Keep moving. That's the message you'll get from anyone offering up fitness advice these days. It's snappy, simple and probably quite valid. The problem is that it can be hard to quantify how much activity is merely part of our basic existential requirements before we get to the part that counts as extra, life-enhancing exercise. As always, technology to the rescue. On this occasion, it's an activity tracker from a company with heritage in this space: Garmin. The product? The Vivofit fitness tracker.

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Garmin

Vivofit

Pros

  • Long battery life
  • Accurate, detailed tracking
  • Waterproof

Cons

  • Wristband is plain, a little uncomfortable
  • Display has no backlight
  • Other devices offer more features for a similar price
Summary

The Vivofit may not have the cool factor of Nike's FuelBand, or some of the features found in the Fitbit Flex or Jawbone Up24, but what it does offer is reliable tracking, useful reports and a durable design. The fantastic battery life, as well as the ability to change the straps, also go a long way to making this a wearable worth considering. 

There's been a deluge of similar products lately, each bringing their own take. This is clearly a hot market right now, and the race is on to crack it. Can Garmin use its wealth of experience in wrist-worn fitness devices to set the standard? Priced at $130 or $170 with a heart rate monitor, it's up against the likes of Fitbit and Nike's FuelBand. Does it keep up with the competition? Or is it left huffing and puffing a few paces behind? We let it judge monitor our movements and coax us off the sofa to find out. Warning: This review may (definitely does) contain mental images of desk-dancing that some readers may find distressing.

Gallery | 27 Photos

Garmin vívofit review

Hardware

The Vivofit is comprised of two parts: the strap and the actual tracker. The strap is a cheap-feeling, plastic affair -- similar to the sort of watch you might buy at a novelty store. It's clearly durable, and will withstand all the stress and tension that exercise might demand. But, it's also a little bit uncomfortable to wear, and not the most imaginative of designs. The plastic reminds us of the kind used on cheap '80s sports watches, and can cause mild itchiness if moisture is captured underneath (say, after a shower). The strap fastens via a basic notch-and-clasp mechanism, and overall looks quite masculine -- at least on the black model, anyway.

The good news? Given that the strap is separate from the brains of the operation -- the tracker part -- you'll theoretically be able to replace it with something more comfortable. Garmin is at least offering a choice of different hues at launch, if you want something other than black. Also, unlike other bands, the strap is flexible, so it won't hang loose on your wrist, or interfere with typing. The Vivofit comes bundled with two straps, but these are just for different size options (one large, one small), not style choice.

The main event, of course, is the tracker. Unsheathed, the curved unit is about two inches long, by half an inch wide, and dominated along the topside by the screen, which measures 1 x 0.39 inch. That display is an always-on, two-color (gold and red) LCD that, again, resembles a basic digital watch face. While it's permanently on (there's no button to wake it), there's also no backlight. In fact, there's no illumination option at all.

The unit has four small screws around the edges, and they're not just there to hold things together. The Vivofit has no physical ports -- no USB; no nothing. Instead, it uses removable batteries (2 x CR1632) for power, and wireless radios (ANT+ and Bluetooth 4.0) for connectivity. This means no charging. Ever. Garmin claims you should be able to get a year's worth of use before you need to change the batteries (something we won't be able to confirm for a while), so you've plenty of time to buy the required mini screwdriver for when that moment eventually comes.

Another good thing about this screwed-down configuration is that the Vivofit is waterproof to 50 meters -- good news for swimmers. If you've gotten this far and are wondering why we haven't mentioned GPS (it is a Garmin, after all), that's because the Vivofit doesn't have it. It might seem like a weird omission, but it's likely to help battery life (and also keep the price down).

Right now, at least there's a thin line between fitness trackers and full-on sports watches. Some companies are starting to blur that distinction with products that incorporate both, but for now, the Vivofit is aimed mostly at the lifestyle fitness market, rather than someone with more demanding training requirements. As we mentioned in the intro, there are two skus as of this writing -- the standalone Vivofit, or a bundle that includes a heart rate monitor strap. It's the latter offering that we're discussing today, but since the Vivofit works with any ANT+ strap, you're good to go if you already own one. Finally, it's worth noting that both models come with an ANT+ USB adaptor for connecting/syncing the Vivofit to your computer.

