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.
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.
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.
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?