Garmin Vivoactive review: The athlete's Apple Watch

While most of the media focus is on the Apple Watch this week, it's not the smartwatch for all of us. Matthew found the new Garmin Vivoactive to be a better match for his daily lifestyle.

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I've been considering a Garmin GPS sportwatch for years, but couldn't justify buying one to only use while running, biking, or swimming. The Garmin Vivoactive seemed targeted towards me with support for daily activity tracking, sleep tracking, GPS sports tracking, and smartwatch functionality so I could potentially put it on and never have to take it off.

CNET: Garmin Vivoactive review: Garmin's first fitness smartwatch misses the mark

Regular readers know I have tried many daily activity trackers, GPS fitness devices, and smartwatches. It's a real pain to have to carry and/or wear multiple devices while also making sure to sync and charge those devices. After a while, most end up in my desk drawer because of carry and charge fatigue.

The Garmin Vivoactive is not an Apple Watch equivalent and is clearly targeted to athletes who want to use a single device for GPS sports tracking, step tracking, sleep tracking, and some smartwatch functionality. If you never run, cycle, swim, or golf then you can skip reading this review because the Garmin Vivoactive is not for you.

After visiting the Apple Store last week, I realized the Apple Watch wasn't for me because it doesn't have any real sports tracking capability. It's a basic pedometer with a wrist-mounted heart rate monitor, but won't help me monitor and improve my pace, connect to bike sensors, or go in the water swimming. I also suffer enough from charging too many devices on a daily basis and am not buying another wearable that only lasts a single day.

Specifications

  • Display: 205 x 148 pixels, color touchscreen, 28.6 x 20.7 mm
  • Sensors and components: GPS, GLONASS (optional setting), ANT+, Bluetooth 4.0+
  • Battery: Rechargeable Lithium-polymer, up to 3 weeks tracking and 10 hours in GPS mode
  • Internal storage: About 500kb of available storage for apps and watch faces, 16 available slots
  • Water resistance: Sweat, rain, and water resistant up to 5 ATM (50 meters). Suitable for swimming.
  • Dimensions: 43.8 x 38.5 x 8 mm and weight of 38 grams, with the band

Hardware

The Garmin Vivoactive arrived in a small box with a USB cradle and Quick Start Guide. The USB cradle has a rather strong magnet that pulls the Vivoactive down and into the notches so you can charge or connect to your computer.

The Vivoactive is thinner and lighter than I thought it would be and much more elegant than the chunky Forerunner 15 I checked out last year. The display is smaller than I would like with large bezels above and below the display. These may be for the GPS receiver so I would have to see a teardown of a Vivoactive before passing judgement on the design.

Compared to the other GPS sport watches I was looking to purchase, the Forerunner 220 and 620, the Vivoactive is sleek and attractive. It's a square design with symmetrical buttons on each side. The left button is for the backlight and the right one is used to switch to sports mode and start/stop activities.

There are a couple of charging contacts on the back that fit onto the charging cradle. A silicone band is included with easily accessible screws to switch out the band. I also purchase the blue band for just $14.99. Compared to the lowest cost $49.99 Apple Watch sport band, this is a serious bargain.

The display is very visible in outdoor lighting, but is a bit dim when you are indoors or in mixed lighting conditions. The backlight button provides good lighting in these conditions and is controlled by the left button. It is definitely not as bright and vibrant as an Android Wear or Apple Watch, but then again those smartwatches only last a day.

The touch sensitive buttons below the screen are used for lap/back (left) and settings menu (right). You can also tap and hold on the display during a workout to access your widgets. This is particularly helpful if you run with your phone paired and want to control your music.

I am a casual half-marathon runner and weekend bike rider so the Garmin Vivoactive meets my needs. However, serious runners and bikers in the forums are concerned with the GPS smart recording interval. There is currently no option for 1-second recording of the GPS data. Hopefully, this option is added in the future with the understanding that battery life will likely be reduced.

