(Pocket-lint) - Garmin is well known for its navigation products and running watches, but it's a company with more to offer in the wider consumer space too. That's exactly where the Garmin Vivofit activity tracker is aimed: a wearable wrist device able to track your daily steps, calories burned, distance travelled, how well you've slept, and assign goals to improve your health. Then use the Garmin Connect app to map it all out visually and see how you're doing.
But unlike the many others out there that require frequent recharging the Vivofit opts for long-life batteries that can last for over a whole year. Does this battery longevity make for an ideal wearable or does such power-saving mean the Vivofit sacrifices other important functions? We've been wearing one for some weeks to see how it fits not just onto the wrist, but into our lives.
The Vivofit has a simple strap made of rubberised plastic that's both functional and really comfortable. The clip pops into two holes and in all the weeks we've used it, it has never come loose once.
It's a waterproof device so if you swim then you needn't take it off (although there aren't any specific swimming features). Out of the water is the Vivofit's main focus for step-tracking.
It's easy to use too, with a single button controlling everything for the utmost simplicity. Each button press cycles through the menus to display what you need in large clear numbers. It's a bit like what Nike does with the FuelBand SE if you've ever seen one of those. And if not then no problem, the Vivofit makes sense from the off.
The main unit can be removed from the strap with a simple unclipping mechanism. That way, should you want to, the Vivofit can be worn in a pocket or sock to suit different activities. Since it's a device to be always worn we didn't find a need for this - but it's nice to see Garmin has thought about it.
The Vivofit has a passive LCD screen that stays on all year round and does its job of presenting various digits very well. However, it's not an illuminated screen - it can't be to conserve battery life - so when you're in the dark you won't be able to see what's what. If you've got a specific goal and are out in the dark that might annoy, but that's the trade-off for long battery life.
The display also features a very handy "Time to Move" readout in the form of red bars along the top. These appear in order to let you know you've been inactive for too long. Again, it's a bit like the way in which the Nike FuelBand SE displays coloured lights to show how near to your goal you are, except in Garmin's case it's more directly to keep you motivated.
A red bar appears after an hour of inactivity, and grows the longer you're inactive. That red colour is a nice touch as it does instill a certain sense of urgency when you look at it - often enough to get us walking. You'll need to cover a good few minutes of walking to get that bar to vanish, so when glued to the desk we'd often just have to ignore it.
The Garmin Vivofit's key function is to track steps using its built-in accelerometer. But it also does more, including being able to measure your calories burned with some accuracy. However, there's no altimeter so when running up that hill - while listening to Kate Bush, obviously - without the presence of wrist-based heart-rate monitoring will mean faster-paced jogging, running and cycling activities will have calorie-burn accuracy based on software than exact science.
But the Vivofit is not limited to just measuring. The device also learns your levels of daily activity and adapts your daily goals to keep you progressing. In a device that's all about ease this is a great touch. We never really needed to use the app sync and deep dive into Garmin Connect as our goals were automatically updated and we could see right there and then on our wrist if we were hitting them or not.
For some the ability to set goals manually might be more desirable, but the Vivofit isn't about minutiae control, it's about simplicity. So if you want more hands-on control then a device like the Fitbit Flex might be better suited.
Garmin has opted to include its often loved ANT+ connectivity, which means a chest-based heart-rate monitor (sold separately) can be used in conjunction with the Vivofit. The monitor straps around the chest to track heart rate while you're moving, which is now a little dated when it comes to wearables. Not to mention uncomfortable and for something like a step tracker it's just a bit unnecessary in our view. If that suits you for going on a run, though, then it will mean more accurate calculations - and it's not like you need to wear the chest strap all the time.
The Vivofit can't go the whole hog and connect with cycling trackers and additional sensors to measure cadence and such like, so for that you'll need a more dedicated device. Not a criticism really, just not where the Vivofit is aimed.
For those wanting to track their sleep the always-on nature of the Vivofit also makes it ideal, if you're happy to wear it at all times. How accurate it is at telling you how much shut-eye you've achieved using just an accelerometer is debatable - but we found it showed peaks and troughs to our deep sleep patterns, just as other similar trackers have. There's no alarm function (audio and vibration lack) so it's more for analysis than for any smart wake-ups.
The Vivofit uses good old Bluetooth to connect to a separate device, such as a smartphone. We say old but it's Bluetooth 4.0 - otherwise known as LE or low energy - which means it can connect to an iPhone or Android device to sync data.
Perhaps ours was faulty but the Bluetooth connection seemed a bit hit and miss, often taking a few attempts to make a connection. Data trickles across at a slow pace but for those battery-saving advantages it's not an issue - presuming you don't have a month's worth to upload at once.
Like with most activity trackers synching is an active decision that you need to remember to do - and with a device such as the Vivofit, which is all about simplicity, that might be easily forgotten.
In the interests of keeping things simple, the Vivofit forces you to use the Garmin Connect app to sync and analyse data. It's fine but third-party app access would have been nice, even if it carries the risk of overcomplicating available features. If you're into the likes of MyFitnessPal or Runkeeper then you won't be able to share your data across platforms since Garmin is opting for a closed ecosystem. If you've never heard of those popular staples then you've got nothing to worry about.
The Garmin Connect app offers some fun features, including a social angle allowing you to share your results with others, should that be something you wish to do. But more importantly Gamin automatically adds you into weekly challenges where you're grouped with people of similar activity levels. This means you can compete with other devices feeding data into the same app. Cool idea.
Most activity trackers are yet another gadget requiring charging anywhere from every day or two, through to a whole week of juice if you're lucky. The Vivofit turns that on its head with a full year of charge from its two CR1632 coin-shaped batteries, just like those you might find in a watch. Not only do you not have to charge it but you also needn't remove the Vivofit from your wrist pretty much ever.
Of course after a full year or so you will need to swap those batteries at a cost of around £2.50 total. Hardly going to break the bank. We've not had the device running for nearly that long to check the process of change, but when it comes to replacing the batteries you'll also need a small Philips screwdriver and a coin to open the battery slot.
We found ourselves using this tracker far longer than many others we've seen. Charging an activity tracker is kind of like getting ill while training - it's harder to get back into exercising again after. The Vivofit is always there and up for the challenge so you never lose that momentum.
The Gamin Vivofit does exactly what you want a simple activity tracker to do: track your daily steps, distance travelled, calories burned and then present that in a format that's easy to understand. The device even learns your habits and automatically generates daily goals, plus you can monitor your sleep patterns if you never take the device off.
If you want more accuracy and control for specific sports activities then the Vivofit might be less suitable than a device with more features. The Vivofit is restricted to Garmin Connect (no third party apps here), lacks wrist-based heart-rate monitoring (it's optional chest-based via ANT+ only), there's no GPS linking via phone, no altimeter, or vibration function for alerts and alarms. If you want such things then you'll need to look elsewhere and up the budget too.
But even without a full raft of features, the simple nature of the Vivofit is endearing and it will be apt for a large audience who won't want to get bogged down in detail or tech. The main drawback most will find is the passive LCD doesn't illuminate, so can't be seen in the dark. But that's all for the sake of year-long battery - something no other tracker we've used offers.
We've used the Garmin Vivofit for longer than any other activity tracker and enjoyed using it because it so easily integrated into our lives without the need to stop and think. For the price it's a great way to invest in activity tracking and try to get more active.