Software

Garmin's online exercise-logging platform -- Connect -- has been around some time now. But it's just undergone a drastic redesign, and Vivofit users get first dibs on experiencing the new layout. There's also a matching Connect mobile app for iOS and Android that translates the new design neatly over to your phone. Both are comparable in functionality, with no significant differences (other than screen layout for the most part) so we'll refer to them interchangeably from here on out.

Setting up the Vivofit through Connect is easy. You'll need an account if you don't have one already, where you'll be required to answer the typical questions about age, weight, height, et cetera. You'll then, of course, be asked to pair your device. You can pair via Bluetooth with your phone, or with the supplied ANT+ USB dongle and your PC. The same goes for syncing, which is just a matter of pressing and holding the button on the Vivofit until the word "sync" appears (more on this later). If you're within range of your PC or phone, the Vivofit will go right ahead and upload your latest activity. The dashboard presents the most recent info from each main category, which includes Steps, Sleep, Connections (friends) and Activities. There's also the option to add more cards to the dashboard showing off your badges (achievements) and reports.

While you can theoretically use the Vivofit standalone, and never once log in to Connect (if you're just happy to aim for your step-target on a day-to-day basis), the usefulness of the wristband is undoubtedly augmented thanks to the platform. Being able to store your data in one place and easily visualize it is an essential feature for any fitness log, but an added bonus here is that you can also import activities from other devices, like a GPS watch. Yours truly, for example, has been using Garmin Connect to log runs with a Forerunner watch. Now, not only are my mapped runs there, but my general daily activities and sleep data are too, all in one place -- no more hopping from platform to platform. The ability to bring data in from third-party devices means you aren't even beholden to using a Garmin watch -- though you'll probably need to use the Vivofit for logging your steps and sleep at this time, as activity tracking isn't quite as ubiquitous yet (the ability to export this data from native apps is rare, even though Garmin lets you export Vivofit activities as GPX or TCX files).

Of course, there are a ton of reports you can dive into with Connect, too. This might not be so pertinent to general activity loggers, but if you're a card-carrying self-quantifier, then you'll love being able to know that your average heart rate over the last year (when logging, not in general!) was 141, like mine, and other such self-centered trivia.

In use

If you just wear the Vivofit and do nothing else, at best you have a watch (it tells the time wonderfully) that lets you know how much or how little you've moved that day. Effectively, you've bought awareness. The Vivofit actually has much more to offer, though, and can be a powerful little tool if you actively make use of it. This is generally true of most other fitness trackers, of course, but the Vivofit has a few additional characteristics that make it stand out.

The unit has seven screens of information you can cycle through, and then leave on the display at any time. You can also choose to remove some of them via Connect (if you don't care to know the date, for instance). Repeatedly pushing the button will loop you through them in this order: steps (daily total), goal (steps remaining), distance covered (in miles or kilometers), calories burned, time, date and heart rate. The first two are effectively the opposite of each other; the steps counter starts at zero and works up, while your daily goal starts high and counts down. When and if you achieve your goal, this number starts counting back up again to show how many extra steps you achieved. Both of these screens are handy for keeping tabs on how you're doing at different parts of the day -- or you may just be more motivated by increasing your steps, or crushing your target, for example.

Just as useful, perhaps, but for different reasons, are the distance-covered and calories-burned metrics. The former is just that -- the total amount of miles (or kilometers) you've plodded through that day. As this is total daily movement, and not just your exercise sessions, it can be quite revealing to see how much this can vary from day to day. Likewise, the calories-burned screen shows the total number you've burned throughout the day. Not just from your walking/exercise, but the total number of calories required for you to be on planet Earth that day, whatever you were doing. This is worked out based on your physical details (e.g., height, age, gender), along with the movement data, making it one of the more accurate numbers for representing your daily metabolic burn. Of course, we're all different, and there are other factors (that metabolism-jacking double espresso you nuked after lunch), but all told, it's a useful number to know, and it's right there on your wrist.

