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    Garmin Vivosmart review: where fitness band meets smartwatch

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    There are fitness trackers and there are smartwatches, but there's only a small number of devices that attempt to be both. The Garmin Vivosmart is one such exception. It's a $170 band that does everything you'd expect a fitness gadget to do: track your steps, calories burned, distance traveled and sleep. In a unique twist, though, it also has an OLED screen showing things like emails, texts, Twitter and Facebook notifications and incoming calls. In essence, it's a full-fledged fitness tracker that also acts like a full-fledged smartwatch. The question is, can it do both jobs well?

    Gallery: Garmin Vivosmart review | 15 Photos

    Engadget Score
    Poor
    Uninspiring
    Good
    Excellent
    Key

    Pros
    • One of the few fitness bands that also acts as a smartwatch
    • Long battery life
    • Adjusts your daily step goal based on recent activity
    • The "move bar" is an effective reminder to get up and walk around
    Cons
    • Garmin Connect fitness app still doesn't offer much in the way of motivation
    • Can be uncomfortable to wear after long periods of use
    • Scratches easily
    • Limited smartphone compatibility

    Summary

    Garmin deserves praise for being one of the first companies to develop a fitness band that does double-duty as a smartwatch. That said, the device suffers from some uncomfortable ergonomics and an app that offers little in the way of motivation. Meanwhile, the smartwatch-like notifications are not compelling enough to justify the Vivosmart's relatively high price.

    Hardware

    The Vivosmart might be a mash-up between a fitness band and a smartwatch, but it definitely doesn't look like one. No, this looks like a run-of-the-mill fitness tracker -- just a plain rubber bracelet with a hidden display that only lights up when you double-tap it. The black model I tried isn't what I would call stylish, but it's plain enough that it blends in with most outfits. (There are four other color choices besides black.) In fact, the device is so minimalist that there isn't even a charging port; just a set of charging pins on the band's underbelly, which works with a proprietary cradle. The band does have some conspicuous size-holes, along with a metal stamp bearing the Garmin logo. I'll admit I find those details a little unsightly, but most of the time they're hidden on the underside of your wrist. All told, the hardware doesn't call attention to itself, and that's a good thing.

    It's also comfortable -- to a point. Thanks to the rounded edges and soft finish, I could wear it through long days without getting irritated. Even then, I could sometimes feel it pressing into my wrist while I slept, which made me not want to use it for sleep tracking anymore. Also, as I continued to wear the device, I more than once created a dent in the plastic -- still not sure how I did that. On the bright side, precisely because of those size-holes I have the ability to customize the fit. It's also water-resistant in up to 50 meters of pressure -- a rating known as "5 ATM." In lay terms, that means it's suitable not just for showering, but also for swimming and snorkeling. The only areas where you might want to be careful are things like surfing or any other kind of water sport where you run the risk of wiping out. For my part, I was not only able to shower with the band on, but I also continued to get notifications while submerged in a hot tub -- a reassuring sign that the device had sustained no damage.

    Finally, a note on battery life. The device lasts for up to seven days of runtime, according to Garmin's website. I never tried to push it quite that far, but I can attest to some very robust power management. After two and a half days of use, for example, I was still showing a half-full battery icon, and that was after a steady stream of notifications each day followed by sleep tracking at night.

    Getting started

    The Vivosmart and I didn't get off to a smooth start, but that's because I'm not very good at reading, apparently. As of this writing, the device is compatible with only a handful of Android and iOS devices, including the HTC One M7 and M8; Samsung Galaxy Note II and III; Samsung GS3, GS4, GS5 and GS4 Active; Sony Xperia Z2; and the LG Flex, randomly enough. Meanwhile, it'll work with every iPhone going back to the 4s, along with the fifth-gen iPod touch and every iPad going back to the iPad 3. Technically, all of this is written in fine print on the bottom of the box, and on Garmin's website, though I failed to notice that, and I'm guessing some shoppers will too.

    So, I was in for a rude awakening when I found that the Vivosmart would not sync with the original Moto X, a device I had purchased only 10 months earlier. What's worse, because the Garmin Connect app was designed to be used with many other Garmin devices (sports watches, for example), I was still able to find the app in the Google Play store and sign in with my existing Garmin account. It wasn't until late in the setup process, when I tried to sync with the phone, that I knew I had a problem.

    Anyway, let's assume you heed my warning and start off with a compatible device. Once I switched to an old Galaxy S3, I had no problem pairing the two devices and syncing my stats from the Vivosmart to the handset. It's easy to put the band into pairing mode, and you'll receive prompts on your phone when it's time to set up notifications (just say yes, you want to make the Vivosmart a trusted device). Finally, if you're new to Garmin, creating a new account is a cinch; just type in a password and enter a few key details, like your height and weight, and then you're good to go.

