Garmin Vivoactive 3 review

In keeping with Garmin's sports tech legacy, the Garmin Vivoactive 3 has a heart rate sensor, GPS tracking and a selection of built-in apps dedicated to keeping tabs on a range of sports activities, from running and indoor cycling to skiing and snowboarding.

Although the Vivoactive 3's focus may be on fitness, this versatile wearable also has plenty of other features to shout about, including smart notifications, an on-board payment system called Garmin Pay as well as both sleep and real-time stress tracking.

And its design reflects its sporty yet smart credentials, as it looks more like a watch than a bulky fitness tracker.

It's no surprise that the Vivoactive 3 does fitness well. After all, the Garmin brand is as synonymous with high-end sports devices as it is with GPS systems nowadays. Speak to any runner or triathlete and they'll likely cite one of Garmin's Forerunner, or even Fenix, bands as their favorite gadget.

But that hasn't stopped Garmin from venturing into a more consumer-focused space either. Devices in the Vivofit, Vivomove and Vivosmart ranges may still be aimed at those who like working out, but could be described more as lifestyle wearables given they care as much about step counts, sleep and stress as personal bests and optimizing performance.

The Garmin Vivoactive 3 is packed full of features.

The Garmin Vivoactive 3 doesn't fit neatly into either category. At around half the price of the brand's high-end fitness devices, like the Fenix 5X, the Garmin Vivoactive 3 is a more affordable option and yet still packs a punch when it comes to sports tracking.

It has on-board lifestyle features, like sleep and stress tracking, but is also geared up to compete with similar multi-purpose smartwatches with its notifications and payment system.

As you'd expect, the Garmin Vivoactive 3 isn't occupying this appealing space all on its own. Retailing at £279.99 ($249.99, AU$449) it's entering at a similar price point to new devices from some of the biggest names in wearable tech.

Most notably there's the Apple Watch 3, as well as the Fitbit Ionic. They're in no way identical, but all three are driven by fitness, look good, are designed to be worn 24/7 and are smart.

Garmin may be a firm favorite among those serious about fitness, but the question now is whether a multi-purpose smartwatch like the Vivoactive 3 has the on-board specs, style and mainstream visibility to compete with the likes of Apple and Fitbit.

Garmin Vivoactive 3 price and availability

  • Launched November 2017
  • Starts at £279.99/$249.99/AU$449

There are three different colors of the Garmin Vivoactive 3 to choose from. There's black silicone and slate, which is a premium-looking dark grey and costs £299.99/$329.99/AU$499. 

It also comes in black silicone and stainless steel, which is silver, as well as white silicone and stainless steel, which both cost slightly less at £279.99/$249.99/AU$449.

That makes the Garmin Vivoactive 3 a little less than similar devices that also straddle the line between fitness tracker and smartwatch, like the Fitbit Ionic, LG Watch Sport and the Apple Watch 3 (with just GPS and not cellular capabilities).

It's also considerably less than many of the brand's more specialized multi-sports ranges.

For example, if you're looking for a wearable to see you through a huge range of activities with super accurate tracking, the Fenix 5X might be your best bet at $699.99/£629.99/AU$949.

On the other hand, if you're solely looking for a device for running and nothing else, you could opt for the Forerunner 30 at £129.99 (around $175/AU$225). But most runners would want to opt for something like the Forerunner 235, which still undercuts the Vivoactive 3.

In short, if you want a Garmin fitness device there are certainly cheaper options. But you'd need to be sure that fitness is your only focus, otherwise it would make sense to consider the Vivoactive 3 instead.

You can instantly see how you’re performing throughout the day with this watch face.

Design

  • Circular design
  • Comfy strap
  • Screen counteracts glare

At 43g, and made with a stainless steel casing, the Garmin Vivoactive 3 feels weighty enough to be premium, but like a normal watch once it's strapped on. It's a world away from Garmin's previous Vivoactive HR device, which in many ways felt and looked more like a cheap, blocky sports watch than a quality wearable.

