Smartwatches try to get us away from our smartphone screens, but ironically, a smartwatch’s screen is one of the most important things about it. While plenty of materials have been used in smartwatch displays (including E-Ink, RIP Pebble), OLED and AMOLED panels have become ubiquitous on high-end wearables.
But Garmin, maker of some of the most comprehensive fitness wearables available, hasn’t taken advantage of such screen technology until now.
The $399 Garmin Venu is the first of the company’s wearables to have an AMOLED display akin to that on the Apple Watch and some WearOS devices.
While it’s an extension of the Vivoactive family, the Venu injects a premium feel that Garmin will clearly use to attract those who are drawn to competitors like the Apple Watch. However, just because the Venu looks lovely doesn’t mean Garmin has found ways to use that pretty panel to the best of its abilities.
Look and feel
Unlike other Garmin wearables, the Venu only comes in one size—its case is about 43mm, making it feel a bit larger on my wrist than I was used to. I typically review and prefer the “s” models of Garmin’s wearables, which tend to be 40mm in size.
But even so, the Venu isn’t heavy on my wrist at 46.3 grams, and anyone who has familiarity with Garmin devices will know how to use it. In addition to its touchscreen, it has two side buttons for accessing the workout menu, navigating back on the screen, and opening the tools and settings menus.
The 20mm watch bands are interchangeable, and its underside shows the optical heart rate monitor as well as its proprietary charging nodes (at this point, I’ve all but given up on wearables having more common charging ports. Any wearable worth its weight is somewhat water-resistant, and water and USB-C ports don’t mix).
AMOLED and live watch faces
Almost everything about the Venu is standard Garmin—except for the AMOLED display. The 1.2-inch, 390 x 390 round panel is just as high-quality as you would expect, with deep blacks and rich colors that the new watch faces show off nicely. The display doesn’t extend all the way to the case edges, but rather there’s a relatively slim black bezel that sits between those two elements. It’s not as chunky as I’ve seen on other devices, so it didn’t take away from my experience using the display, but just know that it’s not an edge-to-edge panel.
Garmin’s group of new watch faces look lovely on the AMOLED display, and some of them include live animations as well. If you choose a face with an animation, you’ll see it every time you turn your wrist upward to check the time. Most are pretty abstract, like a wave of a textured pattern or glitter falling from the top of the face, but they are fun nonetheless. The animations aren’t the most seamless, though—when the display turns on, going from black to full graphics, I saw a second or so of loading/stuttering in the pixels that show the animation.
Like the Apple Watch Series 5, the Venu has an optional always-on mode that will keep the display running and visible even when your wrist is turned away from you. This makes it easier to glance down and check the time without actually turning your wrist upward to do so.
But the execution is different in the Venu than on the Apple Watch. At its core, it works almost the same, but users will see different things on each device. On the Apple Watch, you’ll see the time and, depending on your device settings, information like the weather, the number of unread text messages, and more displayed through complications.
The Venu, by contrast, only shows the time when the screen is in always-on mode and turned downward, regardless of the complications on your selected watch face. Garmin’s complications are not as rich as Apple’s in the first place—limited information that’s not related to the time, date, and your activity levels that can be displayed. Garmin does let you customize watch faces directly on the device, which is cool and convenient, but you can only include a maximum of three complications to any one watch face, and most of those info areas show fitness data like heart rate, number of steps taken, and more.
So you’ll only be able to glance down to check the time on the Venu. The watch face also completely disappears, unlike on the Apple Watch where your selected watch face will invert colors or morph slightly so it consumes less power. Garmin didn’t include such reconfiguration, so the display just defaults to a black background when the always-on screen isn’t facing you. While that’s a valid and simple solution to the problem of excess battery drain, it’s not as visually interesting as Apple’s solution to the same problem.
