Friday, May 22, 2015

Review: Garmin Vivoactive

Last year, I bought, tested, and returned the Garmin Vivofit.  While it was a reasonable device for the people who are looking to start exercising or otherwise return to fitness, it wasn't a suitable product for someone like me. When prices dropped this year, however, I bought 2 for my parents to replace the pedometers that had been very flakey for them. The Vivofit was an ideal product for them: it didn't need to be recharged, and sync'ing to their PC was a matter of pushing a button and waiting while Garmin Express picked up and uploaded to the cloud. Even better, they didn't need to sync more than once every week or so, and the product would survive being worn 24x7, so they didn't get a chance to forget to put it on. It would even survive being washed in the laundry!

While buying the Vivofits, however, I noticed that Garmin had launched the Vivoactive, a product much more suited for someone like me. Since my brother had a birthday incoming, I bought him one, despite his skepticism. (My brother is an Apple iPhone user, and a first-round Kickstarter backer of the first generation Pebble Smartwatch) Upon receiving the Vivoactive, he was so positive about it that he'd asked my other brother for a full suite of Garmin Bike Sensors for his birthday. It immediately replaced his Pebble, and got him to track his cycling and steps/day as well. (He once had an Edge 305, but never replaced it once the battery died)

With that level of enthusiasm, I bought one for myself with the help of a Best Buy coupon. If you know me, I'm as cheap as they come. When I told one of my friends that he was as cheap as I was, he said he didn't know whether he should have felt complimented or offended. To get an idea of why the Vivoactive is such a good value, consider that it converges/replaces the following products all at once:
  • Garmin Swim ($150): stroke tracking, lap counting, swim timer
  • Garmin Vivosmart ($150): Step tracking, sleep tracking, smartphone notifications, ant+ bike sensor and hrm pairing, VIRB action camera control, auto-sync
  • Garmin Edge 200 ($130): Cycling GPS (no barometer, no sensor pairing)
  • Garmin Approach S2 ($190): Golf GPS. I'm not a golfer, so no comment.
  • Garmin Forerunner 220 ($200): Running GPS with foot pod pairing and accelerometer for indoor training.
No normal human will make use of all the features of the Vivoactive (I don't know anyone in the intersection of Golf+Cycling), but if you do 2 of the above activities, the Vivoactive will provide more than sufficient coverage. Since I swim twice a week, cycle 4-6 days a week, and hike about once a week or so, I'd extract quite a bit of value out of it. Against that is that I already have an Edge 800 which works pretty well. The Edge also has a barometer, which makes it much more accurate for measuring elevation and cycling worthy bragging features like elevation gained during a ride, and the current gradient, though latter bonks at grades much steeper than 16%, making it worthless for the truly brag-worthy rides.

So how does the Vivoactive work out in real life? The first feature you notice when you power it on is the always-on watch display. If you're lifelong watch-wearer, then this wouldn't seem like a big deal. But I hadn't worn a watch since I was 21, and the first time I saw someone wearing an Apple Watch I thought it was broken or the battery had run down because the screen was blank. It wasn't until the person stooped to pick up something and the display flashed on that I realized that it was a power saving feature to blank the screen. I'm happy to say that the Vivoactive serves as a watch just fine, with a white-on-black default display for time, date, and current charge status. It's not flashy and doesn't call attention to itself, but it's thin and robust, and you don't have to use an exaggerated motion of the wrist in order to tell time.

One interesting thing about sync'ing it to my PC is that my version of Garmin Express was old, and hadn't updated itself (I didn't realize that it didn't do that). When I plugged in my Vivoactive, it got confused and led me down a garden path trying to sync with it until I realized the problem and upgraded it. After that it was a snap, downloading and installing new firmware onto my Vivoactive quickly and easily.

