Tag Archives: Garmin

Review: Polar M400 – a GPS Watch and Activity Tracker

There is an old trope, “jack of all trades, master of none.” Polar may just have proven this untrue.

I purchased the M400 with few expectations. I have used Garmin watches for a while, and wanted to see what another manufacturer was doing with GPS watches. I was especially interested in Polar since they invented the first wireless heart rate monitor and I am a believer in heart rate training.

The M400 is Polar’s latest running watch that doubles as an activity and sleep tracker. And honestly, it does a good job with both. This is quite an acheivement for a device that costs less than $180 ($230 with a heart rate monitor).

boxed

The box is a pretty straightforward design. You can see the watch, read about the features and scan a QR code on the top for a video.

The contents include the watch, a micro-usb cable and the paperwork. The fact that it uses a micro-usb cable is really very convenient since most people are likely to have some lying around and the watch can be charged on most powered usb ports. This saves the expense of getting a second charging cable for another location or replacing a lost proprietary cable.

contents

Setting up the watch is very easy. I just had to go to flow.polar.com/start and download the latest version of Polar FlowSync. Once the watch was recognized and updated, I disconnected to the computer and synced it with the Polar Flow app on my iPhone. I never connected it to the computer after that point. I imagine that I will only need to if it has to be updated.

Running with the M400

The M400 is an excellent running watch. I found it to be spot on with accuracy and the workouts were very much in line with the Garmin Forerunner 620.

With FR 620

As can be seen by the above, the M400 is not much larger than the Garmin Forerunner 620 and has about the same thickness.

After running, it is very easy to upload. Just press and hold the menu button to sync with the app. The results can be seen on the Web or in the app. A basic overview of the run is found in the Diary section of flow.polar.com.

browser capture 01 browser capture 02

The top of the Web page has a basic breakdown of time, distance, heart rate and calories above a map of the route run. It also tells you what kind of workout you have done based on effort levels determined by heart rate zones.

Underneath the map, there are more detailed breakdowns showing the time spent in each heart rate zone along with laps and a combination chart showing elevation, pace, and heart rate.

One really handy feature is the ability to “Zoom In” on an area of a run. By clicking the two slider controls, you can select a smaller portion of the run and see metrics from just that period like the following:

metrics

In this shot, I selected only the first five minutes of the run. My heart rate was within Zones 1 & 2 and averaged 148. This ability can be really handy to dial in to performance metrics with-in certain parts of a workout like how a set of hills affect a run, what kind of kick you have at the end of a race, or to filter out warm-up and cool down parts of a run to get the meat of a workout.

Polar does a nice job of replicating the views in it’s iOS app as well. As you scroll down the screen, you can see the workout summed up at the top with the duration, HR average, Calories, Distance, Pace and Ascent (elevation). It also breaks down what kind of workout it was for you.

workout 01

If you click the Training Benefit, it will give you a definition/explanation as shown below. This is to help you understand the physiological effect of the run based on your heart rate zones and the effort expended.

 

training benefit

 

Following the basic summary of the run is a heart rate chart with a breakdown of zones underneath. Between these, you can see the amount of time you spent in each zone and what kind of heart rate drift you had in the workout.

workout 02

Last, you have the map and lap breakdown for the workout.

workout 03

 

One nice feature of the app is that you can expand on different areas like you can on the Web site. For example, you can expand the map and use the scrubber to move along it to see your progress as shown below. You can do the same for heart rate as shown in the following image.

 

map expanded 02

 

heartrate

 

But wait, there’s more

The watch has some other really cool features as well. These are the Finish Time Estimator, Interval timer and Heart rate zones.

The Finish Time Estimator is used to determine approximately how long before you finish a workout or race at a specified distance. You set the race distance before you start and it will show you how long you have left. You also can set intervals by either distance or time and start them after warming up. Last, you have the ability to see what heart rate zone you are in and can lock your zone with audio alerts if stray outside of the parameters.

These features are shown the Polar M400 video below.

Another really interesting feature that is typically only found in high-end watches is the ability to find your way back to start. This feature uses a compass to direct you to the shortest path possible to return to your starting point.

Yet another feature available for the Polar M400 is Smart Coaching and as a part of it, the Running Index. Running Index is very similar to Garmin’s VO2Max on the Forerunner 620, the Fenix 2, and the Forerunner 920XT. Keep in mind that these watches start out at $400.

