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Garmin Vivoactive review Garmins first fitness smartwatch misses the mark

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Garmin Vivoactive review Garmins first fitness smartwatch misses the mark



THE GOOD The Vivoactive has an ultraslim design, good battery life and an always-on color display that shines in outdoor performance. It has vibration and notification alerts from your smartphone, activity tracking with auto-adjusting goals, multisport tracking through GPS, and can be worn in the shower and the pool.

THE BAD The Connect IQ app store is lacking, Garmin's mobile app is dated and sleep tracking is unimpressive. The watch software and smartphone connectivity can also be unstable, requiring frequent reboots.

THE BOTTOM LINE The ultraslim design and laundry list of features can't overcome the buggy software. Once Garmin fixes these problems, the Vivoactive could be a good product, but until then, there are better options available.

"That’s a nice watch." These are words you don't hear often when wearing a smartwatch, let alone a GPS equipped sport watch. But in my time testing the Garmin Vivoactive, these words were said to me many times by runners, family members and even some colleagues. The Vivoactive isn't your ordinary smartwatch, though. With its slim design, impressive feature set and long battery life, Garmin's latest watch is turning heads, but it's far from perfect.


The price of the Vivoactive is in line with similar products, such as the Sony Smartwatch 3 and Fitbit Surge. The watch is available now for $250 in the US, £200 in the UK and AU$340 in Australia. It can also be bundled with a wireless heart-rate strap for $300, £230, and AU$380.

What can it do?

The Garmin Vivoactive is part smartwatch, part activity tracker and part GPS sport watch. It will vibrate to notify you of incoming calls, text messages, emails, and app and calendar alerts from your smartphone (which must be connected over Bluetooth). That vibration can also be used to gently wake you up in the morning, a feature that has become a must have for me in wearables. There's even an app store (called Connect IQ) for third-party apps, widgets and watch faces that can be installed on the device, but I will dig more into this later. 

garmin vivoactive

(Sarah Tew/ CNET)

The watch is also capable of tracking the steps you take each day, distance traveled, calories burned and your sleep at night. Daily goals can be set manually, or will automatically adjust each day depending on your performance the day prior. There's even "Move" alerts to remind you when you are being lazy. On top of all that, the watch can measure running and biking workouts with the GPS, and swimming laps using the accelerometer and other sensors. To measure heart rate, you'll need to pair a separate strap accessory: there's no onboard sensor on the watch itself.

Design

garmin vivoactive

From left to right: Adidas MiCoach Smart Run, Garmin Forerunner 15, Polar M400, Fitbit Surge, Garmin Vivoactive, Polar V800 (Sarah Tew/ CNET)



GPS is an essential feature for many runners and cyclists, but most watches that include it are big and bulky. The Vivoactive is a rare exception to this. The watch is incredibly slim and lightweight, so much so that I often forgot I was even wearing it. The full dimensions are 43.8 x 38.5 x 8mm with a weight of 38 grams. For comparison purposes, the GPS-equipped Sony Smartwatch 3 comes in at 10mm thick with a weight of 65 grams, while the Polar M400 is 11.5mm thick and weighs 56 grams.

One of my favorite features is the watch's always-on display. There's no need to tap the screen or flick your wrist to view the time and date, a simple glance down will suffice. Speaking of the display, it's not particularly high-res with its 205x148-pixel resolution, but still performs quite well.

The Achilles heel for many smartwatches is readability in direct sunlight, this is where the Vivoactive shines. Whether I was outside running or walking, the color display was always easy to read. It can be a little more difficult to see when indoors or in low-light situations; however, the backlight, which can set to turn on when you tap the screen or when notifications come in, quickly fixes this problem. 

garmin vivoactive

(Sarah Tew/ CNET)

The Vivoactive is available in either black or white. It ships with a comfortable silicone strap, although it's interchangeable and can be swapped out for a different band. Garmin sells a variety of different colored silicone straps for $15 (£12, $AU20), and even offers a leather strap for $30 (£25, $AU40). The leather strap is nice, but I found it rather pointless. I wouldn't wear it while working out over fear of getting it wet and damaging the leather. I thought maybe it was intended for when I attend fancier events, but the truth is I would most likely opt for a traditional watch in this situation.