We said you actually needed to use the Vivofit, and so far we've merely acquainted you with the information it offers. To add a bit more activity to your daily routine, the obvious thing to do is start smashing through those footsteps, and heading toward your daily goal. Easy enough in theory, with a stroll at lunch, the walk back from the bus stop and so on. The Vivofit has another trick too, though, which is reminding you that you've been on your "mattress" (read: sedentary) for too long. Other trackers do this too -- Jawbone's Up will vibrate, and the FuelBand lets you "win" the hour -- but we particularly like Garmin's approach. Instead of just giving you a nudge, then forgetting about it, the Vivofit displays an ominous red bar on the screen, which stays there until you've moved enough to clear it. This happens after around an hour of inactivity, and extra sections are added to the bar for each of the following 15 minutes that you remain motionless, for a total of two hours.

Call us optimists, but we enjoyed the challenge of working off this "Move bar" (this is where the desk-dancing comes in) every time we saw it; the fact that it remains on display until you do makes this a more practical and less invasive way to do it (a vibration on your wrist as you type an email can be annoying). With the Move bar visible, then, you can be mindful that you ought to get up, but won't be annoyed by it should you be in a situation where desk-dancing (or, you know, walking, whatever) isn't an option. With the Jawbone Up, we ultimately turned this feature off, as the vibrating alert usually happened when we were predisposed. Worse, we would then forget to make up the activity once we were at a dance-friendly location (this should be all locations, we know).

So we've gotten up and out of our chairs. That's a good start, but the second way to actually benefit from the Vivofit is to use the calorie guidance. The number provides you with a solid target to aim for with your daily food intake. In theory (and mostly theory), you could plan your meals to come in 500 calories below this number, and lose a pound of fat a week (going by the 3,500 calories in a pound of fat "wisdom"). Alternatively, you can use this as another number to actively increment, via steps or activity, to hit a chosen goal. So, if you noticed there were 600 calories in that "low fat" snack, time to get running and count them off one by one from the wrist. Of course, it's a little oversimplified to put it like that, but you get the idea. In short, what we enjoyed most about the Vivofit was the instant access to this information (and the Move bar) without the need for updating an app, or even touching a button in some cases (depending on which screen you leave the Vivofit showing). You may have your own goals: better/more sleep, general motivation, wellness and so on, but the value in this is so much clearer when you decide to use the data, or follow its advice (mostly: move!).

Another strong point with the Vivofit is the accuracy of the distance tracking. We took it out for a couple of long walks, which we measured with different GPS watches (one Garmin, one Adidas) and on every occasion the Vivofit was surprisingly close to the mark. Between 0.1 and 0.05 mile or so off. That's not bad, and given that this works indoors, and all day, that means your activity data should be consistent and pretty reliable. Garmin works this out based on your personal details, and projected stride length. It also detects when you're running, and factors in the difference that will make on stride length, too. While the Vivofit will log your distance all day long, you can also easily log something as an "activity too" (e.g., a training session) if you have a heart rate monitor. When you put the strap on and navigate to the "heart" screen, the Vivofit will listen out for the HRM signal, and once it gets it, the unit will not only display it (with BPM and heart rate intensity "zone"), it'll also mark this as the start of a training activity. This worked great in our tests, and makes for a seamless experience. The next time you sync, you'll see your activity logged on Connect with all the related statistics -- pace, calories burned, average heart rate, et cetera.

The last, and potentially most helpful, feature is how the Vivofit automatically adapts to your training goals. Most activity trackers start out with a fixed goal -- usually around 10,000 steps -- or let you set your own manually, and there it ends. If you meet your goal, great; if not, oh well. The Vivofit starts you off with a modest 5,000-step goal, and adjusts every day from there depending on whether you achieve it or not. I fell short on my first day (go easy on me; I set it up in the afternoon), and the next day's goal was about 4,800 steps. I crushed this, of course, and was given the challenge of around 5,200 steps the following day. The amount added/subtracted from your goal isn't fixed either. After a particularly active day, the goal goes up by more than after one where you only just met your target. Obviously you could keep going up and up and up (or down and down), but the idea that you can constantly be challenged to eke out a few more steps adds an extra dimension to an otherwise simple training premise.

