Garmin Vivoactive 3 review: The perfect sports-orientated smartwatch?

Garmin Vivoactive 3’s predecessor – the Vivoactive HR – was a great multisport watch; so good, in fact, that I went out and bought myself one. It isn’t the prettiest-looking thing, but it excels at tracking a range of activities, it supports external sensors, including external heart-rate monitors and cycling speed and cadence sensors, and it has outstanding battery life; essentially, everything you might want in a multisport smartwatch. 

The Vivoactive 3 represents a significant departure from its predecessor – in a good way. First, it has a traditional round watch face but, more importantly, it also feels much lighter and less chunky than the bulky, rectangular Vivoactive HR, which is uncomfortable when sleeping.

Garmin has also added a host of new features including the option to make contactless payments via Garmin Pay (although no UK banks are supported as yet), a new and improved heart rate sensor, stress tracking, plus estimates for your VO2 max and fitness age. In fact, the only feature that’s missing and that can be found on Samsung’s Gear Sport and the Apple Watch series 3 is on-device music playback, although Garmin is addressing this shortcoming with its forthcoming Garmin Forerunner 645.

[gallery:5]Overall, the Vivoactive 3 improves on an already excellent device in almost every measurable way, making it a stonkingly good fitness-orientated smartwatch. Because it’s already dropped in price, to only £240, it’s a shoo-in for a Recommended award.

Garmin Vivoactive 3 review: Features and performance

The Garmin Vivoactive 3 tracks most of your activities automatically. At the most basic level, this means it counts your steps, staircases climbed and calories burned throughout the day. It also constantly logs your heart rate (at one-second intervals) and tracks your sleep during the night, highlighting how much deep and light sleep you get.

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If you’re active for more than ten minutes, the watch’s Move IQ algorithms can also detect activity patterns such as walking, running, cycling, swimming and elliptical training, and log them in the calendar of the Garmin Connect mobile app.

The chances are, though, if you’re thinking of buying this watch, you’re probably interested in the more detailed data it can offer during and after manually tracked activities. It’s here that the Vivoactive 3 comes into its own. It has dedicated apps for everyday activities, including running, cycling, walking and pool swimming, and others for more specialist pursuits such as indoor fitness machines, golf, skiing, snowboarding and even paddle boarding. To launch any of these, all you need to do is press the button on the watch’s side and select from a list.

When tracking activities with GPS, I found the watch worked very well. It picked up a GPS lock fairly quickly, logged distance accurately and swiping between screens to view different metrics including heart rate, pace and time was extremely simple.

Moreover, the Vivoactive 3’s optical heart rate sensor is the most accurate I’ve used on a wrist-based fitness tracker, recording maximum and average heart rates almost identical to those measured with a Garmin chest strap I wore at the same time. Unfortunately, the heart rate sensor doesn’t work when you’re swimming but you can add this capability by pairing with a waterproof ANT+ or Bluetooth Smart chest strap like the Garmin HRM+SWIM. For more detailed and accurate insights into bike rides, you can also connect it with Garmin’s speed and cadence sensors, but it doesn’t work with power meters.[gallery:4]

Like its predecessor, the Vivoactive 3 has excellent battery life and it outpunches most of its smartwatch competitors in this regard. In fact, if you don’t enable GPS, the can lasts up to six days, and Garmin claims it’ll track 13 hours of solid activity (with GPS) between charges. It also charges quicker than many of its competitors, going from empty to full in just over an hour, so you can easily give it enough juice to get you through a 5k run in just twenty minutes.

Garmin Vivoactive 3 review: Design

The Vivoactive 3 won’t win any design awards but it’s a significant improvement compared with the Vivoactive HR. It’s 5g lighter than its predecessor, which might not sound like much but the more significant change is that the watch feels much less bulky on the wrist.

