I bought a Garmin Vivomove HR smartwatch to see if it would be a good replacement for my Nokia Steel HR. It’s a great hybrid smart watch design, but it’s buggy and I couldn’t get it working well enough, so I didn’t keep it.

I’ve been keeping my eyes on the Vivomove HR for several months. I didn’t buy one right away because there weren’t many reviews, it’s moderately expensive, and there was limited availability. When it showed up in a retail store near me, I took the plunge and bought the basic black model.

Garmin Vivomove HR Black

I wanted to try this watch out because of its continuous heart rate tracking, Garmin’s reputation for accuracy of biometrics, and the more complete notifications it offers versus my Nokia Steel HR.

First, the looks. It’s a traditional-looking watch with physical hands, not an LED screen, placing it into the category of a hybrid smartwatch. This is what I want; I like the look of a watch with hands that tell the time. From photos and videos I saw online, I thought I wouldn’t like the black model; I thought the design was unattractive and too basic. But after I put the watch on my wrist, I changed my mind. It’s surprisingly okay. Not gorgeous, but not ugly. My original plan was to evaluate this watch and consider whether it was worth buying the premium leather model for an extra $100. Either way, I planned to return the black one.

Garmin Vivomove HR Leather

I ended up deciding that it wasn’t bad-looking; it pretty much blends in and doesn’t call attention to itself. Despite the fact that the hour hand is black on a black watch face, it’s actually easy to see. There’s no second hand, which I’d like.

The watch is solidly built but still light, and feels high-quality. It has a thin profile that sits snugly against my wrist and doesn’t catch on shirt sleeves and the like. It’s a great blend of watch, smartwatch, and fitness tracker.

The main smartwatch feature I want is full-featured notifications so I can decide whether I need to look at my phone. The Vivomove HR is very effective for this: unlike some other smart watches I’ve evaluated, you can get notifications for any app, and the notification content (for example the content of a text message) is viewable from the watch, as well as the name of the app and other information such as who sent the text message. This additional richness is very useful.

I had some trouble with notifications: I wasn’t getting notifications on my wrist for everything my iPhone notified me about. I contacted support, and they told me that on the iPhone, you have to enable “show on lock screen,” “show in history,” and “show as banners” for any notifications you want to see on the watch. This hidden incantation isn’t documented in the Garmin knowledgebase.

The fitness tracker features are great: you can disable them and make them invisible while the watch tracks your biometrics! It can track steps, stress, heart rate, and a host of other biometrics, but you can disable “goal” features, so you don’t have a watch nagging you that you need to move to reach 10000 steps. This is perfect—kudos to Garmin for getting this right. The companion smartphone app is pretty well done, too; the data is easily available and richly detailed.

I particularly like the continuous heart-rate tracking, which is much better than the intermittent tracking the Nokia Steel HR offers. And the stress tracking was especially useful; I’ve been trying to find a way to quantify my stress levels so I can adjust how I work. It was really interesting to review the stress-o-meter at the end of the day and compare it to my calendar, to see what or whom seemed more stressful.

Sleep tracking seemed noticeably more accurate than the Nokia, too. It recorded my sleep and wake times to the minute automatically, and seemed to be accurate about when I was awake or in light sleep during the night too (though it’s hard to know for sure without having someone else observe me).

The watch has an integrated touch screen to control and view its smart watch features. This is all but invisible when it’s turned off. The effect is that the watch face simply looks plain black, so the watch truly looks like a watch. I saw some reviews with complaints that when the screen is activated it’s not bright enough, but I never had trouble with that even in bright sunlight. It was always easy for me to read the display.

The downside is the battery life isn’t as long as the Nokia’s 25 days, though in practice recharging once a week and getting much richer biometric data is a good tradeoff for me. I got 6.5 days on my first full charge, and at that point there was still 10% battery remaining. I disabled some of the standard features, so perhaps that’s why I got longer than the claimed 4-5 days of battery life. It was a nice surprise.

It wasn’t all good, though. Unfortunately, the watch doesn’t really perform as designed, in a few key aspects. This was disappointing to me, because I was really looking forward to continuing to use it, and appreciating the upgrade in functionality over the Nokia Steel HR.

