Review: Garmin Vivoactive HR – the jack of all trades

Garmin Vivoactive HR

Garmin Vivoactive HR
8.125

Design

8/10

    Ease of use

    8/10

      Use of information

      9/10

        Motivation

        9/10

          Pros

          • Great value for price
          • Numerous sports and fitness tracking features
          • Continuous HR
          • Built-in GPS
          • Great battery life

          Cons

          • Bulky design
          • Screen could be more vibrant
          • Can't add activities retrospectively

          Garmin was an early mover and pioneer in the wearables market when it introduced the Forerunner 201 more than a decade ago. Since then, the Swiss company has shipped more than 20 million wearable devices. The Garmin wearables strategy is centered on purpose-built devices for consumers who want to measure and enhance their active lifestyle pursuits, whether it’s running, cycling, swimming, golfing, walking, or simply being more active.

          Earlier this year, ahead of the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, Garmin officially announced a new product – the Vivoactive HR. This is a successor to the Garmin Vivoactive, essentially a Swiss knife of activity trackers that includes a GPS, a heart-rate monitor, the ability to track numerous activities and provide notifications.

          We have been testing Garmin’s new fitness tracker for the past few weeks. These are our impressions.

          Design
          Ease of use
          Use of information
          Motivation
          Overview

          View technical specs


          Design

          Screen Shot 2016-06-22 at 22.46.21The device looks similar to the Fitbit Surge and features a rectangular, always-on, Garmin Chroma touchscreen display. The improved screen is sunlight readable with a resolution of 148 x 205 pixels. The Vivoactive HR is significantly thicker yet narrower and lengthier compared to the first generation of Garmin’s multipurpose tracker.

          We probably wouldn’t classify this as one of the most attractive devices on the market – it definitely looks to be function over fashion. The rectangle made of black plastic that sits on your wrist measures a sizeable 30.2 x 57.0 x 11.4 mm and weighs 48 grams.

          The silicone band that comes with it is the same width as the display. It is fairly flexible and able to maintain a snug fit around the wrist during activities. You can choose between two sizes.

          Screen Shot 2016-06-22 at 22.49.03To save on battery life, the screen is only dimply lit when not in active use. Lifting your wrist, touching the screen or pressing on a button will turn on the backlight display. By default, even with the backlight switched on, the screen is not particularly vibrant. However, if you head over to the settings on the watch, you can choose to increase the brightness and vibrancy. The stronger the backlight, the bigger the battery drain.

          Below the Vivoactive HR’s touch screen are two buttons, one for bringing up the activity selection menu and one for navigating back on the display. You can also navigate your way via the touch-screen, although if you are tracking swimming, understandably the touch-screen is disabled.

          Following in the footsteps of the Blaze, you are able to switch bands with different coloured ones. Users can also personalize their device with free apps, widgets, watch faces and data fields that can be downloaded from the Connect IQ store in the Garmin Connect app. Unlike the Blaze, Garmin vivoactive HR has built-in GPS, which means there is no need to pair it with your phone in order to use GPS tracking.

          imageThe battery life in GPS mode lasts up to 13 hours. Rather impresively, the device has enough juice for up to eight days in watch/activity tracking mode. Somewhat less than the original Vivoactive due the the optical heart rate monitor sitting on the underside of the tracker. To refuel, use the proprietary USB charging cable supplied with the unit. We were very impressed with how quickly the unit recharges and eventually reverted to a 20-30 minute ‘top-up’ every few days to get the battery back to 100%.

          Finally, the watch has a 5 ATM water resistance rating, so your are safe to go swimming with it. Which makes sense as the device tracks swimming.


          Ease of use

          In the box, you get the Vivoactive HR, USB charging cable and manual. Unlike other Bluetooth devices that are paired from the Bluetooth settings on your smartphone, your Vivoactive HR device must be paired directly through the Garmin Connect Mobile app.

          You will then be walked through the setup wizard. If you already have a Garmin Connect account the app will download your profile to the device, if not you will need to register for an account by answering a series of basic questions (such as your height, weight, age, sex, etc…). Alternatively, you can choose to set up the device on your computer using the Garmin Express application.

          Once the setup process is complete, you are ready to either fully charge the watch or put it on your wrist and start tracking your daily activities. All in all, setup is a fairy seemless process. You may need to  wait for the watch to update to the latest firmware release. The updates are automatic, and Garmin seems to be churning them out fairly regularly. Sometimes on a daily basis.