The Running Index evaluates your performance in a run and predicts racing times. This is shown on the following chart online at the Polar Running Index page.

running index

 

Running Index is explained in the Polar produced video below:

In all, the Polar M400 does an outstanding job with many features that are often only found on very high-end watches. At it’s price point, it is an incredible deal. The only thing lacking is the addition of a vibrate alert instead of audio only, but this is minor compared to what it offers runners.

The M400 as an Activity and Sleep Tracker

The Polar M400 is not only a GPS watch, but also an activity tracker. And it does a find job with that. As you go through the day, it will track your activity including your steps and workouts. It goes even further than that with more detailed information about what your activity is like throughout the day as shown below:

daily activity

The app and Web site both will show what your activity has been throughout the day and how it is broken down. Another feature that is offered is an Inactivity alert. If you have been sitting for a while, you will get the message “It’s time to move!”

Time to Move

This is to prevent you from sitting too long at any point. You can also see how many of these alerts you have gotten through time, be it a day, week, or longer interval.

Another thing that the M400 tracks is sleep. And major kudos to Polar, you don’t have to do anything. It will automatically detect when you are sleeping. This is something that Garmin does not have, even on the newly released $500 Forerunner 920XT.

sleep

Polar not only tracks the hours of sleep, but also how it breaks down. It’s very important both for health and recovery to see more than just when you were in bed and for how long. This is another feature it has over Garmin’s fitness trackers and watches – they require that you manually set when you are going to sleep and wake up.

One unfortunate feature missing from Polar Flow is direct synchronization to MyFitnessPal, a dominant diet tracker. However, this may not be a complete show stopper. Polar is now working with both Apple HealthKit and Google Fit according to their post Google Fit and Apple Healthkit.  It’s not a perfect, but you should be able to get data into MyFitnessPal by using Apple Health currently or Google Fit in the future as an intermediary.

Polar is also rolling out support for 3rd party developers as posted in Connect with Polar. Their program is free, so it will likely speed up adaptation.

Another thing that the Polar M400 does not track is stairs. Sadly, it will only track steps and sleep at this point.

Overall, what Polar does track, it does very well and consistently. It does not compromise on the tasks.

Cycling with the M400

I have been injured lately and need to do a lot of cross training by cycling and aqua-jogging. Fortunately, the Polar M400 accommodates both activities.

The M400 has a cycling mode that will allow you to track a ride. The only problem is that it is limited to GPS for speed, pace and distance and won’t work with any extra sensors except a Heart Rate Monitor. But it works well in a pinch. I wore the watch on multiple rides and compared the results to a Garmin Edge 500. The results were very consistent.

I wore both the Polar H7 Heart Rate Monitor and the Garmin HRM Run at the same time and wound up with the same metrics. The speed was the same on both devices. The route tracked just fine. The elevation was different on the Polar but that may be because there are some serious elevation issues GPS devices as a whole. Here is a good article from DC Rainmaker – Understanding Sport Device GPS.

ride compare

One thing to note. Polar does a nice job of giving a workout breakdown in one quick view. If you tap on any data item with a red tab marker, it will change to another related piece of data. For example, the tab next to the heart rate toggles between the average and max for the session.

Another really cool feature is the ability to “relive” a workout. It can maybe seen as gimmicky, but it’s well done and I enjoy how they present it. Here are the results of the cycling workout shown above and below.

relive workout

One thing that I really was delighted with on the Polar was the fact that it even counted steps while I was riding. I’m not sure if it was factored in when tracking the workout, or the watch was sensitive enough to pick up vibrations when I was riding. Either way, it credited me with steps as shown below. Something that no other device I have tried does. I even have used a Nathan pouch on one shoe with a Garmin Vivofit taken out of the band and a Fitbit Zip on the other shoe to track steps. The fact that the Polar tracked this on all of my rides was a wonderful surprise.

steps with cycling

Both result sets for the workouts can be compared at http://connect.garmin.com/modern/activity/630096797 for the Garmin Edge 500 and https://flow.polar.com/training/analysis/34699897 for the Polar M400.

Conclusion

Polar has really come out with a pretty special device here. It really checks off most of the boxes to be both be a good activity tracker, and a very good GPS/Fitness watch. The number of features it packs into the device at the price point it has prove that Polar wants this budget to mid level market. I can whole-heartedly recommend this watch to anyone who is looking to track their workouts and trying to get a cost-effective device. It really rivals much more expensive equipment. You can get the watch at Clevertraining or Amazon in my affiliate link below (I get a small commission if you buy through the links).