The display settings on the Venu let you do things like turn on or off always-on mode, adjust display brightness, and more. I particularly like the timeout setting, which you can change to adjust the amount of time after which you want the display to turn off when not in always-on mode. You can also set a specific display behavior while working out, so the Venu could have always-on mode turned off for regular use but on during workout mode. In that particular scenario, you’ll always be able to see your workout stats with the display turned on while you’re working out, but as soon as you finish that training session, the display will time out according to your preferred timeout setting.
One of my favorite features on Garmin wearables is the sleep mode that automatically turns on Do Not Disturb. During the Venu’s initial setup in Garmin Connect, you’re asked what time you normally go to bed and when you wake up. You’re then asked if you want to receive alerts during this time, and if you choose no, the device will automatically enable Do Not Disturb mode when it assumes you’re sleeping.
The always-on display will also follow this lead, automatically disabling during your sleep window. You may be surprised how many times wearables have woken me up because they didn’t have such a feature, but Garmin devices never have this problem. I’m glad Garmin figured out a seamless way to integrate always-on mode so it doesn’t disturb any wearer’s slumber.
What the display does, and what we wished it did
My natural assumption was that the Garmin Venu, with a display that’s close in quality to the Apple Watch and other smartwatches, would make use of that display with new graphics, animations, and other visual features. Garmin did this somewhat but didn’t take things as far as I hoped it would. The new live watch faces with animations will likely be the way most users take advantage of the new screen the most, purely because the watch face is what you’ll see on the device most of the time.
Exercise animations also look a bit nicer on the AMOLED display. These on-screen animations provide visual instructions on how to complete an exercise for cardio, yoga, pilates, and strength routines, making it easier for novices to learn moves while they work out. The animations have the same smoothness as they did on the Vivoactive 4s, but now these active, faceless humans appear more vibrant thanks to more colorful clothing. Animations on the Venu remind me most of animations on Fitbit’s Versa 2, although I do like Garmin’s execution better because they are more than just simple stick figures.
Connecting the Venu to your Spotify account will now show album art on the smartwatch’s display, which is a nice touch. The Breathwork workout profile also uses color in a predictable way—a gradient of color slowly expands and contracts as you’re instructed to breathe in and out.
Lots of room to improve
Otherwise, the UI of Garmin’s wearable software is exactly the same as it is on devices without AMOLED displays. That’s to say that the UI design doesn’t lean heavily on graphics. The My Day widgets, accessible by swiping up from the bottom of the display, still only include small icons next to each data point. Heart rate, intensity minutes, and other time-tracked data are still shown as line graphs with scarce splashes of color throughout.
The workout menu still uses small stick-figure icons to show each type of exercise, although now each icon is surrounded in a glow of color that you can customize to your liking. During a workout, you’ll still have to swipe between data screens to see information, including heart rate, duration, pace, and more, and those screens are almost all black and white. Upon finishing a workout, the ending screen with a summary of your stats is also black with white text, the only bits of color being green and red semi-circles that indicate you should swipe down to save or swipe up to discard.
Even move reminders and goal alerts don’t look very different from those on the Vivoactive 4s and other LCD-paneled devices. If anything, the existing animations look bolder and more fluid on the AMOLED display, but none have been completely redesigned to add exciting twists. Extra animation and color is sprinkled throughout, albeit sparsely, which is disappointing when you consider the technology the Venu has at its disposal.
It always seemed like Garmin’s wearable software UI was constrained by hardware limitations, namely the LCD screens that were built for readability and battery efficiency, but I’m not sure that’s the case anymore. It doesn’t appear Garmin spent a lot of time figuring out what it could have the Venu do with its new screen that would make it stand out among the competition or just add to its value as a $399 smartwatch.
The reason may also lie in Garmin’s desire to keep the Venu’s battery life as good as it could possibly be. It’s likely that many of the decisions that resulted in a fairly basic-looking UI for Garmin smartwatches help the devices last for multiple days on a single charge. Those decisions are helping the Venu do just that in this case and are complemented by the internal reconfigurations Garmin had to do to account for the power consumption that the AMOLED display would inevitably draw.
