The Polar FT80 heart rate monitor "training computer" comes in at the top of the range of generalist fitness devices offered by Polar. Here we test the standard FT80, although it also is available with the G1 GPS module for speed and distance tracking, at extra cost.
The FT80 sits above the FT60 that we looked at earlier in the year and the basis of operation and the offering here is very similar, but adds a few additional features that might appeal to more advanced fitness participants.
Starting with the chest strap, the FT80 comes with Polar's WearLink+ fabric strap which you wear around your chest and the water resistant transmitter connects via poppers to the front of this. You need to remember to wet the fabric strips on the inside to make the connection with your skin.
Using fabric means it is much more comfortable than some of the plastic-based chest straps out there. You can also turn-off the transmitter simply by disconnecting it from the strap to save battery life, and both the transmitter and the watch have user-changeable batteries.
The connection between the watch and the transmitter chest strap is really impressive. We've been using the FT80 over a number of months without a single connection problem: the watch "sees" the belt almost as soon as you ask it to and that connection stays solid through-out the exercise.
Those who have used heart rate monitors in the past may be familiar with the scenario where you get home after a brutal run, only to find that your chest strap had stopped taking to the watch halfway through and you have no data for your hill repeats. Not so here. The FT80 is very impressive indeed, performing flawlessly and being comfortable to boot.
The Polar chest transmitter straps are also compatible with a wide range of gym equipment, so if you want to use it in the gym without the watch that isn't a problem (although we'd question why you'd fork out for the FT80 if you aren't going to use it).
The watch is the mainstay of the operation here, providing all the brains. In terms of size it benefits from not having an integrated GPS module, so the watch is compact, with a good-sized screen. The FT80 displays text on a blacked-out background, but we found it was easy enough to see the display. Push button illumination allows reading the display in the dark.
In-exercise you get a choice of display options, which are easily scrolled through using the buttons on the right-hand side. The main display shows you the duration of exercise, heart rate and an indicator of which training zone (of three) that you are in. You can have a large HR readout, or show the real time, training time and calories burnt, but sadly you can't have a large display of activity time, which is just the sort of thing that you'll want for a quick glance during races.
At the end of your training you get a summary of the results, as well as a brief summary of what your exercise achieved, be it fitness improving or maximum performance training.
But these are features common to most heart rate monitors and the FT80 differentiates itself, like the FT60, by offering the STAR training system.
The STAR training system is a clever program that works in the watch to monitor and track your progress, provide motivation, as well as guide you to towards the most effective training to reach your exercise goals. That said, you don't get too many options here, with "improve fitness" and "maximise fitness" available to you, which basically alters the intensity of the programme it sets.
One of the great things about the STAR training programme is that it does guide you towards exercising at the correct intensity, a common problem for those looking to improve their fitness. Using three zones, the majority of your exercise will fall into zone 2, with some zone 1 and zone 3 times based on which training programme you select.
Another neat feature of STAR is that it uses real data from you, so there is a fitness test and a relaxation test on which to base your training. You also get an OwnZone training option, which lets the FT80 monitor your heart rate on any particular day and make adjustments to the training zones you are going to use, ideal for when you are feeling fatigued.
Good as the STAR training programme is, at this level and price, we'd like to see a wider range of options presented in the watch. Yes, that would make things more complicated for the user, but potentially, so far, we've seen little to encourage you to part with the extra cash over the mid-range FT60.
To justify the extra cost, Polar is hoping that a couple of unique features are going to appeal. The first is the strength training aspect for STAR. This applies similar principals to your strength training as it does to your CV work, listening to your body and advising when you are ready to commence the next set. In short, the FT80 watches your heart rate and tells you when to start lifting again for the best results.
The other trick that the FT80 has in its box is the Polar FlowLink (worth £50) which partly explains the price hike over the FT60. The FlowLink allows you to extract the data from your FT80 and record it on polarpersonaltrainer.com.
Unfortunately the FlowLink software only works on Windows, with a candid statement on the Polar site suggesting that Mac users try emulation software to get it working. The software basically sends all your data to the website, allowing much clearer interpretation and taking the hassle out of recording everything, as your workouts will all appear in your online diary.
Polarpersonaltrainer.com is a useful resource in itself, but it is open to everybody – you don't need a Polar product to use it. To take advantage of the strength training aspects of the FT80, you need to create a workout populated with the different exercises, sets, reps and weights. Once created, they can be transferred over to the FT80 and access through the strength training menu in the watch.
It's a shame the same can't be done for the other exercise programmes available on polarpersonaltrainer.com as it contains access to reasonably customisable running plans where you can set an event date, which would be really nice to blast over to the FT80 so you could have it tell you what to do on any given day.
It's also a shame that it's a closed shop when it comes to data, as you are currently tied to using polarpersonaltrainer.com and if you have been using another system, you can't just merge all your data together.
The Polar FT80 does perform very well as a training partner and coach through STAR, which will guide you in your exercise to keep you working at the right intensity. Of course the strength training aspects will only apply to some, and the premium for gaining this feature over the cost of the equally capable FT60 needs to be carefully considered.
The FlowLink is also a great way of extracting the data from your FT80, it's just a shame that you can't do more with it, which at this price (£273.55) seems a little mean. You'd also expect to be able to shift training programmes around with greater ease.
As it stands, however, the Polar FT80 is reliable, comfortable and an absolute pleasure to use, but we feel it is a little too expensive viewed alongside the GPS-packing Garmin 405, especially for runners, but for those who like a little reminder of what they are supposed to be doing in the weights room, it works nicely.