(Pocket-lint) - Polar has two models at the top of its fitness tracker line-up: the flagship Vantage V and the second-tier Vantage M. It's a pairing of devices that look broadly similar, have a similar interface and offer a number of functions that are the same - with a few key hardware and, therefore, feature differences.
As a result, the Polar Vantage M is a much more affordable fitness tracker and sports watch, making it a lot more approachable for typical athletes than the flagship model. So does this watch make sense and how does it track against its competition?
Conventional in design
- Measures: 46 x 46 x 12.5mm / Weighs: 45g
- 22mm interchangeable strap
- Stainless steel bezel
The Polar Vantage M moves on from the squared faces of the previous generation of Polar devices, with a round body and display. There's a glass fibre reinforced polymer casing, meeting a stainless steel bezel encircling the display, which adds a touch of the premium and some useful bash protection.
The strap is a 22mm silicone rubber fixed with a spring clip, meaning it's easy to swap if you want to change the colour or aesthetic. It's a comfortable strap with a conventional buckle, which is easy to adjust, and we've found it comfy for all-day wear.
The Vantage M is waterproof to 30m, too, meaning it's happy in the shower or swimming pool, or on other adventures - and we've certainly put enough sweat through it in the time we've been testing it.
There are five buttons around the body of the watch, which generally work the same way as those on the Polar Vantage V, although this M model doesn't offer a touch display, so you'll use them more regularly to navigate and operate the watch.
The edges of the display are static, so there's effectively a 5mm border around the edge of the LCD. This does make it look a little dated - but, in reality, it's the same design as the Vantage V.
A new heart-rate system
- Precision Prime: Optical, 3D and contact sensors
When the Polar Vantage family launched, the focus was on the new heart-rate sensing system, called Precision Prime. It's a system that uses a range of detection methods, aiming to be more accurate than the typical optical system that you'll find on many devices.
We struggled with this system on the Vantage V, so while the Vantage M has essentially the same detection hardware, we've found it to be a lot more stable in our testing. That probably comes down to reviewing it later and on newer firmware, but there's perhaps a dab of expectation in there too: the Vantage V was regularly inaccurate, so we defaulted to a chest strap (which the M also supports).
For the majority of runs the M returned results that were in line with our expectations, similar to other HR devices we've used - so from that angle it can work well enough. But we've also had it fail to detect anything, reporting an average of 42bpm for a run - despite pausing, putting the watch on again, licking the sensors and so on - seemingly as the result of a crash or total failure in the system.
Given the problems we encountered with the Vantage V, we feel there's still some way to go to get the stability that most will want from this set of sensors and this watch. We know we're not alone in experiencing this, but it looks like software is also helping to tidy things up.
Sports performance and training
- HR, GPS, motion detection
- Lots of sports to choose from
The Polar Vantage M doesn't offer all the features that the Vantage V does - there's no orthostatic test, no recovery pro or power measurement. For typical users, we can't see those advanced training measurements being a problem, because you're getting the mainstay of training metrics - heart rate, speed, distance, cadence, training load and a lot more.
As a training tool there's actually a lot to like about the Polar Vantage M. You get a wide range of sports to choose from - 130, yes, one hundred and thirty - meaning that you don't have to have generic activity, it can basically be exactly what you want. These sports also measure stuff that's relevant, meaning that for swimming, for example, you get a neat rest timer so you can easily keep track of rest during drills.
This also extends to multisport, letting you string together events. Rather than having to choose the event, like triathlon, you select the component activities to make up a custom event. That gives the flexibility, for example, if you're doing swim-bike-run-swim - because the world of multisport is many and varied.
We also like how Polar manages to get the most pertinent information onto one screen - heart-rate zone, duration, distance, pace, as one example set - and although you don't get a huge range of customisation options for these displays, we don't feel that we'd want to change them.
Outside of those heart-rate measurement failures the other metrics come in accurately. The averages for pace or distance come in as we'd expect them to, so when everything is working this is a perfectly capable training tool. In that sense, it's a better option than the Vantage V, because much of what you're getting is the same.
One of our favourite features is the training load status. This takes a few weeks to establish your baseline, but then is a reflection of your load based on your activities - and can be a good motivator to get out the door if it swings down to "detraining". A word of warning though - if it loses your baseline (you don't wear the watch for a couple of weeks), then you'll be overtraining quickly, because your baseline is basically then nothing.
Lifestyle tracking: Life as a smartwatch
- Smartphone notifications
Wearables are so much more than just sports devices these days, they need to be smartwatches too, because there's only so much space on your wrist and it can easily be usurped by something shiny instead, like the Apple Watch.
As such the Vantage does more to try and accommodate additional needs. That fits in some of the logical health stuff - it will track sleep, steps and daily activity - but it also ventures into the world of notifications.
With no touchscreen, you can't swipe to see these notifications, so you'll have to button-press instead - and the results are not terribly well displayed. You also don't get Google Smart Replies, as you do on Garmin, so you'll usually have to default to the phone. Things like call rejection is easy enough (and that seems to be what 90 per cent of Apple Watch users use it for) so there's a greater sense of connectivity here than previous Polar devices (except for the M600, which is WearOS).
But what's notable is what's missing: there's no music support (not even to control music playing on another device) and there's no payments either. So in a wider context beyond life as a sports watch, the Vantage M feels behind the times. Rival Garmin is pumping out a wide range of devices with increasing music support, lots more customisation and payments - and Polar doesn't seem to be in that game at all.
Connectivity and Polar Flow
- App for Android and iOS
- Website is better
All the above depends on the connection to your smartphone, via the Polar Flow app (for Android or iPhone). Polar's position has come along in leaps and bounds compared to a number of years ago, so it's now fairly easy to get a Polar watch talking to your phone reliably.
Polar Flow is a pretty nice system, but we'd say the browser environment the full website is a lot better than the app itself (for what it's worth, we feel that Garmin has the exact opposite position: a great app, but a website environment that's poor). While Polar's app seems to focus on daily activity, it seems to struggle to really handle and present data in a meaningful way - and there's a load of stuff it won't do that the website will.
The website version gives you a much better experience. It's here that you really feel the experience that Polar offers. You can, for example, plan training programmes and map out your season for any races you may have - and then have the corresponding training schedules sync to your device so when you step out of the door you'll see that you're due for a tempo run. You'll also find your Running Index score, which aims to track your progress over time and predict what you might achieve across a range of race distances - assuming you train effectively.
The software position is an important factor as so many companies are now vying for your attention. There's Fitbit, Apple, Google, Strava - all these services want your loyalty and if a company isn't keeping up then, well, it'll more than likely get bypassed. Incidentally, however, you can sync your Polar data to other services, so if you don't want to use Polar Flow to examine data, you don't have to.
The Polar Vantage M is the second-tier of Polar's flagship fitness tracker, slotting in below the Vantage V and losing some hardware and features in the process. For the majority of users, the Vantage M will do everything that you want, with the Vantage V's additional tracking functions really targeting the advanced user.
Having lived and trained in the Polar ecosystem for eight months of the year at time of writing, there's a lot to love about what Polar is doing. It feels a little more sporty at times than some rivals, but the downside is that the lifestyle and smartwatch side of things isn't as strong.
Ultimately, it's about deciding exactly what you want from your wearable. If it's training first and you don't mind not having music support, then the Vantage M is a great device - accepting, of course, that the new heart-rate monitoring system is still a little hit and miss.
Garmin Forerunner 735XT
The Garmin Forerunner 735XT is a few years older than the Vantage M, but offers much the same functionality - and it's cheaper. It offers great performance for multisport athletes, while tapping into Garmin's great ecosystem.