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Move!

To be honest, you'd think that I wouldn't really need an activity-tracker. After all, I run three times a week, do ju-jitsu and occasionally enter a half-marathon. Unfortunately, everything is not what it seems. My job is pretty damn sedentary. In between these periods of activity I'm largely sat on my fat arse.

Perhaps trying to be a bit more active during office-time would result in that arse being a little less fat. Perhaps the right activity tracker could give me a nudge every so often? Who knows?

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So, I've invested in a Garmin Vivosmart and it's a funny little device. Mine is the fairly unobtrusive blue/black version. This one's quite subtle, although other more garish colour options are available. In my opinion, muted is better as with this colour scheme people won't think I'm on day release. The first charge took a couple of hours (with the strange-looking USB cable that you get in the box) and it's fairly easy to put on. Two little clippy/popper things hold the band in place and a further cover stops the poppers from reopening. Once charged, your first job is to get the device paired with your phone via Bluetooth, after which you can synchronise whenever you like. If you leave Bluetooth on, it'll keep periodically synchronising for you.

You're positively encouraged to wear the device constantly, and in the time I've had mine I'll admit that's pretty much what I've done. The device is waterproof (to a point), so hopping in the bath or going swimming with it isn't a problem - just don't go diving with it…

…and this is the default data that it gathers/displays. Tap the unit twice to switch the display on and swipe left or right to change the info it displays:

  • Time/Date
  • Steps taken today.
  • Steps to take until you meet your daily goal.
  • The "Move" bar. (I'll explain more about this later)
  • Calories burned.
  • Distance walked/run.
  • Smartphone notifications.
  • Music player controls.

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Through the Garmin connect app, you can configure which screens you want to see and which ones you don't.

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It will display other information too. You can get a bike sensor for speed/distance-related information, plus you can pair it with a heart-rate monitor should you feel so inclined. However, were I to use a heart-rate sensor, I'd probably use it in conjunction with my Forerunner 220 instead for more accurate information.

Because the unit's called a Vivosmart (as you might've guessed) it also performs some basic smartwatch functions too. For those to work, you'll need to keep Bluetooth active on both the band and your phone. The band will display notifications when you get text messages or notifications from apps, as well as reminders for calendar appointments. Because of the size of the screen, it displays the information in a somewhat squat font (opting for a two-line display) and you can swipe your way through the message. That said, when I have used this function, it's been quicker and easier to just take my phone out of my pocket and read the notifications on a full-size screen. Nonetheless, it's a useful function to give you an indication of what's arrived. I find it works best when I'm sat in a long meeting and allows me to check a notification without getting my phone out.

Of course, as well as the functions I've mentioned above, you can use it as a time/distance tracker when running. Bear in mind that the unit doesn't have a GPS, so distance is approximated upon what it thinks your average step-length is. To get a reasonably accurate reading, I took my average step length from my Garmin Forerunner and applied it to the Vivosmart, which got things within 3% of the distance on my GPS watch. As far as I'm concerned, 97%+ accuracy is pretty good. Oddly, you can enter your walking stride length on the iOS app, but have to go to the Garmin Connect site to put in your running stride length. Hopefully, Garmin will change the app to include that setting soon, as that seems a bit of a convoluted way to change things.

The running timer is on the settings screen, which you access by keeping your finger on the display for a few seconds. From the Garmin Connect App, you can configure the band to automatically show what's on the display as you raise your wrist to look. There's also a bundle of other features and options. There's a "Where's my phone?" mode, just in case you misplace it, you can check the battery, screen brightness, switch Bluetooth on and off, force synchronisation with your phone and also start sleep mode. Sleep tracking stops when you hold your finger down on the screen in the morning.

With all the information the device is gathering, you'll need to use the Garmin Connect app on your phone (or via the website) to view it. The information is well-presented enough, giving you a reasonable summary of what's going on.

