Review: Garmin's Vivoactive HR knows exactly how sporty you are

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We review the Gamin Vivoactive HR GPS sports-watch(Credit: Simon Crisp/Gizmag)

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The Garmin Vivoactive HR is a comprehensive activity, sport, and sleep-tracking GPS watch. With the addition of heart-rate tracking, it now logs enough metrics to keep all but the most ardent fitness fanatics happy, and has specific sports modes ranging from running and cycling to stand-up paddleboarding and skiing. We recently spent a few weeks running ourselves ragged to see what it can do.

On paper the Vivoactive HR addresses many of the issues we had with its predecessor, now boasting heart-rate tracking and looking a lot less like a 1980s Casio. It also includes a wide range of sports modes, can be used to remotely control music playback, and puts basic smart features and notifications on your wrist.

Considering it felt as though Garmin had listened to everything we'd said about the original Vivoactive, we were keen to get started with the Vivoactive HR, and setup was a breeze. We simply installed the Garmin Connect app (available for iOS, Android and Windows 10 Phone), logged-in and paired the watch. We were ready to go in under two minutes.

Sports watches are not generally known for their good looks, but the Vivoactive HR is arguably quite stylish (with the qualification of "for an activity tracker") despite being chunkier than its predecessor because of the optical heart rate sensor sitting around back.

In fact, the Vivoactive HR is downright narrow for a sports watch. This is because the touchscreen has been rotated 90 degrees, and the bezel is significantly reduced in size. It's not the highest resolution display we've seen, but it's nice and readable, even in bright sunlight.

The screen also feels more responsive than the original Vivoactive, and seems to be less of a fingerprint magnet. This makes swiping through menus nice and easy, with the two physical buttons under the screen also being used to access menus and mode, or start and stop sports tracking – this is useful if your fingers are wet.

Before using the watch to measure our activity, we first set about customizing it. Settings allowed us to select the watch face (and use the smartphone app to install more options), as well as sport-specific apps and widgets (things like weather updates, a compass and even an IFTTT trigger).

We also turned on phone notifications so we could receive emails and other messages straight to the wrist. As with previous Garmin products, this works faster than some rival devices. While it's still no match for a full-on smartwatch like the Apple Watch or Gear 2, it is a good compromise if sports features are more important to you than smart features.

As we've already mentioned, the Vivoactive HR can track more metrics than your average fitness tracker. On the activity front it can log steps, distance, floors climbed and sleep. Meanwhile, sports modes include running, cycling, swimming, golf, stand-up paddleboarding and a range of indoor activities. These monitor relevant data to not only log your sporting endeavors, but also give you the information you need to up your game.

As such, we'll look at how the Vivoactive HR acts as a fitness tracker, and then as a sports watch. However, because checking on all of this data is primarily going to be done via the Garmin Connect app, we'll start there.

The app has been much-improved in recent years, and is now one of the better brand offerings. In it you have access to more information than directly on the watch and can check a snapshot of your daily activity and workouts, or swipe through to look at weekly or monthly progress.

One of the key stats shown on the app is your progress towards a daily step target; this can be set yourself or by Garmin based on your previous activity. The app also lets you compete with friends in fitness challenges, manage your device and settings, and share data with other apps and services. Additionally, you can turn on a "move bar" inactivity warning which will tell you to get off your butt if you spend too long on the sofa. You can also receive "Insights" which are designed to give you a deeper understanding of your activity and how it impacts your health.

However, in our test the insights weren't as illuminating as we'd hoped. They were limited to letting us know when the daily step count was less than usual. In fact, even this only cropped up on days we'd forgotten to wear the Vivoactive HR and were therefore logging no movement or heartbeat, suggesting that if we had been wearing the watch, we had bigger problems than not walking enough.

Moving on to sports rather than activity, there are a couple of ways the Vivoactive HR can log specific workouts. This can be done automatically using Move IQ which identifies what you are doing and tracks it. This can be handy for those memory-challenged times you forget to manually start a workout, but has limitations such as not being as precise, and not getting full data – for example, GPS isn't logged on an automatically tracked run. Also, auto-logged workouts only show up in the timeline rather than the activity section of the app, which is annoying.

