The New Garmin Makes a Compelling Case for Smaller Smartwatches

Illustration for article titled The New Garmin Makes a Compelling Case for Smaller Smartwatches
Photo: Victoria Song/Gizmodo

Smartwatches have gotten thinner and smaller, but none are quite as small as the new Garmin Lily. With a 34mm case, it’s the smallest smartwatch I’ve ever strapped to my tiny bird wrist. And after years of testing bulky, gargantuan smartwatches, it felt like my prayers had been answered.

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The small size was only one reason I was excited to unbox the Lily. Another reason was that Garmin finally put out another smartwatch that wasn’t a bulky eyesore and fairly reasonably priced. (Nothing will be quite as gorgeous as Garmin’s Vivomove Luxe, but its $500 price tag was too much for a hybrid.) Plus, I was extremely curious to see for myself how well a teeny smartwatch like this would function compared to larger smartwatches with beefier components.

After a few weeks of testing, I have to admit I like the way my review unit looks on my wrist. There are six design SKUs. There are “Classic” models with leather straps and the other three are “Sport” models with silicone straps. Mine was the black-and-gold Classic model and features a plaid pattern on the lens. It caught me off guard, but the fact that each of the six Lily models has its own unique patterned lens made choosing which one I wanted to wear feel more personal. In renders, I thought the T-bar lug was kind of ugly, but I didn’t mind it so much in person. The smaller case size also meant the Lily was one of the most comfortable smartwatches I’ve tested for 24/7 wear.

However, while I appreciated the smaller size overall, there was one unavoidable drawback. Notifications were harder to read just because there’s less screen to work with. It wasn’t ideal, but it was workable. The only time it was a major problem was when I panicked because the Lily was telling me I was late for a call with my friend Tom (a meeting I had no recollection of making). In reality, it was a reminder for a meeting the next day because the word “tomorrow” was cut off. To be fair, this is simply a trade-off you have to accept. The only way to cram everything into the 34mm screen would be to make the font too small to read.

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My bigger issue was that gestures weren’t always reliable and the monochrome LCD touchscreen wasn’t as responsive as I’d like. On more than one occasion, I’d raise my wrist, only to be greeted by a blank screen. Swipes were 50/50. Half the time they registered fine, other times the response was laggy. During exercise, it often took multiple attempts to stop a workout because my fingers were too sweaty.

It looks neat on my wrist! The textured patterned lens is also prettier than I expected.
It looks neat on my wrist! The textured patterned lens is also prettier than I expected.
Photo: Victoria Song/Gizmodo
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I also didn’t love the interface. Swiping left and right will let you scroll through widgets, while swiping down will give you quick access to settings. Tapping the tiny home button will bring you to a limited list of features, like changing settings, starting an activity, setting an alarm, or changing your clock face. That’s pretty standard menu navigation for smartwatches! So is swiping up to view your notifications—which the Lily doesn’t do. The only way to easily go through your notifications on your wrist is to make sure the notifications widget is enabled. I didn’t do that during setup and spent a good 20 minutes wondering why the hell I couldn’t find my notifications. (I also highly recommend putting the notifications at the top of the widgets list when customizing, or you’ll have to do a lot of swiping through widgets.) In general, there’s just a lot of left-and-right swiping, which means it can be hard to access any menus quickly.

You’re also limited as to what you can do from your wrist. For example, you can’t edit or add alarms without going through the Garmin Connect app. You can only toggle them on or off. Actually, you can’t do a lot of things without first going through the app. It’s not a problem for everyone, but if you want a watch that’s somewhat independent of your phone, this ain’t it.

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The Garmin Lily is the smallest smartwatch I’ve tested. The Suunto 7 is the largest. Look at that massive size difference!
The Garmin Lily is the smallest smartwatch I’ve tested. The Suunto 7 is the largest. Look at that massive size difference!
Photo: Victoria Song/Gizmodo

These quibbles aside, I love that the Lily is a full-featured hybrid, proving smaller size doesn’t mean you have to give up excellent features. You get SpO2 sensors, continuous heart rate-monitoring, an ambient light sensor, and an accelerometer. It also has neat Garmin-specific features, like Body Battery (which is surprisingly accurate at measuring how stressed or well-rested you are), and pregnancy-tracking (though this isn’t exclusive to the Lily). Also included are metrics like 24/7 respiration rate, blood oxygen saturation levels, breathing and move reminders, sleep tracking, and the ability to track water intake. You can also control your music, view calendar events, find your phone, and if you’re on Android, respond to texts and reject phone calls. The main things you’re missing are NFC payments and built-in GPS. (The Lily opts for connected GPS, more on that below.) The Garmin Connect app can feel clunky at times, but you won’t be lacking in data by opting for the Lily.

