Polar Vantage V review

A great multisports watch in the making, but the software isn't fully formed

The Vantage V is the multisports watch Polar hopes will emulate the V800 - a watch good enough to push the most serious of athletes. This isn't just about tracking a run or a ride; it's for the marathon runners that need something that can help optimise their training, or a triathlete that needs a device that can truly go the distance.

Four years seems like a long time in wearable terms to wait for a successor to the V800. But Polar said it wanted to wait until it had something truly innovative to show off and blow the competition out of the water.

It believes the Vantage V is that innovative watch. Building on the foundations laid by the V800, Polar has overhauled the design of the hardware and software and added a bunch of new features that will appeal to athletes who yearn for more data. There's a new heart rate monitor that Polar claims is the most accurate of its kind for the wrist. There's a built-in power meter to tap into the latest running trend without needing to wear an additional device on your training shoes. There's a whole lot more.

We’ve been testing the Vantage V for a couple of months now, running, swimming, hitting the gym and tapping into its smartwatch-like features to find out if Polar has come up trumps. We'll continue our testing and revisit as Polar rolls out more software updates to add new features. Now that the V is out to buy, here's our verdict as things stand right now.

Polar Vantage V: Design and interface

Polar draft

It's fair to say the V800 is a unique beast. It doesn't look like any Garmin or Suunto you can pick up these days, with its blocky, rectangular body and big stainless steel buttons. It was a watch built to be durable, easy to use when you need to focus on your performance and offer plenty of screen estate to display your training and race data.

Essential reading: Best Strava compatible watches to buy

Polar has now fallen in line with the likes of the Fenix 5 Plus and the Suunto 9 by opting for a more familiar round watch design. It's still built to withstand some serious rough and tumble, with textured stainless steel buttons that are easy to switch between modes and data screens when those hands get sweaty. Polar has also introduced a touchscreen display to make things feel more smartwatch-like when you're just using its day-to-day features outside of training.

There may be a select group that liked the unique look of the V800, but we think on the whole most will be happy with the change in direction. You now have a watch that, while marginally thicker than the V800 (13mm up from 12.7mm), looks a lot nicer on the wrist. It's something you're more likely to wear 24/7.

Polar draft

As far as sitting nicer on the wrist, I did though some encounter some issues. The watch strap on the Vantage V is softer and more flexible than the one on the V800 and, while not interchangeable, does come in two sizes to accommodate a large range of wrist sizes.

It sounds like the ideal strap suited for intense exercise sessions and to even wea to sleep. Except I found that after a sweaty run or swim and a quick wipe down of the band, it did give an off putting odour. The strap didn't cause me any skin irritation or leave a rash, but I did find that I needed to take it off on occasions as it just felt a little uncomfortable. I couldn't work out what to put this down to, but there's clearly something not right with this strap.

Other new elements to talk about are the touchscreen and heart rate monitor. I'll get into the HR later in the review, but I'd like to talk about the always-on colour touchscreen display. It's nicely responsive and doesn't lag when you're swiping through the screens. If you're expecting the kind of touchscreen you get on an Apple Watch or a Samsung Galaxy Watch, well, you're out of luck here. But that's no real surprise when Polar has tried to strike a good balance between offering a display that's more vibrant than its predecessor, but still offers good visibility and shouldn't demand too much of the battery.

Along with touchscreen navigation, you also get those five textured, physical stainless steel buttons dotted around the display. Working out exactly what each of these buttons does take some time getting used to. Even after a couple of months of using it, I'm still finding myself accidentally tapping the lap button to end a training session.

The interface that you'll need to navigate is a lot to take in. You can swipe left and right on the screen to reveal additional data that sits around the time. There's on-the-spot heart rate readings, recovery/training status data and most recent logged activity you can double app to expand. You can also press the red button to glance at your day's activity and hold down another button to sync data with the companion app. Everything seems so spread around it can feel a bit jarring to use at times. It's nowhere near as problematic as what you have to deal with on Suunto's watches, but it lacks the more intuitive experience you'll find on Garmin's high-end sports watches.

