As people get ready to make New Year's resolutions and start off the new year with some exercise and healthy eating, it is appropriate to take a look at some affordable pieces of wearable tech to consider for additional motivation to help you achieve your goals.
In the past, I would be all over something like an affordable Garmin Vivoactive device for GPS run tracking at an affordable price. However, Apple and Fitbit have significantly improved over the years and the $300 price range is extremely competitive.
The Vivoactive has a rather interesting history with the first generation Vivoactive serving as Garmin's first real smartwatch device and having a unique square form factor. The second model, the Vivoactive HR, brought yet another unique design with a rectangular form factor and integrated heart rate monitor. The Garmin Vivoactive 3 looks similar to other Garmin GPS sports watches with a round form factor and removable bands.
While it looks like many other Garmin GPS bands, it's priced at $299.99 and brings Garmin Pay, Connect IQ support, multi-sport GPS functionality, smart notifications, and a week-long battery life. It's a GPS smart watch for the masses and I enjoyed my couple of weeks with it.
- Display: 1.2 inch (30.4mm) 240 x 240 pixels resolution transflective color screen
- Memory capacity: 7 timed activities and 14 days of activity data
- Water resistance: Swim,5 ATM
- Bands: Standard 20mm bands for massive variety of band options
- Connectivity and sensors: Bluetooth Smart, ANT+, GPS, GLONASS, optical HR, barometer, compass, accelerometer, thermometer
- Battery: Rated for 13 hours in GPS training mode, and 7 days in smartwatch mode
- Dimensions: 43.4 x 43.4 x 11.7 mm and 43 grams
The Garmin Vivoactive 3 is round, but is much smaller and lighter (half the weight) than my Fenix 3 HR, which piqued my interest. The display size is the same, but the Vivoactive 3 has a higher resolution display too.
The display is a touch sensitive display with a single button on the right side and touch sensitive left side. Most smart watches today have a mix of touchscreens and buttons for optimized navigation and while I prefer only buttons on my GPS sport watch, this arrangement works well on the Vivoactive 3. You can also reorient the button and interface via the Garmin Connect smartphone app, which is a great feature for those who wear the Vivoactive 3 on a different wrist or like a different button orientation.
Pressing the button takes you to the workout screen where you can choose your exercise and tap to get started. The touch sensitive area around the opposite side of the button lets you scroll quickly through lists of items.
The color display is fine for indoor and outdoor use, but it doesn't hold a candle to the brilliance of an Apple Watch, Fitbit Ionic, or Samsung Gear display. It also lasts much longer than the Apple Watch and Samsung Gear.
Standard 20mm bands can be used on the Garmin Vivoactive so you can easily find alternatives on Amazon and switch to your heart's delight. The included silicone band is comfortable and holds the Vivoactive 3 securely in place.
The charging port and optical heart rate monitor are found on the back of the Vivoactive 3.
To navigate the device, you press the button, swipe on the side, or tap/hold/swipe on the display. Swiping up and down from the watch face will scroll you through various summary screens so you can see everything about your day or previous workout. Tap and hold to see the battery status and get access to settings for the watch face, clocks, history, stats, and all of the settings. Swipe from left to right to go back one screen at a time.
The software on the watch is basically the same as what you find on other Garmin devices, such as the Garmin Fenix 3 HR. One of the first things I did was jump into the Connect IQ store and install a couple of cool watch faces to customize the experience.
You can use the Garmin Vivoactive 3 to track running, biking, hiking, triathlon, rowing, stand-up paddling (SUP), open water or pool swimming, climbing, snow skiing, trail running, golfing, and more. In my test period, I tried the running and biking functionality.
There are a large number of settings and customization options available, but as a user of a high end Garmin device I find there are far fewer options on the Vivoactive 3 than on other devices like the Forerunner 935 or Garmin Fenix line. However, there are plenty of options for most people and I am sure the majority of people will be satisfied by the options. For example, in the running app you can customize up to 3 data screens in a layout from one to four fields with timer, distance, pace, speed, heart rate, dynamics, cadence, temperature, elevation, compass, navigation, and other fields. I recommend you spend some quality time customizing everything exactly how you want it and then be ready to tweak things as you perform your activity and find you want to view your data differently.
To get started on a run, lift up your arm, press the button, tap run, and then press the button again after GPS is connected. It's quick and easy to get started and get your workout started. Press the button again to pause. If you want to continue, press the button again. Otherwise choose Done on the display to end your workout. It's all very quick and easy.
You also have the option to pay with Garmin Pay on the Vivoactive 3. Hold the button, select the wallet icon, enter your PIN, and then hold your watch close to the wireless reader to pay. A PIN is needed for security and is something you setup when you enter your bank information. A test card number was given to use for the review.
