Tuesday, 4 October 2016

Long Term Review: Garmin Vivoactive HR

Disclosures: nothing to disclose. No freebies, no hidden payment, no fancy marketing tricks.
Price paid: 190 Pounds Sterling (about 250 US Dollars, about 225 euros)
Model: Garmin Vivoactive HR
I bought the fitness band (with my own money) on 2nd October 2016, ordering in John Lewis, Milton Keynes, and collecting from my local Waitrose, at the "regular" retail price.

Our new Garmin Vivoactive HR in its John Lewis shipping box.

GPS and wrist hr, apparently.

left hand side of box.
Lots of sports!

Right hand side of box.
Downloadable mini-apps
(Connect IQ)

Bottom of box - sample screenshots

Box contents.
Charger and manual. Watch. Box top.

The charger cable. It sort of clips over the watch.

The manual, although quite thick, is actual a very short manual in lots of different languages, one after the other!

Comparison with Garmin 310xt.
Quite a bit slimmer!

Comparison with 310XT - similar height, but less wide.
The Vivoactive HR has a slightly broader strap

Comparison with Garmin 310xt. the Vivoactive HR has a "wrist" sensor for HR mounted on the back.
The 310xt is waterproof, and Ant+ only.
The Vivoactive HR is waterproof, and has both Bluetooth (4) and Ant+

So, having had it for a couple of days - what do we think?

1) the Vivoactive HR costs more than the 310xt - about 50% more than I can get a new "old stock" 310xt and hrm belt for on Amazon UK. Indeed, for justa tenner (13 dollars, 12 euros) more, I could get a 910xt with hrm strap from Amazon UK!
2) the Vivoactive HR covers a lot more sports - it even has "stand-up paddling" as a choice (!), while the 310xt is basically a triathlon watch (swim, bike, run)
3) the Vivoactive HR syncs nicely with smartphones and tablets, the 310xt is more limited (some smartphones/tablets have Ant+, but most don't)
4) the Vivoactive HR has a stepcounter, and the 310xt doesn't, It is surprising just how many steps one can build up just at home without trying! on the other hand, serious athletes don't really care about steps. It is training miles that count.
5) the Vivoactive HR rates activities against a target for "activity minutes" - the target being 150 minutes a week. Note that more vigourous exercise scores higher. A 32 minute walk today, at a very brisk pace scored Anna 40 activity points. 40 points in 32 minutes :-)
The watch display makes it cleat that you can do 150 minutes of moderate exercise or 75 minutes of vigourous exercise, so the "activity minutes" is a de facto "training load" assessment,
6) the Vivoactive HR, via Garmin Connect, can be set to sync to another app, such as My Fitness Pal, and your acivity data will then automatically go to the other app, and your food data will go to the watch.
7) wrist HR sensors are in general less accurate than HR chest straps. But they are still reasonably accurate. Things like rapid intervals can confuse wrist HR sensors much more than HR chest straps.
But many folks, especially ladies, find HR chest straps not very comfortable.
 8) a 3.5km walk suggests that the Vivoactive HR and the 310xt measure distance pretty similarly. Anna has GPS and GLONASS on the Vivoactive HR, while I had GPS and a footpod for my 310xt.
I'll put the exact numbers and tracks up in a few days time.
9) the Vivoactive HR apparently picks up the sgnals from speed and cadence sensors, so I could put Anna's bike in my Tacx BlueMotion trainer (she'd never reach the pedals on my bike!), and she could use that, too. (I have the Tacx T2015 sensor unit, so it transmits in both Ant+ and Bluetooth simultaneously)

So I guess what I am saying is that what suits one person doesn't perhaps suit another.
For my money, I would have the 310xt and heart rate chest belt over the Vivoactive HR, but for Anna (whom this watch/fitness band was bought for), who likes walking, cycling and Zumba, and doesn't like chest belts for hr measurement, then it is a different story.
Anna wouldn't consider herself particularly athletic, and has no interest in her lactate threshold, but likes to keep fit and healthy.

