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Garmin's Vivoactive Is a Hybrid Sports Watch and Smartwatch

Apple Watch is many things, but it's not waterproof or equipped with GPS like Garmin's latest smartwatch.

Lauren Goode/Recode

Let’s say you like the idea of getting notifications on a smartwatch — your text messages, important emails, those calendar reminders. But you’re sporty, and you want something waterproof, with built-in GPS.

Oh, and let’s say you’re not an iPhone user. In this case, the current Apple Watch most definitely won’t do it for you.

That’s where the Garmin Vivoactive watch comes in. It’s as though Garmin took all of the pain points that fitness freaks might have with “smart” watches and tried to address them with a hybrid device — a lightweight, capable (though somewhat unattractive) Bluetooth watch that costs around $250.

At this point you might be thinking, Apple Watch and Garmin watch aren’t comparable. And to some extent it is apples (sorry) and oranges. A better comparison might be the Garmin Vivoactive to the Fitbit Surge, which is Fitbit’s own not-exactly-a-smartwatch-but-not-just-a-fitness-tracker. I’ll get to that in a bit.

It’s true that Garmin’s outdoor fitness products don’t match Apple in terms of design or cachet. Garmin is for your friends with ruddy cheeks who go for long hikes. Garmin is for that crazy guy in your office who cycles 23 miles to work every morning and then rides 100 more miles on the weekend, for fun. Garmin is for the husband who says he wants to develop a running habit in the new year, leaving you to try to distinguish between the many Forerunner GPS watches out there so you can wrap one for the holidays.

 The Vivoactive is thin and light, but too utilitarian to be stylish.
The Vivoactive is thin and light, but too utilitarian to be stylish.
Lauren Goode/Recode

Apple Watch is for people who love Apple products.

But for my latest adventure in wearable tech, I’ve ditched my Apple Watch and have been wearing the Garmin Vivoactive watch for 10 days. I can vouch for it as another solid Garmin product. It has a bright, responsive touchscreen, built-in GPS capabilities and is waterproof for swimming. And it provides some of the functions of smartwatches, minus a wide variety of third-party apps or the ability to respond to stuff from your smartwatch.

My experience with the Vivoactive, however, hasn’t been perfect. Garmin promises battery life of up to three weeks on a charge (!), but over the past couple weeks, I’ve only gotten four or five days per charge out of the Vivoactive. That’s better than many smartwatches, but it’s not three weeks. Garmin says I may be experiencing abnormal battery drain due to outdated software running on the device.

There was also a server outage on Garmin’s end last week, during which time I couldn’t sync my activity data to the Garmin Connect mobile app.

If you can get beyond the occasionally-buggy software, the hardware might give you what you need.

The Vivoactive gets some cred for being incredibly light and thin, but its design is strictly utilitarian. I cringed when I first put it on, and I still don’t love wearing it when going out at night. It has hard plastic edges and a somewhat-pliable plastic band (swappable for a nicer, leather one that will run you about $25). Its multicolored touchscreen defaults to time of day, with a Back icon at the bottom of the display.

There are two physical buttons on either side of the watch face: One is a power button that also activates a backlight, and the other functions as both a quick-access button to activities and as a start/stop button.

 The Vivoactive’s display during an outdoor run (sweat smudges are mine, and not built-in features)
The Vivoactive’s display during an outdoor run (sweat smudges are mine, and not built-in features)
Lauren Goode/Recode

Swiping once to the right of the home screen brings you to an info display of your activity levels for the day. That’s right: In addition to recording a host of dedicated workout sessions, Garmin Vivoactive is a 24/7 activity tracker. (This includes sleep tracking, but I found this to be rather unscientific.)

This info display shows you steps taken, distance traveled, calories burned and includes a “move” bar, something that Garmin offers in its Vivosmart activity-tracking wristband. This vibrates and tells you to move when you’ve been lazy for too long.

Swiping to the left of the Vivoactive home screen will take you through the recent notifications you received on your smartphone — things like email notifications, social network notifications and mobile news alerts — as well as your calendar appointments, weather updates and Bluetooth music control.

There really isn’t much you can do with these snippets of info — unlike some smartwatches, which allow you to respond to things via short text or voice commands — so the value of these is more about receiving them on the wrist as they’re happening.

So, what about fitness and sports? The Vivoactive records outdoor activities like running, biking, walking/hiking, swimming and golf, as well as indoor running, walking and cycling. GPS is built into the watch for accurate distances during the first batch of activities, and golf-course maps can be downloaded directly to the watch.

 The Vivoactive’s display during a swim session. (With length of pool erroneously set to 50 meters instead of 25; I am not that fast.)
The Vivoactive’s display during a swim session. (With length of pool erroneously set to 50 meters instead of 25; I am not that fast.)
Lauren Goode/Recode

It doesn’t have optical heart-rate sensors, but it will read heart rate if you’re wearing a compatible chest strap, like many other Garmin watches do.

I used the Vivoactive for outdoor running, swimming and hiking, as well as indoor runs. (I didn’t get to test the golf feature, which is fine, because, seriously, no one wants to see my golf swing.) The display is easy to see both in sunlight and underwater. It was refreshingly uncomplicated, showing just time, pace and distance during runs, and time, interval time and distance during swims.

While the watch itself is easy to navigate, I’ve always thought that Garmin’s mobile app could be simpler. The Vivoactive is compatible with both iOS and Android mobile devices, and syncs data wirelessly via Bluetooth. The main dashboard of the Garmin Connect app gives a broad overview of the day’s activities, showing things like steps taken, calories burned, calories remaining, current weight and sleep.

My activity data failed to sync one day last week due to a server issue.
My activity data failed to sync one day last week due to a server issue.

If you want to see a previous day’s stats, you can’t just swipe to the right; you have to tap on a calendar icon in the app and use a drop-down menu to find the date you’re looking for. And there are two different ways to look at data from a specific workout session, either by tapping on Activities in the dashboard, or by going to a Menu icon in the upper left of the app screen, tapping on Fitness and navigating to Activities from there.

The good thing is that Garmin has API partnerships with makers of other popular fitness apps, like Strava and RunKeeper, so workouts logged in Garmin can be shared to those apps if you prefer to look at your workout data there. And Garmin’s Connect IQ store lets you download new watch faces, advanced data fields and a variety of fitness-related apps from both Garmin and outside app developers.

Consumers who are interested in this category of product might wonder how this compares to something like the $250 Fitbit Surge, which also tracks a variety of workouts and has GPS for outdoor stuff. The Fitbit Surge gets points for recording activities like weight lifting and yoga classes, which the Vivoactive doesn’t do. And some consumers might prefer Fitbit’s software.

But the Surge isn’t waterproof, so it can’t be worn while swimming. And while the Surge boasts optical heart-rate sensors so you don’t have to wear a chest strap while running, I’ve generally found readings from a chest strap to be more accurate, anyway. So whether the Fitbit Surge or the Vivoactive is better for you really depends on what you do for workouts.

Like the Surge, the Garmin Vivoactive is sports watch first, but has some of the features of smartwatches that make it a consideration in either category.

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