John Galea's Blog

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Polar A300 and H7 chest heart rate monitor

When changing tech as I have (moving to an iPhone from Android) there are known costs and unknown ones. I knew I would loose support for ANT+ but I thought my Bluetooth Zephyr heart rate monitor would still work … NOT, seems iOS does not support them. So I needed a chest strap heart rate monitor. I use it to keep an eye on my optical heart rate monitor from Scosche a Rhythm+. Still the most comfortable and mostly accurate heart rate monitor I’ve owned. So I needed a new chest strap heart rate monitor. I got the chance to snag the H7 brand new and basically the A300 was thrown in, so I said WTF. A new gadget to play with.

Let’s start with the H7 chest strap heart rate monitor. This is pretty much standard fare for this category of device. It supports Bluetooth low energy as well as the older gym link (not that I care). The H6 drops the gym link which would have been my preference. Actually what would I have loved would have been an ANT+/Bluetooth low energy, (so it would work with my Garmin devices) but heh. It is powered by a coin lithium battery that should last a good while. I get over a year out of my Ant+ Garmin one. The battery is a CR2032 watch battery. The battery status can be displayed within lots of different apps. The h7 can be used totally without and has nothing much to do with the A300, although it of course supports it. As a statement of the obvious the H7 has no internal memory so something has to record the data (phone or watch). Polar give away an app called Polar beat that you can use with the H7 or use your favorite app. I had no issue using the H7 with Endomondo, RunGPS, etc. It just works. The unit consists of a fabric strap that on the underside is a coating that picks up the heart rate. It must be wet before putting it on. This is not uncommon for chest straps. The monitor itself is a larger solid block that can be removed and should be removed to basically turn it off and preserve the battery. There are instructions for how you can wash the strap.
I have found that if the strap is not moist enough it can give fictitious heart rate numbers. I spoke with Polar support and they actually recommended I use electrolyte gel. Ya right, I’ll get right on that …

Polar beat has a neat trick where the heart rate monitor sends the data to your phone (and on iOS you can use the heart rate on other apps at the same time, Endomondo for example) at the same time it also sends the heart rate date back out to the A300 watch. Neat.

And now onto the challenging part of this review, accuracy. One of the reasons I needed a new chest strap is because neither my ANT+, nor old Zephyr were compatible with my iPhone. And I had sold my Samsung S5 so didn’t have a platform for the test. So what I ended up doing was wearing the Polar connected to RunGPS (then exported to GPX and converted to CSV using GPS Visualizer app, then I had my Scosche Rhythm+ connected to Endomondo (again exported/converted), and lastly I wore my Garmin ANT+ connected to my Garmin FR70 (exported as a TCX and converted using TCX converter app. What I quickly discovered is my Scosche is having some issues. It was having times when it was wildly inaccurate. I know this because the heart rate was not really possible (based on how I felt). This is shocking to me because it has always been rock solid. So I tossed out the Scosche and was left with a comparison of two chest straps. And what do I find? They track amazingly well. The Polar H7 is VERY accurate (when compared to my Garmin chest strap). Even looking at the summary data they are within 2% of each other.

It’s worth mentioning that unlike ANT+ which can allow you to connect one heart rate monitor up to numerous devices (like a phone, and a watch at the same time, a feature I currently use), this is not possible with Bluetooth low energy devices. This is not the fault of the H7, but a limitation of Bluetooth. I did however find that iOS allowed two apps (say RunGPS and Endomondo) to connect to two different Bluetooth heart rate monitors at the same time with no issue.

So in the end the H7 is an excellent chest strap. If it had ANT+ as well (an after thought in my purchasing decision) it would be 100% perfect. But even with that, it’s pretty close. It’s definitely more comfortable than my older garmin chest strap and very similar to my even older Zephyr. I think if I had to look again it would be a Wahoo TICKR I would buy since it supports ANT+. The TICKR X adds memory to it allowing you to record in the heart rate monitor itself without a phone.

Well given the chest strap was what I really wanted that was what was important. None the less lets move onto the A300 watch. Up front lets get the fact that the Polar does not have a built in GPS. And unlike Fitbit who supplement the lack of GPS on the watch with one your phone, Polar make no attempt to do that. So that’s that. I had a thought that maybe the A300 might be a substitute for a smart watch, or a Fitbit, both of these thoughts went away quickly. Maybe I am too demanding of my gadgets. I know as I have seen more and more functionality I start just expecting it. Now that said, the A300 is by no means the top of the heap, nor is it one of Polars newer watches. Anyway let’s get on with the specifics.

Physically the watch is relatively small, and light but the height off the wrist is a bit much and can catch on shirt sleeves. The display is 18x23mm with a bezel that is 8x10mm. The bezel is by no means the smallest or the largest. The display is a backlit one and is easy to read other than in the dark. It is an always on display. The display is easily read in almost any light including bright sunlight. It’s probably one of the better LCD displays. When you need it you manually put the back light on and it can easily be read in the dark. It makes no attempt to detect your wrist movements and turn the backlighting on automatically. You can not adjust the backlight timeout, it is what it is. All this is designed with one point in mind, battery life, the Achilles heel of most wearable. Polar projects 4 weeks of battery life which is outstanding. When you need to you pop the electronics out of the rubber band/holder and charge it by USB. The band can be swapped for different colors easily. The band itself is well designed to accommodate just about any wrist size. It made of the usual rubber/silicon and can be easily cleaned with the electronics out. (Photo shamelessly pilfered from DC Rainmaker)

The watch face chosen is efficient and gives you a progress bar of how your making out towards your goal, the date and time. All displayed in an easy to read, large enough (for me) font size. But nothing on the watch face can be changed.
All navigation within the watch is done by the buttons on the side, this is NOT a touch screen.

