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Garmin Vivoactive HR Review – Is the complete revamp a success?

Garmin at the moment is a smart watch juggernaut. The sheer speed of their product release schedule is astounding. However, as a result of this, not every product is a star studied masterpiece. I wasn’t a great fan of the Garmin Vivoactive, so is the new revamped Garmin Vivoactive HR with an optical heart rate sensor a better device?

Garmin Vivoactive HR Review – Is the complete revamp a success?TitaniumGeek IMG_0729-1024x768 Garmin Vivoactive HR Review - Is the complete revamp a success? VivoActive swimming sleep tracking running resting HR Optical Heart Rate garmin cycling

OK spoiler alert – the Garmin Vivoactive HR is better is EVERY CONCEIVABLE WAY than it’s predecessor. BUT that’s not a very high bar to clear, so having addressed that first point, let’s take a look at Garmin’s mid-priced GPS/Smartwatch combo and see how it stands on its own two feet!

Device Design

We have the typical Garmin black box, not a constant, sometimes we get a flash of colour, but always elegant.

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Inside we’ve the Garmin VivoActive HR it’self, the charger and the paper manual

We’ve another new device, so it’s another custom charger *sigh*

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The four pins attach to four plates recessed on the underside of the Garmin Vivoactive HR

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The charge attaches very nicely, initially going into a little recess beside the charging plates, and then clicking across the entire back.

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The underside of the charger has a nice rubberised bottom, which almost works like a dock, allowing the Garmin Vivoactive HR to sit nicely on a flat surface when charging.

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Now after looking at the charger, it might be worth-while taking a look at Garmin Vivoactive HR itself!

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Below which there are also two buttons placed on the bottom of the face of the watch in order to allow you to stop and pause activities

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Given the optical sensor on board, Garmin has just a wide, yet stretchy strap, in order to get to that goldilocks zone, of not to tight as hurt, but not too lax as to allow stray light to the sensor, affecting the HR function

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The strap has a bolt either side to allow it to be replaced in the event you or your dog somehow how decides to have a quick chew

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Or if black isn’t your thing, Garmin will sell you three additional colours, including a very bright “Force Yellow” band, which is exactly up my street!

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Moving to the back of the unit, here we have the Garmin Elevate Optical HR sensor, we’ve seen before on the Fenix 3 and the Vivosmart HR

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It’s also nice that Garmin has clearly thought about design here, with the metal Garmin log used to cover access to some of the watches internals. This is such a massive change from last years Vivoactive…which felt a little protype-y in terms of its hard edge, square appearance

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By comparison, the Garmin Vivoactive HR looks like a properly ready sports device, a device that wants to be worn on your wrist, thanks to the lovely ergonomics and curves, rather than just sat on it. This is the sort of design we should have had a year ago – especially as the devices internals are very very similar

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Size wise,  we’re in line with the other mid-range offerings produced by Fitbit and TomTom

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However whilst there are not going to be many devices to approach the thinness of the FitBit Blaze, compared to the Garmin VivoActive HR, and TomTom Cardio Spark, the Blaze lacks a GPS, and it’s activity tracking is much towards the casual side of the market

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Activity Tracking and Walking

The majority of the testing of the Garmin Vivoactive HR was actually done in Brindisi in the South of Italy.

Ostuni, “The White City”, whilst sounding life something out of the Lord of the Rings, is basically a rabbit warren of small picturesque streets.

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Given the city was on covering one side of a very steep hill, it provided a perfect location to test the walking and step functions as we ambled around in the afternoons and evenings, basically from one meal to the next!

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3.2km to hunt for dinner might seem excessive, but the pizza was certainly worth it!

TitaniumGeek untitled-1-of-1-6 Garmin Vivoactive HR Review - Is the complete revamp a success? VivoActive swimming sleep tracking running resting HR Optical Heart Rate garmin cycling   In addition to using the specific walking app, from an activity tracker point of view, you can quickly review your daily steps from one of the home screen widgets on the Garmin Vivoactive HR.

