By Fred Zahradnik
Finland-based Polar Electro is one of very few companies giving Garmin competition in the category of GPS devices for sports and fitness enthusiasts. The new Polar RS800 wristwatch has optional GPS and comes in 4 versions, including multisport, running and cycling.
I tested the bike version with GPS — model RS800CX. I rode with it, ran with it and used it as a heart monitor for stationary bike workouts.
Polar has a reputation for solid electronics, engineering and best-in-class heart monitoring hardware. But its products also are known to have a challenging learning curve and somewhat geeky and hard-to-use software. The RS800CX lives up to all of these characteristics.
Plusses include super-long battery life, multisport versatility and a compact, solidly built watch that looks elegant enough to wear when not working out. This may make the RS800CX a top choice depending on your needs.
G3 GPS Highs & Lows
Unlike Garmin with its all-in-one Edge cyclecomputers, Polar takes a mix-and-match approach with the RS800CX. This bike version includes a heart monitor with a wireless chest strap transmitter and a wheel-mounted speed sensor. To these you can add GPS ($140 suggested retail) and a cadence sensor ($55). An optional bike handlebar mount ($9) provides a firm fixture for the watch.
Polar’s separate G3 GPS sensor is compact (2.3×2.3 in.; 5.8×5.8 cm) and sturdily built with a tough, waterproof nylon shell. It captures GPS satellite signals and relays the info wirelessly to the watch. The watch then displays and stores speed, distance and elevation data.
One big positive for this setup is extended battery life. The watch battery is said to last for as long as a year of continuous use, and the 2 AA batteries in the G3 GPS are good for days of continuous use, depending on setup. The unit has a low-power mode and goes to sleep when it hasn’t moved in 15 minutes. I didn’t need to replace its batteries during my 16 hours of testing.
The unit is rated waterproof to 20 meters (65 ft.) — a big plus for triathletes — and it passed my immersion test.
The G3 GPS uses Wide Area Augmentation System (WAAS), which supplements satellite GPS signals to improve position accuracy to 3 meters or less. The sensor also features a SIRFIII GPS chip, which is known as a good performer. Nevertheless, I found the RS800CX to be consistently slow at acquiring GPS signals from cold starts. I suggest starting the GPS and placing it outdoors while you prep for your workout, so it’s ready to go when you are.
You “teach” the watch to accept the GPS accessory in a brief and easy sync/setup routine. Be sure to get the G3 model because Polar’s similar device, the G1, doesn’t work with the RS800CX.
The G3 GPS’s speed and distance data is accurate, making the wheel-mounted speed sensor unnecessary when the satellite signal is used.
Sleek Watch, Small Display
The RS800CX watch is sleek, compact and well-built. Its display is small at 1.3 in. (3.3 cm) diagonal and it’s in black-and-white. Even though it is GPS-capable with the addition of the G3 receiver, it isn’t a navigation device and doesn’t display a map. The GPS is there solely to provide position, speed and elevation data.
That sounds like a lot of limitations, but one benefit of a small display is a very modest power draw that keeps this watch running on the same battery for a year or more. The compact display also gives the watch a slim profile. It doesn’t look especially out of place in non-sports settings.
The watch can be handlebar-mounted using the optional holder (right), but I didn’t bother with that and just wore it on my wrist. With the G3 GPS activated, the watch displays accurate speed and distance, or you can customize it to show heart rate and other stats of interest. Meanwhile, the watch is storing a range of workout data for download and analysis by the included software.
The RS800CX is loaded with the “full features” Polar lists on its website.
First-rate Heart Monitoring
In my experience, Polar has always provided best-in-class heart monitor accuracy, reliability and strap comfort, and the RS800CX maintains the high standard. Like other heart monitors, it’s prone to recording brief high spikes, especially near the beginning of a workout when pickups and skin aren’t yet moist with sweat. If you are serious about accurate heart rate, the solution is to apply electrode gel(get it cheap at any big pharmacy) to the contact surfaces.
Setting the RS800CX heart rate package apart is a very comfortable, stretchy chest strap with a compact, lightweight transmitter that easily unsnaps when it’s time to wash the strap. There are just enough rubbery grip strips to keep the strap from sliding down.
Polar also offers various options for setting target and alarm zones. If you’re into heart monitoring I think you’ll be pleased with the post-workout analysis you can do using Polar’s software.
Easy-to-Use ProTrainer 5 Software
To make max use of all the RS800CX can do, it comes with Polar ProTrainer 5 software (on CD) and an infrared data receiver (right) that plugs into your computer’s USB port. After a workout, simply start the ProTrainer software, then put the watch in transmit mode and hold it in front of the IrDA device. It will automatically upload your workout data. With ProTrainer you can store, analyze and graph a virtually unlimited number of workouts.
That’s all good, but there are some ProTrainer 5 limitations. First, this software is not available for Macs. Second, although it is said to be compatible with Windows XP and Vista, I could not get the data import feature to work on an XP machine. Using Vista, program installation and data import worked fine.
Overall, the RS800CX can be a good choice for the cyclist or triathlete who wants long battery life, waterproof GPS features and best-in-class heart monitoring.
Fred “Dr. Z” Zahradnik is the GPS guru for About.com. He’s also a dedicated cyclist and the former technical editor and online editor of Bicycling magazine. He has reviewed scores of cycling products and managed dozens of buyer’s guides.