I recently purchased a Garmin Vivoactive HR* because I was getting sick of my phone screwing up tracking runs and rides. Also I was interested in my general health and activity levels and the Vivoactive HR promised to do that too. I’ve had it for a couple of weeks now so it seems appropriate to provide a quick review.

For those that can’t be bothered to read the details, I like it and recommend it to anyone who does (or wants to do) a fair amount of exercise but it isn’t perfect.

As I noted in the intro, I wanted to get a feel for my overall levels of activity and health. The watch does heart rate and sleep monitoring just fine. In fact the sleep monitoring part is fascinating, I’m looking forward to seeing what this tells me longer term but so far it is providing actual data to back up a couple of feelings I had about a possible lack of deep sleep. On the heart rate side it works great as long as the watch is snug. I have discovered on a couple of occasions that I didn’t have it quite snug enough for a bit during some hard exercise so for a while it was lying and under-counting my heart rate quite significantly. It had been OK to begin with but moved during a stop. Once I realized it I moved it back to where it was snug at it picked up fine. The trick seems to be that for cycling you want to have it pushed up the arm a bit more that you do for normal day to day walking around.

One other minor issue is that there seems to be a lag on the step counter so what it shows on the screen isn’t always the actual number (it can be off by a half dozen or so and then do a sharp jump up) and that it doesn’t always register stair climbs/descents so you can end up having done more floors of descent vs ascent (almost always that way around) despite having actually done precisely the same number of each.

I’m not sure how this compares to competitors from, say, fitbit, but given that this is pretty much a “need an approximate number” sort of thing it seems OK to me. As part of the step monitoring it has a nice thing that nags you if you’ve been an unmoving slug for too long during the day. Amusingly (to me) I found that my days in Tokyo where I walked everywhere I did massive amounts more steps than on days where I’m back home.

One other amusing thing is that cycling activities don’t count towards steps, whereas runs (see Wednesday) do. Hence, in the above graph, it looks like I was a slug on Friday and Sunday when in fact I cycled almost 90km on Friday and over 50 on Sunday.

Needless to say as a Garmin product it is excellent at tracking running and cycling. In the interests of full disclosure I must report that in Tokyo it did get a bit confused in certain places where there were lots of tall buildings to cause GPS reflections/multipath etc. but then I’ve never not seen a GPS do this (I guess the replacement I buy in a couple of years may fix this) so I don’t really count this as a negative. Once you have finished an event it gets uploaded to the Garmin connect website and then shared with your other fitness apps (strava and runkeeper in my case, many others also possible) as soon as the phone and watch decide to sync. They do this automatically every few hours but if you bring up the app on the phone that tends to trigger a sync.

Battery life is great. I’ve been charging while in the shower and that 15-30 minutes a day seems to top it up just fine. I’ve only got it down to just under 50% charge once, on a day when I did an extended multihour set of cycle rides (GPS active for over 5 hours total), and a couple of days of standard recharging brought it back up to 90+%. I’m pretty sure that the claims that it lasts a week in non-GPS tracking mode are right. When I was researching watches, I saw some reviews complaining about it being hard to read, I haven’t found that to be the case.

It’s very customizable and I spent a while deleting the stuff I don’t use (golf, swimming, …) and adding different watch faces and the like. Actually you can kind of create your own watch face with an SDK which, if I can make it more generic, means I’ll be able to have personally themed watch faces. Sadly this watch face creation thing isn’t as easy as it is on, say, the Samsung Gear and there aren’t very many cheat sheets but it will allow for a lot more flexibility once I get it going. It is supposed to also connect to external sensors like bike cadence/power meters and odomoeters and if (when?) I get one I’ll try that too.

Problems

I’ve not really had huge problems. Getting it to sync with my phone the first time was a damn pain, which may have partly been the fault of the phone. I had to disable and reenable bluetooth on the phone before I could get it to be found AND critically I then had to NOT pair it using the default phone bluetooth settings but use the garmin app (RTFM would have helped me avoid that little error). But once it paired properly the first time with the app it’s been absolutely fine, though occasionally I have had to go into the bluetooth settings on the phone and manually tell it to “search”, when the two have been disconnected for a few hours.

The garmin watch/phone/web system is extremely complicated. You have the watch, the smartphone app and the garmin connect website. It isn’t always obvious what you have to do where/when to change particular settings – most things are done via the app, including downloading new watch faces and the like, but some settings are then done on the watch. Sadly I also had to actually RTFM to figure some of it out and I still struggle with a few things (such as manually pausing a run/ride as opposed to using autopause) but the online documentation is pretty good and nothing I’ve really, really wanted to do has been a problem.

Overall

Garmin have a huge range of devices, from basic GPS trackers to insanely complex ones. This sits somewhere nicely in the middle. It has all the features I need (and a bunch I don’t) but doesn’t have a barometer or compass which the Fenix models have and for which you have to pay twice as much for. The thing just works, is not at all intrusive and in fact give me incentives to move a bit more when I’m not doing hard exercise which is probably a good thing.

*Note: I do not recommend buying direct from Garmin’s website. Amazon was notably cheaper and there were other online sites too that were cheaper than the Garmin one but not as convenient (for me) as Amazon