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Garmin VivoSmart HR Review – Is this the optical HR activity tracker you have been looking for?

polarWhen I reviewed the original Garmin VivoSmart, the ONLY criticism of any great note was that it lacked. It lacked an optical HR, which at the time of it’s launch was *just* beginning to filter into the activity tracker market. As 2015 closes, Garmin have revisited with VivoSmart to add optical heart rate monitoring. But the new sensors isn’t the only change that Garmin have made read on for the Garmin VivoSmart HR Review.

Garmin VivoSmart HR Review

Garmin have had a blistering 2015, releasing a mass of new products, whilst also revisiting and updating some of their products from only last year.

The Garmin Vivosmart was probably my favourite device from their 2014 product cycle, and has been my no.1 activity tracker to recommend to people. So hearing that Garmin had seemingly created the device I asked for all along, I couldn’t wait to get hold of the VivoSmart HR. First thing I noticed looking at the device, is it doest really look anything like it’s parent device. Yes its black, and goes round your wrist, and that’s about where the similarities end, in fact, I think that something might have happened with the milkman in the design studio, as it looks like the parent is clearly the VivoFit2  and not the VivoSmart. 

Original VivoSmart

TitaniumGeek IMG_4133-768x1024-768x1024 Garmin VivoSmart HR Review - Is this the optical HR activity tracker you have been looking for? VivoSmart running Optical HR heart rate garmin ANT+

VivoFit 2

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New VivoSmart HR

TitaniumGeek FullSizeRender Garmin VivoSmart HR Review - Is this the optical HR activity tracker you have been looking for? VivoSmart running Optical HR heart rate garmin ANT+

The original VivoSmart is more of a subtle black loop (which I have been particularly fond of), whereas the new VivoSmart HR, visually looks much more like you are wearing a device or an activity tracker. The look is now certainly derived from the VivoFit2 family tree, rather than the original Vivosmart. Something that comes with both pros and cons.

The Device

Garmin seem to be going through a packaging design change at the moment, the previous years packaged have all been black. Now we’ve a bright white colour instead for the Vivosmart HR

TitaniumGeek IMG_7508-1 Garmin VivoSmart HR Review - Is this the optical HR activity tracker you have been looking for? VivoSmart running Optical HR heart rate garmin ANT+

Inside we’ve very little fuss – another proprietary charger, the device and a bit of paperwork no one is ever going to read.

Surely it would be cheaper for a company to come up with a standard charger type across a range. Garmin is HUGE! At the very least you’d think they’d be interested in saving money! Similarly, why not ditch the paper manual, and include access to the manual through Garmin Connect? Similarly there is a lot of packaging volume for very little content – ok mini-rant over

TitaniumGeek IMG_7509-1-1024x768 Garmin VivoSmart HR Review - Is this the optical HR activity tracker you have been looking for? VivoSmart running Optical HR heart rate garmin ANT+

The smooth rubber on the outside of the original Vivosmart OLED screen, has been replaced with an obvious, reflective plastic, screen covering the front of the device. I have found the the screen does feel a little exposed when using the device

TitaniumGeek IMG_7956 Garmin VivoSmart HR Review - Is this the optical HR activity tracker you have been looking for? VivoSmart running Optical HR heart rate garmin ANT+

The original Vivosmart OLED screen was EXCEPTIONALLY bright and easy to see. The new screen is a regular touch sensitive LED, with a frankly weedy backlight. Certainly in day light you can’t tell that the light is on (not that it matters, it’s day light) but as it moves into dusk you realise the screen isn’t very well lit, and unlike the original, its not possible to change the brightness of the screen.

You can choose the orientation of the screen, horizontal, or vertically, based on personal preference, I’ve stayed with the usual horizontal display

TitaniumGeek IMG_7551 Garmin VivoSmart HR Review - Is this the optical HR activity tracker you have been looking for? VivoSmart running Optical HR heart rate garmin ANT+

In addition, the screen seems to have a odd, or narrow viewing angle, an issue I’ve not really encountered for years with devices. I’ve noticed it more when driving with the Vivosmart. With hands at the wheel, the device will light up with a notification, but you can’t see it, as the angle has the screen completely washed out. Oddly I have found that its almost completed addressed by wearing the device the “wrong way round”. So having it set on LEFT wrist orientation, but wearing it on my RIGHT, or vice versa.

Unfortunately, it’s a ridiculously hard thing to photograph, but it was something I was surprised to see.

