The way the wearables market is heading, it seems Apple will own the smartwatch segment while Fitbit will be looking to offer a best of both worlds solution. Garmin, on the other hand, has carved out a niche of its own – that of the serious athlete market.
The company’s strategy is centered on purpose-built devices for consumers who are interested in running, cycling, swimming, golfing and more. To this end, Garmin sells more than a dozen smartwatches and fitness trackers.
Essential reading: Top fitness trackers and health gadgets
The newest addition to its range is the Vivoactive 3. Just like Fenix 5/Forerunner 935, it is essentially a Swiss knife of activity tracking. Read on to see how they compare.
For ease of reading, we will talk about the Forerunner 935 and Fenix 5 as a single device in this article. This is because the 935 is essentially a Fenix 5 in a more compact fiber-reinforced polymer casing and bezel. In fact, it has the exact same user interface and functionality but because of the material it comes in at a slightly cheaper price.
Garmin Vivoactive 3 or Fenix 5/Forerunner 935: Design
Garmin has clearly made big strides this year when it comes to design. The Vivoactive 3 and Fenix 5/Forerunner 935 represent marriage of style and functionality.
Launched at IFA Berlin, Vivoactive 3 is an updated version of Vivoactive HR. In terms of value for money, its predecessor is probably one of the best fitness trackers out there. But there is one big problem – with its square and chunky design, its not exactly a looker. Garmin has, quite rightly, picked up on this, gone back to the drawing board, and dished out a device that is likely to appeal to a much wider customer base.
With a stainless steel, classy round design Vivoactive 3 is 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 finally a sports watch that will appeal to men and women equally. Navigation is a combination of using the single physical button on the right and swiping on the touchscreen.
The 30.4mm (diameter), sunlight visible, transflective, memory-in-pixel (MIP) screen is very vibrant and easy to read. It comes with a 240 x 240 pixel resolution.
The Fenix 5/Forerunner 935 is a multi-sport watch that packs a lot of punch into its body. It is aimed at triathletes or for that matter anyone with a running addiction and those after detailed performance metrics.
Unlike the Vivoactive 3, the Fenix 5/Forerunner 935 does not have a touch-screen so you will need to adjust to using the five metallic buttons on the sides. On the left you’ll find a button that switches on the back-light, along with an up and down button to scroll through the menus. On the right you’ll find a start/stop button and a back button.
The base unit sports a 30.4mm, 240 x 240 pixel display. In terms of actual dimensions, measuring 47 x 47 x 13.9 mm for Forerunner 935/47 x 47 x 15.5 mm for Fenix 5, it is slightly chunkier than Vivoactive 3. At 49 grams for Forerunner 935/85 grams for Fenix 5, it also weighs a bit more.
Under the hood there is hardly anything to separate the two. They share an accelerometer, optical heart rate sensor, barometric altimeter, electronic compass, GPS/GLONASS and thermometer for measuring outside temperature.
The only difference is that Fenix 5/Forerunner 935 also comes with a gyroscope and 64MB of internal memory. Vivoactive 3 has enough memory between syncs for 7 timed activities and 14 days of activity tracking data.
Garmin Vivoactive 3 or Fenix 5/Forerunner 935: Battery life and water resistance
Both devices come with pretty respectable battery life. You will be able to go for a week between charges on Vivoactive 3. This is ideal for extended periods of time in the remote areas. With GPS switched on, this comes right down to 13 hours.
The Fenix 5/Forerunner 935 is even better on this measure. It will keep going for up to two weeks in smartwatch mode, which reduces to 24 hours with GPS tracking. Its pretty impressive that Garmin has managed to pack so much battery life into such a high-spec device.
In order to become a true 24/7 fitness tracker, water resistance is essential. With their fantastic 5 ATM (50 meter) water resistance rating, both trackers easily fulfill this criteria.
Garmin Vivoactive 3 or Fenix 5/Forerunner 935: Features
You’ll have no trouble squeezing all the fitness tracking basics from either of these two devices. This includes the standard steps, calories, distance, floors and all day stress monitoring. In the morning the accompanying smartphone app will provide you with detailed info on sleep.
