Review: Does the Garmin Vivosmart combine a FitBit Flex and Pebble?

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It was with great excitement that I unboxed the Garmin Vivosmart. I had already reviewed the Vivofit and missed my Fitbit Flex for its size and unassuming design. Could this new offering from Garmin be the fitness band you rule them all?

It has such promise. It tracks your steps and sleep, tells time, and even can receive notifications from an iPhone or Android device.

But wait, there’s more. It can also act as a remote for a Garmin Virb, control music on your iPhone, and connect to a speed/cadence sensor to track a cycling workout. These are all some exciting features, but does it deliver? What kind of execution?

Within the box there are only a few items – The Vivosmart, a quick start manual, the charging cable, and the Vivokeeper which helps hold the clasp in place.

After opening the box, I saw that the Vivosmart powered on. Since I had Garmin Connect on my iPhone, I synced it. I already have a Vivofit and the app squawked that there could only be one fitness tracker, did I want to use this one (the Vivosmart)? I chose yes and it didn’t seem to work, so I deleted the Vivofit and Vivosmart from the app and tried again. This time it worked.

I was off and running. First, I put it on with the Garmin Vivofit that I already owned to get a comparison of size and step count over time.

As can be seen by the picture, the Vivosmart is definitely much narrower and less bulky all around. It also does not always have a display shown like the Vivofit. This makes it more similar to the Fitbit Flex. When it is not illuminated, the band is much more subtle and unobtrusive. The Vivosmart display is also backlit whereas the Vivofit is not.

However, the Vivofit has a much sharper display. This display is much more readable, while the Vivosmart is almost hazy as DCRainmaker noted in his post – First look at Garmin’s new Vivosmart activity tracker. It really is a problem as I will explain later. As far as step counts go, they are pretty close. After a few hours and 5000 steps, they were within a couple hundred. With fitness trackers, the numbers can be all over the place, so it’s a wash.

The Vivosmart also shares the movement bar and target steps with the Vivofit. The big difference being that while the Vivofit bar turns red and extends across the screen to prompt you to get up and move around, the Vivosmart is much more aggressive and vibrates.

Sadly, the way it chooses to vibrate seems to be arbitrary, or on a timer. I lost count of how many times I was up from my desk walking around when I felt a vibration on my wrist. I would look down to see if a notification came in, but it was just the band telling me to “Move”. Uh, hello? That’s what I’m doing Vivo-not-so-smart…

Music Controls

One feature that I wanted to try out were the playback controls. Or at least I thought they were playback controls and that Garmin just called them Music Controls. But no, they are music controls on the iPhone. I was listening to a podcast and hit the Play/Pause button and a song started in the Music player. It turns out that unlike most devices that control playback on the iPhone, the Vivosmart only works with the built-in music app. So, no audiobooks, podcasts, or Spotify for you.

Notifications

The main feature that got me excited about the Vivosmart was the ability to get notifications. The Vivosmart will start receiving alerts for any notification that displays on the lock screen of an iPhone (I tested this with an iPhone 6). Nothing is required. It starts receiving as soon as it is configured in Garmin Connect on the phone.

Here is an important productivity notification from the Words with Friends app:

And this is a notification from Twitter:

You scroll left and right to get through the notifications and touch the down arrow to scroll down and read the notification. As you can see, there is not much shown at a time. The Twitter notification simply shows who is sending it and my Twitter name. It disappears fairly quickly and  you have to scroll to retrieve it on the band.

Also, it actually took me several tries and angles to get the shots to be as clear as they are here. This is the ideal shot. I had a lot of trouble reading the notices on my wrist when they came in. Especially at an angle on my wrist. I found that I had to keep retrieving them again. It really is about as much trouble to pull the iPhone out of my pocket or a holster.

Compare what is shown above to what I use as my daily device for notifications – the Pebble Watch. Here is a tweet on the Pebble:

It is much clearer and you can immediately scroll up and down to read the rest of it. Also, you can click the center button to dismiss it. This removes it from both the Pebble and the lock screen on the iPhone. This is a relatively new feature on the Pebble, but still very handy.

Also, it may seem unfair to compare the Vivosmart to a full blown watch, but consider that the Pebble has been out for well over a year and is priced at $99, $70 less than the Vivosmart and has apps like Misfit to track steps and sleep as well.

