Garmin D2 Pilot Watch: Novelty or Useful Tool?

That depends on your expectations. It has no shortage of sensors—or cool factor—but it’s missing a GPS output.

Pilots are known for large watches and an affinity for gadgets—high cool factors being important. If size and cool factor were the sole measures, Garmin’s new $450 D2 Pilot Watch is the winner.

The D2 packs a chronograph, pressure altimeter, thermometer, compass and an aviation GPS. What else could the well-equipped pilot ever need on the wrist? Limitations of the size of the D2 mean you’re not likely to intend it as a primary navigator, but it’s easy to see the D2 in an ancillary or emergency role.

Size Matters
The D2 is large and roughly the size of a Casio G-Shock sports watch. A consequence of the size is that you’re more likely to knock it around. We were careful, but still inadvertently smacked it on doorways, getting into the car and whacking other obstacles with it. In just a few days of wearing the D2, we scratched its mineral glass crystal, suggesting the watch’s bulk makes it vulnerable.

The D2 has a soft and comfortable leather strap that gives the watch a high-end feel (as you would expect from a watch with a near-$500 price tag). Folks that find any watch uncomfortable might snub the D2 as soon as they put it on.

When the demo was forked over to a thin-wristed lady pilot, she immediately commented on its huge size. Used to wearing a big Breitling or Tag Heuer? The Garmin D2 will likely be at home on your wrist, even as a daily watch.

Garmin cites battery life as “up to” five weeks when used just as a watch and with the GPS off, or 50 hours while navigating. Most of us accept that “up to” describing battery life means “far less than.” With the GPS turned off, and only pushing buttons occasionally, we comfortably got a few days.

With the WAAS GPS always on, we still got all-day battery life with quite a bit of user fiddling. The whole concept of charging a wrist watch seems foreign, but we charge our phones, tablets, and other gadgets every night, so why not add a wrist watch? Accept this, and we saw no common use-case where the battery would die before we were able to charge it. Charging is done through a standard USB cord attaching to the watch via a snap-on plastic back-strap (yes, yet another charging cable for the drawer). Charging from dead to 100 percent took less than four hours.

Garmin designed this thing to be a daily wrist watch. The main display is clean and uncluttered, with local and UTC time, day and date, a nifty outer ring that ticks seconds on and off sequentially like a game-show clock, and a satellite icon if the GPS receiver is on. While digital time displays are common, human factors studies suggest that an analog presentation of time is easier to grasp at a glance, so it’s too bad this isn’t a user option.

The watch can be set manually, but why bother? The D2’s GPS knows the time closer than you could manually set it. Leave it alone and it always displays the proper local time, daylight savings adjusted. Rounding out the chronograph are a stopwatch, timer and alarm. The timer can be set to automatically begin another countdown cycle as soon as it hits zero. We’ve long thought this would be a useful feature.

The D2 has five buttons. Top-left is for the backlight and turning the device completely off—yes, completely off. Bottom-left is a dedicated “Return” button for menu navigation. The large orange button on the left side is the “action” button, and the two on the right side are up/down scroll buttons or Direct-To and Nearest when held. From the main time display, push the action button to get the top menu. Navigate the menu with the scroll buttons and press the action button for the page you want, such as stopwatch.

That stopwatch page has the time counter and the available functions of Start and Reset initially. Scroll to Start, press the action button to start the counter. The options now change to Stop and Lap. Scroll to Lap and press the action button to record a lap time. Scroll to Stop and press the action button to stop timing, then scroll to Reset and press the action button to reset it to zero. This is not difficult, just different than what we’re used to in a watch. Once you realize how things work, it’s simple.

We found that programming the watch isn’t easily accomplished when gripping a ram’s horn control yoke. That’s because you’ll need to angle the display to see it. While gripping the control stick of a Cirrus, it was impossible to see the display without letting go and twisting the wrist. Best case is to program while the autopilot flies.

Pilot Stuff
The D2 has a pressure altimeter. Adjust it with the local altimeter setting. Or, you can synch the altimeter to the WAAS GPS altitude if you don’t know the local setting—a nice feature, in our view.

There’s an internal temperature sensor. From pressure altitude and temperature the D2 calculates and displays density altitude. If you’re wearing the watch, the built-in temperature sensor won’t be accurate, of course. If accuracy is important, you can remove the D2 or use an outboard, wireless sensor, available separately.

