Offering a lighter and simpler approach than more established sports watches, fitness bands have appeared on wrists across the world, wanting to track, remind, motivate and accompany you through your daily grind.
Many are over-ambitious, many are under-featured, but few are as accomplished as the Garmin Vivosmart HR+.
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Garmin Vivosmart HR+ review: Design
Sticking to band design, the Vivosmart HR+ offers a compact form factor, measuring about 20mm wide across, with a thickness of around 13mm through the main body, before slimming into the strap.
The hard body of the Vivosmart HR+ meets the rubbered strap, finished with a textured outer surface and a smoother inner. The sections are screwed together, so there's no swapping bands here as you'll find on the Fitbit Charge 2, but the strap is soft and comfortable to wear, and flexible enough to get a good fit.
The band comes in two sizes for regular or x-large wrists (Garmin's words not ours). We found the regular size fit us well enough; for those with really small wrists, the size limiter really is the length of the device. The main body section is hard for about 55mm, so if your wrist is smaller in width, it might be less comfortable to wear.
The Vivosmart HR+ is designed to be worn snugly. Unlike a basic step/motion tracking band, as this aims to detect your heart rate, you'll have to make sure the optical heart rate sensor on the rear doesn't move around too much, which we found no problem with.
There's a 25.3 x 10.7mm display on the top that's touch enabled and a single button beneath it, providing all the interaction with this device. Though these you'll swipe through information and functions and use the button to start and stop your exercise tracking.
There's a lot crammed into the Vivosmart HR+, but it's not the prettiest device around if we're being critical. It looks good, but the Fitbit Charge 2 offers a little more flexibility with its changeable straps and we think looks a little better too. However, this Garmin is a little smarter than its Fitbit rival.
Garmin Vivosmart HR+ review: Features and functions
The Vivosmart HR+ has a wide range of features. Starting with the most obvious, you'll notice from the name that it includes HR - heart rate - with an optical sensor on the back. This takes your heart rate from your wrist and the Vivosmart will both detect and monitor your average heart rate through the day and more precisely measure it during activities, like running.
The "+" on the end is a little more significant, as this is the part that sets this Vivosmart apart from most other fitness bands. The + is for GPS. This GPS will monitor your location during activities, meaning you can run and get an accurate route and distance trace, where other devices rely on an estimated distance based on average step length.
Aside from those sports features, the Vivosmart HR+ offers step tracking. This is as you'll find on any number of fitness bands, from the Fitbit Flex to the Misfit Ray and here it's used to monitor your activity, reminding you to move when you've been sitting still for too long and giving you a picture of how active you are throughout the day.
Sleep tracking rounds out the lifestyle tracking side of things. If you can sleep wearing a band like this it will keep track of how long you're sleeping for, as well as taking your heart rate when you're in the land of nod.
The advantage that the Vivosmart HR+ has over other devices is that it's all self-contained: it offers all the functions of a basic fitness band and it offers the essential functions from a running watch in the same package.
That makes it one of the smallest and lightest devices that will do all of these jobs, as this combination of functions is usually offered in a watch, like the Fitbit Surge or the TomTom Spark. The advantage that this Garmin offers is avoiding the need to have more than one device for different jobs.
The disadvantage, by the same measure, is that the size limits some of the functions it offers compared to a fully-fledged running watch. The Vivosmart doesn't profess to track a huge range of different activity types. The main focus is running, with support for indoor and outdoor, but there's also support for walking and a generic "cardio" and finally "other", giving you some way to categorise your activity. There's no support for swimming, but there is waterproofing to 5 ATM.
Garmin Vivosmart HR+ review: Performance and battery life
With so much packed into the Garmin Vivosmart HR+, it's no surprise that it's fairly easy to drain the battery. The battery will give you around 3 or 4 days of use, including plenty of recorded sports activity. Naturally, the less you use features like the heart rate sensor and the GPS the longer it will last so you can stretch it further.
The battery is charged via a clip-on USB charger, which is quick and easy to attach and importantly, it is secure.
Step tracking is accurate enough, closely reflecting the sort of values we've achieved with a Fitbit Flex. You can change the target for the day and set it higher than the default 7500 and closer to the 10,000 steps that's being touted as a figure to aim for by a number of health authorities.
Ad hoc movement is recorded, but using Garmin's Move IQ system the Vivosmart will automatically detect activities it recognises. For example, if you saunter to the shops to buy some milk, that's just steps. If you head out to walk the dog for an hour, it detects that walking and categorises it as a walk.
This isn't recorded in the same way as manually starting a run, so if it's detailed information you're after, you have to select what you're doing and hit the start button.
We tested the heart rate sensor and GPS alongside a Garmin Forerunner 610 with a chest strap and found the results to be comparable. The optical based heart rate scanner is a little slower to react to a change in heart rate, probably because it collects data less frequently, but over the course of a 45-minute run, we had the same average heart rate result from both devices.
