Garmin is my go-to brand for GPS sports watches and activity trackers and in general I’ve been pretty impressed with them. I have to admit that I don’t have enough experience of products from their competitors to make a good brand comparison, but that’s largely because I’ve been satisfied with my Garmin devices and haven’t needed to look for alternatives.

Another reason I haven’t felt moved to look elsewhere is the Garmin Connect app, which quickly syncs new activities to your smartphone and then presents you with a lot of detailed data in a nice slick format. You can then have activities sync automatically from there to Strava, if desired. In a way, it acts as a brand lock-in because I’ve built up so much historical data with Garmin that it would be a pain to migrate to somewhere else.

My experience of Garmin devices is that they have generally performed the purpose for which they were purchased, and have proved to be decent value for money over the course of their lifespan. I’ve had what I would consider to be a reasonable success rate with the Garmin devices that I have owned to date. Of the four sports watches that I’ve bought, three get a resounding thumbs-up and only one has been a disappointment.

You can find my thoughts on these particular models below.

Garmin Forerunner 15

This was the first GPS sports watch that I ever bought. Previously I had been using the stopwatch function on a standard wrist watch to time my runs, and sometimes an analogue pedometer to try and get an idea of the distance. I then started using the Strava app on a mobile phone but quickly got fed up with having to carry the phone on my runs and fiddling around starting and ending activities on it. Therefore I splashed out on a Forerunner 15 for £149.99 back in December 2014.

Garmin Forerunner 15

It was a fairly basic, introductory model and proved to be perfect for someone who was just starting to take running a bit more seriously and wanted to start setting targets and measuring performance improvements. It served me well for two and a half years and was still in good working order when I eventually decided to upgrade to a model with slightly more functionality. I even managed to recoup some of the cost by selling it for around £20 on ebay, so hopefully it continued to provide good service to someone else long after I finished with it.

No Bluetooth, multisports or wrist HRM

My main reasons for upgrading were the lack of Bluetooth, which meant that I had to plug it into a computer every time I wanted to upload my activities, the lack of multisport functionality for recording bike rides and swims, and the lack of a built in, wrist based, heart rate monitor (HRM). I had initially bought this device with a chest strap HRM, but that peripheral stopped working after about a year, so I can’t recommend the chest strap as an add-on.

The Forerunner 15 has stood the test of time and is still available from the Garmin webstore, retailing at £99.99 (as of June 2021). It’s a good, solid watch, but I would imagine that most people would prefer a model with Bluetooth these days.

Garmin vívoactive HR

The Vívoactive HR was my chosen upgrade on the Forerunner 15 and it provided all the additional features that I desired on top of the basic functionality of my previous model. At £180.49 (December 2016), it only cost about £30 more than I had paid for the Forerunner 15 a couple of years earlier.

The Bluetooth connectivity to directly upload activities to the Garmin Connect app on a smartphone instantly became a massive timesaver, whilst the wrist based HRM was much more convenient to use than a chest strap model and opened up the possibility for 24/7 monitoring of my heartbeat and sleep patterns.

Garmin Vivoactive HR
Different activity types

The ability to record numerous different activity types proved extremely useful and avoided the need to log into Strava and manually change the activity type each time I did a bike ride rather than a run. I’m sure a lot of runners were grateful to no longer receive emails from Strava informing them that they had lost their course records in between my bike ride uploads and my manually changing the activity type from the default run into a bike ride.

I regularly used the watch to record running, cycling, swimming (with a very useful length counter), treadmill running, indoor rowing, indoor cycling and walking, which were just a few of the functions available on it. The one minor gripe about the multisport functionality was that there was no triathlon function for seamlessly changing between running and cycling or swimming within the same activity. However, I knew that wasn’t a feature of the watch before I bought it, and it wasn’t marketed as a triathlon watch, so that’s not really a complaint.

The menu system was easy to learn and navigate via a combination of touchscreen and the two buttons, and the unit gave me excellent service and accurate data for three years, which represents a good return on investment in my opinion. I would have stuck with it for longer, but the touchscreen started to fail in late 2019 and the lower half of it became unresponsive, making it almost impossible to save activities. That problem forced me to upgrade again, but overall I would thoroughly recommend the Garmin vívoactive HR.

