- Vastly improved design
- GPS and heart rate perform well
- Seven-day battery life
- Just one button is tricky
- No onboard music
- Notifications support still basic
Like many other wearables we've seen arrive this year, the Garmin Vivoactive 3 is trying to be more than just a fitness watch. Fitbit is the best example of this, having fully shifted to the smartwatch category with the Ionic. Apple went the other way, beginning as a smartwatch that's since edged more and more into fitness.
Garmin has always been a top name in sports and fitness, so much so that it managed to squeeze TomTom out. But with the Vivoactive 3, Garmin is pushing harder to make this a watch you'll wear all day, every day, which means a new, better design that's a world away from the Garmin Vivoactive HR, and features like its new mobile payment platform Garmin Pay.
It's also a Garmin watch perfect for people who don't want to go all-in on the Fenix 5. The Vivoactive 3 is cheaper, and offers many of the same features, but just skims off a few things here and there.
We've already established it looks better than the blocky Garmin Vivoactive HR, but is it better in other ways too? Here's the skinny.
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Garmin Vivoactive 3: Design
With such a huge leap in design quality, the Vivoactive 3 one-upped the HR before I'd even switched it on. The unsightly rectangle has been replaced by a circular face, while keeping the size contained at just a smidge over 43mm. That makes it 1mm larger than the Fenix 5S, the smallest of the Fenix line, but a good deal more petite than the flagship Fenix 5 and, of course, the behemoth that is the Fenix 5X. It weighs just 43 grams too, a fraction less than the Fitbit Ionic, another watch it's going head-to-head with.
But as well as heft, the Vivoactive 3 also loses some buttons. There's just one here on the right-hand side, so you'll be doing a lot more screen swiping and tapping as a result. All of the other Fenix 5 watches have five buttons, and moving to just one does feel like a big downgrade when Garmin's interface hasn't been vastly improved in turn. Garmin has however added a touch pad along the left side of the watch case that you can run a finger along to scroll, and for sweaty fingers it's a nice alternative to the touchscreen. That said, I wish navigating the Vivoactive 3 was a little easier, though I think most of my frustrations with the interface can be put down to the lag it sometimes has when I'm moving between faces.
The Vivoactive 3 comes in three versions. Mine's black with a silver ring around the face, but you can get it with a white strap and silver ring, or one that's all black. It's not the most fashion-conscious smartwatch out there, but I think many people will prefer the look over the Fitbit Ionic. Some of you just don't like a square face, and I get it.
Speaking of, the 240 x 240 pixel display on the Vivoactive 3 is far from the most vibrant I've seen and pales significantly when put up against the Ionic and Apple Watch. What I do like though is the dimmed always-on display, so I've never found myself shaking my wrist to get it to wake up, as I have many times with the Ionic. A raise of the wrist will ignite the backlight though, for when you need the added visibility.
Another design edge the Vivoactive 3 has over the Ionic is support for 20mm quick-release bands, so you can pair it with plenty of other straps if the one in the box isn't for you, or you just fancy having some options.
Overall, I'd put the Vivoactive 3 on a par with the Fenix 5S on looks, but above the other Fenix 5 watches and their exposed screws. In some ways it's like a more capable Forerunner on your wrist, or a slightly less capable Fenix 5, depending on how you look at it.
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Garmin Vivoactive 3: Sports and fitness
Despite new smart features, the heart of the Vivoactive 3 is still sports and fitness, and the new watch comes loaded with an extensive menagerie of workouts to pick from. You can also choose which among these you want to keep as favourites – I have running and swimming – but from skiing to elliptical to indoor (and outdoor) rowing, there's plenty here for everyone.
If none of them are quite to your liking there's the option to create your own, where you can take an existing activity and rename it, tweaking it so you have the sensors, data screens and alerts working to your liking. But chances are, you'll be set with what Garmin has loaded on there.
Starting any activity is done with a single press of that side button, which will take you straight to your favourites. The process of starting an activity is really quick – faster than the Ionic and maybe even the Apple Watch depending on how you have it set up. Once you've got a GPS lock – or not, if you don't need one – it's just another tap of the button to start, and a vibration will tell you to get moving.
It's pretty par for the course, but the Vivoactive 3 builds on the HR with a smattering of new features. It can now monitor VO2 Max, a measurement of the maximum saturation of oxygen during exercise, and a critical component in measuring your fitness. For that reason we've seen it creep into Fitbit's and Apple's devices, and Garmin introduced it with the Vivosmart 3 earlier in the year. I'd argue this is better on the Vivoactive 3 due to the heart rate sensor proving a little more accurate.
There's also stress monitoring, again something that Garmin brought in with the latest Vivosmart, which further empowers the Vivoactive 3 as an all-day wearable. This works by tracking your heart rate variability throughout the day and ranking your stress levels.
The Vivoactive 3 also lets you download and use structured workouts from either the desktop Connect platform or, soon, the mobile app, and start them from the wrist. You can do this when you go into an activity and hit the 'Workouts' button, which will show you all the ones you have synced. It's a point the Vivoactive 3 has over the Fitbit Ionic (until it gets more apps, at least). Another upper hand is letting you pair a chest strap or other Bluetooth device with the Vivoactive 3. The Ionic won't let you do that.
