The Polar Vantage V is a great watch for fitness junkies who want to live better, sleep better and exercise more effectively. But it isn't a smartwatch.
The word “polar” usually suggests “extreme.” North Pole, South Pole. Bipolar.
With the Polar Vantage V, it’s so polarizing that it’ll make a Fitbit seem like an amateur toy watch. It’s like a Jeep versus a everyday SUV. It’s like a full carbon-fibre bike frame versus an aluminum frame. Gourmet ramen versus instant noodles.
It’s for the sportsperson who believes in “harder, better, faster, stronger” and “no pain, no gain” with a sprinkling of the self-improvement mantra “delete Facebook, hit the gym, lawyer up.”
The information and analytics are so complex, it’s best summarized by a quote from Jesse Pinkman in Breaking Bad, “Yeah, science!”
The Vantage V also has a most unique screen that resembles a Gameboy Color’s screen. It even has a button to turn on the backlight, which you will use often. The beeps that the watch makes upon activating certain functions also sound very retro with its 8-bit tones. Sure takes you back to 1998.
- Fantastic fitness data, analytics
- Data collected motivates you to exercise more, sleep better
- Custom exercise programs depending on your fitness levels
- Power output estimates and exercise program for runners
- Fitness testing that estimates VO2max
Go to school!
But it’s 2020 and paper manuals are obsolete.
Before you even get to grips with the watch, I recommend you read the manual online (https://support.polar.com/en/vantage-v) on Polar’s website, because if you don’t, you wouldn’t know how to operate this fitness instrument sometimes misconstrued as a “smartwatch.” There’s just so much to learn about before you can really benefit from the watch.
Why is it not a smartwatch?
The average smartwatch at the price that the Vantage V commands ($499) can do many tasks that the Vantage cannot. This is mid-spec Apple Watch price, folks.
The Vantage does not have a microphone and while it can make sounds, I hesitate to call it a “speaker”, it’s more like a “buzzer”. In the absence of these faculties, that means it does not have any voice-activated task assistant which is standard on a typical smartwatch whether it’s Bixby, Google Assistant, Siri or Alexa.
The Vantage will also push every notification to your watch, which means even trivial notifications such as “Do not disturb turned on” will appear on your watch.
If you receive a text message, you cannot reply to them. On the rare occasion that you get the “Reply” button, it does not seem to work. So while other smartwatches will allow you to not only read and reply, on the Vantage V, you will be searching out your smartphone in order to reply.
You can’t use the Vantage as a music player either. On most smartwatches, you would be able to store music files on the watch and connect the watch to your Bluetooth earphones which helps you avoid bringing your phone around when you go for a run.
Watch faces? You get two — digital or analogue. Don’t expect a slew of colourful watch faces with a bunch of widgets like most smartwatches have.
Calendar? Third-party apps? Access your email or messages? Forget it.
Interacting with the Vantage
The Vantage is unique in that primary control of the watch comes from pushing one of its five buttons, rather than using the touchscreen.
While you can use the touchscreen to activate functions, it seems rather hit-and-miss. Sometimes it will detect a tap, sometimes it wouldn’t.
The five buttons take a bit of time to get familiar with. Two buttons are meant for scrolling, one meant for activating functions, one opens the menu and one toggles the backlight and screen lock. The functions of the button vary according to which screen you are in but generally that is what they do. It’s complex, and while you push the watch’s buttons, it’ll be pushing yours too due to how frustrating it can get.
The battery life of the Vantage V is amazing. It loses about 2% of battery life each day if you do not turn on continuous heart rate tracking. It loses about 20% per day if you do, which is still excellent. I’d credit it to its display which reflects light so you can use it in bright sunlight without using its backlight. You will get multiple days of use with this watch even if you wear it 24 hours with continuous HR tracking on.
Watch face modes
The Vantage V comes with five different display modes, all of them telling time and date, but also telling you your activity level, overnight recovery, last training session, current heart rate and cardio load status.
It won’t tell you the weather. It won’t tell you what’s next on your agenda. It only tells you how you can get fitter. That’s where it excels and below are some unique modes that aren’t offered in most smartwatches.
Activity watch face
In activity mode, it tells you the progress towards your daily activity goal. It measures activity data on top of your regular training, and you can set the activity level based on how active you are daily.
It will also remind you of inactivity. If you stay idle for 55 minutes, you will get an inactivity alert. If you ignore it, you will see an icon in the Polar Flow app.
This compares your short-term training load and long-term training load, then tells you whether you are maintaining, progressing, or detraining in fitness. It’s like counting calories, but in this case, you want to have a cardio load surplus in order to be progressing.
I felt ambivalent when the watch told me that “If you keep this up for long, detraining will occur.” But I believe that the advice offered by the watch could be a great motivator for people to get out and train.
The Vantage can tell you how restorative your sleep was. This metric is formed by judging how you slept and how your autonomic nervous system calmed down during the early hours of your sleep. It uses data from the previous 28 days of exercise to form its metric.
