Top positive review
A great fitness-focused smartwatch, but the price is steep
Reviewed in the United States on October 23, 2019
I've been using fitness trackers for several years now, starting with the Fitbit Flex, then the Microsoft Band, Microsoft Band 2, Fitbit Ionic, and now the Garmin Venu. I always gravitate more towards fitness-focused devices as opposed to app-focused "smartwatches" like the Apple Watch or Samsung Galaxy Watch, because I've never really seen the appeal of reading news or navigating a map using a tiny screen on my wrist. While I like the option of installing apps and add-ons, it's more important to me that the device tracks my sleep, heart rate, steps and workouts, and that it does all of those things well. With that in mind, I'm quite happy with my Venu after a couple weeks of owning it, but there are a few caveats.
- The battery life is at least as good as advertised. With the always on display mode disabled and pulse ox tracking enabled only while sleeping, I'm getting 5+ days on a charge. The raise-to-wake functionality is responsive enough to not be bothersome, but you can also have the display always on during activities only, which provides a good compromise between maximum battery life and maximum ease of use.
- GPS accuracy is generally great. It seems to be a noticeable improvement compared to the Fitbit Ionic, which was pretty good but had a tendency to cut corners.
- The workout display shows 4 different data fields on each screen, and you can customize the layout, order and number of screens. I haven't made too many changes yet, but I like having the option, and I definitely like having multiple screens with several fields per screen compared to the Ionic's rather limited selection.
- Heart rate accuracy seems great. I haven't done any actual comparison against other devices, but DC Rainmaker's tests showed good results and intuitively it feels accurate to me.
- I love the fitness-oriented features like auto step goal (which adjusts the goal based on your previous performance) and Garmin Coach (though I haven't yet used the latter extensively).
- It's one of the few Garmin devices that has a touch screen, which I still prefer from a usability perspective. Touchscreens on fitness devices can be finnicky and cause problems during activities, especially when it's raining or you're swimming, but the Venu software seems well designed to avoid those problems. In particular, there's no way to pause or stop an activity using the touch screen, which is a semi-common problem on Fitbit and Apple Watch.
- The watch has built-in support for lots of different activities, all of which have first-class support on the Garmin Connect website and also sync properly with Strava. This is a big one for me, because two of my biggest annoyances with the Fitbit Ionic were that it lacked support for skiing and snowboarding, and that the Fitbit website will not export activities without GPS data (i.e. heart rate-only activities), meaning such activities could not be synced to Strava.
- Phone notifications and connected data, e.g. in the weather widget, seem to work reliably. I shouldn't even have to mention this, except that on my Fitbit Ionic the weather app never worked, so it's nice to have a weather widget that actually works now.
- Third party apps, widgets and data fields on the Connect IQ store can add additional functionality. I especially like the idea of being able to add custom data fields to built-in activities, although I haven't used it yet.
- The price! $400 is pretty steep, especially when you can get an Apple Watch series 3 for less than $200. The Fitbit Ionic is also down to $230 now, and although I have a lot of gripes about it, it's still a pretty good watch if you don't mind some of the activity-specific shortcomings I mentioned above. [Edit: except now that Google has purchased Fitbit, I would not buy into their ecosystem.]
- No eBike activity, so you can't distinguish between normal bike rides and eBike rides in Connect. You can't even set this later on the Connect website, even though it supports many different types of cycling.
- No open water swimming support, even though Garmin supports this on other devices with the same GPS chipset, accelerometer, etc. In other words, I don't think there's any reason this watch couldn't support open water swimming, but Garmin is withholding the feature as a price differentiator. It's annoying that Garmin does this, and it feels anachronistic given that Apple always releases new WatchOS updates to older devices.
- Similarly, other Garmin devices have a lot of nice software features like training effect, altitude and heat acclimation, etc. which could have been included on this device but weren't. I'll cut Garmin a little more slack for this since they're licensing these features from FirstBeat, so they probably pay more per feature, but at least giving us the option to pay for that extra functionality without dropping another $200+ on a Fenix device would have been nice.
- Also no widget glance view which is supported on the Fenix 6 series. Scrolling (swiping) through several widgets can be tedious when you're looking for a specific one.
- Sleep tracking accuracy is fairly poor. Determining sleep quality is probably more of an art than a science anyway, but Fitbit seems to be noticeably better at it. Likewise, Pulse Ox doesn't match the readings I get from a finger-clip device, and "Body Battery" seems more or less useless.
- There is no way to filter notifications to only certain apps. Fitbit is clever about this in that it defaults to only calls and texts and maybe a handful of others, and you have to manually enable other apps, which prevents you from getting dozens of notifications on your wrist. With Garmin, it's either all on or all off. Also, notifications for most apps just show a generic icon based on the app's category, rather than the actual app icon, which Fitbit shows.
- The "Gorilla Glass" screen doesn't seem very resilient. Mine already has a small scratch on it even though I've been taking extra care not to damage my new toy. ☹ Buy a screen protector.
- The Connect IQ Store app has been broken for me ever since I got the watch. The main Connect app works, but not the Store. Luckily you can work around this by installing apps from the Connect IQ website. Also, notwithstanding what I said about not really caring about smartwatch apps, the Connect IQ app ecosystem is nothing to write home about, and a lot of the apps have very poor UI design.
That might seem like quite a few "cons" for a 4-star review, but they're mostly nitpicks. Overall the Venu feels like an upgrade from my Fitbit Ionic, and I'd recommend it to anyone looking for a fitness-focused smartwatch at a reasonable price point. That said, "reasonable" is relative, and while the Venu is affordable compared to the Fenix or MARQ series, $400 is still quite a bit of money for a smart watch.
If you're looking for a more detailed analysis from a more serious athlete, check out DC Rainmaker's impressions (I won't link to it lest I get caught in the spam filter, but if you search for "Garmin Venu with AMOLED Display: Everything You Ever Wanted to Know", you'll find it) or wait for his full review.