Introduction and design
Unlike TomTom, Garmin had the idea of creating its own serious running watch quite some time ago. The first Forerunner surfaced all the way back in 2003, but it’s taken until now to come up with a product fit for this brave new age of the ‘casual’ fitness fan.
It might be a pure Garmin product, but the Vivofit doesn’t take advantage of the company’s GPS in the way of the Forerunner. Instead it flaunts itself as a glorified pedometer with enough of its own unique features to keep you moving throughout the day – and all for just £99/$130 (around AU$140).
In its look, the Vivofit takes a little bit from here and a little something from there. The shape of the band and its choice of clasp is best compared to the Fitbit Force/Flex, but its use of a single button for cycling through displays is more akin to the Nike FuelBand SE.
The Vivofit is made up from a central module and the comfortable wristband in which it clips into. That wristband is interchangeable; you’ll get two different sizes – small and large – in the box, and Garmin is also offering a range of colours for you to choose from. I used a black one for this review, but the blue is my personal favourite hue.
It might not be the most stylish fitness tracker on the market but the Garmin Vivofit bats away the competition in the design category for two reasons. First, it sports an always-on display, which is something that’s invaluable for a product category that would (at least eventually) like to replace your wristwatch.
Unfortunately that display is not backlit (you’ll still be reaching for your phone to check the time in the middle of the night), and it’s just an LCD – nothing quite as spectacular as the Samsung Gear Fit‘s gorgeous curved OLED. But it’s these design decision that allows for the second advantage: battery life.
Where most other fitness trackers pack the typical rechargeable lithium battery, the Vivofit uses two standard watch batteries. This gives the device a battery life of up to a year, at which point you can just pop in a couple of new cells.
Again, it’s a significant advantage to have: fitness wearables designed for ‘life tracking tracking assume a certain amount of neglect – they should be sat silently on your wrist/in your pocket/around your neck all the time.
Taking them off to charge interferes with that process, so the less it has to be done the better. The fact the Vivofit is 50m water resistant earns it more points for the same reason. It’s just a shame that there aren’t any swimming features to take advantage of that.
But yes, back to the lack of backlighting – it is an annoyance. A 24/7/365 tracking device shouldn’t become less functional when it gets dark, but the inability to check the display in the dark, coupled with the lack of any sort of alarm, mean you’ll still be relying on your phone a lot.
Features and performance
Press the Vivofit’s single button and you’ll scroll through six core metrics: Time, date, steps taken, steps remaining to goal, calories burned, and total distance. You can eliminate some of these in the device settings in the companion app or website (which requires you to plug the included ANT stick into the computer) if you want to make scrolling faster.
You’ve also got the option of pairing the Garmin Vivofit with an ANT+ heart rate monitor, which adds another possible display. You can even buy the Vivofit with a monitor for £140,/$170 (around AU$180) but it’s important to note that the band isn’t compatible with Bluetooth Smart monitors.
We’re starting to see more heart rate monitors built into wrist-based fitness tracker. Not doing so means the price can be kept down, but in general, getting an accurate heart rate reading on this part of the body is difficult anyway – the wrist is a busy place.
A red bar will occasionally appear along the top of the display, gradually growing from left to right. This is a measurement of your inactivity – when you get up and go for a walk, it’ll start to shrink and eventually disappear. Owners of the Nike FuelBand SE and Jawbone Up24 will already be familiar with similar features.
But unlike the FuelBand, the Vivofit won’t start singing or dancing to tell you to move about. Instead the red bar of guilt will linger, a measurement of how bad you should feel about yourself at that very moment. This is the wonderful era of fitness gamification, ladies and gentlemen, and it works.
General movement is tracked through the accelerometer, giving you a reading of the number of steps you’ve taken so far in your day, and how many are left to go. There’s no GPS here but that’s not a criticism. What is a shame is the lack of an altimeter, meaning that you won’t be properly rewarded for those lengthy stair climbs.
What’s perhaps best about the pedometer feature is how it’s able to manage your personal goals. Turn on Auto Goals and the Vivofit kicks off with a 5,000 target. Smash that and the goal will slightly increase the next day; miss your target and tomorrow’s will be lowered.
This dynamic goal system is a neat touch, but if you’d rather set your goals manually then the option to do so is there.
That’s all well and good, but how’s the accuracy? The fact the Vivofit relies solely on an accelerometer should be your first clue that it’s not the most precise device on the market.
