cost of legibility. It works great in direct sunlight, but becomes almost impossible to read at a glance in almost any other lighting condition. An included backlight makes it visible at night, but it’s too dim to help anywhere else.

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