Why can't smartwatches look normal?
For years, the idea of a "regular-looking watch" with smartwatch extras has been an idea explored in a range of screenless analog watches with embedded step counters. Withings (now Nokia), Fossil's many hybrid fitness watches and Garmin's own Vivomove have done this well enough.
The Garmin Vivomove HR adds another wrinkle: under a normal analog-type watch face with real moving hands, it adds an LED touchscreen. Withings tried this earlier this year with the Steel HR, but that watch's heart rate functions weren't always-on. Garmin's version is a full-on fitness tracker with a feature set that's surprisingly deep. For $200 (being sold for £169.99 in the UK, AU$299 in Australia), it's a good value. (I didn't get to test a $300 step-up design, so I can't say how that one feels.)
It's clever how effortlessly the Vivomove HR blends the physical and digital, basically putting every necessary fitness tracker readout into a normal watch. I lift my arm and a glowing readout on the bottom gives me date and step count. I can swipe to see heart rate, stairs climbed, calories burned. I can start an activity timer.
Essentially, all the features of the Garmin Vivosmart 3 are baked into this watch, down to heart rate graphs and stress level estimations. It can also get messages, act as a music remote and even show local weather. The watch case has a brushed steel bezel on top, and is plastic underneath. The easily replaceable thin rubber 20mm watch straps can be swapped out.
But it's not as stellar a design, at least in the black model I tested, as I'd hoped. The watch's look leans toward boring versus striking. The black, round Vivomove HR review unit I've been wearing looks absolutely basic and normal. It lacks any physical buttons at all and unfortunately, swiping and touching on the Vivomove HR's tiny screen isn't fun -- more on this below.
But, if you've been looking for a standard watch that has all the data you'd normally want on a full heart rate fitness tracker, you've come to the right place.
The Vivomove HR is water-resistant up to 50 meters, so it's shower and swim ready. A clip-on dongle recharges the watch pretty easily, and on a full charge I got nearly a full week of use (six and a half days). When the battery's exhausted, the analog watch element will still work for another week-plus, but the watch won't record any fitness data. (So, basically, you'll want to recharge.) That's less battery life than the Withings Steel HR got, but the Vivomove HR does always-on heart rate tracking that's a lot more effective.
There are some drawbacks to the Vivomove HR's ambitiously rich on-watch experience. So much is there -- heart rate, stress zones and a relaxation breathing timer that works a bit like Apple and Fitbit's Breathe and Relax apps -- but navigation requires swipes or taps on a narrow little touchscreen area. Figuring out how to swipe and tap can get confusing. And I'd prefer a physical button or two. It's a missed opportunity, especially for runners.
The glass-covered watch collected a few scuffs when carried in my bag. That happens with smartwatches, but doesn't tend to happen with everyday fashion watches. That and the glare-prone watch dial and slightly smudge-collecting glass had me trying to polish the watch throughout the day.
Garmin Connect isn't my favorite fitness app, but I've come to appreciate its very deep set of features and charts. It shows daily activity and heart rate, estimated stress levels (which I found strange and not all that helpful), sleep logs, workout logs (the watch can automatically start an activity timer after 10 minutes of continual exercise, or you can start a workout manually) and offers social and weekly fitness challenges like Fitbit. The app connects to Strava, Facebook and Google, and has its own insights beta that shows your fitness performance in relation to average Garmin users in your demographic.
It's nice that the Vivomove HR can get notifications from all your apps, like Slack, Twitter or whatever's spamming your phone notifications. But the tiny readout and lack of ways to respond make it something you'll peek at rather than interact with. I like the Vivomove HR best when it's simple: giving me steps, heart rate, daily progress. But I guess it's nice that the extras are there at all.
The Garmin Vivomove HR is absolute proof that the future of everyday watches can start to absorb fitness trackers. There's a lot to like about what this watch is doing: It's like a normal everyday watch swallowed a full fitness tracker smartwatch, hiding the tech until you need it. I still don't think the Vivomove HR nails the idea, or the comfort, perfectly. But it comes close. Give it another year, and I bet other traditional watchmakers will be embedding LED displays too.