Picking between Garmin Vivoactive 3 and Fenix 5/Forerunner 935

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.

Picking between Garmin Vivoactive 3 and Fenix 5/Forerunner 935
Image source: Garmin

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.

Picking between Garmin Vivoactive 3 and Fenix 5/Forerunner 935
Image source: G&W

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.

Picking between Garmin Vivoactive 3 and Fenix 5/Forerunner 935
Image source: Garmin

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.

Picking between Garmin Vivoactive 3 and Fenix 5/Forerunner 935
Image source: G&W

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) assessment 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.

Picking between Garmin Vivoactive 3 and Fenix 5/Forerunner 935
Garmin Vivoactive 3
Gadgets & Wearables may get a commission
Picking between Garmin Vivoactive 3 and Fenix 5/Forerunner 935

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.

Picking between Garmin Vivoactive 3 and Fenix 5/Forerunner 935
Image source: Image source: Garmin

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.

Picking between Garmin Vivoactive 3 and Fenix 5/Forerunner 935
Image source: G&W

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.

Picking between Garmin Vivoactive 3 and Fenix 5/Forerunner 935
Garmin Forerunner 935
Gadgets & Wearables may get a commission
Picking between Garmin Vivoactive 3 and Fenix 5/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?

Like this article? Subscribe to our monthly newsletter and never miss out!

Marko Maslakovic

Marko founded Gadgets & Wearables in 2014, having worked for more than 15 years in the City of London’s financial district. Since then, he has led the company’s charge to become a leading information source on health and fitness gadgets and wearables.

12 thoughts on “Picking between Garmin Vivoactive 3 and Fenix 5/Forerunner 935

  • The vivoactive 3 is not just a “lite” version. It’s a “shouldn’t have been released for another six months” version. The GPS on mine still takes *forever* to get a lock, then it’s wildly inaccurate. Like 100m inaccurate. Battery life is still terrible – barely a day – unless I turn off Bluetooth and sacrifice half of the features they’re advertising. Garmin Pay is still not real. I know I’m not alone in having these problems, either. There aren’t many other owners yet, but those I’ve met report similar experiences.

    It’s still possible that the hardware’s fine Maybe they just need to fix the firmware and finish building the infrastructure for Garmin Pay. Nonetheless, for now I’m going back to my Forerunner 230.

  • I here you Jeff, same deal with the Fenix 5, horrible bluetooth performance, continually dropping in and out when phone (s8 galaxy) is in my back pocket, not accurate at all in flights of stairs or lap swimming, bar the training load about the only thing that is better than my old Vivoactive HR (which also died in 8 months and had to be replaced under warranty) is it’s a good looking unit. I talked to Garmin and they have agreed to take it back but which I agreed to wait on for 1 month for a software update which may not eventuate. In fact they didn’t seem to surprised by my complaint, I expected then to say it must be a equipment failure. It was about this time I told them I didn’t pay near $800 AU dollars to be a beta tester. Very dissapointed.

  • I’m thrilled with my vivoactive 3, and don’t have the same experiences as Jeff and Peter at all. Perhaps I have benefited from a later firmware update.
    GPS connections are blistering fast. Just a few seconds, and the mapping ( here in Victoria BC at least) is pretty exact.
    I run around 50 k a week and I find the battery lasts around 3 days, depending on how far I have run. In any event it charges very quickly, a 15 minute boost before a run gets a low battery back up to 50% or so.
    99% of time bluetooth connection works fine, I have had a few of “no connection” freezes, but on these occassions either reloading app, or restarting watch has fixed the problem.
    Prior to buying the Vivoactive 3, I had considered the apple watch and fitbit Ionic. However decided to go with Vivoactive 3, because of; lower price, it felt more robust, and the app seemed better. I have mild regrets over not having splashed out for Fenix 5, for its better fitness/training stats, and look.

    • Thanks for your comments. My device of choice is the Forerunner 935. Same as Fenix 5, but slightly cheaper. It has it all if you are really into fitness.

  • I have the Vivoactive 3, very disappointed in this unit. I started with Vivoactive.. then moved on to the HR model… loved it… hated the look and difficulty to reading screen during activity. Then along came the 3…. looks great… but Battery dies wayyyy to fast, unless you turn off features, and it disconnects from my phone all the time. The touch screen can be annoying, super senstive and the single side button I seem to hit all the time during activity, and yes I have tried having the button on both sides. I’m doing triathlons but I’m hesitant to get the 935 and find the same issues are present… but cost more.

    • I’ve got a 935 on my wrist. The best sports watch I’ve ever owned, lots of physiological metrics to delve into. I pretty much forget about charging and plug it in maybe once every two weeks for an hour or so. No touch screen, just 5 physical buttons. I’ve also had no issues connecting to my iPhone. You are right – it is very pricey though.

    • Vivoactive 3 heart rate accuracy
      Sat on an indoor cycle i was cranking up the resistance and the watch told me i was at 70 bpm while the machine read 160 bpm. It felt around 140 so i believe the machine.
      Now I realise the false readings of the vivoactive 3 was misleading on previous squash matches.
      Had a previous Garmin Forerunner with chest strap monitor. I think the watch has to be returned.
      Any suggestions for a suitable replacement?

      • My device of choice is the Forerunner 935. A bit pricey but pretty accurate.

        • Hard to believe, because 935 uses exactly the same HR sensor as VA 3.

  • My experience is exactly like Marko’s. Solid 935 on my wrist at all times and super long battery life. The only issue I had was with BT 3 weeks ago (not recognizing phone and had to constantly delete and add 935 as a device). However, turns out it was another app on my desktop and phone causing the drops. Once I uninstalled all works. So those of you with BT drops, might want to trace back when issue started and what you may have installed, changed, or activated.

    • Forgot to mentioned that after being in a couple of tri races with my 935, I am EXTREMELY GLAD it does not have a touch screen, when there’s so much moisture from the swim and sweat that usually messes up touch screen effectiveness and accuracy. Physical buttons never fail in those conditions, and you can press without looking when you know your watch well.

      • I’m extremely disappointed it doesn’t have a touch screen and neither do most if not all of the current forerunner series. I’m not running 23h a day and either is anybody else. A touchscreen is needed for those 23h, buttons only needed during the run/workout. I’m interested in the forerunner series, just won’t get one until they add a touchscreen. I currently use the VAHR.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.