Garmin Venu review: A real smartwatch for those serious about sport

It's a Garmin watch – just not as we know it
Garmin Venu
Wareable is reader-powered. If you click through using links on the site, we may earn an affiliate commission. Learn more

It’s been a long time coming, but the Garmin Venu sports smartwatch is finally here to take on the Apple Watch.

Garmin Venu is the company’s first smartwatch with a full AMOLED touchscreen display – diverting away from the basic LCD screens that have adorned its previous watches.


But the Venu is still a Garmin watch and it's a great option for those serious about sport. At $399.99 it's cheaper than the Apple Watch Series 5 but more than its other main rival the Fitbit Versa 2.

If you were expecting to see the company go all-in with Wear OS and jump into bed with Google, you’d be mistaken. It’s translated the experience of a Fenix and Forerunner watches into a glossier, touchscreen smartwatch package – but left the mechanics nearly identical.

Design

Garmin Venu review

While this is very much Garmin’s answer to the Apple Watch it’s not a huge design departure from the Forerunners and Vivoactives of its range.

It's no-where near as premium as the Apple Watch in terms of material and looks. It is essentially a refined, more premium version of the Vivoactive 4, which it announced simultaneously.

We’ll come to the display in a moment, but the bezel is much thinner and offers a slightly more premium feel than the Vivoactive range. It has a unisex sized 43mm case, which is made of fibre polymer (plastic), so it’s lightweight and comes in black, blue, grey with rose gold and black and gold.

It’s just 46.5g and it’s easy to forget you’re wearing it. You can also hot-swap 20mm straps thanks to the industry-standard quick release catch, so there's plenty of choice on the market.

Seemingly, every Garmin release differs in terms of buttons and UI, which leads to an inconsistent experience. Much of that is dependent on whether a touchscreen is offered, and the Venu complements this with two buttons on the right-hand side.

We’ll move to the display itself in a second, but navigating through the touchscreen interface isn’t as user-friendly as we’d like. It’s fiddly on the small screen and false presses were commonplace.

You swipe down for daily stats, tap to expand menus and use the physical back button to return. Likewise, within . a workout you can swipe up and down to see more data. It’s a small learning curve for those familiar with Garmin but those with fat fingers may get frustrated – and it can be equally befuddling during an intense workout.

It’s important to arrange features to ensure the most-used elements are handy placed, otherwise you’re in for a lot of swiping.

You can also add a shortcut to one screen that can be accessed by swiping left to right. You can alter the touchscreen sensitivity, but ‘low’ can feel sluggish (especially with sweaty paws) and ‘high’ can feel sensitive.

Display

Garmin Venu review

This is the best display Garmin has offered on a fitness watch to date.

The 1.2-inch (30.4mm) touchscreen offers a 390 x 390 pixel resolution, but the star of the show is the AMOLED technology offering truly vibrant colours and deep blacks, akin to those we’ve seen on the most recent Apple Watch releases. It's a great display, easy to read and super clear.

It’s a major change for Garmin and a different ballgame to the transflective memory-in-pixel (MIP) display on the rest of its recent devices, which required backlighting to view in dark conditions.

Text is much more defined and so much easier to read, whether that's a notification or checking pace during a workout.

Considering the Venu and Vivoactive are largely the same otherwise, the extra money will be a no-brainer for many given the practical and aesthetic benefits.

Garmin Venu review: A real smartwatch for those serious about sport

Garmin Venu (left) and Fenix 6S (right)

There was always method behind Garmin’s display choices. The lesser technology enabled an always-on mode and enhanced battery life. However, Garmin has found a way to offer both on the Venu too – with five days of battery life. More on that later.

Just like the Apple Watch Series 5, the always-on mode returns down to a minimalist watch face when not in use, designed to seriously limit the area of the screen lit up.

When you lift your wrist the full watch face kicks in. The wrist raises aren't quite as slick as the Apple Watch, but no usability complaints here.

There are obviously battery life trade-offs here, but, like Apple, Garmin has handled it smartly.

Sports and activity tracking

Garmin Venu review

This is a Garmin smartwatch after all, so it's all about sports tracking. Hit the top physical button and you get a list of sports to scroll through – and this list can be customised.

There are more than 20 pre-set activities from running, treadmill, indoor and outdoor walking/running, cycling, swimming, cardio, strength, golf, skiing/snowboarding and even stand-up paddle-boarding. \

You can also create your own custom workouts, indoor and outdoor.

As a comparison, it’s the same level of tracking you’ll find on the rest of Garmin’s general multipart range such as the Vivoactive 4.

Where the venue has a leg up over the likes of Apple is the metrics. The venue taps into the same algorithms as the likes of the Fenix. During a HIIT session we saw identical calorie burn and feedback between the Venu and the Fenix 6S – so it's no slouch in the tracking stakes.

We found the default screens a little limited in terms of the data shown, but in the watch settings you can customise each activity and add multiple pages of data if you need. It's well worth customising your experience there, so you can see things like lap times which is pretty essential for HIIT sessions.

