Introduction and design
Most smartwatches aren't all that great for people who actually exercise: runners, swimmers and cyclists. Without GPS, a watch is just left guessing your speed and distance based on how fast you move your arms. Even the ones that currently have GPS don't often make great use of it.
Smartwatches with, ahem, athletic support such as this, the GPS-enabled Garmin Vivoactive, and Fitbit's Surge HR are out to fill the big gap between a basic fitness tracker band and true smartwatches such as the Apple Watch and LG G Watch R. They're a bit bigger than your average fitness band and cram in smartwatch features like notifications, music control and a few basic apps.
However, the interface still prioritises kicking-off a GPS-tracked run over playing a game or checking out your latest WhatsApp message. Think running is a waste of life and Uber has made walking redundant? The Garmin Vivoactive isn't for you. For exercise addicts, though, this £180/US$250 fitness watch is among the best out there.
Excited? Well be prepared to be brought down to Earth with a bump because we're starting with some of the bad stuff. This is definitely not one of the more striking smartwatches. A plain black square on an anonymous rubbery strap, it's not going to make your friends immediately jealous.
Garmin even chucks away the minimalist vibe it could have gone for, by plastering a pair of soft key icons on the front. The Vivoactive is not a flat-out bad-looking watch. It's just a bit boring.
How come? This is Garmin's toning down of designs like the Epix and Forerunner 920XT. They're serious, chunky sport watches that cost around twice the price are are liable to make you look a classic case of "all the gear, no idea" unless you have your marathon training patter down. The Vivoactive is a more accessible version of these, not an Apple Watch rival.
It's thoroughly watch-like. The strap is the same sort of simple design you'd find on one of those old digital Casios everyone seems to have owned at some point or another. It's a low-fuss watch for people who don't need others to make a fuss to feel like the price is justified.
Get over the lack of brag points, and the Vivoactive is very easy to live with. The watch face is surprisingly slim, avoiding the wrist eyesore factor that affects some smartwatches. Even the futuristic-looking Motorola Moto 360 is that bit too chunky for many.
It's comfortable too. Some smartwatch straps cause quite a lot of skin irritation, this one doesn't. After wearing the thing for a couple of weeks, there was no sign of a rash on our dainty(ish) wrist. Sure it gets a bit sweaty when it's hot, and you need to be sure not to over-tighten the strap, but that's true of any watch.
We wore it side-by-side with the Withings Activite Pop for a few days, and the Garmin was easier on the skin. That's no surprise, mind: Garmin has been making runners' watches for years now. It's a pro.
One other amazingly convenient aspect is battery life. Somehow Garmin has managed to squeeze up to three weeks' use out of a charge from this fairly dinky device.
We say "somehow," but a closer look at the tech inside tells you an awful lot more about why. First, there's the screen.
It's a 1.13-inch display that looks much closer to a Pebble than an Apple Watch. It is colour, though, making this one of the first ultra-low energy smartwatch screens with colour, pipping the Pebble Time, which is due later this year.
There are little accents throughout the interface to let you know colour is in, but they're not exactly eye-bustlingly vibrant because the display's spectrum doesn't range from black to pure white. It's more like black to light grey, a bit like a Kindle e-reader. Without great contrast, you don't get great colour.
Just like a Kindle, the Garmin Vivoactive screen isn't natively lit either. Most of the time it relies on ambient light, although there is a blue-ish front light you can activate by pressing a button on the left edge of the watch face.
In a rather silly battery-saving move, Garmin has made it so this light only comes on when this button is pressed, at least to start with. But you'll get a much more rewarding experience if you set it to come on when there's any interaction with the Vivoactive (it's an option in the settings). It doesn't kill battery life either: the light is only a weedy little LED after all. Without it, the screens looks way too dim in anything but strong, direct light.
At the best of times the Garmin Vivoactive screen isn't going to wow you as an Apple Watch might, but then it's not meant to. And it has something else we find incredibly useful.
