The Garmin vivoactive fitness tracker is a smart(ish) watch which combines all-day activity and sleep tracking along with more detailed exercise monitoring thanks to built-in GPS capabilities. Gizmag recently spent a few weeks putting the device through its paces, as it put us through ours, to see what it can do and who it is best suited for.

The headline attraction of the Garmin vivoactive is the pairing of built-in GPS and all-day activity tracking, something few of the other devices vying for that spot on your wrist can claim. This will undoubtedly make the device appeal to those who like to run or cycle phone-free, but still want to log where they've been. While Garmin also has a number of other GPS-enabled watches, these are typically sport specific and higher-end offerings like the Forerunner 920XT or fēnix 3.

However, it's not all good news when it comes to the specification sheet. While built-in heart-rate tracking is becoming more common on trackers like the FitBit Charge HR, Jawbone UP3, or Basis Peak, it is sorely lacking here. This means the vivoactive will have a harder job of tracking training intensity levels than other devices, though it is compatible with chest-worn heart-rate monitors, which are more accurate, if annoying to wear.

In the box users will find the Garmin vivoactive watch and a boxy proprietary USB charger which magnetically snaps to the bottom of the watch when it needs charging. This can be as little as every few weeks, though constant use of GPS sees this figure drop to 10 hours. In our experience we got around three or four days out of each charge with a mix of general and GPS tracking.

Set-up is painless and simple, the vivoactive can be easily paired with a device running the Garmin Connect App for iOS or Android. If you don't already have a Garmin Connect account this involves entering personal information such as age, height and weight which will be use to provide accurate feedback. While you can use the Garmin Connect website, the app will probably be where you generally check on your daily activity and exercise numbers. You can also use it to connect with fellow exercisers, manage your account, and install apps from Connect IQ onto your device.

While the vivoactive looks more like a smartwatch than most other fitness trackers, it isn't going to win any style awards. That said, it can be worn in more formal situations without feeling like you are touting your "Yes, I exercise!" credentials. The basic shape and plastic feel are reminiscent of a Casio digital watch circa 1987, though that's not necessarily a bad thing as it's comfortable to wear. We found the slender and lightweight form a welcome break from bulkier trackers, particularly at night when worn for sleep tracking.

An always-on color screen and big time display makes the vivoactive a more viable watch replacement than some devices. Touchscreen functionality also means it's easy to interact with when it comes to swiping through data screens or navigating menus. Unfortunately, that's where the good news about the screen ends. Firstly, the bezel around the screen seems bigger than that found on many modern TVs, it's disproportionately large and makes the device appear old fashioned before its time, the extra large Garmin logo also ensures you don't forget who makes the vivoactive.

The relatively low-res (205 x 148 pixels) 28.6 x 20.7 mm (1.13 x 0.80 in) screen adds to this dated feeling, especially when you consider the vivoactive is potentially competing against the likes of the Apple Watch. In terms of interface, the touchscreen is joined by two touch buttons under the screen for use in menu navigation, and two physical buttons at the side of the watch, for activating a backlight and starting or stopping activity tracking and apps.

Luckily for Garmin, we are not going to judge the vivoactive solely on its looks, and it fares fair much better in the important business of activity and exercise tracking. It measures all the core activity tracker stats like steps, distance and calories, along with exercise specific tracking for running, walking, cycling, swimming (the vivoactive has a 5 ATM water rating) and golf. It can also be used with indoor gym treadmills and exercise bikes. Basic sleep tracking is also available, breaking your slumber into periods of light and deep sleep, as well as logging movement levels.

As with most trackers, a central feature is an exercise or activity target, and on the Garmin vivoactive this is a step-based smart goal. Progress towards this daily goal can easily be checked by swiping the screen to display a (hopefully) filling bar, along with a steps, distance and calories burned count. The smart goal can be automatically set based on your previous activity, so while ours was initially 7,500 steps per day, after a couple of weeks of use it took 12,000 steps to fill that bar and get a congratulatory vibration.

In terms of tracking accuracy, the vivoactive was reliable and steps counted were generally about three percent lower than a FitBit Charge HR which was being used alongside it. If anything we'd be inclined to say the vivoactive was the closer of the two to the mark. However, the lack of built-in heart-rate monitoring, or ability to track certain exercises, left us less inclined to believe its calorie calculations.