Unfortunately, the Vantage V is a watch that gets in the way when you sleep with it. It’s really big and bulky, so if you are used to putting an arm under your pillow, you will feel some pressure points from doing so. It’s not comfortable to wear overnight.
The FitSpark watch face gives you two to four custom workouts based on your fitness level, training history, and your recovery and readiness every day. These workouts are split into cardio, strength, and supportive categories.
Cardio tries to work your heart at a specified zone, strength involves doing bodyweight or circuit exercises while supportive gets you doing strength and mobility exercises.
Data, data, data
The Vantage V requires a lot of data in order to give you a good judgment of your lifestyle. You will have to wear it non-stop and overnight for a few weeks in order for it to give its assessment. You will also have to remember to track your training in order to get organized data.
It’s very much like being a prisoner on house arrest. You have to wear an electronic device that keeps tabs on you. The upside to all of these tasks is that you get excellent data and analytics that neither Google Fit nor Samsung Health can offer.
Using it to improve your health
As a layperson, I was curious if Vantage’s data would help me point out the flaws in my lifestyle. When I was counting calories with the Samsung Health app, I realized I was deficient in calcium and that made me eat more cheese.
There are two aspects in which I feel the Polar can help you in — getting more exercise and getting better sleep.
Improving your sleep
I knew I was sleeping late but I didn’t know how poor my sleep habits were until I saw it logged into the Polar Flow app.
The app gives you a score based on your amount of sleep, solidity, and regeneration. My scores were below 70-85 (the typical score range). My sleep was also particularly late, averaging 1:28 am and for about seven hours each time.
Since getting this data, I made some changes to my lifestyle, including turning up the heat in the bedroom (it was wintertime) and also removing my smartphone from the bedroom.
Luckily, my Nightly Recharge score was “Good” which meant that I am recovering well from the demands of the day.
The app also offers some tips for exercise, sleep, and regulating energy levels if it detects a worsening in the quality of these aspects.
Improving your fitness
When you’re on a roll, such as when you were getting good grades, getting kudos from your bosses or ranking highly in a competition, it gives you a great feeling. But imagine that being taken away from you.
That’s one of the ways the Vantage has motivated me to get out to exercise. Wintertime is especially harsh because I hate exercising in the cold. But last week, my Cardio Load rating was “maintaining” and now it has fallen into “detraining.” It tells me I haven’t been straining my body as much as I am able to tolerate, and I will fall into decline if I keep this up.
Yikes! Off I went to the swimming pool and I am glad that this watch has the ability to measure your pace and distance, strokes, heart rate, and swimming style.
The Vantage also comes with Strava Live Segments for people who like to compete, although you will need a Strava Summit Analysis Pack which is a subscription service that not only gives you access to Live Segments, it also has other analytics and promises to “get those robot legs you’ve always wanted.”
The watch also has a test that estimates your VO2max which measures cardiorespiratory fitness and performance capability. I got “moderate”, which is the median fitness level class. The photo above was rated “Good” because the watch had my age 10 years older than what I am.
Special functions for runners
The Vantage has some excellent functions for runners including the ability to measure speed and distance by using the accelerometer (for times where GPS is unreliable or when running indoors).
It features the Polar Running Program which plans a running program for 5k, 10k, half marathons, and marathon events, customized to your fitness and preferences in frequency. I tried creating a 5k training plan and it involved four days of running split between jogs, interval training, and static exercises.
The Vantage can also estimate your running power from your wrist. This is amazing because you can see your improvement in power output over time, which is useful if you are building a running training program.
The Polar Vantage V comes with a phone app as well as a computer app. I did not have any problems with the phone app and it provided reliable service in both syncing with the Vantage as well as forwarding notifications. The one confusing aspect of the phone app is that you have to manually activate sync sometimes if you want data to be available.
The computer app was problematic. Initially, it complained that I couldn’t sync the watch with the computer and told me to unplug and try again. No luck. So I went online and followed the troubleshooting instructions provided by Polar. No luck. It was not until I restarted the watch that was I able to sync the watch.
The web app mostly overlaps with the smartphone’s functionality but it offers just a few more functions to make it worth it. It has a community function where you can meet others, the aforementioned running program creator and because you’re interacting using a mouse and keyboard, it’s a lot easier to get information faster.
The Polar Vantage V has improved my lifestyle by nagging me about how horrible I am. Not even my mother could motivate me this way. The only way it could do better is if it could reduce the (empty) calories that I consume every day.
It would have been a much more complete experience if Polar had integrated the watch better with the smartphone. It’s great being able to receive notifications but it’s annoying not being able to play music or reply to notifications. No calendar, no weather, and no voice assistant. It really fails in the smartwatch department.
As a training tool, it’s excellent. The analytics that it offers blows most other smartwatches out of the water.
This is an excellent watch for people looking for a training data logger who can suggest training plans and connect you to a community of fitness enthusiasts. Other smartwatches do have similar capabilities, but none do it this well, but other smartwatches do a lot of other productivity-based tasks much better than the Vantage V.