Stress/heart rate variance feature is unique and useful
Accurate VO2 max estimates
Advanced features for weight lifters
Great activity tracking
No option to sync with GPS on a phone
Not all features work perfectly (weightlifting in particular)
Fitbit has been dominating the mid-range fitness tracker market for some time now. The Charge 2, Alta HR, and Flex 2 are all great devices, but what about the competition? If you’re looking to spend under $150 for a well-rounded wearable to track your activity, there are a few other devices you might want to consider first.
One of those devices is the Garmin vívosmart 3. This is an interesting fitness tracker that offers some unique features that you won’t find on other devices in the same price range, and Garmin deserves major props for innovating in an industry that has grown somewhat stale lately. For the right user, there is an awful lot to like here… but are you that user?
Here is our Garmin vívosmart 3 review.
When I first removed the vívosmart 3 from its packaging, I did not have terribly high hopes for it. That is to say that the first impression isn’t an entirely positive one. It might just be my personal taste, but the vívosmart 3 feels a little on the cheap side and is very light and rubbery – even the screen. This also makes it very prone to picking up hairs and dust and it lacks a certain sheen present on other devices. There is a faint diamond pattern around one half of the band which is nice enough, but this certainly feels like a case of function over form.
The screen is black and white and has a lot of light bleed, which further adds to the less-than-perfect aesthetic. It is an actual touchscreen though that will register swipes and precise jabs, which is a nice step up from the tap-only displays that you get on Fitbit’s latest devices.
I’m not saying it’s terrible – it’s small and light enough that the looks aren’t terribly important, and it’s nice and comfortable to wear, too. It’s just not quite as appealing as a Fitbit or even Gear Fit 2, and for me this is something of a trend when it comes to Garmin’s devices. I remember being similarly disappointed with the vívoactive HR with its light plasticky frame, bulky shape and dim screen.
Something that is nice about the physical design of the vívosmart 3 though, is that it is waterproof up to 50 meters. That means you can take it in the pool with you or wear it in the shower without worrying about it. There’s no specific swim tracking to speak of, but it’s always nice to know you’re safe from splashes. Battery life is 5 days on paper and about 4 days in practice, which is middling but fine.
While the design is a little mixed, the performance is where the vívosmart 3 gets a little more interesting.
As you would expect, the vívosmart 3 can track your steps, heart rate, calorie burn, distance travelled, active minutes, and sleep, just like most other trackers. All of this works well for the most part; step counts seem to be on par with what my other devices estimate and the sleep tracking kicks in fairly reliably and lines up with what I know to be true. Sleep is split into three distinct categories – deep, light, and awake – which is a little less impressive than the Fitbit Alta HR, but still fairly useful.
Like some other Garmin devices, the vívosmart 3 also allows you to count the number of flights of stairs you ascend using a barometric altimeter. I’ve always found this to be a bit of a strange/arbitrary target to set: I don’t see climbing flights of stairs as a particularly worthwhile goal and it seems odd to me that you could do 30,000 steps in a day and find yourself still falling short of one of your goals… Still, it’s nice to have and it’s always pleasing when you do reach that target.
MyFitnessPal integration is a powerful feature for those that want to lose weight
Again, as we have come to expect from these kinds of devices you also have the option to synchronize the app with the likes of MyFitnessPal as a way to track calories on their way in and on their way out. This is a powerful feature for those that want to lose weight. While there are other factors involved, maintaining a ‘caloric deficit’ is still one of the most reliable methods for body recomposition. There are movement reminders as is par for the course and social elements, though these are a long way behind Fitbit’s offerings.
The vívosmart 3 also supports stress tracking
So far so standard, but what is a little less common is the inclusion of a ‘stress’ data field. This reportedly relies on heart rate variability, which means that it is measuring the variation in the intervals between your heart beats as you breathe. A healthy heart rate should not be entirely consistent but should alter slightly depending on whether we’re breathing in or out. If your parasympathetic nervous system (rest and digest) is dominant, then you will have greater heart rate variance and this is a sign of low stress. Conversely, if your sympathetic nervous system is dominant (fight or flight), then your heart rate variability will be low and this is a sign of stress or of poor recovery from training.
I have no way of testing just how accurate the stress function on the vívosmart 3 is, but it’s still a fun and potentially useful metric to have. And what I can tell you is that it largely does seem to correlate with how I’m feeling at any given time. I first started testing the device on a stag party in Berlin and my stress was recorded as low most of the first day. Then I was shown the ‘hot rod’ (a souped up go-kart) that I would be driving on the road later and my stress levels went right up! It’s a fun feature to have either way and all throughout the trip my friends were asking ‘how stressed are you now Adam?’.