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From the steps widget, you can then drill down to review your previous seven days worth of steps from the home screen…

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My girlfriend was plicated over my bringing devices on holiday to test, by the provision of copious icecreams – although we did agree on each of us trying to hit a minimum of 10,000 steps a day to stop us both returning to the UK spherical! However the “week view” does suggest we didn’t entirely earn all of the ice creams

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When you do however manage to hit your step goal, whatever that may be, you are rewarding with a buzz and a brief animation championing your success

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Whilst it is good you can find your steps from the widgets, I find it to be vital for any device measuring activity to have that data practically glanceable. The default watch faces installed on the device (top three on below picture)TitaniumGeek IMG_1844 Garmin Vivoactive HR Review - Is the complete revamp a success? VivoActive swimming sleep tracking running resting HR Optical Heart Rate garmin cycling   The default faces tend to show your steps as bars, rather than numbers, which personally I’m not a fan of. So I quickly downloaded “Split” from Stanislav.Bures who has made a LOT of Garmin IQ faces, and is REALLY worthwhile checking out for many Garmin IQ devices. With this watch face, I get all of the data I want just glancing at the screen. If I want to drill further down into the data then I have that option too.

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With some watches faces there is an inactivity bar – however even with faces like this, the inactivity alerts, where the device will buzz to say you haven’t been active within 50mins continue. But you can also easily ignore it – but the purpose of those buzzes, is to try and keep you from being sedentary for the whole hour, to try and help you move towards the goal of 150 mins of intense activity over a week – basically when you heart rate is up. Something the optical sensor on the Vivoactive HR helps to record

HOWEVR the 150 mins of intensity is Garmin’s default, based on the idea of 30 mins 5 days a week – that goal can easily be increased though. Which is important as there although there is a lot of information now saying we should be aiming for  60 active minutes – A DAY, as yours truly was recently was asked to comment on:

In the same way as you can easily look at the widget to show how many steps a week, the Garmin Vivoactive HR also allows you to quickly review your intense or moderate activity minutes from a home screen widget. Although the zero at the start of the week can be a little demoralising!

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You can also review your intensity data on the Garmin Connect app. I find that I have to charge the device every 7days ish, so I’m always losing out on one day 🙁

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Garmin Move IQ

Garmin Move IQ is a new feature, first released on the Garmin Vivoactive HR, essentially the same as SmartTrack on the FitBit, where the device is going to try and recognise your activities automatically and credit you for them. It really is an extension of the sleep tracking abilities, trying to recognise patterns of movement, and highlighting them as such. Currently it works most effectively for walking and cycling, and is just about giving you duration of activity, and heart rate, rather than anything more specific. Again thinking back to getting those intensive minutes

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However whilst the Garmin Vivoactive HR has Garmin Move IQ, the actual device makes no comment of it. You only see the effect, when you drill down through the calendar app on Garmin connect to review your day. Without a doubt, this does feel like a feature Garmin has enabled, and is not shouting about at all. Perhaps because I’m not really sure about the benefit. Maybe it comes into giving more credit to you for things you wouldnt actually start an activty for, such as walking to the shops?

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Other Widgets

There are a few other default widgets on the Garmin Vivoactive HR to talk about, just to round out this part of the device. Last sport, allowing you to quicky check your peformance, and pace, on your previous activity.

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Current Heart rate – ok I love this, it’s daft. It’s just data. It doesn’t have any massive significance to my day-to-day use of the Garmin Vivoactive HR, but like on the Fenix 3 HR, I just LOVE being able to see the graphical trend of my heart rate during the day. It doesnt really have an impact on my life, but I still love taking a look at it!

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As with most of the other widgets, you can tap into it, to see more data over time, here your average resting heart rate – which as you can see, can have a few errors in it!

