With the Apple Watch scheduled for an April release, is there still a place in the market for another smartwatch? Garmin's latest entry into the field, the Vivosmart, looks to differentiate itself from Apple's offering by being a fitness tracker with smartphone features, rather than a smartwatch that also happens to track your activity.
The $170 Vivosmart is first and foremost a fitness tracker, keeping tabs on your activity by covering the number of steps you take, steps remaining to your daily goal, distance covered, calories burned and time spent inactive—more on that later. (A separate heart monitor can provide additional metrics.)
The Vivosmart looks like a traditional fitness band too, a slim, soft rubberized band with smooth, rounded edges. While many were skeptical when Apple executives claimed they slept with their Apple Watch, I easily slept while wearing the Vivosmart—it's unobtrusive and extremely comfortable, and I usually forgot I was wearing it. I've worn it pretty much nonstop for several weeks and have never found it bothersome, even when typing on my laptop, which is what led me to stop wearing watches years ago.
The Vivosmart is waterproof up to 50 meters, so you can wear it while swimming or in the shower. It fastens to your wrist with a pair on pegs that snap into holes along the band. An optional "keeper" can be placed on the band to prevent it from unfastening, but it added an a degree of bulkiness I didn't care for. I removed it shortly after using the device and never had an issue with the strap coming undone.
Battery life is impressive: Garmin says the Vivosmart lasts up to seven days on a charge, and I easily surpassed that throughout my testing. It uses a proprietary USB charger that clamps onto the device like a clothespin, aligning with charging leads on the inside of the band. It's a similar approach to the Apple Watch's charger, just think clip instead of magnets.
The Vivosmart's LED display is completely invisible when not in use, and it's clear and bright when on, even in daylight, although no one will ever mistake it for a retina display. A simple double-tap wakes the display; you navigate through the device's menus by swiping and tapping. In addition to fitness-related information, the Vivosmart shows you the time and date, and even lets you control the music on your iPhone: play/pause, skip, or repeat tracks. But you can't adjust the volume.
Lift the Vivosmart when you get a notification and you immediately realize the display is oriented sideways as you look at it. Given the device's shape, there's really no other way it could be, but it does make it somewhat awkward to read anything longer than the time.
There's an app for that...but you may not want it
Once you've paired the Vivosmart to your iPhone or Android device via Bluetooth, a companion app descriptively called "Connect" transfers your fitness data from the Vivosmart and displays it as gauges in sections for each type of measurement. The app doesn't really seem to enhance the Vivosmart, however—I rarely bothered to look at it after the first week or so, and when I did, I came away with an "OK, so what?" feeling. The data seemed static and provided no trending or other insightful information.
The app also pairs with the MyFitnessPal app to keep track of how many calories you've consumed, measured against the Vivosmart's estimate of how many you've burned. That's handy if you're willing to input everything you eat and drink, but seemed like more work than it was worth to me.
You can connect to other users to share and compare activities and issue or accept challenges, but finding connections isn't intuitive and the social aspect doesn't seem well thought out. More useful is the ability to use the app to adjust settings on the device, including a silent, vibrating alarm that's very effective in waking you up without disturbing your partner.
Even without the app, the Vivosmart provides plenty of feedback. In addition to displaying your activity, the device sets a daily step goal for you, and adjusts it each day based on your previous day's activity. Meet your goal, and you're treated with a congratulatory message in all caps and an 8-bit rendition of fireworks. A little cheesy, perhaps, but I found the positive reinforcement to be very motivating; I'd check my numbers during the course of the day and found myself taking an extra stroll to make sure I earned my daily fireworks.
Get up and move
As its name implies, the Vivosmart is more than just a fitness band, venturing into smartwatch territory with some some very handy features. Apple executives touted a feature on the Apple Watch that will alert you if you've been idle too long. The Vivosmart already has that feature—if it senses you've been inactive for an hour, an unmistakable vibration and the band's display will tell you in no uncertain terms to "MOVE!" A few minutes of walking resets the timer.
I developed a love/hate relationship with this. When I was too busy to heed its advice, I found the notifications to be a little nagging and annoying. When I was merely idle, however, I appreciated the reminders to get up and move a little. All in all, I'm glad they're there.
The Vivosmart also uses its Bluetooth connection to your phone to provide notifications—anything that appears on your phone's Notification screen will also pop up on the Vivosmart's display, along with a short vibration to get your attention. You can't interact with the notifications; that is, you can't reply to emails or texts (or even delete them, for that matter) but you can scroll through them and decide whether they merit immediate action. As someone who usually has his phone on vibrate—and misses a lot of calls because he doesn't feel the vibrations—I found the Vivosmart's notifications to be extremely useful and far more noticeable than my phone's alerts.
With April rapidly approaching, what's a fitness enthusiast with a geek streak to do? Ultimately, it comes down to which proclivity is stronger and what your budget will handle. The Vivosmart is not a smartwatch, nor does it try to be—which is, well, smart. Instead, it offers a solid alternative to Apple's fully geeked out watch: a well-made, comfortable and tremendously useful fitness band with smart features that take great advantage of being paired to your iPhone. If that appeals to you, all those features are yours without the wait and at about half the entry price of the Apple Watch.
By choosing not to go head-to-head against the Apple Watch, Garmin's Vivosmart makes a compelling case for fitness enthusiasts who appreciate a few smart features in their fitness tracker. Smart move, Garmin.
- Comfortable design.
- Super long battery life.
- Well implemented activity tracking and notifications.
- Companion app doesn't provide much value.
- Text orientation makes longer notifications awkward to read.