When about a year ago Garmin announced their first activity tracker (band) with optical HR capabilities I was very eager to test how it worked. Some four months ago I came into possession of the updated version of this device with built GPS unit – Garmin Vivosmart HR+.
After using it for the last four months I have a pretty good impression of how it works and what it is worth.
First you need to know that Garmin has not been sleeping for the last year and did some improvements in firmware of the predecessor of this unit, that were also included into Vivosmart HR+. For example the all-day hr functionality has been improved which was reported to be the main flaw of Garmin Vivosmart HR.
OK, let’s go through all the details.
The box itself has no windows, so you don’t see the device until you open it up.
The device is being sold in three color versions in regular size:
- Black/shark fin grey
- Imperial purple/Kona purple
- Midnight blue/Bolt blue
and in extra-large size (black/shark fin grey).
Mine is regular size Black/grey
Inside the box you can find:
- The unit – Vivosmart HR+
- The USB charger/sync cable
- The manual
The unit itself is made of plastic with rubber belt. The belt feels very soft and in the beginning I was afraid not to break it, but it proved itself to be sturdy which is very important as it is not removable.
The front side of the device consists of a big touch screen and a plastic button just below. The screen is not flat but rounded and I was really afraid that it would get damaged very quickly, but again I was surprised by the resistance of the device as the screen after four months of regular usage does not seem to have any scratches at all (apart from my fingerprints).
On the back side of the device the most important things are: optical hr sensor and charging/sync pins. The optical sensor is Garmin made “Elevate” sensor used in most of Garmin optical hr devices.
On the left side of the picture above you can see two double charging/sync pins to which the cradle is being attached.
The cradle snaps on the device very tightly and in my view it should have been made in slightly different way as now a fair amount of force is needed to retrieve the device from the cradle.
The last item in the box is the quick start manual, which includes few information needed to start using the device, but if anyone wants to know how to use most of the device’s functions the full manual can be downloaded from the Garmin’s site.
Garmin Vivosmart HR+ looks pretty neat when worn but it is somewhat bulky and is difficult to wear under a regular shirt with buttoned cuffs. Otherwise it looks and feels great on the wrist.
I will just mention that the scale on the box that should help to choose the size is somewhat off as my wrist covers the whole scale of regular fit, but I still have eight holes on the belt left, so the xl size is reserved for really big guys.
Ok, that’s it for the presentation of the device, now let’s see how it works.
I will divide the review into three parts:
First, I will present the daily activity features of the device, as daily activity tracking is generally the main purpose for buying this type of device;
Second, I will present the Workout mode in which the device works as a GPS sports watch with hr capabilities;
Lastly, I will present the HR transmission mode in which the device works purely as a HR source (like a chest strap) in connection with other device capable of receiving HR Ant+ transmission (almost any modern sport watch or tracking device).
Daily Activity Tracking:
In this mode the GPS unit is turned off due to battery saving reasons, so the device uses built accelerometer and HR sensor for tracking activity and thus it works the same way as the cheaper version without built in GPS.
Garmin Vivosmart HR+ will track and show:
- date and time,
- daily steps,
- current HR, average resting HR, lowest and highest daily HR,
- daily calories burned,
- daily distance,
- daily stairs climbed,
- time spent in moderate and high intensity activities.
Date and time
The Garmin Vivosmart HR+ can work as a normal watch. The time and date are set automatically when the device acquires satellite signals and when you sync your device with a smartphone. The connection with a smartphone is done via Bluetooth protocol and after initial paring the device is synchronized automatically. The display can be set to horizontal or vertical and also switched from left to right wrist (which turns the display 180o)
The device shows the total number of steps for the day against the goal steps. The goal can be either set by the user or be dynamically changed by the device on the basis of previous achievements – if you reach your goal the next day it will be increased a bit, and if you fail to achieve it, the next day it will be lowered. The steps screen also shows a bar with a progress toward a daily goal. When the goal is reached the device shows a little fireworks show and vibrates.
As to accuracy I can say that the deice gives similar results as my other devices. Of course one can always cheat any device by doing various movements that mimic walking, but generally the algorithms are being improved on a daily basis and the readings are getting pretty accurate these days.
Another feature provided by Viviosmart HR+ is a Move Bar.
When you don’t move for a prolonged period of time, the move bar reminds you to keep moving. It is being activated after one hour of inactivity and then its additional segments appear after every 15 minutes. Each time it gives a command to move… You can reset the move bar by walking a short distance, but if you have a sitting job and don’t want to be bothered and/or irritated by it, you can simply turn this feature off.
Heart rate tracking
In the activity tracking mode the HR sensor works in a special mode, that is it is being turned on once in a while in given time intervals or depending on activity (when a move pattern is detected by accelerometer). This feature has been improved in this device in comparison to initial firmware of Garmin Vivosmart HR – the predecessor of Vivosmart HR+. It would be perfect if the sensor could work all the time, but unfortunately it would burn too much energy and drain the battery. I believe that Garmin, after over a year of improvements has come up with a good compromise between accuracy and economy.
