After reviewing my Pixel 2 XL and the free Google Home Mini that came with it, I figured I’d wrap up my new tech reviews with the piece of technology that I researched more than anything else – my Garmin Vivoactive 3 watch. I bought the better-looking “Black with Slate Hardware” model, which typically retails for $30 more at $329.99, but I picked up mine on Amazon during Black Friday for $274.99.
Smartwatches haven’t exactly taken the world by storm. Fitness trackers aren’t necessarily the most successful product niche ever either (as evidenced by Fitbit’s struggles), but I think there is a certain demographic that loves these devices and finds them incredibly useful, and I’m very much a part of that demographic. The key is to understand what features you do and don’t need. If you don’t, you can be crippled with choices ranging from your basic sub-$100 fitness band to $1,000+ luxury smartwatches.
- Text and call notifications on my wrist. The convenience of just glancing at your wrist quickly and then getting back to whatever you’re doing cannot be overstated. Nor can being able to get notifications without your phone being attached to you.
- Fitness tracking in the Garmin Connect app, in particular heart rate tracking. That data is useful for structuring and tweaking my workouts. It might not be as accurate as a chest strap, but it’s pretty close and infinitely more convenient.
My main “problem” with the Vivosmart HR+ was that it was so obviously a fitness tracker that I often would switch out to a regular old watch when I’d need to dress up a bit. But then I found myself glancing down at the “dumb” watch looking for notifications each time I felt my phone vibrate.
So my primary goal with this device was to find something that I could wear every day, regardless of situation. Which is a challenge, because it needs to look and feel good on most days when I’m wearing workout clothes, but also when I’m heading out to a nice dinner or even wearing a suit.
Secondary goals were: a more comfortable heart rate sensor (the Vivosmart HR+ dug into my wrist), Heart-rate-variability (HRV) tracking for stress and recovery, and at least parity with the Vivosmart HR+ when it came to notifications, heart-rate workout tracking, music controls, always-on time display, and GPS.
I evaluated everything from buying two devices (one fitness band + one smartwatch), to Android Wear, the Fitbit Iconic, and seemingly every device Garmin makes. The Vivoactive 3 was the obvious choice, but there was one other choice that I kept coming back to and I almost pulled the trigger on: the Nokia Steel HR. Ultimately that’s more watch and less fitness tracker than I thought made sense for my day-to-day life. If I was dressing in business casual attire 5 days per week and then working out after, the Nokia would 100% be my choice. Given that I work from home on most days, the fitness features took precedence and the Vivoactive 3 became the right choice.
The Vivoactive 3 delivers everything it promises:
- It’s the nicest looking fitness smartwatch on the market in my opinion, in particular compared to the Apple Watch and Fitbit Iconic. It doesn’t look out of place with a suit (but it also doesn’t look like a real watch).
- The 5-7 day battery life is real.
- Notifications work great. I like being able to reject a phone call from my wrist. I haven’t used the canned text message responses yet, but I could see those being useful.
- The heart rate monitor delivers – the all day heart rate, heart rate tracking during workouts, and HRV stress tracking are exactly what I was looking for.
- Music controls are fantastic. In addition to being able to control my podcasts, I can see the name of what’s playing, how much is left, and adjust the volume.
- I really like having an always-on time display. I don’t think I could give that up.
- The screen looks sharp in sunlight and indoors.
- It’s comfortable. The heart rate sensor is completely flat and almost entirely unnoticeable.
- While workout tracking is much improved over the Vivosmart HR+, most of it is software based and therefore stuff that could have been available in the app to me without having to buy a new device. Bundling new Connect features with new devices is a pattern I’ve noticed from Garmin that I don’t love. Old devices never seem to get support for new features.
- Lack of HRV data in the app (I’m looking for something more on par with the popular HRV apps available in the Android and iOS app stores).
- The proprietary charger is awkward. While I don’t care about wireless charging for my phone, I think it will make a huge difference for watches.
- It might look nicer than the Apple Watch, but it doesn’t feel nearly as premium because of the plastic encasing (counterpoint – this does mean it’s lighter).
- The watch face selection is lacking in my opinion. Some that seem like they would look good in the store look absolutely horrible on the watch itself. My guess is that they were designed for one of the higher end watches like the fenix and port poorly to the Vivoactive.
- The screen resolution is fine from your wrist, but up close the 240 x 240 resolution is a bit lacking, especially compared to a smartphone screen.
Definitely Not “Peak Fitness Smartwatch”
In my Pixel 2 XL I posited that we’ve reached “peak smartphone”, where we’ve now got all of the features we need and the innovation will likely slow over the next few years, allowing us consumers to keep our devices for a while. This is definitely not the case with fitness smartwatches. This thing is awesome, yet look at my list of negatives.
I think this will probably be one of those categories where I get suckered into a device every year or so for a while because there’s still so much ground to cover. At some point in 2018 or 2019 someone will likely release a device that meets my needs better than the Vivoactive 3 and I’ll bite the bullet and pick it up. Which I’m OK with. I use this all day, every day, and I appreciate each little improvement.
Plus this category really excites me and I like supporting it. We’re not too far off from these things being used as life changing devices, whether that’s as an EKG or eventually the holy grail of non-invasive continuous blood glucose monitoring.