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This is in no small part due to the fact that the new and improved optical heart rate sensor is almost entirely flush with the watch casing, where the older model’s sensor protruded significantly. This means it sits both closer to and more comfortably on your wrist and, when wearing a jumper or long-sleeve shirt, I often completely forgot I was even wearing it.[gallery:3]

The watch’s touchscreen display is now also round rather than rectangular, making it resemble a traditional timepiece more than a fitness tracker. There’s now only one button located on the side (along with a touch-sensitive panel on the opposite edge), and this performs a number of different duties depending on the screen you’re looking at and whether you hold it down or tap it. Unfortunately, the 1.2in, 240 x 240-resolution LCD is no match for the brilliant displays that adorn the Apple Watch and Samsung Gear Sport, but it’s a practical choice.

Not only is it power-efficient enough to always remain on but it can also be easily read in bright sunlight without a backlight. The touchscreen is also protected by Corning Gorilla Glass 3 glass, so it should be resistant to scuffs and scratches.

The strap supplied with the Vivoactive 3 is also better than the one on the Vivoactive HR. It’s more comfortable and caters for a wider range of wrist sizes without you needing to order an XL version. If you think it looks too plain you can swap it for anything that uses a 20mm strap fitting. In another nice touch, you can also flip the watch’s screen so you can wear it on either wrist with the button on facing the direction of your choice.
Finally, the charging port has also received an upgrade. The cable no longer requires a clip to hold it in place, instead snapping directly into a simple four-pin port on the rear of the watch casing, which makes connecting and disconnecting it quick and simple.

Without doubt, the new design is a resounding success. My only criticism is that I found some widgets and apps were actually better suited to the Vivoactive HR’s rectangular display. Obviously, all these have been carefully redesigned for the Vivoactive 3, but try reading an email or text message, for example, and you’ll see the beginning and ends of words getting chopped off, except when they’re viewed right in the middle section of the screen.[gallery:2]

Garmin Vivoactive 3 review: Widgets/Garmin Connect

Not a huge amount has changed with the Vivoactive 3 when it comes to apps and widgets. As before, you swipe up or down from the watch face to view summaries for My Day, Steps, Intensity Minutes, Last Sport, Weather, Notifications, Music Controls (which controls your phone’s music app), Floors, Heart Rate and Stress.

Most of these widgets are found on the Vivoactive HR, with the exception of the stress level widget, which uses the optical heart rate sensor to measure your heart rate variability throughout the day (when you’re resting). If you’re seeing continually elevated stress levels, this is a good indicator that you’ve been exercising too much and need to take it easy.

The notifications widget has also been improved in the sense that you can now use it to send canned responses to text messages, provided you have an Android phone. Similar replies can also be sent when an incoming call flashes up on screen, which is very handy if you’re out running and can’t answer a call.To see the most detailed insights into your activities and fitness, it’s always best to use the Garmin Connect mobile app. It’s recently been given a major overhaul and to cover everything it does would require a totally separate review. However, the important thing to say here is that it works very well indeed. Synchronisation takes place instantly whenever you open the app and, after you’ve used the watch for a few days, there will be heaps of data to sink your teeth into.

Garmin Vivoactive 3 review: Verdict

It might sound stupid but one of my favourite things about the Vivoactive 3 is just how comfortable and discreet it is. Despite being packed with all the great features you’d expect from a top-level multisport watch, it doesn’t have the substantial heft that so many do – I’m looking at you Samsung Gear Sport – and at times you’ll forget you’re even wearing it.

[gallery:6]Despite its sleek design, though, the Vivoactive 3 tracks practically every activity you could want (although some might be disappointed there’s no open-water swimming app) and has the best optical heart rate sensor I’ve tested in a wrist-borne tracker.

Significantly, it also has outstanding battery life and at a discounted price of £240 is incredibly good value for money. The only thing missing, as mentioned above, is any kind of music playback, although now Garmin looks to be adding this feature to its next wave of Forerunner watches, that complaint could soon be a thing of the past.

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