As such, we preferred to manually start each workout. This is simply done by pressing the right-hand button and then tapping on the icon for whatever sport we wanted to do. If your sport of choice isn't on the list it's worth checking the list on the app to see if you can add it. Once you have done this you are ready to go, though if your are logging GPS, there's a couple of seconds' wait while it logs on to the satellites.

Within each sport mode you get three display screens, which can each display relevant information for that sport. These can also be customized, in case you would rather do things like track your heart rate zone rather than distance. This is nice as it really lets you track and view the metrics important to you.

Other than activity tracking, our main use of the Vivoactive HR was when running. Here the addition of heart-rate tracking gave the watch a massive advantage over the previous model.

This is useful as it lets you work out within certain HR zones depending on what you want to achieve, with the watch vibrating as you change zones. It's also worth noting that the heart-rate tracking is some of the best wrist-based tracking we've used. There's not the lag which is sometimes noticeable compared to chest-worn monitors.

You are also able to set other targets such as pace, distance and laps. As before, the GPS, which locks on faster than most other location-enabled sports watches, means you get more accurate distance data. Post-workout, users are able to check routes along with additional data such as cadence and stride length.

We also tested the cycling and swimming tracking apps of the Vivoactive HR, and were again pleased with the selection of measurable metrics, and the quality of tracking. In cycling you can measure speed, distance and heart rate, and also keep track of your route via GPS.

Meanwhile, in pool swimming (where you enter the length of the pool you're swimming in) it tracks distance, stroke rate and SWOLF, but not heart rate. It's worth noting that the watch doesn't log free-form swimming in bodies of water like lakes or the ocean, nor will it work with Garmin's chest-worn HRM-Swim or HRM-Tri swimming heart rate monitors.

The Garmin Vivoactive HR is able to track far more sports than we were able to fit in during our time with it. There are specific apps for things like skiing, stand-up paddleboarding, and rowing. You can also customize settings depending on what information best logs your activity, for example we set up a yoga profile which logged time, heart-rate and temperature.

Depending on what you're tracking there's also the option of using additional ANT+ sensors. This can include things like the Garmin's bike speed, cadence sensor and temperature monitor, or a chest-worn heart-rate monitor if that's how you want to track your ticker. The heart-rate data from the Vivoactive HR can also be broadcast to other devices including the Virb action camera and Edge device.

Battery life of the Vivoactive HR is said to run up to eight days, and in our experience we'd say that's about spot on if only using activity tracking; smart notifications bring it down a bit, while the use of GPS means you'll only get 13 hours. Charging is done with a proprietary USB cable which clips into the rear of the watch.

While we've already touched on some of the widgets we used on the Vivoactive HR, it's worth reiterating how useful they can be at bridging the gap between sportswatch and smart watch. For example, we frequently used the music widget to control tunes without having to get hands-on with a smartphone. The weather widgets were also incredibly useful, particularly the AccuWeather MinuteCast. GPS features like navigating to a saved location also helped us find our way back to the car after getting lost on a run.

If all you are after is an activity tracker to tell you whether you've walked more than yesterday, or remind you to get of the sofa, the Vivoactive HR is, quite frankly, overkill. Go look at the Fitbit Alta, Withings Go, or Misfit Shine 2, instead.

However, if you are (or want to get) serious about your fitness, it could be all the sports tracker you need. It has got all of the key features covered, and will be able to track the vast majority of sports or activities you take part in. Indeed all it's missing are some of the very high-end features of watches like Garmin's own Fenix 3 (and the new HR version), and the built in music storage we enjoyed with the TomTom Spark Cardio+Music.

The Vivoactive HR is what we had expected the new Fitbit to be, and in our view is a better offering than the new Fitbit Blaze (mostly because that device lacks GPS). At this price range it looks like the product to beat. Indeed given how smitten we are with the device (which has now been returned to Garmin) we're beginning to look at our Fitbit Charge HR and wondering if it might be time for an upgrade.

The Vivoactive HR is available now and will set you back US$250.

Product page: Vivoactive HR

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