If you find your stress is a little too high, then you can always try using the Relax Timer
If you find your stress is a little too high, then you can always try using the Relax Timer which will guide you through breathing exercises to try and get your chill back. This is a nice idea, but I feel that the full potential has been a little squandered here. The timer really does nothing more than get you to breathe in and out with consistent timings, and you could accomplish the same thing with a stop watch. Theoretically, more consistent breathing should help to improve heart rate variability, but I found it was uncomfortable holding my breath at times (though you can change the settings in the app) and I didn’t feel any better for it. This is something I’d love to see Garmin expand on in future though. Imagine a meditation app that would monitor your heart rate variability and BPM while providing useful instruction. Hopefully that’s something we’ll see in a future device!
As with other fitness trackers, you can also tell the vívosmart 3 that you’re about to begin a workout and track a walk, run, cardio exercise, weight training or ‘other’. During a workout, the device will track your heart rate more consistently as well as other relevant data. At the end you can see how you performed through the Garmin Connect app or compare your data over time. A simple run yields an impressive amount of information, such as average speed, pace, calories, and more. The option to manually start new workouts already puts this ahead of something like the Fitbit Flex or Alta HR, but auto-detection is there too if you want it.
How does the auto-detection algorithm (called ‘Move IQ’) perform? Pretty well actually. Something that is a very welcome addition is the fact that you can actually receive alerts once the activity starts being recorded. This sure beats going for a long walk and just hoping that your device is picking it up – as is your only option with many Fitbits.
On the downside though, the tracking will only kick in after you’ve been walking for 5, 10 or 15 minutes (depending on your preference) and begins from zero rather than adding that initial 5 minutes to your total. This means that I often find myself walking to the shop only for the vívosmart 3 to tell me it is starting to track a walk just as I get back to the front door. It would have been nice to record the short walk but as it will only have measured the last 30 seconds, I’m better off just discarding the activity. It’s not a big deal though, just something to note if that’s how you plan on using the device.
During training, the vívosmart 3 goes above and beyond other trackers in its price bracket. Being able to look at custom-selected data fields as you train is very handy, and the ‘Garmin Elevate’ heart rate monitoring is far more accurate than Fitbit’s PurePulse during exercise.
The inclusion of rep counting for weightlifting is really impressive
What really impresses here though is the inclusion of rep counting for weightlifting. This is something that is missing from most other fitness trackers, let alone trackers that are this affordable. In fact, even the vívoactive HR lacks this feature, which is somewhat irksome considering that it has all the necessary sensors and it would be a simple matter for Garmin to add it via a software update. Many fitness trackers completely ignore weightlifting, while those that don’t will usually only monitor your heart rate. Seeing as I know far more people who lift weights than who run, this is a welcome change.
Now a weightlifting session is rewarded with a detailed breakdown of which exercises were performed, how many reps were completed, and more. What’s really impressive is that the vívosmart 3 not only counts repetitions automatically but also identifies the exercise you are doing. During your workouts, all you need to do is to tell the vívosmart 3 when you are starting or ending a set (there is an option to let it auto-detect sets but this is in beta and it doesn’t work very well right now). Theoretically anyway…
What is important to make clear, is that this feature is far from perfect. The vívosmart 3 will often miss-count my repetitions and is equally likely to incorrectly identify exercises. For example, I did a chest press which was registered as a squat and chin ups weren’t counted at all. Weirdly, it actually did pretty well with press ups! Of course nothing that only involves the legs will register (such as leg press or leg extension) and the same goes for unilateral (one armed) exercises. In my training, I like to do elaborate drop sets and supersets and this all gets a little confusing for the vívosmart 3.
The vívosmart 3 will often miss-count my repetitions and is equally likely to incorrectly identify exercises
But this is still a great extra feature to have and one that you won’t find on a lot of other trackers. You can manually edit your workouts to add the weights and fix the exercises/repetitions and this should still be quicker than starting from scratch. I hope this feature will improve over time, as it’s something I think a lot of people could benefit from. At the very least, having your rest periods timed is great for motivation and seeing how long you spent resting at the end of a workout is rather interesting – if a little disheartening in my case here!
Another more advanced feature is the VO2 Max score, which is a rare and welcome inclusion that I haven’t personally seen since the Microsoft Band 2. This is a score that represents your ability to utilize oxygen, which correlates with cardio performance and physical fitness. The vívosmart 3 will use some algorithms to calculate your VO2 Max throughout your regular training and activity, or you can begin a ‘test’ to actively give yourself a score. This also gives you a ‘fitness age’, which is a fairly nonsense bit of fun.
What’s missing from the vívosmart 3 is any form of GPS. This is to be expected for a device this cheap but what’s a real shame is that there is no way to use the GPS from a connected phone to track routes. This is a feature that is present in most other ‘basic’ trackers and it’s a big blow to anyone who might want to use the device for running. Again, it’s annoying because Garmin could easily have added this feature and likely opted not to so as to avoid cannibalizing sales of their other products. The same thing goes for swimming: it’s waterproof and has an accelerometer, so why can’t it track swimming?
