(Pocket-lint) - It used to be that the only wearable tech you could pick up for around the £100 marker was a barebones step tracker. Prices have tumbled though. Those steps counters are now available for less than £30, and dedicated running watches, such as the new Polar M200, are edging closer to that magical £100 price point.
Available for around £120, the M200 is more affordable than most. Impressively, its affordable positioning doesn't mean a limited array of features either. Instead of cutting corners, this fitness wearable packs in everything you'd expect from a dedicated running watch including GPS for accurate activity tracking and an integrated heart-rate sensor for improved fitness monitoring.
There is a catch though: this barebones price does mean a uninspired look and feel to the design. Is such a compromise worth making or has just too much been skimmed off the top to make the Polar M200 a running watch worth living with?
Polar M200 review: Design
- 12mm thick; 40g
- Available in black or red
- Interchangeable wristbands available in a range of colours
In terms of design, the Polar M200 is classic running watch. Big, bulky and lacking in any sort of finesse. It's comfortable but not particularly attractive. The Apple Watch Nike+ this is not.
Instead of sleek curves and easy-on-the-eye materials, the M200 is fat, crafted from a robust combination of rubber and plastic, with a thin metal base and physical buttons that stick out of either side. At 12mm thick it'll dwarf smaller wrists and its small screen is engulfed by plenty of plastic framing. At least it's round though, unlike the Garmin Forerunner 35 and its square form that catches the eye for all the wrong reasons.
The Polar's circular style is only a minor design win though. The watch's round, unassuming form might not be the most stylish, but it's not offensive either. You won't win any style points rocking it away from the running track, but neither will you stand out. At a push, and in more relaxed work environments, you could wear it on a daily basis.
Despite its size, the M200 is lightweight, with its 40g form sitting comfortably on the wrist whether sat at a desk or running a 10K. This comfortable fit is enhanced by a strong metal buckle that keeps the watch locked firmly in place.
The hard-wearing thick silicone strap can stand up to some serious abuse, but the watch itself doesn't feel that sturdy. That's because the two aren't really connected. Instead, the watch is a pod that clips into the strap. It locks in well and never feels loose, but there's no strong seal.
Instead, despite being waterproof to 30 metres and capable of being worn during a swim, the watch has a notable gap between the screen and strap. This quickly gets filled with fluff and dirt and further makes the watch feel a bit cheap.
Although straps aren't as easy to change as on the Apple Watch or most Android Wear devices, you can switch the band out for different colours - red, black, white, yellow and turquoise options are available. As the strap is the body of the watch though, you'll have to get these directly through Polar for £16.90 a pop.
Polar M200 review: Screen
- 1-inch circular screen
- Basic dot matrix display
From the Apple Watch 2 to the FitBit Blaze, most smartwatches - even the running-focused ones - now sport bright, detailed, LCD displays. The Polar M200 is more basic though. Instead of going big on wrist-based graphics and detailed displays, it keeps things old school.
There's no touchscreen, there are no colours. Heck, there's no detail. Instead, the Watch's dated, basic dot matrix display features large, individual LEDs that form blocky, angular images and text. Highlighting just how basic this screen is, its most advanced feature is its backlight, triggered by pressing the watch's left button.
Although the M200's display is far from the sharpest - it features just 1,342 pixels, total - it doesn't need to be any more visually superior. It's used to display little more than the time and your run and fitness metrics. Scroll through the menu and there are some rudimentary graphics, but nothing that needs more detail than what you're given.
While the Polar M200 has a large circular front, its actual screen is tiny and dwarfed by the surrounding plastic frame. The 1-inch display in the middle accounts for just half of the watch's face. This makes it a little tricky to see, especially when you're running and your wrist is bouncing around. A larger screen would make this watch a much more engaging option.
Polar M200 review: Features & performance
- Integrated GPS with SiRFInstantFix technology
- In-built optical heart-rate sensor
- Smart notifications
Despite its affordable price tag, the Polar M200 isn't lacking on the features front. Like so many smartwatches and fitness trackers today, it does away with the need for uncomfortable chest-based heart-rate monitors, instead moving the biometric sensor to your wrist. Unlike some rivals, though, the M200's integrated heart-rate sensor is faultless.
Whether checking our resting heart rate sat on the sofa or tracking our biometrics during a sprint session, it was responsive and accurate, showing even minor fluctuations in exertion levels.
Sadly the same can't be said for all of the watch's features, namely its integrated GPS. Although for the most part the M200's GPS skills were on point - accurately tracking our runs, offering more accurate step counts and distance data, as well as relaying map to the accompanying app - we also had issues.
On one run, a GPS misstep cost us a significant chunk of our activity. With the GPS lock failing to kick in, we set off confident that the integrated accelerometer would track our step count and rough distance until the SiRFInstantFix-enhanced GPS caught up a few seconds later. Sadly, this wasn't the case. Despite the run duration ticking along, not a single footfall was tracked without the GPS.
Had we walked, the watch would have tracked our steps no problem - it managed that for a couple of weeks - but being in training mode caused it to trip over itself. What's worse, it didn't just take a few seconds for the GPS to secure a lock. It didn't even take a few minutes. Scrolling through the in-app run data post run, we can see it took 7minutes 41seconds for the GPS to kick in despite running in an open park with no obstructions. This meant our entire run metrics were massively thrown out and that day's and week's activity tracking rendered all but useless. Although an isolated incident - we had other runs that were fully tracked even if GPS was slightly sluggish to kick in - the extent of the issue was troubling.