That’s the running theme when it comes to the design of the Vivoactive 3, although packed with smart features and a bevy of sensors, it looks and feels like a 'normal' watch.

This is especially the case in comparison to wearables built solely for tracking, like Garmin's latest Vivosport or Vivosmart devices. It even looks more watch-like than its closest competitors, which is likely to be because both the Fitbit Ionic and Apple Watch 3 have square (or square-er) faces.

With a depth of 11.7mm the Garmin Vivoactive 3 sits flush against our arms. This combined with a super flexible silicone strap makes for a very comfortable wear. That was the case throughout our whole review period, even at night and at the gym.

The Garmin Vivoactive 3 has a depth of 11.7mm.

The silicone strap is flexible and very easy to get on and off. But once it's on it feels secure, even after a run, swim and a HIIT class. But if you don't like the strap, it's possible to replace it with any other 20mm quick release band.

The Garmin Vivoactive 3's screen measures 1.2 inches and has a 240 x 240 pixel display, which is a size that suits a range of wrists both big and small, and yet still serves up information without you having to squint to see the stats.

Like many other Garmin watches, the Vivoactive 3 has a color transflective screen. At first this looks a bit dark, especially compared to the Fitbit Ionic's OLED display, but it's been created that way in order to make it easier to read, even in direct sunlight, and to make a big saving on battery life too.

The display is always-on, but dimmed. The backlight comes on when you flip your wrist up. This is handy for quickly checking the time, but we found keeping that setting on meant it came on a lot during the night. However, you can customize whether it comes on or not, as well as how long for.

There's a small bezel round the edge of the screen with lines on it to show where the hours are. And unlike a lot of similar devices, there's just the one button on the side of the screen. The great thing about this is you get to decide during setup whether you want it facing toward your body, or facing toward your wrist and hand.

You can change the settings so you can choose which side the button sits on.

We wore the Vivoactive 3 on our left wrist, so chose the button to be closest to our hand to make it easier to push with our right. This button is pretty important because, among other things, it allows you to access the sports menu and also works as a back button.

Some people are bound to love the minimal effect this provides, others who are used to multi-functional sports watches with lots of buttons and dials may find it lacking.

On the underside of the Vivoactive 3 there's a four pin charging port, which is small and can't be felt on your skin, as well as the device's optical heart rate sensor, which again, sits flush against your wrist.

Here you can see the charging port and optical heart rate sensor.

We reviewed the Vivoactive 3 in black silicone and slate, which is a premium-looking dark grey that costs slightly more than black silicone and stainless steel or white silicone and stainless steel.

The Garmin Vivoactive 3 is waterproof up to 50 meters, which is ideal if you're a swimmer and makes it easier to shower and wash-up without worrying about taking it on and off all the time.

Add to that the fact the screen is Corning Gorilla Glass 3 and the case is made from a reinforced polymer and you've got one durable device on your wrist that’ll withstand the most grueling of workout sessions.

When it comes to design, the Garmin Vivoactive 3 certainly ticks all of the right boxes and justifies the price point, providing a watch that looks premium, but most importantly for a 24/7 wearable, feels comfortable.

Fitness

  • Huge range of workouts tracked
  • Always-on heart rate monitoring
  • Great GPS tracking

Even though the Garmin Vivoactive 3 is packing a bunch of new smart features, it's still without a doubt a watch built with fitness enthusiasts in mind.

It comes with a whole host of workouts, which are called 'apps', that you can choose from. When you first hit the button on the side of the device you're prompted to set your favorites, so they're easily accessible in future. 

We picked indoor cycling, running and swimming to begin with, but there's a huge choice here, from golf to skiing to weights.

If by some extremely bad luck your favorite activity isn't among those the Garmin Vivoactive 3 already provides, there's a 'create' option to tweak the device's settings and create your own, which gives you the option to decide which screens and alerts you want activated as you work out.

