Polar has been a sleeping beauty, at least in Australia. The last time Polar caught my attention was with their stylish diamond shaped CS500 in 2010 and the Look Kéo power-meter pedals from 2011. But then they disappeared from my radar screen and remained underneath the radar in Australia, even when they launched their colour, touch screen V650 cycle computer in 2014 and the compact M450 cycle computer a year later.
In the background, Polar took over from Pursuit Performance who have handled Polar distribution in Australia for the past twenty years. Following this change, their cycle computer segment is being delivered with a new lease of life. Polar want to raise their profile again among cyclists in Australia but have to prove themselves against the undisputed market leader, Garmin.
At a glance, the Polar cycle computers are attractive and I would dare to say that they are far more elegant than Garmin Edge cycle computers – the striking matt white body with the dominant red button on the front of each unit lend them an air of elegance. In comparison, the Magellan Cyclo 505 also has a white body however the Polar design is edgy and looks much smarter mounted on a road bike. And if you want to colour match, the compact M450 has colour options, for $25 the back cover can be upgraded to black, red or yellow.
Polar M450 (left) and V650 (right)
Both Polar cycle computers include GPS capability along with all of the features and connectability which you should expect from a cycle computer however the two Polar units differ from one-another in functionality far more than I first anticipated. The smaller Polar M450 is not simply a compact version of the V650, rather it includes heart rate (HR) based training programs with guidance and data collection as a key feature which suggests that the compact M450 unit may be the better choice for data driven, performance cyclists who also spend a lot of time on an indoor trainer. The focus on HR training means that it also differentiates itself from the Garmin Edge 520, not to mention that it comes in at around $120 cheaper.
On the top end of the scale, the Polar V650 has a full colour, touchscreen display which is larger and easier to read while cycling plus it introduces mapping which I will briefly touch on later. If you opt for the Heart Rate Monitor bundle, the Polar V650 is almost $100 cheaper than the Garmin Edge 520 (without sensors). If the Garmin Edge 820 made it to your shortlist, for the money you save on the cycle computer you could get yourself two new cycling kits, a whiz bang bike camera or a years supply of tires and tubes.
On the topic of pricing, the Polar retail prices for Australia are set well above the European and American retail pricing and I am always critical when brands have such a significant regional price disparity as so many other cycling brands have proven that global price consistency is possible.
M450 Bundle with HRM, straps, mount and charging cable
V650 Bundle with HRM, straps, mount and charging cable
Both Polar cycle computers can be purchased as stand-alone units or bundled with a heart rate monitor. A Polar cadence sensor can be purchased separately (ca. $90) but can also connect to other ANT+ and Bluetooth devices so if you already have a heart rate monitor and/or cadence sensor, simply pair them. I appreciated that both units were already paired with the bundled heart rate monitors out-of-the box and the initial setup was fairly quick and simple.
Polar V650 mount and access to charging port
Polar M450 mount and access to charging port
The cycle computers fit on your bike with an adjustable mount (fastened with O-rings) which allow the computer to be fitted on the stem or handlebars. There is a ‘front bike mount’ accessory available which extends the computer further forward and this would be my preference for mounting. I didn’t however try this during testing but for pure convenience it is probably worth the additional $49 investment.
Polar V650 mounted on the stem
In practice, the larger V650 with touchscreen is fairly intuitive once you get through the 5 – 10 second start-up phase. When you turn the unit on it displays an animation which I found annoying as I simply want to turn it on and then press start to record and be on my way. The compact M450 starts very fast and it is easy to start recording. I think the V650 also has a sleep mode and I think the M450 has the option to turn off completely, but relying on my intuition alone, I didn’t uncover these options.
Polar V650 – sleek design but a superfluous micro light
The M450 doesn’t provide a touchscreen, rather has four function buttons and I got lost a few times trying to figure them out. You could argue that I should have looked at the manual first but if a product can only be operated by referring to a manual or handbook, it hasn’t been designed well. It was only by refering to the manual that I discovered a hidden menu on the large V650, swiping down opens a pull-down-menu to control the tiny light, brightness and sounds.
For this review I used the default settings on both devices but quickly realised that if I was the owner, I would need to customise the screens to display the data I want – ideally to remove unnecessary information. Most competitive cyclists concentrate just a few datasets while riding and although you can swipe between screens, I think the majority of riders would stick with one screen and rarely swipe or or switch screens while riding.
Three cycle computers, camera, light and bell on the bars and two another cycle computer and iphone with Strava in the jersey pocket
I tested both devices against Strava (iPhone) and two further cycle computers, a Bryton Rider 310 and a Magellan Cyclo 505. The Garmin 820 just missed out as I had to return it just before beginning this review. But with 5 different devices running concurrently, my ‘cockpit’ was already bordering on ludicrous. The take-home message is that the data is consistent between the devices – particularly the heart rate monitor which tracked very well against a second head (helmet) mounted heart rate monitor.
The Polar V650 allows you to select from different predefined bikes which is useful if your bikes have a different setup and other devices such as speed sensors or power meters. Switching is fast and you can rely on accurate data for each bike. Data dorks will appreciate the range of customisation, though for this review I relied mainly on the default settings – knowing that I would only be using them for a limited time. This approach meant I discovered auto-pause is not active by default, this setting is an absolute must to turn on otherwise your average speed suffer and start to decline while sipping on your post-ride coffee.
I avoided using navigation or map based guidance (in my experience common sense is better) though it is worthwhile highlighting a few brief details. To load maps while riding, The V650 takes an unorthodox approach of allowing you to specify a geographical center point around which it downloads the surrounding 450km x 450km electronic maps for electronic viewing. Polar use the open source OpenStreetMapData which is an excellent service however bike route coverage for Australia is hit and miss. In comparison, the Magellan Cyclo505 loads the entire Australian map along with a network of verified Australian cycle routes. As mentioned, I haven’t found much joy in following navigation prompts from any cycle computer so appreciate the GPS recording, but ignore navigation.
In Data we Trust
The fun really starts when you can share your ride data online. Like most brands, Polar also have their own service called Polar Flow Web and both the M450 and V650 can connect either using USB via your computer or wirelessly with over the Polar Flow app on your smart phone or tablet. Setup is straight-forwards and the online Polar Flow platform provides nice overviews and organisation of your ride data.
The Polar Flow service does however lean towards running and general fitness rather than cycling in terms of features and adoption. As an example, there is a limited selection of cycle routes uploaded for Australia and I was surprised that some of the most popular rides didn’t have any routes. But even Garmin cyclists favour Strava over Garmin Connect and the good news is that Polar Flow can automatically sync with Strava so you wont miss out on the kudos you deserve and those KOMs. You can also load route data from other sources into Polar Flow and syncronise with your cycle computer.
If you have very specific data requirements, it is worth looking through the spec’s and features in detail before committing. But if you are an everyday cyclist after a cycle computer, then both units will cover you. All cycle computers face competition from Strava, but the Polar cycle computers have advantages; they are waterproof, designed for the bike in the functionality through to mounting, plus offer easier connectability to a host of sensors in comparison to an iPhone or Android smart phone.
M450 mounted on the stem
The biggest selling point over the competition is affordability, the Polar units look great and do the job. The larger V650 ($389 or $459 with Heart Rate Sensor) with the large touchscreen will give you convenience while the M450 ($269 or $319 with Heart Rate Sensor) is a trusty companion with a compact format that will appeal to cyclists keen to strip back to the necessities.
Read more about the Polar Cycle Computers >