(Pocket-lint) - The Venu Sq sees something of a change of direction for Garmin. While most of its watches have a round face - the old entry-level Forerunner 35 now retired - the Venu Sq has a square display, as its name suggests.

It looks, to us, to be a move to offer something that looks a little like the Apple Watch or a little like the Fitbit Versa - something that's a little more lifestyle and less aggressively sporty.

So in that context how does the Garmin Venu Sq perform?

Design and build

  • Dimensions: 37 x 40 x 11mm / Weighs: 39g
  • Polycarbonate body, aluminium bezel
  • 20mm quick release straps
  • 5ATM waterproofing

There may be a new shape to the Venu Sq, but much of the story is similar to other Garmin devices. There's a polycarbonate (i.e. plastic) body with an aluminium bezel around the display. That display is topped with Gorilla Glass to reduce scratches.

Two buttons sit on the right-hand side for control, used in partnership with the touchscreen, while on the rear is the connection port for charging, along with the raised Elevate heart-rate sensor.

The straps are 20mm wide, featuring a quick release spring clip like many other Garmin devices, so it's easy to swap the straps around, with Garmin selling a range of different styles, or there's plenty of third-party options too.

The Sq is a light and compact watch, which is likely to be more popular for those with smaller wrists thanks to the overall dimensions. That brings a lifestyle feeling to things, much less sporty and a little more subtle.

It's comfortable to wear with enough stretch in the silicone strap to allow for expanding wrists when exercising, but also pretty comfortable to sleep in too - should you wish to track your sleep patterns. It's not quite as convenient as a fitness band, but certianly less intrusive than some of Garmin's chunky Forerunner devices if you're planning to wear it to bed.

There isn't much resemblance with the original Garmin Venu, despite sharing the name; these watches are different in their approach and their appeal, although the core functions - as is the case for all Garmin devices - is broadly the same. Garmin classes both as smartwatches and there is a sense that this is more about having a connected watch that does great fitness tracking, rather than having a sportswatch that also does smartphone notifications.

Display

  • 1.3-inch colour LCD display
  • 240 x 240 pixels
  • Square face

Rather than offering a fancy OLED display like the previous Venu, this is an LCD display. What's perhaps surprising is that it's a square display set into the rectangular face. There's been no attempt to fill the entire glass top with usable screen, which is a shame because it doesn't feel hugely ambitious as far as watches go.

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The bezel area that fills the remaining face of the watch is black and when the display is dimmed you can't really see the division between screen and bezel, which explains why the user interface is predominantly black - to avoid having a huge white square in the centre of your watch.

As a compact watch the display is on the small side, but Garmin doesn't try and overwhelm you with information, so we can't say that's a problem - when out on a test ride it served up speed, distance and time, it's not trying to put everything on the screen. That's a double-edged sword, but if your first thought is that you want more metrics, then this probably isn't the right device for you. 

During activity tracking you can swipe to get to more information, but, for example, heart rate isn't even on that main display - again reinforcing the slightly more casual fitness approach this device takes, rather than being a full-on training device for athletes.

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The watch faces it offers are pretty basic too, showing the time and not getting too complex with other elements. There's some customisation, but not a great deal, and this is one area where the Venu Sq is perhaps a little lacking in consumer appeal. You can customise, choosing the background, time style, and then adding complications to the display - such as steps, heart rate or Body Battery - but we suspect that many people would rather just swipe through more options and select what they want.

Visibility of the display is just fine, even in bright conditions. The screen dims when not being used so you have to lift it to see the details, meaning it lacks a little visibility compared to many Garmin devices - but it's a measure to prolong the battery life, so we suspect many will be happy with that. It means that when you're exercising, that glance at the time or your stats has to be a little more deliberate.

Garmin says that the battery will last six days when used as a smartwatch - and that figure rings true in our use. That can also include some workouts, but this is a device you can realistically wear through the night and the day for the best part of a week without having to charge. Head out to exercise and you get 14 hours of GPS tracking, so each hour takes about 8 per cent of the battery according to Garmin's specs - which is close to our experiences wearing the watch out on long bike rides. 

Features, functions and performance

  • Sensors: GPS, heart rate, SpO2
  • Sleep tracking

As this is a Garmin device, it's no surprise to find that the mainstay of the Venu Sq's functions are based around fitness tracking. You'll get 24/7 monitoring of things like steps and your activity, with heart rate tracking and even the option for things like water intake. Reminders will pop-up to tell you get up and get active - just like many other devices out there - which can get a little irritating throughout every day, but you can turn them off.

Push the Sq's top button and you'll be taken through to sports tracking proper, where the GPS will fire up and you'll be shown stats specific to your sport. You can select the sports you want on your favourites list, so picking cardio, running, cycling, or whatever else, is easy enough. GPS aquisition is then fast and the results are accurate, occasionally drifting off the line a little when under tree cover, but generally speaking, very good. We tested the Venu Sq alongside a handlebar-mounted Edge 830 bike GPS computer, with close results on the GPS trace.

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There's no altimeter in the Venu Sq and that does mean that it's not as accurate with elevation change as some of the Forerunner devices are; on one of our workouts the Venu was as much as 80m elevation out, as it's drawing this information from GPS data rather than a dedcated sensor.