This is an always-on screen, meaning you can check out the time without having to press any buttons or play the role of arm-waggling, gesture-performing monkey just to get the display to activate. It's most refreshing. There are loads of custom watch faces you can use too, some of which pack in extra details like the watch's battery level and how close you are to meeting your daily steps goal.
Factors like this ramp up the Garmin Vivoactive's likability immeasurably. Other smartwatches may be status symbols, but this one is like a low-maintenance friend. Zero stress. And even with the backlight turned on and a decent chunk of GPS tracking used each day, we still got through a week on a single charge.
When you do need to charge, you just plonk the watch into a little magnetised dock, which can be plugged into a computer or just about any USB charger, including your phone's one.
Software and exercise functions
But if it lasts this long even when using battery-chomping GPS, how smart can it really be?
The Garmin Vivoactive does not use any of the well-known smartphone platforms, instead sharing software with some of Garmin's top-end sport watches, including the Garmin IQ app store. This is a pretty well-established system at this point, and it cares more about fitness tracking than just about anything else.
There are apps, and even some rudimentary games like 2048, but these are just the prawn crackers to nibble on while waiting to sample the great noodle buffet of exercise goodies on offer here. Press a button on the right edge of the screen while on the clock screen and you'll be taken to an activities screen.
This lets you pick between various exercise types, including running, cycling, swimming, walking and golf. Most use full GPS and an array of movement sensors to offer really quite accurate tracking.
There are a few modes for indoor gym work too, but you really need an extra sensor to make the most of them. As it's part of the wider Garmin Connect world, the Vivoactive will hook up to things like heart rate sensors and blood oxygen sensors. That's right: there is no heart rate sensor on-board.
Is this a killer? A fitness smartwatch that doesn't tell you your heart rate? Not really. For actual fans of a discipline, be it swimming or speed-walking, having accurate GPS and cadence tracking is far more useful.
Wear an LG G Watch on a 10 mile run and it'll vaguely approximate your distance travelled, judging its values on the number of steps you've made. And its HR tracking isn't much cop anyway. There are some good optical HR sensors out there, but most are hopeless at mid-exercise tracking.
With a Garmin Vivoactive you get quite accurate speed readings during your jogs/runs/jaunts and a map of your route post-workout. Frankly, it makes other smartwatch fitness efforts look like a bit of a joke.
The Garmin Vivowatch steps it up a notch for golfers too. Its system is pre-programmed with 39,000 of the most famous courses worldwide, letting you know how far from the hole you are on each course. Granted, we've not taken the caddy out for a test, but we've heard it works.
At first we did have a few little issues with GPS satellite location. Basically, the first few times we went out with the Garmin Vivoactive it seemed to take an age for it to lock onto a satellite signal. However, after that it was very quick indeed, suggesting there's some clever-but-obvious location retention gubbins going on in the background.
It's a good job too, because in those times when we weren't connected the tracking results were effectively annihilated until the Vivoactive found its signal.
With GPS locked on, though, the quality of the Garmin Vivoactive's tracking is very good. There were no moments where it suddenly clocked us as being on the wrong street. Quite the opposite: it accurately tracks what side of the road you're on, and when you cross it. There wasn't any annoying rounding off at the edges, which you see in some other watches and is a classic sign the tracking is partly made up.
Getting this right is an important part of why the Vivoactive needs separate modes for walking and running. As you'll move faster on a run, the watch needs track the GPS signal all the more actively, thereby using a bit more juice.
Each of the cycling, walking and running GPS modes offers slightly different information to peer at while you're exercising too. All offer the obvious timer, and a distance stat, but where the walking mode display puts your speed up front so you know your MPH, running favours pace, keeping you updated on how many minutes it'll take to run a mile.
While none of the main activity screens show it off directly, the Vivoactive also records elevation, which you can then check out on a graph on your phone post-workout.
Other than being accurate and clear, a top element of the Vivoactive is how direct it makes exercise tracking feel. Just press the right button, tap on the exercise you want the press the right button again: that's it.
