Garmin Vivoactive HR Review
Best All-round GPS Fitness Smartwatch 2016
Welcome to an independent review of the Garmin Vivoactive HR GPS Smartwatch, one of best sport smartwatches currently available for running, cycling, swimming, golf and fitness tracking.
Garmin offers many fitness products across a range of sports, this includes entry level activity trackers through to advanced watches such as the Fenix 3 HR. Whatever your sport there is a Garmin GPS device to help monitor and track your progress.
This is where the Vivoactive HR comes into play. It has been designed specifically with multi-sports in mind. So now you no longer need a dedicated GPS device to record data from each sport. Plus, if you forget to press start, Vivoactive HR will automatically detect and record each activity with the new Garmin Move IQ feature.
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Why is the Garmin Vivoactive HR the best GPS smartwatch for sports?
Vivoactive HR simply amazes with the sheer number of sports it can track. Software updates have also added stand-up paddle boarding, skiing (ski board, cross country etc) and run/bike/walk/row indoors. You can also add more apps and widgets from Connect IQ, which is the equivalent of the App Store for Garmin.
To start an activity simply select it from the menu and press the right-hand button below the screen (Vivoactive HR has 2 control buttons as well as a touchscreen). During the activity, the display will show you main stats, while swiping up and down will give you more detail such as heart rate. The display is also customizable, so you can tailor it to only show the stats you’re interested in.
Apps for running, cycling, pool swimming, playing golf, skiing, weight lifting and more
Unlike the Apple Watch (which is primarily a smartwatch with fitness apps) Vivoactive HR puts sports first. If you need once device to track them all then look no further – Vivoactive HR is the best GPS smartwatch for ALL activities. In the past, a dedicated GPS was required to track data from each sport.
The built-in GPS is accurate and fast to lock on to a signal, no more waiting around outside. Similar to the Forerunner 235, Vivoactive HR captures speed, pace, distance and heart rate. It also has a built-in accelerometer so you can use it for treadmill running. Other useful features include Auto Lap and Auto Pause.
The cycling app measures time, distance, speed, and calories. Vivoactive HR is also compatible with speed and cadence sensors, and the Varia lights and radar for increased safety on the road.
Vivoactive HR is waterproof to 50 meters and can be used for pool swimming (another advantage over FitBit). Interval distance, stroke count, stroke type are all available. You can also pause and resume your swim using the interval count.
For golfers, you can use Vivoactive to view a graphic of the green you are playing and track score. Choose from over 40,000 courses. You won’t get as much detail as the latest Approach (see Approach S20) but it’s certainly worth using on the course.
When you have finished any activity the smartwatch will display a summary of your activity.
Vivoactive HR is primarily a fitness watch with smartwatch capabilities. It’s been designed with heavy sports use in mind. That said when connected to a Bluetooth smartphone (the majority of modern mobile phones now have Bluetooth) Vivoactive HR can receive all of your phone’s notifications. It gently vibrates and displays alerts for incoming calls, texts, emails and calendar items plus notifications from social media and other apps on your mobile.
These smart notifications can quickly become annoying due to the frequency, but can help to keep you in the know without digging around for your phone. If you’d prefer not to be buzzed every 5 minutes, simply turn the notifications off (or disable Bluetooth on your mobile). If you miss a notification you can go back and read it, unlike many other smartwatches.
Vivoactive HR and FitBit Surge comparison
Fitbit is Garmin’s closest smartwatch competitor with the Surge. Both watches are very similar in design and features but Garmin has the edge when it comes to the display and is far superior in comparison. Vivoactive HR can be read perfectly in bright sunlight and just as well indoors. The 205x148-pixel touchscreen can be easily brightened in low light conditions.
Fitbit Surge is also not waterproof, as the manual clearly states: "Water Resistant Splash proof. Do not shower or swim with the device". Vivoactive HR is water resistant to 50 meters (5ATM).
Vivoactive HR is lighter than the Surge (1.7 ounces for an x-large band) in comparison to the Surge (2.7 ounces). Vivoactive also displays many more smart notifications - Surge is limited to texts and call alerts only.