    In use

    As mentioned, the band has a hidden OLED display, which only lights up when you double-tap it. Even after testing the device for several weeks, there are still times when I don't successfully engage the display on my first try. In any case, once you activate it, just start swiping left to cycle through your various stats, including steps taken, distance traveled and calories burned. What's nice is that Garmin adjusts your daily step goal every day, depending on how active you've been recently. And don't worry, the changes there are always gradual -- one 10-mile run won't have a big an effect on your step target for the next day.

    In addition to that, Garmin's specialty is something called the Move bar, a line that appears on the screen after you've been inactive for an hour. At that time, you'll feel a gentle vibration on your wrist, with an onscreen instruction to "move!" And there the bar will stay until you get up and walk around for at least two minutes. Now, you can always swipe away from the Move bar and look at something else, like the time. Personally, though, I've always found this feature effective. The Move bar might be quiet, but it's insistent.

    Among the icons you'll see as you're cycling through is a text bubble. That's actually the hub where you'll find all of your notifications, including emails, text messages, missed calls, Facebook posts, Twitter messages, et cetera. If you like, you can go into Garmin's app settings and add even more applications that might not have been set by default (you can disconnect apps at any time too). At this point I should come clean and say I feel ambivalent about the notifications feature. To be fair, that's how I feel about smartwatches in general. On the one hand, there were times when it was enormously useful to be able to look down at my wrist and see an incoming email -- when I was in a movie theater or a meeting, and thought it would be rude to pull out my cellphone. Also, if the email is from someone I'm truly excited to hear from (my best friend, for instance), I often see the message sooner if I'm wearing a smartwatch.

    On the other hand, you can't read more than a few lines of an email, and you can't delete or archive it when you're done, as you can on an Android Wear watch. The band also buzzes every time I delete a message on another device, as if to alert me that my unread-email count has changed. (Thanks?) Certain kinds of notifications, such as Twitter DMs, are often slow to clear, even after I read them on a different device. And of course, you'll have the same problem as with other smartwatches, which is that the device buzzes regardless of whether you get an email from mom or Groupon; there's no way to filter out the non-important stuff. On the bright side, Garmin took a sensible approach to social networking: The band will buzz if someone writes on your wall or sends you a direct message, but not if someone likes your post, or comments in a group you follow. Luckily, whatever your tolerance, you can turn off notifications at any time by going into the device settings.

    To that end, just long-press the band if you want to find settings like Bluetooth, manual syncing, battery life, date and time, exercise mode and sleep mode. Additionally, the band has music playback controls, as well as a setting allowing you to ring your phone, in case you're having trouble finding it.

    Update (5/21/2015): Following a recent firmware update (to version 3.2), users can now respond to notifications from the band, as well as dismiss them.

    Mobile app

    So far I've mostly been talking about stuff you can do on the band itself. But it's worth taking a look at the Garmin Connect app as well, however crude it may be. I say "crude" because it's a little ugly, and also doesn't provide quite as much detail as apps for competing fitness trackers. When you open the app, you'll see various "widgets," or cards for things like calorie burn, step count and sleep quality. Keep in mind that this is the same app Garmin uses with its sports watches, so if you already own a Forerunner, you'll see stats from your various workouts too, along with personal records (fastest 10K, et cetera). What I don't like about the app -- aside from its bland design -- is that you don't get more information at a glance. You have to dig into each individual card to see things like your sleep quality.

    Speaking of the sort, the sleep tracking here is either inaccurate, primitive, or maybe a little bit of both. Unlike other trackers from companies like Basis and Jawbone, Garmin doesn't give you a sleep score. You can't even tell how much light or REM sleep you got. There is a sleep graph showing your movement throughout the night, but I don't find that particularly helpful -- even if I could tell the difference between a pee break and a little tossing and turning, how would that benefit me?

    Gallery: Garmin Vivosmart screenshots | 14 Photos

    Aside from the lack of detail, none of the information stored here is really actionable. Which is to say, while Garmin might track my vitals, it doesn't do anything to help me develop better habits. Whereas Jawbone and Basis allow you to sign up for challenges, with rewards for following through, Garmin doesn't react one way or the other if I exceed or fall short of my step goal. It also doesn't offer any tips for living a healthier life, the way other trackers do. Jawbone, for instance, warned me that if I don't get a good night's sleep, I'm that much likelier to crave carbs the next day; since then, I've been more self-aware about that. To be fair, Garmin's app does have a social component, but because it isn't as popular as, say, Fitbit, you might struggle to find someone you know on your leaderboard. Even then, Garmin doesn't make it easy to find people you know from within the application. With the Vivosmart, then, I felt motivated to meet my step goal, but otherwise never had a reason for collecting all this data.

