*UPDATE 27th January 2016. New firmware update – version 2.60 (in article) to 2.90. Notable additions: added a heart rate graph if you tap the heart rate display (nice); can now select type of activity (running, cardio, other); backlight adjustment.
*UPDATE 31st March 2016. New firmware update – version 3.10. Notable additions: screen lock; more accurate resting HR; 4 day weather forecast (tap on weather widget).
The vivoSmart HR is an activity tracker with smart watch aspirations. It uses Garmin’s new optical sensor to constantly measure your heart rate at your wrist, to provide both a resting heart rate measurement, as well as a read out for activities such as running.
The vivoSmart HR has all the usual features of an activity tracker as well as a pressure sensor to more accurately measure stairs climbed, and a touch sensitive screen with selectable screens to display: clock, steps, stairs climbed, activity minutes (more later), calories, distance, music controls, weather, notifications from your smart phone and heart rate (together with average resting HR).
A single button open and closes the menu, and will also start and stop the timer for activities (i.e. running). A long press will turn the device off (and on) too – although I’m not sure how often you’d want to turn it off.
From the menu, you can start the timer for an activity, manually turn on sleep mode, check your alarm, configure Bluetooth, sync your data to Garmin Connect manually, track down your connected smartphone, view recent activities, configure settings and finally view system information like the current firmware version.
Let’s take a look at the 10 screens in turn starting from the clock and swiping up. Note that you could configure what screens are visible, and their order, from the Garmin app. You can also configure the default screen. Swiping down takes you to the last item – so the default is one swipe either way for steps or heart rate.
A simple, always on time display, with day and date (see photo at top of post).
Total steps with a target which will automatically adjust based on how active you are. This is a fairly mature technology now and easily accurate enough for its purpose.
Total stairs climbed with a target you can set in the Garmin app. This is actually based on height gained, so walking up a hill also counts. This uses the pressure sensor and seems fairly accurate.
The target here is 150 minutes of moderate exercise like brisk walking, or 75 minutes of intense exercise like running.
This includes both active calories and resting calories – that is calories you burn just being alive.
This is based on your steps and is usually pretty close to what I measure accurately by GPS (when walking / running – not cycling!).
You can control your paired smartphone’s music player. This was a feature I was looking forward to, but for Apple devices at least, it only controls the Apple music app and nothing else. I use the Apple podcast app a lot when cycling and walking but these controls do nothing for that, or for the Deezer app for that matter. I really hope they fix this in a future firmware update.
Next up is weather, which the vivoactive HR grabs from your paired smartphone. In the UK, you have to put up with Fahrenheit unless you change your distance units to kilometres rather than miles. Something else I hope they’ll fix.
All notifications you have set on your paired phone flash up on the display briefly. You can choose to read the message by tapping on it. This is a feature I find useful when cycling for instance, since my phone is usually not easily accessible. You’ll also see incoming calls which you can answer or reject.
You may want to configure what notifications are set on your phone, since everything is passed across. I was getting buzzed just to inform me that the an app had been updated!
This is arguably the most interesting feature and something I was very keen to try out. An LED underneath the display constantly measures your heart rate and you’ll see two measurements: one for your current heart rate; and another showing your average resting heart rate. I like the idea of seeing my resting heart rate over time in the Garmin app, which is meant to provide a useful indication of my fitness.
The heart rate icon flashes when you swipe to this mode for a few seconds, until it obtains a reading.
Read on for discussion on the accuracy compared to my tried and tested Garmin chest strap paired with a Garmin Edge 810.
Setup is very straightforward and relies firstly on installing the free Garmin Connect app on your smartphone. Bluetooth pairing is done through this app – not the usual way. The vivosmart HR maintains a Bluetooth connection to your phone, whether it’s in your pocket or watching a YouTube video. This allows it to grab notifications and weather information.
When you open the app, it performs a sync where it pulls across your activities, steps, sleep etc. The app is a goldmine of information, which can be configured to display exactly what you want. You can view steps over days or weeks; sleep activity; heart rate over time (including average resting heart rate) and information on recorded activities plus a lot more.
Build quality and comfort
Build quality is very good as I’ve come to expect from Garmin. The strap is comfortable, with fine enough adjustment to get an exact fit. You want a snug fit, above the wrist bone, so that the HR sensor makes good contact with the skin. I do find I tighten the strap slightly if I’m wanting to accurately measure HR, but I’m not certain it makes any difference!
A big selling point of the vivosmart HR, like most Garmin fitness gadgets, is that it’s waterproof. Lots of fitness gadgets surprisingly aren’t, including even the Apple Watch. The display does have a mind of its own under water though.
Record an activity
To record a specific activity like a run, you press the device button, and tap the running man. And then press the device button again to start the timer. That’s the only type of activity you can select, but theoretically this can be any activity.
A timer is started, and activity specific display screens (configurable under Run Options in the Garmin app) are displayed. By default these are: clock, distance, stopwatch, calories and heart rate. The heart rate measurement is more accurate in activity mode, with a measurement taken every second.