Garmin Forerunner 35

When my wife got into running and wanted a GPS sports watch to record her activities, we chose the Garmin Forerunner 35 for her. It’s a fairly basic introductory model that offers a pretty similar range of features to the older Forerunner 15 that is reviewed above, but with the crucial addition of Bluetooth connectivity. It cost us a quite reasonable £139.98 in June 2017.

Garmin Forerunner 35
Garmin Forerunner 35

Having her run times and distances accurately recorded certainly provided my wife with motivation to improve as she started out on her running journey and she has derived great value from the Forerunner 35, with it still going strong over four years later. It’s quite a sleek, attractive looking watch and, as well as the running functionality, activity tracking and wrist-based heart rate monitor features, she finds the ability to read her phone messages on her wrist very useful at times when her handset is out of reach.

Overall, the Forerunner 35 is another device from Garmin that we would thoroughly recommend.

Garmin vívoactive 3

I chose to stick with Garmin’s vívoactive range when I upgraded from the vívoactive HR in spring 2020, as I had been so satisfied with my previous device. At £160.00 (April 2020), the vívoactive 3 was actually £20 cheaper than the price I had paid for its predecessor, possibly because there was already a vívoactive 4 on the scene.

Garmin VivoActive 3
Garmin VivoActive 3

The vívoactive 3 offered largely the same set of activity features as the vívoactive HR, but looked an awful lot more stylish, coming as it did with a traditional round watch face and a variety of attractive screen options. The new feature that enticed me as the single biggest upgrade on the vívoactive HR was the inclusion of Garmin Pay, which allows you to link the watch to a bank card and then make contactless payments from it.

I envisaged Garmin Pay allowing me to go on runs without the need to carry any cash or bank cards, yet still having the ability to pay for a bus or taxi ride home if I got injured, or to pop into a café or shop for refreshments at the end of a run. It was a bit fiddly to set up as I had to open an account with a new bank because the list of compatible banks in the UK was fairly short, but once I had done that, it worked well enough and I’ve used it to pay for things in shops on several occasions.

Elevation problems

However, there are several downsides to this watch which mean that I can’t really recommend it. First and foremost, the altitude monitoring just doesn’t work. I can go out for a pan-flat run along the seafront and come back with an elevation gain of several hundred metres. I can go on an out-and-back route and have dramatically different elevation profiles for each half of the run, and I can do a mildly hill route and come back with the elevation gain of a Mont Blanc climb.

This fault was one of the main reasons why I returned my first model of this watch, but the identical replacement from Garmin soon developed exactly the same altitude errors. It’s a real shame that this problem was introduced to this device, as none of my previous Garmin devices struggled with logging accurate elevation profiles of my activities.

Battery life and touchscreen issues

Other downsides of the vívoactive 3 include the battery life, which has been less than advertised on both the models I have owned, and may not be enough to complete a long activity such as an ultra-marathon or 100 mile plus bike ride for below average paced people. I find myself having to recharge it regularly, even if I’ve only recorded a short activity during the day.

I also find that the touch screen is overly sensitive to touches from my clothing. It’s fine for short-sleeved runs in the summer, but when I’m wearing long sleeves or a jacket in the winter, the sleeves play havoc with the screen, navigating deep into the menu system and randomly changing settings. The mitigation is to lock the screen during activities, but then you lose the ability to scroll through different data screens, so you lose functionality. Again, none of my previous Garmins had this issue.

My first vívoactive 3 also had issues with accurately reporting run distances and pace, making it virtually useless. The replacement model is a bit more reliable on that front, but can still sometimes report an inaccurate current pace when I’m running in woodland or near tall buildings. That’s a more understandable defect, but it’s still not something that I experienced much of on my previous models.

In summary, I certainly wouldn’t buy the vívoactive 3 again and I certainly can’t recommend it for anyone else. I’m looking forward to binning it and moving on to my next model, but I’ll persevere with it for a bit longer to try and eek out a bit of value for money from it..