Fitness watch faceoff: Garmin vivoactive HR vs. Fitbit Surge

garmin vivosactive hr fitbit surge

Garmin vivoactive HR (left) and Fitbit Surge fitness watches

Credit: Garmin/Fitbit

Garmin's vivoactive HR and Fitbit's Surge fitness watches both cost $250, and they have many similar features. However, the wearables also each have unique strengths and shortcomings.

Garmin's new vivoactive HR wearable is designed to compete directly with Fitbit's Surge. Both devices are fitness watches with some smartwatch notification capabilities. Each has built-in GPS for mapping outdoor exercise and related statistics. Both automatically track sleep, and they work along with community leaderboards, so owners can compete against other users. The two watches each cost $250, and both are quality products.

So how can you tell which one is a better fit for you? Here are a few notable differentiators.

Reasons to pick vivoactive HR instead of Surge

Vivoactive HR [ Find it on Amazon *What’s this?* ] is designed for use in the water, and it has an exercise mode you can select specifically for swimming. I didn't test Garmin's wearable in a pool, but I wore it in the shower without incident. In comparison, Fitbit says Surge [ Find it on Amazon ] is water resistant but not "swim proof," so the watch doesn't offer any swim exercise mode.

You can download any of about 38,000 golf courses using Garmin's free smartphone Connect app and track your game via GPS and golf course maps, using vivoactive HR's golf activity mode. The device is a scaled-down version of Garmin's dedicated line of Approach golf watches, which are generally well regarded. (I'm not a golfer, so I didn't test the feature.) Surge doesn't offer any sort of Golf-related features.

Garmin's vivoactive HR and Connect app work together to gather and serve lots of different activity data. For example, if you go out for a walk, the Garmin app gives you four different screens of data related to your activity after you're done. The first provides a graphical overview that including a map of your path, along with total walk time, distance and calories burned. The second screen breaks down pace, speed, timing, heart rate, elevation and calories. On the third screen, you see details on each lap. And the fourth has bar charts that show your pace, heart rate, elevation and time in your heart-rate zones.

vivoactive hr garmin

Using Fitbit Surge, Blaze or the GPS in your smartphone, the Fitbit mobile app shows one screen of similar walk-related data. That screen includes a map of your route, lap and mile splits, time in heart-rate zones, graphs of your heart rate and calories burned, and other stats, such as how many steps you took toward your daily step goal. Fitbit's data is useful, but Garmin gives you more of it.

However, neither app does a great job of interpreting all the data collected into useful insight or advice. How did the pace of your 3.86 mile walk compare to other walkers in your zip code or age range? How did last night's sleep impact today's workout? Those aren't the kinds of thing you learn from these two gadgets, or any other current-generation activity tracker.

Reasons to pick Surge instead of vivoactive HR

Perhaps the previously stated information has you ready to buy a vivoactive HR. If so, go for it. It's a good product, it has a reasonably accurate heart-rate monitor, it provides lots of activity data, and it's ideal for swimmers, golfers, and even paddleboarders — yes, it has an exercise mode that tracks paddleboarding.

If I don't sound wildly enthusiastic, however, that's because I'm not completely sold on vivoactive HR. Fitbit Surge's on-screen menus are more intuitive. The Fitbit app is more streamlined, and new users will likely get up to speed more quickly with Surge than they would with Garmin's Connect app.

Fitbit also offers the recently-released Blaze activity watch, which is less expensive ($200) than Surge and vivoactive HR, and it has many of Surge's best features. Blaze does not, however, have built-in GPS, so it uses your smartphone's GPS instead.

Before you buy Surge, Blaze or vivoactive HR, you should find out which ecosystem — Fitbit or Garmin — your friends belong to. Competing against people you know on a leaderboard is incredibly motivating. So even if you really like the vivoactive HR, Fitbit may be a better fit if most of your friends wear Fitbits, or vice versa.

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