Juha Saarinen is a tech blogger for nzherald.co.nz.

Gear Friday: Garmin's VivoActive HR sports smartwatch

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Garmin's VivoActive HR sports smartwatch.
Garmin's VivoActive HR sports smartwatch.

Building a smartwatch that can handle a range of sports and activities, as well as providing general bits and pieces of information is a massive challenge. These things are small, with limited computing power and connectivity, but Garmin has overcome many limitations in its VivoActive HR smartwatch.

The VivoActive HR can be had for just over $450 locally, Pricespy tells me. That's quite a bit, and buys you a sturdy smartwatch with, shall we say, chunky design.

OK, the VivoActive HR isn't the prettiest, it's big and not the most comfy to wear, but it does feel like it'll survive a range of sports and activities.

It's quite a range too, fourteen if I counted them all, from keeping an eye on your day to day activity to walking and golfing (!), those stand-up paddle boards (!!), increasing in intensity to biking, swimming, rowing and running.

Skiing's covered too, cross country which I'd have loved to try out the VivoActive HR with, but sadly was unable to.

Now, the VivoActive HR wouldn't be a smartwatch if it didn't collect lots of data about what you're doing, and send it to smartphones and a web server.

To that, there's a very detailed app for Apple's iOS mobile operating system that provides heaps of info and stats on what you've been doing, presented fairly legibly and well.

You can have even more: the VivoActive HR can connect to the website, where a dashboard really provides a full view of sports and activities.

Speaking of Apple, while the VivoActive HR doesn't look as good as the Watch, it's less expensive and can do some things the Cupertino wrist piece can't. The obvious one is swimming; the VivoActive HR works up to 50 metres in depth. Second, the battery life is around five days. In my testing, I charged the VivoActive HR once a week, versus every second day for the Apple Watch.

That said, the Apple Watch has a superior display whereas the VivoActive HR is low-res at 205 by 148 pixels compared to 312 by 390 pixels for the former. Garmin's choice of display helps battery life, but it can be hard to see as it's quite dim.

You can use the VivoActive HR to display notifications about emails, social media updates, messages, weather and more. I gave up on it, as the information displayed is limited (like just the subject line for emails would show, with no body) and the constant buzzing on my wrist was too disturbing. Plus, that dim display make it hard to see them.

After I did that, and worked out how to use the built-in apps and others available in Garmin's store do (you can install a small number of additional ones of on the VivoActive HR, the number depending on their individual sizes), it was great to have a device on your wrist that prodded you into action. And, one that kept fairly good track of how you were doing.

Interestingly enough, the VivoActive HR can be paired with Garmin bicycle sensors with the wireless ANT+ protocol.

Note that the VivoActive HR measures heart rates with an optical sensor on your wrist, which can be inaccurate at times compared to a chest strap. I had it jump to 230 bpm during a longish walk, possibly because the VivoActive HR moved around on my wrist and no, not because I'm shockingly unfit, thank you very much.

Unscientific testing showed (comparing the results to the Apple Watch on my other wrist, and checking distances on Google Maps and MapMyRun) showed that the VivoActive HR is accurate enough for what I imagine is most people's needs.

Being able to set up vibrations for heart rate targets and other goals, so that you get a buzz when you reach them, or drop too low like when you're pacing yourself, is great to have. And, sleep monitoring is nice to have although it confirmed what I already knew that I don't get enough shut-eye.

Interestingly enough, the VivoActive HR can be paired with Garmin bicycle sensors with the wireless ANT+ protocol, but I didn't get to try them out.

With a bit of adjusting and learning, the VivoActive HR becomes easy to live with, and more importantly, fits in with activities and sports, encouraging you to do more. The design could be sleeker and the screen better, but both take second stage to the long battery life of the VivoActive HR and its versatility.

- NZ Herald

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Juha Saarinen is a tech blogger for nzherald.co.nz.

Juha Saarinen is a technology journalist and writer living in Auckland. Apart from contributing to the New Zealand Herald over the years, he has written for the Guardian, Wired, PC World, Computerworld and ITnews Australia, covering networking, hardware, software, enterprise IT as well as the business and social aspects of computing. A firm believer in the principle that trying stuff out makes you understand things better, he spends way too much time wondering why things just don’t work.

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