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Garmin Vivoactive 3 Smartwatch Review

The Vivoactive 3 is still a great fitness-focused smartwatch, even if it’s not Garmin’s latest model in the Vivoactive line

Garmin Vivoactive 3
(Image: © Garmin)

Our Verdict

The Vivoactive 3 stands out from the smartwatch crowd by offering a more comprehensive fitness tracking experience, including structured workouts for a variety of sports. However, it falls behind when it comes to smartwatch features, with no space for music and only basic notifications.

For

  • Garmin experience in sports tracking
  • Comprehensive everyday tracking
  • Battery life
  • Garmin Pay allows purchases without your phone.
  • Design

Against

  • No onboard music
  • Limited app store
  • Unimpressive screen

Should I Consider Buying Something Else?

This review was originally published December 2017. We have updated this section to be current.

Garmin launched the next generation of the Vivoactive line in late 2019. The Vivoactive 4 includes music as standard and has a bigger touchscreen display, as well as adding some nifty fitness features like the ability to follow workouts from your wrist, with guided animations to help you learn the exercises. At the same time Garmin launched the Venu smartwatch, which has the same features as the Vivoactive 4, but upgrades the screen to a vivid AMOLED display.

Both offer more than the Vivoactive 3 – and both have prices that reflect that. The Vivoactive 3 is generally available for around £150 compared with £259.99 for the Vivoactive 4 and £299.99 for the Venu. I’d still say it’s worth getting the newer watches, especially if you can find them in a sale (both were reduced for Black Friday 2019), with the larger screen of the Vivoactive 4 being a particularly handy upgrade.

There are other excellent fitness-focused smartwatches in the sub-£200 bracket to consider as well, including the Apple Watch Series 3, which has been reduced to £199 since Apple launched the Apple Watch Series 5 in 2019. It’s a far smarter watch with easy NFC payments through Apple Pay and music, and even though Apple’s native sports tracking isn’t as good as Garmin’s, the App Store contains hundreds of excellent sports apps including the likes of Strava and Runkeeper.

If you can live without built-in GPS, there’s also the Fitbit Versa 2 to consider. It has space for music and Amazon’s Alexa voice assistant on board, and while its RRP of £199.99 is a little steep for the features it offers, we’ve already spotted it being sold for around £150-£160.

Garmin Vivoactive 3 In-Depth

Using The Garmin Vivoactive 3 To Track Activity

With its stylish looks and smartwatch features it’s clear that the Vivoactive 3 is designed to be used as an everyday tracker, and it will collect a boatload of data on your day. There’s continuous heart rate tracking, calorie burn, step tracking, intensity minutes (which work towards a weekly target, with vigorous exercises counting double compared to moderate), floors climbed and even stress monitoring, which is based on your heart rate variability.

Garmin Vivoactive 3

(Image credit: Garmin)

All this info is easily accessed on the watch using the touchscreen or the Side Swipe section on the side of the watch, and you can also pick a watch face that has some of the info on it. The steps, intensity minutes and floors targets are all customisable, and you can set the steps goal to adjust automatically in line with your activity. Be prepared to fall short of that auto-adjusted goal on rest days if you run a lot, however, because the target quickly ramps up.

The Vivoactive 3 also includes move alerts, which buzz at you when your Move Bar is full. Walk around to clear it (and outrun the many perils of a sedentary existence), or turn off the alerts if they get annoying.

You can view your heart rate and stress levels over the past four hours on your wrist, and click on the heart rate graph to show your resting heart rate average over the past seven days. There’s more detail in the Garmin Connect app, with graphs for steps and everything else for the past day, week, month and year.

It’s comprehensive, well presented and easy to follow on the Vivoactive 3 itself or in the app. Whatever aspect of everyday tracking you care most about, be it calories, steps or intensity minutes, the Vivoactive 3 has you covered.

Using The Garmin Vivoactive 3 For Running

One click of the button on the Vivoactive brings up your favourite sports modes (which can be configured on the watch). Select run and it will start hunting for GPS and bring up options to select a specific workout or adjust your in-run screen settings, the latter an essential feature for those who take their running seriously.

You can have up to four data fields on each screen during a run, although cramming in this much info means the top and bottom fields are too small for certain stats like pace, up to three screens of data in total, plus another for the excellent colour-coded Garmin heart rate gauge (see the heart rate tracker section below for more on this feature).

