Review: Garmin Vivosmart fitness tracker band

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Gizmag reviews the Garmin Vivosmart fitness tracker band (Photo: Simon Crisp/Gizmag.com)

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With the almost inevitable rise of smartwatches (which still hasn't quite hit the mainstream), the humble fitness tracker could soon have a hard time justifying its demands on your wrist real-estate. As such, they too are getter smarter. While tracking your fitness and activity, the Garmin Vivosmart can also show incoming emails on your wrist and control the music playback of your smartphone. But is a smart(er) fitness tracker a smart buy? Gizmag recently spent a bit of time with one on our wrist to find out.

Similar to wearables like the Gear Fit and Fitbit Surge, the Garmin Vivosmart is a fitness tracker with smartwatch aspirations. It is aimed at folk who want access to all the activity tracking and exercise data that fitness-specific devices allow, but who also want some of the wrist-based conveniences that smartwatches promise to deliver, without having to invest in a full-on smartwatch.

The sensors in the Vivosmart mean it's able to measure information including steps, distance, and calories burned, along with tracking personal activity goals, warning you about periods of inactivity and seeing how well you've slept. It's also waterproof to 50 m (165 ft), meaning you don't need to fret about taking it off when taking a shower, swimming or washing up, and it can connect to your iOS or Android smartphone to control basic functions and deliver notifications to your wrist.

In the box, users will find the Vivosmart band, which comes in a number of colors besides the black model we tried, and a proprietary (and bulky) USB charger which clips around the band when it's run out of juice, which we found was about every five days. It can also be used if you want to connect it to your computer. There is also a small protector clip - dubbed the Vivokeeper - which is designed to go around the hole and pin fastening of the band to ensure that it doesn't fall off during more strenuous and arm-waving exercises.

The usual array of leaflets that you won't read direct you to your app store of choice to download the corresponding iOS or Android apps, or the Garmin website to get the software needed if you plan on syncing with your PC or Mac. Computer requirements are a PC running Windows XP or newer, or a Mac running OS 10.7 or newer. Once installed, getting the Vivosmart up and running is a simple process which involves setting up a Garmin account if you don't already have one.

The Vivosmart is one of the more comfortable activity trackers we have strapped around our wrist. In fact, at 19 g (0.67 oz) it's so light and unobtrusive that we occasionally had to check it was still there. It comes in two sizes, small and large, and you'd be wise to check the measuring guide on the website before buying. We were sent the small for the review and despite having slender wrists (even if I do say so myself) had to have it in on the last fastening clips. Style-wise the black band is minimal and discreet, but nothing to write home about.

Once it is on your wrist, the only noticeable physical feature of the Vivosmart is its 128 x 16 pixel OLED screen which runs 34 mm (1.35 in) along the band rather than across it. This is something we initially disliked, as it felt like I had to dislocate or contort my arm into a weird position every-time I wanted to check the time or see if I was moving enough. However, within a few days we were finding the information the larger screen was able to display so useful that we wondered how we would ever go back to the small screen of our Fitbit Charge HR when it was time to send this review unit back.

The screen can be brought to life by a quick double-tap, or an optional flick of the wrist (similar to Pebble). The latter was a great feature when using the Vivosmart as an everyday time-telling watch, simply raising our arm in a checking-the-time manner could be set to display the time screen. Once on, the various information screens and settings can be accessed by finger swipes and holds. We were pleasantly surprised by how reliable and responsive this was, even when using it in torrential downpours of rain.

In addition to displaying time and activity information, the Vivosmart band can also be used as an alarm, with vibrations and a flashing screen telling you you're about to be late. It can also display notifications such as text messages, emails, missed calls and other app notifications, which can all be scrolled through on the screen. While you wouldn't want to read War and Peace two lines at a time, it's a great way of being able to tell if you need to fish your phone out of your pocket to reply or not. A surreptitious glance at your wrist also feels less obtrusive and rude you want to check an email while with other people.

When it comes to the bread and butter function of tracking activity, we found the step counts and distances the Vivosmart provided, to be roughly on a par with other devices, and figures were within five percent of the FitBit Charge HR (yes, I sometimes go out with multiple trackers lined up on our arms, what of it?). As is always going to be the case with trackers that lack built-in GPS, it's never going to be spot on, but its good enough for most people most of the time. Calculations of calories burned appeared to be less consistent, and lower, probably because the Vivosmart lacks the built-in heart-rate monitor of its rival and therefore cannot factor this in.