Speaking of wireless sensors, the D2 is designed to control Garmin’s VIRB action cameras. This can help solve the dilemma of controlling the cockpit cam when you can’t get to it, enabling wireless recording start and stop action, or controlling the VIRB still shooting.

With GPS a magnetic compass seems redundant, but the D2 has one. However, the compass is active when the GPS is off, so you can get a quick orientation without the GPS draining the battery.

Of course, the feature that most differentiates the D2 is the WAAS GPS. Once you enter a flight plan, it’ll navigate from point to point as you’d expect, with a diminutive HSI and even a map. It works.

The D2 has a geopolitical base map with cities and political boundaries. Of course, you can also enter user waypoints. But, the only aviation database is the identifier for public-use airports—no navaids or intersections. Search Nearest, for instance, to get a list of airport identifiers. If you know the identifier, select it and go. But, if you only know the desired airport by its name or city, you’ll be guessing.

Garmin has actually done an excellent job maximizing the use of the 70-by-70 pixel display, except that they chose a stylized font that can make the miniscule difference between some characters (H/K, O/D, A/R, etc.) difficult to distinguish. Add a little turbulence in flight and there will be user errors. The five-button user interface works well, although it’s a bit tedious.

Other than perhaps with a different font choice, you’re simply not going to get much more usability from a display small enough to wear on your wrist. It’s not color, but with the limited data, color probably wouldn’t improve legibility, while it would increase cost and decrease battery life. Want a GPS in a wrist watch? You’re just going to have a small display and few buttons. It’s a trade-off.

But, the limited database is the big obstacle to a meaningful flight plan. This can be overcome using the tablet-based Garmin Pilot program, with the bonus of the better user interface. Plan your flight in Pilot and download it to the D2 via Bluetooth, complete with all the waypoints. The D2 will then faithfully navigate waypoint to waypoint. Should you want to use Pilot in flight, however, the D2 cannot provide GPS data back to the tablet; you still need a remote GPS such as their GLO. That seems silly, requiring another gadget to set up. The Pilot app is mandatory for a full-capability front end to the D2, but the D2 won’t provide GPS data back to the tablet. Seriously?

Consumer Origins
The origins of the D2 as a consumer device remain and makes the D2 a worthy player for fitness sports.
That’s because it has a dedicated Fitness mode that’s easily accessible from the setup mode. The software is designed so you can establish profiles for multiple purposes, such as one for pilot, runner and bicyclist. Garmin has remote sensors, including a Bluetooth heart-rate monitor and a bicycle cadence sensor. Combine these profile-based modes with the GPS and you get some real capabilities to monitor and even guide your exercise regimen.

You can even make use of the D2 for skydiving—adding the Jumpmaster application. This allows you to set the watch for guidance for three jump types (HAHO, HALP and Static).

The D2 is highly customizable. Want certain information on a display? Chances are you can either rearrange an existing page or create a new one tailored to your needs. The depth of capabilities of the D2 is really remarkable, and we only scratched the surface. Nonetheless, the D2 has far more potential for pilots than it realizes in this version.

The other side of that is for buyers who buy the D2 thinking it will be an integral component in the cockpit can still make use of the thing if they end up never using it in the cockpit. During our trials, we used it during cycling and running workouts, where it performed flawlessly. But it is a pilot watch and for that purpose, it’s not perfect.
We spoke with one of the D2 engineers and he suggested that our biggest overall gripes of limited database, difficult font and no GPS-out were not inherent in the hardware and could conceivably be implemented. If Garmin were to make those changes, the D2 will transform from “potential” to “usable” with a user software upgrade.

Even so, with the D2’s existing capabilities, combined with Garmin’s excellent engineering and solid build quality and, of course, the admittedly high cool factor, it will be a compelling gadget for some pilots. Contact, 800-800-1020.

Frank Bowlin is the editor of sister publication IFR magazine.

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Editor in Chief Larry Anglisano has been a staple at Aviation Consumer since 1995. An active land, sea and glider pilot, Larry has over 30 years’ experience as an avionics repairman and flight test pilot. He’s the editorial director overseeing sister publications Aviation Safety magazine, IFR magazine and is a regular contributor to KITPLANES magazine with his Avionics Bootcamp column.