There are only basic navigation options, which are accessed by holding down on the touchscreen during a run. This allows you to get a marker pointing towards a preset waypoint, but omits breadcrumb trails, a feature that’s still restricted to pricier Garmins like the Forerunner 935.

However, one previously high-end feature that is now available on the Vivoactive line is structured workouts you can create in the app then sync to and follow on the watch, which will notify you at the start and end of intervals. This is one area which elevates the Vivoactive 3 above other smartwatches in the fitness stakes.

Log on to Garmin Connect via a web browser and there are a range of plans for all levels, from people tackling a first 5K to an advanced marathon training schedule. Once synced to your training calendar you can view upcoming workouts in the Vivoactive 3.

RECOMMENDED: The Best Running Watches

If running is your main sport, the Vivoactive 3 is the best smartwatch available at the moment. It’s easy to use and being able to follow workouts and training plans is a key feature for many runners which isn’t available the Fitbit Ionic, and only through third-party apps on the Apple Watch, which has other issues around heart rate and GPS accuracy.

Using The Garmin Vivoactive 3 For Cycling

There’s little difference between cycling and running on the Vivoactive 3, although you’ll naturally want to adjust your data fields to focus on different stats. As with most optical heart rate trackers accuracy can be a bit iffy when cycling, especially on bumpy tracks, due to the braced position of your arm. You can pair the Vivoactive 3 with a chest strap sensor to overcome this issue and it can also be paired with a cadence sensor, but not a power meter (although you might be able to get around this via a Connect IQ app, if you’re a dab hand at using Garmin’s app marketplace).

Using The Garmin Vivoactive 3 For Swimming

Before you embark on a pool swim with the Vivoactive 3 you’ll be asked to give the length of the pool in metres or yards. You can select from common lengths or choose a custom length. Unfortunately the shortest you can pick with the latter is 17m, which will usually be fine, but my closest pool is only 13m so I had to pick 17m and live with it.

During a swim, the heart rate tracker is disabled and you can’t use the touchscreen, which shows two stats of your choice. To break up your swim click the button and you’ll start a new interval. To pause and stop the workout you have to hold down the button for a few seconds.

Once you finish your swim you get more detailed stats, including overall distance and graphs of your pace, stroke rate and SWOLF. The Vivoactive 3 won’t automatically recognise your stroke type in the water, but other than that it offers everything a swimmer would want for their pool sessions, and tracks accurately (if you’re not in a bizarrely short pool).

However, there is no outdoor swim mode on the Vivoactive 3, which will disappoint triathletes and indeed open-water swimming fans. For those people the best smartwatch option is the Apple Watch Series 3, which does offer open-water swim tracking.

RECOMMENDED: The Best Waterproof Fitness Trackers For Swimmers

Using The Garmin Vivoactive 3 For Other Sports

You can track a variety of other sports on the Vivoactive 3, with most offering a similar experience to running, cycling and swimming, with only the data fields you choose to show changing.

However, one mode that is different is strength workouts, where the Vivoactive 3 will attempt to count your reps. In practice, I found this to be hit and miss, and unless you are very deliberate in your movements it will make quite a few mistakes, although you can edit your stats afterwards. It’s a good idea, and even with a few errors many people will find it useful in tracking progress over time, but it’s a feature that’s not quite there yet.

Using The Garmin Vivoactive 3 As A Heart Rate Monitor

The Vivoactive 3 uses Garmin’s Elevate wrist-tracking tech to monitor your heart rate continuously. For 24/7 usage the tracking is accurate and you can see a graph of your heart rate for the past four hours on the watch itself, along with your resting heart rate for the past seven days.

During exercise you can choose to have a few different heart rate stats on screen, including current, average and zone, as well as enabling Garmin’s heart rate gauge, which colour-codes zones so you can see how hard you are pushing at a glance. You can also set up workouts with steps based on heart rate intensity, where the Vivoactive 3 will buzz to keep you in the right zone.

The Vivoactive 3 is certainly accurate enough to use as your heart rate monitor during exercise, but it suffers the same issues as all wrist trackers in that it can go a bit skewiff when you’re trying to ramp up your heart rate quickly or jumping all over the place in a HIIT session. For running it was usually in line with a chest tracker on easy runs, but might be 3-5bpm out during interval training. On a couple of occasions the Vivoactive 3 completely failed to track my heart rate during strength workouts, but this was rare.

By monitoring your heart rate during workouts the Vivoactive is able to provide a VO2 max estimation. By keeping tabs on your VO2 max and resting heart rate over time you can get an accurate picture of how fit you are and whether you are getting fitter.

