Review: Why The Vivoactive HR is a Great Fitness Tracker (But Not Perfect)

By on August 27, 2016

warmup

Using a fitness tracker can be a great asset when it comes to monitoring your training, learning how your body works and getting a bit more tactical with the way you eat. Moreover, having some kind of running watch to track your runs is something I now wouldn’t do without. I’ll be talking more about the use of fitness trackers, how to get the most from them and whether you need one in a future post. But for now, I want to look at what I think is a great example of a fitness tracker: The Garmin VivoActive HR. After my Band 2 broke on me (again), I decided to try something different. And it brings a lot new to the table that demonstrates just how different two fitness bands can be.

Here’s my full written review…

Build and Design

Screenshot_20160822-105308

When I first got my hands on the Vivoactive Hr, I was actually a little disappointed. It feels a little flimsy and plasticky in the hands and the screen is very dim. Certainly a step down from the Microsoft Band 2 and also not half as clear as the promotional materials make it look. On the plus side, the full color display is a bit fancier than the Fitbit Surge and it’s nice that you can download custom watch faces too. It’s comfy enough as well, though a little on the large side to be truly practical.

Hardware and Features

But a fitness tracker should not be a fashion statement and this device has got it where it counts. For starters, it comes packed with all the sensors you might need, including the heartrate monitor, altimeter, compass, GPS, pedometer etc. and these allow you to track everything you’d expect such as your daily activity, your sleep quality and all manner of activities like running, swimming, cycling, weightlifting, skiing, walking and more.

While many of these features are fairly standard on fitness trackers these days, what I like about the Vivoactive HR is that nothing is left out. There are no compromises. For example, many devices like the Microsoft Band 2 and Fitbit Surge aren’t waterproof but the Vivoactive HR is safe up to 5 meters meaning you can swim with it.

Other devices leave out the GPS making them poor choices as running watches or they aren’t very good for weightlifting. The Gear Fit 2 for example doesn’t let you use the heartrate monitor during those kinds of workouts.

jog3

Continuing the trend of making no compromises, the Vivoactive HR also has a very impressive battery life that lasts up to 7 days on a single charge, even when you’re using the GPS and other things. GPS actually gets an upgrade too, seeing as it is capable of using Glonass to connect more quickly and securely. This is Garmin – better known for their Sat Navs – after all.

Something else I was looking for in my fitness tracker was activity autodetection. On a recent holiday, I was very impressed when I saw a friend’s Fitbit Surge detect that we were downhill biking automatically and that’s something I wanted. The Vivoactive offers this and so far has been pretty smart at spotting when I’ve gone for a walk or jog without telling it so that it can continuously update my AMR and use this in conjunction with My Fitness Pal to let me know how close I am to my calorie goal adjusting for every single walk or period of activity. Sleep tracking is entirely automated too.

All this is made possible thanks to that great heartrate sensor. While no wrist-worn heartrate sensor is going to be perfect, this one does take a lot of readings and seems to be at the front of the pack for accuracy and there is the option to pair it with a more accurate Garmin chest strap. More importantly, it uses smart update frequency, meaning that it won’t just check your heartrate once every 10 minutes regardless of what you’re doing. This what allows it to give that more accurate estimate of your calories burned throughout the day, without missing any quick runs to the shops or sexy pillow fights. For those who like tracking calories or macros, this makes a big difference and gives a much more reliable calculation.

jog

Software

Garmin collates all this data in a very comprehensive manner, giving you screens and screens to read through when you’re done training. I particularly enjoyed seeing my top speed, stride length and cadence after a run. That said, a few things are noticeably absent such as a score for overall sleep quality (it’s implicit, not explicit) or a VO2 max. And it’s particularly effective at motivating you to move too, thanks to a step target that adjusts to better suit your lifestyle and a ‘move bar’ that fills up the longer you remain inactive. The ‘streak’ of days where you meet your calorie goal is also clever – the OCD in you will want to work extra hard not to break your ‘streak’.

But where all that data falls down is in just how obtuse it is. Seriously, the Garmin Connect app looks like it was designed by someone on some hard drugs. Nothing is where you expect it to be. There are two separate ways to look at your sleep, which show different information. Calories burned are surprisingly hard to find both for each day and after a workout. It’s not a problem if you’re willing to go digging but it’s hardly intuitive and it’s a bit of a pain when even months later, you’re still struggling to remember where you need to go to find certain information.

stats

Also disappointing is how clearly aimed at runners the device is. While it does support weightlifting, it insists of telling you how much distance you’ve covered as the main metric when you finish a workout. And of course that figure is normally a fat zero, which isn’t highly motivating! It provides just as much information in this regard as the competition but it still feels a bit like an afterthought rather than one of its intended purposes.

What’s great about the software though is the smartwatch stuff. This is a fitness tracker first and smartwatch second but the ability to get notifications on your wrist is something I’d grown used to with the Microsoft Band and it’s nice to find it present and correct here. Better still are the number of different apps available to install, which can greatly expand the watch’s capabilities. These include music controls, a star gazing app, maps, a calculator, that missing VO2 metric and even Flappy Birds. It’s an absolutely rubbish version of Flappy Birds sure but it’s definitely neat for showing off what the device is capable of. And if you don’t see an app you’re looking for, you can always add your own with a little coding with Eclipse.

As a Daily Fitness Tracker

Since filming the video review, I’ve now had the Vivoactive HR for over a week and I can say I’m really enjoying it. The main thing for me is having all of my walks tracked and that has been enough to encourage me to actually start tracking my macros – leading to me hitting my protein target and keeping calories low each week. It’s motivating me to move more than Microsoft Band 2 as a result too! Having that battery life and waterproofing is great too.

But I do also really miss the better insights that Microsoft would draw from the Band. I miss being told whether my sleep was good or bad for restoration (instead of thinking ‘I guess that looks good…’) or what the cardio benefit was likely to be from each workout. Having to swipe through all my widgets to get to anything instead of having some kind of menu is also a nuisance.

vivoactive hr

Overall then, this is by no means a perfect device and the UI, screen brightness and build quality could all do with some work. But as a reliable way to track all kinds of fitness data for days on end without a charge, it’s quite possibly the best option with the fewest compromises right now.

Subscribe Below to Stay Up to Date!

Mailing List

About Adam Sinicki

Hi there! My name is Adam Sinicki, I'm an entrepreneur, psychology graduate and amateur bodybuilder interested in fitness, self improvement, technology and transhumanism. I run an online business (NQR Productions) which allows me to live the lifestyle I want: getting time to hit the gym and to work on my projects and apps. Stick around and I'll be sharing my experiments and adventures in brain training, bodybuilding, productivity, business and technology.