This is an in-depth review of the Garmin Vivoactive HR GPS Smart Watch. This best-selling fitness tracker is a four-in-one device: an activity tracker; a sleep tracker; a smart watch with notifications; and a GPS device to track your bike rides, runs, or hikes. As such, it is an ideal fitness and activity tracker for dedicated athletes, particularly athletes who usually exercise outdoors, and athletes who do a variety of sports. For example, it would be an incredibly helpful tool for a triathlete. It is also an extremely handy fitness tracker for a cyclist, given that it has a built-in GPS and heart rate monitor, so that you don’t need to carry any other equipment (not even a phone) when recording a ride.
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Garmin Vivoactive HR: A Fitness Tracker for Serious Athletes
The Garmin Vivoactive HR is a chunky watch, and is a serious fitness tool – certainly not a fashion accessory. It is very clear what it is: it is a fitness tracker for serious athletes. This is why many people believe that fitness trackers such as the Fitbit Charge 2 are for weekend warriors, while the Garmin Vivoactive HR is intended for serious, dedicated athletes who do a lot of activities, and do them every day, or almost every day (rest days are good too!).
As compared to the average Fitbit, the advantages that the Garmin Vivoactive HR offers include being totally waterproof, and also being useful for more sports, including indoor cycling, indoor swimming, snow sports, hiking, running, cycling, and golf.
Which Sports Can You Record with a Garmin Vivoactive HR?
One of the strengths of the Garmin Vivoactive HR is the wide range of sports you can use it for. The full list of preset sports on the Garmin Vivoactive HR is: Run, Bike, Pool Swim, Golf, Walk, Row, SUP, Ski/Board/ XC Ski, Run Indoor, Bike Indoor, Walk Indoor, Row Indoor. You can also add new sports that you set up and define. This is a wider range than almost all other fitness trackers on the market.
Garmin Vivoactive HR: Fast Satellite Acquisition
The Garmin Vivoactive HR has on board one of the most important must-haves for many serious athletes: built-in GPS. This means you can record activities such as bike rides without having to take along your smart phone.
Also, it has both GPS and Glonass built in, for super-fast satellite signal pickup. I have used a lot of these devices, and this is one of the fastest GPS lock-ins I have ever seen.
What are GPS and GLONASS?
GPS and GLONASS are two different satellite systems – the GPS was developed by the USA, and the GLONASS is Russian. Glonass is the Russian GLObal NAVigation Satellite System. Communicating with both major satellite systems enables the Garmin Vivoactive HR to find satellites very quickly. When you choose to record a run, it will begin recording immediately if you are already locked into a GPS signal. However, if you are not, it will seek out a signal, and you must press the right hand button to start recording, once the signal is picked up. The good news is that this usually occurs within seconds. Often it seems to be almost immediate.
24/7 Heart Rate Monitoring
The Garmin Vivoactive HR also has on board the most other very important must-have for many serious athletes: a built-in optical heart rate monitor. This tracks your heart rate 24/7, for a really comprehensive record of activity and calorie expenditure (with the one exception that it does not measure your heart rate while you are swimming). This built-in heart rate monitor means you don’t have to wear a chest strap. Many athletes find these uncomfortable, and it also makes it impossible to record a spontaneous run or bike ride. You have to plan to be wearing a chest strap – it doesn’t just happen accidentally!
Of course, you can also access all your data and stats on a browser at https://connect.garmin.com/. Here too the interface has been hugely improved and modernized, making it good to look at and user friendly.
One of the strongest attractions of the Garmin Vivoactive HR is the beautiful big, color display that is super easy to read, especially in the sunshine. At any moment you can also engage the backlight by touching the screen.
On the other hand, it is not at all bright indoors – in contrast to an Apple watch, for example. It is the first activity tracker I have ever tested that is actually easier to see outdoors than indoors. This makes it great for outdoors exercise, but not so good for indoors exercise.
In general, you communicate with your Garmin Vivoactive HR with two buttons at the bottom, plus a responsive touchscreen. It’s easy, intuitive and responsive.
All of the athlete-friendly features make the Garmin Vivoactive HR very popular among serious athletes who exercise outdoors and swim.
The Garmin Vivoactive HR is not ideal for weekend warriors
The Garmin Vivoactive HR is a big watch, not a fashion statement, so it would not be a good choice for those who want a fashionable smart watch that also steps up to discretely track activities on the weekend. For that purpose, a fitness tracker such as the slim-line Fitbit Alta or the feature-rich Fitbit Charge 2 would be a better bet. The photo below compares the size of the Garmin Vivoactive HR to the larger Apple watch (42 mm). The Apple watch looks bigger, but to me it actually feels smaller when wearing it, possibly because it is slimmer. I wear a lot of button-down shirts, and find it easier to button my cuffs over the Apple watch than over a Garmin Vivoactive HR. The wrists shown here are both small wrists.
Using the Garmin Vivoactive HR GPS smart watch to record a bike ride
It is really simple and straightforward to record a bike ride on a Garmin Vivoactive HR, providing you remember that the left-hand button is Back, and the right-hand button is Menu/Go/Stop. This video shows how simple it is to operate this smart watch:
So to record a ride, you simply press the right-hand button, choose Bike on the touch screen, and press the right-hand button again. At this point, one of two things will happen: either a green arrow will pop up, and you press it and start going. The other thing that may happen is that you get the “Wait for GPS” message. You need to wait for it to lock in (seconds or micro-seconds), and then press the green arrow to start the timer. Make sure the timer is going, so as to be sure the tracking has started. At the end of the ride, just press the right-hand button and then press the red square that pops up. You then get the choice to save or discard the ride. If you choose to save it, it will upload the ride the next time the phone syncs. This happens automatically, so you don’t have to think about it.
Battery Life on the Garmin Vivoactive HR GPS smart watch
Battery life is excellent, averaging 5 days in my testing. I literally did not have to think about it. A small icon on the watch shows battery life, and I just plugged it in for an hour whenever it got very low.
How Hard is it to set up the Garmin Vivoactive HR GPS smart watch?
Setting up the Garmin Vivoactive HR GPS smart watch is really easy to do. Note that before setting up your Garmin Vivoactive HR, you must download the free Garmin Connect app to your phone. You can also do the setup on a computer, but I find it easier on a phone. Also, the Garmin Connect phone interface has been vastly improved, and is now a pleasure to use, and great to look at. The video below shows me unboxing and setting up the Garmin Vivoactive HR. It’s a short video, because it really is an easy process.
Bottom Line on the Garmin Vivoactive HR
This is an ideal fitness tracker for you if you say “Yes” to most or all of the questions below:
- Do you usually exercise outdoors?
- Do you do a variety of different sports?
- Do you like to track your bike rides and then be able to review all related data, including heart rate, speed and course?
- Do you want to have all your devices on your wrist, so you don’t want to have to wear a chest strap and carry a phone to record your activities?
- Do you want to have all your data available on a snappy interface (Garmin Connect)?
- Are you a really serious athlete?
- Are you comfortable wearing a large watch that is clearly a fitness tracker?
- Are you comfortable with a watch that has a fairly dim face indoors?
If you said Yes to most or all of the above, then you are likely to find what many others have found: that the Garmin Vivoactive HR is the best fitness tracker for you!
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