By holding down on the screen of the Vivosmart, you can start tracking a specific activity, as opposed to the all-day tracking. This allows you to get more detailed information on exercise sessions. We found this most useful when pairing the Vivosmart with an ANT+ heart-rate monitor (we used the Wahoo Fitness Tickr X). When doing this, heart-rate information can be seen on the wrist during exercise to help you maintain intensity, and reviewed in the Garmin Connect app once you've got your breath back. This is particularly handy if doing an exercise, such as weights, which will not otherwise be picked up by the band and gives more accurate calories burnt information.

When it comes to checking tracked information, this can be done on the wrist, or more comprehensively via the Garmin Connect app which syncs via Bluetooth Smart. If you don't have your smartphone or computer handy to sync, the Vivosmart can store 24/7 activity information for four weeks. While the app gives you access to all of the information you'd expect, it's not as slick or as smooth as the Fitbit app, which is the app by which all other activity tracking apps are measured.

Once you're all synced, the smartphone app can display a number of windows, including steps (distance), activities, workouts, records, badges and sleep. Within each of these it's generally easy to look at the information in more detail, and scroll back to compare it over a period of time. Nice clean graphics make it easy to see what's what, and the process doesn't feel like a workout in itself.

There are number of ways in which the Vivosmart tries to jockey you on to be more active that you already are. The first of these you're likely to come across (especially if you sit down in front of the TV with the Vivosmart on) is the Move Bar which counts periods of inactivity and will alert you to when you haven't moved enough. After an hour of slobbing out, the Vivosmart vibrates and flashes with a bar indicating an hour of inactivity, the bar continues to grow with subsequent 15 minutes periods of not doing much, until you finally get up and walk around for a couple of minutes.

Another way of getting you to do more is that the Vivosmart automatically calculates a daily activity goal calculated using your previous activity information. This time the tracker vibrates and flashing in a congratulatory rather than nagging fashion. Within the app you can also see badges awarded to you for things like your total step count, or days you achieve double your activity goal. Social features within the Garmin Connect app mean you can also share your activity information and compete against others, by trying to beat their times on predesignated routes local to you. This is one of the first times we've really enjoyed using the social features of a fitness tracker.

You may have noticed that we've not mentioned sleep tracking yet, that's because it really didn't feel that useful. It's less comprehensive than that on the Fitbit Charge HR, which itself isn't particularly handy. Here tracking is limited to movement when asleep and has to be switched on and off manually. This means telling it when you doze off and wake up, which we frequently forgot to do, with our Vivosmart thinking we only slept every couple of days, but typically for a very long time. It didn't even realize we might be awake when we started walking around. Luckily, sleep time can be altered after the event for more accurate details.

Other features of the Vivosmart include the ability to control external devices. We found control over music playback useful on those occasions when our phone was out of reach, and it extends to stop/start, the ability to skip tracks and adjust volume. Another handy feature was the Find My Phone option which once pressed on the Vivosmart band will cause your phone to beep repeatedly (this is similar to a feature found on most smartwatches). Because of the freedom allowed by not having to be surgically attached to your phone to check incoming notifications, we found we misplaced the handset more frequently than we would ordinarily be inclined to do.

There are another couple of features which, while worth noting, we did not have the opportunity to test out. These include support for the Garmin VIRB action camera, whereby users can take a photo or start a video recording direct from their wrist, ideal for times when the camera is mounted out of reach. Also, in the same way the Vivosmart can be paired with ANT+ heart-rate sensors, it can be paired with ANT+ cycling speed sensors for more accurate tracking of that exercise.

The Garmin Vivosmart is an interesting product. It looks, and at £130 (US$170) is priced, like a typical activity tracker, but thanks to its smart features will also appeal to people who want a bit more functionality out of something they are going to strap around their wrist. This, at the moment, allows the Vivosmart to stand out out from the crowd of more basic activity or fitness trackers that are out there.

The chances are that potential buyers of the Vivosmart will also be eyeing-up other discreet band-based trackers like the FitBit Charge HR, the Microsoft Band, or the Jawbone UP3, and the Garmin can hold its own against any of those. While the others offer heart-rate monitoring, the Vivosmart works smoothly with external heart-rate monitors (which are more accurate), so if you want heart-rate info for exercise rather than all-day info, that's no great hardship. Indeed, if you are willing to make the investment in an external heart-rate monitor, the Garmin is arguably the best tracker of the bunch.

However, and in no way meant to diminish the fitness tracking ability of the Vivosmart, it was the smart features of the band which really impressed during our tests. While in a couple of years it will no-doubt be taken for granted (and for smartwatch early adopters, it already is), currently the ability to quickly check emails on your wrist without getting you phone out feels like a revelation.

Product page: Garmin Vivosmart

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