Garmin’s Vivosmart HR

I’ve now had my Vivosmart HR – that’s the new Garmin Vivosmart device, a wrist band that measures heart rate, delivers notifications from your phone, and more – for some seven days. While it does more than the previous Vivosmart, which I had for some time and found practical, easy and extremely useful, it isn’t really in the Vivosmart line. The Vivosmart HR is more of a Vivofit replacement, not a Vivosmart, and that saddens me.

I’m now rather torn. While my Vivosmart didn’t give me heart-rate monitoring, and so I can now dispense with the chest strap and heart-rate device (thankfully as putting one on is a difficult task post heart surgery) I do find that it just isn’t as intuitive and easy to live with as the Vivosmart. Let me try to explain a little more.

First, let me cover the positives I’ve found, and since I’m in rehab for open heart surgery and valve replacement this turns out to be quite relevant. I can now track not just steps and distance as the Vivosmart did, but the equivalent of flights of stairs climbed and the amount of minutes of exercise per week that were intensive, based on your heart rate. Outside of what the Vivosmart did it also shows weather information from your mobile, helpful for those outdoor activities and, of course, heart rate both current and average resting.

I really do appreciate some of these new features, my rehabilitation team do like the idea of stair climbing and they focus on getting that intensity level raised once again – I’ve not been able to hit much as yet, but I am only eleven weeks out of surgery!

So it all sounds good so far, and it is. I’ve found the heart rate way more accurate than my chest strap and Garmin clip-on unit, but then they are old and getting more and more inaccurate as the runs, cycles and walks progressed. Often recently my chest strap would have me way up in the mid to high one hundred zone just when I’m waiting for a satellite lock, it is frustrating sometimes, but not enough to make me replace the strap or battery, not yet anyway.

The new device also informs you of your average resting heart rate, your averages throughout the day as well as your actual rate recorded. Viewing your heart rate through the day and night is interesting, but it’s the resting rate that I find most interesting, and you can view that day to day or overall. This helps you calculate your heart rate zones very easily.

The stairs climbed calculation seems to be pretty good as well. Climbing the stairs in my building does show accurately the amount of flights I’ve managed, and watching the figure for outdoor walking does seem to provide a relatively accurate figure.

Another positive is the fact that the device now downloads updates through your phone, if you want it to that is. This is a step forward from the Vivosmart which only updated when it was connected to the computer.

All the data is transferred to the Garmin Connect site, the online platform for Garmin fitness devices, which can be viewed online through a web browser or on your phone through an app, and the app also pulls in the new data from the Vivosmart HR for review, reporting, and analysis.

Finally, the display works well in daylight. You won’t know it yet but I am adding in this comment after I wrote the paragraph below the next paragraph (does that make sense?) as it reminded me just how well it can be read in normal circumstances.

So, the negatives. I’ll address the Vivosmart-Vivofit issue in a moment, but let me go through the issues I’ve found so far.

The display can be too dark. Strangely it’s lovely and readable in daylight, but in a room with the lights on it can be quite dark, even with the backlight on. I’ve found myself having to tilt my arm around so I’m looking at exactly ninety degrees to the face and it’s still not light enough for the notifications.

For the most part the screen is great, especially outside, but in some room lighting it just isn’t enough. It also annoyed me that at times I have to turn the device to face it dead on. You might think this is how you read a watch but next time you do just stop yourself and check, you’re glancing at an angle, not turning your forearm all the way round. Oh, and a final thing about the display, there’s no brightness setting at all.

The weather display is nice but what do the figures mean? Looking at it just now I’m told the following figures – 11 degrees, 12 degrees and 1 degree, all in various diminishing sizes of text. At the bottom there’s a picture of clouds and rain with 100% underneath. I can obviously tell you it’s one hundred percent chance of rain, but the temperature? Probably current or feels like 11, high 12, low 1, but I’m guessing. Nowhere have I seen in the manual a place that explains the screen and what it’s telling you.

