Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Comparison Review-2016 Garmin GPS Watches with Wrist Heart Rate:Forerunner 735XT, Vivoactive HR, Fenix 3 HR

Article by Sam Winebaum, Editor Road Trail Run 

LEFT to RIGHT: Forerunner 735XT, Vivoactive HR, Fenix 3 HR
If you have not updated your GPS watch in the last couple of years you will now see as "standard" equipment features which were either rarities or kludged on most watches back then. Chest heart rate straps are rapidly becoming a thing of the past with wrist heart rate improving.  Uploading of data via a cable to your computer is no longer required, the companion apps now increasingly reliable  handling the transfers via Bluetooth or wifi .

Garmin is sure hitting the long ball in 2016 with a slew of performance running and multi-sports watches all featuring their new Elevate wrist based heart rate monitoring. In addition to the t Forerunner 735XT, Vivoactive HR, and  Fenix 3 HR compared here, the family is now joined by the recently released Vivosmart HR+ band  (now with GPS) and the earlier Forerunner 235, a run focused wrist HR watch identical in form factor to the 735 above.

All five Garmins share

  • Rock solid GPS with rapid acquisition
  • Multiple configurable pace, distance, HR data fields
  • Increasingly reliable Elevate wrist based 24/7 heart rate sensing
  • 4 hour and 7 day views of current heart rate, max heart rates and resting heart rate averages
  • 24/7 activity, steps, and sleep tracking.
  • Auto Pause, Auto Lap
  • Smart notifications from your phone including incoming calls, texts, email, social, weather,etc..
  • Music control, Find My Phone
  • Garmin Connect app and site to collect and analyze all your workouts, activity, steps, and sleep stats.
  • Differing but still long, not think much about it, battery life
  • Swim rated water resistance and at a minimum lap pool swim tracking
  • Cycling mode and at least some ANT+ cycling sensor support
  • Downloadable apps, widgets, and watch faces from the IQ Connect store.
The three watches we tested 735XT, Vivoactive HR, and Fenix 3 HR are all more than adequate for serious or casual runners.
All the basic functionality is almost identical across all three watches and the interface is pretty much the same as is the app and the web site back end.
Choices come down to four basic decisions: price point, style/size, use focus, and desired features.

The Basic Physical Stats
Stats: garmin.com

LEFT to RIGHT: Forerunner 735XT, Vivoactive HR, Fenix 3 HR

Vivoactive HR 

The 2nd generation Vivoactive HR goes from a square shaped screen to a long rectangle and most significantly adds Elevate optical wrist hear rate monitoring. At $249.99 it is a great value for a mostly full featured fitness smartwatch which will even measure golf shot distances for tens of thousands of courses. Only the highest end Fenix 3 HR includes golf! Unlike the 735XT and like the Fenix 3 HR it even includes an electronic compass and barometric altimeter so one can track ascent and elevation data on the run. The 3 data field screen was the easiest to read in bright sunlight of the three in workout mode and the hardest to see in sunlight outside of black numbers on white workout mode. The vertical alignment is perfect for quick glances on the run.
Two buttons control all function except initial selections and swiping between data screens. The touch swipe is improved over the original Vivoactive but still can be finicky when fingers and watch are wet. The 735XT and Fenix 3 HR are entirely controlled by buttons.

What don't you get that the 735XT and Fenix HR give you? You get a walk run mode which can substitute for the more featured interval modes of the other two but it is pretty basic. You also don't get the useful Recovery Advisor, Lactate Threshold, VO2 Max, Race Predictor, or access with optional chest straps to Garmin's form Run Dynamics data. Yes, some of those would be nice but for most not missed. You do get among many others golf, cycling, paddling, hiking and ski apps  along with some cycling sensor support and access to Garmin's newVaria cycling lights and radar.
Here is what the Vivoactive HR shows you if you go skiing at the..beach descent, runs, elevation, and distance all courtesy of the barometric altimeter. Of course this kind of data is available trail running and cycling as well where ascent is the name of the game!

The style is wider than a fitness band, long on top of the wrist and higher off the wrist due to the optical heart rate sensor. We often wished it was narrower so that a regular watch could also be worn on the other wrist while the Vivoactive tracked HR and activity. It's close to having two watches on... Not to fear Garmin also just introduced the Vivosmart HR now with GPS which is even narrower but more basic in its functions.
Vivoactive HR Best For: 
Runners seeking a sleek, small GPS, HR, and all activity smartwatch with a twist of vertical ascent descent data and most of the features of the bigger watches all at a reasonable price.

Forerunner 735XT

The Tri focused 735 is identical in shape, screen size, and weight to the Forerunner 235, also an Elevate wrist HR watch. It is entirely button controlled. I have both and can't tell the difference on the run between them.  It is surely the lightest full Tri watch on the market. You can switch between sports with one press of a button.
It  handles ANT+ power sensors, monitors swim stroke and even open water swimming distances and captures in water heart rate with the optional Swim chest strap. It connects to Garmin's new Varia Vision cycling awareness accessories- heads up display, smart bike lights, and rear view radar.

