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Garmin Forerunner 265 review: a new standard for fitness watches


Someone wearing the Garmin Forerunner 265 on their wrist.

Garmin Forerunner 265

MSRP $450.00

“The Forerunner 265 isn’t just an excellent running watch — it’s also a fantastic all-around fitness wearable that you shouldn’t overlook.”

Pros

  • Extremely comfortable
  • Lovely AMOLED screen
  • Incredible health/fitness tools
  • Highly customizable
  • 4-plus days of battery life
  • Doesn’t require any subscriptions

Cons

  • Limited smart features
  • Proprietary charger

When you think of smartwatches and fitness wearables, do you think of Garmin? If you’re an avid runner or hiker, you probably already do. But if you’re a more casual smartwatch wearer, chances are you’re more familiar with watches from Apple and Samsung. I myself have never dabbled in the world of Garmin wearables, but that changed a few weeks ago when Garmin asked if I’d like to review its new Forerunner 265 smartwatch.

For some context, Garmin’s Forerunner series is its lineup of watches targeted specifically at runners, and the Forerunner 265 is the latest midtier entry in the range. I’ve worn the Forerunner 265 on multiple runs, and I can vouch that it’s excellent in that department. But it’s also a really good all-around fitness wearable that stands out as a strong alternative to a Fitbit or Whoop band. Even if you’re not an aspiring pro runner, the Garmin Forerunner 265 does so much right that you’ll probably want to buy it anyway.

Garmin Forerunner 265: design and comfort

Someone wearing the Garmin Forerunner 265 on their wrist.
Joe Maring/Digital Trends

Garmin makes it clear in its marketing that the Forerunner 265 is a running smartwatch, and that’s immediately apparent with its design. The entire case is made out of “fiber-reinforced polymer” — aka plastic. Combined with the black case color of the review model I have (it also comes in a white and light blue case), the Forerunner 265 isn’t particularly eye-catching.

But what it lacks in astonishing good looks, the Forerunner 265 easily makes up for with the sheer utility of its design. The plastic case may not be dazzling to look at, but it’s extremely comfortable. The 46mm case size is a lot bigger than the 41mm Apple Watch Series 7 I usually wear, and it’s quite a bit heavier at 47 grams. But for whatever reason, I never really noticed the larger size after the first few hours with the Forerunner 265.

Part of this is thanks to the included silicon watch band, which has an incredible number of holes for the clasp (21, to be exact), so you can get a perfect fit. Similar to the watch itself, the included band won’t win any beauty awards, but it’s as comfortable and functional as you could ask for. And if you ever want to change up the look, the band easily detaches with a quick-release pin and can be replaced with any 22mm watch band of your choosing.

The Forerunner 265 is as comfortable and functional as you could ask for.

Around the case are five physical buttons — three on the left frame and two on the right. You use these to navigate the Forerunner 265’s interface, and using the Garmin Connect app, you can reassign them to act as shortcuts (like holding a button down to launch Garmin Pay, or another to open the flashlight app). All of the buttons feel great to press, offering nice tactility, and they’re not too difficult to push down, either.

Finally, as you’d expect for a running smartwatch, the Garmin Forerunner 265 is backed by a 5 ATM water-resistance rating, protecting it from up to 50 meters of water submersion.

Garmin Forerunner 265: AMOLED display

Weather app on the Garmin Forerunner 265.
Joe Maring/Digital Trends

This is why the Forerunner 265 exists in the first place. While many of its design elements and health features were taken right from the Forerunner 255 that came before it, the biggest upgrade for the Forerunner 265 is that it ditches the 255’s aging MIP (memory-in-pixel) display for a much more modern AMOLED one. Where the MIP screen on the Forerunner 255 and Forerunner 955 often made colors look dull and lifeless, the AMOLED panel on the 265 has the same deep blacks and vibrant colors you see on smartphones like the Samsung Galaxy S23 Ultra.

I’ve looked at a lot of smartwatch displays over the years, and the AMOLED one on the Forerunner 265 looks as good as I could ask for. Blacks are pitch black, colors pop with lovely vibrancy, and 416 x 416 resolution means everything is plenty sharp and easy to read.

One of the biggest advantages of MIP displays on older Garmin watches is that they’re extremely easy to read outdoors in bright sunlight. The switch to AMOLED naturally raises some concerns about outdoor visibility, but I’m happy to report I’ve had zero issues in that department. On the few sunny days we’ve had in Michigan throughout the first weeks of March, not once have I had a problem seeing/reading the Forerunner 265’s screen.

