For the past couple of years, the Vivoactive has filled an essential space in Garmin's product roster. It's the smartwatch with advanced fitness tracking, similar in features to the likes of the Fenix or Forerunner watches, but in a more compact body and at a much more affordable price.

The Vivoactive 4 continues that legacy. For its fourth-generation, the design has been improved, features have been added, the excellent tracking retained, making this one of the easiest fitness-focused smartwatches to recommend to anyone. 

Design

  • Measures: 45.1 x 45.1 x 12.8mm
  • Size options: 40mm and 44mm
  • Stainless steel bezel
  • 5 ATM waterproofing
  • Weighs: 50.5g

With the previous model - the Vivoactive 3 - Garmin implemented what it thought was an advanced, minimal design: building just the one single button to go alongside the touchscreen and the touch-sensitive swipe sensor on the side of the casing. Sadly, it wasn't all that practical. We found ourselves having to constantly lock the button and touch inputs throughout the day to avoid accidentally starting or stopping activity tracking.

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With the Vivoactive 4, Garmin has seen sense and completely changed the controls for the better. There's no more touch-sensitive swiping pad on the left side of the watch. The single central button of old has been replaced by two much slimmer buttons, positioned to the top and bottom of the right side.

Given how slim these buttons are, and their placement, it's difficult to press them accidentally. What we found when doing exercises with kettlebells - or even push-ups, which require the wrist to be bent back - was that the back of our hand didn't easily reach the buttons, so couldn't push them in.

It might seem like a minor issue, but in daily use, it's a vital and important change. We never really needed to use the button lock feature when exercising, or through the day, and never experienced our Vivoactive 4 launching into an activity seemingly of its own accord. It's a much calmer, less frustrating experience.

From an aesthetics standpoint, this change also results in a silhouette that's svelte and minimal, rather than one that has an awkward button sticking right out in the middle of the frame. This is helped further by the soft curve on the edge of the glass that covers the screen, and the curving in the metal that extends out towards the strap. Overall, it's a sleek, attractive-looking watch; it's not a big, chunky number that screams "outdoor adventure" like some previous models.

As you'd suspect, Garmin offers more than one size of Vivoactive 4. There's the smaller 40mm one for those with smaller wrists (or just prefer smaller watch faces), and the 44mm model. Along with different sizes comes different colours, which are limited to the size editions. For instance, if you want pink and gold, that's only available as a 40mm watch. If you want 44mm, you have the choice between black with slate or shadow grey with silver hardware.

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Now, of course, you can change the look up somewhat. Garmin has included a quick-release strap, and sells additional versions in different colours and materials. However, with it being a standard 22mm strap (on the 44mm model), it's really not all that difficult to just find a style and material that suits you.

With all that said, we're big fans of the default silicone straps that come with Garmin watches. Not only are these comfortable and easy to wear all day, but they're always really versatile and designed to fit virtually any wrist size thanks to the plethora of clasp holes, how close together they are, and how far up the strap they extend.

Furthermore the Vivoactive 4 is built to last in wet and windy environments, and you have a watch that'll probably survive a rain storm better than you. Trust us, we know. In our period of testing we got caught in a horrendous hail storm for 10 minutes right near the blustering coast, and while we wanted to die, the watch just carried on as if nothing was happening.

You can take it swimming if you want too. as it's water proof to 5ATM (50 meters) and offers a few different swim-tracking modes.

Versatile tracking

  • Tracks sleep, tiredness and stress
  • GPS and motion tracking for exercise

One of the biggest reasons to opt for a Vivoactive 4 is its versatility. Yes, it can do all the basic fitness tracking things like monitor your steps and movement throughout the day, and track your sleep through the night, but being Garmin it goes a lot deeper than that.

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One of the new features added for 2020 is the body battery feature, which uses the level of exercise you've done, measures how much rest you've had through the day (and night), then tells you how much capacity you have left in your biological battery.

A big part of the reason we're big fans of Garmin's watches is actually the Connect app. It's what pulls in all of the data from your watch, onto your smartphone, and gives you a thorough and useful overview of your trends and statistics - whether that's your sleep quality or your running/workout performance.

It's versatile in that you can just stick to the basic data collation that appears on the app's home screen, or you can dig much deeper into the menus and really see the minute details in your daily performance and activities.

Let's say you want to see how your VO2 Max is improving (or decreasing) over time, you can dive into your health/performance stats to see that. The Performance Stats segment of the app also allows you to dive into training status (maintaining/gaining/losing fitness), as well as Pulse Ox (oxygen levels in your blood), among other data points.

Health Stats, on the other hand, is an area more focused on your daily health measurements, such as sleep, weight, calories, respiration, heart rate, body battery, hydration, as well as stress levels.

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The one thing the Vivoactive 4 is not always so good at tracking is sleep. If, for instance, you happen to stay up late one evening watching a movie or bingeing on a Netflix show (within your usual sleep time), it'll sometimes count this as part of your sleeping. This skews the sleep data and patterns it builds for you. Other times, if you wake up in the night and walk about, it'll only save/track the sleep you get after you got up, showing you only got a handful of hours sleep. It doesn't happen all the time, but we did find maybe once a week there'd be a sleep tracking error.