Strava's Suffer Score algorithm is pre loaded and can be displayed as a data field for those into that. Also available from Garmin IQ Connect for the other watches compared.  If you are a pure runner, like the light weight big screen size and do still want access to a full featured intervals mode and run physiology features of the 735XT such as the Recovery Advisor, Lactate Threshold and VO 2 Max the Forerunner 235 is a better value at $329.99. If some accurate rapid responding vertical is your game be it running, cycling, or skiing the Vivoactive HR is a great choice as the 735 does not have a barometric altimeter.

Forerunner 735XT Best For:
Triathletes who want a light, full featured multi-sport workout tool

Fenix 3 HR

The Fenix is rugged, thick, and metal cased with a bit low if solid responding metal buttons. There is no touch screen. It has a beautiful sapphire crystal, longer battery life than the others here, memory, navigation as well as barometric altimeter for on screen elevation, descent and ascent features. These last elements make it a great choice for trail running, downhill and nordic skiing with apps available for each  It has all the multi-sport functionality including swimming of the 735. along with the full suite of run physiology and Run Dynamics (with optional chest strap) of the 735.
The decision to buy the $599 Fenix 3 HR for many will rest on need for a ruggedized totally versatile watch and also if one also plans to wear it as an every day watch. It is a very handsome watch but a big and bulky one.  It's strap was stiff, thick and awkward at first but after a month of running softened considerably and is now very comfortable. This said, and to avoid constantly changing watches or having 2 watches or a dressy watch and 24/7 HR band on various wrists, the Fenix HR of the three is the one that has stays on my wrist most of the three.

Fenix 3 HR Best for:
The runner, multi-sport, or mountain athlete seeking long battery life and every feature in a rugged watch that can be worn for "all occasions".

LEFT: Garmin Vivosmart HR+ RIGHT: Garmin Fenix 3 HR
We have now tested and reviewed the incredibly small Garmin Vivosmart HR+ GPS watch and activity band. Narrower than many activity bands, this basic GPS watch is a marvel of miniaturization and usability. See our review here

Garmin's official comparison chart for the 735 XT, Vivoactive HR, 235, and Fenix 3 HR is here

LEFT to RIGHT Vivoactive HR, Forerunner 35, Vivosmart HR+

Update: Read our comparison review of the new run focused Forerunner 35, activity band sized GPS Vivosmart HR+, and  versatile Vivoactive HR here

Optical Heart Rate Tips and Tricks
Optical heart rate monitors can have irregular readings, most often very high early in runs then settling down.
  • Light and air leaking in under the watch as it sits on your wrist and interrupting the optical beam is what you want to try to avoid.
  • The cold and dry cold air also seems to be a factor in irregular readings. When you are cold there is less blood flow to your extremities. 
  • If you do not get regular readings or have spikes and drop outs play with shifting wrists and making sure the watch is snug but not painfully so. I found my slightly thicker dominant right wrist, and I have very skinny wrists, produced more consistent results. 
  • Wrap the watch about an inch back of your wrist bone, not on it.
  • The wrist straps when new are quite stiff particularly so on the Fenix HR but soften with some use making a good snug wrap to the wrist less problematic and painful over time.
Questions, Comments? Happy to try to answer! 

The Garmin products reviewed here were provided at no charge to Road Trail Run. The opinions herein are entirely our own.

Interested in 2016 running shoes? Road Trail Run has reviewed 45 different models in the last 6 months! 
Click Here for our summary page with links to all the reviews.

Click Here for RTR's in-depth 2017 Run Shoe Previews: New Balance, Brooks, Saucony, Salomon, Altra, adidas Outdoor, Hoka and More!

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Purchases at the links and images below help support Road Trail Run. Thanks!

Garmin watches can be purchased at 
Running Warehouse US here
Running Warehouse EU here
Running Warehouse AU  here

Garmin Fenix 3 HR from Backcountry.com here
Garmin Vivoactive HR from Backcountry.com here
Garmin Forerunner 735XT from Backcountry.com here

Garmin Fenix 3 HR from REI here
Garmin Vivoactive HR from REI here
Garmin Forerunner 735XT from REI here


Anonymous said...

Thanks Sam. What is the size of your wrist please?

sam winebaum said...

Hi Anonymous,
My left wrist is 6.4 inch/16.3 cm. My right dominant wrist is 6.75 inch/17.1 cm. Thanks for reading!

Anonymous said...

the 235 is $329.99 not $249.99. i think you were referring to the price of the FR230 without chest strap.

yet i agree, for most people, the 235 is a solid running watch at $120 less than the 735XT. i splurged and go the 735 for a few reasons which are probably not worth $120 for most people:

- the Ultra trac GPS mode
- the greater number of other activity profiles (hiking and walking)
- more data screens and greater customization
- modestly greater battery life (11 vs 14 hours GPS usage)
- amazingly, the 0.02" smaller diameter seems to make a big difference in appearance, even though that is such a small difference.

sam winebaum said...

Hi Anonymous, Thanks for your signaling the correction and for your analysis. Much appreciated. Thanks for reading!