Polar Vantage V: Sports tracking

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There's a lot to get into here. Bottom line, the Vantage V's sports tracking skills are plentiful. There are 130 sports profiles, which includes running, treadmill running, cycling and swimming (indoor and outdoor). When you factor in the heart rate monitor or sensors like the barometer sensors and support for stride, speed and cadence sensors, there's plenty of data to get into. I'm going to focus largely on running and swimming here to give you a sense of what you can expect from sports tracking in general. I'll update my thoughts on other sports at a later date.

What I can say is that sports tracking on the whole has been good on the Vantage V. But the learning curve with the watch's slightly unintuitive UI, incomplete software (which Polar is still rolling out updates for) can make it initially a frustrating experience. There's GPS, A-GPS and GLONASS support here, giving you almost the full gamut of global satellite support (it doesn't have Galileo support like Garmin's Fenix). But we found in comparison to the Garmin Forerunner 935 the GPS was pretty snappy and didn't wait around achingly long to pick up a signal.

Running

Polar Vantage V review

Once you've pressed the bottom-left button on the watch to start training and then picked out your sport profile, and it's picked up your heart rate and a GPS signal, you're good to go. What you'll get is multiple screens first showing core metrics like heart rate, distance, pace and duration. There's additional screens displaying calorie burn, running power data, altitude and HR max, average along with real-time HR to see how this impacts on your max and average readings.

Rather than swipe through these screens you have to use the buttons, which makes sense, but also it would be nice to have the option to do either. When you've finished a run, the natural instinct is to press the red button on the watch, but that's your lap button. You need to tap that bottom left button to pause and then hold down to end the session. It makes for a slightly muddled process.

Polar Vantage V review

GPS performance: Polar Vantage V (left and centre) and Forerunner 935 (right)

Away from the slightly clunky approach to navigating around the watch's features, the mapping and basic running metric data is at least reliable. Taking it out for a number of runs and races, data was pretty consistent with the Garmin Forerunner 935 I was wearing on my other wrist. I'll get onto heart rate and power data below. Digging into metrics like pace and average and best pace results showed a difference of only 2-3 seconds off to what the Garmin recorded. One piece of data that did initially seem to be wildly off was cadence, which can be recorded by the Vantage V. I know that my average cadence is around the 170 spm mark, and the Polar in comparison offered an average cadence data score of 80 spm. That different reading is apparently related to the way Polar calculates this metric, taking a lead from cycling. So by doubling it, that gives a spm of 160, which is still a less than the Garmin.

As a running watch, I liked the data it served up and the way it was presented. But I definitely think the way buttons are assigned features needs a bit of a re-think.

Swimming

Polar draft

The Vantage V is a solid performer in the water and while it's built for open water too, I've focused largely on what it's like to use in the pool. The start screen does a nice job of letting you select pool length including adding custom lengths. Then you'll get the usual distance, pace and duration data. Polar says the heart rate sensor is fit for the water as well as on land and we're still putting the finishing touches to our testing to deem how good a job it does.

The data screens are easy enough to view in the water and you have that backlight button if you want to improve visibility. Up against the Forerunner 935 it again matched up on those key swim metrics when reviewing the data after the session. There's a good breakdown of stroke type and the data appeared consistent with what the Garmin recorded. It's certainly a great pool companion, up there with Suunto and Garmin.

Polar Vantage V: Heart rate monitoring

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As a company, Polar's heritage is built on advances it's made with heart rate technology. With the V, it's trying to do what most other wearable makers have failed to do so far and that's to make an optical heart rate monitor you can truly rely on.

Essential reading: Best heart rate monitors to buy

Polar says it has cracked it and believes it's come up with the best wrist-based solution available. How has it done that? Through what it's calling Precision Prime technology. It's still using a similar light-based method that Apple, Samsung, Garmin and others use, but it's added additional LED sensors that can penetrate the skin deeper to get more reliable readings.

It's now using a 9 LED setup that includes 5 green LEDs as well as four red LEDs. This is the first time that red LEDs have been added into the mix. But it's also adding electrode sensors for measuring the sensor's contact with the skin to ensure a reading is taken when the sensor is in proper contact with the skin. This new sensor setup should be fit for all sports and we're told it'll even work for swimming, offering more accurate insights into aspects like training load and calorie burn.

Polar still regards its H10 chest strap as the best heart rate solution for serious athletes and is still required to carry out a number of the training-centric tests available on the Vantage V (like the orthostatic test).