At this price, and positioned as a lifestyle watch, that is of little concern, because you'll still get accurate speed and distance results from it, which for runners, walkers, riders, or whatever it is you're doing, is the most important thing.

Sleep tracking is one of the other features that the Venu Sq offers, letting you see how much sleep you got and how that breaks down into different sleep stages. Garmin doens't just present this data in abstraction, it rolls it into the Body Battery feature which is a lot of fun.

Body Battery takes your sleep data and puts it into the context of your activity and stresses throughout the day. The more active or "stressed" you are, the most sleep you'll need. But cleverly, because Garmin can assess the quality of your sleep, if you have bad quality sleep, your Body Battery level won't recover as well as it does when you sleep well.

It's a really clever system, but it does require wearing the Garmin 24/7 to get an full picture of what's going on. Once you start seeing how there's a direct relationship between how well you sleep and how you feel and perform, that might be something you're happy to do. In the real world, it can help your decision making, avoiding a long run when you're already drained, for example.

You can also measure your oxygen saturation, or SpO2, a measure that's hit the headlines recently thanks to its inclusion in the Apple Watch Series 6. In reality, it's a measurement that doesn't really mean much in an everyday setting. If you're an athlete training at altitude and wondering why you don't feel as strong as normal, then it might reveal that you're not yet acclimatised, but in general, SpO2 is just a measure that's likely to drain the watch's battery faster, so we tend to leave it switched off.

But the sensors on the rear of the watch will also give you 24/7 heart-rate tracking - and we've found this to be pretty accurate, quick to respond to changes in pace, and from the workouts we recorded using it, free from phantom dropouts too.

As we said above, the downside is that in the default views you have to swipe to access this data when exercising. Of course, outside exercise, the Venu Sq will keep track of your heart rate, so you'll get a better idea of your resting heart rate from sleep data, as well as detecting when you have an elevated heart rate when you're not moving, which the watch recognises as being stressed.

One of the nice features of the Venu Sq is that you don't have to manually track all your exercise, because it will automatically detect what you're doing. That means that if you go for a casual bike ride it can be automatically detected as an exercise - if it's long enough. Sometimes you'll get a phantom activity - we found some elliptical training that we definitely didn't do - so it's something to keep an eye on.

All the data is synced to Garmin Connect on your phone, letting you check your heart rate, speed, maps of your routes, and other essential details, while also working as the app you'll use to update your device and make that connection with your smartphone.

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Smartwatch features

  • Garmin Pay
  • Music Edition
  • Smartphone integration

With Garmin Connect in place, it's a simple case of searching for your phone, plugging in the code and letting the devices sync. Once that connection is made, you can grant various permissions and control things such as notifications, so that you don't have to fish your phone out of your pocket every time it buzzes. 

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Garmin Connect is also the route to getting music on your Venu Sq Music Edition. It's only the more expensive model that you'll get this function, but it's worth spending the money so that you can listen to music offline with your Bluetooth headphones and leave your phone at home, especially if you like running or working-out with music. The Venu Sq supports Amazon Music, Deezer or Spotify music (you'll need a separate subsciption) and once you've selected the music service you use and are signed in, you can download playlists to your device via Wi-Fi.

You'll be able to pair your headphones and then listen to your heart's content. You can have a swipe shortcut to access music controls from the home screen to make things easy. This shortcut is still accessible when you're in a workout, so you can swipe a couple of times to get to the music control screen. 

The Venu IQ supports Connect IQ - Garmin's system that will allow you to install other apps and services - and this again provides another route to adding customised watch faces if that's what you really want.

Garmin Pay is also supported, meaning you can pay with a swipe of your wrist, if your bank supports the service. Again, this will need to be setup within Garmin Connect. Support in the UK is not wide, but there's better coverage from banks in the US.

One thing that's immeditately apparent, despite the fairly wide range of functions that the Venu Sq offers, is the interface. Compare it side-by-side with the Apple Watch Series 3 (which is close in price) and the Garmin looks pretty basic.

Verdict

The Venu Sq feels and looks quite different to other Garmin devices. What's attractive is that you get core fitness tracking features that are accurate, like the GPS and heart-rate tracking, in a compact device that will be good for almost a week between charges. Pay a little more and you'll get music support too, and that might tick all the boxes for those looking for a fitness and lifestyle tracker. 

As a smartwatch it has appeal, but it can't compete with the increased sophistication that you get from the Apple Watch. Arguably, the activity tracking that Garmin offers is better, because it feeds into, and can work with, systems like Body Battery for a holistic view of the body, rather than data in abstract. 

At the same time, Garmin's wider range of products offers more for those who take their exercise a little more seriously and want something larger. With the Garmin Forerunner 45 sitting close in price, Garmin is effectively covering the options so that you can get access to these features, no matter what your style is.

Alternatives to consider

Apple Watch Series 3

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The Apple Watch Series 3 might be getting old, but it offers heart rate and GPS, while benefitting from the latest watchOS software too. While the build quality is superior, the interface more engaging, and the display more advanced, you'll only get a single day of battery life from it - the Garmin lasts six or so times that.

Garmin Forerunner 45

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The feature set of the Venu is slighty more expansive than that of the Forerunner 45, but that's reflected in the price. But if you're after sportier looks, while still hitting those core features of GPS and heart-rate tracking for your activities, then the Forerunner 45 might fit the bill.

Writing by Chris Hall. Editing by Mike Lowe.