There’s automatic rep tracking for strength training (a bit hit and miss overall, but it can be edited after the fact). And there's a myriad of stats to dive into within the Connect app derived from GPS, heart rate and motion sensors.

Garmin Venu review

Beyond workouts, the watch also continuously tracks steps, calories burned, body battery (how ready you are for exercise), stress level, sleep, respiration, pulse ox (beware continuous pulse ox tracking has an adverse effect on battery life) and VO2 Max.

Just swipe down from the home screen to get a digest of your daily activity and each menu can be expanded by tapping for a deep dive. You can swipe down in most of these to compare data in short and long term time frames. It's excellent, but takes a bit of getting used to – we'd forgive people for missing some pretty cool stats.

There's no where near the level of data from VO2 Max insights (recovery and session performance) as the likes of the Fenix 6 and Forerunner 945 and scores are shown in passing without too much insight. If you're a real data head you might miss those screens.

It should be noted that while the Garmin Venu excels in terms of sports tracking, it's still behind as a health watch. You can set parameters for elevated heart rate alerts, but there's no ECG, no sleep apnea or heart arrhythmia detection, fall detection or other incoming features that makes the Series 5 in particular such a unique device.

While step-tracking isn’t quite the marker it was at the dawn of the wearable era, the Venu does this too. Measured against the 10,126 steps recorded by a Fitbit Alta HR, Venu recorded 9,235 steps overall.

In our Fitbit Alta HR review we’d noted it had did have a tendency to overcount slightly, lending to the credibility of Garmin’s step counting here.

Animated workouts

Garmin Venu review: A real smartwatch for those serious about sport

New with Venu and Vivoactive 4 are animated workouts. An extension of the existing guided step-by-step workouts, they show a human figure on the display carrying out the action in question, whether it’s a yoga pose or a strength exercise.

The animations seem designed to assist beginners in learning the basics of various activities. It works pretty well, offering haptic feedback, a text description of the next step and time/reps required. Real time heart-rate also appears on screen. Swiping shows HR zones, respiratory rate and more.

Personally, we're not sure we'd want to be taking tips on proper lifting form from a 1-inch animation on my wrist, despite the animations being quite well defined.

As yogis we enjoyed how that activity decreases screen time. Not having to look at the display every time I flow to a new pose.

Heart rate accuracy and GPS tracking

Garmin Venu review: A real smartwatch for those serious about sport

GPS performance was solid across runs and cycles – as you’d expect from Garmin. No complaints there.

In terms of tracking heart rate, we measured the Venu’s wrist-based sensor against the Polar H10, widely regarded as the best consumer chest strap.

During an elliptical workout, average HR was comparable across both devices and well within the acceptable error range. The Polar strap maxed at 182bpm, compared to the 185bpm on the Venu, so again, it's impossible within that range to determine which was more accurate. We also found good comparable data between the Venu and a chest strap on long steady runs.

However, When observing both devices in real time, we found the Garmin Venu was playing catch-up somewhat, particularly when heart rate was decreasing.

This is backed up by putting the Venu through a hard HIIT workout, involving short bursts on a running track. The issue here is the excess movement, the quickly rising and falling heart rate zones.

You can see in the screenshot below that many of the shorter intervals of around one minute aren't tracked properly.

This was evident both in the post-workout data and the live readouts for the watch. This isn't isolated to the Venu – it's apparent on pretty much any optical sensor.

Of course, the Garmin Venu has ANT+ support on board, allowing you to add your own chest strap, should you desire that kind of accuracy.

Garmin Venu review: A real smartwatch for those serious about sport

Which brings us to swimming. If you want to train for a triathlon with this device, you may want to use a waterproof heart rate sensor like the Polar H10.

By Garmin’s own admission, the wrist-based tracker is not as accurate underwater, as it is when tracking non-aquatic activity. The OLED display, however, is perfectly capable underwater (with goggles) and you can change the accent colour of the data to assist with that too.

Sleep tracking

Garmin Venu review: A real smartwatch for those serious about sport

As this is designed to be a 24/7 watch, the Garmin Venu offers sleep tracking, while also monitoring sleep stages, respiration rate, pulse ox and movement.

We tested the Venu’s sleep tracking capabilities against the Whoop Strap 2 and the Fitbit Alta HR. We found the Garmin watch to be somewhat of an outlier. While Whoop (7:01) and Alta (6:53) were only 8 minutes apart in terms of actual sleep time, Garmin reported 7:25 of total sleep time.

It awarded us 1:39 minutes of deep sleep, compared to the 51 minutes reported by Fitbit and 1 hour 13 minutes tracked by Whoop. Rapid eye movement [REM] sleep was registered at 1:32 (Whoop) and 1:28 (Fitbit), while Venu estimated just 56 minutes.

Without a lab it’s impossible to really say what’s accurate and not in terms of the data produced by sleep trackers. But in terms of the experience, Garmin still lags Fitbit in our opinion.

Reviewing sleep in Garmin Connect means a lot of graphs - many with unlabelled axis for things like respiration, movement and the like. The problem is that while respiration data is beyond baffling, we found that movement data seemed off during restless nights.

