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Garmin Vivoactive 4/4S review: Another outstanding sports smartwatch

Our Rating 
Price when reviewed 
239
inc VAT

More an exercise in refinement than revolution, but the Vivoactive 4 does enough to become our new favourite fitness-orientated smartwatch

Pros 
Excellent fitness tracking features
Attractive design and easy-to-read display
Good price
Cons 
Lacks in-depth running analysis
New features don’t add a great deal
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It came as no surprise when the Garmin Vivoactive 4 was unveiled at IFA in September 2019. The Vivoactive 3 was getting rather long in the tooth: a Music variant was released in the summer of 2018 but, with the original version already pushing two years old – positively decrepit, in tech terms – a successor was sorely needed.

The Vivoactive 4 brings an overhauled design, a number of new features – the most notable being music playback – and, best of all, a new, lower price, making it one of the most appealing fitness-orientated smartwatches you can buy right now.

Garmin Vivoactive 4/4S review: What you need to know

One of the most significant changes compared to its predecessor is that the Vivoactive 4 now comes in two sizes, with a 40mm “S” variant aimed at those with smaller wrists. The smaller device saves on weight compared with the regular 45mm smartwatch and costs a little less but also lasts fewer days between charges.

Taking inspiration from the Vivoactive 3 Music, the watch now comes with music playback as standard, including offline storage for Spotify and Deezer. It offers animated guided workouts, which, coupled with Garmin’s “Coach” tool makes the Vivoactive 4 much better suited to running and gym novices than previous devices.

Elsewhere, there are a number of other new features such as Garmin’s Body Battery feature and blood-oxygen monitoring and these build upon the core fitness tracking features you’d expect from a Garmin fitness wearable, with GPS, heart-rate tracking and sleep tracking included. Thanks to its NFC chip, Garmin Pay is also supported, although very few UK banks have signed up to the service.

Garmin Vivoactive 4/4S review: Price and competition

With prices starting at £240 for the S variant and £260 for the regular smartwatch, the Vivoactive 4 costs around £100 more than the Vivoactive 3, which is now available for just £150. Packed with all the same sports tracking modes as its successor, the latter still represents excellent value for money.

If you’re more into running than other sports, Garmin’s 245 Music (£300) is also well worth consideration. When paired with a Garmin Running Dynamics Pod, it’ll offer advanced insights into your running technique and give you more data to pore over relating to the training effect of each workout and your current condition.

Elsewhere, there’s not much else besides the Apple Watch Series 3 (£200) and 5 (£500) that offers the sports tracking prowess of these devices along with offline music playback. If you don’t mind forgoing listening to tunes via your watch, the Polar Ignite (£160) is a solid option for those who are really into running, cycling or swimming.

Garmin Vivoactive 4/4S review: Design

As I mentioned in my hands-on review of the Garmin Venu, the only shortcoming of Garmin’s Vivoactive 3 was that its design wasn’t one you could fall in love with. It wasn’t ugly, but neither would you be in a hurry to show it off.

The Vivoactive 4 goes a long way to fixing that, though. For starters, it has a larger 1.3in screen (versus 1.2in on the Vivoactive 3) and this, coupled with a narrower border and glass that’s subtly curved at the edges, makes for a watch that looks more sophisticated than its predecessor.

The watch is available in six different colours in total, two (silver and black) for the regular model and four (gold, rose gold, silver and black) for the Vivoactive 4S. In both instances, the silver variant is the cheapest, and you’ll need to pay an additional £20 for those with the black, gold and stainless steel bezels. With both silver models using grey plastic cases and matching straps, though, it’s a solid look and a notable improvement on the plain black casing and strap of the cheapest Vivoactive 3.

The screen isn’t an AMOLED panel, as on the Venu, but rather a transflective memory-in-pixel display that’s easily legible in bright sunlight and, importantly, always on. The other main design changes are that the Vivoactive 4 has two buttons instead of one, and that it comes in two different sizes.

The Vivoactive 4S (as opposed to the regular 4) is aimed squarely at those with smaller wrists and although it is lighter – 40g vs 50.5g including strap – the tradeoff is that battery life isn’t as good. Otherwise, the features of the two models are identical.

Garmin Vivoactive 4/4S review: Key new features

On that note, the standout new feature across both models is undoubtedly music playback. This not only lets you transfer music files directly to the watch but also enables you to connect third-party services such as Spotify, Amazon Music and Deezer. Although you will need a Premium subscription to do this, it’s far more convenient than transferring personal music files, which requires you to install the Garmin Express application on your PC.

To download tracks and playlists from Spotify, you simply choose the service from the watch, log in on the Garmin Connect Mobile app when prompted and you can then choose from categories labelled Playlists, Recently played, Made for you, Workouts and Podcasts. Providing you’re connected to a Wi-Fi network (also done via Garmin Connect), you can then start downloading songs to the smartwatch. It feels a little clunky the first time you do it, but after that, it’s a relatively quick and easy process.