That said, when using the vivoactive to track one of its specialist subjects which sees the GPS kick-in – walking, running or cycling – it becomes a much more focused and capable tool. In addition to providing more accurate tracking, with stats such as cadence for running, there's the ability to view maps of the routes you have completed. This also allows more accurate data for speed, pace, or distance. We found the speed of the GPS to be impressive, generally locking on within 15 seconds, possibly thanks to GLONASS compatibility.

For example, on a quick (but not particularly fast) loop of the local park, wearing the GPS-toting vivoactive meant we were able to see features such as pace and lap times while running, and post-run see overall pace, calories burned, cadence, and (on the app) a map of where we'd been. The GPS implementation was also impressive within the Golf function. This sees users download the info for the course they're playing on (from 38,000 golf courses - including our local small municipal course). You can then measure shot distance, and obtain distances to the front, middle and back of the green.

ANT+ compatibility also means the vivoactive can pair with additional devices like heart-rate monitors, footpods, bike speed and cadence sensors for those who want to log their workouts in as much detail as possible. This makes it a viable option for even the most ardent of exercise data collectors. We tested the vivoactive with an external chest heart-rate monitor (the Tickr X to be precise) without any issues. Information could be seen on the wrist during exercise and in the Garmin Connect app afterwards.

When it comes to encouraging you to get up and be more active, the vivoactive has a couple of tricks up its sleeve in addition to the smart goal. A Move Alert can be used to shake you out of periods of inactivity by vibrating if you've been sedentary too long (the same vibration can be set as a silent alarm). This measure of laziness can also be seen in bar form on the activity tracking screen. Reward badges are also dished out for accomplishments like walking 500,000 steps.

Another interesting feature of the vivoactive is Connect IQ which lets you add to the functionality of the device by installing various apps, widgets and new watch faces. We found this to be a great way to improve the vivoactive and shows how it is a device which will continue to get better. In particular we liked a tennis scoring app, Find My Car which aids the memory-impaired with GPS, and an Animal Speed feature which adds a data field to tell you what animal you are moving as fast as, whether a house fly, or cheetah.

Because the smart functions of the vivoactive are not as advanced as those of dedicated smart watches they should probably be seen as a bonus, but one which will no doubt be enough to scratch the smartwatch itch for some users. Emails and other notifications can be set to ping up on your wrist at almost the same moment as they arrive on the phone. This removes the need to constantly retrieve your phone from your pocket to check on notifications. Users are also notified of incoming calls with vibrate and display alerts, though you'll still need to get your phone out to speak, or reply to an email.

Other smart features include a weather screen on the watch with the current temperature and weather forecast, a calendar display of upcoming meetings logged in your smartphone, and the ability to control music playback on your phone. The vivoactive can also be used as a remote control for Garmin's VIRB action cameras, allowing wrist taps to start or stop recording, or take a photo.

If you want a GPS-enabled activity and fitness tracker, the US$250 vivoactive is a great option. While there are GPS watches better suited for people who focus on and get serious about a specific sport, like the Forerunner 920XT, TomTom Runner or Garmin Approach S3 Golf Watch, the vivoactive is probably the best GPS watch for most people who want general activity tracking. And it's not half bad at some of the more specific duties anyway.

Assuming you can get over the fact it doesn't have built-in optical heart-rate monitoring like the Fitbit Surge or Basis Peak – and those not-so-flagship looks – you can't go wrong with the vivoactive. It is a capable and well-equipped fitness and exercise tracker, which also lets you get a glimpse of the pending smartwatch future. If it did boast built-in heart-rate monitoring, this would be tough tracker to beat.

Which brings us to the question of whether a follow-up to the vivoactive will have those flashing lights of heart-rate monitoring goodness? Up until recently we'd have said it was unlikely, but the recent launch of the Forerunner 225, which uses Mio optical heart-rate technology, presumably paves the way for more wrist-based heart-rate trackers from Gamin, and we know we'd love to see it on a vivoactive 2.

Product page: Garmin vivoactive

View gallery - 23 images