Review: Garmin Vivoactive 3 (Music) vs. Garmin Forerunner 235

March 31, 2019

Garmin Vivoactive 3 Music after the Barcelona Half Marathon.

This post contains affiliate links, so I may receive commission on any purchases you make. This doesn’t cost you any extra. If you make a purchase on Amazon or Garmin, it would mean a ton if you did so through my links (or even just clicked through them now), as your support allows me to write more comparisons to try to help you 🙂

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.

Garmin Forerunner 235 vs. Vivoactive 3 (Music)

(Sorry, I don’t have any photos of the Forerunner 235 since I returned it without having the foresight of taking review photos. I suppose I could creep and do a watch photoshoot in my local sporting goods store, but I’d rather not look too suspicious haha).

EDIT: Actually went to creep in a sporting goods store, so here you go!

garmin forerunner 235
garmin forerunner 235

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.

garmin vivoactive 3 musicgarmin vivoactive 3 musicgarmin vivoactive 3 music

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 3Forerunner 235
Running & biking
Barometric altimeter
Pool Swimming
Other cardio tracking profiles 
Race Predictor & Recovery Time
Touchscreen
Incident detection
Can hold music ✔ (music option)
Stress
Audio Prompts
Garmin Pay

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

Garmin 

Amazon 

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!

If you’re also considering the Forerunner 45, check out my comparisons of the Forerunner 45 vs. Vivoactive 3 and Forerunner 45 vs. 235.

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). 

Happy training,

 

12 Comments

  • Evangeline June 25, 2020 at 2:18 pm

    Love reading through your various watch comparisons – it’s very helpful! I have several questions though. I currently run with a Forerunner 35 but am considering an upgrade at some point, as it’s certainly limited with activity profiles and it doesn’t have GLONASS tracking. I had been mainly looking into other forerunners, but I am now curious about the vivoactive. Do you find that you’re still happy with the vivoactive? I am quite willing to run in the rain, sleet, and snow, so I’m a little nervous about getting a touchscreen watch if things like raindrops (or even sweat) would potentially cause the screen to think I am touching it. Also, do you have to have your phone with you in order to listen to music on your vivoactive? I typically only run with music on treadmill runs as I have my phone and Bluetooth headphones right with me, but hate taking my phone with me on outdoor runs. It is admittedly nice to have music on some long runs though, so the perks of listening with headphones but not needing my phone sounds quite nice.

    • Lily June 25, 2020 at 4:14 pm

      Hi Evangeline, thanks for your questions! To answer them:

      1. I’ve had the Vivoactive 3 Music for 1.5 years now and am still happy with it. I still consider it the best value watch for the price, and I’ve tested 8 different GPS watches at this point. I run in the rain and snow too, and haven’t had any issues with the touchscreen, though it will sometimes get activated in warm showers. It’s worth noting that I also swim with the watch, and haven’t had issues with the touchscreen then.

      2. If you get the music version (usually around $200), you can listen to music from your watch with Bluetooth headphones. Your watch can store music, and you can also use Spotify Premium, Deezer, and Amazon Music. The sound quality is quite good, in my opinion! The only thing is that some headphones have trouble connecting, so just be aware of that. Garmin has a list of recommended headphones, but I’ve found that others have worked fine too.

      I hope this helps! Let me know if you have more questions!

  • Landon July 2, 2020 at 11:42 pm

    Greetings! So I’ve been doing some small research trying to figure out what kind of a watch/tracker I should go with. I think I’ve narrowed down that Garmin should be the brand. Looking at some models currently there seems to be some really good prices on Amazon and even Garmins website. What are your thoughts between choosing the 45 or the Vivoactive 3. I mostly run and and bike, nothing serious but getting into it more. I’d like something also to be comfortable to wear to bed to track sleep. My Fossil Q Explorist HR was not a good choice. Also which one would track using a HIIT machine like a Bowflex Max Trainer? Thank you for any thoughts and suggestions you may have!

    • Lily July 3, 2020 at 9:12 am

      Hi Landon! Either the Forerunner 45 or Vivoactive 3 should work for you. Both have cardio tracking (not HIIT specifically, but general cardio), and both are comfortable to wear. It depends on whether you prefer the Vivoactive 3’s touchscreen navigation, extra activity profiles (like pool swimming), or want Garmin Pay. It also has a barometric altimeter which gives you more accurate elevation stats, and allows you to track floors climbed. On the flip side, the Forerunner 45 has a smaller version that is really light and comfortable, and it has the Body Battery metric which monitors your energy levels. I think the Vivoactive 3 is better value than the Forerunner 45, based on the price and what it offers, but the Forerunner 45 is still a good watch.

      • Landon July 3, 2020 at 1:03 pm

        Thanks for the reply! I think I just need to pull the trigger on one! It’s been difficult to say the least lol. I can get a 45 for about $170 or the V3 for about $130. Sounds like the V3 even with the lower price has a better value overall. Between the 2 which one would you say has the better band? I understand they can be replaced, but wouldn’t want to do that unless needed down the road.

        • Lily July 3, 2020 at 4:14 pm

          No problem! The Vivoactive 3 has a more flexible band than the Forerunner 45. It’s also easier to switch out since they have quick-release bands. The Forerunner 45 can’t lie flat since the band is curved from the watch face, and you need a small screwdriver to change the bands (often included with replacement bands). I’ve had my Vivoactive 3 Music for 1.5 years now and haven’t needed to switch bands, though my strap holder recently broke. I just made a makeshift one with duct tape since I don’t want to replace the whole band for such a small part haha. Hope this helps 🙂

  • Colleen McGuinn August 20, 2020 at 10:31 am

    thank you so much for this honest/practical review of both. I’m just an every day runner, nothing too fancy… but agree I want a watch that looks good. Stumbled upon this while doing a google search to compare the watches and it was very helpful. thanks!!!!

    • Lily August 20, 2020 at 10:32 am

      Glad you found it helpful, Colleen! Thanks for leaving such a kind comment, and happy running 🙂

  • Fabio August 22, 2020 at 10:29 am

    Vivoactive 3
    doesn’t have the interval training mode right?

    • Lily August 22, 2020 at 9:10 pm

      Hi Fabio! The Vivoactive 3 does actually allow you to program workouts from your phone and send them to your watch. You can set up interval training 🙂

  • rahmat panji August 25, 2020 at 12:47 pm

    Thank you sooooo much for your review and comparison. i ve been wanting to buy vivoactive 3 since forever but a bit hesitate if its value for money since i am mainly gpingbto use it for swimming and cycling

    • Lily August 26, 2020 at 10:19 am

      No problem, Rahmat! I do think it’s a great value watch, but you might also consider the Garmin Swim 2 if you’re planning to mostly swim (especially in open water, since the Vivoative 3 doesn’t have that). The Swim 2 also tracks biking and running.

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    I'm Lily, and I run races and go places (& blog about it). I also try to advocate for the planet & its people.
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