Hands-on review: CES 2014: Garmin Vivofit review

Garmin Vivofit is rerouting the incredible short battery life of wearable gadgets by launching an always-on fitness tracker that lasts more than a year on a single charge.

We were able to wear the Vivofit fitness band without wearing down the battery at CES 2014 and quickly discovered that its secret is eschewing a backlight on its curved LCD screen and using some low-power efficiency tricks.

That’s pretty amazing given the fact that leading fitness trackers, like the Fitbit Force and Nike FuelBand SE, require recharging every seven days if you’re lucky. They also require pushing a tiny button in order to read the time, daily step count, distance and calories. Vivofit displays all of this information without the need to press anything at all. Its single button is just used to cycle through the data.

Even better, the Garmin Vivofit specs indicate that the battery is actually two user-replaceable CR1632 coin cells. Going down to the drugstore to buy these new batteries once a year would be an easier routine than constantly having to charge the device.

Of course, the obvious downside to having an always-on display with no backlight is that it’s impossible to read the time and fitness metrics in the dark. So while it’s convenient to see the time and steps you’ve taken in a day just by simply looking down at your wrist, that’s only possible in lit environments.

Garmin Vivofit band

Metrics, inactivity bar

The waterproof Vivofit calculates steps, goal countdown, distance traveled, calories burned and sleep quality and it displays the time of day. It’s also compatible with Garmin’s heart rate monitor to determine your heart rate and heart rate zone. The company plans on bundling the two for quantified self enthusiasts who want the full metrics package.

Just as unique as its long-lasting battery life, the Vivofit includes an on-screen inactivity bar. That kicks in after you’ve been still for an hour. The red inactivity bar grows from left to right at the top of the LCD screen, giving you an always-on visual cue to get up and move your lazy bones.

“Sitting is the smoking of this generation,” a Garmin spokesperson espoused during our demo with the fitness band. “And you don’t even realize that you’re doing it. The inactivity bar is a visual cue that keeps you accountable.” Moving around and walking for two or three minutes will quell the red danger-colored bar.

Garmin Vivofit band

Healthy competition

More motivation may come from the Garmin Connect and leaderboard software. This Android and iOS compatible fitness tracker uploads data through a smartphone or the tiny USB ANT nub that comes with the Vivofit. Like other fitness bands out there, this device requires holding its single button to sync steps, calories, goals, etc, to the app’s customizable widgets.

Its leaderboards can always drive you to walk further because they’re initially public. This means that you’re pitted in weekly trials against other fitness-enthusiasts in the same time zone and who are speaking the same language.

Garmin’s leaderboard widget solves an issue that plagues the Fitbit Force and Nike FuelBand – you want to engage in “healthy competition,” but not enough of your friends have the same activity tracker. This stacks the leaders, even if you don’t know them. It’s also easy to opt out in case this doesn’t interest you.

Band interchangeable

Look, feel and sizes

The Vivofit comes in five colors: black, purple, teal, blue and slate. There are no red, yellow or true green colors as part of the lineup. However, each order does come with two sized bands; small measures 4.7 in to 6.9 in and large fits anywhere from 6.0 in to 8.3 in.

Since the actual Vivofit hardware inside the band is interchangeable, you can order additional colors and switch it out if you’re fashion conscious and always need to match. The band is a soft rubber, much like the Fitbit Force and Fitbit Flex, which is contrary to the stiffer rubber material found in the Nike FuelBand SE and forthcoming Razer Nabu.

Vivofit is waterproof up to 50 meters, so yes, you can use the Garmin Vivofit while swimming in a pool, the ocean or just showering. Just don’t expected to get many steps with these activities.

Garmin Vivofit Connect

Price, availability

Garmin Vivofit is on sale right now as a pre-order on the map company’s website for $129 (£99, about AU$145) and with the heart rate monitor included, it’s $169 (£139, about AU$190).

The Vivofit release date is five to eight weeks out, according to the US shipping dates on the pre-order website. Officially, Garmin will only say that it’ll start launching worldwide in the first quarter of this year in the US and UK, while the Australian release date is set for the second quarter.

Garmin Vivofit vs Fitbit Force vs Nike FuelBand

Early Verdict

Garmin is a GPS navigation company taking a new direction in the wearable fitness market. Sure, it peddled cycling monitors and running watches for over a decade now, but Vivofit represents its first attempt at a more mainstream device.

CES 2014 has made it evident that the wearable market is becoming saturated. Vivofit stands out with its year-long battery life and always-on display. Always-on is really convenient if you’re running and want to keep a constant watch of your steps without pressing a tiny button every 100 paces. It’s just not backlit as a result.