Polar-RC3-GPS

The Polar RC3 represents a major “first” for the Finnish company. While competitors such as Garmin have been making watches with integrated GPS receivers for years, Polar has always opted for a two device system – a sports watch with a separate GPS module for those that wanted it.

Polar’s approach had some advantages – the watches could be slimmer and lighter, you weren’t paying for GPS if you didn’t want it, and the battery in the watch could last for over a year. But for many users, the sheer convenience of having full GPS functionality on their arm was more compelling, and consequently Polar produced the RC3 GPS – its first sports watch with integrated GPS.

What’s in the box?

As usual with Polar it depends on what version you go for. You can buy the RC3 GPS by itself for £199.50, but I can’t see too many potential customers that wouldn’t want to measure their heart rate too. The bundle with the H2 heart rate transmitter will set you back £249.50. Finally there’s the RC3 GPS Bike bundle, which ships with the WIND Cadence sensor and a handlebar mount.

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If you’re buying the RC3 GPS specifically for cycling you should note that the WIND Speed sensor does not come with the Bike bundle, but it is compatible with the device. The RC3 GPS had no problems recognising the speed sensor on my bike and recording data from it. More concerning to hardcore cyclists or triathletes is that the RC3 GPS isn’t compatible with Polar’s power sensor – that said, you’d need to be very hardcore to stump up the £1,699 asking price.

Polar sent me the middle bundle, which included the H2 heart rate sensor and the chest strap to go with it. The only other accessory is a micro-USB cable for charging and data transfer. But given how much the RC3 GPS can do by itself, the lack of accessories isn’t a massive issue.

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The hardware

The RC3 GPS may well be Polar’s first sports watch with integrated GPS, but it’s not a completely new unit. In fact, the RC3 GPS is very similar to the Polar RCX3, but with the obvious difference integrated GPS hardware. The watches have similar button configurations and screens, along with similar feature sets and functionality.

Of course the RC3 GPS is larger than its sibling, but not overly so. In fact I’m surprised at how unobtrusive the RC3 GPS is compared to many other GPS watches. Okay, it’s not as slim as the Polar RCX5 that I reviewed last year, but I’ve worn this watch all day without it feeling bulky or cumbersome on my wrist. The RC3 GPS is also very comfortable to wear, and since the entire strap is perforated, it’s easy to get a good fit.

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There are five buttons surrounding the case of the RC3 and if you’ve used Polar sports watches before, you won’t have any trouble getting to grips with this one. The top and bottom buttons on the right hand edge will cycle through menus, while the big red middle button selects. The bottom left button will go back through menus, while the top left button activates the backlight. That big red button on the right also starts your exercise sessions, while the bottom left button pauses, then stops them.

At the rear of the casing you’ll find a spring-loaded flap that hides the micro-USB port. The flap has a rubber seal to protect the port from water ingress. Although the RC3 is rated as waterproof, you probably wouldn’t want to go swimming with it. This is borne out by the fact that the RC3 GPS doesn’t have a dedicated swimming mode, while the RCX5 does.

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Polar quotes a battery life of 12 hours of continuous use, or 11 days based on one hour per day of training. I never found myself needing to test these claims though, since you’re essentially charging the RC3 up whenever you plug it in to sync your data, so it’s hard to let the battery run down by mistake.

As with all sports watches, you need to enter some basic data before you can use the RC3 GPS – it needs to know your age, gender, height, weight etc. You can also run a basic fitness test, which will estimate your VO2max – obviously you need the heart rate monitor for this.

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Talking of heart rate monitors, the H2 heart rate sensor looks very different to any I’ve seen before. Polar has updated the shape and casing of the sensor, while the strap that it attaches to is also different. Whereas the WearLink, WIND and Hybrid sensors that I use regularly all use fabric straps with mesh sections on the inside, the strap with the H2 sensor has a long rubber section on the inside, presumably to provide a better contact with your skin.

Polar-Heart-Rate-Sensors-Front Polar-Heart-Rate-Straps-Rear

On the go

As with the RCX5, hitting the start button on the RC3 GPS brings up a menu from which you can select Running, Cycling or Other Sport. The screen will display all the sensors that it can find for each discipline, so when cycling it might find the GPS sensor, the heart rate sensor, the cadence sensor and the speed sensor.

The RC3 GPS will also tailor the info screens on offer during your training session depending on what sensors are connected. Obviously the more sensors you’ve got, the more data is being recorded and the more info screens are available while training. Below is a list of all the possible info screens for both running and cycling.