On the outside of the unit is the single button used to bring up the menu system, from which you can activate the running mode, and importantly the ANT+ broadcast

TitaniumGeek IMG_8299-1024x768 Garmin VivoSmart HR Review - Is this the optical HR activity tracker you have been looking for? VivoSmart running Optical HR heart rate garmin ANT+

The inside of the device houses Garmin’s latest take on Optical HR, now with three green LED’s, each at a 90deg angle to the other, which contrasts to other optical HR monitors such as the Mio Velo  or Epson PulseSense having just two. The extra LED has been added to improve accuracy, but I’m still waiting to find out how that benefits

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One reason for this change is that previously every man and his dog was likely to be using a licensed Mio sensor (Although Epson also developed their own) This is Garmin’s first home grown unit termed Elevate. You’ll see immediately where the name comes from when you hold the unit, the optical unit distinctly protrudes from the inside of the unit.

TitaniumGeek IMG_7964 Garmin VivoSmart HR Review - Is this the optical HR activity tracker you have been looking for? VivoSmart running Optical HR heart rate garmin ANT+   In fact it protrudes more than any other device I’ve seen – here compared to the Polar A360

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In fact the optical unit on the Viviosmart HR is so markedly raised, I actually had to loosen the strap in the first day of wearing the unit due to discomfort. Now this isn’t necessarily a criticism of the Vivosmart HR, its actually more likely the result of personal conditioning – usually you have to wear an optical HR device more tightly than is usual to block any unwanted light from interacting with the sensor. Because of the protrusion of the sensor, Garmin havnt needed to include perishable rubber flanges or other means of keeping the light out, basically meaning you dont have to be quite as tight as with other devices. Similarly, you dont have to be as concerned about the “two fingers above the wrist” issue in order to hit usable flat skin.

The device is just a fraction smaller than the Polar A360 in terms of size on your wrist, which is probably its most direct competitor. Which I think is good for something that I would consider to be a supplementary device. I’d certainly wear the original VivoSmart with a normal watch, and I think you can just about get away with the new HR as a supplementary device without looking like you are writing for a gadget review website (I was asked last weekend, how many gadgets were on my person and was reliably informed that Ladies dont really go for the Inspector Gadget look!)

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Garmin have taken a leaf from the Mio play book, and have made the strap every so slightly stretchy. Its not a stretchy as Mio’s but it certainly makes the device very comfortable to wear.

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There were people who disliked the original push clasp on the VivoSmart, so you’ll be glad to see a normal watch strap in place here. This isnt going to fall off your wrist.

In addition there is a tactile soft touch coating to the outside of the device – which initially is very nice – but appears to wear quite quickly – seen here after 3 weeks of use. Not the easiest to initially see, but you can just make out the wear on the ridges to either side of the button

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Finally, as mentioned we’ve got another proprietary charging cable

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Specifications

Physical dimensions Band sizes: 136-187 mm (Regular); 180-224 mm (X-large); Width: 21.0 mm; Thickness: 12.3 mm
Display size, WxH 1.00″ x 0.42″ (25.3 mm x 10.7 mm)
Display resolution, WxH 160 x 68 pixels
Touchscreen
Negative mode display  – Note this isnt something you get to choose yet
Weight 29.6 g – Regular; 32.0 g – X-large
Battery Rechargeable lithium battery
Battery life Up to 5 days – Personally I find that I’m getting 6-7 days without too much effort
Water rating 5 ATM
Smart notifications (displays email, text and other alerts when paired with your compatible phone)
Vibration alert
Music control
Find my phone
VIRB® control
  • Run tracking – estimating distance without need for foot pod
  • Heart rate monitoring – including ANT+ board cast – SWEET
    • Also includes 24hr HR monitoring with resting HR calculation
  • Step Counter
    • Auto Goal on steps
  • AUTOMATIC sleep monitoring
  • Calculates number of floors climbed using the internal barometer.
    • So this is actually how many times you have climbed stairs, or at least changed in height. Its not merely an alternative method of displaying steps.
  • Intensity Minutes
    • This is a further addition to the concept of 10,000 steps to keep you active. Trying to raise your heart rate over 150 mins a week has been suggested to improve general fitness, and with the constant HR monitoring, you can now do that!
    • The NHS has a breakdown of exercise targets on their site, for different age groups, its actually better to aim for 30 mins 5 times a week, Garmin went the easier route of a running total

The resting hear rate calculation is rather cool, but as with any optical HR, the readings do depend on the accuracy of the unit

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Just a quick comparison shot of the three big player optical HR activity trackers – in a rare moment where they all agree – there is one REALLY black sheep in this lot, the Polar A360 frankly seems to make up the HR half the time, but I’ll come to that next week!

