PEZ Tests: Polar RS800CX Pro Team Edition
Polar was the pioneer in portable heart rate monitors for athletes, and continues to set the benchmark for heart rate devices. Their latest launch is the top-shelf RS800CX Pro Team Edition, featuring just about every possible training feature in a sleek unit that is styling both on or off the bike.
Having been in cycling since the mid-1980s and being a scientific geek for at least as long if not longer, I have personally owned or professionally used nearly every generation of Polar watches. Like collecting hockey cards or comic books, I wish I had kept all of them so that I can set up a museum display in my lab! While old tech has an aura of its own, I’m always happy whenever a new toy lands on my desk. With that in mind, I spent a month putting the new and limited Polar RS800CX Pro Team Edition (PTE) through its paces.
On the Catwalk
Polar has long been a leader in features and reliability, but one thing they seemed to have left off the design budget was style and fashion. Perhaps they took a cue from Huey Lewis and the News and decided that it was ”Hip to be Square”, but, until very recently, wearing a Polar watch while not actually sweating was the fashionista’s equivalent of pocket protectors, white socks, and suspenders. The Lion King would simply not be amused.
If I did have a collection display of Polar monitors and their speed sensors, here’s what it might look like. The Protrainer XT was one of the first downloadable monitors. Next generation were the S520 and S625X, and now there is the RS800CX Pro Team Edition.
Thankfully, the new trend at Polar is to make their watches and computers as stylish as they are functional. Compare a pre-2000 Volvo with more modern models and you get an idea of the stylistic transition. Gone are the chunky, boxy, and square designs. In are sleeker and much slimmer styles that the casual observer wouldn’t recognize as anything but a nice looking watch. The famous big red button is now a much more subdued but still unmistakable and easy to operate transparent red heart angled a bit away from the top face of the watch. One nice side benefit of this style revision is that the red button is harder to press accidentally.
Compare my last generation s725x Polar from 2005 and the new RS800. Dare we say that the RS800 actually looks good?
Loaded with Features
When it comes to heart rate monitors, I’m of the sentiment that there are only two types of market out there. On the one hand, there’s the large majority who simply want to see their heart rate while exercising. These folks likely have no desire to record their heart rate, download their exercise file, or really do any secondary analysis. For this market, a dead simple heart rate monitor that simply tells heart rate is ideal and all that is necessary.
At the other extreme are folks like you reading this review! My theory with this demographic is that, if you’re going to have any kind of bells and whistles beyond the basic reading of heart rate, you might as well go all out and have as much functionality and interactivity as possible. The RS800CX certainly fulfills this goal by having a full slate of heart rate and cycle computer features, with additional expansion capabilities through compatibility with a wide array of optional accessories.
The RS800CX PTE comes with everything you need to turn your bike, body, laptop, and even coach into a cycling cyborg. The PTE comes with the watch, handlebar mount, speed and cadence sensors along with accompanying attachment kit, heart rate strap, USB infrared interface, and ProTrainer 5 software.
Out of the box, the RS800CX PTE watch is identical in capabilities as the other RS800CX configurations (Multi, Run, Bike) from Polar. The PTE refers to the “stainless steel” styling of the watch, and the inclusion of a cadence sensor in addition to just the speed sensor with the “Bike” configuration.
All the usual cycle computer features, such as speed, distance, trip, and cadence are available. Ditto for recording features such as lap times and time spent in 5 heart rate zones that you can customize. A variety of interval workouts of different work and rest durations can also be set up on the watch as audio and visual reminders and timers. Finally, Polar has integrated a vast array of tests for everything from estimated fitness through to recovery.
Ease of Use
Loads of features are pointless if the unit itself is difficult to navigate or to set. The Polar system shines in this respect, thanks to easy two-way infrared communication with Polar ProTrainer 5 software. You can adjust pretty much everything directly using the watch by itself, but it can be annoying pushing all those watch buttons on a continual basis.
Instead, the ProTrainer 5 software is worth installing (even if you use other analysis software) because of its ease in setting everything up and then transferring to the watch. For example, you can set up a variety of heart rate zones (e.g. for different sports), and then select and transfer one for your watch at the click of a couple of keys. The various display setups during exercise can also be customized on ProTrainer 5 and then transferred to the RS800CX. You or your coach can also preset a variety of interval workouts on ProTrainer 5 and then send them over to the RS800CX to guide you during actual training.
The Next Generation
The previous generation s725x was Polar’s top-end cycling-specific model, and thus is a valid benchmark for comparison with the new generation RS800 in terms of features and usability. On the surface, the s725x shares many of the basic functions, including cycling functions (speed, cadence, trip, etc.), altimeter, a multitude of heart rate functions, and the ability to preset and download exercise sessions.
The speed and cadence sensors with the USB infrared interface and heart rate transmitter as comparison. Relative to the previous generation of S series speed and cadence sensors, the new WIND series sensors have gone on a major slimming diet to less than half the size. They’ve also proven very reliable in being free of interference from powerlines and other bikes
The S725x permitted three different bike/equipment configuration for cycling functions, with two bike settings and one footpod setting. That enabled me to have a basic speed setup for one bike, a speed and cadence setup for another bike, and a heart rate only setup for my bikes that didn’t have any speed/cadence sensors or for training off the bike.
Rather than being bike-specific, the RS800CX has the goal of being the top-end heart rate watch for all athletes. So there are all the same cycle computer features as with the S725X, including compatibility with speed and cadence sensors and the ability to set up multiple bike/equipment configurations. The RS800CX adds to this by also being compatible with Polar’s new and improved stride sensor and three different shoe configurations, enhancing its versatility for multi-sport athletes. Overall, there is the capacity for three different bike settings and also three different shoe settings.