The trackers spit out motivational messages through the day and nudge you with move reminders if you are having a particularly lazy day. There is also automatic activity recognition which means you will get credit even if you forget to log a workout.
The optical heart rate sensor will provide you with real time info on heart rate zones during exercise and info on your resting heart rate in the morning. You’ll also get your Cardio Fitness Level (VO2Max) assesment and there are breathing exercises to help keep you calm.
Both devices are capable of virtually tracking everything under the sun. Thanks to the built-in GPS, the sports watches also fine with phone-free exercising.
You can rely on auto-recognition for running, swimming and cycling or opt to transition between sports by pressing a button. Additional built-in activities include hiking, trail running, skiing, paddle sports, golf and more. The 935/Fenix 5 also supports triathlon as one sport.
When running you will get info on your pace, distance, elevation and split times. When swimming, the Fenix 5/Forerunner 935 and Vivoactive 3 will provide you with info on lap count, duration, calorie burn and more. You also have the option of tracking open water swim sessions on the Fenix 5/Forerunner 935 and connecting the HRM-TRI/HRM Swim for heart rate while in the water.
Garmin Vivoactive 3
Now to the more important differences. And they mostly come down to advanced performance metrics.
The Fenix 5/Forerunner 935 is going to appeal to the more hard core athlete due to the depth of its data. Mind you, even the Vivoactive 3 will provide quite a bit of info on each of the above sports activities. But those more interested in detailed performance metrics will be happier with the Fenix 5/Forerunner 935.
The more high-spec device, for example, aggregates past training results and then uses that data to evaluate the amount of effort you’ve used in your fitness sessions, i.e. if you are slacking off or overdoing it. It does this through two new additional metrics, Training Load and Training Status.
Training load looks at your exercise activity over the last seven days and compares it to the optimal range for your level of fitness and recent training history. Training status does the same thing with a more short-term view, and lets you know if you’re training productively, peaking or overreaching. Additionally, the training effect metric tracks and reviews the aerobic and anaerobic benefit of a training session.
There is a wealth of other advanced running, cycling and swimming data which we won’t go into here. When connected to a running pod or a power meter for cycling, the Fenix 5/Forerunner 935 is capable of dishing out even more. While most of this will not matter to the average Joe, it will to the more serious athlete.
On to the smartwatch features. Although neither of the two can really compete with the Apple Watch on this measure, both timepieces come with some non-fitness features as well. This includes notifications (calls, texts, calendar events push notifications from your favorite apps), an app store and music control.
A first for Garmin, the Vivoactive 3 also comes with 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.
Both trackers use the same Garmin’s Connect platform which was originally created for more hardcore fitness users. While very comprehensive, it leaves a bit to be desired when it comes to simplicity. The company is, however, working on an update which should resolve some of these issues.
Garmin Vivoactive 3 or Fenix 5/Forerunner 935: The bottom line
At first glance, there is little to separate these two devices. Although Fenix 5/Forerunner 935 is slightly larger, they look very similar and pack pretty much the same specs under the hood. You’ll get built-in GPS, 50 meter water-resistance, a host of sensors and great battery life with each.
Garmin’s sports watches have come a long way over the past year when it comes to design and functionality. These two are pretty much at the top of its range. We are pretty confident in saying that when it comes to tracking your fitness 24/7, the Vivoactive 3 and Fenix 5/Forerunner 935 will satisfy most.
Garmin Forerunner 935
But there is a pretty hefty price difference which essentially comes down to advanced performance metrics. The Fenix 5/Forerunner 935 is more well suited for endurance athletes and detailed performance junkies. It will dish out a wealth of advanced running, cycling, swimming info such as Training Load, Training Status, Lactate Threshold, Recovery Time, Aerobic/Anaerobic Training Effect, Performance Condition and much, much more. It is also compatible with Garmin’s running pod, power meters and chest straps.
Clearly, the average person may not appreciate some of these, but the hard-core or wanna-be athlete will. Think of the Vivoactive 3 as a “Lite” version of Fenix 5/Forerunner 935.
So it really comes down to you. Which camp do you fall in?