But Fitbit and Apple win on onboard music storage. I'm someone who tends to take their phone with them on a run anyway, but more and more I'm being tempted by the idea of going without. But I stream a lot, and if you're anything like me then chances are you don't have many music files anyway.
Generally I like to change up my playlists every time I head out on a run, so streaming from my phone makes most sense, though that might change when Apple Music streaming comes to the Apple Watch.The Vivoactive 3 can work perfectly well without the phone, but if you want music, you're going to need to keep strapping that phone to your arm or slipping it into your pocket before you go.
I've mentioned stress already as one thing the Vivoactive 3 tackles, but it's also tracking your steps, calories, active minutes and resting heart rate; Garmin wants this to be an all-day wearable. It also tracks sleep, but I don't find Garmin's sleep tracking to be as good as other devices. Fitbit holds the new gold standard for wrist-worn devices, though Polar's isn't bad either. Garmin got it right a few times, but more often missed the mark – and in some cases over- or undershot massively.
Its problem is that it either thinks I've fallen asleep when I've been motionless for too long (I'm not sleeping, I'm just lazy!) or it takes it too long to register when I've rolled out of bed. This could be better if Garmin integrated heart rate into its algorithms, as this is what lets Fitbit get a better gauge of when I'm asleep or not, while Garmin is just using accelerometer data (though there are apps you can download that utilise both).
Garmin Vivoactive 3: GPS and heart rate
Since the Garmin Vivoactive HR we've seen optical heart rate make steady improvements; it's still not perfect, but gradually it's getting better at keeping up with increased intensity. With the HR, we found that it struggled pushing above 165bpm, but the Vivoactive 3 has proved to be better. In fact, it also kept up the pace with the Polar H10 chest strap in peaks and troughs, which is better news for interval runners.
In the run you can see below it kept step, even as I pushed up beyond 170bpm and up to 180bpm. It was a couple of beats higher on occasion, but overall it performed solidly. Garmin told us it had improved its algorithms on the Vivoactive 3, and it shows.
Polar H10 chest strap on the left, Garmin Vivoactive 3 on the right
I also tested the Vivoactive 3 against the Fitbit Ionic, not just because they're gunning for a similar user, but because the Ionic is one of the best GPS performers around right now. Fitbit made a big deal of this before it launched, and it wasn't wrong. Thankfully Garmin performs admirably here too, as we've come to expect from a company that has GPS running through its veins.
Garmin Vivoactive 3 above, Fitbit Ionic below
The Ionic came in with 0.05 miles more distance over the Garmin, and there were a couple of places the Garmin seemed to falter just a tad on the map, but nothing to be too concerned about. It was also very quick to get a lock.
Garmin Vivoactive 3: Smart features and app
So, how much of a smartwatch is the Vivoactive 3? Let's start with notifications – any notifications that come to your phone, you can have appear on the watch. So everything from texts to Facebook updates to Snaps. You can't speak through the Vivoactive 3 but you can answer or dismiss calls on your phone via the watch.
You can also read entire messages and respond to them using pre-set replies – but only on Android. During my testing I switched from iPhone to Android, and immediately I could see that I could reply to texts with things like "Ok" and "Love you!", although to this day I don't think I've ever used cut-out replies except when I've been testing devices, as it just feels strangely insincere. But if you don't mind that, so long as you're using Android you can do it with the Vivoactive 3.
Then we have Garmin Pay, though right now this isn't available so I haven't been able to test it. Garmin tells me this should be live by the end of October, so I'll come back and update this when I've taken it for a spin. Right now I can see the Pay icon on the circular menu, so I hope that means it's just a case of a long-press and a tap. For now the jury is out.
What I can talk about to some extent is the app – oh, the new app! The whole Wareable team has moaned about the Garmin Connect mobile app for so long, but to my surprise I was recently invited to try a beta of a new and improved version, and let me tell you, it is both new and improved.
What's mainly changed here is the homescreen, which now presents your day's stats on a series of cards. Scroll down and you'll see weight, sleep, steps, heart rate, intensity minutes, stress and more; tap one and you'll be taken to the relevant page for a more detailed breakdown. At the very bottom is a summary box of your last seven days, and you can add in any activities or weight changes manually too.
It's more similar to Fitbit's app experience, which also breaks down your day into a visually digestible form. We like it a lot, and hopefully it will soon move out of beta because this has been needed for an awfully long time.
Garmin Vivoactive 3: Battery life
Garmin quote up to seven days of battery life on the Vivoactive 3 with normal use, and 13 hours of straight GPS time. In my testing I've found the Vivoactive 3 has lasted just a little under seven, but that's because I've been using it more intensively during testing. I don't doubt I'd be able to stretch it all the way with regular use.
That puts it at three more days than the Fitbit Ionic – however the Ionic is also running a much higher-res display, and potentially streaming music too. Garmin has neither of these things, but it does have other strings to its bow that may well make it a more compelling choice for you.
How we test