Anna will be wearing the Vivoactive HR, and I will be her data manager, and general coach, Indeed, it was me that set up her garmin Connect account.
Don't get me wrong, Anna could do it if she wanted to, but at the moment she is more interested in the steps, the distances covered, and the "activity minutes" target.

Update 8th Ocober 2016:
Battery life.

We picked up the Vivocative HR on Monday afternoon, and then put it on charge.
On Wednesday morning, Anna started wearing it.
Anna takes it off at night, and switches it off (as in "power off") and puts it on on the morning and starts the Vivoactive up again.

The GPS gets used for up to about an hour a day. Sometimes less.
It is now Friday evening, so four full days of usage (Anna switches it off at night, remember!), and the battery is showing about half full.
So, for Anna's usage, it looks like the Vivoactive will need charging about once a week.
Further updates when we have them. (This is a "long term review" remember, not the two day loan that a lot of magazine reviewers get, or even worse, the "table top" reviews that bloggers write without ever even seing the device in question, yet alone owning and using it!)

And now some screenshots from Garmin Connect (PC version) from the default settings (so this is how Garmin set the account up, I haven't changed anything!)

Garmin Connect (PC version) has some interesting screens. As you can see, Anna is well on the way to her 150 minute activity target for the week after just 4 days

Funky heart rate graph on the left. Rather meaningless, Better to look at the heart rate graphs in the individual activities.
In the middle is today's "steps" count, and on the right is the "steps" summary for the week.
On Monday, we only tested the device, and charged it, so that day doesn't count!
Step counting is the sort of thing, I guess, that the target market of the Vivoactive HR are expected to be interested in.
As I would normally walk 5+ miles a day at work (that's 10K+steps, just for that!), I've never been that interested in "steps".
But most folks don't walk five miles a day!

The inevitable badges.
We all like badges.
Anna collected these three in the first four days of use.
If it makes folks more likely to exercise, then it's all good.

 Accuracy test:
Walking with Anna, wearing my Garmin 310XT

Anna, walking with me, wearing her Garmin Vivoactive HR

Time: I guess I must have pressed start and stop slightly differently, because my activity took 3 seconds longer than Anna's!
Distance: 310XT gives 3.38, VivoactiveHR gives 3:43. Given that the Vivo ran for 3 seconds longer, that's about the same.
Elevation Gain: 310XT gives 14m (I have Garmin Connect's elevation correction activated, because the 310XT doesn't have an altimeter, relying on "aproximate" GPS heights instead).
VivoactiveHR gives 13m using the onboard altimeter (Garmin Connect's elevation correction is not activated). So about the same.
But the Garmin passes the same file through to Strava without the elevation corrections, and Strava does it's own "guestimate" instead, which tends to miss out all the small ups and downs on a route.
So although Garmin Connect adjusts the data for its own displays, the "raw" "uncorrected" file gets shared. Hmm. I can (and do) manually get Training Peaks to correct the elevation data, but I need to do it for ever ride individually ...
Although, the 310XT and the Vivoactive came out pretty much the same on Garmin Connect, the VivoactiveHR is CLEARLY superior for passing the information through to Strava or Training Peaks, because of improved accuracy for Strava, and a saving of time for Training Peaks!
Average Pace: I can't really explain the difference here, seven seconds a kilometre is quite a bit, yet the length and duration of the overall activities are similar. I can only guess it is something to do with the smoothing software, or a consequence of the difference in elevation methods.
Calories: I am a LOT fitter than Anna, and taller, and she had a heartrate mostly between 20 and 40 bpm more than mine for most of the activity. Of course she used more calories than me - she was working harder!

Overall Accuracy: the Vivoactive HR seems to be at least as accurate as the 310XT during this 30 minute fast-walking test.

Update 9th October 2016:
GPS Trace Accuracy:
Let's have another look at those GPS traces.
First my 310XT, then Anna's VivoactiveHR (recorded on yesterday):
We were walking on a path to the south-east of the roadway.
The tracks from the walk up to the church and the walk back again (twice) have showed up quite differently each time.
One pair is fine (nice and near the roadway), but the other pair is a mixyure of fields and gardens!
As we go back round the corner on the left side of the image, I appear to have walked through an apartment ...