It might seem unfair to lambast the vívosmart 3 for missing features when it’s already brimming with things that are lacking in similar trackers. But the point here is that it came so close to having a near-perfect feature set. And the only reason it doesn’t seems to be related to cynical business decisions… The lack of any way to track your route on a run is also a particularly unfortunate omission and one that will make this device a complete no-go for some users.
Navigating through the UI is a real headache and certainly not intuitive
Unfortunately, the somewhat lacking design does seem to carry over to the software. Navigating through the UI is a real headache and certainly not intuitive. You bring the device to life by either double tapping the screen or bringing it up to your face. Double tapping works 99% of the time, while bringing the screen up works about 80% of the time. From here, you can then swipe up and down through widgets, swipe right (or tap) to access more information (such as yesterday’s data), or long-press in order to start an activity or perform a range of other functions.
While this works fine once you’re used to it, you’ll find yourself searching around a whole lot to begin with and a lot of the layout just doesn’t make any sense. Why, for example, are there two separate ‘settings’ menus? The spanner option is found inside the cog option and hides even more settings which surely could have been kept in the same menu. Likewise, why is sleep in the long-press menu whereas stress is one of the top widgets?
On more than one occasion I've accidentally cancelled a workout or discarded the data when I had no intention to
The screen is also a little too small for precise swiping and jabbing and this is actually one of my biggest gripes with the vívosmart 3: on more than one occasion I have accidentally cancelled a workout or discarded the data when I had no intention to. As you can imagine, this is pretty frustrating – especially when you’re dying from a cold but you need to record at least one run for your review and you lose the first attempt!
Again, this comes as no surprise from Garmin. This is the same company responsible for the Garmin Connect app, which is where you’ll be looking up all of your data and workouts. Garmin Connect is rather famous for being comprehensive and powerful but an absolute nightmare to navigate. You’ll likely spend a lot of time in the Connect app, so be ready to get lost a lot and to have to dig for the data you want. There’s tons here, it just could be arranged a lot better.
It’s not all bad though. The amount of options, data and features that Garmin manages to pack onto such a small device is undoubtedly impressive and the customization options are also very welcome. You can choose from a selection of watch faces which helps make the device a little more personal. Likewise, you also have the option to remove widgets that you don’t use from the home screen and to select which data fields you want to see during each workout. It’s impressive really, it just takes some getting used to.
The vívosmart 3 is not a smartwatch and you certainly shouldn’t invest in it if that’s what you’re looking for. However, what it can do is show you any notification that comes through from your phone. You’ll also get weather updates, music controls, a timer, a stopwatch, and even remote controls for the Virb Action Camera; if you happen to have one of those. It’s basic, but still a good selection compared with similar devices.
The vívosmart 3 is now available for $139.99 from Garmin’s website and Amazon. This puts it in the Fitbit Charge 2/Alta HR price range, which begs the question – should you buy this over a Fitbit?
This has become a very long review and that’s a testament to just how much there is to say about the Garmin vívosmart 3. Not all of it is good, but the fact that there is so much to talk at all about is worthy of praise. While a lot of fitness trackers are rather samey and unimaginative, the vívosmart 3 tries to do a lot and has some relatively unique features.
It’s a shame that it isn’t all packaged a little better. The unintuitive UI and rubbery feel mar the experience somewhat and there are a couple of features that don’t quite work as they should. The lack of GPS synchronization through the mobile app also hurts the device rather. Otherwise, this would have been the ideal ‘cheap option’ for consumers that are more serious about their training.
I would recommend this tracker to active individuals who train mostly in the gym
As it is, I would recommend this tracker to active individuals who train mostly in the gym. If you are more likely to be found running on a treadmill or lifting weights as opposed to running around the local neighborhood, then you should find the slew of features here to be very useful at this price point. Alternatively, the vívosmart 3 could work well as a secondary device. I personally intend to use this as my daily fitness tracker now and wear it to the gym but will switch to the vívoactive HR when I’m heading out for a run. Unless you have a similar option though, serious runners should look for something that has a built-in GPS or at least lets you use your phone.
Meanwhile, those that just want something to passively monitor their health and don’t want to fiddle around with the UI will likely do better with a Fitbit. In many ways, this is superior to the Fitbit Alta HR (perhaps the closest comparison) and it certainly packs in a lot more features. I personally prefer it. But as an overall package, it lacks a little sheen and misses a key feature – which prevents me from making this my number one recommendation for the average consumer.
So the vívosmart 3 will appeal to quite a specific niche, but then it is such a mixed-bag of features that I think this was always inevitable. The vívosmart 3 is a very interesting, capable and likeable device, but it’s also a little awkward and… weird. I like it!
What are your thoughts on the vívosmart 3? Are you thinking of picking one up anytime soon? Let us know what you think in the comments!