TitaniumGeek IMG_8329 Garmin VivoSmart HR Review - Is this the optical HR activity tracker you have been looking for? VivoSmart running Optical HR heart rate garmin ANT+

Using the VivoSmart HR

You can access the run setting by pressing the big button on the side of the unit. Doing so brings up the menu screen

Your first options being, Run, Do Not Disturb, and Alarm

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Hitting the Run icon will bring up the Run activity, which is started by pressing the button again. As there is no GPS in the unit,

Followed by Bluetooth settings, Sync, and Find My Phone (A really useful feature which is cropping up on most of Garmin’s wrist mounted devices now)

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Finally Activity History, Settings (rudimentary only) and Info about the device, firmware etc

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It’s much easier to manually sync the unit by pressing the button, and then the sync button, than relying on Garmin Connect to do it automatically.

When the unit syncs, is when you can access to the deeper information recorded by the band, such as the automatic sleep tracking, which is the classic Garmin affair of Deep/Light and Awake, without actually displaying the sleep phasesTitaniumGeek IMG_8263-576x1024 Garmin VivoSmart HR Review - Is this the optical HR activity tracker you have been looking for? VivoSmart running Optical HR heart rate garmin ANT+

Smart Notifications

One of the areas which Garmin has managed to get right with all of their wrist mounted devices, is smart notifications, and the VivoSmart HR is no difference. Notifications come through from the phone without the need for Garmin connect to actually be running, and frequently arrive before my phone actually buzzes!

TitaniumGeek IMG_7670 Garmin VivoSmart HR Review - Is this the optical HR activity tracker you have been looking for? VivoSmart running Optical HR heart rate garmin ANT+

TitaniumGeek IMG_8070 Garmin VivoSmart HR Review - Is this the optical HR activity tracker you have been looking for? VivoSmart running Optical HR heart rate garmin ANT+

If supported by your phone, you are also able to dismiss messages, or phone calls as they come in, which can be very useful

Optical Heart Rate Sensor

The inclusion of ANT+ broadcasting with the optical HR in the VivoSmart HR makes this a bit of game changer when it comes to considering the purchase of an activity tracker.

You get to broadcasting mode by using the side button and going into the settings screen. Within Heart rate settings, is the option to turn on ANT+ broadcasting

TitaniumGeek IMG_8294-2 Garmin VivoSmart HR Review - Is this the optical HR activity tracker you have been looking for? VivoSmart running Optical HR heart rate garmin ANT+

When you do broadcast the signal, you can’t also be using the unit for monitoring your run activity, but I’m not really sure why you would want to do both at the same time. To indicate that ANT+ broadcasting a signal icon appears next to the heart symbol

TitaniumGeek IMG_7695 Garmin VivoSmart HR Review - Is this the optical HR activity tracker you have been looking for? VivoSmart running Optical HR heart rate garmin ANT+   TitaniumGeek IMG_8294-2 Garmin VivoSmart HR Review - Is this the optical HR activity tracker you have been looking for? VivoSmart running Optical HR heart rate garmin ANT+   Sensor accuracy

This is kind of the big one. If the sensor isnt accurate, the whole purpose of the unit is completely null and void. We know the Mio sensor Garmin has previously used is fairly accurate, but that about their own in house offerings?

All that I can say is that its a bit of a mixed bag:

The first time I used the unit, I really wasn’t impressed. Using the ANT+ broadcasting to race on Zwift, I apparently did a 48km ZTR EB race, without passing over 120BPM using the broadcast function, and very little variability… normally i”d be pushing 170’s in the sprints…not looking good here so far Garmin

However following an update that week, things seemed to change for the better.

My initial feeling using the Vivosmart, compared to a regular chest strap is that there is a bit of a lag in responding to the HR 1-3secs it seems. In addition, the recording seems to be much more accurate when actually doing exercises, rather than just pottering round, the below picture shows  just after having walked back into the house from a light jog

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But what we really need is a graph….