Anna's GPS trace is VERY GOOD!
The "up and down" section are all shown in the correct place, and the point where we short-cut across the road at the end is also visible.
The trace still clips a few apartments on the corner, though.
Today we went for the same walk, and got the same sort of results.
My 310XT records distances 1 to 2% shorter than Anna's Vivoactive HR, and this may be why Anna Vivoactive HR records a very slightly faster pace (which it did again today).
Again, the GPS traces show that Anna's Vivoactive HR was following the path nicely, while my 310XT is in the gardens, as well as on the road itself.

The results speak for themselves. The Vivoactive HR recorded the GPS track activity for this activity more accurately than the 310XT.It may be to do with the fact that Anna's VivoactiveHR has both GPS and GLONASS, while my 310XT only has GPS. Put simply, Anna's watch is picking up more satellites than mine!

Update: 21st October 2016
Battery Life

So, as mention above, Anna got the Vivoactive HR on a Monday, and it was charged that evening.
Anna wears the watch about 16 hours a day, but takes it off (and switches it off) every night.
What is her overnight pulse? As she says - who cares? As for quality of sleep, Anna says she knows that well enough ny how she feels in the morning!
Anyway, so that first week, after being worn (and switched on) about 16 hours a day Tuesday to Sunday (so 6 days of usage), there was 18% power left when the watch was recharged. The next week, Anna wore the watch for (obviously) all seven days, and at the end of the Sunday, the power was down to 10%. This week (the third week of ownership, with today being mid-afternoon on Friday), the watch is showing under a half. So Anna is expecting to recharge on Sunday evening again.
Therefore, for Anna's usage patterns, the Vivoactive HR lasts about a week between recharges, with a safety margin on top, so it is not going to run out half way through a walk on a Sunday evening, for example.
Obviously, the GPS uses extra power.
Anna uses the GPS for maybe 30 to 60 minutes a day. Her Zumba sessions are indoors, and the GPS isn't switched on!

Activity Minutes:
The Vivoactive HR sets a target of 150 activity minutes a week.
The first week, with only 6 days in it, Anna still easily passed the target.
The second week, Anna got to 295 minutes, roughly double the target.
This week, Anna is at about 140 minutes, with more than 2 days left.
The 295 minutes included two Zumba sessions (of 45 minutes each, inclusive of warm-up and cool-down), which is unusual. Anna would normally do only one session a week.
"Moderate" activities count as one activity minute, while "Vigourous" activities count double.
This often results in getting more "activity minutes" than minutes doing the activity.
Vigourous walking (and I mean vigourous - we cover a kilometer in about 8 1/2 minutes) scores 40 "activity minutes" for a 32 minute activity. Zumba score 50 "activity minutes" for a 45 minute session (and remember there is an easier bit at the start and end, so the middle bit must be counting for almost double!).
So if you are a fan of HIIT, you are going to get lots of extra "minutes" credited.
Activities that are not quite enough for "moderate" can still get some "activity minutes" credited, but obviously less than the time you spent doing the activity.
So it seems to be a sliding scale.
I suspect that the activity minutes are awarded on heart rate and duration. And why not! It is a reasonable mechanism.

How many "activity" minutes should you do a week?
Many national health boards advise at least 150 minutes, which is, no doubt, why Garmin chose that number for their "target".
Australia apparently advises 300 minutes, but seeing as about 3/4 of Australians don't hit that target, the effectiveness of a target most folks miss is debateable.

To be honest, I have seen how easily Anna gets to the 150 minutes a week by just cycling to the shops and walking round town, with just one "keep fit" (in this case Zumba) session a week and a couple of walks of a couple of miles each.
150 minutes isn't that hard.

