Garmin Vivoactive HR Review

I’ve had the pleasure of spending the last couple of weeks replacing my FitBit Charge HR with a new Garmin Vivoactive HR.  While the Charge HR suited most of my needs it wasn’t quite 100% of the way there.  I still needed a GPS watch for runs, which I could have accomplished by staying in the FitBit universe with the Surge though.  I also wanted to start tracking swimming, which the Surge wouldn’t have accomplished.  But would I be trading one set of problems for another?  Here’s the good, not-so-good, bad, and ugly of my experiences with the Vivoactive HR.

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The Good

  1. By far the biggest improvement of the Vivoactive HR compared to the Charge is the distance tracking.  With a GPS unit it has more data that it can capture than the HR could.  Yes, the Surge, would have been able to do that too but this has other Garmin-specific features for tuning stride length, and other parameters.  It also includes altitude tracking via pressure changes as well as GPS.
  2. The smart-watch integration is really awesome too.  I get notifications of calls like before, but also text messages, news alerts, and other status messages.
  3. The calorie estimation is awesome.  This problem with calorie estimation is that it is invariable a combination of measurements and curve fits from statistical data captured on a “general” person or group of people.  In the case of the FitBit this led to a 150-200 calorie over-estimation every day.  One of the things I was hoping for in this watch was that it had a version of the formula used in the Garmin Forerunner 110 that I own which allows you to adjust the computation using a 10-point scale factor.  In fact, it does have this feature and by default it’s much simpler three position interface (sedentary, moderately active, very active) has been nailing my calorie estimates.  The ability to adjust that within bounds is indispensible for the tuning
  4. The heart rate monitor works as well or better than the Charge HR’s did.  I do seem to get some drop outs where I didn’t get it in the FitBit, but I can’t tell if that’s in the real data or if that’s because Garmin is outputing the data with finer granularity.
  5. The step counting is spot on the FitBit unit’s for real motion, however it is improved upon it with regard to “phantom” motion.  While the Charge was much better than the FitBit Flex, it still tended to overcount in some activities.   I don’t seem to have that problem.  This unit also doesn’t have the artifact of oddly overcounting stairs climbed like the FitBit unit did.
  6. Watch faces are pretty cool, and there is an API for it which allowed me to make my own custom one to fit my needs exactly.
  7. The battery is outstanding so far.  I lose less than 10% per day, which would technically give it a 9-day life.  I don’t let it drain more than a day at a time though. While that may be from having a larger battery, the charge time is actually shorter than the FitBit Charge HR’s is for the same amount of drain.
  8. The watch has a built in optical heart rate monitor but it isn’t going to be as solid as an electrical based chest or arm strap. Luckily the watch is able to link with any ANT+ compliant strap (along with other ANT+ devices).  That means that for runs I can slap on the chest strap and get the high fidelity
  9. I love the movement alarm, which vibrates your hand if you stay sedentary for too long.  It includes a progress bar of sort to gradually warn greater and greater.  I always wished there was that feature on the FitBit devices.

The Pretty Good

  1. Sleep tracking has a lot more detail than the FitBit one did.  I can actually see types of sleep that I’m undergoing and overlay a chart of motion on top of that.  That really comes in handy, but unfortunately their sleep tracking algorithm has a harder time breaking out when I’m just laying down versus when I’m sleeping.
  2. Swim tracking is something I don’t have familiarity with, so I don’t know how well it is supposed to work.  Garmin has a premium triathlete watch that costs substantially more which has lap and open water swim algorithms.  It is really top notch on that, but it costs $350 instead of $250 and it’s not really meant as an all day fitness tracker like this is.  It seems that the accuracy is hit or miss on the lap counting.  When I look at the graphs once I got home they were all in line, in terms of number of strokes for a given time period and the number of laps.  But while I was actually swimming there would be laps that wouldn’t register and then laps that got counted twice.  I guess it all works out in the end but it’s odd that it isn’t consistent.
  3. Speaking of consistency, it seems that the Connect website and watch seem to have distance estimates of distances and calories even though the step count was 100% accurate.  These weren’t massive differences, but you’d think that with it using the exact same algorithms and being totally synced up that they would have no difference at all.
  4. The resting heart rate calculation is really good, but I’m not sure whether I like it more than FitBit’s.  When I first used the resting heart rate feature from FitBit I had assumed that it would take the minimum sustained heart rate and make that the resting heart rate.  Instead it does something else, which makes it trend with that value but not in a direct way.  Garmin on the other hand does exactly what I thought would happen.  What that means then is that there is a several BPM difference between the two systems.  I’ll account for that in my logs of that value.

