John Galea's Blog

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Garmin Vivosmart HR review

I last reviewed the Garmin Vivosmart 3 and loved it but the display was completely unreadable in sunlight and heart rate accuracy specifically in cycling was bad, so I returned it. I went backwards and bought the older model, this one. There is also an HR+ that has a GPS, this one does not. I don’t need it. If I want a GPS I will use my Fenix 3. Not a chance the Vivosmart HR+ is ever going to replace my treasured Fenix 3 … This device can be had on Amazon and other places Garmin refurbished super inexpensive. I paid $105 Vs the $213 (taxes in) I paid for the Vivosmart 3 (VS3 going forward).

Starting with the physicals the device is fairly light, small and thin. The VS3 is noticeably thinner. This older unit lacks some of the newer innovative features of the Vivosmart 3, but heh … The band is made out of a stretchy almost elastic material that can be replaced (with screws) but not swapped. It is done up using a standard watch buckle. Yay … It’s comfortable enough … The heart rate sensor on the bottom is a little more protruding than the VS3 but for me anyway it’s not noticeable and I have thin and small wrists. The band itself is an untextured smooth black band. It’s pretty innocuous as these trackers go. As with past Garmins, this is function over form. Garmin do not offer a band extender you could use to wear the tracker further up your arm to get better heart rate accuracy or to wear it around the ankle. There are third party ones but they are not cheap like $30 with shipping all in.

The unit charges with a clip that goes around the back. It’s reasonably easy to get on and clicks in place. These unusual clips are the price you pay for a waterproof tracker. Something that I want since I now kayak.

The front of the unit has an ALWAYS on, sun readable, back lit display and a single button on the front. The screen is operated by swiping and this works well, in fact better IMHO than the VS3. The display is reasonably large and reasonably easy to use. There are no colors on the display whatsoever. The back lighting attempts to come on when you rotate your wrist. Which works sometimes and sounds like a good idea until it wakes you when you toss and turn while trying to sleep. Again Garmin make no use of knowing your asleep and doing obvious things like this. The backlight can be summoned for a short period of time by pressing the front button. All in all the UI on the tracker is relatively simple to use. You swipe through the pages of information, which you can decide which to turn on and off, and you swipe through the menus by pressing the front button. You can not however change the order of screens. And this unit is NOT compatible with Garmins extensible Connect IQ. One somewhat obvious miss is a way to 100% turn the display off to make it an almost invisible device. You can program almost any screen (except heart rate) to be your home screen or you can have it remain wherever you last left it. This is a brilliant design. I can only imagine the inability to choose heart rate is to do with saving battery. Screens like this draw more power when changing. All in all I like the display, a huge improvement over the VS3 which is bizarre since the VS3 came out long after this one. The display can be put in portrait or landscape but there are a number of areas including menus that always stay in landscape mode. Do be aware though the screen is absolutely not gorilla glass, and can be relatively easily scuffed/scratched. You may want to buy a screen protector, but I have no idea how good those are.

The data screens for workouts (Walk/Run/Cardio/Other) can be changed in true Garmin form. Workouts track mostly heart rate although they do record steps too for Walk/Run. On a small walk I did I found the Vivosmart HR compared with Endomondo tracking on the phone yielded 1.89Km, Vs 2.39(for the GPS) or it was off by -21%.

The trakker can not connect to any external sensors, not heart rate sensors, not wheel sensors, nada. It can broadcast the heart rate on ANT+, but not to bluetooth (which you would want to send it back to your phone), although you can not view any other screens while in broadcast mode. You can brilliantly lock the screen in broadcast mode to avoid it coming out of that mode. (Press and hold front button).

The unit has a barometric altimeter which means it can count floors, as well as the usual step counts. Goals can be set for steps, as well as floors and you congratulated with a nice buzz and a graphic when you meet it.

I’ve read on other forums that the heart rate sampling rate varies depending on how active you are. This would be a little more problematic to know your resting heart rate, but I get it, they are trying to preserve battery life. Overall I found anytime I looked at the heart rate the data was immediately available and updated quickly. I do wish Garmin would give some info other than hi/low for the days heart rate. Maybe like average, or average while awake etc. Having data is great, having information is useful. Without analysis what is the point in collecting the data? The light from the heart rate sensor bleeds out from under the trakker ever so slightly on my wrist, when wearing it a comfortable tightness, not enough to bother my sleep but I can see it. The heart rate monitor can be turned off to save battery life, and it will turn back on when you do an activity, or want to broadcast it. But they do forget to turn it back off afterwards so be aware of that.

