Over recent years, Garmin's Vivoactive has assumed the role as the company's answer to the Apple Watch, the Samsung Galaxy Watch and Google's army of Wear OS watches. One thing that has been missing from that riposte has been a proper colour display. But that changes with the arrival of the Garmin Venu.

The new addition to the Garmin family is the first to feature an always-on AMOLED touchscreen display. Along with the new screen, you can expect the usual array of sports tracking skills alongside features like payments and a music player to give it its smartwatch credentials. That's all while keeping the battery life longer than most of its rivals.

Design

  • Size option: 43mm diameter only
  • Measures: 12.4mm thickness
  • 5ATM Waterproofing
  • Stainless steel bezel
  • Weight: 46.3g

While the Venu is a new range for Garmin, its design is clearly inspired by watches that already exist in its collection of watches. Most notably, the Vivoactive series.

You're getting a fully round 43mm case, which means it sits in-between the Vivoactive 4 and the 4S in terms of size. That's partnered with one of Garmin's 20mm, sporty silicone quick-release watch bands. If you want something less sporty looking, there are optional bands available in suede, leather and milanese at various price points.

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That Venu's casing is made of the same polymer materials as the Vivoactive, while a stainless steel bezel breaks up an otherwise pretty minimalist and 'safe' look.

The Venu is Garmin's attempt to offer a more lifestyle option - and that's reflected in some of the colour combinations you can buy. There's four models in total, including two that feature more eye-catching gold bezels. These are certainly some of Garmin's nicest-looking watches, though it's a look that still firmly feels rooted in its sporty roots. 

They're not bad looking watches, but it would have been nice to have seen Garmin channel more from its Vivomove and Marq collections to add a bit more wow factor to the Venu.

The Venu measures in at 12.4mm thick, which means it's not quite as slender as an Apple Watch or a Samsung Galaxy Watch Active. It doesn't feel like a chunky watch, though, and does feel nicely weighted to wear day and at night.

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Around the back of the watch casing is where you'll find Garmin's own Elevate heart-rate sensor technology, which also includes a Pulse OX sensor to offer richer sleep metrics and more useful data when you're working out at high altitude. That's also joined by the four pin charging port, which has thankfully now seemingly become the universal charging standard on Garmin's watches.

Breaking up the otherwise streamlined design are two physical buttons that sit quite flush with the casing. They're textured, too, making them nicer to locate when your hands get sweaty. They also offer an alternative way to interact with the headline feature - the colour display.

Display

  • 1.2-inch AMOLED panel
  • 390 x 390 resolution
  • Touchscreen control

This is the first time Garmin has ever included a full colour AMOLED touchscreen display on one of its watches. Until now all of its watches have employed a form of transflective display technology with the aim of offering something that's viewable in all lighting conditions and can still help the watch deliver long battery life.

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For the Venu, Garmin has used a 1.2-inch display. To put that into perspective with fellow circular smartwatches, the largest Galaxy Watch Active 2 features a 1.4-inch one, while Fossil's Gen 5 smartwatch includes a 1.28-inch one. So while Garmin doesn't offer a class-leading smartwatch display, it has all the characteristics you'd expect from a good quality screen. It's bright, offers good colours and the kind of strong, deep blacks you'd associate with a great AMOLED display. 

If you care about having an always-on display, you do have that option here too, but much like the Apple Watch's always-on mode, this does have an impact on the battery life.

Tracking galore

  • Tracks respiration and blood oxygen
  • Animated workouts and better yoga support

Away from that colour new display, this is a Garmin watch that typically comes brimming with the kind of features that make it as well equipped to track steps and sleep as it is at tracking pool swims and treadmill runs.

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There's no shortage of sensors on board here: GPS, GLONASS and GALILEO satellite systems are supported to give you plenty of coverage when you're outdoors. Picking up a signal is nice and quick and mapping accuracy and real-time metrics is on point - just as you'd expect from a Garmin watch. 

A barometric altimeter means you can track elevation during exercise, while the new pulse oximeter sensor measures saturation of oxygen in the bloodstream. This latter reading is useful for assessing your ability to handle high intensity activity and can also help to detect sleep disorders. Switching this pulse oximeter sensor on does hammer the battery life though.

Along with the pulse oximeter, Garmin is now also offering the ability to track respiration during sleep and select workouts like yoga as another metric to help assess your fitness levels.

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Running, golf, cycling and swimming (pool only) make up the Venus core sports modes, but in true Garmin fashion there is room to add additional profiles too. For runners, you'll also get support for Coach, Garmin's adaptive running training program that you can sync to the watch to follow from the wrist.

Along with existing rep counting, the new display also brings animated on-screen workouts. These are primarily designed for activities like Pilates and yoga - letting you follow preset workouts or create custom ones that you can simply follow on the Venu's display. Those animated workouts are nice and easy to follow and offer enough in the way of instructions to ensure you are doing those exercises properly.

