Polar V800 Trail Test

Original Review date: Oct 2015. Tested with Polar H7 HR Strap and 1.5-1.7.27 firmware (Updated June 2016)

Summary

Not sure if Polar ever intended for the V800 to go fully NZ bush. What is certain is that it beats some trail intended GPS competitors in terms of positional accuracy and endurance. Though distance accuracy on the trail is a bit iffy. Polar are also still rather keen on proprietary formats, so it’s not fully compliant on the standards front. Still it’s come a long way since the initial release where Polar Flow data was more locked down than Soviet Russia.

A current model round-up can be seen here, and the testing methodology is here

What kind of trail runner is it good for?

The Polar V800 may be best suited to the road-with-a-bit-of-trail racer rather than explorer or ultra runner. It’s a bit smart, monitors daily activity, and the workout features encourage a structured training programme. Yep, sounds like a racer.

What should you expect as a long term running companion?

If you get one appreciating it’s limitations, you’re on solid ground. Firmware and companion app updates are few and far between and not too disruptive. Expect a reliable training and race partner. Though if you ever move on from road and urban trail to a full bush experience the distance accuracy may become an issue.

Good Stuff

Nice compact watch design, screen is crisp and very legible.  Great feature set for workout and structured interval training, and the screen tap function makes lap marking super easy. Course navigation can display distance to finish, and positional auto-lapping is available. Reliable with no freezes or any other unwanted issues. Companion app now supports both Android as well as iOS for smart notifications as well as syncing (when/if it works). A big emphasis on complete activity tracking for training goals and recovery.

Bad Stuff

Despite it’s good positional accuracy, recorded distance accuracy has a rather wide distribution (meaning you can’t be sure of the actual distance of a trail run). The sound and vibrate alert are pretty faint and very easily missed. Getting the full set of cadence/running features requires a Polar brand pod, and the pod is huge. As well as the proprietary bluetooth issue, the file format is also fairly well locked down (though automatic Strava syncing is now possible). And the flap for the changing/syncing clip does our head in – best to keep a point object handy when you need to charge (or grow bag-lady fingernails).

Plea to Polar

Give a battery savings setting between the current 13hr and 50hr options. Some optimisation of filtering to give more reliable distances on the trail would be great. Must be time to give up on the proprietary and locked down bluetooth features and formats. And while you are at it shrink those HR/cadence pods. And that charging port/clip setup needs a serious rethink.

Formal Testing

Accuracy

So far the Polar V800 testing has covered in excess of 220km on the surveyed courses over 27 separate days (repeated testing is vital to capture variation). A number of the activities were also specifically planned to assess the impact of poor satellite coverage (via tools that give geometric dilution of precision or GDoP). Potential GDoP was logged for every activity to better make comparisons across models.

The GPS pool against which the V800 was tested included the following models: Suunto Ambit2, Suunto Ambit3 Peak, Garmin FR310XT, Garmin FR910XT, Garmin fēnix 3.

During testing multiple GPS devices are carried as a means of validation, if all units have a bad GPS day then a tin foil hat is donned. Though some days with poor GDoP potential saw all units a little degraded, no testing days saw GPS chaos across all models.

Positional

The accuracy of the V800 in clear sky conditions is very good with a median error of 1.5m (2m average), almost identical to the Ambit2. Though it drops off a bit under a limited sky view at 2.1m (2.7m  average).

V800
V800 distribution of accuracy against surveyed courses

The V800’s positional performance in limited conditions is matched in truly difficult conditions courses (heavy tree cover, steep terrain, gorges) where it is among the better performers so far. Repeats a the 8km circuit had a median relative offset of 4.1m (mean 5.4m) with 16% of points greater than 10m.

Variance in accuracy over surveyed testing overall was pretty contained meaning that not only were error margins low, but also stable. There were no instances of really bad GPS days so positional accuracy appears pretty predictable

Distance

Assessing true distance accuracy is not easy in trail conditions. GPS measured distance is dependent on positional accuracy and sampling rate. Unfortunately errors in positional accuracy can both increase and decrease distance via corner cutting and random scatter, and both are common in trail conditions. As these can cancel each other out an inaccurate track can still give spot on distances. A third type of error, shadowing, where the track is parallel generally has little effect on distance (unless it’s well off and converges).

