It’s not that I think OLED smartwatches are a bad idea. It’s just, when I picture running watches, I think of memory-in-pixel displays and extra-long battery life in a lightweight package. You know, like the Forerunner 255S, a midrange multiband running watch I just reviewed nine months ago.
So when I unboxed the $449.99 Garmin Forerunner 265S, which is essentially the same watch but with an OLED display, it got me thinking of a popular saying among runners: nothing new on race day. No new shoes, no new clothes, no new energy drinks, no new strategies — you get the idea. Everything about race day ought to be tried and true. And what’s the point of messing around with something as tried and true as the Forerunner?
By adding OLED and only OLED, Garmin is futzing around with a running watch that arguably didn’t need improving. For some runners, an OLED screen is an unnecessary waste of battery life. For others, it’s a long overdue improvement that helps close the gap with smartwatches. Surprisingly, I haven’t thought too hard about which camp I fall in. So going into this review, that’s what I set out to figure out.
Let’s talk OLED versus MIP
I’ve tested dozens of OLED and memory-in-pixel smartwatches. Each has its merits and drawbacks. OLED is more vibrant, better for indoor lighting, and feels more modern, and I’m not afraid to admit I’m a sucker for animated screens. For example, many Garmin watches offer the Morning Report feature, which gives you a little summary of your sleep, recovery, schedule, weather, and a suggested daily workout. The feature is functionally the same regardless of whether you’ve got an OLED or MIP display. That said, it’s more fun on OLED Garmin watches. I may be groggy in the mornings, but when I scroll through my Morning Report on the 265S, my sleepy ass loves watching the little trail of steam rise from an animated cup of joe. Little flourishes like that can make otherwise mundane features feel special.
On the other hand, MIP excels in direct sunlight, and you never have to worry about the battery. The 255S had a MIP display, and when I reviewed it last year, I only had to charge it once in about 25 days with roughly 30 minutes of daily GPS activity.
I typically recommend MIP watches for people who prioritize battery life and OLED for folks who want better readability, a more modern experience, and don’t mind charging more often — especially since enabling an OLED always-on display can significantly drain your battery. Take Fitbit. Their older trackers and smartwatches were known for having five to 10 days of estimated battery life. But enabling the always-on display on an OLED Fitbit from the past couple of years zaps battery life down to two days — three at most.
That’s generally been my experience across multiple brands, and it’s about what I was expecting for the Forerunner 265S, too. So I was pleasantly surprised that, with AOD on, I got six and a half days on a single charge. That’s with four hours of multiband GPS workouts, which require more power to run than standard GPS. That’s better than Garmin’s five-day estimate.
For some athletes, five to six days on a single charge still isn’t enough. However, the 265S is rated for 15 days without AOD on, and that seems right from my testing. In the week I wore the 265S without AOD, I only drained the battery down to 63 percent with an average of 30 to 60 minutes of multiband GPS workouts per day.
Whether AOD is on or off, that’s excellent battery life when you consider that this is a lightweight, midrange (for Garmin) running watch. It’s far better than what you’ll get on an Apple Watch or any Wear OS watch.
Garmin also added touchscreen capability on the 265S, which makes navigating menus so much easier. Of course, you still get buttons, and you can lock the touchscreen during a workout. I’ll die on the hill that button controls are a must on smartwatches, especially mid-exercise. But it’s admittedly easier to use swipes and taps when you’re sitting at a desk or on the couch. Plus, unless you’re really committed to fitness or training, you’re not logging upward of seven hours of exercise per week. A combination of touchscreen control and physical buttons is ideal for working out and everyday use — and that’s something the 265 lineup has that its predecessor doesn’t.
All of this is enough for me to say that the 265S is better than its predecessor and that I’m pro-OLED on Garmin watches in general.
A case for smaller fitness watches
While Garmin watches are known for being bulky behemoths, that doesn’t apply here. This is a lightweight running watch, weighing 47g for the 46mm Forerunner 265 and 39g for the 42mm 265S. I’m a five-foot, three-inch pip-squeak with bird wrists to match, so given the option, I opted to review the smaller 265S.
And let me tell you, I deeply appreciate the readability of larger screens, but it is genuinely nice to wear a watch that doesn’t look like I’ve strapped a dinner plate to my wrist. It’s also easier to run with, not only because it’s lightweight but also because it’s not so thick it’ll catch on your clothes. I recently got some long-sleeve tech shirts with “watch windows” — holes on your wrist where your watch screen peeks out — for winter running. They’ve been a game-changer but don’t work as well with larger displays. I had no such issues with the 265S. Plus, it didn’t matter how many layers I wore; the watch never caught on my windbreaker’s narrow sleeves or cuffs.
The smaller the tracker, the more comfortable it is for sleep tracking. That’s true with the 265S with one caveat. My skin is sensitive to silicone, and after a few days, I ended up with a minor rash. You can always switch wrists, and the 265S will work with any standard 18mm strap if you’d rather swap to a more breathable material. It’s just something to keep in mind if, like me, you have skin sensitivities. However, I did like how flexible these straps were compared to other silicone bands, which can be pretty stiff.
None of this was surprising. I had pretty much the same experience with the 255S, and the 265S uses the same case body. The main difference is the Start button is now a bit bigger and has “RUN” embossed into the side. This isn’t as easily dressed up for occasions when you want to look snazzy. You can switch up the straps to elevate the look, but that’s not as easy with the brighter colorways. I love my purple-pink review unit: it’s fun and matches my Beats Fit Pro and my current fixation on vaporwave pinks and purples. It just wouldn’t be my pick for a wedding or any place with a dress code. This is only an issue if you find a few hours of missing data irksome.