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We also have weather, calendar, and alert screens, which all kind of do as you would expect

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The Screen…

However quickly glancing at the Garmin Vivoactive HR is where we see two of the limitations of the Garmin Vivoactive HR. Occasionally the watch doesnt respond, when you lift to view, but that is a common issue with most sports watches. However, the backlight on the Garmin Vivoactive HR is, compared to my Fenix 3, rather dim – both at 100% in the below picture

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Now some people might say that the Fenix 3 is excessively bright (I have used it as a torch before when hopping to the loo at night!) BUT even at 100%, the Garmin Vivoactive HR screen is just not as clear would be ideal. In direct sunlight, you don’t have any difficulties with the VivoActive, due to the screen technology being able to use reflected light, but indoors the Garmin Vivoactive HR screen looks very washed out, and isn’t that easy to see. I have found myself having to change the angle of my wrist to see the screen when it is displayed dark backgrounds.

Whilst we are on the screen – because of the unit is touch screen, we also have a plastic screen. We’ll I’m not 100% certain, but I have managed to scratch the screen merely wiping grease from the screen using my T-shirt when photographing the unit – be warned – A screen protector is a good idea!

Sleep Tracking

The unit has automatic sleep tracking as mentioned with respect to Garmin Move IQ – it recognises a lack of movement, and starts recording – however this does need you to give the watch a helping hand, to say what your rough sleeping times are, otherwise, it will register you napping during Batman V Superman – I’ll let you make you own joke there.

With tracking comparing with the FitBit Blaze – crucially both hitting when I fell to sleep within 1 min, and waking within 2 mins of each other

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Sports Apps

Running

Whilst in Ostuni, I was mainly able to test running and swimming. You select your activity from the touch screenTitaniumGeek IMG_0309 Garmin Vivoactive HR Review - Is the complete revamp a success? VivoActive swimming sleep tracking running resting HR Optical Heart Rate garmin cycling   Then use the buttons at the bottom to start a run

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Holding down the lower right button, will also allow you in the app settings, where you can control whether you are using optical HR, or connected to a chest sensor, choose HR broadcast,TitaniumGeek IMG_0466 Garmin Vivoactive HR Review - Is the complete revamp a success? VivoActive swimming sleep tracking running resting HR Optical Heart Rate garmin cycling

It also allows you to determine sensors

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Plus it is nice to the Varia Vision baked right into the firmware

At the end of the run, you have to use the buttons to pause the run, but then the touch screen to actually say you are stopping the run. However given the sweat etc, the screen can occasionally be a little unresponsive, something I was very aware of when the screen was wet whilst swimming in the poolTitaniumGeek IMG_0438 Garmin Vivoactive HR Review - Is the complete revamp a success? VivoActive swimming sleep tracking running resting HR Optical Heart Rate garmin cycling

Heart rate during the run was comparable visually to the TomTom Spark I was also testing

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You can set the device to given you alerts at mile, or KM distances

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You can customise the data fields displayed on the Garmin Vivoactive HR, with each screen able to display two or three fields

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The standard fields on the Garmin Vivoactive HR I actually found set out very well

In terms of GPS aquistion, the Garmin Vivoactive HR does have GLONASS, however I still found connections almost immediately the only time I didnt want when I actually got of the plane in Italy, so I think I’ll give the device a pass for that. Personally, I have not found a great need for GLONASS on any device. IT’s GREAT that it is there, but the 10-20% battery hit, I just leave mine off.

Lap data

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Distance

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Heart Rate and cadence

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Plus at the end a realisation that touch screen devices might not be the best for running devices, given the smears, sweat and oil you get across the face during an activity.

At the end of a run, when you have stopped you get to find out, which if any new PR’s you have made

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On my second run around Ostuni, a couple of dogs clearly objected to me running past to the entrance of their house – most people have dogs in their compounds around Ostuni. WITH THE GATES CLOSED. As I’m running along, the dog on one side of a fence decided he liked the look of me, – unfortunately for me the gate to his compound was wide open.

Now it is frightening enough on the first run by. However, with the small dog literally snapping at my heels, I ended up missing my turning. It was only as a ran past an abandoned hotel that I realised I was not where I was supposed to be!

