It’s been a long time coming but Polar has finally replaced its flagship multisports watch, the Polar V800 with the brand new Vantage V, a top-end training tracker that’s designed for elite athletes or anyone with a serious competitive streak.
Alongside the V, they also launched a successor to the Polar M430, the more affordable Vantage M. Both watches share similar design, technology and features and represent quite a sizeable step forward but the Vantage M is missing some of the more advanced features and as such is aimed at the more casual everyday athlete, that we’ll call the 'parkrun to marathon PBers' – catchy, huh? This review is much more about the V, because T3 is HARDCORE.
Anyway, I got hands on with the V800’s successor at the launch European launch and here are my first impressions.
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Polar Vantage V and Vantage M: release date
You can pre-order both Vantage watches now, with units shipping in early October. The Vantage V price is £439 (think Garmin Forerunner 935) and the Vantage M price is £249 (somewhere between the Forerunner 235 and the Forerunner 630).
Polar Vantage V: Design
There’s no doubt that with the Vantage V and the lookalike Vantage M, Polar has produced its best looking watches ever – although many would say that is almost damning with faint praise.
Reverting to a more traditional round watch face with subtle stainless steel buttons, bezel and casing, what you’ve got here is a watch that looks good enough for all-day use.
The Vantage V feels great on the wrist, partly because it’s nice and lightweight – 13g lighter than the V800 – and partly because it’s a little more compact than some of its chunkier competitors from Garmin and, particularly, Suunto. There’s also a much softer, more flexible strap that makes it much comfortable than the V800.
Up front there’s a colour touchscreen display that’s not quite Apple Watch sharp but crisp and clear enough to make reading your data easy on the move. The touchscreen wasn’t quite as responsive as we’d like but it’s important to point out that the device we tested was a beta version and rounds of software updates are expected before the main watch goes on sale.
If you prefer to use buttons to navigate – we certainly do when we’re mid workout – then there are five textured side buttons to flick your way through the screens. Navigation of the interface wasn’t quite as intuitive as we’d hoped, for a start Polar has opted for a side scroll between the main data screens rather than the up and down.
Overall this is a neat, sophisticated timepiece that brings Polar much more in line with the rest of the market when it comes to style. But there’s substance here too.
Polar Vantage V: features including possible best in class wrist heart rate
Flip the Vantage V over and you’ll see one of the major updates. The optical heart rate sensor sports no fewer than nine LEDs in two colours (5 green and 4 red) which allows for multiple optical channels using several wavelengths of light to penetrate deeper into your skin for improved heart rate readings.
The optical heart rate bump – yes that is the official term – is quite prominent, much more so than you’d see on the Apple Watch, for example, but we’re told this is essential for delivering the best fit for heart rate accuracy. It’s not noticeable when you’re wearing it and is a trade off I'm willing to make for better BPM readings.
There are also four bio-impedance electrical sensors that measure skin contact to provide some extra data that can be used to refine the heart rate readings, for example picking up when there might be bad contact during vigorous movement.
Running Power from the Wrist
The Polar Vantage V is the first watch in the world to offer running power from the wrist. While companies like Stryd has offered this metric via footpods for a while, Polar has broken new ground in bringing power readings to your wrist alone.
Power, measured in Watts, has long been used by cyclists as a way to measure their output, how hard they’re working, during training and racing but it’s a new concept for runners. What running power provides is a more reliable way to see the actual work a runner is doing.
Until now we’ve used heart rate or pace as guide to effort and effectiveness but there are gaps in both. For example, heart rate readings tend to lag in real time, so when you run up a hill or rapidly increase your effort, your heart rate can take time to catch up.
Pace, on the other hand, gets complicated when you factor in hills and undulating courses because it’s difficult to know how to change your pace to keep a steady workrate, making it hard to see how much effort you’ve done in training or to pace a race effectively.
Power plugs these gaps with new data, giving you a consistent way to read workload regardless of the terrain and in a way that’s instantly visible on your watch. You can run a hilly marathon at the same intensity from start to finish just by following one power number. When you hit the hills you’re forced to slow your pace to stay at the same power and that helps manage exertion far better than using heart rate or pace.
Polar’s power readings are taken using a combination of the barometer and the GPS speed, crunched with an algorithm that estimates your power output. What you get on your wrist is a single number that tells you your power output and a set of zones that work much like your heart rate zones would so you can manage your different levels of intensity during a workout.
We tested Polar’s power against the Stryd footpod during two short runs and what we found was that the Vantage V tracked much higher than the Stryd. Both responded equally in real time, so we could instantly see the power numbers change as our speed and effort increased.
It’ll definitely take a while for runners to get their head around how best to adopt and apply this new metric but this is a trend we’ll see growing in the coming years.
Power is an important indication of running efficiency that’s previously been invisible. The ideal scenario is that over time, when you plot your power stats alongside your heart rate for a specific workout, that you see the same power output, or even more power, for less 'effort'.
Measuring your power regularly will help you see how you progress and building more power can be achieved by doing more hill training, more strength work in the gym or even dropping your body fat but keeping lean muscle.