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As for battery, Garmin says the Lily has an estimated 5 days but I never got anywhere close to that. That’s probably because I enabled Garmin’s Pulse Ox tracking, which is their version of blood oxygen-monitoring. With Pulse Ox turned on, I got maybe 2.5 or 3 days of battery on a single charge. That’s way better than the Apple Watch and probably every Wear OS watch. It’s also on par with Samsung’s watches. However, it pales in comparison to Fitbits or other hybrid analogs, which can often get up to two weeks.

Garmin is one of the best companies out there for fitness-tracking, but if fitness is your top priority, the Lily isn’t the Garmin watch you want. It’s not that it’s bad. You still get really in-depth metrics in the app, and the heart rate-tracking was on par with the Apple Watch SE and my Polar H10 chest strap. It’s more that you’re not getting what Garmin watches are best known for: a great GPS-tracking experience. Compared to other Garmin watches I’ve tested, the Lily’s tethered GPS left me hanging. On a few runs, I had to stand there shivering in the winter wind, waiting for the watch to find a signal via my phone. Twice, I rebooted the Garmin Connect app, re-synced the watch, and fiddled with my phone’s Bluetooth settings to no avail. The times when the Lily managed to get a tethered GPS signal, the performance was on par with my Apple Watch SE but lagged compared to my phone. However, I never knew on a given day whether the GPS gods would favor the Lily.

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Illustration for article titled The New Garmin Makes a Compelling Case for Smaller Smartwatches
Photo: Victoria Song/Gizmodo

While you have the option of enabling automatic activity-tracking, I found it was wildly off. For instance, on one 3-mile run, the Lily auto-tracked that I ran 1.8 miles. Similarly, an auto-tracked 23-minute walk was cut off after 10 minutes. I’d recommend manually starting each activity, but that involves a lot of swiping compared to other smartwatches.

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I’ve already gone into why I think the “for women” marketing on the Lily isn’t necessary, so I won’t rehash it too much here. But after my testing, the only feature that’s truly woman-centric on the Lily is pregnancy-tracking. However, pregnancy-tracking is available on several other Garmin watches, so I’m really not seeing why a small watch means it’s for women. I’m sure plenty of men and nonbinary folks would love the Lily, while some women may prefer larger screens for readability. After all, women are not the sole gender that cares about style and women are not monolith in their gadget preferences.

It might sound like I’m harping on the Lily, but even with the spotty GPS connectivity, mixed fitness-tracking, and the not-ideal interface, I really think it’s a decent option for casual users. It’d just be an excellent pick if these things weren’t an issue. Garmin’s done a great job here, marketing schlock aside, in proving that you can make a decent smartwatch in a smaller form factor.

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Illustration for article titled The New Garmin Makes a Compelling Case for Smaller Smartwatches
Photo: Victoria Song/Gizmodo

The only thing that gives me slight pause is that at $250, it’s about $50 more expensive than similar watches. Fossil’s hybrid analogs are also great on the style front (though not as great on the health tracking) and are $195. The Withings Steel HR is also another sleek hybrid analog that costs $200. Meanwhile, the Fitbit Versa 3 isn’t too shabby-looking either and offers built-in GPS, NFC payments, and digital assistants for $20 less at $230. Arguably, Garmin does get you access to a more robust fitness platform, but again, the Lily’s strengths are its small size and stylish design. At the end of the day, a roughly $50 price difference isn’t the worst—especially if you find the Lily on sale. It’s just a question of whether you think it’s worth paying more for what boils down to smaller size and style.

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Ultimately, I was hoping the Lily would be a tiny powerhouse that also looked chic and felt comfortable on my small wrist. It’s not a powerhouse, and I’m definitely left wanting a bit more. But you know what? Two out of three isn’t bad.

Consumer tech reporter by day, danger noodle by night. No, I'm not the K-Pop star.

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