Polar draft

It's a big claim to say you have the best wrist-based solution in the business. So how did it do? Well, I'd say it does pretty good, up there with the best we've tried here at Wareable. For on-the-spot readings, I compared to a chest strap and it was never more than one or two BPMs off.

Some sample data from a run with bursts of high intensity showed it held up pretty well with a heart rate monitor chest strap paired to the Forerunner 935. Max heart rate readings were never more than 3-4 BPMs off the chest strap and it was a similar story for average heart rate. As you can see from the graphs, the drops and peaks seem fairly consistent and I didn't see anything to suggest any concerns.

This is a very good wrist-based HR monitor and certainly makes a more compelling argument than its closest competitors that you can rely on it for intense workouts. But the fact Polar still recommends a chest strap for some heart rate-based features seems to suggest it still feels that the chest strap is still king.

Polar Vantage V: Running power

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The other headline feature of the Vantage V is running power. A new training metric for runners we tipped to be a big deal in 2018. We've already been putting some wearables that deliver running power data to the test, like the Stryd footpod and Garmin's Running Dynamics Pod. But this is the first time that a watch has built in the ability to measure running power from the wrist.

We've summarised what running power is before, but to explain briefly here, it's a training metric that has been used in cycling for some time, and is starting to find its way into the running world. Similar to training with heart rate data or even pace, it gives you one number that tells you instantly, and in real time, how much work you are doing. It helps to measure and assess external work rate more reliably and should lead you to running more consistently and at your best.

To make this happen, Polar bases this power score (in watts) on speed, how fast speed is changing and your current altitude based on data from the onboard barometer. That means you can't get power scores when you're training indoors, which you can do with a foot-worn power meter like Stryd.

Polar draft

When you start a training session, the watch will show you details on average, max and real-time power scores. Post-race session, it'll also offer details on muscle load and power zones that resemble presentation of heart rate zones. Dive into the web app version of Polar Flow and you can dig deeper into power data and see how it correlates with other running metrics. On a couple of runs, I compared the real-time power data to Garmin's Running Dynamics Pod (which you wear on your waist) and the V tended to display a higher power score.

While running power accuracy was obviously a concern here, what I really wanted to know was what it meant in training terms and when it came to race day. I've spent some time getting to know power before and I know there are more people that are convinced by the merits of training with power. Like a lot of people though, it will be a new concept and understanding how to best utilise it requires someone who knows about it.

Also, with the Polar's approach to power geared towards optimising training sessions and not taking that power data into a race scenario, it felt like Polar was missing a trick not being able to race on power too. I'm sure this is something Polar could look at supporting at some point in the future though.

Polar Vantage V: Training features

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Along with the introduction of running power for training, Polar also packs the Vantage V to the rafters with other features and metrics that are designed to help you optimise aspects of your training.

On top of features like its great Running Program, there's now Training Load Pro that can collate muscular load, perceived load and cardiovascular load to indicate when you're undertraining, overtraining or hitting the sweet spot for training. It'll also offer personalised training advice each day to help keep you on top of your training. Recovery Pro measures daily and long-term recovery, while the Polar Flow for coach online service offers will be a source for training plans you can follow.


The Polar Flow phone app gives you a more condensed Training Load Pro insight with the option to expand if you want to dig deeper. There's also the ability to get a training status update on the watch too. I do, however, have some concerns that there might be some software bugs to iron out. In some periods of the week where I did no training for a few days, the watch claimed I was overreaching, which suggested I'd increased my risk of overtraining and being prone to injury.

Viewing most of this data is best done from the web version of Polar Flow. Under the Progress tab you can view training, activity, running index and cardio load reports. You can also see additional insights including best sessions based on heart rate or pace.

There's a lot here and enough for the most serious athletes to help optimise their training. If you know what it all means.

Polar Vantage V: Activity tracking and smartwatch features

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Like Garmin and Suunto, Polar knows people now want to track what's happening when they're not on the track or in the gym. The Vantage V works like a fitness tracker offering staple features that you'd get on a Fitbit or a Xiaomi Mi Band 3. Some of the promised fitness tracker features though like inactivity alerts are not available yet, but they're coming.

The Vantage V can also function like a smartwatch too. It doesn't have contactless payments or a built-in music player, but it will offer the ability to view notifications on the watch. I say will, because again this is coming via a software update.