Review: Does the Garmin Vivosmart combine a FitBit Flex and Pebble?

It was with great excitement that I unboxed the Garmin Vivosmart. I had already reviewed the Vivofit and missed my Fitbit Flex for its size and unassuming design. Could this new offering from Garmin be the fitness band you rule them all?

It has such promise. It tracks your steps and sleep, tells time, and even can receive notifications from an iPhone or Android device.

But wait, there’s more. It can also act as a remote for a Garmin Virb, control music on your iPhone, and connect to a speed/cadence sensor to track a cycling workout. These are all some exciting features, but does it deliver? What kind of execution?

Within the box there are only a few items – The Vivosmart, a quick start manual, the charging cable, and the Vivokeeper which helps hold the clasp in place.

After opening the box, I saw that the Vivosmart powered on. Since I had Garmin Connect on my iPhone, I synced it. I already have a Vivofit and the app squawked that there could only be one fitness tracker, did I want to use this one (the Vivosmart)? I chose yes and it didn’t seem to work, so I deleted the Vivofit and Vivosmart from the app and tried again. This time it worked.

I was off and running. First, I put it on with the Garmin Vivofit that I already owned to get a comparison of size and step count over time.

As can be seen by the picture, the Vivosmart is definitely much narrower and less bulky all around. It also does not always have a display shown like the Vivofit. This makes it more similar to the Fitbit Flex. When it is not illuminated, the band is much more subtle and unobtrusive. The Vivosmart display is also backlit whereas the Vivofit is not.

However, the Vivofit has a much sharper display. This display is much more readable, while the Vivosmart is almost hazy as DCRainmaker noted in his post – First look at Garmin’s new Vivosmart activity tracker. It really is a problem as I will explain later. As far as step counts go, they are pretty close. After a few hours and 5000 steps, they were within a couple hundred. With fitness trackers, the numbers can be all over the place, so it’s a wash.

The Vivosmart also shares the movement bar and target steps with the Vivofit. The big difference being that while the Vivofit bar turns red and extends across the screen to prompt you to get up and move around, the Vivosmart is much more aggressive and vibrates.

Sadly, the way it chooses to vibrate seems to be arbitrary, or on a timer. I lost count of how many times I was up from my desk walking around when I felt a vibration on my wrist. I would look down to see if a notification came in, but it was just the band telling me to “Move”. Uh, hello? That’s what I’m doing Vivo-not-so-smart…

Music Controls

One feature that I wanted to try out were the playback controls. Or at least I thought they were playback controls and that Garmin just called them Music Controls. But no, they are music controls on the iPhone. I was listening to a podcast and hit the Play/Pause button and a song started in the Music player. It turns out that unlike most devices that control playback on the iPhone, the Vivosmart only works with the built-in music app. So, no audiobooks, podcasts, or Spotify for you.

Notifications

The main feature that got me excited about the Vivosmart was the ability to get notifications. The Vivosmart will start receiving alerts for any notification that displays on the lock screen of an iPhone (I tested this with an iPhone 6). Nothing is required. It starts receiving as soon as it is configured in Garmin Connect on the phone.

Here is an important productivity notification from the Words with Friends app:

And this is a notification from Twitter:

You scroll left and right to get through the notifications and touch the down arrow to scroll down and read the notification. As you can see, there is not much shown at a time. The Twitter notification simply shows who is sending it and my Twitter name. It disappears fairly quickly and  you have to scroll to retrieve it on the band.

Also, it actually took me several tries and angles to get the shots to be as clear as they are here. This is the ideal shot. I had a lot of trouble reading the notices on my wrist when they came in. Especially at an angle on my wrist. I found that I had to keep retrieving them again. It really is about as much trouble to pull the iPhone out of my pocket or a holster.

Compare what is shown above to what I use as my daily device for notifications – the Pebble Watch. Here is a tweet on the Pebble:

It is much clearer and you can immediately scroll up and down to read the rest of it. Also, you can click the center button to dismiss it. This removes it from both the Pebble and the lock screen on the iPhone. This is a relatively new feature on the Pebble, but still very handy.

Also, it may seem unfair to compare the Vivosmart to a full blown watch, but consider that the Pebble has been out for well over a year and is priced at $99, $70 less than the Vivosmart and has apps like Misfit to track steps and sleep as well.