The watch has held up well over the past few weeks. I've worn it non-stop throughout the day, and even though I accidentally hit it against the wall a few times, there's no sign of any damage or wear. Other than to charge it, there's really no real reason to take off the Vivoactive: it can be worn in the shower and pool -- sans the leather strap, of course. The Vivoactive has a waterproof rating of 5 ATM and is capable of withstanding pressure at a depth of up to 50 meters. You can learn more about water resistance ratings on smartwatches and activity trackers here.


Navigating the interface

The Vivoactive has two physical button and two capacitive keys. The left button will activate the watch's backlight, while a long press will power the watch on or off. The right button is used to open the app drawer and start and stop activities. The capacitive keys are straightforward: a back button to return to the previous screen and a menu button to access more options.

The app drawer is home to preinstalled apps for running, biking, swimming, golfing, walking, treadmill running, indoor biking, and indoor walking. There's also a Find My Phone feature here. Tapping this will make your smartphone ring and vibrate as long as your Vivoactive is in Bluetooth range (about 30 feet) and connected. Unfortunately, there is no app for weight training, which is disappointing. A simple timer and screen with heart-rate information would have been nice, similar to what the Fitbit Surge and Polar M400 offer. 

garmin vivoactive

(Sarah Tew/ CNET)

Back on the home screen, a swipe on the touchscreen to the left or right will bring up the different widgets you have installed: thing of them as quick-glance features for seeing things like the weather, email notifications, and activity tracking. The default home screen shows the time and day, along with a small battery icon.

The default widgets display daily activity information, the weather, music controls, a calendar, and smartphone notifications. There's also a widget for Garmin's VIRB sports camera, which allows you to start and stop recordings and snap pictures on the camera all from your wrist. Additional apps, widgets, watch faces can be added or removed through Garmin's Connect IQ storefront, which I will get into a little bit later.

Software performance: Rough

From a design standpoint, the Vivoactive is brilliant. From a software standpoint, it feels almost like a beta product. Garmin has issued a few software updates since I began testing the Vivoactive and things have gotten a bit better, but there are still a number of problems that need to be ironed out. On quite a few occasions the Vivoactive would completely freeze (forcing me to restart it) or the touchscreen wouldn't respond to my taps and swipes.

I also had problems with my phone randomly disconnecting and reconnecting. I tested the Vivoactive with an iPhone 6 Plus, HTC One M9 and HTC Desire Eye. While recent software updates have improved connectivity over the past couple of weeks, I still experience random disconnects and syncing problems at least once or twice a week.

garmin vivoactive

(Sarah Tew/ CNET)

Aside from the glitches and technical problems I experienced, the software just seems a little too basic when compared with other smartwatches. For example, one area that bugged me was the music controls. While you can pause, play and skip songs, it doesn't show you the title or the artist of the song playing, which is a feature found in cheaper smartwatches like the Pebble.

The notifications displayed from your smartphone are also very basic and can't be interacted with. You can't reply to emails or text messages, let alone dismiss them from your wrist. To do this, you must take out your smartphone and clear them from the notification bar.

Apps

The Vivoactive supports third-party apps, watch faces and widgets. You will find all of these in Garmin's Connect IQ store, which can be accessed from the Garmin Connect mobile app. Installing a new app, widget or watch face on your device is simple. Because there isn't an app for weight training, the first thing I did when I got the Vivoactive was search Connect IQ for a stopwatch app. I clicked on one of the apps, tapped "send to device" and within seconds it was on my wrist. 

vivoactive apps

(Sarah Tew/ CNET)

Aside from the stopwatch app, though, I haven't found anything else I liked. I tried a few different widgets, but there always seemed to be a noticeable delay when scrolling to them on the home screen, compared to those that came preloaded on the watch. The third-party watch faces offered in Connect IQ also appeared to have adverse effects on the Vivoactive's battery life.

The Connect IQ platform is important if Garmin hopes to compete with Android Wear watches, theApple Watch and even the Pebble. While it has potential, in its current form it simply doesn't have enough useful apps and widgets to even come close to competing.

Android and iOS support

The Garmin Connect mobile app is available for Android and iOS. This is where you will find information on your daily activities and workouts, customize notifications, and add or remove Connect IQ apps, widgets and watch faces. On Android, you can also change the default music player. On iOS, it only works with the default Music app, and not with third-party apps, such as Spotify of Pandora.

