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Garmin vívosmart HR review: Garmin builds a better, smarter band

Garmin's new heart-rate band with notifications holds its own against Fitbit's best.

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Dan Graziano
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Dan Graziano

Associate Editor / How To

Dan Graziano is an associate editor for CNET. His work has appeared on BGR, Fox News, Fox Business, and Yahoo News, among other publications. When he isn't tinkering with the latest gadgets and gizmos, he can be found enjoying the sights and sounds of New York City.

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5 min read

I'm picky when it comes to fitness trackers. I want a device that can stay on my wrist for extended periods of time, and that doesn't have to be charged every few days. One that doesn't need to be removed each time I take a shower or go for a swim. I also want one with the latest bells and whistles, that means some form of heart-rate tracking as well as smartwatch-like notifications.

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7.8

Garmin vívosmart HR

The Good

All-day heart rate and fitness tracking. Always-on touchscreen. Can get smartphone notifications. Shower and swim-friendly.

The Bad

Bulky design. Its Garmin Connect mobile app isn't as refined as apps from Fitbit or Jawbone. No smart coaching or personalized feedback.

The Bottom Line

The Garmin Vivosmart HR does fitness and heart rate tracking just about as well as the Fitbit Charge HR while adding smartphone alerts, too, all in a compact package.

The Garmin Vivosmart HR ($149.99, £119.99, AU$229.00) comes pretty close to meeting all of these needs. It's part fitness tracker, part smartwatch. As a fitness tracker, it covers all the bases: it measures daily activities (steps, floors climbed, etc), heart rate throughout the day and automatically tracks sleep at night.

All of these features are comparable to the Fitbit Charge HR, one of our favorite fitness trackers. But the Vivosmart has two notable advantages: it can display phone notifications (iPhone or Android), and it's waterproof (in this case swim-and-shower water resistant). But those perks come at a price.

The tracker is bulkier than the Charge HR and Jawbone Up3, and Garmin's mobile app isn't as refined. Those things matter to many people, myself included. Regardless, the Vivosmart is still one of the better fitness trackers we have tested and worth considering, especially if you're looking for a good fitness tracker that can get notifications like a smartwatch.

Hands-on with the smarter and more powerful Garmin Vivosmart HR (pictures)

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Design: Bulky, yet functional

The design of the Vivosmart is eerily similar to the Fitbit Charge HR, but bulkier. It features the same kind of wraparound band, with a standard watch buckle clasp. It's secure and likely won't fall off your wrist, but you have to wear the band relatively tight so that the optical heart-rate sensor can get an accurate reading.

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The design of the Vivosmart is eerily similar to the Fitbit Charge HR, but bulkier.

Sarah Tew/CNET

The sensor protrudes slightly from the back of the device, which ended up leaving marks on my skin. The first couple of days were a bit uncomfortable. But, unlike Garmin's previous heart-rate watch, the Forerunner 225, the Vivosmart provides continuous heart-rate tracking throughout the day. It's a welcome addition.

Just like the Fitbit, the Vivosmart also tracks steps, distance, calories burned, floors climbed and active minutes. It also automatically measures the deep and light sleep you achieve each night (an estimation, but useful for daily sleep logging). There band also includes a silent alarm that will buzz gently to wake you up in the morning, remind you to get up and move after being inactive.

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You have to wear the band relatively tight so that the optical heart-rate sensor can get an accurate reading.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Why choose Garmin over Fitbit?

The Vivosmart has a large always-on touchscreen display, which is easy to read outdoors and even has a backlight. Fitbit Charge HR uses a small LED display, and only lights up when you lift your wrist.

While the Fitbit Charge HR will notify you to an incoming call, its smart features end there. The Vivosmart, however, will display notifications for text messages, emails, calendar events and social media alerts: basically, nearly anything your phone receives.

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The tracker can receive nearly any notification your smartphone has.

Sarah Tew/CNET

You can also control music playback right from your wrist: play, pause, skip ahead or go back, but it won't show artist or song information. There's also a weather widget, but I ended up turning both it and the music controls off. Neither one won me over.

Water resistance is another difference-maker: it's 5 atmospheres (ATM) water resistance rating means you can shower with it on and even go for a swim in the pool. You shouldn't shower with the Fitbit Charge HR, let alone swim with it.

Fitbit's software has the edge

Garmin recently redesigned its Connect mobile app, the hub app for Android and iOS that syncs with this Garmin band. It's better now, but still isn't as good as what Fitbit and Jawbone Up offer.

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Garmin recently redesigned its Connect mobile app.

Sarah Tew/CNET

You can view activity data over the past few days, weeks and months, but there are simply too many menus to browse through. I've used Garmin devices more than anyone, and it even took me a couple of minutes to figure out how to disable specific smartphone alerts.

I was also disappointed with sleep tracking. While it records "light" and "deep" sleep, I feel like it should do more (perhaps monitoring REM sleep) given the constant heart-rate tracking, which other heart rate-enabled bands do.

While the Connect app also offers leaderboards and group competitions, I couldn't take advantage of it because I don't know anyone else with a Garmin activity tracker. Fitbit is the name brand when it comes to fitness trackers. Almost everyone I know with a tracker owns a Fitbit, which is generally why I recommend them over other devices. It's simple -- fitness tracking is more fun with friends.

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The tracker records "light" and "deep" sleep.

Sarah Tew/CNET

The Vivosmart also doesn't provide any sort of smart coaching or personalized feedback, an area Jawbone excels in with its Up software. While the band can collect an impressive amount of data, I'm left not really knowing what to do with it. I walked 10,000 steps, so what? I only slept 6 hours, is that bad? Not only would coaching and feedback keep me well informed, but it would also keep me motivated.

What's the battery life?

I was able to achieve just under six days on a single charge, which is in line with Garmin's estimates. This is comparable to both the Fitbit Charge HR (five days) and Jawbone Up3 (seven days). Charging is done through a USB dongle that is clipped on the back of the device. It's proprietary, so don't lose it.

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The Garmin tracker can generally achieve the estimated six days of battery life.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Who should buy this?

The Vivosmart isn't as discreet as the Fitbit Charge HR or Jawbone Up3. It's bulky and can be a bit of an eyesore, but the device does a good job at tracking heart rate and activities.

If you're not yet ready for a full-blown smartwatch but are still interested in receiving smartphone notifications on your wrist, the Vivosmart is worth checking out. I would also recommend it to anyone that wants a device you don't have to take off in the shower or the pool.

If you have friends or family members that own a Fitbit, however, I recommend you buy the Fitbit Charge HR. Friends don't let friends track fitness alone.

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7.8

Garmin vívosmart HR

Score Breakdown

Design 7Battery 8Performance 8Software 7Features 9