The Vivoactive came charged to 92%, so I immediately went and took it for a ride, pairing it with my bike's sensors, heart-rate monitor and running an Edge 800 in parallel, so I could see the results. Here's the Vivoactive track, and here's the Edge 800 track. You can see that with the exception of elevation data, both tracks are essentially indistinguishable from each other. What you can't see, is that the Vivoactive was much faster at satellite lockon and booting up than the Edge 800! Brad Silverberg had raved to me on Facebook about how quickly GLONASS+GPS locked on, and I hadn't realized how quick it was until I did the back-to-back comparison against the Garmin Edge. Let's just say that while I could keep the Edge 800 confused for half a minute by cycling quickly during the boot up phase, I could not keep the Vivoactive confused for even 5 seconds. Even more importantly, because the Vivoactive is an "always on" watch, there's no boot up period! Even before you can select the "Bike" function and push the start button, the GPS function has already turned on and satellite tracking has started!

Even more importantly, the display, albeit small compared to the Edge, was crisper, brighter, and more readable in direct sunlight! It beats the Edge 800 by a mile in that regard. In fact, I'll go as far as to say that it beats my 2-year old Basic Kindle, which of course outperformed any color screen in daylight until the Vivoactive came along. I don't have a Paperwhite to compare it with, unfortunately. By the way, you'll read about how difficult to read the display is indoors on Amazon reviews. I call bollocks. It's actually far easier than any of the traditional watches I've ever seen!

If you turn on GPS+GLONASS, your battery life isn't going to be anywhere the 10 hours claimed by Garmin for GPS tracking. But overall, the Vivoactive more than holds its own against my Edge, with the exception of elevation, where it's within about 5%.

Next-up, hiking/walking. I'll note that if you have an Edge unit, you can buy a (relatively) cheap wrist-strap, stick your Edge on it, and use it to track your hikes. I've done that in the past for hikes, but it's not as satisfactory in that you don't get pace data, nor do you get the step counter functionality (which runs in the background!). Again, with GLONASS+GPS, you can even see where I cheated and cut across the parking lot at the end of the hike. The Vivoactive is also much more comfortable to wear on your wrist than any of the Garmin Edge units, which are thick, bulky, and aren't really intended to be worn so you have to tilt your head a bit to read them.

Swimming: I did a swimming workout and discovered to my disappointment that the device doesn't actually attempt to figure out what swim stroke you're using, which Garmin Swim does. What it did do a good job with, however, is to provide a stroke count, time per lap, and lap count. (The latter is useful because swimming is so boring that I swim with headphones and music, and occasionally would lose count and forget to switch to the next segment of my workout) Reviewing the data from the session, I could clearly see the kick-board laps, and it was fairly easy to see when I was using the crawl vs the backstroke, breast-stroke, etc. So while stroke detection would have been nice (which to be fair Garmin Swim does do), it's not necessary. If I was a more serious swimmer I'd try to improve my times, etc. But much like the Vivoactive, I'm a jack-of-all-trades and master of none.

Now, Open-Water Swim is explicitly not a feature of the Vivoactive, but I tried it anyway, since I was in an outdoor pool by using walking mode. The results are as you might expect: with only intermittent GPS pickup (yes, I had GLONASS on as well), the track jumps all over the place and the errors are huge. On the other hand, it's better than nothing, and you do get what seems to be a reasonable mileage reading at the end. Note that while Swim mode turns off the touch screen, walking mode doesn't, and that can cause weird things to happen due to water splashes. On the other hand, since the start/stop button is a physical one, you can't accidentally lose data due to the water splashes.

As far as smart-watch notifications are concerned, they're actually surprisingly useful, especially when cycling. I'm used to ignoring my smartphone's various noises while cycling, though I do stop to take calls when I'm not wearing a bluetooth headset. It's very nice to see e-mails/texts flow through to the watch, glance at them, and then let them disappear, knowing that it's nothing urgent. This is one feature that's surprisingly useful whether you're driving, cycling, or even in the middle of the hike. What I did not test is the music control functionality. That's because when hiking, I use a bluetooth headset which has physical buttons for controls, and that's just going to be better than any touch screen. The same applies while driving. While you can click through on a notification and read the e-mail or text message, you can't reply on the Vivosmart. For that, you'd have to pull out the phone, which I think is a perfectly acceptable approach.