Here’s a few things I had issues with:

  • Right out of the box, one of the first things I found was the quick-start guide prominently instructing me how to calibrate the watch hands so they point to the correct time. I thought this was odd—is it really that big of a problem? The answer is yes. During the 10 days I kept the watch, I had to recalibrate the hands three times. Once during setup on Saturday, once on Wednesday, then again on Monday next. The hands were pointing to random crazy wrong times. I have no idea what made this happen, but the prominence of the troubleshooting instructions in the otherwise minimal quickstart guide made it obvious that Garmin must have a lot of problems with this. And it’s super annoying to glance at your watch and suddenly get a random time; very disconcerting. You’d have to experience it to understand how frustrating it is.
  • Some of the “smart” features are pretty unreliable. An example is the tilt-to-activate feature that turns on the display when you raise your wrist to look at the watch. This works so badly that the watch is constantly turning on at undesired times, such as during the night when I’m trying to sleep. But it never seems to turn on when I do want it to. I ended up disabling this feature. Honestly, even if it worked right, I’d disable it and only make it turn on when I wanted it. But that’s not all: it’s so buggy that it kept activating sometimes even when I had disabled this feature, so I’d randomly (and with no gestures/taps/movements as far as I could tell) see the watch display turn on and light up.
  • A lot of the touchscreen interactions are really hard to use. When I turned the watch on, it activated a sort of guided tour, prompting me to tap, swipe, double-tap, long-press, and so on. It literally took me about twenty tries to get it to recognize that I was double-tapping it. I got slightly better after a week, but when I returned the watch I’d say I was able to get it to recognize a double-tap only about two out of three tries.
  • The screen’s nested system of menus and interactions is confusingly designed. I found it hard to understand what context I was in (had I entered one of the menus? Was I descending down the hierarchy, or traversing sideways?) When you pair that with the screen’s poor ability to recognize gestures and taps, it’s close to a nightmare. It’s really easy to escape a function you’re trying to use, or to get stuck in one you want to escape. A case in point is the setting function to calibrate the hands: after moving the hands to point to the right locations, the menu is nearly impossible to escape. I kept re-activating the menu and having to go through it again and again. I don’t even know how to escape it; it gave me no clues. (Tap on the left? Swipe up or right or left?) What should have been a 30-second task literally took me about ten minutes each time I had to do it. I still don’t know what I did that finished the process and got me back to the main menu. Another example: the first morning, I had the alarm set at 5:40 a.m. and I kept accidentally snoozing it. It wasn’t until 6:30 that I was able to actually turn it off!
  • The fatal blow, though, was that the watch stopped syncing data to the phone app after a few days. It was still connected: realtime data such as the instantaneous heart rate would show up in sync on the watch face and the iPhone app. And I was still getting notifications on the watch, although with some missed notifications every now and then (perhaps a different issue). But the app wouldn’t show me any historical metrics such as heart rate or steps. It just said I needed to sync the watch, no matter how many times I synced it. I submitted a support request and never got a response, even ten days later as I write this post.1 Meanwhile I tried resetting the watch, turning bluetooth on and off, removing the watch from the app and re-initializing it, deleting and reinstalling the app… and nothing worked. I ended up with a nonfunctional watch, at least with regards to some of the things I wanted it to do the most.

If Garmin is reading this post, I have some advice. This could be a great watch, if the following were changed:

  • Fix the glitches and bugs, and provide prompt and helpful support.
  • Add physical buttons. The touch screen shouldn’t be a touch screen; that’s an extremely difficult user interface. Physical buttons would be much easier to use. My Nokia has a single button and it works great to control the watch’s functionality. The Garmin probably needs more than one for its more sophisticated functionality, but maybe not; maybe a single button would be enough. Regardless, this watch needs physical controls, not a touch screen.
  • Work to revise the menu design and make it clearer where you are and what actions you can take. Also, place the notifications screen first in the menu. I’ve read reviews on e.g. Amazon from a lot of people who, like me, want the watch’s notifications features to be the most convenient function to access.
  • The price I paid, $200, isn’t low. But the premium styling, really, $100 more? It feels like extortion. Until I got the watch and realized that the styling wasn’t as extremely ugly as I’d thought from the photos, I was really planning just to evaluate the watch and wasn’t even considering keeping it. I thought I’d only want the better-looking premium model, but I wouldn’t pay $300 for a watch like this. The more elegant-looking one should be $200 and the basic one should be less. Just my opinion, but $150 and $200 is the right pricing.

If the watch were to work as designed, and if I bought the better-looking leather-and-silver model, I’d rate it as shown in the following chart.

Garmin Vivomove HR rating

  1. I saw other complaints about poor support experiences, too. [return]

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