          Screen Shot 2016-06-24 at 22.04.12

          You can access most of your stats on the watch itsself. Swiping down or up on the Vivoactive HR’s display lets you cycle through the various screens, or widgets as Garmin likes to call them. By default, these include daily steps, intensity minutes, the weather, notifications and heart rate. You can add new ones via the Connect IQ store. This is essentially Garmin’s version of the iTunes store. There are around 100 apps and watch faces to choose from.

          As mentioned, below the screen are two buttons. The left button is used to return to the previous menu. You can also hold it to view the shortcut menu options, including turning the device on and off. The right button is used to open the app list. You also use it to start or stop activities or apps. A long press opens up the settings menu.

          Garmin’s new tracker is Move IQ enabled. This is a feature that recently arrived via a software update, which continuously monitors for periods of sustained activity. This is essentially auto-recognition for running, swimming, cycling and elliptical, and means that you don’t need to push buttons to start tracking those workouts.

          For others, you need to manually choose the activity. To do this, just press the right button below the screen and then choose the activity from the scroll-down list. There is a long list to choose from. Each activity has its own tailored screens. For example, with running, you can swipe down through 3 screens of stats during your run to view the various metrics on display. Most of these screens can be customised and you can set vibration alerts when you hit certain milestones, for example a specific heart rate level.

          Sleep tracking is automatic as well. You do need to specify your normal bed and wake time in the app, although we are not really sure why Garmin needs this information. Our impression was that these settings have not really influenced the tracker’s ability to track your kip time. While the Vivoactive HR tracks sleep fairly well, we have noticed that its not that great at recognising those quick afternoon naps.

          Once synced with Garmin Connect, your can review your full day of activity. There is no way to add workouts retrospectively through the app, so make sure you use the device as much as possible. Some activites such as runs and bike rides make use of the Vivoactive HR’s built in GPS. Similar to Garmin’s more run focused devices such as the Forerunner 235 and Fenix 3, the Vivoactive HR is both GPS and GLONASS enabled. You do need to wait, however, for the device to connect to the satellite before embarking on your activity – this can take up to a minute or two sometimes.

          image

          Getting information out of the Vivoactive HR is quick. The main screen shows the time and a summary of stats. Swipe down to scross through the various pages that show your recorded activities for the day, the number of steps you’ve taken, miles travelled, and floors climbed, intensity minutes completed, the weather report for the day, a notification dump, and a heart rate graph. If you are not happy with the home screen – head over to the Connect IQ store and choose from one of the many other options.

          The Vivoactive HR will also display any notification from a compatible smartphone, including incoming calls, texts, emails, calendar reminders and social media alerts and more. Additional capabilities allow you to check weather information, control music on your smartphone, and locate your smartphone to name a few. The Vivoactive HR doesn’t have storage for onboard music, so if you enjoy tunes while you exercise, you still have to bring your phone along with you.


          Use of information

          This is a fairly comprehensive fitness tracker. It counts steps, intensity minutes, monitors sleep, and now with the addition of a barometric altimeter – counts the number of floors climbed. The device features 24/7 wrist-based heart rate data to calculate calories burned as well as the intensity of fitness activities.

          Built-in sports apps include running; cycling; golf and swimming with newly added support for paddle boarding and skiing. You can also add generic strength and cardio categories for other activities If your favourite activity is not on the list, you may be able to find it in the Connect IQ store.

          imageAs the name implies, the Vivoactive HR device has a built in optical heart rate monitor. You also have the option of connecting the watch to an external heart rate monitor. We strapped on the Scosche Rhythm + and paired it with the Vivoactive without any problems.

          In terms of the quality of heart rate data – this very much depends on how snug the device is around your wrist. Particularly for high intensity activities. At times, we would tighten up the strap before a run, and loosen it up afterwards. Also, you should aim to wear the device just above your wrist bone.

          All in all, in normal day to day activities the heart rate monitor dished out fairly accurate data. This was also the case with low intensity activites, steady runs, etc. Once you get into higher intensity activites, such as for example indoor rowing or interval training – you will find that the quality can deteriorate at times. This is, however, to be expected. We have yet to find a wrist based heart rate monitor that is as good as a chest strap or the Scosche Rhythm +.

          In terms of its direct competition – other wrist based heart rate monitors, the Garmin fairs well. Also, the quality of the heart rate data would probably suffice for 95% of users – it is only those that are very serious about heart rate zone training or running who may opt to suppliment the device with an external heart rate monitor for certain activities.

