Review: Vivoactive 3, the ‘Swiss Army Knife’ of activity trackers gets fashionable

Garmin Vivoactive 3

Garmin Vivoactive 3
80

Design

8/10

    Ease of use

    8/10

      Use of information

      8/10

        Motivation

        8/10

          Pros

          • Looks and feels like a regular watch
          • Tracks multiple sports
          • Good internal sensors
          • A comprehensive fitness tracking experience
          • Bright screen

          Cons

          • Limited smartwatch features
          • No advanced performance metrics
          • No built-in storage for music
          • Battery life not as advertised

          The Vivoactive 3 is Garmin’s main competitor in the all-purpose smartwatch space. The device is an updated version of Vivoactive HR, which in terms of value for money is one of the most feature packed fitness trackers out there. Garmin has now taken all these features, slapped on a few more, upgraded the sensors and processor and packed it all into an attractive round design.

          Essential reading: Top fitness trackers and health gadgets

          I first caught sight of it at IFA in Berlin in early September, and walked away suitably impressed. Garmin has realised that it needs to introduce a more attractive form factor if it is to appeal to a wider user base. And on that count, the Vivoactive does not dissapoint. Far from it.

          What follows is my full review of the device.

          Design
          Features
          Overview

          View technical specs


          Design

          Lookswise, Vivoactive 3 is now more in line with Garmin’s Fenix and Forerunner range. Measuring 43.4 x 43.4 x 11.7 cm and coming in at only 43 grams, this is a lightweight sports watch that is unisex in design.

          With its polymer plastic casing and stainless steel bezel, the body itself has a premium feel. It is also very tough and durable. You can choose from three color options including black, white and a slightly more expensive gray option (all with matching, swapable bands).

          Unlike the Vivoactive HR which has two physical buttons, navigation is a combination of using the single physical button and swiping on the touch display. And in this sense, Vivoactive 3 functions well and is very responsive. This is partly due to an upgraded processor which is reflected in prompt scrolling and animations.

          There is also a slightly textured swipe strip on the side which allows users to scroll when they gently roll their finger up and down. A novel feature indeed, which may be handy, for example, if you are running. Unfortunately, the sideswipe becomes less sensitive when wet and it doesn’t work at all under water. While its a nice option to have, I don’t foresee many people using it on a regular basis.

          Another potentially useful option is that you can choose whether you want to wear the watch on your left or right wrist. All the user has to do is swap the bottom with the top strap. The face rotates, but this keeps the button on the same side regardless of the hand you are wearing it on. The only issue with this is that the gesture-based back-light activation seem to respond only in a single direction. Perhaps something that will be rectified with a software update.

          The 30.4mm (diameter), sunlight visible, transflective, memory-in-pixel (MIP) screen is very vibrant and easy to read both indoors and out. The bezel is fairly small, leaving lots of space for the 240 x 240 pixel Corning Gorilla Glass 3 color display. The backlight ensures the screen is viewable under low light conditions.

          Considering the price and functionality of the timepiece, its safe to assume its main competitors will be Fitbit Ionic and the Apple Watch. While these two have better displays, its worth keeping in mind that unlike the Apple Watch, Garmin’s display is always on (but dimmed so you can still see the watch face). Also, the round look is likely to appeal to many, as it comes across very much as a regular watch. Its a massive improvement in any case on the boxy and retro-looking Vivoactive HR, both in terms of aesthetics and comfort.

          Despite its relatively small form factor, under the hood you’ll find a quite a bit going on. There is an accelerometer, optical heart rate sensor, barometric altimeter, a compass for navigation, a thermometer for measuring outside temperature and GPS/GLONASS.

          When it comes to battery life, Garmin says the Vivoactive 3 can keep going for up to a week on a single charge and 13 hours with GPS switched on. This is slightly optimistic though and actual use shows you can expect to squeeze around 4-5 days of use. Whether an upcoming firmware update resolves this issue remains to be seen. But as things stand, don’t expect you’ll get 7 days of use out of the device. Regardless, this is pretty decent battery life and gives Apple something to aim for.

          When it comes to waterproofing, this is a watch you can wear 24/7. Like most other Garmin devices Vivoactive 3 has a 5 ATM (50 meter) water resistance rating, which means it can deal with all weather elements. It is perfectly capable of tracking your swim sessions, too.


          Features

          While Vivoactive 3 may lags in fancy display features, it certainly makes up ground when it comes to activity tracking. You’ll have no problem squeezing the essentials out of the device including fairly accurate info on steps, calories, distance and floors. The tracker also spits out motivational messages and nudges you with move reminders if you are having a particularly lazy day.

          In the morning Garmins’s app will provide you with detailed info on light, deep and average awake time. You’ll also get info on your resting heart rate. The company is working on an update to the app which should hopefully roll-out fairly soon. This addresses some issues to do with simplicity and user friendliness.

          In terms of sports, Vivoactive 3 tracks pretty much everything under the sun. There are 15 built-in sports profiles, including new ones for snowboarding, cardio, yoga, eliptical and stair stepper. Plus you can install others.

          Starting any activity is done with a single press of the side button. Choose your activity and press the button once again when you are ready to go. If you are running, you will need to wait for the GPS to lock on.