The swimming mode is quite different to the others, though. It sits in the same menu but doesn't use GPS, which would be pretty useless in an indoors pool anyway. Instead, it uses the accelerometer to monitor your strokes, then watching out for the slight pause as you turn at the end of the pool.
It then automatically judges the size of the pool, and monitors your times for each length. That's right, it's only designed for interval training. But then if you're swimming outdoors in the middle of nowhere, you could likely use the walking mode to track your speed and distance anyway.
Swim tracking is a bit more rudimentary than the running mode, but it does come up with the results we're after, and they're consistent too.
There's no need to worry about killing the Vivoactive with water either. There are no ports on the thing, and it's certified waterproof at 5 ATM, 50m. That means you can swim and shower while wearing it with no issues.
When you're not actively exercising, it'll also track your steps just like any casual fitness band. Unless you switch them off you'll get a buzz when you've been sat still for too long, and will give you another buzz when you reach your steps goal.
Garmin Connect and verdict
Once your exercise results are logged, you'll need a phone to sync the data. While the Garmin Vivowatch doesn't flap around entirely helplessly like a fish on a park bench when left without a phone, you won't get the best out of it on its own. The Garmin Connect app shows you the maps of your runs, extra data and lets you customise the apps on the phone.
That's right, there are real smartwatch features here, and you'll get them with either an Android phone or iPhone. The main thing is notifications. They let you read very short full messages or snippets of longer ones.
Things like reading WhatsApp essays and replying to them on the watch are well beyond the Vivoactive's remit. It snags basic notification data, not full messages. It's useful for simply seeing who has tried to contact you, and whether you should bother getting the phone out or not.
Let's not paint the Vivoactive as a smartwatch for tech-haters, though. It is touch operated and, once again, after a couple of days' use the notifications were coming in just a second or so after the phone received them – and even with the notifications rolling in, it still lasted a week on one charge.
It can also control your music, show calendar appointments and give you weather reports, and that's before you dig into the the world of Vivoactive Connect IQ apps too. Of course, within about five and a half second the Apple Watch apps scene made this one look positively dead. There's not actually that much in there, and there probably never will be.
But there are extra bits and bobs to be had. As mentioned earlier, there are loads of watch faces, and plenty of side attractions to look into too, like extra exercise monitor screens, a few very basic games and even stock trackers.
Sleep tracking is integrated too, but it's pretty basic. You can take a look at the graph of your movements throughout the night to see how fidgety you were. However, if you want something to tell you whether you're a good sleeper or not, this is not the best choice. And if you care more about apps than GPS activity tracking, you're also looking at the wrong watch. It's not as quick or responsive as an Android Wear or Apple Watch, and more involved apps really show this up.
As most of our interactions with the Vivoactive were limited to a quick swipe and tap combo, we didn't find it a big drawback. But it's not something to play with on the commute like some other options.
The crux, though, is that while almost every other smartwatch doesn't really offer enough fresh out of the box to justify its existence, the Garmin Vivoactive does, so long as you're on a fitness tip.
You know what: we're pretty happy with it right now. Granted, the Apple Watch and the regiment of Android watches may get you more fancy doodads in the long run. But how much of it will be as worthwhile as what the Vivoactive has right here, right now? Not much, we'd bet, and not for a good old while.
The Garmin Vivoactive is one of the few smartwatches of real substance. It's not banking on an evolving future of a platform it has no control over. It has to justify its existence right here, right now.
And you know what: it does. If you're into running or even looking to get into it, this is a terrific smartwatch. The same goes for cyclists, swimmers and even keen weekend walkers. It shows up the paper-thin nature of this whole fitness tracker revolution, where the sensors themselves aren't all that much more clever than Poundland pedometers.
It's no Apple Watch rival. But that's why it works. By playing a different game entirely, it holds onto its relevance while still having enough smartwatch DNA to avoid feeling like a pure runner's gadget.