BATTLE! – Apple Watch Sport versus Fitbit Surge versus Garmin Vivoactive

With the release of the Apple Watch the grey area between fitness activity trackers and smart watches has blurred more than ever before.  Just as when PDAs blended into smart phones over a decade ago, we’re already starting to see more of these “smart” features migrate into all wearables.  Right now the Apple Watch Sport, Garmin Vivoactive, and Fitbit Surge all attempt to capture the same potential audience, but with uniquely different features.  Which is right for you?

It would be a huge disservice to all three of these devices to say they are the same.  They’re not, as we will get to in a moment.  That is most obvious when you consider that the Apple Watch in Stainless Steel costs twice as much at entry form, and up to four times as much.  (And yes a gold version that is 40x more pricey!).  But let’s be fair here- if you’re considering the $249 Garmin Vivoactive or equally price Fitbit Surge, then chances are the Apple unit that you’d consider is the $349 38mm (or $399 42mm) Apple Watch Sport.

So the question you’re most likely going to ask yourself is this: should I spend $100 more to get the Apple Watch over the Garmin or Fitbit?  In truth the answer is easy- YES!  You will get more than $100 worth of value out of that upgrade.  But the problem is this: not everyone can enjoy those benefits.

First off, the Apple Watch Sport (or any Apple Watch for that matter) requires you have an iPhone.  If you’re an Android user then check out THIS REVIEW for the best three devices you can snatch up in this segment right now.  Secondly, even if you own an iPhone, the device still requires an iPhone 5, 5c, 5s, 6, or 6 Plus and iOS 8.2 or later.  If you’ve got an older iOS device, that same review is where you should go.

Now at this point I could just end the review, because I’ve already stated my opinion.  But instead I’ll back it up with some quick pros/cons of each device, finishing with the Apple Watch Sport, which I’ve been wearing for a few weeks.  And I’ll explain what it does better (and yes, in some cases worse) than the Garmin Vivoactive and Fitbit Surge.  Then you can decide for yourself! 🙂

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GARMIN VIVOACTIVE

When I first tested the Garmin Vivoactive I was quickly impressed with its light weight, comfortable feel and long battery life.  It can last weeks without GPS turned on, which bests the Fitbit and Apple here.  It manages this by ditching the onboard heart rate monitor, requiring you to wear a chest or arm strap when you want to record HRM.  For many that is a deal breaker, if you don’t want to reach for a second device when you workout.

If you’re serious about training, the Garmin is bested perhaps only by the Polar M400 which has a similar feature set.  However, I personally like what Garmin offers in the Vivoactive over the M400.  If you swim the Garmin is your best option given it is the only unit that truly is waterproof for that sport/activity.  (Though there are reports popping up indicating that the Apple Watch may be more water-resistant than stated).  Still, the Garmin is the only device with the manufacturer’s blessing for swimming.

When it comes to alerts, the Garmin is better than the Fitbit, as I talked about in that aforementioned review.  And when it comes to size, comfort, and style, I prefer the Garmin over the Fitbit, too.  But the omission of a heart rate sensor onboard means you actually have to spend more money to get the same features as the Surge.  Unless you swim, I’d still push folks towards the surge.  But in this lineup, that actually looks a little different.

If you are training, or want the best feedback from your workouts, the Garmin system is still the best.  You can add their amazing GPS based products (i.e.: cycling computers), and they provide feedback similar to Polar.  Sure you’ll get some nice info back from Fitbit and Apple, but you can’t view it at the granular level that Garmin’s Connect OS provides.  But serious athletes already know this, and chances are have a Forerunner watch on their wrist, and might be considering the Vivoactive as their upgrade this year.  For those folks, the Fitbit/Apple won’t be on their radar.

But for MOST of us (read: average consumer), the Garmin is a bit overkill, and while it is a gorgeous unit, the smart watch features are a bit too one directional, and mediocre.  Keep shopping….

Garmin Vivoactive
+ Light weight, comfortable feet, sleek styling
+ Long battery life, easy to use interface, built in GPS
+ Connect IQ app system, swimming capable
+ Ability to work with extra devices (i.e.: bike cadence sensor)
– Requires external heart rate monitor (more accurate though?)
– Hard core for fitness, sort of weak for “smart watch”
– Meant to be an athlete’s companion, not for “average joe/jane”

battle-surge_vs_vivoactive_vs_polarm400-1 fitbit-purepulse-workout1 fitbit-purepulse-dec2014-unboxing-2 fitbit-purepulse-dec2014-unboxing-3 fitbit-purepulse-dec2014-unboxing-5 fitbit-purepulse-dec2014-unboxing-4

FITBIT SURGE

Though the battery life on the Fitbit Surge isn’t as spectacular as the Garmin, it still lasts a few days (the Apple Watch Sport needs charged daily).  Their app remains the gold standard, for both Android and iOS users.  They have the largest user base, making the social aspects the best (want to challenge your friends? compare your steps to your family? it’s all there!)