From what I could test, the Vantage V functions well enough as a fitness tracker. Daily step counts were within 500-600 steps of the activity tracking on the Garmin Forerunner 935. Sleep tracking was never more than 20-30 minutes off what the Garmin recorded as well. Polar is not pulling up any trees with what it offers here, but it's good enough on the whole.

Polar Vantage V: Polar Flow app

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When it's time to dig into that data, you have two options: Polar Flow the phone app (iOS and Android) and the Polar Flow web app. You can also sync your data via the Polar Flow Sync desktop tool as well.

I've already mentioned it a fair bit already, but the experiences of using the phone app and the web app are very different indeed. If you really want to pore over your metrics, it's the web version of Flow you want. It just feels a bit crowded viewing the same information on the phone app right now.

The Flow phone app breaks things down into your feed, activity tracking, training, sleep and general settings. But what you'll soon realise is that when you switch to the web app, there's a so much more to explore here. It's where you'll need to go to set up Polar's Running Programs, get a better view of your diary and progress. With the rich metrics that Polar's watch delivers, I found myself spending more time in the web app.

Dealing with those rich metrics on a smaller screen is a challenge that Garmin and Suunto have been trying to address over the last few years too. Clearly, Polar still has some work to getting things looking right on a smartphone.

Polar Vantage V
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Polar Vantage V: Battery life

Polar claims you should get a hefty 40 hours of battery life from the Vantage V. To put that into perspective, the Garmin Fenix 5 Plus offers 18 hours in GPS mode and 42 hours with UltraTrac mode. The Suunto 9 does 25 hours in performance GPS mode and an impressive 120 hours in its equivalent of Garmin's UltraTrac mode. Those ultra modes though do increase the sampling rate of GPS, which impacts on accuracy.

So there's a fair amount of battery to be playing with here. Generally, I've been very happy with the Vantage V's battery performance. There was no significant drain after a workout using both GPS and heart rate.

However I have experienced instances where the watch has randomly turned itself off after only charging it fully a couple of days before. It's happened a few times, even after updating to the most recent software update. I should mention that I have been testing one of the early beta models, so hopefully this shouldn't be a problem for most. But it's certainly worth mentioning.


Polar Vantage V
By Polar
The Polar Vantage V is an impressive watch in many ways and a fitting successor to the V800. The design overhaul largely gets the thumbs up from us as does the amount of data it can deliver. It ticks the right boxes for those core sports tracking features and the HR monitor impresses as well. But there are some question marks over the software experience both on the watch and in Polar Flow as things stand now. These are things that clearly can be addressed and Polar does continue to roll out features and make improvements. Right now, we're not getting Vantage V at its best and that makes it difficult to say it's a better fit for serious athletes than what's already on offer. When everything is available, we may feel very different about calling it a great Fenix rival.

Hit
  • Welcome new-look
  • Solid HR performance
  • So many data metrics
  • Training insights
Miss
  • Smelly, uncomfortable strap
  • Some questionable data
  • Not a great phone app experience
  • Missing features


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4 comments

  • StevenD·

    Lol it took you almost 5 minutes to get that first picture. What took so long?

  • wojtek·

    There is no problem with button layout, and i don't think Polar needs to/wants to "re-think" it.

    It's the same layout Polar is using for years with great effect. It's a bit unfair that author did not bother to check, and put very subjective perspective on this matter, from Garmin user point of view - it shpuld be mentioned like "I've been using Garmin watches, and a change to different layout was not easy, but if You are a new user, You can have different opinion. If You've used Polar watches before You are right in home"

    What is problematic is that in reality this is "beta" product right now. Nowing Polar for some time they will polish things up, but if You can, wait a few months with Your purchase...

    • m.sawh·

      I've used Polar, Garmin, Suunto sports watches extensively and I'm not the only person in the team who thinks the way 'some' features are assigned could be done in a more intuitive way. In reality you say it's a beta product, but this is a product that people can go and buy now. So it's not a beta product. Yes, it will no doubt improve as more updates are roll out (as explained), but right now there is room for improvement and thus reflects the score.

  • bluey.tris·

    Nice to see new HR and Power features! How does it compare to STRYD or Power2Run on Apple watch series 4?