Garmin VivoActive review

Attention athletes: Skip the smartwatch and get Garmin's brilliant Vivoactive

No smartwatch matches the crack fitness and activity tracking of Garmin’s very slick Vivoactive.
No smartwatch matches the crack fitness and activity tracking of Garmin’s very slick Vivoactive.
No smartwatch matches the crack fitness and activity tracking of Garmin’s very slick Vivoactive.

Highs

  • On-board GPS and step tracking
  • ANT+ sensor connectivity
  • Waterproof to 5 ATM
  • Smart Notifications (phone, text, email)

Lows

  • Only one programmable alarm
  • Sleep tracking lacks detail
  • Menus can be complex

For years Garmin was known for creating high-tech GPS equipment that can look bulky, overly complicated, and on occasion just plain ugly. That changed in early 2014 when the company launched the Vívofit line of fitness trackers. These sleek bands featured a battery that lasted a year, a “move bar” to remind wearers to move when they’d been sitting too long, and sleep tracking. But they lacked GPS found in Garmin’s more specialized running or swimming watches.

Now Garmin is meeting athletes in the middle. With the Vívoactive, Garmin has blended the fitness-tracking features of the Vívofit with solid GPS tracking tech, all wrapped in a thin, lightweight, stylish, modern watch. Available for $250, or $300 bundled with a heart-rate monitor, it’s smart enough to be all the smartwatch most people need, and sporty enough to satisfy any athlete.

Features and design

At a distance, you might mistake the Vívoactive for the upcoming Apple Watch. That’s a good thing.

At 0.32 inches thick, the Vívoactive is a thin watch – especially in comparison to other GPS watches. It features a nearly square, 1.38-inch, 205 x 148 pixel color touch screen display and two buttons — one on each side of the watch’s face. The left button is for power and backlighting, and the right handles watch functions like starting and stopping activities or getting to the settings. Everything else is done by either swiping or tapping the touch screen. The traditional watchband is made of comfortable rubberized plastic, and you can pick one out in black or white.

Like a fitness band, the Vívoactive is capable of logging your steps taken, calories burned, distance travelled, and sleep. But it also includes full GPS tracking, and comes with apps for recording running, cycling, swimming, walking, golf (with downloadable courses), plus indoor (non-GPS) walking, running, and cycling. When connected to additional sensors (purchased separately) the Vívoactive can track heart rate, running cadence, ambient temperature, as well as speed and pedaling cadence for cycling.

When paired to a smartphone, the Vívoactive can display notifications for incoming calls, text, emails, and calendar items, right on your wrist. Responding to the notifications, however, requires accessing the phone. When you misplace your phone, you can also use the “find my phone” app to cause it to ring, making it easier to hunt down.

The biggest addition to the Vívoactive, however, is the IQ Connect Store, Garmin’s own app store. You can access it for free through the Garmin Connect smartphone app, and download apps and widgets that provide custom watch faces, additional sport tracking, and new ways of looking at the data. When new apps or widgets are created (we’re hoping for a surfing or skateboarding widget soon) they can be downloaded from the store and installed on the watch without ever plugging it into a computer. This makes the Vívoactive one of Garmin’s most customizable watches ever.

What’s in the box

The Vívoactive we tested included the watch and band, a USB charging-data cable with a proprietary magnetic connector, and a quick-start guide. For another $50, you get a Vívoactive Bundle that includes all the above, plus a soft strap heart-rate monitor.

Performance and use

After downloading the Garmin Connect app to our iPhone (also available for Android), getting the Vívoactive running was straight forward and well documented. The app asked us to create a profile on Garmin Connect, answer a few questions about gender, age, height and weight, and then attempted to pair with the watch via Bluetooth.

Make no mistake, while this watch looks simple on the outside, it is loaded with features and user options that can make it nearly as complex to operate as Garmin’s top-of-the-line fenix 3 watch. However, thanks to presets and defaults, it is possible to keep it simple as well.