But the unit is clunky looking at best, and the least comfortable of this trio.  Worse yet, the display is also the weakest, and the touch interface is okay, but for the price seems far cheaper than the others.  You get the same one directional notifications as the Garmin, but the Surge doesn’t allow for custom apps like the Garmin.  However, it does bring onboard heart rate monitoring, so when you’re out for a run or even handling an indoor activity, you don’t need to pay for or don another accessory.

In that regard then the Fitbit is the perfect blend for the average consumer.  It was my top pick, up until the Apple Watch Sport came along.  Modest battery life, great app and social features, easy to use, even if a bit overly masculine (my wife never really loved how it looked on her).  But the only notifications (on iOS) that the Fitbit Surge supports as of right now are call/text- so your wrist won’t let you know about that Twitter mention, or Facebook Messenger alert.  If your budget is tight and $250 is your max, get the Surge.  If you can handle the extra $100, then…

Fitbit Surge
+ Built in heart rate monitor makes one-stop-shop
+ Excellent iOS/Android app, social benefits too
+ Easy to use, feels more “mainstream” than the Garmin
– Poor feel quality on wrist (bulky, sort of ugly)
– Heart rate monitor accuracy tests poorly
– Weak display, user interface clunky overall
– No swimming if you need waterproof (go Garmin if you do)
– Poor GPS reception, only call/SMS notifications here
– Less feedback for serious athletes

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APPLE WATCH SPORT

It seems like it would be easy to simply say that the Apple Watch Sport is the best fitness/activity tracker on the market today.  And in many ways it is, simply because it costs more and therefore inherently adds features most of the competition doesn’t offer.  If you compare the Apple Watch devices to its true competitors (Moto 360, Samsung Gear, etc) then you’d have a more apples to apples showdown.  I’m an Apple user with nothing but Apple products in my home & work life, so the Android devices don’t interest me (hence they won’t likely be reviewed here on my blog).  And they also won’t work for me.

If you’ve made it this far in the review you’ve obviously got an Apple iPhone, and the Apple Watch is a contender.  What makes it worth $100 to $150 more than the Fitbit?  Or worse, even more if you’re planning to spring for a nicer metal band.. right?  Let’s start with the fitness segment, since in essence that is really the most apples-to-apples aspect the Garmin Vivoactive and Fitbit Surge compete.

Though the Apple Watch Sport isn’t rated as a swimming companion (gotta stick to the Garmin there), at least it does have onboard heart rate monitoring like the Fitbit Surge.  Making use of the Workout app on your wrist you get the same ability to initiate specific activities just like the Fitbit/Garmin (which, like those devices, will disable the GPS for indoor versus outdoor activities).  Unlike the Garmin, you won’t be able to add cycling metrics (though it can handle GPS), but that is comparable to the same limits on the Fitbit.  I’d liken the iOS Activity app to the Fitbit, though it lacks the social elements.  You do earn Awards for accolades, much like the badges Fitbit/Garmin provide you.  And as the screen shots above will show you, there is just the right amount of visibility.

It does lack some of the easy access that Fitbit gives you to your heart rate logging after an exercise activity.  Sure the data is there but you’ll have to go into the Health app and dig it out in text-form only.  Gone then (compared to the Fitbit) are the gorgeous yellow/orange/red heart rate graphs, and supporting data.  But only Garmin really lets you dig into that data or even export it (Fitbit will allow this if you spend the money for their Premium services).  But how many of us “average folks” really want or need that?  Half of you reading this probably don’t even know what I’m talking about.

And that is where the Apple Watch Sport really shines.  In typical Apple fashion they have streamlined your entire experience, making it simple, giving you just what you want or need.  Many Android aficionados will say that Apple restricts you from seeing the “nuts and bolts” of what is going on, and yes when you join the Apple realm you have to live in their box without question, but in the case of the Watch, it never feels restricted.  You get the right amount of pushes and prods (which again see above, can be turned on/off/customized to some level).  But the goal of the watch is to simply happen seamlessly in your life, in the background. And it does, just like the Fitbit before it.  I’d say from a health/fitness standpoint, the Fitbit and Apple Watch start off neck and neck.

