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Garmin Vivosmart HR

I’ve been wearing a fitness tracker for nearly a year now. My first was a Garmin Vivosmart that I had for approximately 10 months. Whilst being a lovely device, it didn’t hold up very well to long-term use. After just eight months, the strap broke and its replacement suffered from dead pixels on the screen after just two months. At this point, I called it a day and got a free trade-up to a Garmin Vivosmart HR. It's a funky new version with an improved screen, heart-rate monitor, tracking for steps climbed and has a few other wonderful widgets.

On first sight, I see one of my concerns is still there - they’ve kept the unit within an integrated wrist strap, which won't be so great if it breaks like its predecessor did. The screen is much better - it’s now a standard black and white affair that never goes to sleep. The resolution is higher than before and allows a few more lines of text to be displayed as opposed to the two you could see on the original Vivosmart. The unit is more chunky, but not so that it looks daft. It won’t get anything for looks (there are other colours around, although I've got the plain black one), but it does look fairly watch-esque. The strap is definitely better than before and looks like a regular watch strap. Manufacturers of activity trackers seem to have a tried all sorts of weird and wonderful strap and clasp designs, but sometimes the originals work best for a reason. I think this will fare better than its predecessor. 

Above - a size comparison vs my Forerunner 220.

So my first job is to charge it. It still uses a proprietary (if somewhat differently shaped) connector and you clip it on to the back to start charging via USB. I thought the charger looked a bit more flimsy this time, but nonetheless it seems to be holding up well and perhaps my concerns are unfounded. Charging time is about 45 mins.

Once charged, it’s the usual case of pairing the device with your phone. Connectivity is via Bluetooth and a painless affair.  You're then free to name your device, answer some questions about yourself and start wearing it.

The default settings give you quite a few screens of information to look at. A swipe one way or the other will let you switch from screen to screen. The default displays are:

  • Time (With an inactivity bar)
  • Steps walked, with your daily target.
  • Flights of steps climbed.
  • Minutes of “intensive activity” per week.
  • Calorie burn amount.
  • Mileage walked.
  • Bluebooth Notifications
  • Heart Rate, current and average. 
  • Weather 

When you're on the heart-rate screen, an additional swipe down will show you a nice little graph with some average data over the last four hours (shown above).

Configuration of what screens you want to see is performed via the Garmin Connect app on your phone - resynchronisation after changing the settings allows you to see the difference.

The weather, music player controls and notifications are dependent on you keeping Bluetooth on. If I’m honest about it, I’m not really bothered about them and switched them off. I’m largely only interested in the activity information, but if you're happy to sacrifice the battery life of both your phone and the band a bit, I'm sure it has its uses.

Pressing the only button on the band will bring up another menu, a bit like a prolonged tap on the original Vivosmart. This will let you:

  • Start an activity
  • Put on "do not disturb" (i.e. sleep) mode.
  • See when the alarm is set for.
  • Do stuff with Bluetooth.
  • Synchronise with your phone.
  • Ask your phone to shout if you've misplaced it (Bluetooth needs to be on for this)
  • Look at your exercise history.
  • Change some device settings.
  • Bring up device info.

As for the other screens, well, as you plod your way around each day, they’ll keep updating in the background. Whilst the step-counter does seem to be more accurate than before, the steps climbed does seem a bit random and can be fooled by a variety of things. Escalators and lifts occasionally increased the count and other activities (such as cleaning your teeth) will still fool the step counter. As before, use it as a general indication and not a scientific measure. Garmin's forums seem to acknowledge there's an issue, and as I write this a new version of the firmware is being trialled to correct it. Credit where credit's due, Garmin do support their devices with regular updates.

As for the heart-rate monitor, it has its uses, but only in certain situations. For example, when I did some indoor cardio work as a warm-up to my ju-jitsu training one evening, the heart-rate monitor seemed like it wasn’t going to register my pulse increasing much at all, peaking at just 114 and trailing off quickly. I wondered if sweat on my arms interfered with the optical sensor or whether this was a one-off thing, but having tried this a few times the result seems to be the same - unless I’m ultra-fit and just not working hard enough (unlikely).