RECOMMENDED: The Best Heart Rate Monitors

Using The Garmin Vivoactive 3 As A Smartwatch

Here’s where the Vivoactive 3 falls down. Compared with the other smartwatches released lately (all of which have veered into fitness tracking territory), it simply doesn’t cut the mustard. There is no space for music, which the Apple Watch 3 and Fitbit Ionic both offer.

The colour touchscreen is nice enough but doesn’t pop in the same manner as the Apple Watch or Ionic, and notifications are a very simple affair – iPhone users just get the info beamed over from your phone, as on far more basic trackers like the Garmin Forerunner 30. Android users can use preset replies to respond to text messages, which is handy on occasion, but still pretty limited.

There is a range of apps available through the Connect IQ platform, but these are mostly different watch faces and data screens you can use while exercising. You don’t get anywhere near the range of useful apps available on the Apple Watch.

In truth, the only thing that really differentiates the Vivoactive 3 from other Garmins in terms of smartwatch features is the ability to make purchases with Garmin Pay. This wasn’t available when I used the Vivoactive 3, but assuming it all goes ahead as planned then it will be a useful feature, as it’s handy not to have to take a card with you to buy snacks or a drink immediately after a run.

Using The Garmin Vivoactive 3 For Sleep Tracking

The Vivoactive 3 tracks sleep automatically and will give you a graph of your night’s rest via the Garmin Connect app in the morning. This breaks your snooze down into light and deep sleep, and also any periods you spent awake. You are also given a graph of your movement during the night.

I found the watch tended to overestimate my sleep times, usually because it counted any time lying in bed before falling asleep – watching TV or reading, for example – as sleep. The movement graph is interesting, as are the general graphs, but it’s not something I felt the need to check much at all, and it’s lacking compared with the greater insight provided by Fitbit trackers.

The Vivoactive 3 is certainly comfortable enough to wear all night and it does a decent job of tracking sleep, but there’s not enough detail there to hold your interest after a few days.

RECOMMENDED: The Best Sleep Trackers

The Garmin Connect App

A recent update completely overhauled and massively improved the My Day homepage. There’s now a series of colourful, well-designed cards with info on heart rate, steps, intensity, stress, calories and sleep for past the 24 hours, along with in-depth info on any activities undertaken that day. Below these cards are ones summing up stats for yesterday and the past seven days.

All the cards are clickable and take you to more in-depth data and charts. It’s a smart balance of quick info and more detail.

RECOMMENDED: The Best Health And Fitness Apps

You can also set up workouts in the Garmin Connect app and sync them to the Vivoactive 3 wirelessly. You can create workouts for several different sports, including running, cycling, strength training and swimming. These aren’t just simple interval repeats, either – you can dive into detail and set up staged workouts where each step is run at a different pace, for example.

The Vivoactive 3 also syncs impressively quickly and automatically after you click done on the watch, and you can set up Garmin Connect to then send that activity on to other apps like Strava.

I can’t overstate how much the app is improved – it’s now a match for Fitbit’s impressive platform and a great deal better than Apple’s Activity app. Aside from popping into Strava to make sure you’re getting all the kudos you deserve for your activities, there’s now no need to leave the Garmin Connect app.

How Often Am I Going To Have To Charge It?

The official battery life of the Vivoactive 3 is seven days in smartwatch mode and 13 hours of GPS. In practice, I found that it lasted around three days, with commuting by bike and running most days quickly wearing it down. However, if you stick to one activity a day or do most of your workouts indoors, you’ll get five to seven days of use out of the Vivoactive 3.

It also charges very quickly indeed, going from single digits to 100% in about an hour, so it’s easy to get into a routine of plugging it in at work every few days.

Where Can I Wear It Without People Laughing At Me?

The Vivoactive 3 is designed to be worn everywhere, with a sleek, circular design that isn’t too bulky or overtly sporty. The cheaper version of the watch has a stainless steel bezel which some will like, but the slate bezel on the all-black version did it for us.

£279.99, buy on garmin.com (opens in new tab) | check price on amazon.co.uk (opens in new tab) 

Nick Harris-Fry is a journalist who has been covering health and fitness since 2015. Nick is an avid runner, covering 70-110km a week, which gives him ample opportunity to test a wide range of running shoes and running gear. He is also the chief tester for fitness trackers and running watches, treadmills and exercise bikes, and workout headphones.