Garmin Vivoactive 4s review: So many fitness features, so little time

Garmin created the best alternative to the Apple Watch when it came out with the Vivoactive 3 Music. For 2019, Garmin updated that device with the Vivoactive 4 series, which includes the 45mm Vivoactive 4 and the 40mm Vivoactive 4s. Minor hardware changes accompany equally minor smartwatch software changes in this device, but that’s because new fitness features steal the show.

Garmin added a ton of fitness improvements to this watch, including optional all-day pulse ox measurements, hydration tracking, new breathing exercises (that don’t suck), new custom workouts, on-screen animations, and more. Unsurprisingly, all those improvements add up to the Vivoactive 4’s $349 starting price, which is at least $100 more than what the Vivoactive 3 Music goes for nowadays.

Those features add a lot of value and push the Vivoactive 4 ahead of even the Apple Watch in terms of fitness, but I still have a soft spot for the Vivoactive 3 series—and plenty of happy users may skip this upgrade.

New hardware

I tested the 40mm Vivoactive 4s and immediately noticed the newly added sleek-and-shiny touches on the watch’s case. The circumference now has a thin casing of metal, and the two side buttons are metal as well. The Vivoactive 4s includes an additional side button for lap, back, and menu access, and while it took a few tries to get adjusted to the new input method, I was able to navigate the watch using it, the other side button, and the color touchscreen fairly easily.

The display itself is a backlit, transflective memory-in-pixel panel, which, in comparison to LCD panels, uses technology that allows it to consume less power. That’s one of the hardware factors that lets the Vivoactive 4s get up to seven days of battery life (by Garmin’s estimation). It has essentially the same quality as previous Vivoactive displays, so the watch face is always visible, and you won’t have trouble reading it while running outside in the sun.

While familiar, this display is in stark contrast to the AMOLED panel on the new Garmin Venu smartwatch, which was announced at the same time as the Vivoactive 4 series. That device, however, starts at $399 not only for its AMOLED panel, but also for some additional features that aren’t present on Vivoactive 4 devices (keep an eye out for Ars’ review of the Venu in the coming weeks). Thanks to that big hardware difference, the Venu will more closely compare to the Apple Watch Series 5.

Garmin Vivoactive 4

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Inside the Vivoactive 4s is a slew of fitness tracking sensors: accelerometer, gyroscope, altimeter, optical heart rate monitor, onboard GPS/Galileo/GLONASS, pulse ox, compass, and a thermometer. Both the heart rate monitor and the GPS have been updated to new sensors, so they should be even more accurate and more efficient than those in previous Garmin wearables. There’s also storage space on the Vivoactive 4s for music, and all Vivoactive 4 smartwatches have onboard music storage as a standard feature. That means you won’t pay extra for it like you had to when Garmin first introduced the Vivoactive 3 Music after the Vivoactive 3 had been available for a little while.

Garmin has improved its devices significantly over the past year or two when it comes to music storage. I had a “better late than never” attitude when Garmin finally added music storage to some of its wearables, and I was pleasantly surprised to see that the desktop interface for transferring tracks wasn’t as horrid as those of other smartwatch makers. Since then, Garmin has added support for downloading tracks and playlists from Deezer, iHeartRadio, Spotify, and Amazon Prime Music, so paying subscribers can download music to listen to while running (and using a pair of connected Bluetooth headphones) without their smartphones present.

Overall, I’d argue Garmin has a better system for downloading and playing music from a smartwatch than Apple does, and therefore the rest of the competition as well. While Apple makes it incredibly easy to pick tracks to sync and play music off of its watches, you’re limited to the music and other audio you have in your iTunes account and Apple Music (if you subscribe to the latter). It’s also very handy to use an LTE-equipped Apple Watch to stream Apple Music playlists while working out. But users aren’t locked in to one ecosystem with Garmin, and I’ll always prefer that over the alternative. Unfortunately, though, that means we will likely wait a long time for Apple Music integration to arrive on Garmin smartwatches—if it ever happens at all.

New software

All-day pulse ox

There are a lot of new fitness features on the Vivoactive 4s, but let’s start off by talking about one that directly affects battery life: optional all-day pulse ox. The SpO2 sensor inside the Vivoactive 4s allows it to measure the level of oxygen in your blood based off of heart rate and breathing data it collects. Most healthy people will see a pulse ox percentage close to 100 in the Garmin Connect app after the SpO2 sensors gather enough data, but percentages dramatically lower than that could signal health problems. Like most consumer wearables on the market today, the Vivoactive 4s isn’t a medical device, but it can capture useful information that users can share with their doctors who can then decide if there’s a problem that needs to be addressed.