Step Targets:
When you buy the Vivoactive HR, it starts you off with a step target of 5000 a day. If you keep passing the target, Garmin moves the target up.
Given that Anna clocks up a good 2000+ or so just in the house, that only leaves 3000 to find elsewhere.
What about the 10,000 a day, I hear you ask.
Well, the 10,000 a day number is just a convenient number. There is no hard science that says that 10,000 is the "magic" number that gives you health, wealth, and happiness.
But it certainly doesn't do any harm.
Anna tends to do about 7,000 steps a day.
Yes, some days she gets past 10,000, but certainly not every day.

And that's the thing about the 150 "activity" minutes. You can get there easily without even getting 10,000 steps a day. But that is also why the 150 minutes a day is important.

So stop reading this, and walk about a bit!
Walk round the block where you live, or if that isn't safe, walk around in your house for ten minutes.
If you have stairs, go upstairs then down again. A couple of times if you can (Garmin also has a stair climbing target, but the automatic recognition of stairs is a bit variable - often it doesn't register for our stairs at home, so perhaps our house is too short!)

And really that is the point of all these targets.
If you do a bit more than you do now, then you'll be a bit fitter, and a bit healthier.
You don't have to run amarathon to get a bit healthier - just do a bit more than you do now.
Off you go then. Get piling up those "activity minutes"/"steps"!

More to follow in a few days, or a bit longer than that if I am very busy :-)

Update, 15th February 2017:
 The "activity points" seem a bit hit and miss.
Some days you seem to get some for not going that hard, and some days seem harder, yet you don't get any!
I suspect that there is a fairly hard cut off for the required heart rate (say, 113bpm = nothing, 114 bpm = activity minutes), and this combined with "perceived exertion" (exercise feels harder when you are tired, even though all the "physical" measurements, like heart rate, say it isn't!) means that "feel" isn't a good guide.
Having said all that, over a week, the effects seem to balance themselves out - so although a brisk walk to the shops gets the points, while lugging the shopping back up the hill home doesn't, the overall weekly numbers seem about right.
Certainly, very sweaty exercises like Zumba definitely count for Activity Minutes!

The "wrist" heart rate sensor can be a bit variable, too, occasionally giving "odd" numbers, before settling down to more usual output.
This is, apparently, a common characteristic of wrist heart rate monitors.
You want to get better data? - the chest strap is still the best way, but many folks find it uncomfortable/inconvenient.
I wear a chest strap for exercises, but I don't wear one for 16-odd hours a day, except on very special occasions!
Anna routinely wear her Vivoactive HR (with the wrist monitor) for that sort of timescale.
So, it is easy to see, that for continuos heart rate monitoring, the wrist HR sensor is better (in the sense that folks will actually do it!).

The battery life obviously depends on how much you do!
Switch on the outdoor activities, and the life drains faster than if you just wear it while walking round the office.
After having low battery issues a few times on day 7, following a hectic week with, say, three Zumba sessions in it, Anna often charges the watch after 5 or 6 days (depending on just how "hectic" the week was!)
The watch, when on low battery, sometimes "drops" out of an activity, too. Not very often. Just enough to make one thing it is actually the watch, rather than something the user has done wrong.
This happens only on low battery, though, so, with the current 5 or 6 day charging schedule Anna follows, it doesn't happen often.

Fancy devices usually get software updates periodically (think about how many Windows gets!), and the VivoActive HR is a fairly new device (released in 2016, compared with my 310XT, which was released in about 2009, and has had several software updates, so the "kinks" have been smoothed out already).
So it is really a case of working around the activity dropping, by not starting an important exercise if the battery is due to be charged soon!

