Polar Unite review: Budget fitness watch with one big omission

More than just a fitness tracker, a GPS chip off a bargain multi-sports watch
Polar Unite
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Let’s get one thing in the open about the Polar Unite – this isn’t a budget running watch. With no GPS, the Polar Unite isn’t geared for runners – and actually there’s a different target market in mind.

Aimed at beginners improving general fitness but don’t know where to start, or gym and functional fitness types that spend time working out indoors, the Polar Unite is best suited to non-running activities.

And the price will attract attention: at £134.50 it's a great price.

In terms of features it's closer to the Fitbit Versa 2, Suunto 3 Fitness and perhaps the Whoop Strap 3.0 rather than Garmin Vivoactive 4 or Forerunner 245. But the price puts it directly against the Fitbit Charge 4 – which does pack GPS built in.

It’s much more than just a fitness tracker, not quite as capable as a full multi-sport watch and lacks the smarts of a fitness smartwatch.

It joins the budget end of Polar’s growing line-up, below the Polar Ignite. In fact, it could easily have been called the Ignite Light.

The slim, round design is very similar and it comes with a lot of the same features, including guided daily workouts, Nightly Recharge sleep and recovery monitoring and sport-specific tracking for 100 different fitness activities including running, cycling, swimming and yoga.

Polar Unite: Design and comfort

Polar Unite and Polar Ignite side by side

At 32g, the Polar Unite is extremely light and comfortable with a pleasantly simple style. Polar has stuck with much of the design we enjoyed in the Ignite, albeit with some clear cost-saving replacements.

It swapped the stainless steel bezel for a fibreglass polymer casing, used a slightly smaller display and dropped the skin contact sensors that the Ignite uses to weed out the bad heart rate readings.

The colour touchscreen display has the same resolution as the Ignite and comes with an ambient light sensor to help with visibility.

It doesn’t pack the pin-sharpness of an Apple Watch but it’s bright enough, easily legible in most light, with plenty of room for the rich array of stats on screen. There’s some minor customisation options for the watch face text colours but we’d like the option to invert the display.

Polar picks: Polar Vantage V2 v Vantage V v Grit X

The screen has automatic sleep mode to save battery but unfortunately the raise-to-wake is laggy and inconsistent to the point of frustration. We frequently ended up tapping the single side button to see stats mid-workout, which is a pain.

The lag issues don’t stop there either. The Unite is 95 per cent touchscreen controlled. Button controls are limited to a few things like navigating back and launching the quick menu only. And we found the responsiveness lacking. You find yourself prodding at it a lot, particularly on the swipe to scroll. It’s a common problem we’ve had across Polar’s touchscreen devices and it’s sadly the case here too.

Polar Unite HRM

Flip the Unite over and you’ll see the built-in optical heart rate sensor comes without the familiar heart rate sensor bump which makes it much easier to get a tight fit and you get less digging in and skin imprints.

The Unite ships with 20mm soft silicone bands in two sizes, small and medium/large. They’re interchangeable and Polar offers a selection of silicone, textile and leather alternatives if you fancy splashing £31.50 for a different look. Or you could look on Amazon.

The strap it ships with is pleasant to wear though the clip and tuck design of the clasp is really fiddly to put on, with a tendency to pinch skin and pull out hairs – if you have them. We much preferred the regular buckle on the Ignite.

When it comes to durability, the Unite feels solid and well-built for the price, even though it’s light. It’s water resistant to 30m so showering, swimming and sweating is all good and we had no issues here.

Our final bugbear with design is the charger. Polar ditched the cable from the Vantage V, M, Ignite and Grit X and opted for a slightly odd USB clip/stick/dock that’s exactly the kind of thing you lose in a bag or suitcase. It’s also problematic for a lot of plugs where the USB port points downwards and the socket is too close to the ground/worktop, where there’s not enough clearance to plug it in.

Polar Unite: Fitness and activity tracking

Polar Unite FitSpark in action

The Unite features 100 sport modes with tailored algorithms designed to improve the accuracy of the insights dished up for everything from running to Les Mills. If your workouts of choice tend to focus on running, cycling or swimming you’re in good hands here with an excellent level of detailed analysis and insights during and after your sessions.

The lack of built-in GPS will be a deal breaker for some and it’s definitely more fiddlesome having to wait for your watch and phone to link up before you run or ride.

Unfortunately this phone-watch connection didn’t always happen automatically for us either.

However, if you can get beyond that, the Unite has plenty of rich fitness and well being features.The one feature that really sets the Unite apart though, is FitSpark. It’s a powerful and easy-to-follow daily workout recommendation tool that offers up suggested sessions across three categories cardio, strength and supportive (essentially mobility).

Each day, based on your recent training and how well you slept and recovered overnight, FitSpark recommends a training session it believes will improve your fitness. For example, it might advise cardio to ‘Keep up your endurance’, along with a 1 hour 22 minute cardio workout in heart rate zones 1-3.

If you don’t have time or feel like that session, it also provides alternatives like a 20 minute core workout. The core and mobility sessions come with on-the-watch animations for every single move, guiding you through the workouts with reps, sets and rest times.

It’s all wonderfully simple and ideal for beginners. The workout recommendations can sometimes feel a bit random but there were times when FitSpark clocked we’d had terrible sleep or had a heavier cardio session the day before and recommended something less strenuous.

We also followed the suggestions for a fortnight and the net result was that we came out the other end feeling fitter, from a good variety of training, including some sessions that were brand new to us. So it also ticks the motivation and freshness box too.