The Bad

  1. One of the things I really liked about FitBit was the ability to create community and some healthy competition with friends.  Unfortunately this watch is tracking all kinds of position information, especially during outdoor activities.  While I certainly don’t mind close friends seeing that information, I’m not comfortable having casual acquaintances see it.  I’m certainly not okay with having perfect strangers being able to figure out where I am and at what times.  Since competition is really about raw numerical metrics I should be able to control who sees the GPS values at a per-user level or at least be able to turn it off altogether.
  2. When I bought the watch I had assumed I’d have some mechanism for tracking heart rate during the swim.  From early reviews it was clear that the watch itself wasn’t going to be able to but they had anticipated being able to link it to an ANT+ swimming heart rate sensor.  Upon release it appears that feature was removed.  Oh well it got me 95% of the way towards what I was looking at and it’s simply a problem with the sensor not being able to work in the water, or was it?  I’ve done some personal experimentation with swimming with the heart rate sensor on (casual swimming not lap swimming) and I have no problems getting good heart rate data in the pool.  I intend to try it out on a lap swim, simply forgoing getting lap data for that workout.  It seems that Garmin really should provide the option of turning on the sensor during swimming, and really should look at getting the heart rate data into the Connect workout somehow even if not directly through the watch.
  3. The Garmin ecosystem has what seems like dozens of activities.  That includes things like “wingsuit flying” and “skate skiing.”  Yet somehow they haven’t figured out that people may want to do some more mundane activities like yoga, going to an aerobics class, or elliptical training.  Luckily I can set aerobics (I think that’s indoor cardio but I’m not sure) and elliptical (they have that explicitly) on the Connect website.  However “yoga” or “pilates” which really don’t fit into any of those categories just has to go into an “Uncategorized” bin.

The Ugly

  1. I covered sleep tracking generally, and it does okay there, but nap tracking on the other hand is a complete disaster.  One thing I marveled at with the Charge HR was it’s ability to track my sleep on its own.  I could be vegging out on the couch for a few hours watching TV and it catches the forty-five minutes I happened to nap in the middle.  I didn’t have to enter it or prompt it or anything.  Worst case if it didn’t nail it I could go in and edit it.  The Garmin system has no such ability.  There is a “nap” field in the sleep category, which supposedly is activated by putting the watch in “do not disturb” mode but that’s as close as it comes.  Unfortunately not even that is working. While it is possible to edit the sleep tracked during the evening, if you didn’t track a nap it is impossible to do so after the fact.  The sleep tracking algorithms need a lot of work.
  2. The Garmin Connect ecosystem is an island, unlike FitBit’s. FitBit has it’s own problems with getting data out, but they have invested in integrating with other systems like RunKeeper, Withings, et cetera.  Garmin will integrate with MyFitnessPal but that’s it.  Which means that it is really  impossible to get an end-to-end integration of nutrient and fitness tracking.  Even something as simple as getting weight imported is impossible.  I looked at maybe working on some integration software but they want $5000 just to get access to their development API for that (versus the free access for ConnectIQ SDK and Wellness API). I’ll pass.
  3. I had hoped that perhaps Apple HealthKit would be my savor to fix problem #2.  Their iOS app supposedly reads lots of data from HealthKit, as well as writes a lot out.  That includes stuff like weight, calories consumed, activities, steps, et cetera.  They definitely have sleep and step logging down but it goes downhill quickly from there.  The weight integration doesn’t work at all.  They may be able to push out but they don’t read from it.  Since I have my scale pushing the data up automatically this is a big fail.  Their weight tracking doesn’t even include percent body fat. Another fail.  Their activity logging is equally broken.  It seems to only track activity for the current day.  When the new day rolls around it deletes the previous day’s data and starts writing the new one.
  4. The community aspect to FitBit was really awesome.  They have similar features, in terms of challenges and what not, but with fewer people in it it’s harder to do.  What’s worse is that because there is no way to shut off sharing location data it’s impossible for me to join.
  5. Dates can be complicated, I get that.  What time zone should it be tracking in?  That’s obvious if you never go anywhere but what happens when you switch time zones?  They solve that by having you log workouts in a specific timezone. Unfortunately they then lock it to GMT time unless you change it.  That’s easy enough.  However when you look to graph your workouts it is writing the GMT time as a local time.  So, for example, if you workout at noon one day and look at the graph it will show your workout happening at 5 pm instead.  All the heart rate and motion data will be right, but the graph icons will show the activity five hours off.  The same is true for showing the activity time.  If they are going through all the trouble of adding time zone handling they should make sure it is actually used all over.

Conclusion

Obviously the good outweigh the bad on this one. I’m incredibly pleased with this purchase.  The problems that Garmin does have I think are all software related and if they listen to their customers may be easily addressable.  If you are looking for a full featured health tracker that can even be used for swimming I recommend it based on my experiences so far.

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