Vivoactive 3 review: Garmin’s often the underdog, often the better choice
The fight to make the best all-purpose smartwatch has never been tougher. There are a number of new wearables around the $300 mark that want to be your device of choice for both fitness and all-day wear. Since fitness is still the most practical use for wearables, most companies follow the same pattern: make the best fitness device for the money and supplement it with other smart features that would be most useful to the masses.
Garmin’s latest attempt to execute that plan is the $300 Vivoactive 3, a device poised to take on the $329 Apple Watch Series 3 (without LTE) and the $300 Fitbit Ionic. It has serious fitness chops—as most would expect from a Garmin device—as well as a bunch of typical smartwatch features. The stakes are high for Garmin, given the Vivoactive’s price and its competition: the device must give users the best value for their money by being both a solid fitness watch and smart device, while also being unique enough to persuade prospective users away from similar devices. Some of the Vivoactive 3’s fitness and smartwatch features are Garmin signatures (and can be found on other Garmin devices), but others are features necessary to keep up with the Joneses in the wearable space.
The Vivoactive 3 is a breath of fresh air compared to the Vivoactive HR. While Garmin’s previous device was boxy, bulky, and generally unattractive, the Vivoactive 3 is a huge improvement. It looks and feels like a regular watch, but isn’t as heavy or large as some wearables masquerading as timepieces. Some Android Wear devices that have traditional watch designs are huge compared to those regular timepieces. But Garmin’s Vivoactive devices have always been the company’s best competitors to high-end Apple and Fitbit wearables. I was happy to see Garmin step up its game with the Vivoactive 3’s design because the Vivoactive HR felt overwhelming and unattractive compared to the competition.
The Vivoactive 3’s stainless steel case measures 43.4 x 43.4 x 11.7 mm and weighs just 43 grams. It’s the perfect size for my small wrist. Although I like larger watches, I also don’t want to have a distracting, behemoth of a device on me at all times. My review unit had black and silver hardware, but you can also get the Vivoactive 3 with white/silver hardware, or a slate case with black accents. The entire design is waterproof up to 50 meters as well, so it can track swimming exercises and you can safely shower with it.
The device has one button on the case that’s used to access the wheel-like display menu and sport profile menu. Garmin also added a “side swipe” mechanism that lets you scroll through screens by gently rolling your finger up and down along the opposite side of the watch’s case. It’s slightly textured so you have some tactile feedback, and it works well as an alternative to the Vivoactive 3’s touchscreen.
Using side swipe was a bit clumsy for me, but that’s because I wore the Vivoactive 3 with the button positioned close to my wrist bone, facing away from my body. During the device’s initial setup, you can choose the preferred orientation of the device on your wrist. If you’re right-handed like me, and you plan on using side swipe often, I recommend turning the case so the textured side faces your wrist bone and hand.
The 1.2-inch, 240 x 240-pixel display isn’t as vibrant as those of similar devices like the Fitbit Ionic or the Apple Watch Series 3, but it is backlit and visible in direct sunlight. When resting, the display is always on but dimmed so you can still see the watch face. The display’s backlight automatically comes on when you flip your wrist up to check the time and the light is customizable, letting you choose how long it stays on before it turns off automatically again.
Inside the Vivoactive 3 are the usual sensor suspects: accelerometer, barometric altimeter, compass, thermometer, GPS/GLONASS, and Garmin’s Elevate heart-rate sensor. The underside of the Vivoactive 3 shows Garmin’s hard work in minimizing the space between your wrist and the optical heart-rate monitor. Much like Fitbit’s Ionic smartwatch, the Vivoactive 3 doesn’t have any raised edges, bumps, or unevenness under the case so the device lays completely flat against the wrist. This should better prevent pressure pockets from forming, or space and air coming in between the device and your wrist, both of which can breed inaccurate heart-rate readings.
I prefer the look of the improved heart-rate monitor on Garmin’s device over the Fitbit Ionic’s, because the former’s underside still narrows before becoming totally flat. As a result, the Ionic is looks and feels thicker than the Vivoactive 3, not to mention it’s awkwardly shaped as well. The Vivoactive 3’s flatness makes it more comfortable than other high-end wearables, while also increasing its heart-rate monitoring accuracy.
The Vivoactive 3 also supports standard 20mm quick-release bands so they can be replaced with bands of different colors and materials. Garmin also claims the device’s battery will last up to seven days on a single charge, or 13 hours in GPS mode. After updating the Vivoactive 3’s firmware, I had an issue with its battery: it was depleting like crazy, lasting only 24 to 36 hours at most. Before the problem started, my device got about three to four days on a single charge—not bad, but not as good as the Fitbit Ionic’s seven-day battery life.
Garmin is aware of the issue and is working on a fix for it, and the company advised me to charge the device fully before turning it off and back on again. After doing so, the battery life appeared to bounce back: after two days of consecutive day and night use (including daily activity, workout, and sleep tracking, as well as about 20 minutes of GPS use), the battery life was down to 62 percent.
The bands and the overall case design make the Vivoactive 3 the closest thing you can get from Garmin (in terms of design and features) before jumping into the expensive Fenix family. While Garmin also sells the Vivomove HR, it’s clearly targeted to women thanks to its “hybrid smartwatch” branding, metallic colorways, and the fact that it’s categorized under “women’s wearables” on Garmin’s website. The Vivoactive 3 is the more powerful, unisex version of the Vivomove HR, and the more accessible version of the Fenix 5 wearable that starts at $599.
Listing image by Valentina Palladino