Beginning an activity is achingly simple, once you have your favorites defined you just need to press the button on the side, tap on one, wait for GPS to kick in (unless you're doing an activity indoors) and then press the button again to get started.

You can view your last sport easily from within the main menu.

You can decide before you begin what you want the watch to display as you work out by hitting Settings and then picking from different data screens, choose which alerts you want, and even change the colors of the text and graphs.

So for example, you can select an alert for when your heart rate hits a certain point (great for training in heart rate zones) and runners can be alerted of their lap times. Ending a workout is just as easy, push the button on the side and hit the big red stop sign to confirm.

The time it took for the GPS lock varied a little depending on where we started our run, from a quick 30 seconds through to a good couple of minutes. This is the case with most GPS-enabled devices, but is always a bit frustrating when you just want to get going.

We went for a run with the Garmin Vivoactive 3 and the whole course was mapped out accurately in the app after syncing, which was great to see because we ended up changing our route at the last minute a fair few times.

The amount of data collected depends on which activities you choose, for example, for something like indoor cycling you can see basic information within the app, like time spent, calories burned and heart rate data. But for running and other GPS-enabled activities, the data collected is extensive.

From a GPS map of your route through to cadence, pace and heart rate fluctuations, it's a real delight for a runner who wants to drill down into performance.

The Garmin app collects the running data and presents your route over a map.

When it comes to tracking, the Vivoactive 3 is a significant upgrade on the Vivoactive HR and one reason is that it can monitor VO2 max. This is a measurement of the maximum volume of oxygen you can use and is often used as an indicator of overall fitness.

When it comes to heart rate, the tracking on the Vivoactive 3 is as good as you'd expect from a Garmin device. We compared it with the Fitbit Ionic while resting and through a series of activities and they remained consistently within 2 bpm of each other.

The heart rate sensor works throughout the day, gauging your stress levels.

Because the heart rate tracking is continuous, you can check in to see what your heart rate is like at any point throughout the day. 

A nice addition is being able to see heart rate, as well as a heart rate graph, on the device’s display rather than needing to dig through the app to find it.

You can view your heart rate data in real-time on the Garmin Vivoactive 3.

Another significant upgrade from the Vivoactive HR is stress tracking, which the Vivoactive 3 gauges using heart rate variability (HRV) readings throughout the day. This is certainly another pull to get people to wear the Vivoactive 3 all day – not just for workouts.

Garmin's heart rate smarts also means sleep tracking is more accurate because sleep stages aren’t just determined by movement, but heart rate too. We found the sleep tracking data within the app to be detailed, but we found it sometimes began tracking sleep a little before bedtime.

This could be down to personal routine, but in that respect it wasn’t as accurate as the Fitbit Ionic. Since its sleep stages upgrade that’s maybe the best out there for tracking your rest.

You can view your different sleep stages within the Garmin app.

Unlike both the Apple Watch 3 and Fitbit Ionic you won't find storage for music on the Vivoactive 3, although it can be used to control music from your phone. 

If you're intrigued by the idea of leaving your phone at home more as you run or work out, you'll find the Vivoactive 3 to be lacking.

Battery life

  • Almost seven days of battery life
  • Easy to charge

Presumably one of the main reasons Garmin chose a transflective memory-in-pixel display was to save on battery life, so you'd expect it to be great to make up for the lack of a beautiful screen – and it really is.

Although it may not be as impressive as some of the brand's older models, Garmin claims the Vivoactive 3's battery will last seven days of normal use and 13 hours straight if you have GPS on the whole time. 

In our testing, it lasted just over six days with a workout every other day, including two GPS-enabled runs, some notifications and lots of walking.

That means unless you plan on using the GPS everyday you can make a habit of charging the Vivoactive 3 up around once a week, which is a real draw for anyone who takes a wearable off to charge it then just forgets to put it back on.

When it comes to charging, you simply plug the small cable that came with the Vivoactive 3 into the four pin charging port on the back of the watch and then plug that into a USB port.