Away from more serious sports tracking, the Venu also double up as a pretty decent fitness tracker too. You're getting Garmin staples like adaptive step goals, its body battery monitor to assess energy reserves, and the Move Bar to indicate periods of inactivity.

Step counts were pretty well in-line with a Fitbit tracker we pitted it against. Sleep tracking can be a little hit-and-miss on the accuracy front, though with the addition of respiration tracking and the pulse oximeter, that data is now richer and more insightful than before. You do have to be willing to sacrifice battery life to get those additional insights though.

As is standard on all of Garmin's watches, there is a heart-rate monitor in tow, which is used for measuring effort levels during workouts and for unlocking additional health insights and simply letting you take on-the-spot readings.

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For workouts, Garmin's HR monitors have made big improvements in recent years in terms of accurately tracking high intensity training. For evenly tempoed runs, that heart-rate data was well in line with a Polar heart rate monitor chest strap for maximum and average readings for those sessions - usually no more than 1-2bpm out between the two sources, which is decent.

When you get into activities like interval indoor rowing or running, the real-time heart rate data can look a little different in terms of reacting to the changes and quick fluctuations in heart rate. On the whole, it's a reliable sensor for exercise, but if you don't trust it, there's ANT+ connectivity letting you pair up a chest strap to get something more reliable.

Smartwatch features 

  • View notifications for iPhone and Android
  • Music storage for up to 5,000 songs
  • Garmin Pay

While Garmin is pretty adept at taking care of most of your health and fitness tracking needs, it's certainly playing catch-up on the smartwatch front.

The Venu is compatible with iPhone and Android phones, bringing you largely the same experience across the two platforms. The major difference is the inability to reject calls or respond to texts, which remains an Android-only feature.

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You're getting the ability to view notifications, control music playing on your phone, and transfer music to the watch, including that much desirable support for offline Spotify playlists. It takes a few minutes to get that all setup, but once it's up and running and you've downloaded your playlists, you're good to go running without your phone.

As far as delivering messages from your WhatsApp conversations and calendar appointments, the Venu goes about it all in a very functional and useful way. It does the job - although it's not as slick as an Apple Watch.

Garmin Pay and the ability to grab a bottle of water from a store when you're out on a run has always been a feature that's felt like a good match for sporty smartwatches. It worked fine on Venu on those occasions we put it to use - and thankfully supported banks are growing.

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If you care about apps, there is support for Garmin Connect's IQ Store. Here you can download apps, watch faces, data fields and widgets. It does require downloading an additional phone app to do it and downloading can be a bit slow, even for small apps. You'll need to hunt out the best stuff, but if you like the idea of fitness data-rich watch faces, you're well catered for here.

The look and feel of Garmin's user interface has become largely uniform across its watches. You can swipe up or down from the watch face to get snapshot views of your data. Holding down the physical buttons opens up quick settings and other settings to tinker with. It might take a few attempts to remember where everything lives, but there's certainly plenty here to keep your experience nice and simple.

Battery life

  • Up to 5 days in smartwatch mode
  • Up to 6 hours with GPS and music

With the addition of that AMOLED display, the chief concern is what kind of damage that does to battery life. Based on Garmin's claims, you can get five days in what it calls 'smartwatch' mode. The Vivoactive 4 in comparison offers up to eight days in that same mode.

When you factor in using power-sapping features like GPS and music streaming, you can expect the battery to last up to six hours. The Apple Watch Series 5 offers around four hours when you put GPS to use. So that's comparably decent.

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Based on our experience with all the key features in use you can get that five days. If you're planning to track workouts with GPS for around an hour a day, it's going to still give you around a working week's worth of battery life.

Music streaming and turning on the pulse oximeter seem to be two of the most draining features, but if you can live without those on 24/7, there isn't any worrying drop-off that you might expect from moving to a more demanding screen technology.

If you're planning to use it in always-on display mode, longevity invariably sees a drop off, but it's still a pretty good showing of three days or so - which is significantly more than what you can expect from an Apple Watch or Samsung Galaxy Watch Active 2 in a similar mode.

Verdict

The Garmin Venu is a solid first showing for the company's first watch to make that desirable screen upgrade. It still excels with its sports tracking, and that typically great battery life is still there too.

If you want something that offers a nice balance of sports and smartwatch features, the Venu certainly fits the bill. The design is a bit safe and you could get a similar experience without that display for less money with the Vivoactive 4.

If you're looking for a true smartwatch with a colour screen that can outlast the Apple Watch, the Venu is your answer.

Alternatives to consider

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Apple Watch Series 5

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The Apple Watch Series 5 is a better smartwatch and also performs as a pretty good fitness tracker and sports watch to make it well worth the money.

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Samsung Galaxy Watch Active 2

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Samsung's latest sporty smartwatch is a great looker and has plenty going on in the sports and health tracking departments to make it worthy of your consideration.

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Garmin Vivoactive 4

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As mentioned, it's really only the more impressive screen that separates the Venu from the cheaper Vivoactive 4, which also comes in two sizes and offers more battery life.