Battery Life

Another consideration is battery life. And this is a big one. I had a Fitbit Flex and it got 6-7 days battery life on average. The Pebble gets 5-7 days with constant notices. The Vivosmart? Well, day one I took it out of the box and used it. That evening I got a battery low notice and it was dead within two hours. When it is dead, it’s as active as a rubber bracelet. No low battery icon or anything.

Now, in fairness, when looking at the quick start manual, the first thing shown is the following image. It seems to imply that the first thing to do is charge the device. But for how long? And why doesn’t it explicitly say it.

So, the next morning, I charged the device for some hours. It then held up for 2.5 days. Meh. Next charge was 3 days as well as the one after that, so I felt okay with it.

Then the next charge was a day and a half. And then it didn’t last from 10 AM until the next morning . I woke up and found a dead Vivosmart. When comparing it to the Vivofit which is supposed to last one year (I have had it for 3 months so far), this is aggravating.

Virb Control

The remote control for the Virb works fine. You navigate to the Virb menu and it will connect to the device. You then can tap to either record video or take a picture. The only issue is that the band goes asleep, so you have to tap to wake it, then you can tap to stop or start the recording. This added step should be considered when you are using it in the field. You will need to enable the remote setting on the Virb camera in addition to enabling the Virb screen on the Vivosmart.

Cycling

The cycling functionality is interesting. It works right away. You have to enable the feature in Garmin Connect for it to show. As soon as you have the feature enabled, you will be prompted to pedal for the device to connect to the Speed or Speed and Cadence sensor. After it has detected it, press the fitness icon (it resembles a runner) and then a play/pause button appears. This button starts a workout timer. Press that and start riding. The you can press the button again to stop the workout. Press the save button (floppy disk I wonder when that symbol will go away) to save the activity or the trash can to delete.

When you save the workout, it will automatically be loaded into Garmin Connect. You can see them below:

One really cool feature was that at the time I was wearing a heart rate monitor with a Garmin Fenix 2 watch. This heart rate monitor was detected by the Vivosmart and connected automatically without any intervention from me.

Unfortunately though, the speed was  vastly optimistic. I had me averaging 24.04 miles and hour with a top speed of 2808.14 miles per hour. I promise that I wasn’t riding a rocket at the time. The ride as tracked on the Fenix 2 with GPS is below:

Update Issues

Another issue I fought with was an inability to update the device. I kept being teased by the “New Updates Available” message in the Garmin Connect app. I would hook the VivoSmart up to external power, remove it, and then see Update Failed.

This happened numerous times. Ironically, the update it was trying to apply included “Changes to make future updates coming from iOS 8 download reliably.” in the Change History. I finally was able to get the Vivosmart to update by connecting it to my laptop and pressing and holding the battery icon. A USB icon appears that it is connected. You can then use Garmin Express which can be downloaded from www.garminconnect.com/vivosmart. On the page, in the statement “Don’t have a compatible phone? You can set up and sync your vívosmart on your computer,” click the link “on your computer.”

Conclusion

There is a lot to like about the Garmin Vivosmart, but it is not without issues. It has many features, but they are not all quite ready yet. Hopefully some of it can be improved by firmware updates. But at this point, it feels like the product is not fully baked. The device is being sold exclusively at Best Buy until November 2014 but you can pre-order it from Clever Training (This is an affiliate link and I will receive a small commission). Maybe by the time it is rolled out to a wider release, it will be more solid.

Garmin Vivofit, or Farewell to my FitBit Flex [Updated]

It pains me to say, but I think I am moving on. I have been using a Fitbit device every day since January of 2012 as I mentioned in my two podcast appearances on RunBuzz and Everyday Runners. It was a critical device that combined with MyFitnessPal enabled me to lose substantial weight and ultimately become a runner.

But, sadly I have now gone through 3 of them and they are not cheap to replace. The first one a FitBit Ultra literally broke to pieces and I had to strap it together with packing tape. The second one, the FitBit One squirted out of the stupid belt clip and vanished into the ether. And now the third one, a FitBit Flex will not hold a charge. Of course I am outside of any warranty.

This got me looking around and I started to really wonder about the Garmin Vivofit. Pete Larson wrote the review Garmin Vivofit Activity Tracker Review: A Runner’s Perspective and that sent me into action. I had a rewards kickback from BJs and they just started carrying them, so I decided to try one.

Since I am already in the Garmin ecosystem, it was really the only other option for me (I had a Striiv for a while and had a terrible time with it).