One application where the monitor works really well though is when you use it as an ANT+ device, broadcasting to a GPS watch. Using the Vivosmart in place of a chest strap seemed to work quite well, broadcasting the information to my Forerunner 220 without any issues, bar one minor dropout (below). I tested it during a recent half-marathon and looking back at the data, my heart-rate data seemed to steadily increase until I’d warmed up, keeping at a level that seemed consistent with my going up and down the hills. As the race progressed, my pulse gradually increased - to the point I was topping 180bpm near the finish. This seems to be where the device excels. Bear in mind, though, that broadcasting mode is bound to chomp up the battery. You certainly won't get the advertised five days of battery life using it like this.

Example of the heart-rate monitoring during a recent half-marathon.

One feature that’s certainly more funky than before is the ability to pick which information you want displayed whilst exercising. Previously, it was just a case of displaying your time and distance (which got rounded to the nearest minute when you’d been exercising for over an hour). Now, the display is much more configurable and you can swap between data screens whilst your exercise is in progress. This is a definite improvement.

If there's one minor grumble I have with the heart-rate monitor, it's that the sampling rate when not in an active exercise session is about once per hour, which isn't particularly informative. An hour is all well and good, but it’s too infrequent a level to give any detail - akin to, “am I alive or not?”. I know that Garmin have probably done this to conserve battery life, although other devices (such as the Fitbit Charge HR) sample much more frequently. The sampling is generally accurate but insufficient to give any detail. In a recent medical assessment, the practitioner checking my pulse came up with the same number as the Vivosmart, so I'd like to think the monitoring is generally accurate. As an option, though, it would be useful to have a user-configurable sampling option, which might give you more useful information, such as how you react to stress and a more detailed breakdown of how your heart-rate changes during the day - this is supposed to be monitoring your body activity, after all.

One major (and annoying) omission is that there’s no “lock" function. Whereas on a regular Vivosmart you’d need a good double-thump to wake the screen up, this device seems to change info screens and bring the backlight to life when you merely breathe near it. Sure, you can be wearing gloves and still summon info up (useful), but the double-tap system really did work quite nicely beforehand. Why they’ve abandoned this I’m not sure, as this would stop so many accidental things from happening - heart-rate broadcasting can be interrupted by an accidental brush of the screen, Bluetooth notifications you didn’t realise you had can be dismissed, you accidentally start playing “Mr Blobby” - the list goes on. Luckily, I think Garmin have realised this and a beta version of the device's firmware is currently in testing that allows it to auto-lock. I hope that nails the problem once and for all.

One other feature that needs some rectification is the "Intensity Minutes" section. Apparently, you're supposed to do 150 minutes per week, but the criteria that it uses seems to be somewhat subjective. Those pre-jujitsu warm ups I did didn't seem to count at all, but when running the half-marathon I got nearly 400 (even though I was running for about 140). The system seems to count "intensity" as anything longer than ten minutes that gets your pulse over 100, with a "double-rate" if you take it higher, but it seems very inconsistent. I hope they get this sorted out as it's hard to meet an objective that seems very randomly measured.

It's not all gripes, though, as the device has some other useful features. You can select a few other workout types apart from running when you start an activity, you can also view your exercise history on the device and also the calories burnt amount seems to be based upon your heart-rate, hopefully giving a more accurate figure. The sleep tracking system is also a lot smarter about knowing when you've gone to bed and got up - I've only had to correct it once in about three weeks, which isn't bad at all.

So having use this for a few weeks, what do I think? Well, it’s certainly an improvement on its predecessor. My gripe about the non-changeable strap is still there and I imagine that I’ll be asking for a replacement within the year, but with a better screen, heart-rate monitoring and a few extra bells and whistles, it’ll be staying on my wrist. The extra functionality has reduced the battery life from what it was, but it's still infinitely better than an Apple Watch. I used to get over two weeks on a regular Vivosmart and get about five days now with the HR, which is still reasonable. I may try only using the heart-monitoring during exercise and it would be interesting to see if that allows the battery to last any longer.

In all, the device is a fairly good one that builds on its predecessor, albeit at the expense of what was excellent battery life. Five days is still reasonable. The clincher will be the next firmware update, which will address a good chunk of the issues mentioned. Feedback from the forums seems good so far, so hopefully it'll be on general release shortly. With those bugs squashed, I’m hoping that this one will fare a little longer than eight months - and if you look in the right places it’s available for under £90, which makes it no more expensive than a lot of its competitors. I like it and hopefully will come to like it more as Garmin release further firmware updates to iron out some of the niggles.
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