The device shows your current heart rate and seven-day average resting heart rate in beats per minute and when you tap the HR screen you get to see the heart rate graph that displays your heart rate for the last 4 hours, your lowest heart rate in beats per minute and your highest heart rate during that 4 hour period.
Although some people still report problems with optical HR sensors, for me the Garmin HR+ sensor works better than I expected. I almost don’t get any readings that are off the scale, and if I do, it is caused by misplacement of the device or by sudden movements/changes of muscle tension of the hand wearing the device, but those are just normal limitations of the optical HR technology.
What I especially like in terms of HR readings is the ability to see the lowest HR reading from the last 4 hours as it is the easiest way to see your true sleeping resting HR, though you should check if it is a consistent data and not an anomaly or a bad reading, so it is best to look at the graph too. It is interesting for a while to check your HR in various daily activities or stress situations, but after four months of usage, I am slowly losing interest in constant checking on my pulse. What is important for a runner or any other athlete is the ability to check your resting HR in a way more convenient way than it can be done with a chest strap, and the functionality of sleeping monitor.
Garmin Vivosmart HR+ shows the amount of total calories burned for the current day, including both active and resting calories. The calories are calculated based on personal data and HR readings.
Garmin Vivosmart HR+ calculates the distance based on built-in accelerometer. The step length is being calculated by the unit with initial help of GPS or can be set manually. The accuracy depends on a given activity, so generally it should be rather used as an estimation than as a precise value.
The device shows the total number of floors climbed for the day, your floors climbed goal for the day, and your progress toward your goal. The calculation from my experience is quite accurate. I usually don’t get any undue floors when I don’t climb stairs, and if I do, they are being accurately calculated.
The device calculates the time spent participating in moderate to vigorous intensity activities, your weekly intensity minutes goal, and your progress toward your goal. The initial goal (150 minutes of moderate activity or 75 minutes of vigorous activity) is based on general recommendations of U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the American Heart Association, and the World Health Organization, but it can always be changed by the user. To assess the type of intensity minutes Garmin calculates intensity minutes by comparing your heart rate data during an activity to your average resting heart rate. If heart rate is turned off, the device calculates moderate intensity minutes by analyzing your steps per minute.
Apart from this functionality, that is being tracked and showed by the device, additionally you get:
- sleep metrics,
- VIRB action camera remote,
- Smartphone music player remote,
- Notifications received from a paired smartphone
- Current temperature and weather forecast from a paired smartphone
- vibration alarm
The feature I like is the sleep metrics. The device (based on your pulse and movement) assesses quite accurately the moment you fall asleep and wake up, you also get to know your phases of sleep and movement during sleep.
This functionality is valuable for athletes as it provides opportunity to assess the quality and quantity of the most valuable regeneration period – that is sleep. I can’t validate the data Garmin provides, except for the time of falling asleep, waking up and movement – which are very accurate in my case.
The remote functions, phone notifications alarm and weather forecast might be useful for some people, I appreciate the possibility of turning them off. For the tests I have tried all of them except for the VIRB camera remote – as I don’t have one. They all work as designed, so I think Garmin did a good job here too.
What is worth noticing is that daily activity tracking is closely connected with Garmin smartphone/PC application in which you can read more advanced presentation of data recorded with Vivosmart HR+. Below I present few screenshots, practically any data shown on the device has its screen in Garmin Connect application:
The Vivosmart HR+ has the following workout modes:
In each mode you can choose if you want to use GPS (outdoor activity) or you stick with accelerometer (indoor activity)
For me the most interesting and useful is the “run” mode. In this mode you get to choose several options:
- Basic activity – in which you just record your GPS track, pace, HR and cadence – yes this device actually does more in this area than my Garmin Forerunner 910… You can additionally turn the auto lap function which can be set either on 1km or 1mi depending on length units that you set, and the auto pause function that will pause the time for the time you stop. This is the mode that I use during my easy runs and long runs.
- Run/walk – this is the perfect mode for beginners or fans of Jeff Galloway’s method of run/walk intervals. You can choose the length of both running and walking through Garmin Connect software in a smartphone or PC;
- Virtual pacer – it is a mode in which you can choose a desired tempo and the device will show you if your average pace is above or below the set value;
- Time alert, Distance alert and Calorie alerts – in those three modes you get the vibration signal after you hit the desired time, distance or calories burned.
- Heart rate alert – you can also set the device to alert you if your heart rate gets out of desired range. You can either choose a preset HR zones or choose own zone that can be set manually.
The “walk” mode is desired purely for walking (you don’t get to have run/walk intervals here), but you can choose auto lap, auto pause, HR alert and step count alert.
The “cardio” and “other” modes have distance, time, calories and HR alerts plus you can use auto pause and auto lap functions in them.
