24 ... wait 48 ... wait 72 ... wait, 96 hours with the VivoActive HR

I usually write a first impressions post a day after receiving a new shiny, so I’m a little late in doing this.

Summary:

Optical heart rate. Built-in GPS. Smart Notifications. Good battery life. Let’s put this simply. I hate running with my phone. There, I said it. I love tracking, I love being able to pull apart heart rate and pace data, but I hate, hate, hate carrying a big lumpy thing in my back pocket that desperately tries to pull my shorts down around my ankles.

This put me in the market for a running watch. Typically a GPS tracker that can sync to your phone.

I’m also a geek, and like clever, shiny things. I’ve looked at other smartwatches and none of them /really/ appealed, since they pretty much universally need to be tied to their phones.

So, a watch that does heart rate monitoring, GPS tracking, individual sport profiles, syncs with Garmin (and thus Strava), has an application platform and can display notifications from my smartphone? We have a winner.

The first Vivoactive was a bit of an ugly brute. A very clever piece of kit, thin, discrete, but … not winning any style awards. The new version looks more modern and switches the screen orientation around from landscape to portrait. This works, even on my tiny wrists.

I’ve taken it out for a few runs and on the most part, it does exactly what I want. I’m still tweaking - I thought auto-pause may prove helpful, but it occassionaly records false pauses. With two giant buttons on your wrist (as opposed to hidden in the back pocket) it’s just as easy to hit pause and resume if you want to take a break.

In addition to “apps”, the store also supports “data fields” that can be added to activity displays. These can perform some maths on the available sensor data and give you interesting, useful or frivilous information. Whilst the indication of the number of chinese dumplings you’ve burned off is … pretty pants, the live Strava Suffer Score is superb and useful.

I jumped in the pool this morning, something I’ve not done for a while, and gave the “indoor swimming” mode a go. It’s detection of laps is pretty good, it made one false positive, which I’m happy to accept was my own fault. There’s no heart rate sensing for pool swims, but it does give time, stroke and pace, all pretty good. Enough data to be working with. My only criticism is that post pool and shower, there appears to be a thin while film on the rubber band where I’m guessing there’s been a bit of a reaction with the chlorine. I’ve given it another rinse down since and it’s been fine.

The “smart watch” functions aren’t as comprehensive as the Apple offering. You do get notifications for a range of apps including Twitter and Facebook. I believe WhatsApp is supported as well. As others have said (and I didn’t believe at the time), I’ve found myself checking my phone screen less often knowing that notifications come through to the watch. The watch also supports a /useful/ range of normal watch functions - not only does it tell the time, but it can set multiple alarms, stopwatch and a countdown timer for up to sixty minutes. This feels like a watch that /can/ replace my regular watch for day to day use, which I felt was a little lacking in other smart watches.

Widgets are pages of data you can scroll through. As an indication, I currently have set: live heart rate, notifications, calendar, sunrise/sunset times, compass, phone music controls, minute by minute weather, long term weather, last sport undertaken, and general activity monitoring.

Activity monitoring is standard fare - counts steps, floors climbed and tracks your movement and heart rate during sleep. Good stuff. A Garmin specific feature is “intensity minutes” - i.e. a number of minutes achieved per day with an elevated heart rate. This can be in or out of activity. All the data pools in to Garmin Connect to pour over at your heart’s desire.

One final feature that’s already proved useful - because of the built-in GPS, the watch can give you a direction and distance to any stored location. I went out for a run on Sunday and, being in the wrong city, promptly got lost. A few seconds of panic kicked in before realising I only had to hit the “return to start” button to get the nice little arrow and a resassuring message that I only have 2.5 km to go.

When I picked up the watch on Friday, it had the traditional 50% charge. I gave it a quick boost up to 76% before taking it off the charger for its first run. Since then, it’s done three 5k runs (at 30 minutes a piece), 45 minutes in the pool, and been on my wrist constantly. It’s now mid-Tuesday and I’m still staring at about 25% battery charge.

There have been some comments that the UI is not intuitive. I think there’s a learning curve, but one that takes the whole of 30 seconds to understand. If you use an Android device, it’ll probably feel more natural than if you’re coming from iOS. The UI is straightforward to use, one button goes back, one button opens a menu and the touch screen does touchy things. It does things I expect them to do when I press them.

The screen is absolutely, astoundingly superb in direct sunlight. Apart from my e-reader, I’ve never known a screen this good outdoors. Which I suppose makes perfect sense for a watch designed to be used by runners, cyclists, etc, but I hadn’t given it a second thought until I took it outside. It’s not a particularly high resolution, but it’s absolutely crisp in clarify. Perfect when you’re glancing at your pace mid run through your sunglasses.

So far this is all praise and sunshine. There’s two downsides, which I hope will be resolved as time goes on. The first - the watch has locked up on me once so far. It appears that even when unresponsive, you can still access the system menu to perform a reboot, and a reboot takes around 15 seconds. I can live with that. The partner app, “Garmin Connect” (iOS and Android) can be a bit … finicky. Garmin had an outage on Friday of the Connect IQ store, and the app had a few hissy fits over syncing while that was happening. I’ve also had one or two hiccups whilst syncing since. Nothing has been lost, but occasionally the app will crash out and require a restart. I can live with that for now, I expect updates in the future.

It’s a great platform, it’s a great device, it really suits my needs. If you’re a sporting geek with a need for activity tracker, cum running watch, cum smart watch cum … just a decent watch which isn’t tied to your phone like a wet nurse to a suckling child, then this will probably tick your boxes.