The optional S3 Stride sensor provides information on stride length and cadence, and has also undergone a slimming diet compared to the previous Polar footpod sensors.
One other enhancement for the RS800CX is the ability to adjust the data recording rate to below the 5 s interval capacity of previous generations, down to the option of 1 or 2 s recording rates. This is not as essential when working with heart rates, which changes gradually and remains fairly stable for longer periods. However, the finer resolution is nicer to have when dealing with rapid changes in speed and cadence.
The soft fabric Wearlink HR strap from Polar is simply the most comfortable strap I have used. It conforms well to the body, and can therefore be snugged up really tight so there’s no risk of slipping, but yet not restrict breathing or feel uncomfortable at the same time.
The tradeoff, of course, is reduced memory capacity with higher recording rates. At a 1 s recording rate with the GPS and altitude, 4:50 h of memory is possible. This jumps up to 9:40 h for 2 s, and 24:10 h for 5 s. So if you’re doing a century ride, best to set it for 2 s or higher unless you know you’ll be motoring!
GPS Compatibility: Beam Me Up Scotty
For me, though, the real star of the show is the RS800CX’s compatibility with Polar’s G3 GPS sensor. The fairly small and light (<50 g) G3 can be attached with an included armband, or just as easily tossed into a jersey pocket or hydration pack.
The G3 GPS sensor doesn’t take up much space and doesn’t flop around in your pocket while standing on the bike. I found it insanely reliable, and quickly ditched the actual bike speed sensor in favour of just using the G3 all the time regardless of bike or sport.
As with any GPS, there’s a slight time lag of about 5 s with speed changes before the speed catches up. So you can be at the bottom of a steep roller before the speed reading goes up, and vice versa in that there’s a few seconds lag after you start climbing before the speed drops. It’s not inaccurate, just a phase shift, and the overall speed and distance profile is sound.
The G3 has been rock-solid with the RS800CX so far on and off the road. On the road, I’ve tracked it side by side with my various bike computers and the readings make sense. I’ve also used it on my cross bike going through bike paths and heavily-wooded forests with no problems. Both on and off-road, I have not been able to make either the heart rate or GPS fail, whether riding in a big pack or next to big powerlines.
This is usually the point in the review where we’d show a pic of the whole bike computer setup. But since you can just wear the watch on your wrist and stuff the G3 in a pocket, there’s nothing to actually see and you can end up with full functionality with the cleanest look around!
The big fun with the GPS is being able to log exactly where you’ve gone on each ride, and then to be able to view it directly through Polar’s ProTrainer software via Google Earth. For someone who’s travelling as much as I seem to this year, GPS is becoming a perfect way for keeping a scrapbook of great rides in different parts of the world. Right now as this piece is being posted, I have the RS800CX and the G3 with me while hiking in the fjords in Norway so that I can relive the hike later.
Of note of course is that the G3 and RS800CX works as a GPS recorder only, and that it doesn’t provide navigational abilities. So it’s not going to help me much when my Viking pal Olaf shrugs and tells me that we should’ve taken a right at Albuquerque… Hopefully that feature is currently under development, as that greatly maximizes the versatility and potential of GPS.
The G3 can also be set onto either “normal” or “battery-saving” mode, which adds approximately 40% battery life. The tradeoff is supposed to be potentially lower accuracy, but I haven’t been able to detect the difference with either mode at any recording rate. Battery life for the G3 GPS is about 10-14 h, but it’s a single replaceable AA. Get a couple of rechargeable batteries and you’re set for pretty much forever.
The G3 is bigger and heftier than the speed and cadence sensors put together, but gives you greater functionality and you can replace the batteries.
In addition to the functionality of GPS itself, the G3 has a whole host of practical advantages:
• For the multisport crowd, the GPS provides a seamless equipment transition between running and biking.
• The GPS also permits a full range of speed and distance tracking for cross-training, from hiking, snowshoeing, skiing, through to kayaking (it’s water-resistant, but keep it in a waterproof pouch regardless!).
• Having as many bikes as I do, it’s a ridiculous expense to equip each of them with a speed sensor. Having the GPS also gives me extra geek points for tracking speed and distance data for the times when I’m running with the cross bike or portaging the mountain bike, along with my commuting and casual errand biking too.
• The speed sensors have non-replaceable batteries, so they’re dead and done once the batteries wear out and you need to buy a complete new sensor. Therefore, combined with the multiple bikes issue, the higher initial cost of the GPS unit will pay for itself.
• Hands up who actually goes to the full effort of measuring the circumference of each bike’s main wheels, let alone different wheelsets with different tires? I thought so, since I’m a science data geek and I still generally just set all of my bike computers to a default 2096 mm circumference for road tires. With the GPS, there’s no need for calibration between bikes and wheelsets or tires.
Is the Polar RS800CX PTE the ultimate training watch? There are other systems out there with close to the same general features for less cost. However, I think it’s fair to say that Polar remains firmly at the head of the pack, thanks to its comprehensive array of features, its compatibility with accessories (GPS, speed, cadence, stride sensor), and the easy two-way interface with the ProTrainer software. Put everything together and there really isn’t anything that you would be lacking in terms of cycling computer or heart rate function.
The other question is whether the RS800CX is worth the upgrade if you already have a previous generation high-end system from Polar, such as the s725x, which already set a really high standard for capabilities and functionality. As a heart rate monitor and cycle computer, the s725x is already so feature-packed and solid that the RS800CX represents a refinement more than a revolution.
However, for me, the biggest trump card in this debate is the RS800CX’s compatibility with the G3 GPS sensor. The versatility of having a single watch that can log heart rate and GPS for every outdoor sport that I do is a complete home run for me, and the only thing that can make it better is ultimately navigational ability and integration with power monitoring.
• Get More Info: PolarUSA.com
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