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Article updated on Jan 16, 2024

Garmin Vivoactive 5 Review: Apple Watch SE Gets a Run for Its Money

It's easy to recommend the Garmin Vivoactive 5 thanks to its great battery life and fitness tracking options.

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Written by 
Lexy Savvides
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Lexy Savvides Principal Video Producer
Lexy is an on-air presenter and award-winning producer who covers consumer tech, including the latest smartphones, wearables and emerging trends like assistive robotics. She's won two Gold Telly Awards for her video series Beta Test. Prior to her career at CNET, she was a magazine editor, radio announcer and DJ. Lexy is based in San Francisco.
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Garmin Vivoactive 5
8.3/10 CNET Score
$299 at Amazon

Garmin is aiming at the Apple Watch with the $300 (£259, AU$499) Vivoactive 5. Like the $249 Apple Watch SE, it has a vivid screen and excellent fitness tracking options. Unlike the Apple Watch, it works with both Android and iOS. Plus, its battery lasts up to 11 days if you're using it in smartwatch mode, without tracking GPS workouts or using the always-on display.

Garmin makes too many smartwatches; so many, that it becomes hard enough for a tech reviewer to know what sets them apart, let alone a casual buyer. The Vivoactive 5 shares a lot in common with the $449 Venu 3 but lacks a few features you might really want, like a speaker, microphone or voice assistant support. Still, the Vivoactive 5 is the one I'd recommend to most people looking at a Garmin in the range of $300-500 because it offers the most value for money.

8.3/ 10
SCORE

Garmin Vivoactive 5

$299 at Amazon

Pros

  • Great, bright screen
  • Tracks naps!
  • Superb battery life

Cons

  • No ECG or heart health features
  • Limited third-party apps
  • No altimeter

Garmin Vivoactive 5 design and screen

There's nothing special about the build quality of the Vivoactive 5, with its plastic case and silicone strap. It doesn't feel damaged after being dropped a few times, but I also wouldn't describe it as sturdy as the aluminum frame found on the Apple Watch or Pixel Watch. I wish the watch felt a little more premium given its price, but I appreciate the choice of colors, including the orchid lilac hue I've been testing. Fortunately, the 1.2-inch round AMOLED screen makes up for the basic feel. It's super easy to see outdoors and has two font sizes for easy reading. 

Garmin Vivoactive 5

The interface is easier to use than earlier Vivoactive watches.

Lexy Savvides/CNET

The visual interface is also much nicer to look at than earlier versions like the Vivoactive 4. Finding menus and settings is easy, as is quickly starting a workout with the press of a button. If you're coming from another smartwatch or tracker like the Apple Watch or Fitbit, the Garmin Connect app isn't as intuitive. Fortunately, Garmin will update the app later in the year with a simplified design to make stats easier to find.

Unlike the Apple Watch or Galaxy Watch which comes in two sizes, the Vivosmart 5 only gets one option. My wrist is 152 millimeters and I find the Garmin's 42mm case fits perfectly. It's light enough that I frequently forget I'm wearing it, that is until a notification comes through and buzzes on my wrist. I'm more inclined to wear it to track sleep compared to heavier smartwatches like the Galaxy Watch 6 Classic.

Garmin Vivoactive 5 fitness and health tracking

Like all of Garmin's recent watches, the Vivoactive 5 offers a comprehensive list of health and fitness tracking options. Here's the laundry list, then I'll mention some specific standouts:

  • Over 30 sports apps and workout types
  • Blood oxygen sensor
  • Guided meditations
  • Workout benefit guides and recovery time calculations
  • Stress tracking, HRV measurements and respiration
  • Wheelchair mode for tracking specific sports apps and workouts
Garmin Vivoactive 5

Activity insights from the Vivoactive 5.

Lexy Savvides/CNET

I really like how the Vivoactive 5 provides insights into my activity throughout the day. I was relaxing on the couch for an hour with a cup of coffee one Saturday, catching up on the news. My wrist buzzed with a notification telling me the watch measured this restful period and it helped to balance out the rough night's sleep I got. Like earlier Garmin watches, the Vivoactive 5 also has a feature called body battery. This takes into account your sleep quality, activity level and heart rate variability to give you a good idea of how recharged you are each day. I find it a really helpful gauge to determine what sort of workout I might want to take on, or if I need to prioritize rest and recovery. Other wearables like Fitbit's Daily Readiness Score offer a similar metric, but recovery is still a metric that's missing from the Apple Watch.

