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Garmin Vivofit review: Long battery life in a fitness band, no charger needed

A long battery life and water-resistance add up to one of the easiest, lowest-maintenance fitness bands around.

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Scott Stein
Scott_Stein.jpg

Scott Stein

Editor at Large

I started with CNET reviewing laptops in 2009. Now I explore wearable tech, VR/AR, tablets, gaming and future/emerging trends in our changing world. Other obsessions include magic, immersive theater, puzzles, board games, cooking, improv and the New York Jets.

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I've been using the Garmin Vivofit for the past month, and I've never had to charge it once.

The Good

The Garmin Vivofit is water-resistant, has a one-year battery life, an always-on screen, and works with wireless heart-rate monitor accessories.

The Bad

No vibration for movement reminders, and battery needs physical replacing after a year. You're forced to use the Garmin app, rather than arguably better third-party health apps. Lacks more complex activity tracking.

The Bottom Line

Garmin's simple and functional activity band is easy and low-maintenance, which makes it one of the best alternatives to a Fuelband or Fitbit.

I could talk about the other features of Garmin's $130 (£100, AU$159) wireless Bluetooth fitness band -- its smart auto-adjusting daily goals, its motivational tricks, its shower-friendliness, that it even works with heart-rate monitors -- but that battery life steals the show.

The humble fitness band may be marginalized by fancier smartwatches and more elaborate heart-rate and notification-gathering devices down the line, but a good, reliable wrist-worn pedometer is still a rare find. For those who want the best battery life and have it act as a watch too, the Vivofit is one of the best out there. It's water resistant. It's low maintenance. And it's one of the best alternatives to the Nike Fuelband , Withings Pulse O2 , or discontinued Fitbit Force , on the market.

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Sarah Tew/CNET

What it does

The Vivofit's basically a wrist-worn pedometer. It counts steps, tracks distance traveled, shows estimated calories burned, displays how many steps are left towards your daily goal, and tells the time. It also tracks sleep, and can check continuous heart rate when connected with ANT+ wireless heart rate monitors sold separately, or bundled with a $169 (£139, AU$199) version of the Vivofit.

The band syncs over Bluetooth 4.0 with compatible Android and iOS phones and tablets (iPhone 4S and later, third-gen iPad and later, iPad Mini, or fifth-gen iPod Touch for iOS; and Bluetooth Smart-ready Android 4.3 phones) via a downloadable Garmin Connect app, or syncs with a Mac or PC with a wireless USB dongle. Pretty basic stuff, but it also does something the Nike Fuelband and Jawbone Up do, too: it encourages hourly movement.

A red bar appears if you've been sitting for an hour, and grows by little bits every 15 minutes after that. Walk around for a while, and the bar disappears.

Great idea, but because the Vivofit doesn't vibrate like some bands, such as the Jawbone Up 24 , it's easy to miss the reminder that you're sitting too long. When I zone out and get sedentary, I need a cattle prod. Vibration helps. The red band is a nice clear marker, though. Even as I write this, I can see I need to get up and walking.

The Vivofit syncs activity data with its app and in the cloud, and will track your daily, weekly and monthly progress. It auto-adjusts your daily goals up or down based on whether you hit them or not.

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Sarah Tew/CNET

Design

The Vivofit feels simple, clean and functional: It's a rubbery plastic band that clips shut the same way the Samsung Gear Fit and Fitbit Force do, with little pegs that pop through the band's holes with pressure. The only problem is that the band sometimes pops off, a problem with this type of band design. Be careful when wearing jackets or cuffed shirts.

An always-on LCD display has a black background and large grey numbers like an old digital watch. It's easy to read in most light, but the horizontal display means it's sometimes requires a twist of the wrist. There's no backlight, though.

A single button on the band controls everything. It does different things based on how many seconds you hold for, which is confusing and a little hard to remember. You click to cycle between time, steps, and other modes; or press and hold to sync, track sleep, or pair with a phone.

The Vivofit is water-resistant and shower-friendly. And the tracker pops out of the band so other colors can purchased and swapped out if you're feeling a need for a color shift, or if your band breaks.

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Sarah Tew/CNET

Battery life

A battery life of more than one year is what Garmin promises with the Vivofit. Tempting proposition, isn't it? Wearable gadgets usually come with their own leash, in the form of a dongle or USB charger that you need to make sure the juice doesn't suddenly run out when you need it the most.

Yes, it seems, pedometers can last that long. I haven't tested the Vivofit for a year, but that type of long-life battery is what's needed for this type of casual activity tracker. But there's a catch: in a year, you have to unscrew the back housing and put in replacement battery, like you would with a hearing aid or a standard wristwatch. It uses two CR1632 coin-type batteries, which you can buy easily online for cheap. If you can live with that, the Vivofit has a serious edge on the competition.

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Screenshots by Scott Stein/CNET

The app

Garmin Connect, the app the Vivofit syncs with, is clean-looking and easy to use. It's not the best app I've seen, but it gets the job done. A 3-second button press syncs data slowly but surely. Daily, weekly, or monthly progress is presented cleanly with charts, and the app will track your weight if you enter it yourself.

Like the Nike, Fitbit, or Jawbone, Garmin has a social feature that connects with other users to compete and compare stats. You're also automatically entered in weekly challenges, which are cleverly set up to automatically pair you with similarly active people. I found it to be a fun motivator. There are little badges to earn, too, depending on how active you are.

Garmin Connect is designed to work with other Garmin fitness devices and golf watches, but the app doesn't connect to other fitness apps. So, if you've already invested in establishing profiles with apps like Runkeeper or MyFitnessPal, you won't get any benefits here.

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Sarah Tew/CNET

Heart rate sold separately

And the Vivofit can help track heart rate, too, but you need a separate chest-worn conductive heart-rate monitor, the type you need to wet before using. It pairs with the Vivofit using a wireless connection called ANT+, which certain fitness and athletic devices support. It's old-school compared to wrist-worn heart-rate monitors like Samsung's Gear watches, but it's also potentially more accurate. I only tried pairing a heart-rate monitor for a little bit, and the rate showed up as a display on the Vivofit when in Heart mode, along with the "heart rate zone" number of what range your heart rate's currently in. I tried it out with a Garmin heart rate monitor, but it didn't always consistently measure sudden heart-rate increases. After a while of wearing it the readings seemed to stabilize, however. I'm new to using conductive heart-rate monitors, so stay tuned for a future heart-rate comparison with other alternatives.

Versus the competition: Fuelband, Fitbit Force, Withings Pulse

In the world of fitness trackers that have displays and double as watches, the Vivofit is priced between the Fuelband and the Withings Pulse . Its features are comparable, but maybe a little more bare-bones. The Pulse has elevation readings and can do quick heart-rate readings, while the Fuelband does more active movement measurement. The Vivofit's long battery life, water resistance, and compatibility with external ANT+ chest-band heart rate monitors could be a big difference for some; just be sure you're willing to commit to Garmin's app ecosystem.

Conclusion

I really liked wearing, and using, the Garmin Vivofit. No, I didn't think it was sexy or particularly futuristic, or anything that pushed new ground in fitness trackers. But what it does, it does well, and its optional heart-rate tracker, ability to work when wet, and claims of a great, long battery life makes this an excellent consideration for a basic connected fitness tracker. Especially if you want it to double as a watch.

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7.7

Garmin Vivofit

Score Breakdown

Style 8Features 7Ease of use 8