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Unfortunately, looking at Google Maps on the phone I had no option to run past the dog, in order to end off the dead end track I was on. Was I approached, the little dog again gave chase, however true terror struck when his German Shepard friend I had not seen before decided to give chase.

Suffice to say I survived, and that was the last time I went running in Ostuni!!! – You can see on the below graph from Garmin Connect of that run, that true terror is a very good motivator to improve your splits!

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Vastly fewer dogs in the pool I was pleased to find! The pool point is quite important, as out of the box, the Garmin Vivoactive HR doesn’t support Open water swims – although it might be possible to address that in the future via Garmin IQ apps, however that does somewhat limit the device functions with regard to triathlon

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As with other Garmin Optical Hr devices, the Garmin Vivoactive HR sensor is switched off when in the pool. So if you are looking for HR data whilst swimming you’ll need a Garmin HRM-Swim, however you are only getting HR from the strap, nothing else

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Before starting a pool swim, you need to identify you pool length, so that the Garmin Vivoactive HR can calculate the distance from your laps

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You get all of the usual swimming data fields, but given the touch screen is disabled in the water, it’s a much better idea to set up the fields you want before you start

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I did find that the watch would miss the odd lap if I stopped half way, or didn’t carry on in a straight line, presumably due to how the motion tracking algorithm works

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As the screen doesn’t like water, stopping a swim was easy enough using the buttons, but actually accepting that on the screen could be a pain in the neck. However once the screen is happy, you can review your activity.

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Cycling

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When cycling, you have the option to broadcast the optical HR from the Garmin Vivoactive HR. This can be useful if you have a cycling head unit you like to use – as the broadcast is ANT+ therefore, can be sued with any compatible device, not merely a Garmin unit.

This can also help to fill in one of the limitations of the Garmin Vivoactive HR – in the same way that the VivoActive can’t do open water swims, it is also not able to receive data from your power meter 🙁

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The optical HR broadcast is also beneficial when it comes to doing indoor training such as with Zwift. Allowing you to use the Garmin Vivoactive HR to record your workout, but also broadcast your HR data out to Zwift

As well are regular cycling, there is also the indoor trainer option which switches off the GPS, and allows you to record data purely from your bikes speed and cadence sensors

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For those of you lucky enough to have more than one bike, the Garmin Vivoactive HR can also store multiple sensor types, effectively allowing you multiple bikes, although there are no specific profiles for that, and thus no odometer function.

Conclusion

The Garmin Vivoactive HR is a mixed bag. The design and look of the device is such an improvement from the original VivoActive it is almost indescribable. The battery life is reasonable on the device, and in concert with the vastly improved look of the device it is much more comfortably to use.

HOWEVER things are not perfect on the Garmin Vivoactive HR – screen is almost redundantly dim even when pushed up to maximum settings, and with the odd back light bleed feels the area that Garmin have most cut corners on… which is such a shame.

I think for most generally active people – ie. anyone who doesn’t think they need a power meter, and the concept of an outdoors swim makes them shudder, this could have been THE device to beat. At £150 ish it is quite a compelling price point, especially with optical HR function. With the Polar A360 coming in at about £20 cheaper, the Garmin Vivoactive HR would have basically won the market in my eyes. But that screen! For the part of the device you are going to interact with SO MUCH, it is amazing such a part was used. I would have still thought the Garmin Vivoactive HR was a great device, without optical HR, and a better device. As it is, if you can, I’d suggest saving your money to look at one of the other Garmin offerings, if you set on a Garmin device. That might seem a hard thing for some people when this is what you can afford… but the screen is part of your EVERY interaction with the Garmin Vivoactive HR.

Heck if you are more interested in running that swimming or cycling, a Garmin forerunner 235 would be a better bet with a few Garmin IQ apps to sort out the cycling bits.

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James Gill

Author of TitaniumGeek, which started after smashing off my RIGHT elbow. Feel free to drop me a line about sports tech, medicine, or frankly anything that you want to chat about!!