          Thanks to Move IQ, the Vivoactive 3 can automatically distinguish between a number of activities including running, cycling, and walking. This means you will get credit for your workout, even if you forget to manually switch it on.

          The device will also let you mix it up by creating customized workouts. Previously available only on Garmin’s high-end sports watches, it lets you program a multi-step workout into the watch. For example, you can set-up a 5 minute warm-up, followed by eight 100 meter intervals, and finish it off with a 5 minute cool-down.

          If you don’t listen to music when you exercise, you’ll be happy to know that can leave your smartphone behind when you go for a run. The watch will keep tabs on your pace, distance, elevation, split times and more. Indoors, it will monitor treadmill and indoor track runs. For added precision the timepiece uses both GPS and GLONASS. As far as accuracy goes, its usually within 5% of actual distance tracked.

          As for speed to acquire GPS signal, it functions no better or worse than other Garmin watches. This is fairly dependent on your location as well. A bit counter-intuitive but I’ve noticed, for example, that Garmin devices have difficulties picking up a signal in central London due to all the interference, but no problems in less busy areas.

          Of course, the device features Garmin’s Elevate heart rate sensor. Although not chest strap quality, it is one of the most accurate wrist-worn heart rate tracking solutions you can buy at the moment.

          What will surely be a dissapointment to some, Garmin has not included advanced Firstbeat metrics such as Recovery, Training Load and others. My guess is that this is to keep its high-end line attractive. For this, you will need to purchase one of its more expensive Forerunner or Fenix watches.

          In the water the Vivoactive 3 does a fairly decent job of monitoring your swim sessions with lengths, distance, pace, stroke count/rate, calories and swim efficiency (SWOLF). It also detects the type of stroke you are using, and can distinguish between freestyle, backstroke, breaststroke and butterfly. Unfortunately, the touch-screen responsiveness deteriorates rapidly in the water and don’t even think about using the side-swipe. There is also no open water tracking.

          Garmin’s device goes a bit further than its predecessors in the Vivoactive series for a more cohesive fitness and sport experience. It will, for example, track your Cardio Fitness Level (VO2Max). This is a measurement which essentially lets you know how fit you are. Garmin’s Connect app will also let you know how you compare to others of your gender and age.

          There is also a new rep counting feature and pre-loaded gym workouts. This is functionality which made its debut with the release of the Vivosmart 3 earlier this year. However, I see this very much as work in progress. The algorithms miss about as often as they hit when it comes to identifying your exercises, and rep counting in not always spot on. You can, of course, make corrections manually, but this means you’ll be wasting a lot of time between sets fiddling with your watch. Lets hope Garmin keeps improving this functionality as it has the potential to become something really useful.

          And lets not forget the all day stress tracking. The Vivoactive 3 will notice when your heart rate increases when you aren’t moving. You’ll find that the stats make interesting reading as they roughly correspond with real-world situations. If you find life is stressing you out, there are breathing exercises to help keep you calm. Its worth keeping in mind, what Garmin shows as elevated stress sometimes may be the result of other factors. For example, if you’ve had a particularly hard workout the previous eventing, that might show up as elevated stress the next day.

          Apple and Fitbit have yet to introduce a similar feature. The device has another advantage over the Apple Watch and Fitbit Ionic and that is that out of the box it supports things like cycling sensors and footpods.

          In terms of non-fitness features Garmin’s device will dish out notifications (calls, texts, calendar events push notifications from your favorite apps), and you can send basic responses to texts (for now only available on the Android platform), and answer or dismiss calls. There is also an app store with native and third party apps and watch faces, you can check the weather, find my phone/device and control music on your smartphone.

          Its fair to say, these are all fairly basic smartwatch features and Vivoactive 3 is light years behind the Apple Watch on this measure. An obvious omission is offline storage for music. This is something that has become commonplace on many other units now, including the Apple Watch and Fitbit Ionic.

          Oh, and there is Garmin Pay. The Vivoactive 3 has a built-in NFC chip which stores credit card information so you can leave your wallet behind. The functionality is enabled by FitPay and supports Visa and Mastercard debit and credit cards from major issuing banks. Garmin Pay is due to launch any day now so we haven’t been able to test it. Time will tell whether this new functionality actually catches on.


          Overview

          Summary

          The Vivoactive 3 is a great all-rounder that improves quite a bit on its predecessor. With its lightweight form-factor, this is a timepiece that will appeal to both men and women equally. Garmin’s wearables have certainly come a long way over the past year when it comes to design and functionality.

          Its worth noting, the device lacks the advanced performance metrics you can find on Garmin’s high-end sports watches. But this comes with a sizable bump in price. Also, its smartwatch features are fairly basic and there is no option to store music on the device itself. The last negative is the battery life. You can expect to get maybe 4 days of use between charges, which is less than the 7 days advertised. Lets hope one of the future firmware updates addresses this issue.

          Garmin Vivoactive 3
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          While it may lack in some of these areas, this is a pretty solid fitness-focused timepiece which dishes out fairly accurate data and provides a cohesive fitness tracking experience. And all this functionality is packaged in a device that improves in both aesthetics and comfort. Something that looks and feels like a regular watch.

          If you are looking to get into better shape and track your activity around the clock, Vivoactive 3 will have you covered.

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