Glances on the Garmin Forerunner 265.
Joe Maring/Digital Trends

There’s one other upgrade that comes with the switch to AMOLED, and that’s a touchscreen. The previous Forerunner 255 did not have touch support and relied exclusively on its five buttons to navigate the interface. On the Forerunner 265, you can use the touchscreen exclusively, stick to the buttons, or use a combination of both.

Having a touchscreen on the Forerunner 265 does a couple of very important things. Not only is it easier to enter your PIN for Garmin Pay or scroll through settings menus, but it also makes the Forerunner 265 far more approachable for someone (like myself) coming from an Apple Watch, Galaxy Watch, Fitbit, etc. It makes the Forerunner 265 feel more like a health-focused smartwatch rather than a running watch.

It may seem like we’re just mincing words here, but I really think the touchscreen is key to getting more casual users on the Garmin platform. It’s familiar, comfortable, and looks damn good.

Garmin Forerunner 265: running experience

Someone wearing the Garmin Forerunner 265 on their wrist.
Joe Maring/Digital Trends

While I’d be the last person to call myself a “professional” or “semi-pro” runner, I do enjoy running as a regular part of my workout regime. Although the weather in Southwest Michigan was too nasty during my review period to test the Forerunner 265 for outdoor runs, I did use it to track plenty of indoor runs on the treadmill — and the experience it delivers there is fantastic.

Starting a run is as simple as pressing the dedicated “RUN” button on the side of the 265 and selecting the type of run you want to do. When you do this, Garmin gives you a suggested run for each day, personalized just for you. If you’re ready to push yourself, the Forerunner 265 may suggest an hourlong run at your base pace. It may also recommend a run to improve your VO2 max, sprint speed, or a recovery run if it’s time to let your body rest.

You don’t have to follow these recommendations if you don’t want to, but in my use, I found that they helped me shake up my routine and attempt different types of runs — something I frequently struggle with. Garmin goes another step, too, explaining why it’s recommending a particular run and detailing the estimated benefit it’ll have on your body.

Whether you use a recommended run or decide to go at your own pace, the experience of running with the Forerunner 265 is fantastic. The main data screen shows your time, distance, pace, heart rate, and which heart rate zone you’re currently in. Another screen shows your lap time/lap distance/lap pace, while yet another option lets you see the time and date.

All of this information is presented with big, easy-to-read text, so glancing at your wrist to see where you’re at is no trouble at all. The Forerunner 265 also vibrates and audibly beeps after each mile, and it provides similar guidance to keep you at a certain pace if you’re following a guided run. And if you’re worried about the touchscreen being a nuisance while running, Garmin lets you disable it entirely from the Garmin Connect app (more on that soon).

Combine all of that with a detailed post-run breakdown once you’re finished, and it’s difficult to find anything to complain when about using the Forerunner 265 as a running watch. It’s comfortable, feature-rich, and really does feel like an elevated experience compared to the Apple Watch Series 7 I’ve been running with for the past year-and-a-half.

Garmin Forerunner 265: health and fitness features

Someone wearing the Garmin Forerunner 265 on their wrist.
Joe Maring/Digital Trends

As I teased at the beginning of this review, it isn’t just running where the Forerunner 265 shines. In fact, I’d argue that the rest of its health/fitness experience is every bit as good — and the reason why I’ve become enthralled with the watch.

The Garmin Forerunner 265 is capable of tracking all of the usual health metrics you’d expect from a smartwatch in 2023. This means your steps, current heart rate, heart rate variability (HRV), sleep, and VO2 max and SpO2 levels. Plenty of smartwatches collect this exact same data, but it’s what Garmin actually does with it that makes such a big impact.

The first of these is your Training Readiness score. After you wear the Forerunner 265 for three consecutive days, you get a Training Readiness score that shows how fit your body is to train that day. The score is based on your sleep, recovery time from recent workouts, HRV status, acute load (your post-exercise oxygen consumption), and stress. If you’re getting good sleep and haven’t had a super-intense workout lately, your Training Readiness score goes up, and a higher number indicates your body is ready for more intense activity. If you’ve been pushing yourself and/or not getting adequate sleep, the score goes down — indicating you should take a breather.

You can also keep tabs on your stress throughout the day, with Garmin measuring your day in high-stress, medium-stress, low-stress, or resting periods. Along with seeing how much time you spend in each stage, you also see a score here for how much stress Garmin detects.

Last but not least, you’ll also see a Body Battery score while wearing the Forerunner 265. As the name suggests, it’s an indicator of your body’s “battery” and how much energy you have for a given day. Sleep/restful periods increase your Body Battery, while working out/stress decrease it.