When the watch was up and running with us, however, there was no drop-outs in GPS nor issues with its heart-rate sensor. What's more, the watch also detects your stops and pauses your fitness tracking accordingly. For the most part this is pretty accurate, although there were a few instances of it being slow to pick up once we'd started moving again.
Your inactivity is tracked, too, with the watch able to monitor your sleep sessions. Unlike the Garmin Forerunner 35, the M200 isn't fooled by the watch being taken off and placed on the side. Its sleep monitoring is pleasingly accurate, even breaking down time of deep and restless sleep.
This watch isn't just about tracking your runs either, as smart notifications let you see incoming texts, calls and email alerts without taking your phone out of your pocket. Given the screen's limited skills, however, these aren't much use. You can see who has messaged you, but not more than the first few letters of what they've said. You can't even see what sort of message it is you've received. Expect to keep getting your phone from your pocket.
Polar M200 review: Software & app
- Polar Flow app compatibly with iOS and Android
- Requires manual sync
- Depth to available data
All this captured data has to go somewhere, and that place is the Polar Flow app. This is where the M200 comes into its own. It's a detailed, stylish app, albeit one that feels a bit clinical. On the surface it's like every other fitness app, complementing your steps and time active counts with a variety of charts and graphs. Delve a little deeper, however, and it's filled with features to make the most our of your fitness data.
As well as charts of your daily activity, clicking on individual training sessions brings forth a wealth of additional information. As well as pace graphs and KM splits, your heart rate is mapped out for you. Making this information even more useful, it's shown in zones, highlighting when you were in prime fat-burning range, when you're taking it too easy and when you're pushing too hard.
This can be used to better attune your training sessions to your specific exercise goals. At least it can when your date is transferred across - something you've got to do manually every time you open the app - which is achieved by holding the left button when near your phone. It's a bit of a faff, but one that will save your battery in the long run.
As nice as the app is, navigating on the watch itself is a bit of a chore. Its two button interface and lack of touchscreen make working your way through the multiple menus and options a slow, laborious process and one fraught with mispresses and restarts.
Pressing the right button will cycle you through the menu options while holding the button makes selections. The left button takes you back. It's slow, and switching through the various menus while on the run is so tricky your pace will inevitably suffer.
There are some issues though. Although there are three activity goal levels to choose from, each ramping up the daily exertion efforts, you can't create your own custom targets. If you want to work towards a daily goal of 12,500 steps, you can't - instead you'll have to select the closest level (Level 2) and cut things back.
Whichever level you choose, the watch's ability to breakdown your remain requirements in jog and walk time - making it easier to know how much you've still got to work - is a great feature.
Although the watch comes with a couple of activities pre-installed, including running, dozens more can be added through the app. These range from aqua fitness to yoga, pilates and roller skating. These can better attune the data being captured to the true exertion.
Polar M200 review: Battery life
- 180mAh battery
- Full week battery life per charge
- USB charging (not bespoke charging)
Worried about a need for nightly charges or necessary trips to the mains after each and every run? Don't be, the Polar M200's battery life is one of its standout features. It's 180mAh battery might not sound the biggest, but in a fitness tracker, that's plenty.
Polar claims that it will manage six full days on a single charge with an hour's GPS-boosted run tracking per day. While that's good, we found this to be a little conservative. With regular runs and smart notifications enabled, we managed to eke a full week out of the device with a little left in the tank.
When it does come time to recharge, there's no need to faff. Instead of magnetic cradles, clip-on chargers or bespoke docks, the M200 features its own integrated USB connection as part of its pop-out body.
It's far from an elegant option, but what it lacks in style, it more than makes up for on a practicality front, being able to be connected to any traditional USB port and compatible plug. That means you can take one less bespoke charger the next time you go for a weekend away, or, given the M200's impressive battery life, a full blown holiday.
The Polar M200 is a solid running watch that, for the price, packs in far more than you'd expect. There's no escaping its oversized design that thanks to its tiny screen always looks larger than it is, but this is just one slight against an otherwise accomplished device.
Some gadgets combine to be greater than the sum of their parts. The M200 isn't one of them. You get what you see, with the whole package never really melding together seamlessly.
Thanks to a solid app though, impressive heart-rate tracking and, for the most part, decent GPS, it's a watch perfect for those looking to increase their running efforts without breaking the bank.
Polar M200: The alternatives to consider
Garmin Forerunner 35
Yes, it's ugly, but looks aside this is an accomplished running watch with capabilities that exceed its affordable asking price.
- Garmin Forerunner 35 review: An affordable, effective running watch
- Buy the Garmin 35 from Amazon UK for £170, or Amazon US for $200
Apple Watch Nike+
You don't have to compromise on style. If you're willing to pay the price, you can get fitness tracking and smart notifications in a watch you won't want to take off.
- Apple Watch Nike+ review: Great smartwatch just not a perfect runner's watch
- Buy the Apple Watch Nike+ from Amazon UK for £495, or Amazon US for $509