The Unite also features Polar’s fitness test in which you lie down for around 3 minutes while the heart rate sensor works its magic to give an estimate of your VO2 Max.

VO2 Max will likely be alien to the majority of the Unite’s target audience and it could easily have been given a friendlier label but essentially it’s a really simple test that offers a benchmark fitness score and is great for tracking progress. Is it an accurate VO2 Max read? Probably not, but provided your fitness score is going up, that’s all that matters here really.

Beyond that you also get continuous heart rate tracking so you can monitor your resting heart rate patterns awake and asleep. Plus the usual activity tracking combination of daily steps, inactivity alerts and calories.

In our tests, the Unite’s step counter was wildly optimistic. It overcounted steps by double the Ignite and the Garmin Fenix 6. And actually counted steps while we sat typing this. Twenty five steps for this sentence in fact.

We had the same problem with the Polar Grit X but for a device aimed at people just starting a fitness journey, the accuracy of that general movement is quite a big deal.

Polar Unite: Sleep and recovery tracking

Polar Unite sleep tracking nightly recharge

A few years back Fitbit would’ve been the go-to for sleep tracking detail but Polar has made huge leaps to catch up thanks to its Nightly Recharge feature.

The level of detail is excellent. Sleep and wake times, time asleep, sleep continuity with number and length of interruptions, number of sleep cycles and the percentage of time spent in each sleep stage (REM, deep and light). You get one simple overall sleep score and comparisons against your 28 day averages. All of that on the watch and in the app.

That’s fairly standard, but in addition, Polar also uses heart rate readings to monitor how well your autonomic nervous system has recovered overnight, helping you to see how you’ve bounced back on a systemic level.

This is because it’s possible to sleep well but your nervous system to be poorly restored. A classic example of this is if you’ve had a few boozy drinks. You can zonk out and feel like you slept like a baby, but really you’ve had a poor night.

This all wraps up into one overall Nightly Recharge score out of 100 and you can track your night-time effectiveness against a rolling average.

So how accurate is it? Well, the Unite clocked our sleep and wake times really well, and picked up interruptions. It also definitely spotted the occasions where we’d had alcohol.

However, we wore the Unite and the Ignite for ten nights and the readings were always different. The Unite had a tendency to be much harsher when it came to scoring sleep quality and ANS recharge, giving us a poor, compromised or OK read when the Ignite said things were good or even very good. That was the case even when we alternated the wrists.

Interestingly it didn’t seem to affect the FitSpark workout recommendations too much. Those were always in agreement.

Polar Unite: GPS and Heart rate accuracy

Polar Unite heart rate zones

Let’s talk about GPS first. Because you’re handing off responsibility for distance tracking to your phone, the accuracy of your stats will depend heavily on the quality of your phone’s GPS set up.

In our running tests, pairing the Unite to an iPhone XS Max, and going up against various devices including the Ignite, Grit X, a Garmin Fenix 6 Pro and a Stryd footpod, the Unite was regularly a long way out, consistently over-estimating the distance travelled.

On one run we did the Grit X clocked 36.5 miles while the phone-connected Unite registered 42 miles. On a shorter run the Ignite clocked 9.45km against the Unite’s 10.34km. The Unite consistently overclocked distance compared to the Stryd.

Polar Unite HR accuracy

In short you’re trading GPS accuracy for that cheaper price here. If that’s important – and your budget can stretch – we’d definitely advise investing the extra in the Ignite.

When it came to heart rate, we tested the Unite against a Polar H10 chest strap across a range of activities, including runs, HIIT-style park boot camp sessions, strength and conditioning workouts and we even did some trampolining.

The Unite often matched the post-session averages and highs beat for beat. However, we noticed it had a tendency to delay recording on some runs, only registering BPM three minutes in. The was the occasional random spike too but no wrist-based optical heart rate tracker is immune to those and the Unite does a perfectly good job.

Polar Unite: Smartwatch skills

Perhaps unsurprisingly for the price, the Unite’s smartwatch capabilities are limited to notifications from your connected smartphone.

There’s no music, no contactless payments, no calls or apps. This is very much a fitness tracker that can nudge you when you get a call and not a Fitbit Versa, Apple Watch device that brings broader convenience to your daily life.

Polar Unite: Battery life

Polar Unite watch face and screen

Even though it’s a cheaper tracker, the Unite’s 174 mAh Li-pol battery is better on paper than the Ignite.

The company claims you’ll get up to 50 hours of training time with connected GPS and optical heart rate on, or up to 4 days regular usage with continuous heart rate on. By comparison, the Ignite offers 17 hours fitness with 5 days general use.

In our tests, the Unite just about clocked 3.5 days including 3.5 hours of training thrown into our general usage. We eked out 4 days with just an hour’s activity and generally lost about 10 per cent charge overnight against the Ignites 20 percent.

The bottom line on battery: you’re likely to be sticking the Unite on charge every four days with general usage, every three days if you workout 3-4 times in that period. By comparison, the Ignite and the Fitbit Charge 4 need re-juicing more like every 3.5 days.



Polar Unite
By Polar
The Polar Unite is a GPS chip away from being an absolute bargain of a fitness watch. If you can get past that lack of built-in GPS, there’s a fantastic all-rounder here with solid heart rate, excellent fitness guidance for beginners and some leading sleep and recovery tools that paint a better all-round picture of health and wellness beyond just fitness.

Hit
  • Excellent sleep tracking detail
  • Tailored FitSpark guided workouts
  • Light, comfortable and cheap
Miss
  • No GPS
  • Unresponsive touchscreen
  • Wild step counting


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