But then you’ve got to be fair to the price difference, and start looking at what the Apple Watch Sport does beyond being a fitness/activity tracker.  It records your resting heart rate far more often than the Fitbit (good for health data analysis down the road).  More importantly, it is a smart watch too.  This means you can get text notifications AND reply to them via voice dictation or even just quick canned responses.  You can see ALL of your notifications (I loved seeing some of my home automation alerts on my wrist).  Your watch can serve as a navigation device, a way to read Instagram, even control your television (via Apple TV).

It would be a whole blog post in and of itself to list the reasons why that $100-150 splurge will be rewarding.  My wife has an Apple Watch (42mm stainless steel with Milanese loop) and she has made great use of the “ping my phone that I lost somewhere in the house” feature at least every other day. (For you ladies, check out THIS ARTICLE to help sway you into the Apple Watch of your dreams).  I’ve listened to voicemail from my wrist, initiated phone calls, or even checked the sports scores (go CAVS!) so much more easily than ever before.  Sure it is a novelty for most of us, and some people won’t have as much of a use case for the watch.  But if you’re here reading this blog post, you’re ready to spend $250 or more anyhow.  Without a doubt, the premium for the Apple wrist-adorning wearable is undeniably justified.

Apple Watch Sport
+ Most capable of a smart watch (but at a cost/$)
+ Best display, best on-wrist feel, highest quality/design
+ Works as a “good” fitness tracker, but not uber-fancy
+ For $100-150 you get a lot more “Bang for your buck”
+ Testing from 3rd parties indicates HRM accuracy is good
– Lacks GPS on-board, requires charging every night
– Most expensive of the bunch by a lot, depending
– Minimal feedback for serious athletes
– Only good if you’re an iOS user with newer device

CONCLUSION

Endurance, triathlon, or cycling athletes are going to find the Connect IQ powered Garmin Vivoactive is their best option here (and other Garmin/Polar devices good contenders).  More average consumers such as you and I will find ourselves looking back and forth between the Fitbit Surge and Apple Watch Sport.  As stated above, the Apple won’t provide you much extra in the fitness arena (if anything the lack of social makes it sub-par actually against the Fitbit family).

But the Apple will let you do so much more. MUCH, much more!

Buying a Fitbit Surge today would be like buying a Palm Pilot was just a dozen years ago — it does the job but back then a Blackberry did it all. (Eventually Palm did have their own smart phones with Palm OS and similar, but I digress). With the Apple Watch Sport you get more than just a fancy “digital crown” or “force touch” — you get a small version of your phone, on your wrist, in the best way possible.  You get the best activity tracker and THEN some!

You won’t likely replace your TAG Heuer, Movado, or Breitling SA watch with the Apple Watch.  But you WILL have a hard time putting those back on after you realize how much the Apple Watch (Sport) can do for you.  If you want a cheap wearable, there are plenty of $50 to $150 options.  But the moment you start to look at spending $250 or more on a fitness wearable, the Apple Watch needs to be on your radar.

/pōs(t)ˌskript/

Avid readers of my blog will have heard me refer to the Apple Watch as my white whale.  With this device comes less and less reason for me to test other wearables, as I’ve found “the perfect one” (for me).  I do plan/hope to continue to enjoy testing and sharing future exploration into the wearables segment, because it does truly interest me.  However, I will be making a large shift towards focusing more of my blog posts on Home Automation in the coming months.  Please feel free to reach out to me if you have any specific questions, or want to see any unique device tested or reviewed. And thank you for reading!

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Published by

Ari Jay Comet

Sharing my life experiences. Interacting with technology. Digital self-expression. Binary is black, white, and many shades of grey.

9 thoughts on “BATTLE! – Apple Watch Sport versus Fitbit Surge versus Garmin Vivoactive”

  1. Garmin Fenix 3 and Suunto Ambit 3 are the two best sports watches out there currently. You should have compared Apple with them instead. Apple would still have come first for smartphone features in a watch but the two top sports watches would trash Apple totally for fitness features.

    1. Greg, thank you for the feedback. However, you already answered your own question as to why I didn’t review those. Besides the fact that the Garmin is $150 more than the Apple (a 43% premium!), it really is not meant to be a smart watch. The Suunto is more similar priced, but still not the same segment.

      If you’re in the market for the two items you mentioned, chances are good you aren’t in the market for an Apple Watch. However, if you’re a more recreational casual runner, you are less likely to really enjoy the depth those two devices provide.