Reading through all of that, it may sound like nothing more than a lot of numbers to look at and keep track of. But in my experience wearing the Forerunner 265, I’ve found all of these statistics genuinely helpful in determining how I should approach a given day.

Garmin’s approach has been more motivating and impactful than any other smartwatch/fitness tracker I’ve tried.

Is my Training Readiness score high? I should push myself and go for a longer run. Body Battery look a bit low? I’ll make it a point to get to bed earlier and get a higher sleep score. And more than just shoving numbers at your face, Garmin actually explains the reasoning behind the data it gives you. One evening, my Body Battery was lower than usual, and Garmin recommended I avoid alcohol/intense activity before bed — as those would impact my sleep that night. After having a few drinks with some friends and waking up the next morning, sure enough, I hadn’t gotten quality sleep, and I didn’t feel particularly well-rested.

Compared to filling the Activity Rings on an Apple Watch or trying to hit 10,000 steps with a Fitbit tracker, Garmin’s approach here has been more motivating and impactful than any other smartwatch/fitness tracker I’ve tried. I’m pushing myself more than ever, I’m more aware of how my body feels about a workout, and I’m (slowly) trying to get to bed earlier than 11:30 p.m. each night. Your mileage will vary with how much you get out of Garmin’s health system, but if you give it a fair shot, I think you’ll be really impressed.

Garmin Forerunner 265: software and smart features

Someone holding the Garmin Forerunner 265.
Joe Maring/Digital Trends

Navigating the Garmin Forerunner 265 can take some getting used to, but once you’re familiar with where everything is, it’s a lovely experience.

The overall interface boils down to swipes and button presses. From the watch face, swiping up or down on the screen shows your Glances — aka widgets. There are 29 Glances you can choose from, including things like your heart rate, steps, sleep history, Body Battery, weather, calendar, notifications, and more. You can add, remove, and reorder the position of Glances however you see fit. Swiping up shows the top-most Glance, while swiping from the top of the watch faces shows the bottom-most one.

I actually really like this layout. Glances offer good, quick information on their own, and if you want further details, you can tap on them to see more. For example, the sleep Glance initially just shows how long you slept and your Sleep Score, but if you tap on it, you can see a detailed graph of your sleep, a breakdown of your sleep stages, and a description of what your sleep was like on a particular night.

Holding the Up button shows shortcuts for changing your watch face, your alarms/timers/stopwatch, and a history of your activity. Holding the Light button shows an app shortcut page, which can also be fully customized. And speaking of customization, you can create your own shortcuts for holding the Start, Back, and Down buttons. And if that’s not enough, you can create more shortcuts by holding multiple buttons at once. On my Forerunner 265, I’ve customized my 265 to open the flashlight app when I hold the Start/Run button and open Garmin Pay when I hold the Down button.

"Run" button on the Garmin Forerunner 265.
Joe Maring/Digital Trends

Surprisingly, the interface feels fast and reliable with no noticeable slowdown. Whether you’re scrolling through Glances or fiddling with your button shortcuts, all of it is consistently responsive.

What’s not great about this software? The Garmin Forerunner 265 is a running watch rather than a smartwatch, and that’s seen with its smart features. You can receive notifications from your phone, and while paired with my iPhone 14 Pro, they come in instantly with no delay. But there’s nothing you can do with these notifications. You can’t answer phone calls, respond to text messages, archive emails, or anything like that. You can see notifications, clear them, and that’s it.

The Forerunner 265 also supports music storage with Spotify, Deezer, and Amazon Music. There’s no support for Apple Music, YouTube Music, or Tidal, and you need to connect the Forerunner 265 to your computer to transfer songs to it.

This isn’t a watch you buy if you want robust app support. You can download third-party apps, and some big names like AccuWeather and Starbucks are here. But beyond that and some fitness-related apps from third-party developers and Garmin itself, that’s about all you’ll find.

 Garmin Forerunner 265: Garmin Connect app

Garmin Forerunner 265 next to an iPhone running the Garmin Connect app.
Joe Maring/Digital Trends

The Garmin Forerunner 265 collects a lot of data, and most of it is easily viewable directly on the watch itself. But what if you want a larger screen to look at everything? That’s where the Garmin Connect app comes into play.

The companion app for the Forerunner 265 it saves all of your activity. From recent workouts and your heart rate to stress levels and more, you can view it all on the My Day page, or go back and look at previous days’ health data on the Calendar page. But that’s just the tip of the iceberg of Garmin Connect.