Sleep coaching is also intuitive. It tells you the amount of sleep to target based on your night's rest. And the watch also tracks naps, just like the more expensive Garmin Venu 3. I love this because it's something the Apple Watch can't yet do without setting a sleep schedule and entering into sleep mode before taking a nap. Even then, the Apple Watch doesn't always track daytime sleep correctly. The Vivoactive 5 logged every nap I took automatically.

A recent software update added even more workout profiles like racket sports, boxing and lacrosse. I was impressed with GPS performance, especially when I compared it against the iPhone 15 as a control phone. Heart rate accuracy when compared to a chest strap was also excellent. I tracked a session with intervals on my spin bike and the Vivoactive 5 matched up very well to the strap throughout the workout.

Unfortunately, there's no altimeter in the Vivoactive 5 for elevation tracking; instead, it measures using GPS. You'll also miss out on measuring flights of stairs as a result, so get the Venu 3 instead if that metric is important to you. While you can connect to some Bluetooth sensors and ANT+ devices, the Vivosmart 5 doesn't support cycling power meters like the Venu 3. This is especially disappointing given that WatchOS 10 allows all supported Apple Watches, even the $249 Apple Watch SE, to connect to power meters. 

Garmin Vivoactive 5 smart features

I've been testing the Vivoactive 5 paired with an iPhone 14 Pro, and it's been a near-seamless experience. All my notifications come through almost at the same time as they appear on the phone, and reading text on the watch's screen is a delight. You can even see images sent via text message and respond to texts from your wrist if the watch is paired with an Android phone. 

Garmin doesn't get everything right. Confusingly, watch control is broken across two apps. Garmin Connect is the main one you'll be interacting with most of the time for viewing workout, health and sleep tracking metrics, as well as managing the watch's settings. Then there's Garmin Connect IQ which has the app store and customizations for watch faces. I'm used to having my attention split across two different apps because I've been reviewing Garmin watches for a few years now, but if you're coming to the ecosystem for the first time, be prepared for a learning curve when getting to know where all the features live.

Third-party apps are also somewhat limited compared to the comprehensive list available for Apple Watch, Galaxy Watch or Pixel Watch owners. There's Spotify, Deezer and Amazon Music support for listening to stored songs, as well as popular options like Strava and TrainingPeaks for fitness enthusiasts. The Vivoactive 5 is also missing an electrocardiogram (ECG) and irregular heart rhythm notifications, features you get on the Apple Watch, Galaxy Watch and Pixel Watch.

Garmin Vivoactive 5 battery life

I wore the watch for four full days before I needed to charge. I had the always-on display activated, did a few 30-minute workouts using GPS and tracked sleep in that time. The Apple Watch SE, Apple Watch Series 9, Galaxy Watch 6 and Pixel Watch 2 struggle to reach half that runtime under the same conditions. 

Garmin also claims you can get 11 days out of the Vivoactive 5 if you use it in smartwatch mode. That means turning off the always-on and not using GPS or much workout tracking at all.

Garmin Vivoactive 5

Exercise shortcuts on the Vivoactive 5.

Lexy Savvides/CNET

Almost all the best Garmin features for less cash

Get the Vivoactive 5 if you need a fitness-focused watch with a gorgeous screen that can give you great insights into your sleep, training and activity levels. It's an excellent alternative to the Apple Watch, Galaxy Watch and Pixel Watch if you're looking for more in-depth coaching and insights into your fitness – and you don't mind missing out on an ECG, speaker and microphone.

Is it enough to sway iPhone buyers from the lure of the Apple Watch? It depends on whether battery life and fitness tracking are more important to you than the Apple Watch's comprehensive smartwatch experience. You could consider the least expensive Apple Watch SE for $249, which is $50 less than the Vivoactive 5 and comes with a speaker, microphone and a more premium feel than the Garmin. You just don't get anywhere close to the battery life offered on the Vivoactive 5.