Notifications

  • All notifications delivered to the screen
  • iPhone users can't reply to messages
  • Notifications are all or nothing

Any kind of notification can be set to come through from your phone to your Vivoactive 3, we got everything from text messages to fertility tracker updates that you can then read in full on the screen and clear once you've read them.

If you have an Android device you're able to send canned responses, like "OK", but iPhone users aren't as lucky.

Unlike the Apple Watch 3, you can't speak to your watch or receive calls, but you can accept and decline them if you're not able to pick up your phone.

Annoyingly, right now you can only select whether you want every notification and call to come through to the Vivoactive 3, just calls or nothing at all. There's no way to say yes to potentially important WhatsApp messages and no thanks to fertility alerts on your wrist.

You can switch between a dark screen, like this one, or a lighter one with a white background.

Interface

  • Easy-to-read interface
  • Customizable face and widgets

The Vivoactive 3's interface can at times feel ever-so-slightly laggy. But otherwise the experience is mostly seamless.

As well as the button on the side and the option to use the touchscreen, the Vivoactive 3 also has what the brand refers to as a 'Side Swipe' interface. What this means is you can run your fingertip down the side of the button and you'll be able to swipe through the device's menu without interacting with the screen itself.

At first we found this strange – and a bit pointless – but after a while it became more natural, especially because there are small grooves at the side and the watch vibrates as you move through each menu item, so it felt like getting subtle touch feedback as you use the interface.

You can customize how the interface looks through a store called Connect IQ. You can visit the store from within the Garmin app and choose from apps, including those about fitness or weather, as well as a range of different watch faces and widgets.

You can view a summary of how your day is going from within the device’s main menu.

The way you browse the store feels a little clumsy, it's not as intuitive as the Garmin app itself, which we'll get to below, but it’s easy enough to pick something to download.

Once you've downloaded a new app or watch face, you'll need to go back into the Garmin app and add it into Activities & Apps, where it'll pop up alongside your favorite workout activities. It's a bit annoying that there's not another favorites menu somewhere else for new apps.

After a long wait in the UK, you can now use the contactless payment system Garmin Pay in the US, Australia and UK. We've yet to test the feature out on the Vivoactive 3, but it should allow you to make contactless payments without taking your phone or wallet out on your run.

App

  • Newly designed app
  • Lots of data but it's easy to digest

Garmin has recently launched a newer, beta version of its app, which improves the design and functionality.

When you first open the app you're greeted with 'My Day', which is a breakdown of everything that you’ve done today on a series of cards.

At the top are your workout cards, which contain details of any exercise you did today. Below that are cards which contain information about your steps, stress levels, sleep, calories burned, heart rate, floors climbed and intensity minutes.

The app allows you to glance at the most important cards of the day, or tap them to find out more.

Below that there's a summary card to show what you achieved yesterday, and under that a summary of the past 7 days.

Although they display a fair amount of data, the way these cards look and behave feels really natural and informative, without being overwhelming. It's likely because on different days you care about different stats, so your eyes can just glance over the ones you're not as interested in and find what you're after quicker than other, more involved dashboards.

If you want to find out more about any of these stats, you just tap on the card and you're presented with more data in the form of graphs and a detailed breakdown of how your day (or activity or stress) looked.

Some of these pages look similar to how the older version of the app looked, with dials at the top that serve up information about whichever section you’re in.

The app also has a section called 'Challenges', which is where you can challenge your friends or join a weekly steps challenge. Then there's 'Calendar', which is a nice, visual summary of how you've been doing over the past month, with color-coded sections to denote certain achievements. For example, a little green bar for indoor cycling.

Delving into the More tab and the Garmin app’s settings.

There's also a 'More' page, which is where everything else is stored and can seem a little overwhelming at first. This is where you'll find everything from defining your favorite activities, through to accessing your personal settings and defining notifications and email preferences.

This becomes like second nature after a few days and we believe it's great for those who work out a lot and like delving into data and customizing their wearable experience, but may not be so ideal for anyone who hasn't used an app or device for fitness before.

