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Garmin Vivofit 3: The $100 fitness tracker you can leave on for a year

As the wearable fitness-tracker explosion rolls along, Fitbit has become the 800-pound gorilla. On Amazon, the top seven bestselling fitness trackers are all Fitbits.

The eighth bestselling tracker, though, is a Garmin, and it reminds us that not every good idea in fitness tracking comes from Fitbit.

These days, the trackers you can buy basically boil down to three categories. At the low end, there’s the $100 band. It counts your steps, measures your sleep (including deep and light cycles), reminds you to move if you’ve been sitting still for an hour, and lets you participate in “who can rack up the most steps this week” challenges with other owners of the same brand. These are fantastic motivational tools that almost can’t help but make you healthier and more fit.

If you’re willing to spend a little more (and strap a little more bulk to your wrist), you can get a midrange band. They track more things, like your heart rate and the number of stairs you’ve climbed. (Heart rate is an important indicator of your overall metabolism, how efficiently you’re exercising, and how healthy your heart is overall — your resting heart rate.)

Finally, if you’re hardcore — you run races, you know your PR (personal record), you know what VO2 means — you probably want a big fat athlete’s watch. It tracks your heart rate, location, lap times, and enough other stats to fill a lifetime of spreadsheets, but you might not want to wear it to your inauguration.

Here’s what these three categories look like, as presented by Fitbit and Garmin:

Our subject today is the latest $100 band from Garmin: the Vivofit 3.

What’s new

The Vivofit 3 doesn’t actually pack many more features than the model it replaces, the Vivofit 2. Now it autodetects certain kinds of exercise (running, swimming, cycling, elliptical), which is very helpful. It tracks a new measurement: intensity minutes (minutes of activity that really get you panting).

It still doesn’t show incoming texts, calls, and calendar reminders from your phone, the way the Fitbit Alta does. It doesn’t offer vibrating alarms to quietly wake you.

No, the big news is a nod toward fashion. Like its archrival, the Fitbit Alta, the new Vivofit is, in fact, just a little capsule that you can pop out of its band —

— and pop into a different one.

Unfortunately, the options for replacement bands won’t be mistaken for, you know, anything from Tiffany’s. They’re plastic and kind of tacky looking — and surprisingly wide.

Where Garmin wins

So if the Vivofit 3 is uglier than the Alta and doesn’t do as much, why should it even exist?

For reasons that you wish would occur to Fitbit, Inc. (and Jawbone and Apple).

For example, the Vivofit 3 is waterproof. That’s a big, big deal; water is a fact of life. You can wear the Vivofit in the shower. You can wear it swimming. (Don’t try that with a Fitbit or Apple Watch.)

Here’s another reason: The Vivofit uses a disposable, coin-style battery that lasts a year on a charge. You cannot believe how great an idea that is. It means that you don’t have to carry around a proprietary charging cable, as you do for a Fitbit or Apple Watch. And, of course, it means that you don’t have to take the band off every five days to charge it, missing out on any activity you could have logged while it’s plugged in.

I’ve asked a bunch of people which they’d prefer: a battery that you have to take off and recharge every few days, or a coin battery that you change once a year. Garmin’s approach wins by a landslide.

Now, think about those two factors together: Since you can wear the Vivofit in the shower and you never have to take it off to charge, the bottom line is that you can wear it all the time.

The Vivofit band also snaps on a lot more easily and quickly than Fitbit’s, which always requires some fussing. On the Vivofit, you just press the two strap ends together — they snap nicely — and then you can turn a tiny lock wheel to keep it solid.

Of course, since you never have to take it off, you won’t care much about that better clasp design, but still.

The passive screen

Finally, it’s worth noting that Garmin’s Vivo family uses passive-reflective screens. That is, the letters and numbers don’t actually glow or produce their own light; they appear silvery-gray against a black screen. The light to see it is provided by the world around you.

This design has three gigantic advantages over the glowing-screen technologies used by Fitbit, Apple, and others. First, the screen is always on, so you can use it as a watch. (Fitbit and Apple screens are dark all the time until you press a button or raise your wrist.)

Second, this kind of screen uses almost no battery power.

And third, it looks amazing in bright sunlight — far crisper and clearer than self-glowing screens, which wash out in the sun.

The tradeoff, of course, is that the screen is hard to read when ambient light isn’t good. There’s a backlight, but it helps only in really dim light.

You may have encountered this tradeoff before. It’s the same one presented by the e-ink screens of the Amazon Kindle ebook readers (washed out indoors, great in sunshine) versus color tablets (washed out in the sun, great in the dark).

The Vivofit 3 screen also displays Garmin’s red Move Bar at the top. It grows longer the more you sit still without moving — and erases itself if you walk around for a couple of minutes.

That’s a fantastic feature. Sitting makes you fat, reduces bone density, contributes to heart disease, and makes you less productive — but moving a little once every hour goes a long way toward fighting off those awful outcomes.

The app and the wrap

The Garmin app on your phone shows a wealth of colorful graphs for your steps, sleep, exercise, and so on. The app isn’t very pretty, though, and it’s fairly hard to navigate. And to fetch the latest data from the band, you have to hold down the band’s button. It’s not automatic when you open the app, as on rival bands.

In general, the Vivofit 3 isn’t as good a tracker as the Fitbit Alta, which offers better looks and more features for the same price. Garmin’s sleep-detection algorithms, in particular, aren’t nearly as good as Fitbit’s. (For one thing, they claimed I’d had a nap at one point when, in fact, I’d actually taken off the band.)

Also, the two trackers show a different number of steps at the end of each day. (Which is weird, since they both showed the same number of steps — 1,004 — when, as a test, I took 1,000 paces down the interminable Terminal 4 at Kennedy International Airport.) 

But the waterproof thing, the one-year battery thing, and the band-clasp thing — those are some pretty potent arguments for putting up with paltry powers and a potentially unpreposessing appearance.

David Pogue is the founder of Yahoo Tech; here’s how to get his columns by email. On the Web, he’s davidpogue.com. On Twitter, he’s @pogue. On email, he’s poguester@yahoo.com. He welcomes nontoxic comments in the Comments section below.