Polar-RC3-Running-Screens Polar-RC3-Info-Screens-Bike

As you can see the RC3 offers a plethora of info screens for you to paw over while you’re training, but you don’t get the option of customising those screens. While the vast majority of users will find an info screen with the data that they most want to see, there will always be someone who wants a combination that’s not available.

You’ll need to wait for the GPS to get a good satellite lock before you can head off, but I found this to be very quick. If you set off from a completely new location the RC3 will take a couple of minutes to get a lock, but in general you’ll only be waiting a matter of seconds. Once locked on the RC3 didn’t once lose its satellite signal either, even though I was regularly running through the woods in my local country park.

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In contrast I found that the H2 heart rate sensor wasn’t quite as reliable as the Hybrid sensor that shipped with the RCX5. Like the Hybrid sensor, the H2 operates at both 5kHz and 2.4GHz frequencies, which means that it’s compatible with gym equipment as well as the majority of Polar’s product range. However, while using the RC3 at the gym, I found that the treadmill often lost the signal, or reported a far lower heart rate than it should have.

While the connection with the RC3 itself remained far more stable, I did still encounter the occasional glitch. Interestingly, while cycling, the H2 heart rate sensor had no problem maintaining a strong link with both the RC3 and my Polar CS500 cycle computer, but then both devices utilise the 2.4GHz WIND system.

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Given that the RC3 has integrated GPS functionality I would have welcomed the ability to “auto-lap by position” – a feature offered by some Garmin devices. If you’re running or cycling a set circuit, it’s handy to be able to tag the start of the circuit and have a new lap automatically started when you pass that point again. You can set the RC3 to auto-lap by distance though.

Downloading data

While the majority of high-end Polar products use some kind of wireless syncing to transfer data, the RC3 GPS makes do with a bog-standard USB connection. This makes sense, since you need to charge the RC3 up via its micro-USB port anyway – there’s no year-long battery life for a watch with integrated GPS.

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When you hook the RC3 up to your computer via the USB cable it will automatically trigger the Polar WebSync software. You can then upload your training results to your Polar Personal Trainer account and paw over them to your heart’s content.

There’s a real treasure trove of data collected by the RC3, and that integrated GPS doesn’t just measure speed, distance and pace, it also maps you route for you. So when you’ve uploaded your data, you can examine your route, which will be overlaid on Google Maps.

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There’s no shortage of graphs and data tables to examine either, with speed, pace, time, distance, cadence, heart rate, altitude and elevation all tracked and recorded, assuming you have all the right sensors.

You can study that data over time and see how you’re progressing, or you can share it with friends and see how you compare to them, and vice versa. All your training sessions can be viewed in a calendar, allowing you to see how active (or not) you’ve been at a glance.

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Conclusion

Given that this is Polar’s first attempt at a sports watch with integrated GPS, the RC3 GPS is a very nice device. It’s well designed, comfortable to wear and relatively slim on your arm.

The GPS lock if fast and the reporting is accurate. The RC3 GPS played nicely with all my other polar WIND sensors too. I did encounter some spiking problems with the H2 heart rate sensor, but that was an issue with the sensor itself rather than the RC3.

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At £249.50 the RC3 isn’t particularly cheap, but a bit of digging around online revealed that you can pickup the RC3 GPS heart rate bundle for well under £200. That makes it quite attractive, especially if you’re already a Polar user and are looking to upgrade.

If you’re not a Polar user, then you’ll probably find yourself deciding between the RC3 GPS and the Garmin Forerunner 210, which is available for a similar price and offers similar features. I’d probably opt for the RC3, but then I’m a long term Polar user, while Sandra prefers Garmin. Your best bet is to play with both and see which one feels more intuitive to you.

Score: 8/10

Pros:

  • Integrated GPS
  • Compatible with bike speed & cadence sensors
  • H2 heart rate sensor works with gym equipment
  • Quick satellite lock
  • Simple USB connection for data upload & charging
  • Large, clear display
  • Slim & comfortable to wear

Cons:

  • Heart rate sensor suffered some spikes
  • No customisable info screens
  • No lap by position feature
  • Doesn’t support Polar power meter

Manufacturer: Polar

MSRP: £249.50

UPDATE: It seems that there’s nothing wrong with the H2 heart rate sensor after all, and the problem is with Polar’s new chest strap design. I’ve spent the past week attaching the H2 sensor to one of my old Polar chest straps and have experienced rock solid heart rate reporting on both 2.4GHz and 5kHz frequencies. So, if you’ve been encountering problems with the heart rate reporting and you have an older Polar chest strap, try switching.