As for other new features, both the Vivoactive 4 and 4S get the Body Battery function that was first introduced on the Vivosmart 4. This uses sleep quality, stress level and activity data to score your current energy reserves out of 100. In short, it’s a feature that aims to give you a quick, easily digestible way of knowing when it’s a good time to hit the gym and when you’d be better off getting some rest.

This might sound gimmicky but, in practice, I’ve found it works well, letting you check your score against your stress levels throughout the day. I’ll need a little longer with the watch to determine how useful it is in planning a workout schedule, but in theory it definitely has the potential to help stop you overtraining while avoiding bombarding you with confusing data about training load.

The other standout new feature on the Vivoactive 4 is its Pulse Ox sensor. This gives you an insight into your blood oxygen levels during sleep and on-demand, which can be useful for determining if you’ve acclimatised to your altitude on hiking expeditions. It’s difficult to say how useful this feature is in day to day use, though, unless you’re concerned you might suffer from a condition such as sleep apnoea. Even then, Garmin is keen to point out that the feature doesn’t substitute a medical device, but I’d imagine it could indicate a problem if you noticed SPO2 levels that are consistently outside the norm.

Similarly, although it’s fascinating that the Garmin Vivoactive 4 claims to be able to track breaths taken per minute, I’m not sure how useful this data is compared to, for example, resting heart rate, which can help you track changes in your overall fitness levels.

Although I’ve not been able to test it, the watch’s new period tracking feature sounds like a more useful addition. This feature lets you log your cycle, including physical and emotional symptoms, and offers period and fertility predictions based on this data, along with guidance relating to training.

One further additional – but also significant – new tool is hydration tracking. Although there’s no way your smartwatch can tell how much you’ve imbibed the watch offers the next best thing: an easy way to manually log what you drink throughout the day. If, like me, you’re not great at keeping your fluids topped up, this turns the process into something of a game, which is no bad thing.

Garmin Vivoactive 4/4S review: Sports tracking and performance

As with practically every other Garmin sports watch you can buy today, the Vivoactive 4 lets you track your position using GPS, Galileo and GLONASS satellites. In addition to all the regular modes such as running, cycling and pool swimming, the Vivoactive 4 also offers an eclectic range of other sports tracking modes such as golf, skiing, strength, cardio and yoga.

It has all the similarly priced devices in the Forerunner range well beaten in terms of the sheer number of sports it'll track, then. Sadly, however, there’s no open-water swim or triathlon mode.

While I’ve had no problems whatsoever with GPS accuracy, it’s worth noting that the Vivoactive 4 is compatible with Bluetooth and ANT+ cycling speed/cadence sensors and footpods, both of which can improve the reliability of distances logged on any sports watch, especially if you regularly exercise in areas with patchy signal. There’s no option to connect a power meter, however – for that, you’ll need the Forerunner 945 or Fenix 6.

Similarly, you can use the Vivoactive 4 with an external heart-rate monitor, although again there’s no reason to upgrade right away since the Vivoactive 4 does a perfectly good job on its own. On a 25-minute run, it logged numbers that were consistently within three or four beats per minute of a chest strap I had paired with a Fenix 5 Plus, which is all you can really ask of an optical sensor.

The main new sports feature for the Vivoactive 4 isn’t a mode per se, but rather its new animated guided workouts. Simply open a sports mode from the watch, swipe up and you'll see the option for Workouts. Tapping this in the Strength mode reveals a number of different options, such as 30-minute Blast and Maximise Your Upper Body, and, when you start the workout, an animation appears onscreen showing you how to perform the exercise.

It's a great idea and something that works nicely alongside Garmin Coach. Set up via the Connect mobile app, this tool lets you create personalised training plans for races from 5k up to a half-marathon distances. Although that might sound like a feature for seasoned runners, it's equally well suited to newbies who wish to set a goal of merely finishing rather than doing so within a certain time.

When it comes to battery life, the Vivoactive 4 promises up to eight days on a single charge in smartwatch mode. Meanwhile, for continuous GPS use, Garmin claims it’ll stretch to 16 hours, a figure that falls to six hours when using both GPS and music playback simultaneously. For the Vivoactive 4S, these numbers drop to seven days in smartwatch mode and five hours for continuous GPS and music playback.

After just a few days with the regular Vivoactive 4, I’ve found it lasts around four or five days in normal everyday use when tracking the occasional, short GPS activity no more than half an hour in length. That’s not drastically different from what I’ve come to expect from its predecessor, but I’ll update this review over the coming weeks after I have more of a sense of how the Vivoactive 4 performs in different scenarios.

Garmin Vivoactive 4/4S review: Verdict

Depending on your view of features such as Body Battery and music playback, upgrading from the already excellent Vivoactive 3 might not be a huge priority. But what's pleasing is that, in adding Spotify support and improving the watch’s aesthetic appeal, Garmin has fixed the small gripes most people had with the older device.

Along with these tweaks, the Vivoactive 4 packs in a host of handy new features such as hydration and period tracking, plus guided animated workouts. When you factor in the comparatively low price, there's very little not to like; as far as sports watches go, you'll be hard pushed to find anything better.

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