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Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Long Term Review: Garmin Vivoactive

It's been about 5 months since my original Vivoactive review. Since then, the watch has barely left my wrist! I don't even usually take it off to charge it, because I just plug the charger onto my wrist using a portable battery. I wanted to put the watch through extreme conditions before writing a long term review, so since my original review, I've:
  • Taken the watch on hiking, camping, sailing and RV trips
  • Swam in hot springs, cold water, sea water (both pool and open water)
  • Taken the watch cycling, sailing, tubing, and everything short of a scuba dive
The device has been outstanding in all ways, with reliable performance and of course, remained ticking despite everything I do (it's much more reliable than either my smartphone or my cell service!). The watch has enabled me to keep track of nightly wakings while being the skipper of a sailboat during a major storm in the Pacific Northwest, and it has allowed me to track hikes, bike rides, and swims almost on a daily basis.

By the way, here's why battery life is important: not only does the battery life needs to be long enough to be worn 24-hours/day in order to get sleep tracking data, it's also important as a measure of longevity. Modern lithium batteries are normally rated for 300 charge cycles before the charge capacity drops by 20%. If your battery's going to barely last the day, then within a year, the charge capacity is going to be degraded to the point where it won't last the day. A battery that goes a week between charges, by contrast, can easily go 5 years before the charge capacity is degraded, and even then it's a degradation from 7 days to 5 days or so. In other words, a battery that barely lasts a day is a built-in obsolescence machine, while the battery that lasts a week is designed to actually be useful for a significant lifespan.

There are a few bugs:
  • While driving, the device continues to tracks steps. There needs to be a "driving mode" that ignores steps, but then I'd forget to turn it off.
  • While on a sailboat, my walking patterns change and the device doesn't always register steps. (No big deal, though the "move!" alarm does get annoying)
  • The calories reading is laughably low. This is not a problem for me since I mostly ignore it and go with "how I feel" as far as eating is concerned. But if you're a pro Athlete weighing your food before you eat it, you probably want more accuracy.
As far as calorie-measurement is concerned, this is a general problem with Garmin's new "sensor pool" model of bike sensor pairing. In the old days (Edge 800/500), a sensor was associated with a bike. What this meant was that whenever you picked up a sensor by switching bikes, the device also knew how heavy your bike was, and could compute calorie output accordingly. In the new "sensor pool" model, you no longer have to tell your unit which bike you're currently riding, since it would pick up the sensor automatically. The flip side of it is that the device no longer knows how heavy your bike is! This is a serious problem, and would cause me to not consider the Edge 810/510/1000 series an upgrade for my use. For instance, when riding my triplet, I'd get 250 calories on the Edge 800 while my Vivoactive would read a less than 100 calories. That's because the triplet is north of 50 pounds and my son doesn't pedal that hard when going to school, so for the same effort I can only go so fast. If Garmin doesn't fix this, in the long term I could see myself going to great lengths to keep the 800 working rather than upgrade.

From my perspective, I could use a few more features:
  • Barometric pressure/air temperature sensor (I'd be OK with an external sensor like the Tempe)
  • A tide-table/app would be really useful for when I'm sailing in tidal regions.
But seriously? I highly recommend this watch despite its minor flaws, and on those long trips that I take, I don't see any other smart-watch coming even close to being rugged enough or having sufficient battery life to keep up with my lifestyle (I certainly didn't see anyone else with a smart watch on my last two adventure travel trips). This one nearly does it all, and that which it doesn't do, few other devices do as well, and none in its price range.

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