Setting up basic fitness tracking requires using the Garmin Connect app to answer a few more questions in the “personal information” section, like average go-to-bed and wake up times. After setup, it will count steps, calories, and distance traveled, then automatically sync that info back to both the Garmin Connect smartphone app and website.

Garmin VivoActive connected screen
Bill Roberson/Digital Trends
Bill Roberson/Digital Trends

The Vívoactive seemed to do a fine job of tracking our general movements each day, and the “move bar” makes a nice reminder to get up and walk after sitting too long at the computer or on the couch. Garmin’s automatic daily step goals motivated us to improve each day, and we were mostly able to meet them.

But for tracking your sleep, the Vívoactive isn’t as adept as competitors like the Fitbit Charge, which tracks it automatically. On the Vívoactive, you must either setting the watch into sleep mode manually each night and wake it up each morning, or enter your sleep times into the app manually after the fact.

The biggest addition to the Vívoactive, however, is Garmin’s version of an app store called the IQ Connect Store.

Either way, the app displays so little detail, it’s hardly worth the trouble. While other trackers show a chart of time asleep, time restless, and time awake, the Garmin merely shows amounts of movement (low to high) over time. Knowing how much sleep we got was difficult when there was no way to tell which of the movements recorded were when we got up and out of bed, or when we simply rolled over roughly.

Learning which settings are controlled by the watch and which are set by the Garmin Connect app can also be tricky. Getting our Vívoactive set to our liking required a combination of the two, when we really would have preferred to do everything through the larger screen on a phone.

Fortunately, tracking activities couldn’t be easier. One press of the right-side button displays a screen of activity options. Just tap one to select it, then wait 15 to 30 seconds for the GPS to locate the satellites before it’s ready to go. You’ll see three of the metrics being recorded (all of which can be customized on the watch), and can tap the screen to see three more. Pressing the right button during an activity stops the activity, and an alert asks if the activity should be saved or discarded. The watch pushes all your results to the Garmin Connect app automatically, and you can even configure it to upload your achievements to the activity-tracking site Strava.com as well.

Connecting the Vívoactive to other (ANT+) sensors like a heart-rate monitor, cadence, or speed sensor was straight forward, and it remembers them between activities.

Our only real cause for frustration during an activity came from attempting to check the time. Short of stopping the activity altogether, or adding Time of Day as one of the data fields, we couldn’t find a way to get the time to display. After searching the manual (which is available on the Garmin Connect app) we finally discovered that to view the time during an activity you have to press and hold on the touch screen for approximately three seconds. Not exactly intuitive.

Battery

Garmin says one charge will power the watch up to three weeks in watch mode, and for 10 hours with the GPS running. That’s enough power for all but the most hardcore ultra marathoners and long-distance cyclists. We found that by using the GPS once or twice a day to track activities, we got an average of three to four days before we had to snap it into the magnetic charger.

One thing we didn’t notice was any kind of warning before the battery went dead – it just shuts down. A bit more warning would be nice.

Conclusion

After wearing the Vívoactive for two weeks, we still can’t really decide if this is the easiest to use GPS watch we’ve ever tested, or the most complex fitness tracking band. But that’s a good thing.

For athletes who have outgrown the simple step-tracking of a Garmin Vívofit or Fitbit Flex, but worry about the bulk of a GPS watch, the Vívoactive is a near perfect device. We could even argue that the Vívoactive’s smartwatch features alone are worth the price of admission. We love being able to turn off our ringer and get alerted to all important calls, texts, emails, and calendar notifications with a simple vibration on the wrist. It makes being always connected much less audibly painful. And while we find ourselves much more interested in GPS and ANT+ sensor data than steps, getting them recorded without thinking is a nice bonus.

Smartwatches like the Microsoft Band and LG G Watch R undoubtedly do more than the Vívoactive, but we don’t believe any of them do fitness and activity tracking as well, nor do they wrap it up in as cool a package as the Garmin Vívoactive.