Pros Cons
Comfortable design and slim form factor for GPS watch GPS smart recording (4-7 second interval)
Easy to read display when outside Bit dim display in mixed lighting conditions
Reliable performance to support long runs and rides No open water swim support
Auto sleep functionality Limited sleep data
About a week of battery life Limited number of apps in the Connect IQ store
Wireless syncing to iOS and Android, with USB connection to computer Bluetooth connection to phone sometimes disconnects and reconnects randomly
Vast amount of data available in the Garmin Connect database

Garmin Vivoactive watch software

There are two main default views on the Vivoactive; the watch face and the activity panel. A default digital watch face is provided and you can easily change the highlight color, as well as choosing a white or black background. There are alternative watch faces in the Connect IQ app store and I personally enjoy using the LCARS Star Trek one that has a number of five star reviews.

From the watch face you simply swipe left or right on the display to switch between your installed widgets. When I swipe on my Vivoactive I have widgets that show my weekly activity history on a bar graph, current activity status with the move bar, weather (tap for more detail), calendar, and notification. The notifications you see on your Vivoactive are fully controlled by you through the Garmin Connect app on your phone. You can also change the order of widgets shown on the Vivoactive.

There is a limit to the number of watch faces and apps you can load on your Vivoactive, but the focus is more on tracking, GPS sports tracking, and notifications than playing games, paying for your coffee, and other functions that are better performed on your phone.

You can fully control what sports activities appear on the activity page and because I don't have access to a swimming pool or a treadmill I removed those from view on my Vivoactive. You can also reorder your sports apps so I have running, cycling, walking, and golf as my main apps. I would like to see hiking as a specific activity, but during my next hike I will try the walking function.

Find my phone is also an option available on the activity page and tapping it sends a special ring tone to your connected phone so you can find it, as long as it is in Bluetooth range.

Sleep tracking is automatic, but you can also manually switch to sleep tracking by tapping the menu button on the right side below the display when on the main activity status page. A start sleep option will then appear.

Settings are also available from the activity display. There are a vast amount of settings available and if you want to see most of them I highly recommend you check out the very detailed DC Rainmaker Garmin Vivoactive review.

You can use the settings to manage sensors (ANT+ bike and heart rate), manage Bluetooth connections, setup an alarm, and access system settings.

While you can only set up one alarm, I use it daily to wake me up and it has performed flawlessly so far. My wife appreciates a silent vibration alarm such as this much more than a loud smartphone.

The move bar, available on the daily activity display, is very helpful and has reminded me to get up from my desk and walk around to clear it. You have to take something like 100 steps to clear the move bar and over time it will improve my lifestyle.

You do have the option to disable the daily activity tracking and just use the Vivoactive for its smartwatch and GPS sports tracking functionality. I personally like the daily tracking functionality, but am pleased there is the option to turn it off if you desire.

There are many activity specific settings so you can have the best experience possible when you train. My primary activity is running and even though I am more of a recreational runner, there are a ton of customizations to select for what data appears on up to three screens, with three lines of data, when I run. I don't run intervals, but like to see my pace, heart rate (I connect an older Motorola ANT+ HR monitor), distance, speed, and more. I've never had a watch that shows as much as what is available on the Vivoactive.

Garmin Connect smartphone app

Garmin Connect is available for iOS and Android. You actually need the app to pair your Vivoactive to your phone as the straight Bluetooth settings will not make the connection without it.

The app is very powerful with the main page called the dashboard. You control what is shown on the dashboard and in what order the data appears. Tapping on any line of data will take you into more screens that show data details, trends, and much more. I am actually stunned by the vast amount of data collected and available by the Vivoactive, except for one area.

Sleep data is captured, but the presentation of that data is lame. You only see a rather strange graph that shows you how low to high movement was captured with a total time of sleep. There is no information on light vs heavy sleep, how many times you were awakened, or any other statistic we see in other ecosystems. I hope to see Garmin improve the sleep tracking module.

Details of your different sports activities are available right in the phone app. This information includes things like activity lists, earned badges, calories burned, challenge status, courses, leaderboard, personal records, golf scores and stats, friend lists, and more. You can set up LiveTrack if you run with a connected phone so that people can track you during your activity. This is interesting for those times when you run races, but you do still need a phone to use this function.