In each mode you can set up to five data pages – each with two data fields. In addition you can turn on/off the time page. In every data field you can put the following data:
- Heart rates
- HR zones
- Lap speed/pace
- Average speed/pace
- No data
If you choose no data in both page fields, the page will not be shown when you swipe the screen.
You can also choose between speed and pace depending on your personal preferences. The choice will be included in all data fields.
Note, that you do not get to choose a cadence data field, but this data is gathered and you can see it in Garmin Connect or any other training software that you use.
HR transmission mode
In this mode Garmin Vivosmart HR+ acts like a chest strap. It can transmit HR data to any ant+ device. This mode cannot be used in training mode, so you can either send HR data or record everything on the device. In this mode Vivosmart HR+ records your pulse with the same increased sampling rates as in workout mode. This model (HR+) has a screen lock, so there are no problems with accidentally stopped broadcasting, like it was reported by some people who were using Vivosmart HR, without the screen lock.
To be honest, this mode was the main reason I wanted to test an optical HR device like Garmin Vivosmart HR+. My verdict is that it works like I wanted. The optical HR has its limitations – it does have a lag (it is not very responsive to HR changes) so it is pretty much useless for short intervals or runs with rapid changes of speed, but for normal steady runs or long intervals it does the work as well as chest straps. One must remember though that it is not as reliable as a chest strap, as even a small movement of the device can have negative impact on HR readings. Nonetheless I find it reliable enough for most of my easy runs, some long steady runs and unimportant races. In those cases I price the comfort of Garmin Vivosmart HR+ over the reliability of a HR chest strap.
On the picture below you can see how precisely the HR recordings (chest strap) change with the changes of pace.
Below you can see the HR track recorded with Garmin Vivosmart HR+ (optical sensor). you can see that during short 100m strides HR recordings can’t keep up with changes of pace.
One strange thing I noticed was that the change of grip on my stationary bike caused a HR drop of 20 bpm. I believe that it was caused by the change of tension of my forearm muscles. One way of avoiding this was changing the position of the device to the inside of the wrist. I have not noticed anything like this during my running workouts.
After over four months of using Garmin Vivosmart HR+ my impressions are as follows:
Daily activity tracker – in this area the device is doing a great job. It gives me the overall estimations on my activity, it calculates calories, it can also be synchronized with My fitness pal application and give you the number of calorie intake and calculate your balance of daily calories, it tracks the quality and quantity of sleep and what is of most importance for me – it provides with an easy way of measuring resting HR value. The rest of its functions like the remotes or weather are just gimmicks for me, but for some people they may also be valuable. In this area the device has not failed me even a single time. The one thing that Garmin could change is the battery indicator visible from the main screen and not from the option screen only. The area that Garmin should improve is the reliability of Bluetooth connection with a paired smartphone. I had issues in this area and in one case I had to reset the device and empty the battery in order to reestablish the connection with my smartphone.
Workout mode – Bearing in mind the limitation of optical HR measurement, I can say that I am very impressed with this device, however I will probably appreciate all its functionalities in summer, as in winter the need of wearing the device under jacket limits its functionality as a main workout device. In running mode Garmin gives precise distance, pace, cadence and heart rate. It can record laps (manually or automatically), it can record simple interval workouts and has autopause functionality which is very useful in city use. On longer workouts you need to check the battery before going out as this is not shown on the main screen and the battery may die on the run as this is the situation in which the battery usage is the highest. Other than that I had just one issue of loosing the GPS signal – it was during a forest in bad weather conditions, but the device has automatically switched to accelerometer and, although I had incomplete GPS track, my distance, pace and cadence were still recorded during the whole run.
One more thing I loved was the time in which the device has been acquiring satellite signals. I never measured it precisely, but my estimation is an average of 5 to 10 seconds, depending on the weather conditions. This is several times faster than my Forerunner 910.
Taking all of this into consideration, Vivosmart HR+ becomes my favorite device for all of my easy and long runs. The only things I find worse than in my FR910 are: smaller screen and only two data fields.
HR transmission mode – I think of it as of a mixed devices mode – most of metrics from a main device and HR from the Vivosmart HR+. Why should anyone use such mode? – it is a lot more comfortable than using a HR chest strap – that’s it, period. Some people say that it is a weird thing to use two devices but I disagree (I wear them on both hands). Both in easy running workouts and in bike workouts I find this mix of two devices easy and comfortable to wear. If you consider that most of running workouts are steady easy runs, this can be a good option and a way of getting rid of chest strap issues.
I had little issues with this mode. Only once I couldn’t establish connection between Vivosmart HR+ and my FR910 and after resetting the device I managed to get rid of this issue.
All in all, I find Vivosmart HR+ to be a well-balanced and a very useful device. For a novice runner it could be a main training device and for advanced runners it can still be used for most of easy workouts and also in competition in the transmission mode. Of course it is also a great activity tracker and it this aspect it excels from most of its competition.
If you want to know anything more about this device – just ask and I will do my best to answer all your questions.