A couple of weeks ago I would have called the app one of the worst designed mobile apps out there, but Garmin rolled out a small update last week. The update makes the app look nicer than earlier version, however the function is still the same. Step information is adequate, you can view data from the past day, week, month or year. I also like that it can connect with MyFitnessPal for calorie tracking. But it's when it comes to sleep tracking that you notice how far behind the competition the Connect app really is. 

garmin vivoactive

(Sarah Tew/ CNET)

Along with the small redesign last week, Garmin added automatic sleep tracking to all of its activity trackers (the Vivoactive, Vivosmart and Vivofit). While the information appears to be accurate, it's lacking to say the least. Other companies attempt to estimate the amount of deep and light sleep you achieve each night, along with how long it took to fall asleep and how many times you woke up. Garmin's solution shows a graph of movement throughout the night, and that's it.

Training with the GPS

The Vivoactive is much more than your average smartwatch or activity tracker. The GPS radio is used for the running, biking and golf apps. I'm not a golfer, but Garmin says it supports up to 38,000 courses worldwide. The watch can be used to keep score, display par and hole information, and (with the GPS enabled) can measure the distance to the green.

As for running and biking, the Vivoactive will track the route (which can be viewed later in the Connect app) and provide information on pace, speed, distance, calories burned and time elapsed. Running features include auto pause, auto lap, interval training and a back to start feature that attempts to guide you back to your original start location. 

garmin vivoactive

(Sarah Tew/ CNET)

Garmin has made a name for itself in the GPS industry. From my personal experience, the company's reputation for stellar GPS performance holds true. The first time I went for a run with the watch it took roughly a minute to acquire my location in the Upper East Side of Manhattan. The second and third time that number was down below 30 seconds. It was even quicker when I attempted my location in Central Park or in the suburbs of New Jersey (around 10 seconds).

The default data screen for running shows speed, pace, distance, lap pace and lap distance, although these can be customized to your liking. While it doesn't include an optical heart-rate monitor, an ANT+ strap can be paired with the Vivoactive for those interested in heart-rate training. 

garmin vivoactive

(Sarah Tew/ CNET)

After you complete your workout, the Vivoactive will automatically begin to upload the data to your device once you are in Bluetooth range. A map of your route, along with detail information on pace, distance, altitude and more can then be viewed in the Garmin Connect app.

Everything considered, running with the Vivoactive is an enjoyable experience (unless software bugs popup). It just does everything right and has all of the features casual and even some serious runners need. Not to mention the lightweight and slim design make the watch very comfortable to wear.

Note that while there doesn't appear to be support for open water swimming with GPS tracking at the time of this review, you can use the Vivoactive in a pool to measure time, distance and stroke count.

Battery life

Garmin claims the Vivoactive will last up to three weeks in watch and activity tracking mode. With an active GPS signal, the Vivoactive will last a whopping 10 hours with an active signal, an incredible stat given its slim design. By comparison, the Fitbit Surge lasts about 5 hours, the Garmin Forerunner 15 will last 8 hours and Polar M400 9 hours.

I experienced battery life that was around 7 to 9 days, but that included three 30-minute runs using the GPS and using the stopwatch app for 40 mins each morning while I weight trained. Charging is performed through a magnetic cradle that connects to the back of the watch. This is also how you connect the watch to your computer for syncing if you don't own a compatible smartphone. 

garmin vivoactive

(Sarah Tew/ CNET)

It was previously difficult to find the battery icon on the watch. It was hidden in a system menu, unless you had installed a third-party watch face. A software update that came through last week permanently placed a small icon on the default watch face. While this helped ease my battery concerns, it still annoys me that the icon doesn't change to red when the battery is low. The watch actually won't warn you when the battery is running low. There's no vibration or any sort of alert; it will simply turn off, which it did once in the middle of a run.

Conclusion

The Vivoactive has me torn. When I didn't experience software glitches and connection problems, I was extremely satisfied with it. The built-in apps all performed well, the GPS was fast and reliable, activity tracking was accurate, battery life was good and the design was superb. Then when I think of all the times I tapped on the touchscreen with no response and how many times I had to restart the watch, I think about how angry I would be if I spent $250 (£200, AU$340) on a broken product.

Garmin's Vivoactive has tremendous potential and could one day be a great product, but in its current form it isn't. Casual runners who also want activity tracking should check out the Polar M400. If you want something that's more of a smartwatch, check out the Sony Smartwatch 3. I will continue to wear the Vivoactive and I plan to re-review it when Garmin irons out some of the bugs, but until then I can't recommend it.

Sport: Fitness and wellness

Proficiency level: Expert/Intermediate

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