As an activity tracker,  the device works as well as the Vivofit. What's nice is the automatic sync'ing via smartphone. Of course, this leaves me with a dilemna, since the Edge 800's data is definitive, but doesn't get sync'd more than once a week, while the Vivofit's data is always up to date, but has suspect elevation data. Given the convenience, however, I am very tempted to use the Vivofit's data and just not ever sync my Edge 800, using it as an on-board display, and an odometer for each bike, which is something the Vivoactive doesn't do. (Neither does the follow-on Edge 810, for that matter!) The Vivoactive (like the Vivofit, Vivofit 2, and the Vivosmart), nags you every hour to walk about 100 steps or so in order to stay active. The vibration is subtle and not aggressive, but it's there and the red-bar is very much guilt-inducing, so if you tend to sit a lot (and what Software Engineer doesn't), that's a good feature. I was previously using Moves, and running both the Vivosmart and the app confirms what I've long suspected: Moves systematically under-counts steps and miles cycled. Since Moves got bought by Facebook, the app has not been updated and I suspect the server-side applications will probably be killed before long, just like Friendfeed was. The competing app Google Fit gets crappy reviews even from ex-Googlers, explaining why FitBit, for instance has been so successful that it will soon file for an IPO.

As a sleep tracker, the data is nice, but I'm not sure what to do with it. In combination with my CPAP machine, however, I now have more data than I know what to do with. The only thing I'm missing now is an oxymeter, which has already been proven to be remarkably worthless for someone like me.

The battery life is acceptable. With 3 hours of hiking, 2 hours of cycling (all with GLONASS+GPS on), an hour of swimming, and 2 days of sleep tracking and activity tracking, the battery was down to 40% after 2 days. I expect the battery life to be better with GLONASS off. The battery charges from 40% to 99% in about 90 minutes from a computer's USB port.

As far as comparison with other devices are concerned, the obvious one is the Garmin Fenix 3. This offers most of the features of the Vivoactive, plus Openwater Swim, Triathlon mode, a real barometer, a compass, climbing mode, and a skiing/snowboarding mode. Of course, at twice the price ($500, $600 for the super-tough sapphire version), you literally pay for it. It's also much thicker, heavier, and bulkier. While the barometer is nice, elevation data isn't very accurate if the unit's thermometer is next to your skin, since to get correct elevation you need accurate air temperature. So if you want a reliable temperature you need to also pick up the Tempe sensor, which is also compatible with the Vivoactive. From my perspective, I think Garmin lost an opportunity by not selling an external barometer/temperature sensor for the Vivoactive.

The inevitable comparison  is with the Apple Watch. Here in Silicon Valley, I've already seen many people walking around with those blank screens attached to their wrists. But that's a function of Apple marketing much more than anything else. If the two products had their parent companies swapped, I'm pretty sure the features of the Vivoactive would be touted as revolutionary (week-long battery life, thinner, swim tracking, 50m water resistance, GPS+GLONASS that doesn't depend on your phone) while folks would be making fun of the Apple Watch (wearing a thicker blank screen? Having to charge every day so it can't even do sleep tracking?). But that is what it is. Despite next to zero marketing from Garmin, my local REI (in Silicon Valley!) reports that their black Vivoactives (sans heart rate monitors) sell out as soon as they come in, and that they only have the white ones in stock. So it does seem that the outdoors people do understand and value the product, even while the tech press (and the outdoor press, as far as I can tell!) has basically ignored the Vivoactive.

Regardless, the Vivoactive comes highly recommended. The value and functionality this product represents are pretty much unbeatable. Even if you're not a watch wearer (I wasn't), you might consider this product as worthy of possibly changing your mind. As mentioned above, if you use any 2 of the functions the Vivoactive supports regularly, you'll get your money's worth (and then some --- there's significant value to convergence into a package that's smaller than every one of the products the Vivoactive replaces). The only folks I can think of who would be unhappy with the product are the ones who use Windows Phones and hence lose out on the smartwatch features, but even for those folks, having to sync the device manually through a PC might be worth the trouble if they're regular swimmers.

Further reading: DC Rainmaker's In-Depth Review
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