Verdict

With the Garmin Vivoactive 3, Garmin has created a smartwatch designed with mainstream audiences in mind, combining fitness tracking with health and lifestyle features, as well as smart notifications. This makes it one of the most versatile wearables, which is bound to suit a range of people.

The addition of Garmin Pay also means the Vivoactive 3 is also able to battle with the Apple Watch 3 and Fitbit Ionic for your next fitness watch.

As you'd expect from a brand with a lot of legacy, the Garmin Vivoactive 3's exercise and heart rate tracking are accurate and super detailed, which makes them fascinating for those with an interest in their own biometric data.

Having said that, it's data like this that is bound to feel overwhelming for those who just want activity tracking, the odd run and little else. Which proves that although there are plenty of lifestyle features and smart additions to this stylish-looking wearable, it's still a Garmin product and is first and foremost focused on fitness. So if fitness isn’t your thing, look elsewhere.

It uses your heart rate data to gauge your stress levels throughout the day.

Who's this for?

The Garmin Vivoactive 3 has GPS capabilities, improved battery life and it's waterproof, which means it’'s really for fitness enthusiasts. 

Especially those who want to regularly track their fitness and would be interested in heart rate stats, performance graphs and other kinds of data rather than just goals or badges.

It's also good for those who like a range of sports rather than something specific. For example, if you're a die-hard runner, one of Garmin's devices built solely for running, like the Forerunner 235, is likely to suit you better.

Having said that, you don't need to be into intense workout regimes or training for something to enjoy the benefits of the Vivoactive 3. 

Its fitness tracking is accurate and detailed, but not overwhelmingly so, and its focus on stress and heart rate would be ideal for someone who wants to holistically improve their health and fitness too.

Should you buy it?

The Garmin Vivoactive 3's design is likely to divide opinion. Its screen is circular and its display looks different in comparison to the OLED displays from Fitbit and Apple.

If you've had your heart set on an Apple Watch but you're considering changing your mind, it might be worth having a play with the Vivoactive 3 in real life first to make sure it still ticks your smartwatch boxes.

If you're looking for a device geared up to health and fitness that's pretty much as all-singing and all-dancing as smartwatches can get, it's definitely worth considering this alongside more well-known names.

It's one of our favorites thanks to its different design, great-to-use app and brilliant fitness tracking, and all those pros combined make it a versatile choice that really could give both Fitbit and Apple stiff competition.

First reviewed: December 2017

The competition

Not sold on the Garmin Vivoactive 3? Read on for a trio of tempting alternatives.

Fitbit Ionic

The Fitbit Ionic is comfortable, slim and flush against your skin, but design-wise it looks different to the Vivoactive 3 – and arguably not as good – thanks to the square watch face.

When it comes to functionality though, the Fitbit app is simpler to use and more accessible for beginners, and the screen looks irresistible at a beyond bright 1,000 nits.

Read our full Fitbit Ionic review

Apple Watch 3

The Apple Watch 3 is considered to be the best smartwatch on the market and certainly doesn’t disappoint if you’re already plugged into the Apple ecosystem, with decent battery life, best-in-class fitness tracking and an app that’s as intuitive and easy-to-use as you’d expect from Apple.

The thing that sets it apart the most is its LTE connectivity, meaning you really can leave your phone at home. Of course, all of this comes at a price, as the Apple Watch 3 is even more expensive than the Vivoactive 3.

Read our full Apple Watch 3 review

Samsung Gear S3

It’s also worth mentioning the Samsung Gear S3. Samsung has plenty of smartphone experience under its belt now and the Gear S3 is one of its best devices. We awarded it four stars in our review due to its intuitive interface and top activity tracking smarts among other things.

Like the Ionic and the Vivoactive 3, it lacks some apps but also like those two devices it’s likely to improve in that respect over time.

Read our full Samsung Gear S3 review

Becca Caddy
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