Friday, December 26, 2014

Review: Garmin Vivofit Fitness Tracker

Fitness trackers are strange devices for me. On the one hand, the intended audience is meant for the people who aren't very fit trying to get fit. On the other hand, the casual folks aren't likely to pay the premium those devices charge over simpler pedometers such as the Ozeri Tri-axis. For instance, I can't imagine getting my parents to sync one of those fitness bands to a smartphone, assuming they even owned a smartphone that was compatible.

On top of that, most of these devices either don't have displays, or aren't water-proof, or both! If you're actually fit, and swim, bike, or do anything interesting, none of the Fitbit or smartwatch products are really usable for you.

Well, Garmin's an exception. Garmin's bike computers survive numerous bike tours, rainy rides, and all sorts of abuse I can heap on them. So I can trust Garmin. Indeed, when I first looked at the Garmin Vivofit a year ago, I was impressed. The device is rated for 5 ATM, which means that swimming or snorkeling (provided you're not diving deep) would be ok, but not diving. Yes, watch ratings are very misleading. What caused me to hold off was the insane price of $130. I'm reasonably confident that my daily activity level is high enough that any activity measurement for me falls into the "nice to have" category, rather than "must have."

Fast forward a year, and the price is now much more reasonable, around $70 or so on Amazon. That's still about 5 times the cost of an Ozei pedometer, but unlike those, this can actually be used while swimming and cycling without going crazy. Also, I've already had to return one of the Ozeris which broke, while my track record with Garmin units is usually much better. I also considered the VivoSmart, which is nice in that it syncs with cycling sensors, but at $170, is a bit rich, and also has the problem that unlike the Vivofit, it needs to be charged.

Getting the unit set up is easy enough. Select the strap (it comes in 2 sizes), put the device in, strap it on the wrist (don't forget the clasp protector!), and then put it into pairing mode with your phone after downloading the Garmin connect app. The device will only pair to one user at a time, and if you trade users it resets the device to zero. If you don't have a compatible smartphone, the device comes with a USB dongle that lets a PC sync with the Vivofit. I've tried syncing both on the PC and a smartphone and in both cases it's easy and fast.

Now, you might expect the device to automatically sync, but rather, you need to manually sync your Vivofit every so often. Garmin claims that it'll store up to 2 weeks of data, so in theory you only need to do it every 2 weeks. Unfortunately, on my very second day of syncing I triggered a bug which lost an entire's day activity. Not a big deal as it hasn't happened again, but my advice for you is to sync early and sync often. I'm not sure how frequent syncing would affect battery life, but even if it dropped from the projected 1 year to 6 months it still wouldn't be a major tragedy.

The pedometer part of the device works well. For instance, it tracks steps even if you're pushing a stroller or a shopping cart, which I have expected it not to do. It does a reasonable job of eliminating false positives, though I have noticed it giving me about 20-100 extra steps while driving. The strangest thing is that swimming using the crawl and breast strokes doesn't register, while the backstroke and duck diving do register. Cycling on a smooth flat road with a smooth cadence doesn't register, while hammering with upper body motion or standing up on a climb do register steps. It would have been nice if Garmin would register step-equivalents while swimming, but as I said above, fitness trackers aren't really designed for those of you who are actually fit!

The device pairs with the Garmin Heart Rate monitor, and one nice feature is that if you do have a Garmin bike computer, both the bike computer and the Vivofit will receive the data from the same HRM. This bodes well for the VivoSmart, since you would expect the same would be true of the speed and cadence sensors.

By far the best feature of the Vivofit (and the VivoSmart has the same feature) is the red inactivity bar. If you don't move for an hour or so, the red bar would start to fill up, and you would have to get up and walk for about 200 steps to make that bar go away. This is very  useful even for those of you who are already fit, since it eliminates blocks of inactivity during the day, which has been shown to be fairly harmful to your body. The difference between the Vivofit and the VivoSmart is that the latter will actually vibrate to let you know, while the former needs you to actually glance at it once in a while to notice the red bar. For the $90 difference between the unit and the occasional annoyance with a vibration waking you up in the middle of the night, I'd stay with the Vivofit.

The other functions of the device is that it serves as a watch (but it's not a backlit screen, so you'd still be pulling out your phone at night), provides the date, shows you calories burned, and also provides a goal to keep you walking more and more each day. The goal-setting service is set up for a fairly inactive person, ramping up from 7500 steps per day. It also tracks sleep, but the software and website doesn't provide you with any help in interpreting the sleep data, and it's a bit of a bother to put the device into sleep mode before going to sleep, so my guess is in the long run, this feature wouldn't get used much.

All in all, this (and the Vivosmart) is probably the only fitness tracker you should bother with if you swim, bike, or otherwise use a Garmin HRM. It's robust, waterproof, has ridiculously good battery life, and provides reasonably good functionality. If someone else came out with one that figured out what to do about swimming it'd be even better, but for the moment this is the device to beat. Unfortunately for me, it's not suitable for me (and I don't really need a fitness tracker anyway), so it's going back to Amazon.

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