Smartphone software and website
Collecting the data is important, but using that data for tracking trends, improving performance, challenging friends, and identifying problem areas is also very important. Garmin is one of the few companies that offers the Garmin Connect app for iOS, Android, and Windows 10 Mobile. The app is very useful and provides an overwhelming amount of data. It has gotten even better with the recent interface improvements. I love the new My Day view and am very close to finding the perfect Garmin GPS sports watch for my daily use again.
When you first launch the smartphone app you will see the My Day screen that shows your most recent workout, heart rate, stress level, calories in/out, weight, yesterday's stats, and stats for last 7 days. You can choose which order the cards appear and which cards appear by tapping on the Edit My Day button at the bottom. I prefer this over the previous display of data.
Other tabs include challenges, calendar, news feed, and the More page for all of the other settings you have come to love on a Garmin device.
On an Android smartphone you can also fine tune your smart notifications by selecting the specific apps that will be allowed to send notifications to your Garmin Vivoactive 3. On iOS, you get whatever notifications you have enabled in the iOS settings so I personally prefer the Android smartphone experience.
The Garmin Connect website experience is very similar to what you see in the smartphone application, with even more capability to generate reports, import or export data, setup connections to other applications (such as Strava, RunKeeper, and MyFitnessPal), and more. Similar to the snapshots interface on the phone, you have a dashboard on Garmin Connect that you can customize.
I created dashboard tabs for daily activity, running, cycling, and hiking since those are my primary activities. You can then customize the view that appears in your dashboard or choose to jump to a full page view of the selected data.
You can also use the Garmin Express desktop app to manage firmware updates and easily access the Connect IQ store for more customization of your Vivoactive 3.
Daily usage experiences and conclusion
In the intro I mentioned a set of criteria that I have established for myself when looking for a good GPS sport watch and activity tracker so let me share that criteria and how the Vivoactive 3 matched up.
- Battery life: Every device that lasts just a day usually ends up in my office drawer or gets sold. I've learned over the years that I need an activity tracker that lasts close to a week, or more, to be completely satisfied. The Garmin Vivoactive 3 lasts nearly a week and gets me through a few runs too.
- Integrated heart rate monitoring: The Garmin Vivoactive 3 provides an accurate view of my heart rate in all of my tested activities. I don't train with a close eye on my heart rate so the wrist-based solution may not work best for these folks.
- Readable and customizable activity display: I like to have multiple fields show up on my wrist so I can glance down at my status and adjust to meet my activity goal. The Vivoactive 3 can have up to three screens for running, which is perfect for my needs.
- Automatic sleep tracking: I sleep more when I track it, but if I have to push a button or enable sleep tracking I often forget to do it. The Vivoactive 3 has proven to get it right most of the time and if it misses on either end I can quickly and easily edit the start or end time to capture my sleep accurately.
- Half marathon battery life with daily tracking: I run about a 2 hour half marathon pace and while this should be able to be met by all GPS watches, when you add on daily tracking I've seen other devices die on my training runs. There are no worries at all with the Vivoactive 3 when it comes to battery life and that peace of mind is valuable to me.
- Basic smartphone notifications: The notifications are very basic on the Vivoactive 3 and I really did not find much use for them during my testing. You cannot read complete messages and there are no actions you can take on them, other than to clear them out.
- Solid ecosystem and apps to access data: Capturing the data is valuable, but I also want a device that has an ecosystem for me to view the details of the data, create reports, track trends, and help me improve my performance and health. Garmin has great apps for iOS, Android, and Windows 10 Mobile, as well as a very functional web site dashboard for viewing and using the collected data.
The Fitbit Ionic provides much of the same functionality as the Vivoactive 3, while also having support for offline music. The Fitbit Ionic has more limited customization and doesn't capture as much data as the Vivoactive 3. The price is the same and it's a tough choice to make between these two.
The Apple Watch Series 3 also has much of the same capability, but it doesn't connect to other accessories so you can't use bike sensors and such with it. It is also much more focused on being a smartwatch with a one to two day battery life.
I'm pleased to see the Vivoactive 3 add support for payments since I like having the ability to buy a drink or snack when on long runs. However, I would also like offline music support so that I could run without a phone when I need to. We see most manufacturers launching with support for music, but Garmin continues to focus on supporting multiple sports in any environment and providing fantastic data.
The Garmin Connect app has been significantly improved over the last year and I honestly find it better to use than any other fitness app I have on my phones. The improved app is one reason I am seriously considering going back to using a Garmin GPS sports watch in 2018 to help me reach my half marathon and 10K goals. The Garmin Vivoactive 3 is a great mid-range GPS sports watch option at $300.
While I try to cover my experiences and details of wearables here on ZDNet, no one beats Mr. Ray Maker when it comes to wearable tech reviews. I highly recommend you check out the DC Rainmaker full review of the Garmin Vivoactive 3. He goes into all of the intricate details of the watch and also tests out many modes of training.