Among the various smartwatch ecosystems currently available, Garmin arguably offers the most complete and well-rounded lineup. While the brand produces a number of different models that are purpose-built for specific sports and professional applications, Garmin also makes many general-use smartwatches that are capable of tracking a wide variety of activities, and these models are intended to be do-it-all timekeeping companions designed for modern everyday life. Among the brand’s latest new releases for 2023 is the Garmin Vivoactive 5, which is a highly value-packed smartwatch positioned on the entry-level side of its catalog, and it represents an incredibly compelling option for those who want a multi-purpose sports watch with comprehensive health and fitness tracking capabilities.
While I’m a long-time Garmin user, the Vivoactive 5 is my first experience with one of the brand’s modern offerings. My personal Garmin is an old Forerunner 35 (now discontinued), which has faithfully served me for years and continues to run strong, despite receiving quite a lot of rough treatment. However, while my Garmin Forerunner 35 does everything that I really need, it is admittedly downright primitive when compared to the new Vivoactive 5. Garmin has made major advancements to its smartwatches over the course of the last several years, and despite offering significantly expanded functionality and an entirely different interface with a touch screen and full-color 1.2” AMOLED display, I personally find the Garmin Vivoactive 5 to be incredibly easy and intuitive to use, both during setup and daily operation.
The materials and construction of the Garmin Vivoactive 5 are largely what you would expect from its entry-level price point, although the same can be said about my old Forerunner 35, which has proven to be incredibly resilient over the course of long-term use. The round case is made from fiber-reinforced polymer with an anodized aluminum bezel, and it measures 42.2mm in diameter by 11.1mm thick, although once you factor in the sensor that protrudes from the center of the caseback, the total height of the watch ends up being approximately 12.5mm at its thickest point. On the right-hand side of the case are two physical buttons, while the Gorilla Glass 3 touchscreen supplements the rest of the controls for the watch. Meanwhile, on the reverse side of the case, you will find the obligatory multi-function sensor and the contact point for the charger, while water resistance for the Vivoactive 5 comes in at 50 meters, which will be more than enough for most people, considering that the watch even includes modes specifically dedicated to tracking swimming workouts.
One additional welcome feature about the design of the Garmin Vivoactive 5 is that its case has traditional lugs and therefore uses a standard 20mm strap. While you will need to use a two-piece strap (or some other style that allows the caseback sensor to make contact with your wrist), nearly any 20mm strap will work with the Vivoactive 5. That said, the included rubber strap is ultimately quite comfortable, and I find it to be a perfectly serviceable option. Made from silicone with a polymer tang-style buckle, the strap connects to the lugs with integrated quick-release spring bars to enable easy and tool-free strap changes. One nice aesthetic detail is that the strap keeper appears in a contrasting color, and considering how my old Forerunner 35 is still on its original strap (although I have replaced the keeper once), it’s likely that you can expect a fairly decent lifespan from the silicone strap that comes with the Garmin Vivoactive 5.
In terms of its functionality, the Garmin Vivoactive 5 might be one of the most value-packed models among all of the brand’s current wearable devices, and while it lacks a few of the features that exist on more premium models, it ultimately represents an incredibly high function-to-cost ratio. Among the more notable things that are missing from the Vivoactive 5 is the ability to make calls and respond to texts directly from the device itself, although you can still view text messages and pick up incoming calls without having to touch your smartphone. Additionally, the Garmin Vivoactive 5 also lacks a barometric altimeter, which means that it can only get altitude data from its GPS connection, and it therefore won’t be able to passively count the number of flights of stairs you climb each day. Garmin offers plenty of other models that do have these features, although something needed to be omitted when creating the Vivoactive 5, and the watch is still able to perform the vast majority of functions that most people require on a daily basis.
Since the Garmin Vivoactive 5 is primarily intended to be a multi-purpose health and fitness tool, it also lacks a few of the sport-specific features that you get from other models in the brand’s current catalog. Garmin makes a diverse assortment of smartwatches that are specifically intended for different sports, environments, and professional uses, and since the Vivoactive 5 isn’t one of those offerings, you don’t get the dive computer functionality of the Descent series or the golf-specific features of the Approach line. However, you do get a fairly generous assortment of built-in modes that will allow you to track the vast majority of activities that people enjoy on a regular basis. Similar to something like the Apple Watch, the Garmin Vivoactive 5 is a device that is capable of performing many different functions, and its key strength lies in its daily versatility, rather than because it is the superlative choice for any one specific task.