On previous Garmin devices like the Vivosmart 4, pulse ox could be measured on the fly by users or enabled during sleep to capture more data over the course of the night. Now, you can enable continued pulse ox measurements all day long, and the Vivoactive 4 will periodically take readings throughout the day.

But this constant monitoring will dramatically reduce battery life, and unless you have a known problem with your blood oxygen levels that you want to monitor in a new way, I wouldn’t recommend it. For the first few days of testing the Vivoactive 4s, I enabled pulse ox during sleep, and I got roughly four days and four nights of battery life out of the smartwatch. That’s a little more than half of Garmin’s estimated battery life for the device in smartwatch mode (up to seven days). It’s still a good battery life for a wearable by normal standards, but you will have to charge the Vivoactive 4s about twice a week if you choose to enable pulse ox while sleeping.

I still believe pulse ox information isn’t necessary for most users, but it’s encouraging to see Garmin include an SpO2 sensor in nearly all of its new wearables and actually use it. Fitbit has been touting the SpO2 sensor found in almost all of its wearables introduced since the Ionic, but the sensor isn’t active in any Fitbit devices—and there’s no telling when Fitbit will put it to use.

Custom workouts and animations

The Vivoactive 4s, being on the expensive side, tracks a number of workouts including indoor and outdoor running, walking, and cycling, skiing, yoga, pilates, rowing, elliptical workouts, and more. The strength, cardio, yoga, and pilates workout profiles now support animations, so when you’re completing a pre-made workout downloaded from Garmin Connect, you’ll see human animations on the watch screen showing you how to complete each exercise.

This is a new feature for Garmin, but other wearables like those from Fitbit have had these for a while now. Garmin’s animations actually look like people, which is a nice change of pace from the colorful stick figures you typically see in workout animations. Animations stay on the screen for a few seconds so you can see how to properly do the exercises as you complete Garmin’s prefab routines (each workout profile that has animations also has a few prefab workouts you can complete). Animations like these make it easier for anyone to do any type of exercise—sure, you can look up how to do an exercise in your smartphone, but it’s much more convenient to have instructions on your watch exactly when you need them. It’s also great that Garmin includes three to five prefab routines in these workout profiles because it gives every user free workout routines that they can complete any time.

You can also create custom routines for yoga and pilates workouts in Garmin Connect as an expansion of Garmin’s customized workout feature. This lets you build a workout routine from scratch, specifying the exercise you want in your warmup, practice, and cool down stages, along with the time duration for each exercise, how you want to initiate a rest period, and more.

It’s one of my favorite features that Garmin has on its wearables because it lets the most independent users take more control over the workouts they track with the Vivoactive 4s and glean data and results that are even more accurate and personalized to them. The only unfortunate thing about it is that custom-made workouts do not support on-screen animations, so you’ll have to know how to do the exercise you’re adding to your personalized routine.

My experience tracking any of these workouts was excellent, like it has been when I’ve used most other Garmin wearables. The optical heart rate monitor is accurate, within 5 BPM of Polar’s H10 chest strap, and the GPS took about 15 to 30 seconds to capture my location. You can start an outdoor workout before the GPS finds you as well, so you don’t have to wait when you’re itching to start your morning run.

Breathwork and more

Garmin expanded its guided breathing exercise feature with the new Breathwork workout profile that’s now included in the workout menu. Previously, Garmin’s guided breathing exercises were just like all the others on competing fitness trackers—using vibrations and screen animations, the device walked you through basic deep breathing exercises when you wanted a moment of zen. Now, Garmin has programmed different breathing techniques into the Breathwork workout profile so you can choose to complete a session focusing on tranquility, coherence, or relaxation and focus.

The various techniques do have different types of breathing instructions and durations of time breathing in and out. How scientific are these exercises? I cannot say. But I can say that it’s encouraging to see Garmin not simply following what other companies have done, which is stick a cookie-cutter guided breathing feature onto a wearable and call it a day. Instead, the company tried to make a fairly ubiquitous feature unique, and that’s something that Garmin has consistently done over the years with their wearables. I don’t use the guided breathing features on wearables often, but I’ll probably use Garmin’s Breathwork workout profile more than usual because I’m not forced into the typical boring, 3-minute breathe-in-breathe-out routine.

There are a few other software updates to note on the Vivoactive 4s: Garmin added a new health stats widget that’s similar to the one on the Fenix series that shows real-time heart rate, body battery, stress level, and respiration data on the screen. Like all other widgets, you can reorder it in the sequence (all are accessible by swiping up from the bottom of the touchscreen) or remove it entirely. There’s also a new hydration widget that lets you log cups of water you’ve had to drink with just a few taps.

