One thing is certain for 2014– activity monitor/tracking devices are huge! Everyone and their cousin is releasing a new wearable piece of technology, even old players like Garmin. Though Garmin is no newbie to the fitness segment, the release of their new Garmin Vivofit Fitness Band is their first contender in the quickly crowding activity tracking sub-segment. As they stray from their GPS sport/watch devices into this new spectrum they come into competition with the Fitbit Flex and Fitbit Force, two of the industry leaders … so let’s see how they stack up against the best!
UPDATE (6/22/2014): After some months I decided to go back and revisit the Vivofit. This time picking up a brand new blue unit and testing it properly. While the review below remains one of the most popular hits on my site, I urge you to check out the newer FULL REVIEW HERE!!!
WARNING: The review you are about to read may be construed as being half-baked. Perhaps the name of this blog post should actually be “Why I’m NOT going to buy a Garmin Vivofit Fitness Band just yet” — but yeah, this review contains data rehashed from other reviews and parsed into my own comparison below. Hate me for doing that all you want — the consistency behind the other reviews make me confident in my findings. Just remember this is a blog and hence what you are about to read is indeed primarily MY opinion. Enjoy!
#1 – FITBIT FORCE
There is no doubt in my mind that the Fitbit Force is (was?) the best device on the market today. I’ve written time and time again (see HERE and HERE) in various comparisons and shootouts explaining my reasons. Let’s take a moment in this new comparison to see if it still reigns supreme against some new competition.
First, it has the best display of the three devices, visible in virtually all ambient conditions, bright or dark. This trumps the non-back-lit Garmin and also adds visibility over the display-less Flex to things like the time of day, accrued steps, and so forth. Secondly, even though it doesn’t have the year-long battery life touted by the Garmin, it does have 3-4 days more than the Flex. Charging is only needed roughly once every 10 days, which I do not personally find a huge inconvenience. And thirdly the Force tracks steps (flights of stairs) which neither of the other two devices currently provide.
Then there is the matter of software, both on a mobile device and web portal. When it comes to their iOS or Android software, Fitbit offer the best experience on both platforms. Not to mention their web dashboard is excellent, smooth, and refined. I’ve seen nothing but complaints about most of the other apps/dashboards with only the Jawbone software being ranked similarly to Fitbit. Flaky software is not new to me, as this is something that I’d witnessed first hand back when I wrote my comparison to the Polar Loop and quickly discovered bad sync issues. Recent reviews of that device indicate those still exist, and DC Rainmaker‘s review of the Garmin indicate it too suffers from poor software.
Beyond the superb software experience of the Fibtit there is the matter of sync. Both the Force and Flex from Fitbit provide background sync to your Bluetooth device. In comparison the Garmin requires you manually press a button on the device to begin a sync. While this is hardly a big issue it does require the user to remember to sync on the Garmin, and failure to do so could result in lost data if too long a period goes between sync sessions.
All of this adds up to the Force being the best option for a wrist-worn device with a display, but sadly around 2% of users of the Fitbit Force were having skin-related rash issues. This resulted in a full-scale recall of the Fitbit Force just days ago (see full details HERE). That means the unit is not available for sale at the time of this post, though hopefully it will return to the market soon. Which is a shame because it was far-and-away the best device for the money.
It is worth noting that I have personally NEVER experienced any skin irritation issues with my Force, nor have any of my half dozen friends who own the exact same device. For the time being I’ll continue to retain my Force until something better comes along. Maybe Fitbit will re-releases the Force in some cool color options for me to upgrade to!
#2 – FITBIT FLEX
With the Force not available the Flex jumps up to my top pick, sitting at the #2 spot for the purpose of this comparison. For as much as I love my Force, my wife loves her Flex just as much (both our devices are pictured above). Many sites rank the Fitbit Flex as the best device on the market because of the cost. For most folks the $99 price point is a sweet spot, where buyers find spending more than $100 is hard for them to wrap their heads around for a “fancy pedometer” device. I think that perception will change over time, and prices will continue drop as well.
Should you already wear a watch then the Flex is nice because it is sporty and stylish without being bulky or redundant. And with the Tory Burch for Fitbit line just around the corner we are just at the start of a new collision between wearables and fashion. My prediction is that this “fashionable wearables” market will explode in the next 12-18 months, with brand names of all sizes joining in. Exciting times are yet ahead!
Beyond the obvious price benefits that the Flex offers over the Force or the Vivofit, there are other advantages as well. For starters it is water resistant to 10 meters, which is better than the Force, but 40 meters less than the Garmin. You also have silent alarms (vibrations) on both of the Fitbit devices but not on the Garmin. And while the Flex lacks a display, it at least offers an “activity mode” (stop-watch) function to record activities. You can later review these sessions on the web dashboard, providing visibility to steps taken, distance traveled and time spent. This could be helpful if you were, for example, going for a run and want to see that data. (You can get similar data from the Garmin but that requires a heart rate monitor– more on that in a moment)
Lastly, the Fitbit products allow food tracking and integrate nicely with third party options such as MyFitnessPal. At the moment the Garmin offers neither. Perhaps it will in the future, but for now the lack of such makes the Fitbit better, especially if you are trying to compare caloric intake versus output, such as dieting or weight gain/loss goals.
