The Weekly Review

by Chris Bowler

The Polar Vantage M

My wife treated me well this Christmas and I was the recipient of some lovely running gear. The most prominent item was a new Polar Vantage M. Up until the late fall, I had my eyes on a Garmin device, but once Polar made this the Vantage M available I was sold.

The Vantage M is the nicest looking Polar device in some time

First of all, most of the serious runners in my community use Polar gear. Second of all, the Vantage M looked like Polar was starting to take aesthetics more seriously (their older stuff is butt ugly).

Prior to this Christmas, I’ve been wearing a Fitbit Charge 2 for the last 24 months (which is apparently the approximate amount of time required for my wife to start to consider purchasing me a gift that replaces a previous gift she gave to me … she’s too good to me). The Fitbit has served me well and as a general activity tracker, I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend it.

But as I became more serious about running, I wanted something a little more robust.

What I was looking for

When I first started thinking about replacements, the Apple Watch was the device that came to mind. However, since I was focused on the athletic aspects, much of what the Apple Watch provides was not of interest to me. In fact, it was a detriment — I would have to set it up to not be a distraction. I have enough of that in my life already.

Second, in order to use it for running as I desired, it would have to connect to local cell networks. And that costs money. I’d like to reduce the mobile charges our family pays, not the opposite.

Last, battery life is a big consideration. I want a device that can run a long while between charges. The Fitbit Charge 2 fit that requirement very well — I would charge it about once per week. The Apple Watch would require charging nightly. Not ideal for an activity tracker.

The Polar Vantage M? I put it on around noon on Christmas Day and it’s currently 3:17 PM on New Years Day as I type this. The battery appears to have just under 20% left.

So I was looking for a device that:

  • has great battery life
  • enables me to run without my phone
  • gives me advanced stats on my runs
  • tracks my general activity like steps and sleep
  • and looks good

The Vantage M ticked all those boxes. It would be nice if it also could store music, but that factor was not a huge detriment for me. I’ve been slowly listening to less of, well, everything on my runs. So this is not a deal breaker for me.

How do the two compare?

In some senses, this is not an apples to apples comparison. Fitbit is a company that targeted activity tracking for the general public since its inception, whereas Polar is laser focused on serious athletics. In most cases, a device from either company would be designed for a different overall purpose.

However, the Vantage M is Polar crossing the ground from dedicated training device to the realm of a general activity tracker. You won’t go wrong using it to train for a triathlon; but neither would you go wrong buying one to be used as a watch, step counter, sleep tracker, and for casual, less frequent exercise.

So in that sense, it was easy for me to compare the two. I’m not a serious athlete in terms of competing against others. But I am a runner — and it’s a big, important piece of my life. So how do they compare?

Aesthetically, the Vantage M is a nicer looking device. It’s more on par with an Apple Watch or wearables in that category. Fitbit themselves have similar devices … but the Charge 2 is not one of them. It fits the definition of a classic activity tracker, not a smart watch. And while the Charge 2 looks fine, it’s not as nice to look at as the Vantage.

Not that the Vantage doesn’t have room to improve. Polar has taken steps to improve the look of their devices, but they shouldn’t rest where they are. The hardware itself is quite nice and it feels even better. You know that feeling of a solid, well-made product? It has that feel.

But the software could still use improvement. A lot of the possible “screens” on the Vantage are still more functional than beautiful. The views when training are quite nice. But inexplicably, the basic regular “I’m living my life” views are less pleasing. Polar needs to keep iterating here.

One last thing to note on this topic is the customization that is possible. You can build your own “profiles” that can be displayed while training (and it can differ from sport to sport). This is a nice touch and lets me see exactly what stats matter most to me when on a run.

One area where the Vantage M is a huge improvement over the Charge 2 is the display itself. The Charge is the worst possible combination. It’s not bright enough to see in the daylight hours when training and so rendered pretty useless for seeing your details while exercising. But if you roll over in your sleep and raise your arm, you’re likely to wake up your significant other with blinding blue light (sorry, hon). The lack of some kind of ambient awareness was something that irked me daily for two years.

The Vantage M does a much better job of this. I’ve not had to strain my eyes or even move the device out of direct sunlight to see the details while on a run. Nor have I had it blind me at 2am.

Another advantage I would not have considered before purchasing is how the Vantage handles water. That is to say, you can take it in the pool. I’m no triathlete, but it is nice to be able to record some laps when taking the kids for a swim.

A tangent on the importance of software

Tangentially related, one critique of Polar is one I’ve had of other health-related data-centric services. They all seemed to be designed by developers. Fitbit, Polar, and even Strava to a degree, all share one thing in common: their web applications are poorly designed.

At this point, I have two years of data from my everyday life in Fitbit. And to a degree, the Fitbit web application is functional. But its form leaves a lot to be desired. Polar is no better. Strava is a little ahead of these two services, but it leaves me wondering why all of these companies aren’t better at what they offer.

I guess one could say it’s a reflection of their core offering. Both Polar and Fitbit are hardware companies. They make profits from selling physical devices (like Apple). Strava is not, so it makes sense that they put more effort into their software.

But I would argue that the longevity of these companies will be dependent on the quality of their software. If I choose to purchase and use their devices, the chances of me purchasing a second, third, or fourth devices is much higher if the data I generate is useful and enjoyable.

Design makes everything better.

If I took anything important away from my time at InVision, it was the mentality that was plastered on my Kyle Steed-illustrated tee shirt.


At any rate, the Polar Vantage M is an upgrade from the Charge 2. I’d consider it a high end activity tracker that also meets the needs of more serious training. I’m very happy with the change!

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