Walking around and comparing the steps taken on the Vivofit with my own mental calculations, the Vivofit tended to be out of sync by a step or two – but at least it was consistently so.
Perhaps the lesson here is that it makes more sense to compare the readings of a fitness tracker against itself for the sake of personal improvement. The lack of an altimeter does damage some of the Vivofit’s accuracy, but the fact it can be worn in the shower and doesn’t need to be charged means it’ll be tracking some movement that other fitness bands miss out on.
App, syncing and sleep tracking
I’ve touched on a few features of the app already but there are a few other points worth making.
The Garmin Connect companion app is available on both Android and iOS, free of charge, and has been supporting previous Garmin fitness products for some while now.
In order to use your Vivofit, you’ll need to register it via the app. this means setting up a Garmin account (if you don’t already have one) and entering personal information like height and weight.
From then on out, syncing the Vivofit is a straighforward task. In order to pair the two, you need to hold down the Vivofit’s solitary button until ‘Sync’ appears on the display. Then, once a connection is made and "Syncing with Vivofit" pops up on the bottom of the app, you have to wait for a loading bar to make its way across the screen.
That’s fine if you’re doing it regularly, but if I left it for a few days before syncing again, the bar would move a lot slower and I’d occasionally get an error mid-sync telling me that there had been a communication breakdown – and I would have to start the process all over again.
I’d advise not leaving it too long then, even though Garmin tells us that the Vivofit can hold up to a month’s worth of data.
But in this world of gamified fitness tech, it’s not all about you. That’s why the app also hosts a Community section where you can see how your stats compare to those of your friends. This pulls in data from other paired Garmin devices, so you’ll be able to compete on running, swimming and cycling too.
Whether or not you have any faith in the accuracy of sleep tracking in these sorts of devices, it’s a feature that Garmin has included on the Vivofit.
Handily, you don’t need to tell the Vivofit when you’re going to sleep as it can work this out by your movements. But if you’d rather tell it manually you can do so by holding down the button until "Sleep" pops up on the display.
What’s less handy is the fact that the Vivofit won’t display the time when it’s in sleep mode, so the lack of a backlight becomes moot at this point anyway. There’s also nothing in the form of an alarm, which is a notable drawback.
When you awake in the morning, all the data from your night’s sleep will be displayed in a line graph. But all this shows is how long the device was in sleep move for and much movement it detected throughout the night, on a "low" to "high" scale.
It’s not hugely useful data, but it’s essentially doing what other trackers do – telling you your periods of light sleep and deep sleep – albeit in a more basic format.
The Garmin Vivofit is an affordable fitness tracker with some very agreeable design choices. It might not be backlit, but the always-on display makes the wristband a viable wristwatch replacement – as does the year-long battery life.
Essentially, Garmin has taken a solid first stab at what a fitness tracker should be about: 24/7/365 life tracking. It’s just a shame that there are a few niggling immissions.
The lack of an altimeter is one that we feel shouldn’t be on the list, and hopefully Garmin will include one in the Vivofit Mk 2. Its sleep tracking is also very rudimentary when put side by side with other wearables on the market.
But then comes the £99 price tag, making the Vivofit also one of the best-priced fitness trackers out there right now.
The Vivofit is comfortable and stylish enough to wear around the clock, and its always-on display, water resistant design and year-long battery life certainly mean you’ve few excuses to take it off. Indeed, one of the best bits of praise we can throw at the Vivofit is that you can easily forget it’s there.
And while there’s no GPS, the pedometer’s dynamic goal system is unique and a step-up on the typical fitness gamification.
The lack of a backlight will be a bugbear for many. Syncing data can also be a hassle when the app decided to drop the connection, and means you’ll probably want to make sure you’re sending over your stats on a regular basis.
But my biggest problem with the Vivofit is the lack of an altimeter, which means it’s can’t really factor in the number of stairs you’ve climbed, for example. With the lack of GPS, missing the altimeter means that accuracy takes a hit.
Before you head into the quality of its various fitness features, the Vivofit’s always-on display and year-long battery life make it a wearable winner – possibly the only one that could replace your watch right now.
Luckily, the fitness stuff is good too for anyone looking for a tracker that doesn’t get too serious. It might lack GPS but there are plenty of features to get you moving.
When it gets dark the Vivofit becomes a little less useful, given that it misses both an alarm and a backlight, but luckily there are enough positives – including the low price – to make the Vivofit a fitness band to recommend.
By Hugh Langley, TechRadar