Garmin’s Vivofit Has Some Neat Features, But How Does It Compare To Other Wearables?

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Garmin had the world by the tail. With their amazing in-car GPS devices and great sports watches, it looked like things could only go up. Until every phone on the market got a GPS chip and Google mapped the world. Now, Garmin has to play catch up and they’re coming after one of the most popular wearables to date – the Fitbit.

Their new band, called the Vivofit, looks like a less-expensive Fitbit or Nike FuelBand. Garmin knows a few things about battery life so they got rid of bright OLEDs and LEDs and replaced them with a reflective LCD solution. Garmin knows a few things about busy weekend athletes so they’ve added a built-in battery that lasts for a year. They know a thing or two about runners so they’ve included a chest strap that monitors your heart rate.

And they know they have to get this product right so they priced it at $130, exactly the same as the beleaguered Fitbit Force. Sadly, I think their lucky streak ends there.

First, understand that I am one of those insufferable people with a treadmill desk. While the Vivofit works well while walking and running, it does not record the specific activity associated with humping it on a treadmill at 2 miles an hour. In fact, I’ve found few devices that will actually work on a treadmill desk. For example, the Fitbit Force would regularly register a few thousand steps over the Vivofit and, while I don’t expect absolute accuracy from either device, the disparity was enough to make me distrust the newer of the two. This obviously clouds my judgement – only a few people I know use a treadmill desk – but it’s a showstopper for me. You could remove the band and put it in your pocket but that defeats the purpose.

Then, to check your heart rate, you have to wear an acceptably comfortable chest strap all the time, even while sleeping. The prospect of this may be alarming to some and given that the Basis and many other health bands already offer optical heart rate scanning, it’s even a bit onerous. But what Garmin has sacrificed in ease of use it has made up for in battery life. The battery lasts for over a year, making it the best available. The idea that you don’t have to take this thing off to charge it is amazing but that size reduction obviously comes at a price.

Finally, the ease of use and simplicity that defines some of the other fitness bands is missing here. Garmin’s app is solid but still has problems syncing. The band must be put into a special sync mode to connect with your phone so you won’t see notifications when you’ve passed a certain number of steps. There is no built-in buzzer that tells you when you’ve reached your goal and the display, a simple reflective reverse LCD, is very difficult to read. And, given that it’s a Garmin, most long-time fans will bemoan the lack of an accurate GPS tracker. But, to be clear, that’s not what this is.

Garmin makes great fitness watches. They’ve eclipsed Polar in my opinion and even Suunto, the kings of massive outdoor watches, could learn a few things from them. I’m currently working with another one of Garmin’s products, the Fenix 2, and I’m very impressed. I’ve used Garmin running watches for years and even wore one while running an ill-fated marathon. I’ve been consistently impressed Garmin. With the Vivofit I’m less so.

This product is the result of simply dipping a toe into the wearables market with a simple device. While I’m a Fitbit fan, I could be convinced to turn if, say, they added a backlight and a better notifications system and users who want a heart rate monitor will be pleased by the addition of one without added bulk on the wrist. Again, Garmin did a few things right here but that doesn’t really add up to a reason to pick this over one of the incumbents.

If you need a heart rate monitor and you like the brand, by all means get a Garmin. If you’re unsure on either front, then there are plenty of alternatives and Garmin will simply have to convince you next cycle with slightly better features and a few more tweaks.

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