Polar RS400 Review : A mega heart rate monitor for the new year’s resolutions
On my continued quest to find the best heart-based training tool out there, and to now seriously start my new year’s health resolutions, I got myself a Polar RS400 heart rate monitor (technically I received it for Christmas). I preferred the RS400 over the higher end (and far more expensive) RS800cx model because most of the features of the RS800Cx were redundant with the features of my Garmin EDGE 705 bike-mounted GPS device (which is cumbersome to use in a gym).
Also, whilst this is a general review of the RS400, I will ocassionally compare it to my experience with the basic Suunto model, the T1c. I have not had a chance to review the Suunto T4c (the closest feature-wise to the Polar RS400 is perhaps the T6c, but the T4c is pretty close for the average person) to determine how it compares to the RS400 on a feature by feature basis, but many of the interface and hardware features of the T4c are shared with the T1c, so I will comment on the Suunto T series where relevant and on a general basis.
There are several things that have me torn on the Polar vs. Suunto war, but the biggest is on how they help you assess your state of under or over training. Polar has proprietary tests they use (Polar Fitness Test + OwnOptimizer) and Suunto has its own (Training Effect + Suunto Coach) for the similarly featured watches. The question for me, therefore was, which of the two is best for the basic stuff (heart rate, % of Max, average bpm, time, and possibly zones or limits) and which of the two is best for the proprietary tests that allow you to asses your state of training (under or over) to assist you in improving your health over time and without injury.
One thing that made me prefer the RS400 over the T4c for first review, was that through the Fitness test, the RS400 purported to be able to adequately estimate your max heart rate and VO2max, or at least better than the age based formula of 220 – your age (something the Suunto doesn’t have). Ultimately, the best way to get the max heart rate and VO2max information is to go to a professional testing center, but that can get very expensive very quickly. Therefore the Polar uses a submaximal test to extrapolate your max heart rate which is crucial for training in heart zones.
My extrapolated max heart rate via the Polar Fitness at this point has been, on average, 3bpm lower than the age based formula. Whilst I have no idea what my real max heart rate is, I think the number the Polar gives is a tad on the lower end of it since when I push myself and stay in Zone 5 (more about zones here), I can stay there longer than I think I’m supposed to, implying that the figure may be on the low end. This test may make it easier for some to get started in zone training, but I’m not sure how much to trust it. I will conduct the Polar Fitness test a few more times over the next few weeks to check the consistency. Ideally, I’d love to be able to get professionally tested to be able to correlate the Polar figure with my real actual figure, but unless someone that tests is willing to do it for me, it’ll have to be something for the ‘wishlist’.
The second interesting test from the Polar people is the OwnOptimizer test. Essentially it is the test that checks to see if you are under or over training. The Suunto T4c doesn’t have a test like that per se, but it does have the Suunto Coach feature, which if you follow, will prevent your from over or under training since it actively manages your exercise schedule. I’ve taken the OwnOptimizer test twice at this point and it requires about 2 weeks of data for it to really become useful so I’ll have to wait and see how it helps me out once the baseline is established. However, for now, this feature really interests me as sometimes I don’t know if I’ve recovered enough for an upcoming tough exercise, particularly after cycling club runs.
One thing that I did wish to try out from the Suunto, but the Polar doesn’t have is the real time ‘Training Effect’. This feature allows you to see what the aggregated effect of your current exercise will have towards your stated goal (endurance vs intervals, etc). With the Polar, I am still relegated to the time in a heart rate zone method, but with no discernable level of ‘progress’ during the exercise to know exactly when to continue and when to stop.
I’d like to point out at this point that I’m giving both Polar and Suunto the benefit of the doubt that these features work as stated and are meaningful in the data they generate. However, I should state that there are many skeptics out there on the ability for these tools to accurately determine anything other than just numbers for the sake of numbers.
Now, moving on to the other aspects of the RS400…
The build quality of the Polar RS400 is nice but not perfect. It doesn’t feel or look cheap, but the buttons leave much to be desired. All the buttons show little feedback upon being pressed and are inconsistent across the different buttons on the amount of pressure required to activate them. For example, the big red button is VERY sensitive to pressure, but the side buttons require more pushing power. Counted in seconds and increasing the pressure on the buttons once a second evenly, it took me 2 seconds to activate the red one vs 10 seconds to activate the side ones. This makes me nervous about how easily it is to activate a fake lap once a session has started due to the red button being so ‘weak’. Thankfully, you can key lock all the buttons (automatically too) but I wish this were better thought out quality wise from the start. The watch strap of the Polar RS400 is also less supple than that of the T1c or T4c (since I have touched it). I am not sure if this makes it less or more likely to crack and split with age, however it is not uncomfortable. In fact, the RS400 is one of the most comfortable watches I have used ever!