      If you’re looking at Garmin/Suunto hardware you’ve probably read reviews on DC Rainmaker’s web site, for example. He is an athlete, competes in triathalons, and partakes in serious feats. I barely work out 3-4 times a week, for 20-30 mins at a time. I could barely run a 10 minute mile. Again, I’m reviewing products the “average Joe/Jane” might want. He is reviewing hardware for more serious folks, who want more serious metrics for their running.

      It is also worth noting that I have a few friends, who do 10Ks and the likes, and even they don’t get into some of those smart watches. Not everyone wants that level of seriousness bolted to their wrist. Some people just want to see distance, or caloric burn, or heart rate, or even just time themselves. In that regard, the Garmin or Suunto would be overkill, and would not make as much sense the other 23.5 hours of the day.

      Thanks for stopping by. Hope you’re able to find the device that best fits your needs.

  2. Totally agree about the sports vs smart watch thing. However, when comparing Surge and Garmin, don’t forget that those Watches measuring HR on your wrist are way less accurate than a chest strap (check out DC Rainmaker). If you want to underreport your heart rate and make yourself feel better than you are, go for a Surge. If you want accurate data go Garmin. Even training a 10K, you’ll need to push your tempo runs towards your threshold.

  3. Well like almost every review you think mr average just exercises and wants huge smart phone features.
    I am going the Garmin, I play golf sometimes and having golf courses on my watch would be brilliant.
    How come all you reviewers have missed the absolute killer app.

  4. In my opinion this review is biased towards someone wanting a good smartwatch, not an hardcore activity or fitness tracker. The Apple watch is essentially an iPhone on your wrist with an optical heart rate monitor. Heart rate is the only thing the Google fit app on any Android phone can’t do that an apple Watch can regarding fitness tracking. We are returning my wife’s Apple watch after less than a week of using it. She has to charge it every night, and sometimes it doesn’t last the entire day if she uses it much during the day. Its supposed to be water resistant, but she doesn’t even want to risk wearing it in the shower. The one reason she is considering keeping it is that she likes the ability to answer her phone over the watch. I had to remind her the reason for buying it was to track activity, and for that the Apple watch does not stand out over many other simple Fitness bands, and the extremely short battery life makes it worse than many other options available. My wife complains almost every night that she has to take it off to charge it, and one morning she was running late and forgot to put it on so she didn’t have it for the day. We are returning her Apple watch to get the Garmin vivoactive today. The Garmin is an true activity tracker with smart watch features. The GPS is a big plus, as is the week or more of battery on one charge. The downside to the Garmin that it does not have an optical heart rate monitor and needs a chest strap. Optical heart rate monitors are very inaccurate when your heart rate goes above about 130 beats per minute, so anyone wanting to do hardcore training would not benefit from this feature anyway and would need a dedicated chest or arm strap to monitor heart rate. We love the Apple watch as a Smart Watch but hate it as a fitness tracker primarily because the battery is so poor.

    1. Sounds like you got a bad battery in your watch. I have friends with the 42mm who can go 36 hours between charging. My 38mm lasts from 7am to 11pm for me daily. And I get a lot of notifications.

      But you’re right in that hard core fitness buffs or people looking for a more serious device will want to stick to names like Garmin, or Polar. Those brands bring a more serious device to the table by forgoing what most consumers want as a smart watch. You might be surprised to hear this, but when surveys are conducted, most Americans who use wrist worn devices rank fitness features low on their priorities. Seeing text messages or answering phone calls are ranked higher. Sorry I don’t have a source to site as replying from iPhone. But may surveys I’ve read indicate this.

      That all said, once again, If you personally rank fitness higher (minority of consumers) you’re 100% correct the Apple Watch is probably not your best choice. Take note newer Garmin devices do have optical heart options if you want it. Also look at my other reviews for devices like the Polar M400 and Basis, all which I’ve reviewed here on my personal blog. And yes I’m biased. That’s the beauty of this being my own blog 😉

  5. Great overall review. I am waiting on the Garmin Fenix HR, which has the optical heart rate reader.

    I did a long review on the Garmin 920 XT http://10kstepsdaily.com/garmin-forerunner-920xt-review. I absolutely love that watch. IMO Apple blew it with their first watch. They could have come out really with a killer watch, but came out with something that IMO wasn’t stellar.

    I think where Garmin crushes the competition right now is in the GPS arena. My 920XT connect almost instantly. My Polar 400 was rather slow and annoying at times. I don’t have a comparison for the apple or fitbit, but I am guessing they don’t compare to Garmin.

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