38.5mm wide / 8mm thick
30mm wide / 11.5mm thick
42.3mm wide / 11.5mm thick
40mm wide / 8mm thick
Sunlight readable, color touchscreen
Sunlight readable, color touchscreen
Wrist Heart Rate
Auto Activity Detection
Running, cycling, swimming, golf
Running, cycling, swimming, golf, ski, SUP, rowing plus more
Activity detection for 15 different activities
Up to 7 days
Up to 8 days watch mode, 13 hours GPS mode
Up to 7 days
Up to 5 days
Yes, vibration alert
Yes, vibration alert
Yes, not social media
50 meters (5ATM)
50 meters (5ATM)
Splash proof only
Splash proof only
Broadcast Heart Rate
Yes, to other Garmin devices
Comfortable to wear 24/7
Vivoactive HR has a soft silicone band and is comfortable to wear for long periods of time. The design is also very similar to the FitBit Surge and mimics the same kind of cross-hatch tire pattern. The band folds neatly down from the edge of the display module and the clasp is the same found on an everyday wrist watch. Additional brightly colored bands can be purchased separately, complete with the tools and pins to swap them out.
Garmin Elevate wrist-based heart rate monitor
On the reverse of the display is the wrist-based heart rate monitor, now found in a large proportion of Garmin wearables (see Vivosmart HR and Forerunner 235). Wearing the watch for long periods of time does leave a small indentation in your wrist, but this doesn't make it uncomfortable.
How does the HR work?
3 small green LEDs shine directly into the skin and monitor blood flow to take a heart rate reading. Some reviews of the watch indicate that it’s not entirely accurate in comparison to a chest strap. Pair with a Garmin HRM-run if you require 100% accuracy. The latest chest straps are more comfortable to wear with soft fabric straps and can be easily washed after a workout.
Why do you need a heart rate monitor for fitness training?
To help measure your physical fitness and to work out in different heart rate zones a heart rate monitor is required. Heart rate zones range from 1-5. Zone 1 is a very comfortable effort (walking for example), through to zone 5 which is maximum effort. Zone 5 is the point when your body can no longer remove lactic acid as quickly as it is produced (Lactate Threshold). Training in Zone 5 helps to increase the Lactate Threshold resulting in improved fitness.
Heart rate zone training
The Vivoactive HR clearly displays heart rate so you know which zone you are training in. In order to improve your fitness levels, you should work towards more time spent in zone 5. However, you also need to be careful not to overdo it as you could suffer an injury.
Review your activity data in Garmin Connect
If you are not familiar with smartphone apps then Garmin Connect could be a little tricky for you to get used to. It’s not essential to use the app which accompanies all of Garmin’s fitness devices but it will help for extra motivation. The app is available to download on all platforms including desktop (PC/Mac OS). It's well worth using the desktop version to begin with, to really get to grips with the full functionality.
Once you have a Garmin Connect account download and install the mobile version on your smartphone and pair Vivoactive from the devices menu. Vivoactive HR wirelessly syncs with the app throughout the day (although this can be sporadic depending on Wi-Fi and Bluetooth signal).
There is so much data held within the Garmin Connect that it can take a while to navigate your way around. One of the best features is being able to make connections and challenge them on leaderboards. This is the fantastic motivation for you to get extra steps in or workouts such as running or cycling.
Garmin Connect Insights
New Garmin Connect Insights gives you a greater understanding of your activities and how they can affect your health. Over time, your patterns and habits can even help determine your ability to meet the goals you’ve set for yourself. Insights are delivered to you when enough data has been logged to trigger an Insight event. The more you log, the more frequent the Insights become. Logging various types of information such as activities, calories, sleep, and steps will provide more variety in your Insights.
Free software updates
If you’re having trouble syncing your smartwatch you can use Garmin Express to upload. This is another desktop application which helps manage all of your Garmin devices. Install Garmin Express and connect Vivoactive HR to your desktop computer using the USB charging cradle. It will automatically sync with Garmin Connect and install any software updates required.
Customize with Connect IQ apps
Vivoactive HR can be used for a range of sports, however, if you’re looking for a specific app or data field the chances are you can download it from the Connect IQ store. There are a plethora of developers who are now working with the platform to make new watch faces, data fields, and widgets available for Garmin devices. You can also find more custom apps on the Connect IQ store.
Vivoactive HR Review Summary
FitBit should be very concerned by Garmin’s advancement into the activity tracker market. Garmin is a giant in the GPS industry and with each new wearable comes significant improvement in features and design. This watch isn’t the cheapest but it is certainly value for money. It is one of the best Garmin GPS smartwatch for general fitness enthusiasts with its numerous multi-sport features. However, it won't ever replace a Forerunner or Edge for more advanced and dedicated activity tracking.