I originally found the Suunto interface difficult to use because the button layouts were not intuitive relative to many functions that were hidden, but once I got the hang of it, it started feeling very tree-structure / Unix-like. The RS400, however, feels very Windows-like for both the good and for the bad. It looks easy enough at first, but features and settings are scattered all over the place. The general menu, for example can be accessed by the up and down buttons, but then that menu doesn’t have access to the setting that are part of the training menu, and Polar could have totally integrated the two, but no… different menu for that, making the configuration of the RS400 one of the longest tasks I’ve had to do for a smallish gadget in a long time.
Essentially, I think that Suunto and Polar have diverged in their interface design, with Suunto going with a more analog feel for performance summary, and with Polar going with a more digital/binary feel. If you like big numbers on your car speedometer, for example, I think that is more Polar, and if you like a needle with Revs, you might like the Suunto.
The booklet that is included in the packaging is positively useless. The CD Rom includes the ‘real’ manual… you can access this manual online on the link below, but expect to spend a lot of time reading and understanding what every setting means and how it is used effectively.
Customization of training options is where the RS400 shines. Although I have not tested its connectivity with the PC software that it comes with (partially because the RS400 does not come with the IrDA USB stick and partially because it is Windows only) a lot can be done on the watch itself. A quick note on the PC software, it is an exercise logging and planning platform similar to the one I use with my Garmin. At first pass it looks pretty complete, but I will review it separately and greater detail once I have the IrDA USB stick.
Thankfully, the RS400 is very customizable on the device itself. You can set reminders, events, new exercises, and limits all via wizards. However, certain things, like typing in words to represent events, for example, can be quite slow and tedious without the PC interface. On the display customization front, the screen of the RS400 is very large and has three lines that can be used to display three fully customizable pieces of exercise data, but the bottom row has less capabilities (pixels), so it is usually relegated to something like stopwatch or heart rate only (not things like calories and trends). I have to say that Polar is close to the new set of Garmins on this front with the RS400, but still behaves more like a watch than a Garmin computer. A nifty feature of the RS400 is the heart touch feature whereby the screen of the watch changes when you lift it close to the chest belt. This is great for changing the views of the training screens whilst training (say on a bike) without having to use both hands.
I have not yet graduated to setting up my exercises to include intervals, but from what I understand the Polar can do intervals of both time but also of heart rate. I’ll look into this further as my training progresses. However, another nifty Polar-only feature is OwnZone training, which essentially designates a target Zone for you to train based on a 5 min warmup preceding it. I’m not sure I understand the benefits of this yet, as the zone is pretty wide from the one time I used it, but I’ll use it a few more times before determining an opinion on it.
All in all, the RS400 does have enough flexibility on setting up exercises and viewing them during exercise to make it a flexible enough tool for most people’s needs.
I do not find the Polar chest belt to be as comfortable or as easy to put on as the Suunto belts. The Suunto T comfort belts (new) are lighter and can be put on very very easily from the front with very safe feeling clasp mechanisms, whereas the Polar, when cycling seems to slip when I’m off my pedals unless I tighten the belt excessively. I would say that belt is the weak link in the system, but I have not had any reception issue from the connection itself. If I had to rank comfort of these things, I’d say Suunto wins, Polar second, and Garmin third.
Aesthetically, I don’t think the RS400 is the prettiest watch out there, but it is uglier in pictures than in real life where the size of it gives it a little more presence on your wrist. In addition, the metallic sheen and the red button are kinda cool in a Battlestar Galactica kind of way.
As a watch, though, I find the RS400 adequate but not stellar. It allows you to display the time and date and you can flip between two time zones. However, the main screen is wasted with a big fat logo of the RS400 that can only be replaced by either days until your next event (when you add an event) or with your personal data if you synch it with the PC software (which I have not done, so I only read that you can do this). I feel this space should be more customizable like in the training screens. It could be used to show two timezones at once, similar to the Suunto T series, or your week’s calorie burn so far, or your week’s aggregated miles.
In conclusion, I think the RS400 is a good training tool. It does have some minor drawbacks:
- Somewhat overly sensitive red button (start/lap)
- Limited functionality time display screen (no customization of it like with the training screens)
- Uncomfortable and difficult to put on chest belt
- Requires you to buy the IrDA USB stick to take advantage of the PC software included
The tons of features included make up for any minor drawbacks it has:
- Fitness test/ OwnOptimizer/ Ownzone (for good or bad depending on whether you use them and think the are valuable)
- Good reception on the belt (haven’t lost signal yet)
- Big display with good customization of training features
- Comfortable to use on wrist
- Many training options and free PC software to help organize them
I’ll continue to see how my tests develop over time, and report back on how the battery life and PC connectivity ultimately pan out.
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