TitaniumGeek Screen-Shot-2015-12-18-at-12.35.36-1024x238 Garmin VivoSmart HR Review - Is this the optical HR activity tracker you have been looking for? VivoSmart running Optical HR heart rate garmin ANT+

So here is a short 2km jog outside using the Vivosmart. We’ve got the same issue as seen with the Epson optical HR, and many other optical units – the Elevate sensor doesnt like tracking your HR with cold skin, but as you warm up, so the accuracy improves

Here is the graph from a 20min road bike ride, nothing major, but the VivoSmart HR tracks well for the most part – that said, there is a bit of a fall off in the graph   at the end, the reason for which I’m not quite sure.

TitaniumGeek Picture1-1024x610 Garmin VivoSmart HR Review - Is this the optical HR activity tracker you have been looking for? VivoSmart running Optical HR heart rate garmin ANT+

On Zwift for an hours ride, compared to the Polar A360 as well – Although the Garmin tracks well for the most part, there are some odd peaks and troughs

TitaniumGeek Cyclong-1024x613 Garmin VivoSmart HR Review - Is this the optical HR activity tracker you have been looking for? VivoSmart running Optical HR heart rate garmin ANT+

Going for a run however, neither the Garmin nor the Polar A360 like being jostled around. Its interesting that the Garmin Vivosmart HR and Fenix 3 chest strap agreed nicely until I stopped to climb over a wall to take photos, after that, the Garmin is all over the placeTitaniumGeek Running-1024x640 Garmin VivoSmart HR Review - Is this the optical HR activity tracker you have been looking for? VivoSmart running Optical HR heart rate garmin ANT+

Other Bits

The wrist action to activate the back light doesnt work, which is annoying for quickly glancing at the watch at night – but should be fixed in the next firmware update, and to be fair, Garmin tends to have a new firmware update seeming to come out every week!

TitaniumGeek IMG_7861 Garmin VivoSmart HR Review - Is this the optical HR activity tracker you have been looking for? VivoSmart running Optical HR heart rate garmin ANT+

Being water resistant to 50m, and the fact that optical sensor functions are not affected by water, as long as you have a good skin contact, it’s surprising to see Garmin not including any other rudimentary activity tracking, like swimming, or as was the case with the original Vivosmart Cycling. Perhaps one reason for missing out things like cycling, is that the unit is able to broadcast ANT+ HR data, but is not able to be paired with other ANT+ sensors to receive an ANT+ signal, so cycling probably isnt going to ever happen for this unit.

Conclusion

Garmin have done a good job with the Vivosmart HR it seems. It will be interesting to see how the screen and the coating stand up to longer term wear and tear, but at this moment, its a good device, with what seems to be reliable HR monitoring.

I do think this should be been the VivoFit3 HR, rather than the Vivosmart HR, as it isnt as subtle nor the screen anywhere near as bright as the original Vivosmart, but that may be due to battery considerations. Speaking of battery life, I was pleasantly surprised with the battery life I managed to get out of the unit for general day to day activities, although it does bare in mind that using ANT+ broadcast does seem to sap the battery – if using it to broadcast, I’d make sure I charged the unit that night, so as not to have a dead battery the following day

The new Vivosmart HR is certainly a device which should have Fitbit worried. The ability to broadcast HR, from such a well known industry player is likely to be able to make buyers think twice, especially when the FitBit Surge has a similar price point. Definitely one to think about.

As for myself, I’m a little concerned about the longevity of the device, with the screen being exposed, but for many people that won’t be an issue at all.

7/10

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James Gill

<p>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!!</p><br />

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  • Dan

    I may be a little dense when it comes to technology. But with the vivosmartHR mobile link, which switch setting is “on” and which is “off” in the settings menu. The owners manual doesn’t say and I’ve been fussing with it for a week.

    • When you so mobile link, I’m not quite sure where you mean.

      On the actual unit, or within the Garmin Connect?

  • TexasTacoKiller

    I’d like to know if the Garmin Vivosmart HD can utilize the GPS on the phone and help track on a map as in a program like Strava.

    By chance has any of your testers given this a try?

    • Unfortunately that isn’t possible. If you look in the Garmin Connect app, LiveTrack would probably be what you are looking for and it won’t connect.

      The HR broadcast is over ANT+ so you wouldn’t be able to broadcast to a Strava app and use it that way either

  • Michael Neal

    I think you need to bite the bullet and shave at least your wrist area to see if the optical HR is more accurate. 🙂
    So how is the API compared to Fitbit? Can you get all your data to the various sites and services that you can with Fitbit?