Unfortunately the distance accuracy of the V800 running in mixed trail GPS conditions varies rather widely in comparison to other models. As a long term average it records a solid 99% of the measured course distances, though the day to day distances are all over the show, varying from 96% to 105%. In fact it hits the true survey distance (plus or minus 1%) a mere 35% of the time.

That’s not so good for a watch that is positionally pretty accurate, bit of an enigma really. The data suggests the watch does distance a good deal better in open sky GPS conditions, in fact I took it to a road course with measured 1km markers and it scored exactly 1.00km for each of the 6 I ran through. So perhaps filtering isn’t optimised for NZ style tree cover?

V800_Dist_Distrb

In challenging GPS condition outings (ie. typical NZ bush conditions) the V800 again appears to vary quite a bit between laps and outings. In one set the distance was 19% (!!) up on the expected distance, whilst another outing saw it come within 1%. Though the true course distances aren’t not known, tracks largely follow contours and features. In both cases the track points seemed pretty reasonable.

We are really not sure what’s happening with the calculated distances here.

Track Appearance

Tracks under reasonable GPS conditions generally appeared detailed and responsive to quick changes in direction. Although overly jagged zig-zag tracks are not uncommon, especially where sky view is limited. On a couple of occasions, significant track shadowing (+20 metres off track) was observed at the start of a run though these didn’t last too long.

The trackpoint cloud image below shows the density of GPS position updates from all recorded runs against part of surveyed course. The trackpoint density generally appears well bound to the track on the open sections of the course (right side). The dispersion in the limited sky conditions is a bit more apparent in places.

V800_Cloud

 

Elevation

Elevation range is very good when manually calibrated at start, only missing the expect max and min values by a fistfull of metres. Ascent/descent data from the surveyed course was also decent compared to other models tested, coming in at 84%.

Note: The survey course probably is a bit tough on GPS watches with respect to elevation with lots of rapid 10-30m climbs/descents. Watches would probably perform better on longer more pronounced climbs/descents.

Battery Saving Data Recording

The battery saving GPS mode acts pretty much as you’d expect, low detail with lots of straight lines between the points. That said if you are planning a 100 miler you’ll likely be moving pretty slow. Be good if there were a middle sampling option though.

We couldn’t test low GPS sampling taking pace and distance from a footpod as this requires a proprietary Polar model. You can select speed to be taken from footpod or GPS so presumably it’ll respect distance from a footpod during low GPS sampling too.

Functional Tests

Data Syncing and Sharing

Syncing can be done via computer or phone app. On the computer side, once you’ve managed to get that fiddly rubber cap off the charging/syncing port and aligned the clip within a few nanometres it’ll sync with PC/Mac. Like everyone else these days the useful data is actually stored in a web service rather than your local computer.

There are some developers also building an option for you Linux users (looks a bit complicated though). Some of these same generous people also produce a great app called Bipolar which hooks into a service and converts the proprietary Polar format to TCX or GPX which gives you a bit more freedom with your data. On initial release (and for quite a time after) couldn’t sync to Strava but thankfully that’s been added as a feature of the Polar Flow service.

We haven’t tested the iOS app which is somewhat more mature than the Android equivalent. The Android version is mostly working with the Sony Xperia Z5 Compact (Android 5.1.1), though syncing actual runs fails more often than it works. Notifications work nicely, as does syncing of daily activities (think steps/movement not runs) and sleep. Something to note though, you don’t get notification whilst running.

Navigation Functions

In the early days you could only retrace a previously run course (yours or a course shared within the Polar Flow universe). Now you can import any GPX into Polar Flow. The V800 will give you a bearing to get to the start point then a breadcrumb to follow once you are on course (if you don’t manage to get to the start point you won’t see any breadcrumb map to follow). You can’t put waypoints or alerts on the course but it does give you a distance to the end of the plotted course.

The advertised trackback to start type feature, in reality this is just a bearing to the run start point (no breadcrumb trail). So not terribly useful IMHO.

Pacing Functions

The V800 Race Pace feature lets you set a target pace and shows how far ahead or behind you are. While you can save past runs as courses to follow, apparently this doesn’t include the previous pace data, so no racing past PBs on a course.

