Just like Le Tour winner's yellow jersey, the limited Tour De France edition of the Polar RC3 GPS sports watch comes dressed in a similar bright yellow finish. The RC3 was the first built-in GPS sports watch released by Polar in 2012 and this limited edition 2013 kit - which celebrates the 100th year of the round-France bicycle race - comes complete with a heart rate monitor and cadence meter included in the box. It's got all the kit to measure your training, but is it as much of a winner as its jersey-yellow finish suggests?
Cycle, run and more
Sports gadgets are very much the in thing at the moment. The rising interest isn't a fad, though, it's down to a wider audience realising just how effective technology can be when it comes to fitness training. We can't all have support teams to help us along, and regular training is important if you have goals. When it comes to pushing yourself and measuring the true exertion the likes of the Polar RC3 GPS is an ideal concept.
But it's not alone, there are all manner of other GPS sports watches - and more to come - found in among the likes of dedicated bicycle computers such as the Garmin Edge 810 and more casual pedometers such as the Fitbit Ultra.
Whether you like to run, cycle or engage in other sports, the RC3 has space for all - which is one of its key strengths. It's possible to have two bicycle setups, for example, that can be independently measured, alongside a running profile and two "other" sports - whatever they happen to be.
We've been using the RC3 Tour De France for a number of weeks now to get a feel for how it impacts cycle training. That's key for a product such as this: it's not casual kit for use when pottering down to the local shops. When that heart rate monitor is strapped around the chest and the watch is either wrapped around wrist or mounted on the handlebars via its adaptor it's training time.
Comfort-wise the watch feels just right to us. It's reasonably small, but not too small, has openings to keep the sweat at bay and is easy to view in all conditions, even if the screen resolution is basic at best. The strap-around-chest heart rate monitor can feel a little strange in use, as it needs to be tight enough to hold, but it's standard stuff - as much as we'd rather the watch itself was able to accurately detect pulse rate instead.
Like many sports watches the Polar RC3 is based around a five button interface, four to each corner of the watch face and one large red start button to the right. Each is marked on the watch face so it's possible to read their functions with ease. There are up and down buttons which each act as directional controls and a back button used to exit from menus or a training session. To the top left there's a "light" button which does exactly what it says on the tin, while the start button accesses the main menus and readies the GPS tracking.
Synching the watch with both the heart rate and cadence monitors is easy to do too. Within the settings - press the down button, the continue through the three-strong list to settings and use the start button to access - the monitors can be toggled on or off. The watch will then attempt to sync but errors can easily occur if the heart rate monitor's contacts aren't wet or the bicycle's pedals aren't turning when seeking out the cadence monitor. We were also further confused by the presence of a speed monitor setting - an optional wind-measuring Polar accessory that's not included - which we initially confused with being the cadence monitor. Cue dozens of failed sync attempts due to our stupidity, but we got there in the end.
However installing the cadence monitor onto your bicycle is one of the RC3 Tour De France's shortfalls. Instructions aren't available in the box, only via an online video, which is the first hurdle to clear. If you're not familiar with how a cadence monitor works then it's essentially just a counter that logs each full rotation by a pedal-mounted magnet registering in close-proximity to the sensor itself. However the included magnet (there is a second spare) and adhesive tape just aren't all that adhesive which made installing fiddly and positioning is integral for everything to work properly. Oh, and you'll want some wire clippers - or, as we used, some kitchen scissors, neither of which are included - to trim back the plastic cable ties needed to secure the cadence monitor onto the frame.
Once it's on, it's all go, no need to deal with such things again. Until, that is, the cadence monitor's battery dies - and then it's time for a new monitor as the battery can't be swapped out.
Detailed data hub
On the underside of the GPS watch unit there's a port to wire the watch to a computer where it can charge up and transfer data to the polarpersonaltrainer.com hub, which we'll refer to in full as Polar personal trainer hub. You will need to download an application to ensure this process runs smoothly which, for us, was an initial battle as there were some connection errors from time to time. However this resolved itself after a day.
