Wednesday, January 22, 2020

Review: The Garmin Vivoactive 3

Shira's been a fan of the Garmin Vivoactive 3 watch for years, and with her recent upgrade to the Vivoactive 4, it meant that I could take her 3 for a spin. I've been using it for little over a month and here's my take: I like it. A lot.

I've dabbled with a number of watches, from the full featured ASUS Zenwatch to the quirky and minimalist Martian Notifier. It's been interesting to experiment in the world of wearables, but ultimately none of the devices stuck. The Vivoactive 3 shows real promise for bucking this trend and looks to be sticking around. Here's why.

First, the Vivoactive nails being a wristwatch. It's comfortable to wear and sleep in. I find that if I plug the watch in while I'm showering, its battery remains topped up enough that I can forget about its power needs. The Direct Watchface let's me configure a clean and informative main display that shows time, date, daily steps, daily distance and next sunrise/sunset. The watch does alarms, a stopwatch and a count down timer as one would expect.

Second, the watch is a joy to run with. Garmin has designed the flow of recording an activity well, including smart use of both on screen controls and the physical button. I like that I can setup the real-time information screens to be as verbose or terse as I want. Currently, I've got two screens worth of four fields each. On screen one, I see elapsed time, time of day, distance and pace, while on screen two I see heart rate, ascent, battery percent and calories burned. And when I inevitably decide that this is too much noise on my wrist, I can easily dial this information back to just time and distance.

The Vivoactive 3 has a pretty complete set of 3rd party addons such that any feature I've wanted that wasn't built in, I've been able to add. For example, Garmin neglected to offer battery percentage as an activity field (something that's critical for a full day of hiking or running), yet this was easily addressed by installing the battery data field.

The Garmin Connect software seamlessly integrates with 3rd party services. So while I've stopped using the Runkeeper app on my phone to track my runs, Garmin still keeps Runkeeper.com up to date with my activities.

Finally, the watch shows real promise for use while hiking and backpacking. Admittedly, I've yet to fully test this behavior. However, the dynamic.watch app and website allow you to push a GPX map to your wrist so you can visually track your progress. This combined with the myABC widget, which gives you quick access to the watch's altimeter, barometer and compass, mean that the watch is useful for both tracking and navigating in the backcountry. While the Vivoactive 3's battery is great for day-to-day use it doesn't pack enough juice to power the GPS for extended recording (say, 12+ hours). The watch does, however, continue to function when charging. So one should be able to plug the watch into a USB powerpack while in the field to continue to use it as both nav aid and tracker.

I'm still wrapping my head around the fact that the watch functions so independently from my phone. I can now hit the trail without my bulky Galaxy S9+ and yet record stats of my journey and leverage a GPS to find my way. More realistically, I could leave my Android back at the car and take my credit card sized M5 with me in a pocket. This gives me a way to place calls and send text messages without the heft of my main phone. The big catch: I like taking pics while I'm out. So while I could run with either a slimmed down phone or no phone at all, I don't see myself doing this any time soon.

Two features which are nice, but haven't prove their worth yet are the integration with Tasker and the health stats functionality.

I was psyched to see that the watch does at least basic Tasker integration. Yet, I haven't found a scenario where I need this capability. Though it does make the programmer in me happy to know it's there.

Knowing that I took 16,135 steps yesterday, burned 3,307 calories and had a resting heart of 48/bpm is certainly interesting, but I'm not sure what practical value any of this is. Yes, the watch tracks my sleep. But it's no surprise that on nights I stay up late programming I feel zapped the next day, and when the weekend rolls around and I can log extra zzz's I feel better. I'm already motivated to run so the gamification of my health data feels more like a sleazy trick than useful life hack. Still, the watch collects an impressive amount of the data and perhaps I'll think of a clever way to put it to use.

In short, the Vivoactive 3 has served me well over the last month and I can see why Shira's a fan of the device. Now I just need Garmin to come up with a Vivoactive 5, so I can get Shira's 4 as a hand me down.

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