The A300 can track activities, basically sleep and steps (no floor/stairs). Steps gets converted into distance and calories. The app shows some nice graphs to show you when you were active (and not) and how many minutes in the categories. It’s actually a little more thorough than Fitbit in this category. I see no way to export the data out of Polar for further analysis (something you can do on Fitbit).
But don’t get confused by Polar’s other portal Polar Personal Trainer. I’m sure there is an explanation for the two portals and what is stored on each but I have no idea what that is. Moving on …

I played with it on a mountain biking ride. As mentioned it has no GPS, and can not talk to a wheel sensor. So what you get are heart rate stats, and time stats. Calories are calculated off that. How calories are counted really varies company to company. But keep in mind what is important is relative calorie counts (are you increasing your intensity or decreasing) not the actual calorie count. In 3 hours and 15 minutes Endomondo says I burned 3055 calories. My Garmin edge 305 says 2210, and the Polar comes in at 1533.

As you can see sleep data is also recorded. Again Polar seem to go into a reasonable bit of detail on the data. Missing as usual is any form of historical comparison (your doing better than your average etc). But all in all this seems well done. Sleep however for some odd reason while displayed on the portal was not displayed in the app.

Syncing the data from the watch is oddly done from the watch itself and can not be kicked off from the app. And the app can not tell you anything about the current days data until the end of the day and it’s uploaded at the end of the day (Vs Fitbit for example that in the app shows you the current number of steps). And don’t look for the current state of the battery of the watch in the app either. Nope naha, not happening.

Now from a steps point of view to say the A300 is generous (when compared with my Fitbit blaze) is an understatement. I wore both and on day 1 Fitbit said 3415 steps, 1.93Km, and 2397 calories. The A300 7735 steps, 2098 calories 0.75 km. Day two didn’t fare a whole lot better the fitbit logged 3325 steps, 1.85 km and 2271 calories, the A300 7400 steps 2.46 km, and 2078 calories. So I decided to switch wrists. On the left the A300 fared much better it saw 10225 steps, 4.41km and 1636 calories Vs the Fitbit 12,217, 8.93KM and 1992 calories. The Fitbit sets the wrist as dominant and non dominant. The A300 sets left and right. Odd, dominant seems to make more sense. It should be noted I have no idea what the basal calorie count for either the Fitbit or the Polar is. You get a nice graph and analysis of the zones your heart rate was in. Average heart rate was within 3 BPM of my Scosche running on Endomondo. I see no way to export the data from the workout.

The A300 has a nice little inactivity monitor to remind you to get moving, something that is still missing on the Fitbits. I have no idea why fitbit have been so reticent to add this feature.

Sleep wise day one the A300 logged 7hr 35 mins Vs the fitbit 7 hr 44 mins and on day two the a300 logged 10 hrs Vs 9 hrs 54 mins on the fitbit. So sleep compared ok, however when it came to tracking restful sleep the Fitbit and the A300 seem to count it very differently. On day one the A300 saw 70 mins of restless sleep while the Fitbit saw 14 mins. On day two the A300 saw 107 mins restless while the Fitbit saw 25 mins.

So I have no idea what to say about that. Although, in reality what matters is not the actual number but your trends.

The Polar flow app supports sharing data back to Apple health (on iOS), as well as MyFitness pal, and that’s it.

The A300 can be used with the H7 heart rate monitor to track exercise. Now this is what for a long time was the bread and butter of Polars so I kind of expected this to be well done. When you start an exercise the watch changes over to show you lots of data that you can manually scroll through. Heart rate, exercise time, calorie count, time of day. All in all it works fine. What I don’t see is a way to set heart rate based alarams such as min/max. The previous Polar watches all had this, and I thought it was handy. I was unable to get the A300 to talk to my Scoscherhythm+ Bluetooth heart rate monitor. Seems like it has to be a polar.
(See below)

So what’s missing? Well … there’s no support for a bike wheel sensor (that would allow it to be used for cycling). There apparently is Footpod support for jogging. There are no smart phone notifications (in iOS), in spite of the fact Polar apparently committed to do so by mid 2015. (See below). There’s also no stopwatch or count down timer. And no ability to customize the watch face.

So in the end, the main issue I have with this watch is the competition. If I didn’t already have a Fitbit then I might be more interested in it for the exercise/sleep tracking. If I didn’t already have a Garmin FR 70 I might use it to display my heart rate while cycling. But given all the limitations I found, I am not sure it displaces the incumbents. Which more and more is becoming a challenging place for products in my life. Other than battery life, I can’t think of one area it is better than anything I already own.

Updte 7/1/2016 Version 1.2.134
– I went back to the A300 after not touching it for quite some time and the app informed me that there was an update waiting for the watch. I tried and tried to get the update to go on Windows 10 and it kept failing at syncing so wouldn’t update. I took it to a Windows 8 machine and it updated. Low and behold two new features showed up. First Notifications showed up as an option. Notifications can be set for Off, On, or On and no preview. That’s it. Its all or nothing. And it does not pay any attention to the muted state of the iPhone. Instead it has it’s own Do not disturb time. The notifications work well and are for the most part reliable. I found occasionally it would remind me a couple times for an alert until I dismissed it. The preview shows whatever fits on the screen. You can not scroll to see more and there is no way to respond. I have to say this is a HUGE step forward for the device.

Second I finally was able to use both my Scosche Rhythm+ as well as a Wahoo tickr with the watch. The watch actually handles this perfectly. It can remember multiple heart rate monitors (no idea how many, I had three). When you link up it checks to find any of the previously remembered heart rate monitors. And you can also very easily delete a previously remembered heart rate monitor. Brilliant. Garmin could learn a thing or two in this category from Polar!


April 3, 2016 - Posted by | Activity Trackers

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