It's a great for metric for race pacing too. It can stop you making that classic marathon mistake of going out too fast when you feel good in those first few miles and then suffering later. Instead you run at one target power number that you should be able to sustain for the duration of your race, thus avoiding the dreaded wall, or blowing up with six miles to go.
If we had one criticism of Polar’s current power offering it’s that there’s no tool to help you establish what your target race power should be. Stryd offers this in the form of a race power calculator that takes a recent 5k,10k or half marathon time and then tells you what your target power should be for your upcoming race, again depending on the distance. As it stands Polar will need you to work that out and that’s quite a complicated thing to do correctly.
Polar Vantage V improved optical heart rate on the wrist
As we mentioned Polar has introduced new heart rate technology, Precision Prime. This fuses together data from three different sensors to provide what it calls ‘the most accurate optical heart rate yet’.
There are nine LED optical channels, a 3D accelerometer and four electrode sensors to measure skin contact. What all this means is that Polar can send more light into the skin to more accurately spot changes in the movement of blood and it can also use movement and skin contact information to filter out any motion or loss of contact that might affect your heart rate readings.
We put this to the test on our runs up against the Garmin Fenix 5 Plus optical heart rate and there were quite sizeable discrepancies. The Fenix 5 Plus average heart rate for the session was 103BPM compared to 108BPM on the Vantage V. We got max heart rate readings from the same session of 141BPM from the Garmin against 168BPM from Polar.
Based on the intensity of the session we ran – it involved some close to all-out sprints, we can pretty safely say that the latter feels more accurate.
So can we finally ditch the heart rate chest strap? The data we were shown from Polar’s own tests suggests that the short answer is yes. At least for most ‘normal’ people the heart rate accuracy from the new sensor is accurate enough. If you’re a swimmer the Vantage V should also give the most accurate data you’ll get in the pool.
Despite that, the V is actually sold with in a bundle an H10 chest strap (£479 the pair). That's because you need one to use the full range of recovery metrics, and specifically to do the orthostatic test. Outside of that, the wrist reader should suffice – that's a huge step forward if it proves reliable over the long term.
Polar Vantage V smart coaching features
While running power will grab the headlines here, the Vantage V’s training load and recovery features are perhaps even more impressive. At least if you’re someone who needs to get deep into the training data and likes to avoid injury risk.
New Training Load Pro and Recovery Pro features track how much strain each workout is putting on the body to let you know whether you’re under-training, have had a productive session, or are at risk for over-training/injury.
While this concept has been around in watches for a while, the way Polar assesses this data is different. For the first time it breaks down muscle load, cardio load and perceived load – that’s how much ass you think you busted – to create a more holistic picture of the impact of your training.
Having crunched this data it doesn’t just leave you with a number, it’ll also make solid recommendations on what you should do next, whether that’s take a rest day or switch to a different type of workout. This kind of intelligent feedback is new and definitely exciting.
In terms of recovery, the Polar Vantage V also reveals how well you’re recovering, taking into account other data such as sleep, general activity outside of your workouts and your heart rate variability to suggest how long. In order to get the full suite of recovery insights you will need to invest in a Polar H10 chest strap, which is used to conduct the necessary orthostatic tests that provide some of the data.
It takes at least eight training sessions in a 28-day period to provide the most accurate results so we weren’t able to test this fully.
Polar Vantage M: it's not just for runners
Like the Garmin Forerunner 935 that it seems to have squarely in its gunsights, the Vantage V is very adept at multiple activities, going way beyond just pavement pounding. There is tracking for 'over 130 sports', in fact.
While many of these are differently-named variants on the standard format of 'GPS + time + heart rate tracking' (or, in the gym, 'reps + time + heart rate tracking'), there seems to be solid support for key activities such as gym cardio, interval and strength workouts, cycling and, as mentioned earlier, swimming.
Polar Vantage V battery life
Battery life is probably the biggest moan when it comes to GPS sportswatches. And in recent months we’ve finally seen the manufacturers address this, not least with the Suunto 9 delivering up to 120 hours of tracking in GPS mode.
While Polar hasn’t gone to that extreme, the Polar Vantage V claims to give you 40 hours of workout time on a single charge with the heart rate sensor and GPS firing. We’ve not been living with it long enough to put this to the test fully but in the 48-hours that we had ours on for, including a one hour workout, we only saw a small drop in the battery.
And what about the Vantage M?
Polar's Vantage M strips out many of the more advanced coaching and analytical features, but keeps the advanced heart rate tech, waterproofing and shares a very similar look to the Vantage V.
I did not get to use this watch a lot at the launch, but first impressions are that it is likely to sell more than the Vantage V due to its lower price, and the fact that many runners just don't aspire to the Elite level that the Vantage V caters for. Shocking, I know…
Polar Vantage V for verdict: A possible Forerunner beater, and a big step forward for runners
At £439 (or £479 with the Polar H10 chest strap) the Polar Vantage V is at the higher end of the sportswatch spectrum and represents a serious investment. But if you’re someone who cares a lot about performance then, based on what I’ve seen so far, this is a watch that’s got a great deal to offer.
It’s certainly bringing new insights with power and its suite of training load and recovery tools, on paper at least, appear to be right up there as some of the most comprehensive you’ll get outside of a lab.