The Fitbit Flex is not without some faults, and is perhaps out of its element here a bit due to the only device listed with no display. In that regard it is most closely related to the JAWBONE UP24, which is a device still plagued by quality control issues that began in the prior UP devices. And at $50 cheaper then the UP24, the Flex is the best display-less unit.
Still the focus of this review is the Garmin, so as we jump up to devices with a display that are also wrist worn the three most aggressive contenders are the Fitbit Force, the Polar Loop, and the Garmin Vivofit.
#3 – GARMIN VIVOFIT
Since being recently released the Garmin Vivofit Fitness Band has managed to amass its fair share of reviews. Though I’ve not yet laid my hands on the device I still feel I’ve been able to assess some of the pros and cons of the device, thanks to reviews such as those from Engadget, DC Rainmaker, and Tom’s Guide just to name a few. And if there is one thing I’ve been able to take away from those reviews it is that the Garmin is really quite similar to the Polar Loop, featuring many of the same benefits, and plagued by many of the same shortcomings. So my views here will compare the Loop, the Flex, and the Vivofit.
Side Note: There are other wrist-worn devices, such as the Nike+ FuelBand SE. However the price and features of the Garmin are most akin to the Polar Loop. And since I still think the Flex is still the best option out there is why I opted to include the Fitbit line in this review. I’m adding some references to the Polar Loop for obvious reasons.
Assuming that you read the entire article up until this point then you already know that the Garmin has the best water resistance depth, the display lacks a back light feature, and there is no vibration motor for alarms. It also lacks automated sync, even though it does sport Bluetooth capabilities. With the Fitbit Force currently off the market the closest competitor here is the Polar Loop, a device I spent plenty of time playing around with HERE. Both the Loop and Vivofit are quite similar, allowing you to link up a heart rate monitor during a workout to log data if that is your thing.
Side Note: Polar says the Loop can hold 12-days of data, though it doesn’t mention how that might sway depending on length of heart rate sessions. In comparison the Vivofit stores up to 3 weeks of 24/7 activity data on device between syncs, or up to 2 weeks if a heart rate monitor is used 1 hr/day. Keeping this in mind you would need to make sure to sync your Vivofit manually at least once every 2-3 weeks or risk losing data. Always save often!
Initial reviews of the Garmin refer to the web dashboard as “annoying” and the software is noted as otherwise being sub-par compared to the competition. Some reviews even said the Android app seemed stale or outdated. Beyond that they also often make mention of the quality of hardware materials as being “cheap-feeling” and quite “plastic” in nature. However, the clasp is noted as being more secure than the Fitbit, and I’ll admit my Force has fallen off at least 3 times in as many weeks recently. In comparison, my wife’s Flex has never fallen off, FYI.
Even if you can get past these matters there is the issue of cost. They start at $130 for just the unit, but jump another $50 if you add the heart rate monitor. At those prices I’d argue that the Polar H7 and the Wahoo Fitness Blue HR are better purchases for an HRM, especially because they are Bluetooth and can then be paired with your smart phone. You get better features/function using software on a smart device (plus that gorgeous big screen you already have), versus just a small display on your wrist.
If you really want to record your heart rate and have a smart phone my suggestion is to buy a cheaper activity monitor like a Fitbit Flex, Fitbit Zip, or a Withings Pulse and compliment it with one of those two HRMs above. For more details on software I suggest for heart monitoring please check out my review HERE.
If you are reading this post you’re probably already willing to spend over $100 and chances are you like the idea of a unit with a display. If you came here because of your interest in the Garmin Vivofit then you may also be interested in heart rate monitoring during a workout. So, what do I suggest and why? Here goes… drum roll please ….
If you’re a skeptic with no past experience in fitness wearables, who is perhaps still not yet entirely sold on a “fancy pedometer” — I’d suggest the Fitbit Flex, or Fitbit Zip. Those are good starters, and if you later want to add heart rate monitoring then proceed to check out the Polar H7 and the Wahoo Fitness Blue HR and link those up to your smartphone. This gives you the best activity monitor brand AND the best heart monitors currently on the market today.
If you’re gung-ho about fitness and price is no hurdle, then the Garmin Vivofit may be the right option for you. If you want an all-in-one device that can monitor your heart without needing your phone, don’t mind the lack of a back-light and/or have no need for silent alarms, give it a whirl. (and go with a bold color, it makes for great conversation starters!)
(the Polar Loop remains a good option too, save for the poor battery life and lack of 3rd party integration — but if you find yourself leaning towards the Garmin, keep the Loop in mind too)
If you are not in a rush, you may want to wait. First, the Force will eventually return to the market. But also just around the corner is a smattering of new devices currently in development (see bottom of THIS page) (also note their favorite device is the same as mine!). I’m personally excited about the Razer Nabu as it should prove to blend smart watch and fitness tracking into a bold new device. I’m also curious to see how the LG Lifeband works, especially coupled with their heart rate monitor earbuds in development.
So why didn’t I buy the Garmin for deeper testing? Because it doesn’t integrate with MFP, lacks silent alarms, and has no backlit display. Those are three features I use DAILY with my Fitbit Force and just cannot live without. For me then the best of both worlds is still a Fitbit Force and a nice heart rate monitor linked to my phone.
For many users the Garmin Vivofit will prove a great value, with or without the heart rate monitor. As always I suggest you collect as much data possible and buy the evice which most aligns with your personal needs. Good luck and may you find a healthier tomorrow! Ciao… – Ari