Garmin Vivosport review: A fine but fiddly tracker

Price when reviewed

I am, at the time of writing 59.4km, into my New Year’s Resolution of running 100km in January. This has been helpful for working through our stack of running watches awaiting review, with the disappointing Polar A370 accompanying for some of the journey; turn of the Garmin Vivosport.

Over the past five days, the Vivosport has been on my wrist for a whistlestop 23.4km tour of South London and has proved a dependable companion, nary getting a kilometre out of sync with its built-in GPS.

Despite being perfectly competent, though, it isn’t quite for me. Read on to find out why.

Garmin Vivosport review: Design[gallery:1]

The Vivosport is a largely inoffensive rubber band that sits around the wrist. Ours came with a luminous yellow stripe along the underside, but you can get it all in black if you want something more discrete. A buckle keeps the band firmly in place; no easily unpopped studs to worry about here.

It’s actually quite chunky, though, sticking out a good 10.9mm from the wrist. That may not sound like much but remember the iPhone X is 7.7mm thick and reconsider that perspective. In the Vivosport’s defence it does pack quite a lot into that frame, including both heart rate tracking and built-in GPS.

What it doesn’t do with this space is provide a very big screen. Indeed, the Vivosport’s colour memory-in-pixel display is a mere 9.7mm by 19.3mm – it’s a tiny window of data on an otherwise blank band. No doubt this helps with battery life, but it certainly makes things a bit more fiddly – especially when there are no physical buttons.

As I’ve said before, that’s a terrible design choice in a fitness tracker. Touchscreens don’t work well with water, and you’re extremely likely to get fitness trackers wet, unless you don’t use them for swimming, run in the rain or perspire at all.

Garmin Vivosport review: Performance[gallery:3]

That tiny screen and lack of buttons makes operating the Vivosport pretty awkward. You control the device with an arsenal of swipes, long-presses and double-taps on a screen only a bit bigger than the average adult’s index finger. These are a mixed back – tapping the back button is surprisingly effective, considering its small size, but I found the double-tap really inconsistent: which is annoying when you’re trying to make sure you activate as close to the starting gun as possible.

It also means that, although the backlight switches on admirably quickly at the lightest wrist tilt, you do need to be prepared to cycle through a few screens to get live analytics on your run. Personally, that’s not something I’m a big fan of. To be fair, this is an issue with most fitness bands, but it’s exacerbated by the dinky display which manages just two stats per screen. The Vivosport’s running watch siblings – the Forerunner 30 and Vivoactive 3 – pack in three and four respectively.

Still, if you don’t really care about live stats when running and just like a summary when it’s done this does the job nicely and both the heart rate tracking and GPS seem spot on, which is a banana skin many fitness trackers slip on. Like other Garmin products, it syncs with the Connect smartphone app in startlingly quick time and provides a ridiculous number of stats for running nerds to pour over, encompassing pace, speed, timing, heart rate, cadence, stride length, elevation and calories. The band can also estimate VO2 max, to give you your “fitness age”.garmin_vivosport_app

Which is nice, but then the Garmin Forerunner 30 does all of this and it’s £40 cheaper. True, this is more discrete but it’s still not exactly high fashion. And in terms of additional features, the Vivosport’s main party trick is to measure your stress level via heart rate variability. “The goal is to make you aware when physical or emotional sources cause your stress level to rise so you can find a way to relieve the pressure,” the Garmin site gushes. Well, okay, but if you don’t know you’re stressed, is it really a problem? Some people will doubtless say yes, but to me this feels like a feature added to justify a new model.
The Vivosport it is also swim proof but it doesn’t actually have a dedicated swim mode to use it with. You can set it to a generic indoor exercise mode and it’ll try and measure your heart rate but that’s your lot. In other words, it’s a fancy way of saying you can wear it in the shower or bath without voiding the warranty.

Like a smartwatch, it shows notifications, but once again the usefulness of this is neutered by the tininess of the screen. So while you’ll have an idea of which app or contact is crying out for attention you’ll have to check the phone to see what they want. The tiny screen also impacts in another way: like the Polar A370 you get icons to interpret, rather than text explaining what each option does. It’s a frustrating game of trial and error until you learn the ropes.garmin_vivosport_app_2

By far the oddest thing about the design of the Vivosport, however, is the lengths you have to go to in order to check remaining battery life. It requires a long press on the screen, an eight-item scroll down, a five-item scroll down, a four-item scroll down and then tapping the about button. Only then is the battery metre displayed in all its glory. True, one of the watch faces includes a battery gauge to avoid this song and dance but it isn’t the default and it wouldn’t kill Garmin to stick it on an earlier screen, would it?[gallery:4]

The flip side is that the battery life does seem very solid indeed, lasting a week without GPS (or eight hours if you use it flat out). That’s impressive for a device with a colour always-on display. When it does need charging, it uses the same four-pin USB attachment as some other Garmin devices.

Garmin Vivosport: Verdict

The Garmin Vivosport is a perfectly competent device that achieves everything it sets out to. It looks okay, has a long battery life, tracks things accurately and has an excellent app for chewing over the data. For £170 it isn’t unreasonably priced for a device that packs in GPS and heart rate monitoring, either.

The question is whether it’s better than the alternatives and that’s what stops me giving it a big endorsement. The screen is tiny and fiddly, and there are no physical buttons. Both of these things make it less useful as a live running device, as opposed to something that just records your trips for later analysis.[gallery:7]

That may not be an issue for you personally, but if it then is the Garmin Forerunner 30 is £40 cheaper and does 90% of what the Vivosport does. If you really want a fitness band with GPS, you can get a great price on the Vivosmart HR+ nowadays, too, and the world of running tech hasn’t advanced sufficiently to leave it feeling outdated just yet.

If you want something more stylish with the same features, the Samsung Gear Fit2 is also an option – although I have found its GPS a touch flakey for serious runners. The Fit2 Pro even adds dedicated swimming tracking if that’s important to you.

You won’t be disappointed if you plump for the Garmin Vivosport, but if you see yourself actively interacting with the device regularly, rather than just glancing at the screen and having it record data for viewing elsewhere, then you might want to consider your options before putting any cash down.

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