Heart rate is broken down in to zones to help guide you toward getting the right intensity for your desired aims, but there's little guidance as to what these values mean. In this sense, Garmin isn't being quite as beginner-friendly as Finnish rivals Polar, whose Flow app is a little more lifestyle-groomed than Garmin Connect. Garmin presents your data, Polar interprets it for you.
The GPS is a little slow to attract a signal on cold use (i.e., first time or in a new location), but once it knows where it is, subsequent connections are much faster, under a minute on average. You'll need a clear view of the sky, so on first use it's worth putting the Vivosmart HR+ outside to get that connection. There's no option to take the GPS signal from your phone - something that the TomTom Spark 3 offers - and that sort of option would be a great addition to the Vivosmart.
We found the GPS route and distance to be pretty accurate, although it does cut some corners (literally), suggesting it doesn't log the data points as regularly as some larger devices. This is probably to prevent excessive battery drain, but for this type of device the results are accurate enough and better than the guesstimate of other devices.
Naturally, all the information is presented on that small top display, with the ability to swipe through the stats about your activity. On the run you'll get time, distance, pace, calories burnt, heart rate and the zone you're in. The display is illuminated so you can view in light or dark conditions, but one of the drawbacks compared to a larger watch is that you're limited in how much data you can view in one glance at your wrist. That means you have to swipe repeatedly, as only two pieces of information can be displayed at any time.
Garmin VivosmartHR+ review: Garmin Connect app
Modern devices aren't designed to be used in isolation and that brings us back to the app we've just mentioned, Garmin Connect. Garmin has been making fitness and sports devices for a long time - especially compared to relative newcomers like Fitbit.
The Garmin Connect system and app has been around for some time too, presenting your information in app form and through its website. It has evolved from a fairly data-heavy place to somewhere that's becoming increasingly lifestyle oriented, as more devices are launched to appeal to those who want to track things 24/7, rather than just running or cycling.
With the Vivosmart bridging the gap between lifestyle and running with its unique feature set, the app needs to support both these sides. It offers a range of "snapshots" that give you glanceable information: a summary of your step progress, the key stats from your last run, your weight and so on. These can be customised to only show the information you want to see.
Thereafter you can dive deeper into things like your runs, where you can view the route, your averages, all your stats broken down, your lap times and graphs for heart rate and pace. Once you reach these areas of Garmin Connect, it starts to feel more like the app it used to be, for those more interested in sports performance.
It even does step cadence, something of an advanced feature for a device of this type, which may be a case of it giving you data because it can, not because it's particularly useful to the user.
This is a universal app for all your Garmin devices so if you have a bike computer or have used another Garmin watch for example, you'll find the data all in one place.
Garmin will let you link up this data, so if you'd rather see it elsewhere you can, for example hooking up with Strava or MyFitnessPal if you want monitor your calorie intake more closely.
Best of all, the Garmin Vivosmart doesn't need connecting to your PC. Although you can connect it to Garmin Express to update firmware and sync data, for most people it will be the connection to the phone that's important. We found this to be a solid connection and Garmin Connect is a stable app on Android where we tested it.
Garmin Vivosmart HR+ review: Smart functions
Aside from the sports and fitness functions, the Vivosmart HR+ joins the party in offering you notifications from your phone. This is something that Garmin has looked at across its range of devices. That means you'll get incoming calls, messages and other app notifications on your wrist with a vibration.
The size of the display means that some of these are a little squished and you don't get the experience here that you'll find on a better-sized watch like the Polar M600 with its full Android Wear treatment, but at least you're getting something to alert you. If you're walking the dog you can glance and see that you don't need to read that Facebook message - and that's what notifications are good for. This is an advantage over some devices that only offer basic calls and messages, rather than third-party notifications too.
You'll also get music controls, meaning you can play and pause or skip tracks on your phone. That might save you getting your phone out of your pocket, so it's a feature worth having, although there's no support for making this a standalone music device: you can't transfer songs onto it to listen to while out running.
There is also control for Garmin's Virb cameras, meaning you can remotely start and stop recording from your wrist. All in all, it's a comprehensive package, but it's the combination of 24/7 activity tracking and the more advanced support for running and other activities that gives the Vivosmart HR+ its appeal.
The Garmin Vivosmart HR+ is something of a surprise package, stuffing a lot of functionality into a device that's only a little larger than some other fitness tracker bands.
It's a little more expensive than most at £169.99, but it's the feature set that appeals, as you might save yourself the need to have two devices to record all that information.
The Garmin Vivosmart HR+ is an ideal device for someone who wants to track daily activity as well as record runs or walks in more detail, but doesn't want to go the whole hog and start wearing a running watch all the time.
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