It’s still one of the better sleep tracking experiences out there - but Garmin has only managed to add more data to the mix, not solve the persistent questions we’ve been asking for years.

Fitbit's new Sleep Score at least aims for an actionable, easy-to-understand outcome – and that means a lot for sleep tracking.

Hydration and body battery

Garmin Venu review: A real smartwatch for those serious about sport

A new feature added since the Vivoactive 3 is the hydration logging tool, which makes it easy to add how much water you’re consuming with a single tap.

Better still, each activity you log comes with an estimation of the fluids lost through sweat.

A moderately taxing 75-minute hot yoga workout resulted in an estimated sweat loss of 453ml, which surprised me enough to increase my water consumption during the day.

Garmin Connect also helpfully provides a fluid net if you do a good job of logging.

The body battery feature, first introduced in late 2018 offers insight into how ready your body is for activity, based upon stress, rest, sleep and physical exertion.

The 0-100 meter uses your heart rate variability gives you an insight into whether you should go all-out for a PB or perhaps take a light jog today.

If the body battery is kind of low, then taking a nap will get you back on track. The body batteries gained versus drained data also offers great insight into your day.

Respiration rate and breathwork

Garmin Venu review: A real smartwatch for those serious about sport

Garmin has added a new breathwork app, similar to options offered by Fitbit and Apple. Breathwork is considered an actual activity and is positioned as such within the UI.

A range of options of varying length, from ‘Relax and Focus’ to ‘Tranquility’ are offered. The haptic feedback differs depending on breathing in, out, or holding, which means the activities can be performed without looking at the watch.

All of this ties into the new 24/7 respiration rate feature which shows your breaths per minute during everyday activities, sleep and certain workouts. It’s enlightening to see your normal respiration rate is 14 breaths per minute slow down to 4 when performing the mindful breathwork exercises.

The HRV-based all-day stress tracking feature on board Garmin watches since 2017 is also helpful here. If you notice your stress levels are rising beyond normal, we found a five-minute breathwork exercise right before boarding a flight brought us from a medium stress rating of 61, back down to 31.


Battery and charging

Garmin Venu review: A real smartwatch for those serious about sport

You’d think the presence of the OLED screen would dramatically reduce the battery life on offer, considering the Apple Watch is limited to 24 hours – and around 4 hours of GPS if you don't turn off all the bells and whistles.

However, the Venu is still a solid performer. The near-identical Vivoactive 4 series promises 8 days in smartwatch mode and around 6 hours from non-stop GPS and music mode.

With the AMOLED display on the Venu, you’ll get around 5 days of battery life in smartwatch mode, even if you throw in a couple of hour long non-GPS workouts too.

If you're using GPS and music you should get around 6 hours - which stood up in our testing.

With two hours of Bluetooth music playback, no GPS usage, full smartphone connection and the always-on display mode enabled and more faffing than would occur during normal usage, battery life fell just short of four days.

That’s without the always-on display and the continuous pulse ox tracking, which led to a faster drop off. Recharging from 0-100% via the mains took only 80 minutes.

The Venu won’t get you through an ultra-marathon and we wouldn’t even be comfortable concerned going into any 26.2-miler with GPS and Bluetooth music enabled.

However, it’s far better overall than the Apple Watch and only slightly below what the more-affordable Fitbit Versa range can offer in terms of advertised life force. Considering the display enhancements, this is solid work from Garmin.

Smartwatch features

Garmin Venu review: A real smartwatch for those serious about sport

It’s pretty standard fare here for those who have used Garmin smartwatches before. Notifications from all of your favourite apps are pushed through and live within their own section in the UI.

Android users can reply to text messages, but iOS users cannot. The presence of that full colour AMOLED screen doesn’t mean you’re getting media delivered though. You’ll still need to dip into your phone to see any images and videos.

In terms of music, Venu now supports Spotify, Deezer, Amazon Music and iHeartRadio apps as standard. Once you’ve synced your Spotify account via the app, for example, it’s simple to sync playlists for offline playback via a pair of wireless headphones. Great if you want to leave your phone at home, and a big step forward from the Vivoactive 3 range.

Garmin Pay is on board too, enabling you to leave your phone and wallet, matching options from Apple, Samsung, Google and Fitbit.


Garmin Venu
By Garmin
The Garmin Venu is a big improvement on the Vivoactive 3 and the beautifully crisp and vibrant AMOLED display puts it well ahead of the Vivoactive 4. If you’re looking for an attractive 24/7 watch to manage your overall wellness and help you hit fitness goals, this is one of the best around. It's not as advanced in terms of health features as the likes of the Apple Watch or Fitbit Versa 2 – but it's a great performing smartwatch for those serious about sport.

Hit
  • Beautiful AMOLED screen
  • Still impressive 5-day battery life
  • New breathing and respiration tools
  • Accurate heart rate and GPS
Miss
  • Basic smartwatch features
  • Touchscreen isn’t intuitive


What do you think?
Reply to
Your comment