The Year of Data continues for me, and yesterday, I finished a four-week relationship with the Garmin Vivosmart.
I use relationship purposefully here because if you use a wearable to track fitness and sleep, you’re wearing it a lot, and it actually becomes a little friend (or enemy) that’s almost always with you. Wearables are very personal devices.
If you’re scoring at home, 2015 has gone thusly for me:
- Three weeks with the Nike+ Fuelband
- Four weeks with the Basis Peak
- Four Weeks and a day with the Jawbone UP24
- Seven Weeks with the Fitbit Surge
- Four Weeks with Nothing
After that month of nothing, I nearly ended the experimentation. However, I already had two more wearables new and still in the box. So, next up was the Vivosmart.
I didn’t know Garmin made wearables at all until OHUG 2014 where I met a couple people wearing Garmin devices. Turns out, Garmin makes an impressive array of wearable devices, running the gamut from casual to hardcore athlete.
I chose the Vivosmart, at the casual end of the spectrum, because of its display and notification capabilities.
Finally, a wearable that doesn’t require a laptop to configure. The setup was all mobile, download the app and pair, very nice for a change.
After the initial setup, however, I did need to tether the Vivosmart to my laptop, but I don’t think my case is common.
The firmware version that came out-of-the-box was 2.60, and after reading the Engadget review, I decided to update to the latest version. Specifically, I wanted the notification actions that came in 3.40. There didn’t seem to be a way to get this update over-the-air, so I had to install Garmin Express on my Mac and tether the Vivosmart to install the update, a very quick and painless process.
This must have been because I was going through several updates because the Vivosmart got an over-the-air update at some point without Garmin Express.
Like all the rest, the Vivosmart has a custom cable for charging and tethering, and this one looks like mouthguard.
Looks aside, getting the contacts to line up just right was a learning process, but happily, I didn’t charge it very often.
The low power, touch display is pretty cool. The band feels rubbery, and the display is completely integrated with no visible bezel, pretty impressive bit of industrial design. The display is surprisingly bright, easily visible in full sunlight and useful as a flashlight in the dark.
There are several screens you swipe to access, and they can be configured from the mobile app, e.g. I quickly ended up hiding the music control, more on that in a minute. Long-pressing opens another set of options and menus.
The Vivosmart has sleep tracking, one thing I actually missed during my device cleanse. Like the Jawbone UP24, it provides a way to track sleep manually. I tried this and failed miserably because somehow during the night the sleep tracking ended.
The reason? The display activates when anything touches it. So, while I slept, the display touched the sheets, the pillow, etc. registering each touch as an interaction, which finally resulted in turning off sleep mode.
This is exactly how I discovered the find phone option. While using my laptop, I wore the Vivosmart upside down to prevent the metal Garmin clasp on the underside of the device from scratching the aluminum, a very common problem with wrist-worn accessories.
During a meeting my phone started blinking its camera flash and blaring a noise. A notification from Garmin Connect declared it had found my phone. I looked at the band, and sure enough, it was in one of the nested menus.
So, the screen is cool, but it tends to register everything it touches, even water activated it. Not to mention the rather unnerving experience of the display coming on in a dark room while partially awake, definitely not cool.
Luckily, I found the band and app auto-detect sleep, a huge save.
Functionally, the battery life was about five days, which is nice. When the battery got low, a low battery icon appeared on the time and date screen. You can see it in the picture. Once full, that icon disappeared, also nice.
The Vivosmart can control audio playing on the phone, a nice feature for running I guess. I run with Bluetooth headphones, and having two devices paired for audio confused my phone, causing it to play through its own speakers. So, I disabled the playback screen via the app.
Like most fitness bands, this one is water resistant to 5 ATM (50 meters), and I wore it in the shower with no ill effects, except for the random touches when water hit the device’s screen. I actually tested this by running water on it and using the water to navigate through the screens.
Syncing the band with the phone was an adventure. Sometimes, it was immediate. Other times, I had to toggle Bluetooth off/on. Could be my impatience, but the band would lose connectivity sometimes when it was clearly within range, so I don’t think it was me.
The Vivosmart has a move indicator which is nice as a reminder. However, I quickly disabled it because its times weren’t configurable, and it would go off while I was moving. Seriously, that happened a few times.
The App and Data
As with most fitness trackers, Garmin provides both a mobile app and a web app. Both are cleanly designed and easy to use, although I didn’t use the web app much at all. Garmin Connect has a nice array of features, to match the range of athletes to which they cater, I suppose.
I probably only used 25% of the total features, and I liked what I used.
I did find the mobile app a bit tree-based, meaning I found myself backing up to the main dashboard and then proceeding into another section.
Garmin tracks the usual activity data, steps, calories, miles, etc. There’s a wide array of activities you can choose from, but I’m a boring treadmill runner so I used none of that.
For sleep, it tracks deep and light sleep and awake time, and I found something called “Sleep Mood” no idea what that is.
One feature I don’t recall seeing anywhere else is the automatic goal setting for steps which increases incrementally as you meet your daily goal. The starting default was 7,500 steps, and each day, the goal rose a little, I assume based on how much I had surpassed it the previous day. It topped out at 13,610.
I passed the goal every day I wore the Vivosmart, so I don’t know what happens if you fail to meet it.
You can set the goal to be fixed, but I liked this daily challenge approach. There were days I worried I wouldn’t make the step number, and it actually did spur me to be more active. I guess I’m easily manipulated.
Possibly the biggest win for Garmin Connect is its notification capabilities. It supports call, text and calendar notifications, like some others do, but in addition, there is also a nice range of other apps from which you can get notifications.
And there’s the feature I mentioned earlier, taking actions from the band. I tried this with little success, but I only turned on notifications for text messages.
One possible reason why Garmin has such robust notifications may be its developer ecosystem. There’s a Garmin Connect API and a store for third party apps. I didn’t use any, mostly because I’m lazy.
That, and one of the kind volunteers for our guerrilla Apple Watch testing at OHUG warned me that some apps had borked his Garmin. He had the high-end fenix 3, quite a nice piece of technology in an Ultan-approved design.
Finally, Garmin Connect offers exports and integrations with other fitness services like RunKeeper, Strava, etc. They’re definitely developer-friendly, which we like.
Overall, I found the Vivosmart to be an average device, some stuff to like, some stuff to dislike. The bland black version I chose didn’t help; Ultan (@ultan) would hate it, but Garmin does offer some color options.
I like the apps and the ecosystem, and I think the wide range of devices Garmin offers should make them very sticky for people who move from casual running to higher level fitness.
If I end up going back to Garmin, I’ll probably get a different device. If only I could justify the fenix 3, I’m just not serious enough, would feel like a poseur.
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