The Garmin Vivoactive 3 GPS, now available on sale at ‘Heart Rate Monitors USA’ for under $300 – with or without music – is hard to beat at that price. It, from the moment it was announced in 2017, has been an extremely compelling sport/smart watch with an attractive, highly customizable, look. It truly stands head and shoulders above comparably priced smart watches – even the latest Apple. It covers all the bases, a genuine all-around, 360°offering – whether it be: sports, health, sleep, fitness, stress, notifications, APPs, Android/iPhone compatibility, touch screen, battery life, GPS, etc. It is the totality of all of these features that makes it stand out. It oozes synergy.

The Garmin Vivoactive 3 has extensive activity tracking (including golf, standup paddleboard & skiing), advanced sleep analysis (with REM & deep), continuous heart rate monitoring with alerts, stress tracking, VO2 fitness measurement, GPS, smart notifications, smart Pay, multi-day battery life and even onboard music. I would get a Vivoactive 3 over the newly announced Apple Watch Series 4 – the cute ECG feature notwithstanding. Apple Watches do not offer sleep analysis because they need to be charged overnight! Without sleep tracking you really can’t get a complete read of your health or fitness. And don’t forget stress measurement, all of the activities, fitness – and uncompromised Android compatibility.

Overcoming The ECG Envy

I have been on cholesterol and blood pressure medication for over 30 years. So, I am rather keen on keeping track of my heart rate, 24×7, as a possible ‘canary in the mine shaft’ indicator. Hence, I was, of course, intrigued by the ECG feature on the new Apple. But, YIKES, I would have to ditch my Google Pixel 2, with its rather neat camera, and get an iPhone. Plus, I would lose too many features I rely on – in particular sleep analysis. So, I started Googling and quickly came across the ‘Alivecor KardiaMobile’ – available for $99 on Amazon. I bought one.

Bingo! I am all set. I can stay with Garmin & Android. Appears that the rather nifty KardiaMobile uses the same technology as Apple. But, here is the kicker. You can readily share the KardiaMobile with others. I already did that. This enabled me, in my mind, to ‘divvy’ up the cost of the unit. I think of it as having cost me $50 rather than $99. I am chuffed. No more Apple envy. I can stick with Garmin.

Optical Hear-Rate Monitors & Dark Skin

I was born in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka). I am, as such, quite a colorful character with a permanent year-round tan. I have read reports that optical heart-rate sensors, as in the VA 3, do not work well (or at all) with dark skin. I personally have not experienced that with any of the four Garmin watches I have owned.

I have multiple ‘gizmos’ that allow me to get HR readings, e.g., blood pressure monitors & oximeters. Plus, I had a Samsung S3 Frontier alongside my second VA 3 (and there is a picture, on the Web, of me wearing both on the same wrist). The readings I got with the two VA3s I owned were in line with other readings and within my own expectations (and with 35-years of ‘daily’ running under my belt I have a fairly decent idea as to what my heart is doing and not doing). Yes, there are those with darker skin than I and I cannot, alas, vouch for how the VA3 will work on their wrists. All I can tell you is that I am pretty brown and I never had any issues with the VA3 not being able to detect my pulse.

The 2017 ‘Mk Is’ vs Today’s ‘Mk IIs’

I got myself a Vivoactive HR in June 2017 – after what had been a 5-year hiatus. I was an early adopter of Fitbit way back in 2011. Though I ended up as a de facto beta tester, and they sent me a number of free devices for additional testing, I kind of lost interest and went back to doing my things without a tracker.

The VA HR was a revelation. It did everything it said it would; reliably and with panache – though I, like many others, had some issues with Bluetooth synching. The HR, however, was not what I considered a ‘dress’ watch. Having worn a diamond-studded Rolex for 26-years I had some standards as to what I liked on my wrist. Then came the VA 3 announcement. It was love at first sight. I wanted, pronto, the gunmetal (i.e., slate back) version. With the right watch face it would not look out of place when I was all dressed up. I pre-ordered one through Amazon. My then 16-year old daughter coveted that VA HR. Her birthday was in October and I gave her the HR as a birthday present. I went for 37-days with naked wrist. I finally managed to snare an early Slate version from ‘Heart Rate Monitors USA’ in mid-November. Loved it. Cancelled my ‘pre-order’ at Amazon. This was how I came to be a (very satisfied & loyal) HRM USA customer – though, as an Amazon shareholder of standing, my druthers is to buy most things at Amazon.

If you research the VA 3, as you should, you will find quite a few reports of its ‘unreliability’. That, indubitably, was the case with the early 2017 units – such as mine! With Christmas 2017 looming, Garmin rushed the release of the VA 3. That is no longer a secret. There were a slew of hardware and firmware issues – many to do with the various sensors, in particular the barometric altimeter (for elevation and floors climbed). That is why I refer to the 2017 units as ‘Mk. 1s’. Most of the issues you hear about re. the VA 3 are confined to those early units.

Today’s VA 3 units, which now include the VA 3 Music, are genuine ‘production-level’ units. This is important to keep in mind. The VA 3 definitely went though a metamorphosis in early 2018. So, when considering a VA 3 remember that you have to factor in this ‘then & now’ consideration.

One other thing I should point out. I live in central New Hampshire where the temperature, in the winter, can sometimes (maybe even often) fall below 0°F (-18°C). While the VA 3 supports skiing and snowboarding, it like all electronic devices, has a specified operating temperature range. I think it is -4°F to 140°F (-20°C to 60°C). Just be aware of that if you tend to venture out in extremely cold temperatures. There is only so much abuse that those tiny sensors are capable of tolerating.

The Bottom Line

I am in the process of buying my third VA 3. This one is for that 17-year old who will be 18 soon (given that inexorable march of time). You guessed it. She wants a VA 3, black & stainless, for her birthday. I have no issues getting her one. I know that the new units are as rugged and reliable as any other Garmin, or competitor, in that price bracket.

That a 17-year old, permanently tethered to a Google Pixel phone, wants one is a testament to both the VA 3’s looks and smart-watch capabilities. It is not bulky, gawky watch. It looks good on a small wrist and has enough ‘smarts’ to satisfy a demanding, tech-savvy, robotics-mad teen.

Oh! The VA 3 pairs and syncs over Bluetooth much better than the VA HR ever did. That is worth knowing and noting.

So, as you can see I am gun ho on the VA 3. Those of you paying close attention may have deduced, nonetheless, that I no longer wear a VA 3! That is true. When the prices of the Garmin Fenix 5 started dropping, ahead of the unveiling of the Fenix 5 Plus, I could not resist. I wanted the gyroscope among other things and was willing to pay for it. But, notice that I stayed Garmin and to that end let’s just say that I have a 12-year old daughter who has a Fitbit Ionic with a bright pink strap.

Never buy a watch without doing sufficient due diligence. So, please do not rely on my word alone. I would not have recommended the VA 3 to you in January 2018 or agree to get one for my daughter. I do, however, keep tabs, near daily, on most of the Garmin watches – and we have three Garmin users in the house. If you are in the market for a very capable, good-looking hybrid sport/smart watch, in the sub-$300 range – especially one that is Android compatible – you really must start by checking out the Garmin Vivoactive 3 (or 3M).

by Anura Guruge