Several months ago, I offered a brief review of the Garmin Vivoactive, which I had recently purchased. A few months after that, Garmin release an upgrade to that device, which is the Garmin Vivoactive HR. The most compelling update to this new model, as you can tell from the model name, was the addition of optical (wrist) heart rate measuring. When I chose my original Vivoactive, I chose it over other devices like the FitBit Surge because everything I had read about optical heart rate measuring at the wrist was unreliable in more intense workouts, so I had decided to stick with traditional chest strap heart rate measurement. However, initial reviews I read of this new device indicated that the optical HR was fairly accurate and reliable, so I became intrigued by an option that would allow me to ditch the chest strap. The display was rumored to be a bit better, too, so I had to try this out.
The new HR model mostly mirrors the old model in terms of functionality, so I'm not going to go into a function-by-function breakdown, but mostly just talk about the HR performance and the other upgrades/changes over the old model that I find noteworthy.
HR Measuring Performance - Good & Bad
The optical/wrist heart rate measuring is kind of a mixed bag in my opinion. I find it a very useful tool in measuring my day-to-day heart rate, and is a great check on my resting heart rate. During even, purely aerobic workouts, I also find it very reliable and fairly accurate. Where I find it drops the ball, though, is when I get into intense, anaerobic territory. When I've attacked steep hills (on my bike) at full intensity, for example, and I KNOW my HR is probably up near 175-180 from experience, I find this thing faltering and going the other way, faltering between the rate I had been riding at and then down to 111, back up to 140, down again to 126, etc., never hitting the HR I'm actually riding at. I find this to happen pretty consistently in these situations, which is disappointing. If I just go riding at an even pace, though, with not so sudden, intense variations, it's all good then. After having been using just the wrist measuring for a while now, I'm now going to go back to using the chest strap for workouts, and luckily this new model is still compatible for using the chest strap, along with other Garmin ANT+ sensor devices (speed/cadence sensors, etc.).
One complaint many had with the original Vivoactive was the display, mainly that it wasn't bright enough. It's great when you have good light, like out on daylight, but a little on the dim side in darker environs. Too me it wasn't a huge deal, as I could still read it in all but the darkest situations, and then I'd just put the backlight on if I needed to check it. Still, I understand the complaint. What they've done with new model isn't make the display any brighter, really, but they did pop up the contrast, which makes it more easily readable without actually being brighter. To my eyes, it's fairly noticeable difference, and much improved.
Also, as you can see from the image above, the size/shape is now a bit different, altering the dimensions of the display. Instead of a perfect square, the unit is now a bit more rectangular, so now if you're reading texts or something on your watch, you get less across the screen, but more vertically. The difference isn't huge, and overall I've come to like the new format better. Another quick note about dimensions, and this isn't about the display, is that the new model is quite a bit thicker than the old model due to the built-in optical HR measuring device. It's a bit jarring for the first day or so, but you'll quickly get used to it.
On this new model, the two buttons are now a couple rectangular buttons right next to each other below the display, instead of two very separated buttons on the sides of the unit like on the non-HR model. I like the change and find them to much more usable that way. They've also improved the software interface in how those buttons work, some small but very usable improvements.
Garmin has also added more activities that you can track with this unit right out of the box. Only the walking, running, and cycling matter to me, though, which I already had with the non-HR model, so I won't go into them all. If you were looking for more, though, check out the list of supported activities on the new one, as your favored activity may be on there (or available to add).
All in all, I find the Vivoactive HR to be a worthy upgrade to the original Vivoactive, and I've really enjoyed the unit thus far. That said, the optical/wrist HR measurement during more intense activities has been a major letdown, so I'll be going back to the chest strap for those more intense workouts. If you do workouts with a lot of intensity, and measuring that is your primary motivation for a device like this, you might save a little bit of money and going with the non-HR model, put that money towards buying the strap that you'll need anyway.
Vivosmart HR - Quick Review
I've also had the opportunity to use the Vivosmart HR (pictured above) over the past few months. This device is a more pared-down fitness tracker, without all the bells and whistles of the Vivoactive line. It's like a FitBit that doubles as slimline smartwatch. This HR model has optical/wrist hear rate measuring like the Vivoactive HR I reviewed above, with the same functionality and limitations. It doesn't have GPS, so you won't be logging your course on rides/runs, though you can start an activity on the watch to record, so you can still track your time, HR, and calories for your workouts. When you start an activity, you basically have two options: Run or Other. I've been dealing with a foot injury this summer, so haven't been running, but supposedly the Vivosmart is good at calibrating with your running gait after a couple of runs, and can pretty accurately measure your distance even without GPS. Again, though, I can't actually speak to this firsthand yet. With bike rides or anything else, you'll just be getting your time, HR, and calories, but no distance logging. You'll need to step up to something like the Vivoactive for that.
As a smartwatch, it technically has all the same functionality as the Vivoactive, but you'll find yourself using it differently than those devices, I think. I do, anyway. Because of the much more limited screen size, you're not going to want to read long texts on this thing. So with this one, it's more like, "Oh, I have a text from Morgan," and then I decide if it's something I need to read and respond to right away, if I'm going to bring out my phone to read it right away. With the Vivoactive, I'll actually read the text on the phone. I don't consider it a plus or negative; it's just a limitation you know you're getting when you buy a device like this. It's still useful, in my opinion. Also, a quick note about the display: whereas the picture of the watches above shows everything displayed horizontally across the unit, there is an option to display the primary screens vertically, which is how I have mine setup, as it's much easier to read that way when on my wrist. You can't have everything setup that way, though. For instance, texts and other app notifications will display horizontally (no option to change those screens), which kind of makes sense, as you'd barely get one whole word across the screen on a screen this narrow. Again, though, I usually don't even bother to read the whole text on this thing when they come in.
All in all, if all you need is a basic activity (step) tracker with basic HR measuring, or maybe want to track your runs but don't necessarily care about GPS-level accuracy, then this unit is a solid choice and will save you a bit of money. I like wearing it, too - it's very light on the wrist compared to the larger, more fully featured units.