As with other Garmins, notifications just work and are well done. Fibit could learn a thing or two … The notifications are reasonably strong, but you can not program any patterns to the notifications. One buzz and that’s it. There’s a screen where you can review your past notifications. If you turn this screen off, you all of a sudden loose even the buzzing notifications. Odd.

Sleep is all automatically tracked, and somewhat accurate. As an example of stupid, I take my band off and go up and shower. I know I can shower with it on but don’t see the point. It knows I’m not wearing it, in that it turns the heart rate monitor off. Then I put it back on and look at my sleep and it decided while I was in the shower I was sleeping.

There’s a nice weather app you can call up or see on your home screen. A great add and something I always have on my smartwatches. Love it! I’m a little unclear on the update frequency of the app. It seemed to get stuck sometimes 😦 And there’s no way to see how stale the data your being presented and it never seems to expire, giving you the impression it’s current when it may not be.

There’s a nice Music controls screen that will allow you to FWD/RWD and play pause. Only thing missing would be volume controls. But this is a simple and nice touch!

Battery status is completely hidden, and all you get is a small battery Gauge inside the information section with 4 bars.

Alarms work and are quite loud and almost impossible to miss. They are set from the phone but can be viewed on the tracker.

As with past Garmin trackers there is a move reminder and a move bar to tell you to get off your butt 🙂

Sadly Garmin have left off a countdown timer and stopwatch function. Waaaaaa

Pushing and holding the button the on front brings up the ability to lock the screen as well as the ability to power off the tracker when not in use … Yay!

So what do you loose over the Vivosmart 3?
– heart rate is not truly all day so resting heart rate may not be accurate.
– no VO2 Max (it’s a calculated guess I am not sure I care)
– HRV (was hidden behind a silly stress score so who cares)
– no timer

That’s about it. For less than half the price …

Let’s talk a bit about heart rate accuracy. As mentioned in previous posts optical heart rate sensors, and more specifically wrist worn ones are a crap shoot for accuracy. It depends on your size, coloring, how tight you wear it, and what your doing when you care about your heart rate. Let’s have a quick look. We will look primarily at average heart rates. Min/Max can be misleading if the data is off for brief periods of time such as a flexing wrist. I will compare the data against a chest strap. In this case a Polar H7 or Wahoo TICKR both of which I have found to be super accurate when compared with each other as well as a Garmin chest strap.

For the graphs below I tried a different method of processing the data. Sadly it gives me less control in how to format the graph. I’m not happy with the results but the old conversion tools had troubles with this data set.

First off just sitting around working at my desk typing for a little over half an hour. This is about as easy as it gets. The Vivosmart HR got 83 BPM Vs 82 for the chest strap.

Next up I went for a 20 mins fast paced walk and both agreed on an average HR of 110 bpm. And here’s a graph of the data:

Next Up I did a five minute stair walk up and down 9 floors. The Vivosmart HR got 120 bpm Vs 116 for the chest strap or a difference of only 3%.

Next up a roughly 2 hour kayak trip. The chest strap got an average heart rate of 106 and the Vivosmart HR 102. Calorie wise the Fenix 3 got 354 and the Vivosmart HR got 542, so calorie count is wonky but average heart rate is pretty close. Every so often there was an odd variation between the two. And here’s a graph of the data:

One of the places wrist based heart rate monitors do badly often is cycling … First up a road ride. On an hour and a half ride both the chest strap and the Vivosmart HR got 114 average BPM. Oddly my fenix said 380 calories while the Vivosmart HR said a whopping 610. So the calorie count is a bit wonky here. Here’s a graph of the data:

Next up an epic 3 hours mountain biking ride … The chest strap got an average of 162 BPM while the vivosmart HR got 153. That’s impressive, and one of the first times I’ve seen a wrist based heart rate come as close as this. And my Fenix showed 1739 calories Vs 1819 for the Vivosmart HR. So all in all very good. Now visually I saw the heart rate being off by well over 20 BPM so while you can use this for average calorie count, using it for zones may not be all that useful. Here’s a graph of the data:

Battery life is advertised at 5 days, and I got 5.5 when the low battery alert came up. No idea how much longer it would have gone beyond that. Recharge took a little over an hour. With the heart rate turned off I got 10.5 days and that’s including about 8 hours of heart rate broadcast.

So I have to say, the data on this is shockingly good. Not good enough to be used for zones without the occasional mis-trigger, but otherwise quite good. Calorie count is just inconsistent, which is problematic if you are trying to use it to compare against other workouts.

All in all I have to say I am HUGELY impressed with this tracker. Probably one of the best on the market right now. Better accuracy for some reason than the Vivosmart 3 (which is newer). Full sun readable, backlit display. And give the price of this in refurb it’s a BB Bargoon.


June 29, 2017 - Posted by | Activity Trackers

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