You also use your phone to access the Connect IQ app store and install apps onto your Vivoactive. The store is divided into apps, data fields (added to your main widgets area), watch faces, and widgets. Over the past week I have seen apps added daily so I look forward to more as developers get their hands on these Garmin devices.

Garmin Connect website

The Garmin Connect website is similar to what you find in the smartphone app, but even more vast. You can set up custom dashboards with different widgets that can be dragged and dropped around the screen. You can tap the gear icon in the corner of each widget to see more information and data trends. You could easily spend hours diving into all of the data found on the Garmin Connect website.

Data from your Vivoactive is synced to the website through your phone or PC. You can also export some of the data to standard files. For example, I export my GPS run data and then import it into RunKeeper since that is the standard running platform I use to share my

information with friends.

The Garmin Connect website is a data hound dream and I honestly could spend hours browsing through all of my captured data to figure out strategies for improving and setting realistic goals. No other ecosystem I have tried provides access to so much data and I'm having a blast diving into all the details.

You can even select training plans and schedule workouts so the Garmin Connect website can be your one-stop shop for fitness and health management.

Competition

Over the past few months I have been using the Sony SmartWatch 3 Android Wear device and the Fitbit Surge. I like the SmartWatch 3, especially for its offline music support, but the GPS running experience is unreliable and frustrating. The Fitbit Surge is excellent and I am trying to decide between it and the Vivoactive. The Surge is a bit chunkier and I am not sold that the wrist heart rate monitor is as good as wearing a chest strap.

Here are some ways I think alternative devices are better and some ways they are worse than the Garmin Vivoactive.

Fitbit Surge

  • Better: Integrated heart rate monitor, more informative sleep data, also works on Windows Phone
  • Worse: No color display, no 3rd party apps, no calendar, weather, and other notifications, slightly shorter battery life

Android Wear

  • Better: Larger developer base and more apps, voice control, some have integrated HR monitor, onboard music support
  • Worse: No iOS support, much shorter battery life, limited daily tracking support

Apple Watch

  • Better: Integrated HR monitor, large developer base and more apps, voice control, onboard music support, better sleep data
  • Worse: No Android support, no GPS receiver, short battery life, no bike support, no swimming support, vastly more expensive, closed data platform

Pebble Time

  • Better: Large developer base and more apps, microphone, standard watch strap for flexibility in adding your own.
  • Worse: No GPS receiver (may come with future smartstrap technology), activity tracking through 3rd party apps so reliability depends on developers

Microsoft Band

  • Better: Integrated HR monitor, large developer base and more apps, voice control, better sleep data, supports Windows Phone in addition to iOS and Android
  • Worse: Short battery life, not as comfortable, not as water resistant

2015 is an exciting time to be testing and using wearable devices. The Garmin Vivoactive is targeted to the athlete and for those of us who want to track our activities and daily movement it just may be the perfect smartwatch.

Pricing

The Garmin Vivoactive is available now for $249.99. I purchased mine from Amazon and also purchase blue band and a Garmin bike mount kit to mount the Vivoactive when I ride.

Daily usage experiences and conclusion

I titled this review with the Garmin Vivoactive as the athlete's Apple Watch because Garmin is a top manufacturer of GPS sports watches, the product is not yet perfect, and the company is moving into a new market, similar to Apple. Garmin has a growing app store and the Garmin Vivoactive is an exciting offering for active people.

While I tend to bounce between various smartphones, I was seriously considering an Apple Watch. However, the Achilles heel for me turns out to be the lack of a GPS receiver and poor battery life. I want my smartwatch to serve multiple roles and for the first time it looks like the Garmin Vivoactive is the perfect device for my needs.

The Fitbit Surge is priced the same and offers the same daily movement tracking and nearly the same GPS running, biking, and hiking support. The Surge does not act as a golf computer like the Vivoactive and cannot be used for swimming, but I only perform those activities on an occasional basis. Maybe the Vivoactive will help encourage me to hit the links a bit more this summer.

CNET also has a review of the Garmin Vivoactive, but the reviewer seems to be having software issues I have yet to see on my unit.

Garmin Vivoactive Contributor's rating: 9.3 out of 10