Smart watches have plenty of promise. Ever since I lost a lovely Mondaine watch in a Canadian hotel room, I’ve been hopping between WearOS smart watches, which used to be called Android Wear until Google changed the name because Google is a company seemingly run by toddlers with attention spans of five seconds.
I started with an LG square Android Smart watch; graduated to a round LG one; then a Huawei one; then a Fossil Sport. The Huawei one was probably best, but the screen became horribly burnt-in; the Fossil Sport should have been excellent but was hampered by an over-enthusiastic operating system with not enough memory, so everything was incredibly slow and super-annoying. (Fossil, disappointingly, don’t seem to have taken any steps to fixing that either).
As my daughter clamoured for “a new Garmin", I became a little restless. So, this Christmas, we became a Garmin household. She got a kids’ Garmin, I bought my partner a decent, small, Garmin smartwatch, and I got the hybrid thing you see above: a Vívoactive Style.
As you can see from the image above, it’s an ordinary-looking analogue watch but with a hidden screen, which is normally off. I like ordinary looking watches. I also like hidden screens.
The screen itself is actually two panels, I think OLED based. They’re invisible when not being used, and I’ve yet to work out where the sides of the screen are. Because they’re underneath the watch back, which on mine is textured, they do look a little strange: slightly out of focus, perhaps. You get used to it quite quickly though. It is nice not wearing an obviously nerdy watch; it looks quite decent.
The hands move, too — moving out of the way of the screens to help you see them, but also as highlights for the figures they display, as shown below.
The watch hands lack a little contrast to the back, so they’re not totally easy to see: I have the version in black, which has dark grey watch hands highlighted with white tips. I’d have preferred more contrast with the hands, to make the watch slightly easier to glance (the photo below is at a good angle, but try the photo on the top). I’d also have liked some form of luminescence on them: they’re entirely invisible in the dark.
So, what’s it like, coming from Android Wear?
Let’s start with what it does better.
It is a much better fitness watch. That shouldn’t be a surprise, but this thing measures much more than the WearOS platform is capable of: most obviously altitude, oxygen levels, and my breathing rate.
The battery is considerably better, too. Because it needs a charge once every five days or so, it opens up another function: much better sleep monitoring. That was kind of possible with WearOS, but because a Fossil Sport needs charging every 22 hours or so, it makes it impossible to actually use it for sleep monitoring, since invariably it fails overnight, or you don’t get enough time to charge it.
I still charge this watch every day: but while having a shower. That seems enough for a daily charge; and you can’t really do that with WearOS. (There is a charging cable, rather than a puck, which clips into your watch with a solid-feeling thunk. It is proprietary, though. But it’s pretty good.)
The Garmin has a gesture-based screen, so when you lift your arm, the invisible screen glows. However the gesture is automatically turned off when it’s bedtime. This is an obvious bit of UX that seems beyond the Google folks: you can still double-tap the screen if you want, but the gestures never go off by mistake, flooding the room with light.
The model I bought comes with Garmin Pay, a method of using your watch to pay using NFC. My WearOS watch had this kind of feature too: but it just never worked very well. Either the coil was too small, or the watch was busy trying to manage swap memory, but it rarely worked and you ended up looking rather like a chump, with the people behind you muttering under their breath as the person behind the till patiently tries to reset the machine so you can have another go.
Garmin Pay, though, just works; or at least worked well the few times I’ve used it so far. Unlike WearOS, which requires an irritating screen lock for the entire watch if you’ve Google Pay turned on, with Garmin Pay you have to type in a PIN only when it’s time to pay: and the PIN remains in effect until you take the watch off. If you don’t think anyone will steal your watch you can set it to something very easy to type in; but I guess the lock requirement is one the banks set.
The Google Fit app is nice and clear, but it’s very simple. The Garmin Connect app is anything but clear or simple. My goodness, it’s a confusing mishmash of all kinds of information hiding behind menus. But that’s its benefit really.
Garmin Connect is certainly rather more capable, and more social, too, than Google Fit — which is rather closer to “my first fitness app” than anything more serious. I’m enjoying challenging the others in the house to ‘step challenges’, and they have resulted in all of us being a little more fit than before. And this has been the real revelation of this watch: the fun in getting the whole family to “get our steps up" by doing things like an early morning Saturday walk, for example. Google Fit has none of that, presumably for cautious privacy reasons.
But it does do some things worse.
The watch may use Gorilla Glass, but double-tapping is a strangely inconsistent experience. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. At the beginning of one walk I took, I was entirely unable to put it into “activity” mode, since the screen was only reacting to swipes but not taps. It also, counter-intuitively, reacts to taps as long as you don’t tap the mechanical hands (they seem to get in the way of the sensor), and you can’t tap in the centre of the glass either. Taps are sometimes taken as swipes; swipes sometimes as taps. Without any buttons on this watch, you’re stuck with tapping and seeing if it works. This is probably the worst bit of this watch, to be honest.
Telling it that you’re going to a walk requires you to hold down the watch face, then tap the watch face, swipe the watch face, tap the watch face, tap a small green symbol on the watch face, wait for a little bit, and then double-tap the watch face. This is altogether more tapping than anyone needs.
(The ‘waiting for a bit’ is because it connects to your phone and uses the phone as a GPS receiver. I’m quite happy with that, incidentally: the phone’s GPS receiver works brilliantly, since it uses GPS, plus wifi, plus cellphone triangulation; a watch GPS chip eats power and is entirely reliant on the satellites, so doesn’t work too well in the woods).
The accompanying app is, as mentioned, both detailed and confusing. I’d also rather it used OpenStreetMaps than Google Maps, given that the local forest walks are much better mapped in OSM. But I may be rather biased: I’ve mapped many of them.
Apps? No, there are none on this watch. It has smartphone notifications, but they’re limited to a tiny amount of information on the screen, and no way of doing anything with the information; I’ve turned those off. It has music controls using the standard Bluetooth controls, which I never used on my previous watches so have turned off; and while a weather forecast seems a nice idea on the watch, in practice I never use that either so have turned that off, too.
There are six different styles for information that appear on the screen, called a “watch face" (not that it really is a watch face), and a limited number of complications that you can use. It isn’t very configurable, therefore: but it probably doesn’t need to be.
It isn’t really a smart watch, it’s a watch that does one thing well: being a fitness monitor.
After a month or so of using it, it’s a decent watch: chunky, well-built, with a decent battery life and it does its main job very well indeed. I’ve now understood the app, and on the third reading of the manual (yes), I’m beginning to understand some of the less-than-clear icons and features.
I don’t deny that I miss my WearOS watch. It had a crystal clear screen and some good features. WearOS was an ambitious plan to get a good smartwatch experience by Google, but the reality was that individual manufacturers were just left to update their hardware and most couldn’t be bothered; most implementations skimped on the memory so they lagged furiously while they loaded new apps or just a different screen; Google Assistant, which should have been a killer feature, rarely worked as you’d expect; and the whole thing was a kludgy and disappointingly unloved project from Google. The platform has had no updates of any real note for some time: a few new screens but nothing revolutionary. Indeed, I wonder whether Google has currently allocated any engineering resource to WearOS, or whether it’s already in bug mode.
But I’ve very much enjoyed my time with this Garmin, for the main reason that a) it just works, and b) it’s noticeably got me fitter.
Is it better than WearOS? Yes. But then, most things are.