Highs

  • On-board GPS and step tracking
  • ANT+ sensor connectivity
  • Waterproof to 5 ATM
  • Smart Notifications (phone, text, email)

Lows

  • Only one programmable alarm
  • Sleep tracking lacks detail
  • Menus can be complex
Product Review

Fitbit’s Inspire HR fitness tracker nails the basics and keeps the price low

Fitbit targets the new user with the Inspire HR, a low-cost, lightweight fitness tracker that covers all the basics. I put the device through its paces. It not only lived up to our expectations for an entry-level tracker, but sometimes…
Wearables

Tips and tricks to get you started with your new Fitbit Inspire HR

The Inspire HR may be an entry-level fitness tracker in Fitbit's lineup, but the device still has plenty of features to explore. These are our favorite tips and tricks to help you use the Inspire HR to its fullest potential.
Deals

Make some time for the best smartwatch deals for March 2019

Smartwatches make your life easier by sending alerts right on your wrist. Many also provide fitness-tracking features. So if you're ready to take the plunge into wearables and want to save money, read on for the best smartwatch deals.
Smart Home

Get sweaty with the best smart home fitness gadgets on the market

Are you looking for smart fitness devices that will really help your workouts, no matter where you like to exercise? These smart home gadgets are designed to help you analyze your workouts and keep track of how you are doing.
Health & Fitness

AncestryDNA price drop makes it more affordable to discover your family origins

In step with St. Patrick's Day's emphasis on roots, AncestryDNA cut its price for a DNA-based ancestry search by $40. Send in a saliva sample to receive an estimated ethnicity breakdown, locations of origin, and possible living relatives.
Deals

Bowflex’s spring sale has limited-time deals on treadmills, home gyms, and more

Gyms membership are expensive which is home gyms are a great alternative. When it comes to home gyms, Bowflex designs great fitness training equipment for your home so you can get the full gym experience. Right now Bowflex is offering huge…
Deals

This Bowflex promo code will save you up to $1,000 on training equipment

The Bowflex HVT machine is designed to fit anyone's needs. Whether you're getting back into shape or you train every day, Bowflex's HVT, which stands for hybrid velocity training, combines both cardio and working out in one machine. Now you…
Gaming

Sony could use a robot to turn your PlayStation into a fitness machine

Sony submitted a patent application for a robotic device equipped with a camera to assist in your workout. The images included suggest that the device will work with your PlayStation console.
Deals

Stay fit and save cash with our top 10 affordable Fitbit alternatives

As much as we love Fitbits, they're rather expensive. If all you want is a simple activity tracker, however, then check out these great cheap Fitbit alternatives. With offerings from brands like Garmin, you don't need to pay full price.
Outdoors

Yamaha’s Wabash ebike takes on gravel, single track, and more

The Wabash gravel ebike from Yamaha gives riders a versatile and powerful option for riding trails, pavement, mud, sand, dirt, and more, with plenty of range and power for all-day adventures.
Mobile

Even older Apple Watches could be effective at spotting heart conditions

The Apple Watch Series 4 is known for detecting heart conditions like atrial fibrillation thanks to having an electrocardiograph feature. It turns out that older Apple Watches could be effective at tracking AFib, too.
Health & Fitness

Under Armour HOVR is more than a running shoe, it’s a fitness tracker

Under Armour HOVR running shoes bring more to the table than just a comfortable fit. With UA's Record Sensor technology, you can track distance, duration, and even the path you take as you run.
Outdoors

Trek’s new bike helmet is 48 times safer than the one you’re wearing

Trek and Bontrager have taken the wraps off of a new cycling helmet that uses WaveCel technology to dramatically reduce head injuries by dispersing the impact in a way that is 48 times safer than current helmets.
Emerging Tech

Inflating smart pills could be a painless alternative to injections

Could an inflating pill containing hidden microneedles replace painful injections? The creators of the RaniPill robotic capsule think so — and they have the human trials to prove it.