Battery Life

Another consideration is battery life. And this is a big one. I had a Fitbit Flex and it got 6-7 days battery life on average. The Pebble gets 5-7 days with constant notices. The Vivosmart? Well, day one I took it out of the box and used it. That evening I got a battery low notice and it was dead within two hours. When it is dead, it’s as active as a rubber bracelet. No low battery icon or anything.

Now, in fairness, when looking at the quick start manual, the first thing shown is the following image. It seems to imply that the first thing to do is charge the device. But for how long? And why doesn’t it explicitly say it.

So, the next morning, I charged the device for some hours. It then held up for 2.5 days. Meh. Next charge was 3 days as well as the one after that, so I felt okay with it.

Then the next charge was a day and a half. And then it didn’t last from 10 AM until the next morning . I woke up and found a dead Vivosmart. When comparing it to the Vivofit which is supposed to last one year (I have had it for 3 months so far), this is aggravating.

Virb Control

The remote control for the Virb works fine. You navigate to the Virb menu and it will connect to the device. You then can tap to either record video or take a picture. The only issue is that the band goes asleep, so you have to tap to wake it, then you can tap to stop or start the recording. This added step should be considered when you are using it in the field. You will need to enable the remote setting on the Virb camera in addition to enabling the Virb screen on the Vivosmart.

Cycling

The cycling functionality is interesting. It works right away. You have to enable the feature in Garmin Connect for it to show. As soon as you have the feature enabled, you will be prompted to pedal for the device to connect to the Speed or Speed and Cadence sensor. After it has detected it, press the fitness icon (it resembles a runner) and then a play/pause button appears. This button starts a workout timer. Press that and start riding. The you can press the button again to stop the workout. Press the save button (floppy disk I wonder when that symbol will go away) to save the activity or the trash can to delete.

When you save the workout, it will automatically be loaded into Garmin Connect. You can see them below:

One really cool feature was that at the time I was wearing a heart rate monitor with a Garmin Fenix 2 watch. This heart rate monitor was detected by the Vivosmart and connected automatically without any intervention from me.

Unfortunately though, the speed was  vastly optimistic. I had me averaging 24.04 miles and hour with a top speed of 2808.14 miles per hour. I promise that I wasn’t riding a rocket at the time. The ride as tracked on the Fenix 2 with GPS is below:

Update Issues

Another issue I fought with was an inability to update the device. I kept being teased by the “New Updates Available” message in the Garmin Connect app. I would hook the VivoSmart up to external power, remove it, and then see Update Failed.

This happened numerous times. Ironically, the update it was trying to apply included “Changes to make future updates coming from iOS 8 download reliably.” in the Change History. I finally was able to get the Vivosmart to update by connecting it to my laptop and pressing and holding the battery icon. A USB icon appears that it is connected. You can then use Garmin Express which can be downloaded from www.garminconnect.com/vivosmart. On the page, in the statement “Don’t have a compatible phone? You can set up and sync your vívosmart on your computer,” click the link “on your computer.”

Conclusion

There is a lot to like about the Garmin Vivosmart, but it is not without issues. It has many features, but they are not all quite ready yet. Hopefully some of it can be improved by firmware updates. But at this point, it feels like the product is not fully baked. The device is being sold exclusively at Best Buy until November 2014 but you can pre-order it from Clever Training (This is an affiliate link and I will receive a small commission). Maybe by the time it is rolled out to a wider release, it will be more solid.

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Eric Hunley

RRCA Certified coach. Started to change lifestyle in 2012 when weight was up to 283 lbs. Eventually started running later that year and racing in 2013. Has run in dozens of races and has been featured in some podcasts. Full Bio on About Page.
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  • William07

    It doesn’t have a traditional screen, but the slim wristband displays, LED lights that show progress toward goals.The Flex does not offer any of the more premium features, such as heart rate tracking or GPS. It also does not have a numerical display of the time or other fitness info. However, the Flex does offer sleep tracking and a silent waking alarm (though no automatic sleep detection). It has a battery lifespan up to five days and perfectly fits people who want a water-resistant wristband, which allows fitness tracking to continue, no matter the activity.For more information visit here; http://fit2track.com/

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