Tap the Challenges tab, and you can join ongoing challenges from Garmin, see how you compare to your friends/family on a leaderboard, and even create custom challenges with your Garmin friends. You can look up friends under the Connections menu on the More page, and you can check out the Groups option to find/join local Garmin groups in your area.

This More page is also where you can view additional health stats, set up training plans, follow guided workouts, keep track of the fitness gear you’re currently using, and set up safety features so loved ones know where you’re at during a run. And that’s still not touching on everything.

If it all sounds a bit overwhelming, that’s because it is at first. There’s so much information and settings to play with in the Garmin Connect app, and compared to something like Apple’s Fitness app for the Apple Watch, it’s a bit daunting! But once you take some time to learn where everything is, you realize that there’s so much value lying within it. It’s not the simplest companion app for a smartwatch/fitness tracker, but it’s one of the most robust and informative ones I’ve ever used.

Garmin Forerunner 265: battery life

Charging cable plugged into the Garmin Forerunner 265.
Joe Maring/Digital Trends

Garmin has long excelled at delivering great battery life with its smartwatches, and the Forerunner 265 is no exception to that rule. Unlike the Apple Watch, which has you measuring battery life in terms of hours, a Garmin watch’s battery life is rated in days.

Wearing the Forerunner 265 with the always-on display enabled, the watch lasts me about four days before I need to start looking for the charger. If I turn the always-on display off, I’m looking at an easy seven days of battery life on a single charge. That’s with me wearing the Forerunner 265 to bed every night for sleep tracking, receiving a steady stream of notifications throughout the day, and regularly using it for indoor running and strength-training workouts.

When you need to charge the Forerunner 265, you do so with the included charging cable in the box. Garmin uses a proprietary charger, which is a four-pin connector that snaps into the underside of the watch. The opposite end of the cable is a USB-C port and can be plugged into any USB-C outlet/charging adapter. When you plug it in, expect the Forerunner 265’s battery to go from about 10% to100% in a little over an hour.

Garmin’s charger is reliable and easy to use, though I would have loved to see Qi wireless charging support as well — just like Garmin added to its Vivomove Trend watch. The proprietary connector means you need to keep track of another cable at home or when you’re traveling, and while that’s not the end of the world, it is a small annoyance.

Garmin Forerunner 265: price and availability

Someone wearing the Garmin Forerunner 265 on their wrist.
Joe Maring/Digital Trends

The Garmin Forerunner 265 is available for purchase right now direct from Garmin’s website or at retailers like Walmart, REI, Rogue Fitness, and others. The Forerunner 265 comes in three colors (a white case with a white/blue band, a black case with a black/gray band, and a teal case with a teal/black band) and costs $450.

Alternatively, you can get the smaller Forerunner 265S. It comes in three different colors (a black case with a black/yellow band, a white case with a white/teal band, and a pink case with a pink/white band), but costs the same at $450.

There’s another big factor to consider, and that’s whether or not you need to pay a subscription to unlock all of the Forerunner 265’s features. In a world where the Google Pixel Watch, Oura Ring, Fitbit Sense 2, and Whoop 4.0 all require a monthly fee to use all of their health features, the Forerunner 265 is a wonderful exception to that trend.

Once you buy the Forerunner 265 for its advertised retail price, that’s where your transaction begins and ends. All of the health-tracking features, recommended running plans, Garmin Connect syncing, etc. are all 100% free to use — no subscription necessary.

Garmin Forerunner 265: verdict

Garmin Forerunner 265 with its display on.
Joe Maring/Digital Trends

Going into the Garmin Forerunner 265, I really wasn’t sure what to expect. I’ve been a die-hard Apple Watch user for years, and the idea of leaving my Apple Watch for a dedicated running watch for a couple of weeks didn’t sound very appealing.

But now that my Forerunner 265 review is finished I don’t plan on taking it off anytime soon. For the foreseeable future, this is my new go-to wearable.

I don’t think the Forerunner 265 is an Apple Watch or Galaxy Watch killer. It’s not particularly flashy, and it’s considerably lacking when it comes to typical “smartwatch” features. But as a fitness wearable? Well, the Garmin Forerunner 265 may be one of the very best you can buy in 2023. It’s comfortable, lasts for days on a single charge, offers a beautiful display, has an incredible health/activity tracking platform, and it delivers all of that without tying you down with a monthly subscription.

For the foreseeable future, this is my new, go-to wearable.

If you want a smartwatch, you’re still better off with the Apple Watch Series 8 or Samsung Galaxy Watch 5. But if you want a watch with unbeatable health features and a few basic smart capabilities, the Forerunner 265 is the new watch to beat.

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