The right mix of features
I say this with love: if there’s a choice between less and more, 99.9 percent of the time, Garmin will pick more. I’m pretty sure no other fitness-tracking platform offers more metrics or training features — often in the most convoluted app settings and menus possible. If you’re switching from a Fitbit, Apple Watch, or a Samsung smartwatch, I’ve no doubt your head will spin at first.
But despite the cluttered Garmin Connect app, the 265S has the right mix of features for intermediate-level runners. By intermediate, I mean folks who are already familiar with metrics like VO2 max and concepts like acute training load and who know the difference between tempo and interval runs. That doesn’t mean the 265S isn’t a good fit for beginners or advanced runners — it’s just best if your happy place is somewhere between a 10K and a marathon.
I enjoyed using the 265S as part of my half-marathon training. The Morning Report, for example, was a neat way to quickly review my recovery each morning, check the weather, and get a suggestion for a daily workout. The 265S also supports Garmin Coach, which offers training plains for different skill levels for 5Ks, 10Ks, and half marathons. If you’re worried about injuries, features like Training Readiness are helpful for gauging whether you’re putting in the right mix of high- and low-intensity workouts. (Though, I’ll admit Garmin wounded my pride with this feature when it said I’d veered into “unproductive” training territory after nailing a 10-mile run.) You can also view your HRV status — which is another long-term view of how your training impacts your bodily recovery. It takes quite a while to generate (roughly three weeks), so this is one feature I’ve had an iffier time testing as a reviewer.
You’ll also get every running metric under the sun, including form-related data like vertical oscillation, stride length, running power, and cadence. Personally, I found features like PacePro and Race Predictor to be the most helpful. The former allows you to set a pacing strategy for a race (or long run) and download it onto your watch. It makes life easier if you’re trying to run negative splits or make sure you don’t use up too much energy straight out of the gate. Race Predictor makes an educated guess as to what your 5K, 10K, half marathon, and marathon times would be based on your long-term running data. It’s a handy way to gauge a realistic time goal for your next race. (Is it a lil’ bit of a confidence boost that the 265S seems confident I should hit my goal half-marathon time? Yup.)
The 265S omits some of Garmin’s newer features. I genuinely liked real-time stamina tracking when I tested the Fenix 7S Sapphire Solar edition, especially when training at new distances, but it’s more of a nice-to-have than a must. However, I wouldn’t say you’re truly missing out here, as even experienced runners don’t use every feature Garmin offers.
One possible exception is navigation. While the 265S does have trackback, point-to-point navigation, and real-time breadcrumb trail support, it lacks the more advanced mapping features you’ll find on the new Forerunner 965 and other top-of-the-line outdoor sports watches. If you frequently run or hike on trails, you may want to take that into careful consideration. I’m primarily a city runner, so this wasn’t a huge drawback for me.
As for smart features, the 265S won’t beat out an Apple Watch, but it has more than you might expect. With the OLED display, you now get more customizability over your watchfaces and can customize complications to best suit your needs. For music, the 265S has Spotify support via the Connect IQ store as well as Amazon Music and Deezer. You can load up Apple Music playlists, but as I wrote in a previous review, it’s more trouble than it’s worth.
Like other Garmin watches, you get push notifications, timers, alarms, find my phone, and find my watch. Android users get quick replies to texts. It’s also got Garmin Pay as well as various safety features like Incident Detection (Garmin’s version of fall detection) and LiveTrack. Because there’s no cellular capability, this isn’t a truly standalone running watch — though it gets pretty close.
Pricey, but worth it for runners
Paying $450 for the Forerunner 265S might seem way too pricey when you consider the $349.99 Pixel Watch, the $279.99 Samsung Galaxy Watch 5, and the $249 second-gen Apple Watch SE. Not only do these three flagship smartwatches have more advanced features and better third-party app compatibility but they’re also more versatile for everyday wear. However, there are a few reasons why the 265S might be worth the extra investment.
First, Garmin is platform agnostic, so unlike the flagship smartwatches, it truly doesn’t matter what phone you own. And if you’re hunting around for a Fitbit alternative, well, Garmin has made no overtures toward shutting down its community features. Greater durability and weeklong battery life with the always-on display are also major points in favor of the 265S. Plus, $450 is actually on the cheaper end for a multiband GPS watch. Right now, the majority of multiband GPS watches cost upward of $600.
That $450 is also the total cost. Garmin doesn’t gate any of its features behind subscriptions, and its built-in training and coaching features are no joke. If you want to get the most out of a Pixel Watch’s health features, you’ll probably want to add Fitbit Premium, which costs $80 annually. And if you’re mulling adding LTE to any smartwatch, be aware that tacks on $50 plus monthly carrier fees. In a sense, the Garmin wins here by not offering LTE at all.
Folks looking for a more affordable Garmin should consider the $249.99 Venu Sq 2. It’s a more 1-to-1 Fitbit alternative, but it’s still got a snazzy OLED display and great fitness features. Similarly, if OLED isn’t something you care about, nabbing a Forerunner 255S is an excellent way to save $100 while getting a pretty much identical fitness experience, much longer battery life, and multiband GPS.
One major perk of being a reviewer is that I get to try all the Garmins without breaking my wallet. That said, this is 100 percent the Garmin I’d buy with my own money. I didn’t find myself sacrificing much battery life for OLED, the screen was more readable in my daily life, and as someone who sticks to 10Ks and half marathons, I didn’t find myself missing my Fenix 7S much. (And to be clear, I love my Fenix 7S.) It may not be the best of the best, but for me, the Forerunner 265 lineup is the Goldilocks of running watches. It gets everything just right.
Correction, 03/17/2023, 4:20PM ET: Due to a brain fart, a previous version of this article miswrote vaporwave as vaporware. Thank you, Grammarly for teaching me that my 10th-grade English teacher was in fact correct in advising me to never trust spellcheck software.