If there are any wrinkles in the experience, they boil down to rudimentary technical issues. While it's nice to have a choice of sync options, we found both ANT+ and Bluetooth a bit unreliable. Sometimes we'd have to close the app and reopen it for the update to go through, or restart the Garmin ANT agent software on our desktop. It'd always sync, but sometimes it needed a little encouraging. The second functional negative is the lack of a backlight on the screen. For the most part, this isn't an issue, but it can be at times -- namely, when you're going to bed. To activate sleep mode, you have to press and hold the button for around five seconds. This is the same process as accessing sync mode and pair mode, with just the duration of the press determining which option you choose. Sleep mode is the second in this list, so when you press the button, you have to wait for sync to come, then go, before releasing the button. If you're in the dark, there's no way of telling when this happens (other than counting the seconds, and hoping for the best). At a more basic level, the same issue makes the Vivofit less useful as a watch at night!

It's probably also worth mentioning a few things the Vivofit doesn't do. Most surprising -- given the emphasis on activity and training -- is the lack of a stopwatch, or a manual way to kick off activities without a heart rate strap. Being able to time a running interval or trigger a lap point seems like something that might slot in quite naturally with how the Vivofit is currently set up. There are also no other smartwatch-style features. To be fair, Garmin never claimed there would be, but given the always-on screen, wrist placement and Bluetooth 4.0 connectivity to your phone, some might argue there was a chance to fold in some notifications, app-to-Vivofit alerts or even smart motivation alerts. Ultimately, Garmin has clearly decided to focus on the core functionality of fitness tracking, and not weigh it down with superfluous features, but the always-on screen is ripe for exploiting, we think.

The competition

The Vivofit isn't short of competition. We've already mentioned Nike's FuelBand ($149), Jawbone's Up24 ($150) and Fitbit (which makes more than one worthy competitor). All three of those have their own plus points. Jawbone's software is comprehensive and easy to use. Nike's FuelBand has the brand cachet and great social features (though it's also iOS only), and the Fitbit Force is as complete as any other tracker we've seen. That was, until it got recalled after irritating some users' skin. Something of a shame, as pound for pound (or dollar for dollar), this was likely one of the Vivofit nearest rivals.

There are a host of others to consider, too. The oft-overlooked Polar Loop ($110) came out before, and costs less than the Vivofit and has a very similar feature set (the two brands are old foes in the sports watch world, after all). Or, if you want something with a gentler aesthetic, there's also the Misfit Shine ($120). Don't be fooled by its simple design -- it's as versatile, if not more so than its rivals, as it's not restricted to being worn on the wrist. We must note, though, that the accompanying Android app isn't as comprehensive as the iOS version. All told, there's plenty to consider, as we said, and even more in the pipeline.

Wrap-up

There are a lot of good things going on here. For once, we have an activity tracker that permanently shows your steps/time/goal, with little to no user interaction required. We like the implementation of the Move bar, and how the daily goal adapts to the individual user. Likewise, the accuracy of the distance tracking and the ability to log training sessions (with added heart rate data) make this a great choice for moderate trainers, gym bunnies (finally a way to log those treadmill sessions effortlessly) and those who wish to keep general tabs on their daily activity levels. And, of course, let's not forget the epic battery life and waterproofing, a combo that means you can put this on and almost never have to think about it again.

Except that you will. We're less sold on the strap, which is serviceable, but not as sleek or comfortable as we'd like. Also, the lack of a backlight (or low-light visibility) is a minor annoyance. Lastly, the $130 price might not make it the most expensive tracker on the market, but from a company like Garmin, we'd like to have seen a few more detailed features such as elevation/stair tracking, food logging, a stopwatch/timer or even just some extended watch features (e.g., an alarm, timer.). If you're looking for a reliable, durable activity tracker that has a decent online platform, the Vivofit is all of those things. If you can live with its minor flaws, and don't mind the aesthetic, it's a worthy addition to your fitness arsenal.

Daniel Orren and Edgar Alvarez contributed to this review.

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Garmin Vivofit review: a truly fitness-focused activity tracker