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Activity Trackers, Fitness GPS, Health & Fitness

Garmin Vivoactive – Hands On Review

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Posted: 23/03/2015 at 4:09 PM   /   by   /   comments (0)

Vivoactive – Review

First Impressions

I’ve been running fairly regularly for about a year, and have been using the TomTom Runner for most of my runs. It’s been great and seen me through runs where my phone (using Runkeeper, Nike+, or some other running app) has run out of battery, overheated, or decided it just didn’t want to work out that day.
But I just started adding swimming into the mix, and my Runner doesn’t record swimming, and I don’t think my iPhone will like me trying to drag it into the pool either, so settled on the new Garmin Vivoactive.

The Vivoactive fits somewhere between smartwatch and fitness watch. It’s designed to be worn every day (it has a step tracker, and phone notifications via Bluetooth), and is right there on your wrist when you go for your workout. There are a number of “apps” on the device – running, biking, swimming, golfing, walking, indoor (treadmill) running, indoor biking, and indoor (treadmill) walking.

It is also compatible with Garmin Connect IQ so you can add other apps as they are developed (either by Garmin or a 3rd party). Through this website, you can also add different watch faces, and data fields – some more helpful than others (need to know how many beers you’ve earned? or what animal you’re as fast as?)

I was worried about how big it’d look on my wrist, and whether I could get away with wearing it on all occasions, but it’s very slim and seems to go from office to gym fine. The band nearly wraps right around, but that’s no big deal. The screen is easy to read, and touchscreen more responsive than I was expecting. It also has a backlight that is easy to trigger (unlike the backlight on my TT Runner, which would be nearly impossible to activate with sweaty hands!)

 

The testing begins

The first big test was my weekly swim – I hadn’t read the manual yet, but decided to dive (ahem!) straight in. You simply select the pool size (in my case, 25m), and then the activity button to start. The screen is fairly readable underwater – even through my foggy goggles. You can also customise the data screens, so if you’re like me and swimming on a Saturday morning, and have the “Beers Earned” data field enabled, you might have some extra motivation to swim fast. (Looks like I won’t be having a big Saturday night.)
It records your pace, the number of strokes, and also gives you a SWOLF score (the time and the number of strokes it takes to swim a pool length). The lower the SWOLF score, the better. And yes, I’m an absolute novice swimmer.
It actually counted two laps too many, perhaps it was my poor form, or maybe it doesn’t handle a 25m pool that well. I did also stop mid-lane around the 10-minute mark when my lane mate moved a traffic cone from the bottom of the pool, so I guess this also wouldn’t have helped. I’ll test it out in a 50m pool and see whether the accuracy improves.
I also didn’t set up any intervals – something that I’ll definitely do next time. But I’m happy with the detailed swimming stats available – and hopefully be able to see improvement in the coming weeks/months.


View Activity Here

Putting it through its paces

Sunday I was all set for my 4th half marathon – the Twilight Run. I left my trusty TomTom Runner at home and decided to just use my phone (mainly for music, but I usually have one running app open as well for audio cues), and the Vivoactive. Lesson 1 – never rely on your phone. Being Brisbane, and in the middle of our wet (flood?) season, it started bucketing down right at the starting line.

Before the 1km mark, my phone decided that I was standing still, and paused my run app. Between the rain and the crowd, I couldn’t unpause it, so I just left it and pinned everything on the Vivoactive, which thankfully, recorded the run perfectly.

At each km marker, the Vivoactive was fairly spot on – and given that no-one can run the actual race line, I’d say the GPS was incredibly accurate. You can see the drop in pace just before the 9min 30sec mark (click image for a larger view or go to the actual activity page), where the first turn was. It was very sharp and the crowd hadn’t thinned out yet, so I had to slow down a lot. The next major drop in pace (around 18 min 20 sec) was when the race marshals tried to make us go single file down a flooded walkway.


View Activity Here

Cadence Results

The cadence data is interesting, as I’ve never had this before. We were running through ankle deep water at a lot of points, so I think the red dots would be these areas. Also interesting how high my cadence is at the start, and end (purple dots), while it was a good even pace most of the way in the middle (blue dots).

Another thing to note – you can clearly see where I realised the half marathon was going to get cut short (the track was mostly flooded by now, and lightening was getting closer) – around 55mins into the race. Where the 10km runners would’ve diverged to the finish line and the half marathoners would’ve started another lap, we were all directed to the finish line. I had a lot left in the tank, so at this point, I decided to run harder – sadly my pace only just rose above the average line, but you can see the extra effort in my heart rate.

Considering this was my first run with the watch, it was incredibly easy to use. Even in the pelting rain, the touchscreen remained responsive, and current pace seemed to be accurate.

Another thing to note – this was the first time using a Garmin heart rate monitor strap (probably not a good thing to change up on race day!) but it was comfortable (I forgot it was there), and connected in no time, even without any moisture on the contacts (not that that would’ve been a problem once the rain race started).

The only thing I missed about my TomTom Runner was the QuickGPSFix – when you connect a TT Runner (or any of their sports watches) to your computer, it’ll download GPS satellite positions for the next 3 days, which makes satellite acquisition very quick. Therefore it took the Vivoactive longer to pick up a GPS fix than I’m used to – granted this was the first time it was picking up satellites at all, and since we were stuck at the starting line for ages, it wasn’t an issue. (Edit: On subsequent runs, the GPS has picked up very quickly, so I’d say this was just a case of first satellite acquisition nerves!)

