Wearables

Review: Garmin vivoactive fitness tracker GPS watch

Review: Garmin vivoactive fitn...
Gizmag reviews the Garmin vivoactive GPS activity and fitness tracker
Gizmag reviews the Garmin vivoactive GPS activity and fitness tracker
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The Garmin vivoactive can monitor a range of exercise specific data whether running, swimming or playing golf
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The Garmin vivoactive can monitor a range of exercise specific data whether running, swimming or playing golf
The Garmin vivoactive has a number of golf features such as the ability to measure shots using GPS
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The Garmin vivoactive has a number of golf features such as the ability to measure shots using GPS
The Garmin vivoactive can use information from 38,000 golf courses and give users distances to the front, middle and back of the green on their hole
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The Garmin vivoactive can use information from 38,000 golf courses and give users distances to the front, middle and back of the green on their hole
The Connect IQ service allows users to install apps on the Garmin vivoactive, such as this tennis scoring one
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The Connect IQ service allows users to install apps on the Garmin vivoactive, such as this tennis scoring one
The Garmin vivoactive is at its best when monitoring activities including walking, running, cycling and golf
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The Garmin vivoactive is at its best when monitoring activities including walking, running, cycling and golf
The Garmin vivoactive can also be used to track gym-based exercise on treadmills and exercise bikes
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The Garmin vivoactive can also be used to track gym-based exercise on treadmills and exercise bikes
An always-on screen with a big time display means the Garmin vivoactive can use used as a watch
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An always-on screen with a big time display means the Garmin vivoactive can use used as a watch
Physical buttons on the side of the Garmin vivoactive are used for activating a backlight and starting or stopping activity tracking and apps
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Physical buttons on the side of the Garmin vivoactive are used for activating a backlight and starting or stopping activity tracking and apps
Smart features of the Garmin vivoactive include weather forecasts
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Smart features of the Garmin vivoactive include weather forecasts
The Garmin vivoactive is easy to set up and get tracking with
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The Garmin vivoactive is easy to set up and get tracking with
The Garmin vivoactive can be used to control music playback on your smartphone
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The Garmin vivoactive can be used to control music playback on your smartphone
The Garmin vivoactive comes with a boxy proprietary USB charger which magnetically snaps to the bottom of the watch
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The Garmin vivoactive comes with a boxy proprietary USB charger which magnetically snaps to the bottom of the watch
The Garmin vivoactive can last for up to three weeks on a single battery charge, if not using GPS
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The Garmin vivoactive can last for up to three weeks on a single battery charge, if not using GPS
The Garmin vivoactive is one of the slimmest fitness trackers we have used
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The Garmin vivoactive is one of the slimmest fitness trackers we have used
Emails and other smartphone notifications can be delivered to your wrist witht the Garmin vivoactive
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Emails and other smartphone notifications can be delivered to your wrist witht the Garmin vivoactive
The Garmin vivoactive uses a step-based smart goal activity target to get you moving
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The Garmin vivoactive uses a step-based smart goal activity target to get you moving
The Garmin vivoactive fits just like a traditional watch strap
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The Garmin vivoactive fits just like a traditional watch strap
Thanks to the Connect IQ store, the Garmin vivoactive can tell you what animal you are as fast as
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Thanks to the Connect IQ store, the Garmin vivoactive can tell you what animal you are as fast as
Additional apps, widgets and watch faces can be installed on the Garmin vivoactive using the Connect IQ store
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Additional apps, widgets and watch faces can be installed on the Garmin vivoactive using the Connect IQ store
The Garmin vivoactive works with the Garmin Connect app for Android or iOS
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The Garmin vivoactive works with the Garmin Connect app for Android or iOS
The Garmin vivoactive is a GPS-totting activity tracker which also doubles as a basic smart watch
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The Garmin vivoactive is a GPS-totting activity tracker which also doubles as a basic smart watch
Gizmag reviews the Garmin vivoactive GPS activity and fitness tracker
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Gizmag reviews the Garmin vivoactive GPS activity and fitness tracker
The GPS ability of the Garmin vivoactive means you can map you run or bike ride without carrying your phone
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The GPS ability of the Garmin vivoactive means you can map you run or bike ride without carrying your phone

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.