Included among a rather comprehensive list of built-in apps that are designed to track everything from running and bike riding to breathwork and meditation, the Garmin Vivoactive 5 also offers modes dedicated to less obvious activities such as paddle boarding, disc golf, pickleball, and even e-sports gaming. Additionally, alongside its various sport-tracking functions, the Garmin Vivoactive 5 also offers a number of advanced health and fitness features like a built-in sleep coach, stress management tool, recovery time tracking, and body energy monitoring. Beyond the integrated health and activity tracking features, the Garmin Vivoactive 5 also includes all of the standard functionality that you would expect from a modern well-equipped smartwatch, such as alarms, timers, the ability to perform contactless payments, on-device music integration, smartphone synchronization for calls/texts, and the ability to customize the different virtual watch faces directly from the device itself.
Aside from altering the appearance of the watch, the different virtual faces available for the Garmin Vivoactive 5 all offer slightly different functionality. Some are primarily intended for those who use their smartwatches for health and fitness tracking and therefore focus on metrics such as heart rate and daily step count, while other virtual faces feature digital compasses or serve as heads-up displays with information about the weather or sunrise/sunset times, and there is even one digital watch face that is a dedicated regatta timer. On top of that, many of the virtual faces can be customized to feature different colors or metrics of information, and it is relatively easy to configure a display that will suit your individual needs and aesthetic preferences.
When it comes to battery life, the Garmin Vivoactive 5 offers up to eleven days in standard smartwatch mode and five days when using the always-on display; however, autonomy can be extended to three weeks if you use the watch’s battery-saver setting. How you use your Garmin will directly influence its battery life, and GPS-based functions like tracking a run outside will require more power than tracking a similar run on a treadmill. Even when wearing the watch 24 hours a day and using the always-on setting for the display, I typically found myself charging the Garmin Vivoactive 5 once every three days, although using the GPS to track long hikes would drain the battery significantly faster than if I were only using the watch’s built-in sensors to track a run on the treadmill. Battery life is a category where Garmin excels compared to many other brands, and while some of its models offer longer durations of autonomy, the Vivoactive 5 provides significantly better battery life than any of the various Apple Watch models that are currently available.
While the device itself is capable of displaying quite a lot of information about the different health and activity tracking metrics that it records, using the Garmin Vivoactive 5 in conjunction with the Garmin Connect smartphone app significantly expands its functionality. Within the app, you can get deeper insights into your workouts and activities, along with a more comprehensive analysis of the health metrics that your device measures throughout the day. For GPS-tracked activities, you can view a map of all your movements within the Garmin Connect app, and while the most practical use for this is being able to see a map of where you hiked or went running, the built-in GPS is accurate enough to also be useful for a number of other sports. I wore the Garmin Vivoactive 5 while playing a few friendly matches of pickleball, and when using the dedicated pickleball tracking feature, the internal GPS was more than accurate enough for me to be able to tell the different matches apart, just by looking at the map of my movements.
For more than a week, I wore the Garmin Vivoactive 5 for 24 hours a day in order to get a feel for its health coaching functions, and to see how it would be to wear it as my only wristwatch. At the end of the first week, I was ultimately pleasantly surprised at how capable it was at performing everything that I needed it to do. The GPS-tracked distances are naturally quite accurate, but I was also impressed by how quickly the device was able to adjust to the length of my stride. After calibrating the Vivoactive 5 during a seven-mile run on a treadmill, the built-in sensor was virtually spot-on thereafter, and on my subsequent treadmill run, the total difference between the distance measured by the device and treadmill was just 0.02 miles over the course of another seven-mile run. All things considered, the Garmin Vivoactive 5 is quite capable of being a comprehensive health and fitness tracker, although it also excels at being an everyday smartwatch, and I imagine that most people will be more than satisfied with the range of its functionality.
Although I continuously wore the Garmin Vivoactive 5 so that I could get a sense of its health and fitness tracking abilities, this isn’t how I typically wear my own Garmin in regular everyday life. While I do wear my Garmin pretty much every single day, I generally only have it on during the times when I need its smartwatch capabilities. For example, I wear my Garmin as my dedicated sports watch to track my daily runs and workouts, and I also wear it to bed for its sleep tracking, and so that I can use its vibrating alarm to wake me up in the morning. However, for the rest of the day, there is often some other watch on my wrist, and it’s important to remember that there are a variety of different ways to use the Garmin Vivoactive 5 that don’t involve making it your primary wristwatch.
While the Vivoactive 5 is hardly Garmin’s most feature-packed smartwatch, it does offer the vast majority of functions that most people require, and it manages to provide a rather impressive list of features for only a small premium above the brand’s least expensive models. With an official retail price of $299.99 USD, the Garmin Vivoactive 5 is firmly positioned as an entry-level offering within the current lineup, although when it comes to its actual design and features, the Vivoactive 5’s closest relative is the more advanced Venu 3, which offers greater functionality but costs an extra 50% above what the brand changes for the Vivoactive 5. For those who need additional features, Garmin certainly has you covered with its more advanced models, although the Vivoactive 5 will likely be more than enough for most people, and it sets the bar incredibly high for affordable multi-purpose smartwatches. For more information on the Garmin Vivoactive 5, please visit the brand’s website.