Do the targets actually do anything?
A common question.
Anna says she isn't motivated by the 10,000 steps a day target, and certainly if she is well under, it has no effect. I have, however, observed her on a number of occasions strolling backwards and forwards in the kitchen, just pushing up that step count by a tad :-)
Overall, Anna (measured over a 3 month period) does about 9000 steps a day, and, measured over any monthly period, does more than the suggested 150 Activity Minutes in a week.
Anna's "best" figures are about 22000 steps in a day, and more than 300 Activity Points in a week.
To get that into perspective, I ran a rather slow "half-marathon" distance (13.1 miles, 21.5 km) in three hours just a few days ago, and calculated on my typical cadence of about 75-80 steps per foot per minute, that comes out at 27000 to 28800 steps. My normal walking comes out at about 2000 per mile, so somewhere at 25000-29000 steps seems reasonable (for a half-marathon, remember!). So Anna;s 22000 steps in one day does seem pretty impressive! Especially so when you remember Anna can't even run 5km (3 miles) continuously, so that 22000 figure shows you can "keep fit" without needing to be very fit!
What is more important than the "one off" however, is the consistency. So it is getting the average of 9000 steps day in and day out that is more important than the "personal best" of 22000 steps!
Certainly without a suitable measuring device (a step counter of some sort or other), tracking such consustency, made up of a lot of smaller, everyday, activities, supplemented with some "exercise" would be pretty hard.
I don't have a step counter, but the very fact that I can run 13 miles suggests I don't need one :-)
Anna, on the other hand, seems to get a real benefit from hers!

Overall, the Vivoactive HR is a great watch, despite a few oddities, and Anna is delighted to wear it.

Update 14 April 2019:
Impressed by Anna's Vivoactive HR watch, I got one for myself in about November 2018.
Took me just a few months to crack the screen on mine, which messes up the touchscreen, and severely limits altering the setup. Fortunately, I had sorted out my setup BEFORE I cracked the screen.
Anna's VAHR is still fine, so whether I was "unlucky" or just plain "clumsy" is hard to ascertain.
On the other hand, since one of the benefits of an HR watch is measuring HR throughout the day, the watch needs to be tough enough for all day "active" use.

New screen?
Only available from Garmin, and now that the watch has come down in price (iirc, I paid just £125/$163/150-ish Euros for mine), a screen replacement is about three-quarters of the cost of another Vivoactive HR!

Anyway, I will soldier on with my cracked unit. I had hoped for a minimum of 3 years from it.
I am in two minds whether I would have been better buying a 920xt (for more money!) than my VAHR - the VAHR does have the very handy "wrist" HR sensor, though, for all-day readings.
I still normally use a chest belt for any decent riding or running, though.

As for steps, my personal best is now a tad over 34,000 in a day. A half-marathon, plus some walking afterwards https://www.strava.com/activities/2284443506
And, as my Strava followers will see, I use my "cracked" Vivoactive HR to record all my activities.

Updated summary: A great value watch, but a little fragile, so if you are an "active person" with an "active" job, think very carefully about whether the Vivoactive HR is tough enough for your needs!

Update 5 April 2020:
Anna's Vivoactive HR watch is still going strong, although the battery life is dropping off, and it needs charging perhaps twice a week now, rather than the once a week it was before.
My Vivoactive HR watch is still soldering on, cracked screen and all.
Yeah, it has lost some functionality, but it still does most of what I want.

Both of our watches have broken the little strap band that you use when you wear the watch, so we are both using a suitably sized elastic band as a workaround.

Only once has the lower battery life of the Vivoactive HR (compared with the FR 301xt) been an issue - I charged up my Vivoactive HR, but the battery only lasted 12 1/2 hours ... so I had to estimte the last part of my trip!  https://www.strava.com/activities/2346118589
Compare than the with FR310XT, where it lasted more like 14 hours, with some battery left! https://www.strava.com/activities/376314125

Would I buy a Vivoactive HR watch again? Not for someone like myself, but like I said, Anna is very pleased with hers.
For me the touchscreen is a gimmick - I would prefer the functionality to be through buttons. Colour, for me, is a gimmick, too. I just want it to record everything, and be tough enough. The battery duration issue is negotiable (depends on price!) because a lot of long distance riders carry little battery packs so they can recharge their watches while they are taking a break on a long ride.
It is also an issue that only affect the minority of folks who actually do all day exercise - I expect most users of this type of watch do the odd hour or two, and even a ragged "beginners" marathion doesn't usually take more than 6 to 8 hours.

Updated summary: A great value watch, but a little fragile, so if you are an "active person" with an "active" job, think very carefully about whether the Vivoactive HR is tough enough for your needs!
Also think about whether you need more than about a 10 hours battery life - most folks don't, but some of us do!

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