Since I am a bit obsessive about my step tracking, I decided to wear both of them on my wrist for the rest of the day when I bought the Garmin. Then I decided that I really should keep wearing them both overnight and all day the next day so I could get a true side-by-side comparison. My wife thought I looked quite silly, but she is getting more used to my foibles.

The first day I wore them together, I didn’t do any running. The step count was extremely close Fitbit 6127 and Vivofit 6105. Now, I did have to bounce the Vivofit up and down just over 2000 times to get the steps to sync when I got the new device, so obviously, it’s not apples to apples.

On the second day, I started to see the real differences between the devices. First, the way they handle sleep tracking is different. Fitbit gives specific data along with graphs while Garmin Connect only shows a graph. I find this to be a real shortcoming for the Vivofit.

Vivofit sleep information appears on Garmin Connect. It looks nice, but lacks the specificity of Fitbit.

Notice the problem with the type of data. The chart on Garmin Connect looks nice, but it lacks details. This causes the results to be misleading. If you go by the Garmin Connect chart, I slept 7 hours and 25 minutes. A decent nights sleep — I prefer 8, but can get by on 7 fine.

But the Fitbit data shows a different story. It has a total of actual sleep being only 6 hours and 43 minutes. This is a big difference. It also gives actual times awake and the number of times being restless. You can try to extrapolate this information from the Garmin chart, but why?

Since Garmin has the data to make the chart, why can’t they just provide the raw data?

The stats also diverge when it comes to trends over time. Garmin gives the very basic number of hours.

Fitbit on the other hand gives very specific information. I find it remarkable that Garmin makes watches that track numerous variables like heart-rate, cadence, time, distance, and now even vertical oscillation, VO2 Max and ground contact time. Yet, they give such rudimentary information for the Vivofit. It’s almost like there are different development teams for each device. Hopefully this changes over time.

Moving on to step tracking. This gets interesting. On day two, I ran just over 6 miles and had both devices on. The rest of the day was moderately active. Fitbit steps versus Vivofit. They don’t exactly line up (Fitbit is on the left).

There’s almost a 2000 step difference or nearly a mile. What is really interesting is that I decided to compare the Fitbit app alone using the M7 chip in the iPhone 5S against the Garmin Vivofit. The resulting discrepancy is reversed as shown below.

The difference is nearly a mile and a half… How far did I walk? I have no idea. I guess I will just have to try and make it a lot and let the differences sort themselves out.

When it comes to a step breakdown throughout the day, Garmin Connect does an excellent job of displaying data.

You can easily see how your activity is spaced throughout the day and each bar displays actual numbers if you hover. I especially appreciate the Breakdown screen which offers a basic snapshot of activity balance in a day.

Fitbit does a great job as well, giving a straightforward view of activity throughout the day, but I give Garmin the edge.

Another option that both Fitbit and Garmin Connect offer are badges. I stopped tracking my Fitbit badges a while ago because I have had one a long time and attained many of them.

My Garmin badge collection has just started, so I’ll have to see what they offer over time.

The big differences between the Garmin Vivofit and the Fitbit Flex has to be the screen and battery life. The Vivofit has an easily readable screen that even has a red bar that builds across to help inspire the wearer to get moving.

The Flex has a series of dots that symbolize 2000 steps for each. The Vivofit also has screens to display the number if steps away from your goal, the number if miles, calories burned, time of day, and date.

For me, the blockbuster feature that has sold me on the Vivofit is the amazing battery life and the fact it is replaceable. The Fitbit Flex has a built in battery that I had to charge every 4-5 days. Of course, it would lose it’s charge at the most inconvenient time. I would forget that I had it charging and then start walking around without it — thus not tracking my steps.

Garmin claims that the Vivofit battery can last up to a year. If it only lasts half the time, that’s a huge win for me. Plus, the battery is replaceable. Maybe I won’t have to replace this device. I can just change the battery.

It wasn’t an easy decision to go with the Vivofit, but the battery life is what ultimately won me over. Now I just have to find more stepping friends who have the Vivofit…

For an extremely thorough review of the Vivofit and it’s functionality, you may want to check out DCRainmaker’s Garmin Vivofit In-Depth Review.

UPDATE: Ray Maker aka DCRainmaker also reported that you can get the Vivokeeper, a free safety band to prevent the clasp from popping apart accidentally for free from Garmin.

You can purchase the Vivofit from Clever Training now for $99. I receive a small commission for any that you buy at no added cost to you.

Vivofit available now at Clever Training
Vivofit available now at Clever Training