Battery Run Down

The box said 13hrs, the trail run endurance test said 12:59:15. Pretty close. Maybe too close. The watch still recorded time, elevation, and HR after the 13hr mark, it just turned off GPS. Leaves us wondering if the ‘GPS off’ feature is scheduled at 13hrs. Nonetheless, it was a good results in a real world test – certainly the closest to the spec sheet.

Standard Feature Set

General Trail Running

  • GPS accuracy under canopy : Ok
  • Consistent GPS accuracy : Yes (position only)
  • Rapid GPS Acquisition : Mostly
  • HRM : Yes
  • Cadence option : Proprietary Polar pod
  • Battery 8hr with HRM and high accuracy setting : Yes
  • Barometer : Yes
  • Breadcrumb with waypoint navigation : No
  • Vibration alerts : Yes
  • Trail legible display: Yes
  • Open data access : No
  • Fully ANT+ or BLE Compliant : No

Ultra Feature Set (as per trail running plus)

  • Battery 14hr+ with HRM and high accuracy recording : No
  • Battery 24hr+ with HRM and down-sampling : Not tested (specs say yes)
  • Electronic compass : Yes

Nice to Have Features

  • Mobile uploads : Yes
  • Cadence (without footpod) : Yes
  • HRV (R-R) recording with recovery estimate/test : Yes
  • Footpod GPS override : No (only with proprietary Polar pod)
  • Basic interval workout ability : Yes
  • Pacing function : Yes
  • Position/waypoint autolapping : Yes
  • Custom timer reminders : Yes
  • Everyday watch : Yes
    • Activity Tracking : Yes
    • Mobile Notifications : Yes

Non-Tested Core Features

While functions like heart rate and cadence are core, we’ve got no means of objectively testing them.

Nothing out of the ordinary seen on heart rate recording. Unfortunately we couldn’t use any of the advanced stride type functions as the standard BLE footpod we use didn’t do anything other than simple cadence. Speaking of which Polar finally updated the V800 to record cadence without a pod, truly odd that this wasn’t a feature at release.

Activity tracking is full featured, incorporating daily activities (steps), and exercise, and training load. The watch/Polar Flow website also does a quite a good job at integrating this all to give different views of training benefits, loads, and session recommendations.

The workout/interval session features are pretty good too (once you figure out how to use them). Sessions can be phased on time or distance with intensity targets, etc. A nice feature is the option to manually or automatically move to the next phase.

The running index features appear a pretty handy measure of long term running efficiency providing feedback for improvement.

General Useability

The design of the V800 make it (mostly) simple to use. Actually it’s better than that, from a running useability perspective it’s the it’s the best we’ve tested. Not sure quite what features make it such a pleasure to use, the screen tap to lap (or other programmable option), the wrist to heart gesture (again can be set to do a few things), the excellent screen, and the button design all contribute I’m sure.

Though as noted earlier the sound and vibrate alerts could be a more pronounced – they are easily missed. And the sound of the V800 is near identical to some NZ native birds, we were wondering why the watch was beeping so often on one early morning run…

If you want to live completely within the Polar universe, the V800 + mobile app + Flow website work very nicely together. It now plays well with Strava as well. Though getting your data automatically into another format or service isn’t officially supported (some open source PC software is available).

Unfortunately there’s no general electronic compass or barometer screen for the explorer adventurer types out there. You are not the market they are looking for apparently.

The watch itself feels less bulky than others and doesn’t catch on things quite so easily, though wrist fit is an individual thing. It sits nicely for some while others have found it a bit uncomfortable.

Long Term Verdict

After about 1000km of trail time the V800 hasn’t given us a single issue (distance variability aside), tracks look solid, battery is dependable, no glitches, shut downs, or resets. Polar has come some way in improving both the watch and Flow service functions (think cadence, route following, and Strava syncing).

However, the H7 heart rate monitor can be a bit painful to re-pair after changing the battery. We were about to throw one away until we discovered a reset procedure of shorting it after removing the battery. The other trick is to let the HR pod fully discharge for a minute after taking the battery out before putting in a new one.

The Android Flow app is consistently bad at syncing runs (is this a Finnish thing?)

Currently the two things that stop the V800 from being an excellent trail option are the variability in recorded distances, and lack of  options around battery saving (a 24hr mode as well as 50hr mode would be nice).