    The competition

    I've already thrown around names like Jawbone, Fitbit and Basis, but it's worth stepping back for a minute and breaking down what each of these competing fitness trackers has to offer. Starting with Jawbone, the company just announced a new flagship tracker, the $180 Up3, which knows when you've started a workout without you entering any special mode. It also provides more detailed sleep analytics than previous models. That said, it's not on sale yet (set to arrive by the end of the year), so if you want something now, you'd have to settle for the $130 Up24. I say, "settle," but that was already one of our favorite fitness trackers, thanks to its stylish design and feature-rich app. In particular, I'm a fan of the software's intuitive UI, helpful wellness tips and smart food logging. Really, with an app that good, Jawbone belongs on your shortlist regardless of which model you get.

    As for Fitbit, the company spent much of 2014 without a flagship fitness tracker, after recalling the Force due to skin-irritation issues. A shame, since we otherwise liked the Force for its understated design, long battery life and helpful OLED display, similar to the one on the Vivosmart. In any case, Fitbit recently unveiled three new fitness trackers, with the $130 Charge being the direct replacement to the Force. All told, it offers the same feature set and is fairly similar in design except, you know, it shouldn't give anyone a rash. Also like the original Force, it shows incoming calls on the screen, but it's otherwise not a smartwatch the way the Vivosmart is. Because the Charge was just announced, we haven't had a chance to test it, and thus can't vouch for its performance. That said, we are encouraged by some of the improvements Fitbit has made to its app. Whereas food logging was once a sore point, for instance, the food database has gotten quite a bit bigger, and there's finally a bar code scanner too. Hooray!

    Then there's Basis. You may not have heard of this company, but you should: It was purchased by Intel earlier this year, and it happens to offer the most sophisticated feature set we've seen. Thanks to a bevy of sensors that track movement, sweat output, heat dissipation, blood flow and heart rate, the new $200 Peak band can tell when you're sleeping or exercising without you having to enter a special mode. For that reason, it's the most low-maintenance tracker I've tried yet (full review coming soon). As I said before, too, I also like how the app lets you opt in to challenges, which encourage a healthier lifestyle. Additionally, it adjusts your weekly goals based on your recent activity. The trade-off is that even now that Basis is on its second-gen tracker, it still hasn't gotten the hang of design. In fact, the Peak looks more like a smartwatch than a fitness band, what with its wide band and 1.25-inch touchscreen. That's fine if you like smartwatches, but it doesn't really act like one -- not yet, anyway. The device will eventually use the screen to show you incoming calls, texts, emails and other notifications, but that will come as part of a future software update.

    Until the Peak gets that update, though, there are actually very few fitness bands that also play the part of a smartwatch. Razer is working on a fitness band called the Nabu that does basically the same thing as the Garmin Vivosmart, but it's not out yet. Microsoft just released a $199 band that displays notifications -- stay tuned for our full review on that. Meanwhile, there are plenty of smartwatches that do a half-assed job of tracking fitness, which is to say they track your steps, distance and calories (but not necessarily your sleep quality). Most new watches also have a heart rate monitor, though in our experience, the tracking there has been less accurate than a dedicated device, or even a more health-centric band. That means right now, there isn't a fitness band that does a fabulous job as a smartwatch, and there definitely isn't a smartwatch that does equally well at fitness tracking.

    Wrap-up

    Going into this review, I already knew that Garmin is better at making sports watches than fitness trackers. When I tested the Forerunner 15, a running watch with step-counting thrown in, I came away with the same conclusion as I did here: that the app doesn't offer enough in the way of motivation. In that instance, though, it wasn't a big deal; step counting was just the cherry on top of an already excellent product. But in this case, the Vivosmart is a fitness tracker first, with smartwatch notifications being the cherry-on-top feature. That's a problem, because Garmin's fitness app is not robust enough to carry the experience. Meanwhile, the hardware gets scuffed up easily, and isn't very comfortable to sleep in. Finally, there's the price: At $170 it's 40 bucks pricier than Jawbone's and Fitbit's offerings. And unfortunately, those smartwatch-like notifications aren't useful enough to justify the difference.

    All that said, I appreciate what Garmin was trying to do here. There's going to soon come a point when wearing both a fitness band and a smartwatch will be an unacceptable compromise. Even now, I'm not sure it's a sensible solution. I'm waiting for a wearable that's stylish, displays notifications and, at the same time, contains all the same sophisticated sensors as the best fitness trackers. The Vivosmart isn't it, but I'm happy to keep waiting.

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