The Garmin vivoactive can also be used to track gym-based exercise on treadmills and exercise bikes
The Garmin vivoactive can also be used to track gym-based exercise on treadmills and exercise bikes

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.

Physical buttons on the side of the Garmin vivoactive are used for activating a backlight and starting or stopping activity tracking and apps
Physical buttons on the side of the Garmin vivoactive are used for activating a backlight and starting or stopping activity tracking and apps

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.

The Garmin vivoactive uses a step-based smart goal activity target to get you moving
The Garmin vivoactive uses a step-based smart goal activity target to get you moving

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.

The Garmin vivoactive can monitor a range of exercise specific data whether running, swimming or playing golf
The Garmin vivoactive can monitor a range of exercise specific data whether running, swimming or playing golf

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.

The Connect IQ service allows users to install apps on the Garmin vivoactive, such as this tennis scoring one
The Connect IQ service allows users to install apps on the Garmin vivoactive, such as this tennis scoring one

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.

The Garmin vivoactive works with the Garmin Connect app for Android or iOS
The Garmin vivoactive works with the Garmin Connect app for Android or iOS

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.

The Garmin vivoactive can be used to control music playback on your smartphone
The Garmin vivoactive can be used to control music playback on your smartphone

Product page: Garmin vivoactive

2 comments
JohnGC
I purchased one of these and unfortunately it only lasted a couple of months before it broke. The vivoactive has a very "tinny" feel to it and this was bourn out when I woke up one morning with the face cracked. I still do not know what cracked the face as it was fine when I went to bed (I was wearing it in bed to get the sleep pattern recorded). In general though I felt the watch definitely had a lack of ruggedness to it. The crack meant that the right hand side of the touch screen wouldn't work and so I could not reset the watch, delete items, add golf scores or a host of other actions. Eventually the watch went to sleep and I couldn't wake it up so I threw it away. Obviously this wasn't a fault with the watch, however when I spoke to Garmin they offered me a replacement at half price which leads me to believe they acknowledge the watch is not very rugged. I declined as I have decided to get the Fenix3 instead. When it was working the watch was great. linking with both apple and android phones was a breeze. The GPS worked well and the results were helpful in my training. I didn't get a chance to test the swim mode as I purchased in during winter and didn't get to the pool before it broke. The golf application was great and distance to front middle and back of green was very accurate (more accurate than my golf unfortunately). On the whole I found the watch very good apart from the feel and it is a good cheap option for a fitness device. However I have gone back to my vivosmart until I get the Fenix3 which I think will suit my lifestyle better. I think that if you want to record sleep patterns the vivosmart is a much better option than any watch if this is a main requirement
RichardHentworth
I had my Garmin Vivoactive for less than two months before somehow the screen cracked after a short drive rendering it useless. Firstly, the week was an utter disappointment. There was a short manual that left a lot of troubleshooting learning how settings and the device could be used meaningfully. Secondly, the charger is magnetic. This causes so many storage and usage issues in itself not to mention needing to keep it away from memory drives. Thirdly, the medium sized watch face has a small screen area. The original watch face app is unappealing and there are apps you can try out but it remains a difficult screen to use all round. Fourthly, the touchscreen glass is raised above the plastic surrounds, making it openly vulnerable to damage. A lot of people in my circles use a glass chopping board and the only breakage I have ever heard about is someone whacking the glass on the edge when they usually whack the front with a knife. I do not know any kind of watch or device where the edge of the glass face is not protected completely. It was little wonder that I discovered this Garmin Vivoactive watch with a cracked touchscreen. Their other watches are protected, so why this one isn't indicates poor design. Fifthly, the smart watch apps are limited and I only found one that could compete with just picking up the smartphone nearby and looking for info. Overall, this is a gimmick smart watch. In fact, most smartphones have apps that compete with the Garmin fitness apps. There are many other issues including poor step counter e.g. the device is promoted to do functions such as indoor cycling that actually requires another purchase not usually sold in some stores. The associated Garmin software poorly links to friends and social media and makes it cumbersome to record training events. There is no screen protector or replacement service, so be ware! Overall, the Garmin Vivoactive was a disappointment for its promised potential and a complete waste of money due to design.