Finally, I much appreciate the added shortcut that’s accessible by swiping to the right from the watch face. This is basically a customizable screen where you can program one of your most-used apps, including Garmin Pay, timer, stopwatch, music controls, flashlight, and more. While I use timers more than I use any of the other options, a Garmin representative explained that this new feature came about to help users who wanted quicker access to their wallet for Garmin Pay. I would love to be able to program more than one shortcut and access all of them by swiping up from the first shortcut screen, but for now, you can only choose one app for the shortcut page, so choose wisely.

Same good (and bad) things

As mentioned above, all of the Vivoactive 4 wearables support NFC payments with Garmin Pay, and music storage is now a standard feature. Music may have come late to the Vivoactive 3, but now both the music and non-music models of that device cost $249. I’m happy to see Garmin make music storage a standard feature on most devices above $200—the desktop program that downloads tracks and playlists could still use some work, but it’s leaps and bounds better than Fitbit’s desktop app.

The companion Android and iOS app, Garmin Connect, remains somewhat bloated, but it’s mostly due to all the data Garmin devices can track and all the settings users have to customize. I still like the app’s homepage, which puts all your most recent health and activity data front and center, but it can still be hard to find where you can create custom workouts, where you can view activity insights, and the like.

But Garmin Connect is slightly less bloated now that Garmin made the Connect IQ app store its own app. This happened back in April, and it puts all the available third-party apps, watch faces, data fields, and widgets you can download for your wearable in a separate app that looks like a bare-bones version of the old Apple App Store (before the most recent redesign).

Most users will download Connect IQ to get new watch faces and possibly a few apps like Spotify or Amazon Music. Otherwise, the selection remains stagnant—there aren’t a ton of Connect IQ apps, and most of them (unsurprisingly) focus on fitness, outdoor activities, and sports. Garmin has a number of its own programs you can download from the Connect IQ app, and most of them appear to be extra features that the company chose not to make standard. For example, you can download a menstrual tracking widget the puts a circular cycle chart on your wrist and accompanies the optional cycle alerts you can receive.

My biggest gripe with the Connect IQ app is that it takes a long time to download and install watch faces and programs. The app connects to Garmin Connect so your chosen wearable appears at the top-right corner of the screen. After you select the watch face or program you want, you have to sync the device with Garmin Connect again before you can see anything new. It took me a few syncs to see some new watch faces I downloaded in my watch face queue, and those syncing periods often took longer than I anticipated. Fitbit OS apps and watch faces have the same issue, and inefficiencies like this help the Apple Watch, with its nearly instantaneous syncing, stand out among the competition.

The Apple Watch also stands out as a supremely intuitive device, and Garmin devices still don’t quite match up. The Apple Watch is not the best wearable for everyone, but it makes itself the best option for many iPhone users because watchOS is so deeply integrated and similar to iOS. Garmin’s wearables, and Fitbit’s and those of other companies, don’t have that bridge connecting them to every user—being compatible with multiple operating systems has its pros and cons. What Garmin devices lack in intuitiveness they make up for in fitness features, which is more in-line with Garmin’s brand as a whole.

Refined, but not best for everyone

I thought it would be hard for Garmin to top the Vivoactive 3 Music. It’s a wearable that does almost everything users would want, from a smart perspective and a fitness perspective, and it works with both Android and iOS. And with its $249 price tag, it offers a lot more than other smartwatches at that same price point.

Does the Vivoactive 4s top the Vivoactive 3 Music? Not in the most common sense of the phrase. It’s certainly more capable than the Vivoactive 3 Music, and unfortunately it will remain that way because there will be no trickle-down of features to the Vivoactive 3 Music. That means all the new features that came with the Vivoactive 4 series will never make it to the Vivoactive 3 Music in a software update.

But just because it’s more capable doesn’t mean it’s better in every single way, or better for every single user. If the new features explained in this review aren’t as important to use as the core features of the Vivoactive 3 Music are, you don’t need to upgrade to the Vivoactive 4 or spend the extra $100 if you’re investing in your first wearable. Garmin still sells the Vivoactive 3 Music (for how much longer, I’m not sure), and it remains a solid competitor to the Apple Watch, the Fitbit Ionic, and all other top-tier, mainstream smartwatches.

But if you want your wearable to work harder for you, particularly in the health and fitness department, the Vivoactive 4 is a good option. It’s more well-rounded in features than Forerunner smartwatches, and it’s nowhere near as expensive as Fenix devices, making it a solid, mid-tier fitness watch for those who are more active than most.

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