I took it for a quick gym session as well, to test out the indoor activities. Up first, treadmill:


View Activity Here

I hate running on treadmills, so any normal runs I do outside. This was just a quick interval training session – the jumping on and off the side of the treadmill version. I’m very impressed with how well the watch handled this. Obviously, the treadmill assumes you’re running the entire way, but the watch was able to work out that I was stopping every 30 seconds (with a bit of a warm up at the beginning), thanks to the internal accelerometer. It correctly gave me a distance of almost half of what the treadmill was reading.

I didn’t feel like hopping on the bike for too long, but just wanted to log an indoor bike workout:

Vivoactive cycle performance

As you can see, I only have heart rate data, but if I had kitted the bike out with cadence/speed sensors, I would’ve had this data also. If I had have bothered to look at the distance the bike reported, I could’ve edited this data as well – all activities in Garmin Connect can be edited in the case of boasting error.

Onto the other features. I’ve never had an activity tracker, but it’s nice to have – if you’ve remained sedentary for a long time, the “move bar” will fill up, and your device will vibrate and ever so nicely tell you to “Move!”. You also get a daily step goal (personalised based on your previous day’s steps). These features are now fairly standard amongst a lot of the latest Garmin products. It’s great for people like me who sit down in front of a computer and don’t get up for hours.

The other features that I thought I wouldn’t use have actually been handy – music controls (easier to control your playlist from your wrist than when your phone is in an armband or pocket!), smart notifications (I just need to know the second someone retweets me!), calendar, and weather. The only feature I’ve yet to use is Virb control. I don’t own a Garmin Virb and don’t think I do anything adventurous enough to warrant getting one at this stage. I’m sure it’d be very handy for anyone who does own one though.
I also occasionally play tennis with my sister – we play purely as a social activity. A number of times we forget the score is embarrassing. Most of the time we just say “I have no idea, let’s just say we’re at 30 all!” I’m excited to try out the tennis score app, but we haven’t played a game since I’ve had the watch. There’s also basketball and soccer (football) versions as well.

There’s no stopwatch (if I don’t time my planks, they didn’t happen!) but Garmin has made one available through Connect IQ.

The Vivoactive also has sleep tracking. You have to navigate to the steps screen (one swipe right), then use the menu button to bring up the start sleep option. You do need to manually set this, and when you wake up, you’ll also need to manually turn off sleep mode. I’ve now confirmed I’m a restless sleeper. It also has an alarm, but there’s no snooze – which is probably a good thing for serial snoozers like me. Using it as an alarm also helps me to remember to turn off sleep mode, since I’m looking at the watch already.

Garmin Connect keeps all your data together so you can view everything the Vivoactive (or other Garmin device) has recorded. You could get lost for hours clicking through the various screens, joining groups, comparing your running route to similar routes – it’s a full-featured community web app. Here are some of the snapshots you see on your home screen:

vivoactive dashboard
Sleep, the all important Badges, a quick list of recent activity, my steps for today – yes I’ve been sitting down writing this all morning!

Pros

  • Great all rounder – I don’t have to swap a watch or step tracker for a dedicated sports watch.
  • Multisport compatible – including indoor training.
  • Battery life – It took a few days for the battery to run down before I even considered charging it.
  • Connect IQ – First thing I did was change the watch face. I’m also excited by what more developers could do with this open API.
  • Garmin Connect – love the dashboard showing your steps, sleep, badges, calories, weight (ok, I don’t actually like seeing this, but it’s probably good to keep an eye on), step challenges, and groups (if you’re that way inclined). The breakdowns of activities are comprehensive, and it’s great to be able to track your progress (or lack of).

Cons

  • You can’t chain the activities together (i.e. Triathlon). You need to stop one activity and then open up the next app and start that activity. There’s no transition timer etc.
  • Move bar doesn’t seem to care if you’ve been on a massive run. After you finish it will still start filling back up at the same rate.
  • Removing unused screens – I wish I could remove the Virb control screen. It would make it quicker to get to the screens that I DO use. You can uninstall (as well as reorder) the apps though. I’ve removed the golf app and reordered the app screen from my most to least used (all done through the Garmin Connect Mobile Phone App). This is handy, because unless the golf app is compatible with putt putt courses (hint, it isn’t ;)) then I probably won’t ever use this anyway.
  • Sleep tracking is manual. You can edit the times in Garmin Connect if you forget to enable/disable this, but it’d be nice if this could somehow automatically track.
  • Although with someone who is as restless as me, it probably would be difficult to tell if I was awake or asleep :S
  • The swimming app doesn’t detect your stroke. (This is available in the dedicated Garmin Swim watch, as well as the high-end triathlete watches such as the 920xt etc)

Final Thoughts

So far, I’m impressed. I’m not usually one to go for first generation devices, but software wise, Garmin has been doing most of these features for a while, and hardware wise, they seem to know what they’re doing.

There’s a lot of data collected from this device. You could get lost on Garmin Connect drilling down to each different segment. The social aspect (step challenges, groups) are great motivators, as are the badges (yes they don’t mean anything, but still, I MUST COLLECT THEM ALL! :)).
This seems to be the perfect watch for me right now. I’m not a triathlete, but I need more than a basic running watch. Everything else is just icing. Glancing at my watch to see who sent me a text is much more convenient, the step counter working in conjunction with MyFitnessPal (which I already use) is great, and being able to customise the data fields in each activity is handy.

Update: The Garmin Vivoactive model mentioned this article has been discontinued for the newer model the Vivoactive HR – This model includes a Heart Rate sensor in the watch.