Basic smarts

  • Notification mirroring, for iOS and Android
  • Reflective 40mm or 44mm LCD screen
  • 260 x 260 resolution 
  • Offline music and Garmin Pay

If what you're after in a smartwatch is one that's interactive, with notifications you can reply to, vibrant graphics and fluid animations, Garmin isn't for you. However, as a pure, functional piece of tech, it's hard to criticise. The interface on the screen might not be as pretty or engaging as the Apple Watch, but in some ways that's a good thing.

Part of the reason behind this is the technology used in the display. Like most of its wrist-worn devices, Garmin's screen isn't constantly backlit and uses a low refresh rate reflective LCD technology, much like a more advanced version of what you see on a digital watch or calculator. This enables battery life that far exceeds regular smartwatches. It also means a display that's constantly showing the time; it never turns off.

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When it comes to notifications, you essentially just see a list an alert that mirrors the notifications on your phone. You can't really reply to them, by voice or any other way. But it means you can still see what alert just arrived on your phone, and decide whether or not it's important enough to get your phone out to pay it more attention.

The notifications show different icons for different alerts, so you can tell if it's just a new SMS message, missed phone call, email, or news alert. This way, you're never really glued to your watch screen anywhere near as much as you might be with your Apple Watch or Google WearOS watch. You can also glance at your calendar appointments for the day. 

Despite the more basic graphics, you can still do a lot of things on the Vivoactive 4 that you can do on any other smartwatch. You can download and store music offline from supported providers like Deezer, Spotify and Amazon. If your bank supports Garmin Pay (and not many do), you can make payments at contactless terminals. It's not as convenient and quick as Apple Watch - because it relies on you putting in a PIN code before arming the payment - but it comes in useful if in a pinch.

One thing you can do, that Apple Watch users can't, is install third-party and user-created watch faces. There are tonnes of them available in the Connect IQ store, along with apps and widgets.

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Then there's the interface itself, which is pretty simple and functional in its approach. The watch has a touchscreen, so you can just swipe up and down on it to scroll through any widgets you've decided to add. That means an easy way to quickly see an overview of your stats and activities. And if there's a data point for it, there's usually a full watch screen widget for it too, so you can customise this as you please.

Running/Performance

  • GPS + GLONASS tracking
  • Coaching plans/workout animations
  • Up to 8 days battery in smartwatch use

While the Vivoactive 4 is capable of tracking and measuring a number of different outdoor and indoor activities, we predominantly used ours for running.

We had tried it a couple of times with HIIT kettlebell workouts, but it faces the same issues we've experienced with virtually every fitness tracker or smartwatch (except Apple Watch) in recent years: it doesn't accurately track heart rate in high intensity intervals. Despite a rapidly rising heart rate, the watch kept showing that we were in the 'barely warming up' zone, even when we could feel the opposite, and our Apple Watch on another wrist shows a more accurate representation.

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For running, however, the Vivoactive 4 is a class act. You get a good amount of data when on a run, a good breakdown afterwards with relatively accurate distance and route tracking, and you can have the routes automatically uploaded to Strava.

One of Garmin's best features is the training plans you can load to your watch. You can start plans to speed up your 5k pace, or get through to the end of a 10k, setting your own desired pace goal. You then get to choose from three different coaches, who each has their own way of getting you to your goal. Some focus on mostly pace/cadence acceleration drills, with others focus on stamina, endurance and getting you recovery runs in.

Once your coaching plan is set, it automatically loads and syncs the schedule to your watch. On any training day you just start up a run, accept the training for that day (having read what that entails on the phone first) and then just head out without your phone.

For non-runners, you can now choose from a list of workouts to save and then you can work through them with animations on your screen telling you how to do that particular workout; whether that be squats, jumping jacks or burpees (among many others).

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As for battery life, we never quite got up to the eight days of use as a smartwatch. More than likely because we also used it four times a week for working out/running. In reality, we got something closer to maybe five or six days between charges. It's worth noting, we never let it run completely flat, but we did get it down to 10 per cent most times before charging it up again.

Verdict

The Vivoactive 4 takes a lot of what's great about the more expensive Fenix and Forerunner devices and compresses that into a compact and far more affordable device.

Criticisms are only small: the display isn't great, but does encourage longer battery life than some rivals; while the heart-rate monitoring isn't spot on for all activities.

Overall, however, the Vivoactive 4 is an excellent fitness watch that won't cost the earth. It'll be a perfect companion for many.

Alternatives to consider

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Garmin Forerunner 645 Music

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Garmin's Forerunner 645 Music does a lot of what the Vivoactive 4 does, but has only button control, there's no touchscreen, and it features a slightly more premium experience.

Fitbit

Fitbit Ionic

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Fitbit's offering carries with it a lot of lifestyle appeal, while offering many of the same top-line functions as the Forerunner 645 Music. It offers Fitbit Pay, music on the move - with Deezer playlist syncing - and will track your steps, sleep, heart rate, and all your sports performance. There's more of a lifestyle angle though, with Garmin offering greater and better data, plus better battery life.