Sending data from the watch is easy: plug it in, wait for the app to pop up on screen and click the sync button. That's it. No button presses on the device itself required.
We're impressed with the ways in which information can be displayed in the Polar personal trainer hub. It's the default service that the RC3 works with, but if you're keen to offload your data in order to plug into an existing service - such as Training Peaks which prior to undertaking this review was our go-to hub - then that's possible too. It is a bit of a faff, but it can be achieved by exporting the GPX and HRM files from the Polar application. That means more work than something like TomTom's forthcoming GPS watch, the Multi-Sport, which the company says is wide open to a variety of third party sites for added ease of use.
Despite this we've grown to like the Polar personal trainer hub's visuals and layout a lot - it's clean to look at and fast to use.
The initial open screen displays your activity feed with individual training sessions stacked up chronologically. As well as a training calendar individual training sessions can be accessed to view all the relevant data you could care for: map views plotted against time, graphs with optional heart rate, cadence, altitude and speed or pace plots, and full data views with calorie burn counts and all data averages.
This can be expanded into week, month of custom-set views to see how training is going over a period of time, while the training load section advises whether training is recommended based on rest periods and intensity of training. We're not totally sold on this, however, as our training was often well into the "training not recommended" zone, despite it being part of the usual ongoing plan.
But zones are what training is all about as you'll either already know or come to learn. Based on your theoretical heart rate maximum - accepted to be 220bpm minus your age - there are groupings of sustained heart rate zones which you may wish to target for a variety of reasons. Weight loss, for example, will benefit from sustained mid-zone training, whereas high-intensity training - usually in peaks and troughs - is a good way to develop aerobic capacity over time.
The RC3 can present live data to you in a number of ways across nine pre-set training views. It doesn't display averages in real-time, but can do pretty much everything else. Whether you want to view heart rate in bpm or as a percentage of capacity, or view which heart rate zone you are in at any given moment that can be done. Lap time, average speed, calories burnt, and altitude all have their own training views too, but these are pre-set and can't be adjusted. Why this is the case we don't know - if you wanted to view altitude against cadence and average speed it's not possible to do that until after training. A shame.
The data round-up at the end of a workout can be viewed on the RC3 itself by clicking up and down multiple screens, which is useful but, ultimately, we found less informative than the uploaded data in context to the rest of your training.
There can be the odd data hiccup. Most common for us was when a training quick start meant GPS hadn't yet locked on or the heart rate monitor suddenly kicking in with alleged beyond-100-per-cent maximum heart rate read. Both of these aren't really down to the product though, more our method of use. A press of the start button will activate GPS prior to then selecting a training session, whereas a rushed double press of the start button might mean you're half way up the road before the GPS kicks in. The heart rate monitor also has to have wet contacts and be positioned properly to the centre of the chest and left to do its thing throughout training.
There's a lot to love about the Polar RC3 GPS Tour De France. This sports watch provides accurate tracking and has pushed not only our training but our understanding of our training sessions to another level.
Data comes in abundance via the Polar personal trainer hub. Whether you want bite-sized info or extensive detail of the collated data, it's all here. It's this level of detail combined with the reads from cadence and heart rate monitors that turn this Tour De France edition model into a true training machine - way beyond that of a GPS tracking app or similar.
The one main gripe we have with the device is that control over training views isn't possible - there are nine presets that, while detailed and as much as most will ever need, can't be adjusted to suit other purposes. It's quite the opposite to the detailed post-training data that's available.
And then, but of course, there's the price. At £270 it's not a cheap investment, but if you're serious about your training then it does make sense. Think of it as a replacement to six months' gym membership fees and it's not so bad. There's versatility too: the watch design opens up running and other sports too, so while the Polar is less specified than a Garmin Edge 810 is for cycling purposes and lacks route-mapping, it's a different proposition.
The RC3 Tour De France edition is the closest thing to Le Tour winner's yellow jersey that anyone in the Pocket-lint offices will ever get to wear. So we wear it proudly. It's not perfect, but there's a lot of detailed goodness to be had from this tri-sensor kit. C'est bon.