          Essential reading: Guide to lowering your resting heart rate with wearables

          There’s also another feature we are a fan of. Garmin’s device tracks your resting heart rate and you can view historical 4 hour and 7 hour trends right there on your wrist. Your resting heart rate is perhaps one of the most important indicators of your health and fitness. Training to lower the resting heart rate is very important. We did find it slightly odd that your resting heart rate on the device, differs from the values shown in the Garmin Connect mobile app. One can only assume that this is a glitch in the software, which will be ironed out in one of the forthcoming app or firmware updates.

          image

          Like other Garmin devices with heart-rate monitors, the Vivoactive HR tracks so-called “intensity minutes,” a measurement of when the watch detects that you’re moving and you have an elevated heart rate. Most health organisations recommend that you engage in 150 active (intensity) minutes per week. And Garmin has taken these recommendations on board. It does make sense. In addition to aiming for a certain number of steps, having an active minutes goal captures data that would otherwise be missed. If you are riding your bicycle or indoor rowing, you are burning calories and exercising – but your step count will remain the same.

          Sleep tracking is automatic. You get the total sleep time, total deep sleep, total light sleep, and total awake time (during the night). While the info is fairy basic, it is enough to give you an idea of your sleep trends.

          We wont go into detail on individual sports tracking as there is simply too much information to go through. This may be the subject of an upcoming article. For an idea of what the fitness tracker can do, have a look at the following gallery of photos.

          Garmin has been developing its fitness app and Garmin Connect website for a while now and those that like delving into lots of statistics will feel right at home. Both the app and the website is the same for all of its devices. You simply choose which tracker you want to pair with Connect, and it syncs every time you open up the app. Perhaps the Swiss company could do more to make everything a bit more user friendly, but look hard enough and you will probably find the piece of information you are looking for – whether its in the app, on the website or on the watch itsself.

          The website is the place to go, to find all the information that is available. For example, if you are a runner – you may be interested in your Vo2max value. You will only find this on the website. You can tailor the website screens to your liking, and add and remove elements as per your preferences.


          Motivation

          The Vivoactive HR is a device with an impressive range of fitness tracking features. Along with this, there is also a complete set of of features designed to motivate you to achieve your goals. For example, Garmin’s latest feature, called Insights, occasionally feeds you suggestions on how to up your fitness game. Essentially, these are tips that pop up from time to time in the smartphone app advising you how to reach your goals or just lead a healthier life. For example, this morning the following message popped up on our device.

          “We’ve noticed you’re averageing less than 7 hours of sleep for the past several days. Sometime life gets in the way, but getting enough sleep helps you avoid injuries, improves memory and even enhances your outlook on life”.

          If the messages do more to annoy you than motivate you – you can always switch them off.

          Then there is the move bar – essentially an inactivity reminder. This has become a standard feature of any self-respecting fitness tracker. Once the alert pops up, you need to walk around for at least 2-3 minutes before the tracker says its ok to sit down again.

          image

          There is also a social aspect, and you can join various online groups via the smartphone app or Garmin Connect website to compete in different sports or challenges. Or you can choose to create your own group to promote some healthy competition amongst friends.

          Finally, the app will also provide you with virtual rewards to celebrate milestones. All in all, a comprehensive set of features if you need that extra kick to motivate you.


          Overview

          The verdict

          We are certainly excited about the new Garmin device. Essentially, rather than a smartwatch with fitness capabilities, you get a fitness watch with some smartwatch capabilities. Its most direct competitor is probably the Fitbit Surge, which is now a couple of years old. Other trackers which may present direct competition include the Microsoft Band 2, the new Gear Fit 2 and to a lesser extent the Fitbit Blaze.

          On the plus side the tracker combines smartphone notifications with numerous fitness and sport tracking features. It pretty much a jack of all trades and does a bit of everything. If you wish to delve in more deeply, there is a wealth of data that is available in the smartphone app and the Garmin Connect website.

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          Vivoactive HR
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          On the negative side, we wish the tracker was a bit less chunky. While this may not be so much of a problem for men serious about fitness tracking, Garmin may need to introduce a less bulky form factor if it is to appeal to a larger demographic. Also, the $249 price tag may be a hindrance to some.

          Nevertheless, our view is that Garmin is sitting on a winner here. Taking everything into consideration, this may be right now the best multi-purpose fitness tracking device for the money.

          View technical specs

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