Garmin Vivoactive review: Garmin's first fitness smartwatch misses the mark

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The Good The Vivoactive has an ultraslim design, good battery life and an always-on color display that shines in outdoor performance. It has vibration and notification alerts from your smartphone, activity tracking with auto-adjusting goals, multisport tracking through GPS, and can be worn in the shower and the pool.

The Bad The Connect IQ app store is lacking, Garmin's mobile app is dated and sleep tracking is unimpressive. The watch software and smartphone connectivity can also be unstable, requiring frequent reboots.

The Bottom Line The ultraslim design and laundry list of features can't overcome the buggy software. Once Garmin fixes these problems, the Vivoactive could be a good product, but until then, there are better options available.

5.9 Overall
  • Design 7
  • Battery 8
  • Performance 4
  • Software 4
  • Features 8

Editors' note, February 18, 2016: We've heard from a number of users that recent software updates have improved the connection problems we initially experienced with the Vivoactive. We are currently re-evaluating the watch and will update this review with our impressions in the coming weeks.

"That's a nice watch." These are words you don't hear often when wearing a smartwatch, let alone a GPS equipped sport watch. But in my time testing the Garmin Vivoactive, these words were said to me many times by runners, family members and even some colleagues. The Vivoactive isn't your ordinary smartwatch, though. With its slim design, impressive feature set and long battery life, Garmin's latest watch is turning heads, but it's far from perfect.

The price of the Vivoactive is in line with similar products, such as the Sony Smartwatch 3 and Fitbit Surge. The watch is available now for $250 in the US, £200 in the UK and AU$340 in Australia. It can also be bundled with a wireless heart-rate strap for $300, £230, and AU$380.

What can it do?

The Garmin Vivoactive is part smartwatch, part activity tracker and part GPS sport watch. It will vibrate to notify you of incoming calls, text messages, emails, and app and calendar alerts from your smartphone (which must be connected over Bluetooth). That vibration can also be used to gently wake you up in the morning, a feature that has become a must have for me in wearables. There's even an app store (called Connect IQ) for third-party apps, widgets and watch faces that can be installed on the device, but I will dig more into this later.

Sarah Tew/CNET

The watch is also capable of tracking the steps you take each day, distance traveled, calories burned and your sleep at night. Daily goals can be set manually, or will automatically adjust each day depending on your performance the day prior. There's even "Move" alerts to remind you when you are being lazy. On top of all that, the watch can measure running and biking workouts with the GPS, and swimming laps using the accelerometer and other sensors. To measure heart rate, you'll need to pair a separate strap accessory: there's no onboard sensor on the watch itself.


From left to right: Adidas MiCoach Smart Run, Garmin Forerunner 15, Polar M400, Fitbit Surge, Garmin Vivoactive, Polar V800 Sarah Tew/CNET

GPS is an essential feature for many runners and cyclists, but most watches that include it are big and bulky. The Vivoactive is a rare exception to this. The watch is incredibly slim and lightweight, so much so that I often forgot I was even wearing it. The full dimensions are 43.8 x 38.5 x 8mm with a weight of 38 grams. For comparison purposes, the GPS-equipped Sony Smartwatch 3 comes in at 10mm thick with a weight of 65 grams, while the Polar M400 is 11.5mm thick and weighs 56 grams.

One of my favorite features is the watch's always-on display. There's no need to tap the screen or flick your wrist to view the time and date, a simple glance down will suffice. Speaking of the display, it's not particularly high-res with its 205x148-pixel resolution, but still performs quite well.

The Achilles heel for many smartwatches is readability in direct sunlight, this is where the Vivoactive shines. Whether I was outside running or walking, the color display was always easy to read. It can be a little more difficult to see when indoors or in low-light situations; however, the backlight, which can set to turn on when you tap the screen or when notifications come in, quickly fixes this problem.

Sarah Tew/CNET

The Vivoactive is available in either black or white. It ships with a comfortable silicone strap, although it's interchangeable and can be swapped out for a different band. Garmin sells a variety of different colored silicone straps for $15 (£12, $AU20), and even offers a leather strap for $30 (£25, $AU40). The leather strap is nice, but I found it rather pointless. I wouldn't wear it while working out over fear of getting it wet and damaging the leather. I thought maybe it was intended for when I attend fancier events, but the truth is I would most likely opt for a traditional watch in this situation.

The watch has held up well over the past few weeks. I've worn it non-stop throughout the day, and even though I accidentally hit it against the wall a few times, there's no sign of any damage or wear. Other than to charge it, there's really no real reason to take off the Vivoactive: it can be worn in the shower and pool -- sans the leather strap, of course. The Vivoactive has a waterproof rating of 5 ATM and is capable of withstanding pressure at a depth of up to 50 meters. You can learn more about water resistance ratings on smartwatches and activity trackers here.

Navigating the interface

The Vivoactive has two physical button and two capacitive keys. The left button will activate the watch's backlight, while a long press will power the watch on or off. The right button is used to open the app drawer and start and stop activities. The capacitive keys are straightforward: a back button to return to the previous screen and a menu button to access more options.

The app drawer is home to preinstalled apps for running, biking, swimming, golfing, walking, treadmill running, indoor biking, and indoor walking. There's also a Find My Phone feature here. Tapping this will make your smartphone ring and vibrate as long as your Vivoactive is in Bluetooth range (about 30 feet) and connected. Unfortunately, there is no app for weight training, which is disappointing. A simple timer and screen with heart-rate information would have been nice, similar to what the Fitbit Surge and Polar M400 offer.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Back on the home screen, a swipe on the touchscreen to the left or right will bring up the different widgets you have installed: thing of them as quick-glance features for seeing things like the weather, email notifications, and activity tracking. The default home screen shows the time and day, along with a small battery icon.

The default widgets display daily activity information, the weather, music controls, a calendar, and smartphone notifications. There's also a widget for Garmin's VIRB sports camera, which allows you to start and stop recordings and snap pictures on the camera all from your wrist. Additional apps, widgets, watch faces can be added or removed through Garmin's Connect IQ storefront, which I will get into a little bit later.

Software performance: Rough

From a design standpoint, the Vivoactive is brilliant. From a software standpoint, it feels almost like a beta product. Garmin has issued a few software updates since I began testing the Vivoactive and things have gotten a bit better, but there are still a number of problems that need to be ironed out. On quite a few occasions the Vivoactive would completely freeze (forcing me to restart it) or the touchscreen wouldn't respond to my taps and swipes.

I also had problems with my phone randomly disconnecting and reconnecting. I tested the Vivoactive with an iPhone 6 Plus , HTC One M9 and HTC Desire Eye . While recent software updates have improved connectivity over the past couple of weeks, I still experience random disconnects and syncing problems at least once or twice a week.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Aside from the glitches and technical problems I experienced, the software just seems a little too basic when compared with other smartwatches. For example, one area that bugged me was the music controls. While you can pause, play and skip songs, it doesn't show you the title or the artist of the song playing, which is a feature found in cheaper smartwatches like the Pebble .

The notifications displayed from your smartphone are also very basic and can't be interacted with. You can't reply to emails or text messages, let alone dismiss them from your wrist. To do this, you must take out your smartphone and clear them from the notification bar.

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