I’ve been playing with the Apple Watch for the last month, putting it through the paces as an everyday watch and a fitness tracker. I’ve had a Garmin Vivoactive for all three generations over the last three years, so I had a great comparison point. With it being a perfect time to test out running, skiing, and the normal daily uses of the watch, I was able to do a great head to head matchup between the two for the last month.
I love my Garmin watch. I think the Vivoactive line is pretty much the must underhyped smart watch. For runners, the combination of battery life, ease of use, and great tracking make it a perfect device and the style and price help as well. I actually got my first one after a raffle from a group run by Garmin at CES, but I’ve continued to upgrade my device each year as each generation arrived. While the Apple Watch is a great phone companion, I think the Garmin is the perfect smartwatch.
There’s no question that the Garmin is a much nicer looking watch than the Apple Watch. Even the newer Series 4 Apple Watch, while a bit slimmer, retains the rounded square look which adds bulk. The crown is a nice addition and makes the watch a little but more usable, but the Garmin looks good enough, especially with a leather band, to pass as a real watch. The always on display is also a nice touch, especially during activities, rather than the arm raising gesture the Apple Watch relies on, which doesn’t always work. The round face of the Garmin means less information fits on the screen, but I think it makes it look more premium anyway.
The Apple Watch has a superior touch screen, making it easier to interact with small icons and buttons which are prevalent throughout the system. Garmin however, relies on less complicated apps and interactions, and uses much larger touch targets making it easier to interact with when moving and bouncing around. While the Apple Watch lets you do far more, this means that there are enough interactions to make it confusing. Even after a month of use, I can’t remember what a long press of the buttons does versus double pressing them.
The battery life situation is starkly different enough that it affects usability as well. I can often go a week without charging the Garmin. The Apple Watch on the other hand, needs to be charged at least every two days, though with GPS use from tracking activities, it’s more like every day. While I can’t read the news or order an Uber from my Garmin as easily, this tradeoff in battery life is worth it.
The Apple Watch definitely surpasses the Garmin in terms of availability of apps, sheer number, feature set, and polish. Most of the big name apps for the iPhone have companion apps on the watch, useful apps like music and fitness tracking, and less useful ones like news readers and social media. But what I came to realize is that it doesn’t really matter. There are only a few functions I really want or need to be able to do on my watch and the others just add complexity. That tradeoff of additional functionality over simplicity and ease of use simply isn’t worth it to me. Garmin actually does support many third party apps and basically covers all the other things you’d want to do anyway like paying with NFC, showing texts and emails, quick replies to both, showing weather and calendar, and of course tracking workouts.
As a runner, tracking a run easily and without causing distraction while on the run is of the utmost importance. As is the ability to track a run fully without worrying about disconnects from the phone or running out of battery. Before getting the Garmin, I had been using a Pebble which required being paired to the phone and would often disconnect in the middle of runs or run out of juice, nearly causing me to throw it off my wrist during one challenging half marathon.
The Apple Watch does have enough power to last through at least a half marathon, though using it for a full might be a little risky. The ability to track directly with Strava is nice, but I found the data displayed to be less useful and customizable than my Garmin. Obviously Garmin knows running well and it shows in the optimization, accuracy, and customization provided on the watch. Multiple screens and multiple different data fields make it easy to quickly see the metrics and data that matters while on the run. Conversely I found that the Apple Watch didn’t allow customization, and the data I actually wanted to see was either not there or hard to see in the cramped screen.
The screen itself also makes a huge difference while on the run. I don’t want to have to fiddle with swiping or tapping on a screen while running. At best this is distracting and inconvenient, especially in the winter when I wear gloves, and at worse it can cause trips. Starting and stopping a run was the most problematic as it requires tapping on quite small buttons on the screen whereas the Garmin lets me leave my gloves on as I can start with the press of the crown button.
It’s a fairly similar situation with skiing. The Apple Watch doesn’t actually have a dedicated downhill ski mode, but the Strava app at least includes a mode for cross country skiing. Rather than starting and stopping while not moving or on the chairlift like the Garmin, these parts are included in the ski run speeds and timing. Worse, the tracking can’t be started or stopped without taking off gloves. I swear I lost the sensation in my fingers by the time I was able to start a run on an especially frigid day.
The data after the runs is also less useful than on the Garmin. With the Garmin, I can see the max, average, and individual speeds for each run and it even shows the name of each trail. I don’t totally know what to do with this information after the fact, but it’s nice to have.
Notifications, beside fitness tracking, are probably the defining feature for a smart watch. The Apple Watch excells with smart and usable notifications. The screen is used well by several apps which use it for useful info. My Nest camera even shows a picture of the event which triggered the notification on my wrist, nice for quickly seeing if I need to open the app on my phone.
Notifications like text messages and emails are useful as the watch allows replies, deleting, and dismissing these notifications, and even allows typing a custom response on the small screen. The Garmin does show notifications as well, and though it doesn’t allow custom responses, it does at least offer useful actions like canned responses and deleting messages.
The Apple Watch is no slouch as a smart watch. In the four generations since it’s entry to the market, it’s quickly become a strong entry in the smartwatch space by focusing on what matters and eliminating what doesn’t. For iPhone users really bought into the entire Apple ecosystem, anyone using Apple music, Apple Health, podcasts, and iMessage, it’s definitely the most seamless and integrated option for a watch. For those who just have an iPhone and use third party apps, or have another type of phone, there are other options. The Garmin is my favorite option out there, largely because they’ve done such a good job tailoring the experience for runners. Apple would be well served in my opinion in consulting with serious runners to fine tune the experience and make it a bit more usable for them. That small difference might make it a far more usable watch al around. For now, I’m keeping my Garmin.