Garmin Vivoactive: Jack of most trades, master of some

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The Garmin Vivoactive is part smartwatch, part sports watch and part fitness tracker. While it plays some of these roles very well, being a Jack of so many trades it’s only a master of some. Nonetheless, Garmin has managed to cram a plethora of features into a surprisingly svelte device that offers far longer battery life than we’d expected, and that’s a great start.

Being a Garmin device, the Vivoactive includes GPS which can be used to track running, biking, golfing, walking and hiking without the need for an accompanying smartphone. It’s also great for tracking swimming, running or walking on a treadmill and riding a stationary bike. Really, the only sporting activities it isn’t suited to are things like weight lifting and yoga because it lacks a built-in heart rate monitor (it can, however, be connected to a standalone heart rate monitor).

As surprising as it may, the Stuff team aren’t great golfers, so we’re taking Garmin’s word for it when it comes to the Vivoactive’s chops on the green. Garmin claims the device has information on 38,000 golf courses and can be used to display par and hole information, measure the distance to the green (if you turn on GPS) and even keep score.

Garmin-Vivoactive-faceMeanwhile, when running or biking (both activities at which we’re moderately more adept), the Vivoactive will track your route, pace, speed, distance, calories burned and let you know how long you’ve been at it. For runners there are also auto pause/lap options, interval training settings and a nifty feature that will try to get you back to where you started if you’ve taken an unusual route or are running somewhere unfamiliar.

For swimming, the Vivoactive tracks time, distance and stroke count, but all information is calculated using the size of pool and the built-in accelerometer rather than GPS. That may not be as accurate as a professional would like, but it’s perfectly sufficient for the fitness enthusiast and more than most other sports watches or activity trackers offer.

The device is controlled using a pair of physical buttons (one on each side of the device) and two capacitive buttons (“back” and “options”) below the touch display. The physical button on the left-hand side is for turning the device and the backlight on and off while the one on the right is used to access the various apps and start and stop activities.

A range of widgets, apps and watch faces are available from the Connect IQ store but the Vivoactive comes with a range of default widgets that display information on the wearer’s daily activity, the weather, a calendar, and smartphone notifications. There’s also a widget for Garmin’s VIRB sports camera that allows the Vivoactive to serve as a digital viewfinder and a widget for controlling music on a connected smartphone.

The music control widget works well on Android, but on iOS devices it only supports the built-in music player and doesn’t work with third-party apps like Spotify and Simfy. This may, of course, be rectified in a future software update.

Garmin-Vivoactive-backSmartphone alerts and notifications work brilliantly, though. The Vivoactive can display just about any notification you’ve allowed on your device home screen, from emails, messages and calls to Instagram notifications and even notifications from obscure third-party apps. The only problem is that these notifications are wholly inert — there’s no way to send canned responses, dictate replies or interact with notifications in any way at all.

This lack of functionality is compounded by the dullness of the display. Colours are muted and the resolution is a dismal 205 x 148 pixels — which, while it no doubt plays a part in the Vivoactive’s stamina, detracts markedly from the user experience.

Also, the Vivoactive isn’t particularly attractive. It’s square face and rubberised strap left us pretty cold and, though the straps are swappable, it’s not the sort of thing we’d want to wear on a night out. Given it tracks steps and sleep, the Vivoactive is meant to be the sort of thing one wants to wear constantly. Also, the device gives the user no warning when it’s battery is low, meaning we got out more than once having left home without the charger only to have the Vivoactive die quietly on our wrist mid-morning.

Further, the interface is a little fiddly and the capacitive buttons are less responsive than we’d like. Add to that the fact that the Connect IQ store isn’t terribly well stocked and we get the feeling the Vivoactive isn’t quite finished. Of course, a lack of apps and widgets can be rectified if Garmin can get developers enthusiastic about the platform, and that takes time, but we can’t help feeling it may be worth holding out for version two of the Vivoactive.

That said, there are some great features to be had. The device provides hourly reminders to move, offers up to 10 hours of GPS usage on a single charge (or up to three weeks if used in watch mode alone) and comes with a magnetic charging dock and USB cable that can be used to sync and charge the device (it also syncs with a smartphone over Bluetooth).

At R4,499, the Vivoactive is fairly competitive priced when compared to the Fitbit Surge and TomTom’s Cardio range of devices and, though it offers features neither rival device does, it lacks the optical heart rate monitoring built in to both. The Vivoactive isn’t perfect, but it’s pretty impressive if you’re looking for an all-in-one, multi-sport device and don’t mind doing without heart rate info or getting it from a chest strap or another wearable.

 

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