And I was impressed with the Venu’s battery life. The smartwatch was down to 23% after a full 48 hours of use under these conditions:
Clearly Garmin developed the technology inside the Venu to be as battery efficient as possible, and the company should be applauded for that. The Venu likely has the longest battery life of any smartwatch with an AMOLED display; Garmin estimates it will get up to five days in smartwatch mode, but I expect it could be more than that if you disable always-on display mode.
But even if most smartwatches with lovely displays have a lot of black, empty space on those panels, I’m hoping Garmin will give its software UI an overhaul in the future. Both the Apple Watch Series 5 and Samsung’s Galaxy Watch Active 2 use color in more interesting ways and allow photos to liven up the display, too. Take, for example, watchOS’ activity rings: they act as an easy visual aid that encourages daily goal completion, and they use color in ways that Garmin’s UI doesn’t even come close to. Samsung’s Tizen uses color similarly with a heart-shaped icon that’s divided into different colors to show how much of your daily calorie, steps, and other goals you’ve completed. Elements like these make a wearable UI more interesting as well as more interactive, and currently Garmin’s UI doesn’t have a lot of that.
A note about activity tracking
I’ve focused so much on the display in this review because the Venu does everything that the Garmin Vivoactive 4s does. All of the new fitness features found in the Vivoactive 4s are included on the Venu, and all of the Venu’s exclusive features revolve around its display.
That being said, my experience using the Venu as a fitness watch was just as good as that with the Vivoactive 4s. Its heart rate monitor and GPS are accurate, and it has space for onboard music and NFC for Garmin Pay. I’m disappointed that Garmin didn’t add onboard, color map views to the Venu because it would be convenient to see your run route mapped out on the Venu’s big, bold display right after finishing a training session.
With arguably the most important part of the Venu’s experience being the same as another Garmin wearable, the Venu’s $399 price becomes a more interesting topic for discussion. Garmin clearly wants it to be an alternative to the $399 Apple Watch Series 5, and it could very well be a better device for those who want a more robust fitness watch (the Apple Watch is the best for most iPhone users with money to spend, but definitely not the best for everyone.)
But if you’re choosing between the Venu and the Vivoactive 4s, you’ll essentially pay $50 extra for the Venu’s AMOLED display. A part of me is glad that it’s only $50 more, but another part of me believes the Venu should be priced at $349 just like the rest of the Vivoactive 4 series. It takes more advanced (and likely more expensive) technology to get that AMOLED display onto the Venu, but when it’s as underutilized as it is in this case, it will not add enough value for some to warrant the price bump.
A wasted opportunity but hope for the future
The most important thing about the Garmin Venu is that it exists—Garmin finally made a wearable with an AMOLED display that can stand up to other all-purpose smartwatches. It has been a long time coming, and I honestly was never sure if Garmin would make a device like that. It’s exciting because that means we could see OLED and AMOLED displays come to other Garmin wearables in the future.
But the Venu suffers from first-device syndrome in that it’s not as fully realized of an AMOLED smartwatch as it could have been. Now, it may have the hardware components to stand up to Apple Watches and Galaxy Watches, but the software component isn’t at the same level as those competitors. Garmin’s software is one reason why many athletes and fitness enthusiasts choose the company’s wearables, so I don’t foresee a major shift in overall strategy in the future.
However, I do believe Garmin can make its software more AMOLED-friendly by using more exciting graphics and animations while also maintaining the stellar battery life that the Venu currently has. Garmin wearables may never be as intuitive as Apple’s or Samsung’s because they aren’t as closely tied to a smartphone OS, but the company can certainly make the experience of using a $399 smartwatch feel more appropriate. If users can get the exact same software experience on a $350 device as they can on a $399 device, most users (who are not display sticklers) will likely choose the more affordable option.