I also can’t configure how and where this information is being pulled from, all I know is that it is based on your phone GPS. I presume the information is pulled through the mobile data connection, and if it is, what weather service is the data coming from? I would love to be able to select the source I’m getting the weather from so I know and can trust it.

If you want to broadcast your heart-rate to an ANT+ enabled device, like my Garmin Forerunner 310XT, you can and it works really well. I would have expected you scroll to the heart-rate screen and tap it to be asked if you want to broadcast, no. Here’s what you have to do to turn on ANT+ heart-rate broadcasting.

  • press the side/bottom button on the device,
  • scroll to the last screen (one or two swipes depending on your direction of swiping!),
  • select the cog icon for settings,
  • swipe two or five times (again depending on your swipe direction),
  • select heart-rate,
  • swipe once for broadcast options,
  • select broadcast option,
  • select the tick box to “start broadcasting?”

Wow. That’s not good user interface experience. Considering when you are on the heart-rate display, just one swipe away from the standard time face, a tap, double-tap, or press-hold does nothing, they could surely have added in the heart-rate broadcast option there. One tap instead of press, swipes, tap, swipes, tap, swipe, tap, tap.

I find this a similar issue with the notifications screen, although it isn’t as convoluted a number of taps and swipes, there does seem to be a little more to do with notifications on the Vivosmart HR than the Vivosmart. It isn’t loads more but it still does feel clunky and one or two taps too many to read or dismiss a notification. Also I am convinced, although I haven’t tested it to be sure, that I managed to see and read more detail on some notifications such as email on the previous Vivosmart.

There’s also no real customisation of screens. You can decide which of the predefined screens of Time/Date; Steps; Calories; Distance; Heart Rate; VIRB Remote; Floors Climbed, and Intensity Minutes, are displayed as well as which is the default screen to display, an option which includes simply “Last Displayed”.

I’ve also noticed that there have been a few false activations of the screen. Today my rain jacket and wet top managed to swipe a few times and start playing music without me touching the device at all. I have to say it was very wet, but I didn’t accidentally touch anything and playing around I seemed to be able to use my wet top to change the screen.

Now, the final issue I have with this is that it isn’t a Vivosmart, it’s a Vivofit with the Smart Notifications feature added in. The feature first arrived with the Vivosmart device, but the Vivosmart HR does not look or feel like a Vivosmart, it looks and feels like the Vivofit. You can see that just from the looks of the device alone, but the smart usability and e-ink display aren’t there with the new Vivosmart HR. It looks, feels and operates just like a Vivofit, and I don’t feel that’s a positive.

All that said, the additional fitness options that integrate with Garmin Connect and the heart-rate monitor are why I bought this in the first place, and I am hopeful that the smart notifications and some of the UI features will be improved over time. The question is, is removing the chest strap and heart-rate monitor enough of a reason to keep the Vivosmart HR, or should I stick with my original Vivosmart? I’m still trying to decide.

Update: 01/01/2016: Broadcasting Heart Rate and User Interface Issues
I’ve just been out for a walk wearing my Vivosmart HR and my Garmin Forerunner 310XT to track my route. I put the Vivosmart HR into heart-rate broadcasting mode so it sends the heart-rate, via ANT+, to my Garmin so it can record it against all my other statistics and the GPS recorded route. Sounds fantastic, use the Vivosmart HR as a heart-rate device for the Garmin, and it is, except then the Vivosmart HR is otherwise useless.

Garmin have decided that when you have a second device taking the heart-rate readings from the Vivosmart HR that you’ll want the heart-rate, and only the heart-rate, displayed on screen with the backlight switched on. After all why would you want to do anything else on the device when you’re sending your heart-rate to another device so it can display it and record it.

It means that your Vivosmart HR is locked in as a heart-rate monitor and you can’t display any other information without breaking the connection with the other device recording and displaying your heart-rate. How stupid is that?

While I walked notifications popped up for emails, text messages, goals achieved for stairs climbed and steps taken, none of which I could view because the Vivosmart HR is locked into displaying now duplicated information.

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