At the end of the activity, you press the device button again and tap to save or discard the activity. If saved the activity will, by default, be uploaded to Garmin Connect. Recent activities are also saved on the watch. I haven’t worked out how to manually upload an activity – so it’s best to just leave the auto-upload setting on.
It’s very disappointing that you can’t use GPS off your phone during an activity. I can’t see any reason why not, and can only guess it’s to make sure you look to Garmin’s GPS equipped gadgets for accurate tracking. The step based tracking is good enough for most people, but I do hope Garmin consider enabling this feature in a firmware update.
You’d imagine with a constant Bluetooth connection to your smartphone, and an always on display, battery life wouldn’t be great. But while it’s not over a year like Garmin’s vivofit 2, you will get around 4 or 5 days use (including sleep), which isn’t bad.
However, since Garmin use a propriety connection for charging, it’s all too easy to completely run out of charge. You get a charge icon when battery is low, but this still only gives you around 8 hours to locate that charging cable (I’ve already been caught short once).
Sleep mode is much improved on the vivosmart HR compared to the vivofit I tried a while back. It will automatically determine when you fall asleep and when you wake up, based on your activity, and I guess heart rate. It does a fairly good job, and I’m realising I need to get to bed earlier!
You’ll need to view your sleep stats off the Garmin app, which as well as showing your fall-asleep and wake-up times, also displays the amount of light and deep sleep you’ve had, along with your activity (which appears to be how it calculates deep sleep). I’m not really sure what you can actually garner from these graphs, but it’s still interesting to see!
Broadcasting heart rate via ANT+
This is a fantastic feature, which enables you to leave your heart rate strap behind – or save yourself £50 if you don’t already have one.
The vivosmart HR can broadcast your heart rate via the ANT+ protocol to one of the many gadgets that support this. It works perfectly with my Garmin Edge 810. To enable the feature, press the device button and go to Settings | Heart rate.
Find your phone
From the device menu, you can tap on the phone icon to locate your paired smartphone. This is well implemented and sends an audible alert from your phone and also shows a signal strength meter on the watch. This could be handy if you often misplace your smartphone.
Display, backlight and vibration alerts
The display is clear and you can switch the orientation in the Garmin app – I have it set vertically. The touch screen is responsive and works with gloves too. The backlight comes on whenever you touch the display, but only for a short time and there’s no way to alter this length of time.
There is a setting to turn the backlight on automatically when you rotate your wrist, but I couldn’t get this to work.
The backlight is fairly dim, and again there is not way to configure this. But it’s more than adequate.
The watch vibrates for move alerts, notifications, and when you reach your goals. There doesn’t seem to be any way to change when it vibrates, or its intensity. But I find the amount of vibrate just about right.
Optical heart rate monitor accuracy
My main attraction to the vivosmart HR was the optical HR monitor. So I was keen to see how it compared to my heart rate strap.
I started an activity on the vivosmart HR to provide a more accurate HR trace, and at the same time ran my Garmin Edge 810 connected to a Garmin heart rate strap. I then commenced a 2h 30m fairly taxing ride on my mountain bike.
I’ve plotted both against each other below:
They’re not exactly a perfect match, but both graphs follow similar peaks and troughs, albeit with different absolute values. The last 30 minutes of the ride, they are almost a perfect match. This last 30 minutes was my route home along a cycle path and road. From this graph, it seems the optical HR sensor, is not as fast to respond to fast changes in heart rate, common with mountain biking. This was confirmed with a fairly gentle ride into work, where both graphs were within 5bpm of each other. I’ve not been able to produce a graph of this unfortunately.
For the casual “athlete” like me, the results from the optical HR are easily good enough. The ability of the vivosmart HR to broadcast to an ANT+ device like my Edge 810, means for cycling to work for instance I probably won’t bother with the chest strap anymore. I like having information on my heart rate, since it does give a better picture of how hard you’ve actually worked.
For longer rides, where I look down at the Edge for my HR zone for instance, I don’t think I could completely rely on the optical HR sensor just yet. I’ll test further, and update this article accordingly.
- Responsive touch screen
- Optical HR is generally accurate enough
- Measures all day heart rate and trends in resting heart rate
- Garmin Connect app does a good job of combing data from multiple fitness gadgets
- Sleep monitoring is well implemented
- Notifications are a useful feature. Nice to also be able to read text messages
- Broadcasting HR via ANT+ is a great feature if you have any ANT+ fitness gadgets
- Can’t get weather in Celsius if you choose miles as units
- Proprietary charging cable required for charging
- No GPS built in or the ability to use paired smartphone’s GPS
- Accuracy of optical HR sensor can be erratic
- Not possible to connect to a heart rate chest strap
The vivoSmart HR is somewhere between an activity tracker and a smart watch. If it was able to use your phone’s GPS and added some activity modes (which could all be added by a firmware update), I’d have no hesitation recommending it. But even without these features, and considering it’s only a little more expensive than it little brother, the vivofit 2, I think it definitely deserves serious consideration.
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