The sleep-tracking information is fairly basic. If you toss and turn (or get up at all) during the night, it'll note the activity, but it won't give you information about what sleep state you were in, but the resulting graph is self-explanatory. You rate how well you actually slept by selecting a smiley on the screen.

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Guess who was awake at about 3am?

As the unit tracks your steps, it also sets daily goals to achieve. Mine started at 7,500 steps and as I repeatedly achieved the goal the target increased. Increases or decreases (if you don't achieve the goal) are gradual, changing by a few hundred steps per day. After seven weeks, my goal now varies between eleven and twelve thousand steps per day. If you stay inactive for more than an hour, the band will buzz and flash, "MOVE!" on the screen in an effort to get you to shift your fat behind. If you still don't, it'll nag you again after two hours. A few minutes of walking will clear the nag message. However, the longer you're inactive, the longer it'll take to clear the nag.

Once you've hit your daily goal, you'll be rewarded with a suitable fanfare on the screen to let you know you've achieved it.

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If all this solitary activity around hitting your targets isn't enough, you can get competitive and use the Garmin Connect app to enter challenges with either friends or random Connect users across the world. As you achieve certain steps-counts or win challenges each week, you'l get awarded a variety of Chufty Badges to show on your profile.

But aside from all these bells and whistles, does the device actually achieve what it sets out to do? Am I still the same lard-arse that I was before I purchased it?

Well, I've had my Vivosmart for about seven weeks now and broadly, it has got me moving a bit more. I've been more conscious about trying not to stay inactive for so long, particularly when I'm sat at my desk at work. During lunchtimes, I've also made a concerted effort to leave the office and walk - not just to increase my step count and hit my goals, but partly for my own sanity. It may be no coincidence that it's helped me lose a few pounds in weight, too.

I've only used the smartwatch functions a few times. Whilst useful, there's only a few situations in which I'd consider it worthwhile. This probably has a positive effect on the battery-life too. The specs say battery-life should be a week, but because I'm only switching on Bluetooth for synchronisation and not keeping the screen brightness high, I'm getting a fortnight between charges, which in my mind is great and is also the reason why I could never invest in an Apple Watch in its current state. One day of battery life is ridiculously short. A device like this should be passive. If I have to consciously charge it up every day or spend my time worrying about battery-life, it'll detract from its primary function.

From my perspective, because I've already invested in the Garmin ecosystem (through my Forerunner 220), it's good to see the Vivosmart data sat in the same place and on the same screen - and should I ever turn my back on Garmin, it's good to know that all the data on Garmin's Connect site is completely exportable.

My only real gripe with the Vivosmart is the rubberised coating around the band. A lot of other bands have the tracking device in a removable form within a replaceable strap. Unfortunately, the Garmin device is an all-in-one - and that rubberised coating seems to show up every scuff exceptionally easily. Undoubtedly, the Vivosmart is fairly resilient to knocks and moisture, it's just unfortunate that it shows up just about every knock it gets. If you look at the size comparison shot above with my Forerunner, you'll see what I mean.

If you're really not fussed about the smartwatch stuff, you might want to consider the Vivofit 2 instead. Nonetheless, the plusses of the Vivosmart generally outweigh the negatives. Having worn mine for nearly two months, the simplicity of use and battery life have ensured that it's become a permanent fixture on my wrist.

The next couple of years will be interesting. Wearable technology is now starting to enter the mass-market. I've no doubt that in a couple of years we'll look at the Vivosmart and think it was a primitive device, but given the current shed-load of activity trackers that are coming on to the market at present, the Garmin is certainly a reliable enough band that's worthy of consideration if you're thinking of purchasing one.

Update (29/2/2016): It's now been about 10 months since I got my Vivosmart and unfortunately it hasn't lasted the test of time. The strap started do disintegrate after about eight months, seemingly not so sweat-resistant as one would think. I got a replacement, but after just three months the pixels in the OLED-display started to die. It's a shame, really, because this is actually a really nice device, but perhaps it needed a bit of refinement. I've swapped it for a Vivosmart HR and a review on this device will be posted soon.
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