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Also see my post with the updated versions of these watches: Garmin Forerunner 245 (Music) vs. Vivoactive 4S.
After 9 years of running, I finally invested in a GPS watch last December. As background, I’m a distance runner (half marathon to 50k) but have also dabbled in triathlons and actually cross-train most of the week. (If you’re curious, you can read more about my unusual triathlon-style marathon training).
I initially opted for the classic Garmin Forerunner 235, which is basically the holy grail of entry-level GPS watches. After testing the watch out for a couple days, I wondered if there was a better option for me though. The watch was a little bulky, and the protruding heart rate monitor was uncomfortable against my wrist. The Forerunner 235 has also been around since 2015, so I figured that there must be a more recent piece of technology better worth my $200.
So, I ordered a Garmin Vivoactive 3 Music to try alongside the Forerunner 235. I ended up keeping the Vivoactive 3 Music and returning the Forerunner 235, but I think both watches have their merits, and both are some of the best GPS watches for runners under $200. Here are my observations.
Reasons to Pick the Forerunner 235
The Forerunner 235 is one of the most popular entry-level GPS watches, but I personally think it’s overrated for the features it offers. It also is older technology, having been released in 2015 (the Vivoactive 3 Music was released in 2018, and the non-music version in 2017).
There are, however, some reasons to choose it over the Vivoactive 3:
- The Forerunner 235 latches onto GPS signal immediately, while I’ve had to wait several minutes with the Vivoactive 3, especially if I’ve changed geographical location (like one country/state to another). After that initial GPS signal search, the Vivoactive 3 still takes 10-30 seconds to find signal. I didn’t use the Forerunner 235 in different locations, but it was still faster than the Vivoactive 3 in the same location.
- There’s no touchscreen, which can be easier to use if you have gloves on, or if your hands are cold. The button navigation is also intuitive and easy to use. The Vivoactive 3 has a touchscreen and only one button with long-and short-hold navigation, so it can sometimes take a couple tries to get what you want with the button.
- This watch comes with a recovery advisor, which recommends the amount of rest time/easy efforts you should take after a run, based on your effort. It’s also equipped with a race predictor, which gives you projected race times based on your runs. These were not very accurate for me, but I also have heard from others that they’re uncannily accurate for them. I think it depends a lot on what you’re training for and how often you’re running. Since I cross-train most days, it might be more difficult to get accurate race prediction times.
- The Forerunner 235 has Audio Prompts, which aren’t available in the Vivoactive 3. You can set up your Garmin Connect app to include announcements during your workout, including: pace, speed, heart rate, lap number, lap time. You must have your phone with you though, as the prompts come from your phone, and not your watch.
Reasons to Pick the Vivoactive 3
Since I chose the Vivoactive 3 Music in the end, it’s obviously the watch I prefer. Beyond that though, I’ve tested 4 other popular Garmin watches, and I feel that the Vivoactive 3 is the absolute best value. Here’s what I like about it:
- This watch feels more “modern,” probably due to the touchscreen and sleeker design (the Forerunner 235 feels very plastic-y and bulky). According to older reviews, the Vivoactive 3’s touchscreen used to be overly sensitive and activate randomly, but I haven’t had an issue with this, so it must’ve been resolved in an update.
- The Vivoactive 3 Music has a music storage function, so you can connect Bluetooth headphones and keep your tunes with you on the run (you can even access Spotify Premium now!). If you don’t listen to music while running, there is the non-music Vivoactive 3 that is currently cheaper than both the Vivoactive 3 Music and the Forerunner 235. I actually don’t use the music function, and I prefer to be lost in my thoughts while running haha. I got the music version primarily for aesthetic reasons, to be completely honest (if I’m gonna spend $200 on a watch, I better like how it looks!). The non-music Vivoactive 3 has a metal bezel that I’m not particularly fond of.
- The heart rate monitor of the Forerunner 235 juts out and sticks into your wrist, which is uncomfortable if you’re wearing the watch for an extended period of time. The Vivoactive 3 HR sensor doesn’t protrude, so it’s much easier to wear.
- You can track flights of stairs climbed because the Vivoactive 3 has a barometric altimeter, and the Forerunner 235 doesn’t. This also means that elevation tracking is more accurate in the Vivoactive 3, which is helpful for trail runners and hikers.
- The Vivoactive 3 can track more activities, such as pool swimming, cardio, strength, golfing, skiing, etc (the Forerunner 235 only tracks running and biking). I was particularly interested in the swimming stats (pace per 100m, average number of strokes, etc). Note that in swimming mode, heart rate is disabled. Also, the swimming function can be pretty inaccurate if you’re not a strong swimmer with consistent strokes. I usually get numbers that are 15% or more greater than what I’ve actually swum, but that’s likely on me for varying my stroke in the middle of a lap, or not having a strong stroke. Others say that swim tracking is very accurate unless there’s some external cause.
There a couple other features of the Vivoactive 3 that the Forerunner 235 doesn’t have: stress tracking, Livetrack, Incident Detection (music version only), and Garmin Pay (these weren’t game-changers for me, but could be for others). Stress tracking is pretty self-explanatory. Incident Detection will alert your emergency contacts if an incident is detected during an activity (like falling from your bike or collapsing during a run). You must have your phone nearby and have it connected to your watch though. Garmin Pay allows you to make contactless payments without your wallet or phone; you just use your watch! I haven’t tried it yet, but will report back once I have.
Check out my in-depth review of the Vivoactive 3 Music for more info.
The Bottom Line
Here’s a more visual comparison of the features of the two watches:
|Vivoactive 3||Forerunner 235|
|Running & biking||✔||✔|
|Other cardio tracking profiles||✔||✗|
|Race Predictor & Recovery Time||✗||✔|
|Can hold music||✔ (music option)||✗|
If you’re a hardcore runner who wants fast GPS signal and doesn’t care to wear the watch for extended periods of time as a fitness tracker, I recommend the Forerunner 235. If you do other sports too and want a comfortable watch to wear all day, go with the Vivoactive 3.
Those leaning towards the Forerunner 235 should know that there’s been buzz around the alleged release of the Forerunner 245, so you might want to wait for the updated version (either to snatch the new watch up, or the get better prices on the older Forerunner). [EDIT: released in April 2019, and an updated version of the Vivoactive 3 was also released in Fall 2019. See my review of the Forerunner 245 and Vivoactive 4 for more info.]
Ultimately, I’m happy with my Vivoactive 3 Music. If I were to go back and do it again, I might test out another watch–the Coros APEX–since it has double the battery life (25 and 35 hours for the 42mm and 46mm, respecitively). The Vivoactive 3 Music’s 13 hours does the job, but if I were to tackle longer ultramarathons, I’d want longer battery life. Some more advanced metrics might be nice too–the Coros Apex measures stamina remaining after a run, as well as your anaerobic and aerobic thresholds.
Where to Buy the Garmin Forerunner 235 and Vivoactive 3
If you have either of these watches, I’d love to know your thoughts. Or, if you have another one I haven’t considered, leave us a recommendation!
I also wrote another comparison on the Forerunners, if you’re deciding between the Forerunner 235 vs. 245.
I also have a post on the best GPS watches under $200 (yes I’m a big GPS watch nerd).