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Polar Ignite review: Frustratingly close to brilliance

Our Rating 
Price when reviewed 
174.50
inc. VAT

The Polar Ignite is brilliant in many ways, but once again slips on consistency and accuracy

Pros 
Nice looking
Great battery life
Smart advice based on metrics
Cons 
Poor GPS accuracy
Heart-rate sensor can be temperamental
Slow screen wake-up times
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Polar’s recent fitness wearables have, for me, been a mixed bag. While I still return to the M430 for tracking runs, thanks to the unnerving accuracy of its GPS, the Vantage V was an expensive misstep and the less said about the A370, the better.

Now we have the Polar Ignite: a smart-looking running watch at a tempting price. Can it take the fight to Garmin, Fitbit and Samsung?

Polar Ignite review: What you need to know

The Ignite is probably best described as Polar’s answer to the wildly successful Fitbit Versa. It’s a fitness-focused smartwatch that will try to guide you in your day-to-day exercise with a little help from its built-in sensors. It does all that while looking smart enough for daily wear thanks to its sharp IPS screen.

The Ignite one-ups the Fitbit Versa by including built-in GPS and also offers intelligent insights into what exercise you should do on a given day based on your sleep, recent exercise and general fitness level. It claims to track data from more than 100 sports, although, as ever, there are limits to how much a wrist-bound wearable can do here: GPS can be used to track pace and distance during a run, but it can’t tell how many goals you’ve scored at the local five-a-side pitches.

Polar Ignite review: Price and competition

The Polar Ignite starts at £175 for the black and silver model with the TPU wristband. The versions with a soft silicone strap – available in white or a rather fetching yellow – sell for £200.

I’ve already mentioned the Fitbit Versa, which started at £200 but is now often found around the £160 mark. This lacks built-in GPS, meaning you’ll need to piggyback off your phone’s location tracking and put up with all the disadvantages that entails. If you want to go cheaper, the Versa Lite is cheaper still at around £120. It loses some features – swim tracking, built-in music and so on – but is still a pretty compelling package.

Looking beyond Fitbit, the Samsung Gear Fit2 Pro offers built-in GPS and a heart-rate monitor, and it can now be found for under £150. Even more impressively discounted is the Garmin Vivoactive 3, which won a five-star review from us at £300, but is now available for £179.
 
Finally, there’s Polar’s own family of running watches. I’ve already mentioned my fondness for the M430, and while it’s no looker, you can pick one up for around £130. The more recent Vantage M now can also be had for a little over £200. It has a longer battery, physical buttons and Training Load Pro, but loses out on recommended exercises and the touchscreen. It’s also ten grammes heavier.

Polar Ignite review: Design

Back when I reviewed the M430, I said that the watch had “a face that only a parent company could love”. Polar has upped its game considerably and all three watches since then – the Vantage M, Vantage V and now the Ignite – are pretty handsome in their own way.

At a glance, this could be the most handsome yet. It’s got a round face, a shiny metal bezel around the side and just the one button on it, rather than the five that the Vantage models had. It’s also a lot thinner and lighter, and gets a welcome upgrade to a bright, IPS screen, rather than the faint always-on display of old. It’s definitely a looker and I’ve had compliments on it since I started wearing it, which is rare for a running watch.

But the phrase “at a glance” is an important one. Dig deeper and you’ll see that clever design choices actually do a cunning job of covering its less attractive elements. Firstly, it’s a return to the bad old days of when smartwatches had a “flat tyre” design – in other words, the display’s not a full circle, but rather bottom eighth of it has been squared off. This is hidden by the fact that the 240 x 204 touchscreen panel has a blank black wallpaper – which also conceals the millimetre-thick black rim that surrounds the screen.

Is this a problem? Not to me. And if others can’t see it at a glance, it’s even less of an issue. For purists, there are probably better options out there, but I like the look – and the watch is thin and light enough for me not to notice I’m wearing it.

What I’m less keen on, despite the aesthetic improvement, is the reduction in the number of buttons. Yes, five may have been overkill, but one is a bit of a pain. It has a touchscreen, but as I’ve written many times before, touchscreens aren’t great for fitness trackers, given they tend to go haywire when hit by water – an occupational hazard for those who sweat while running or like to run in the rain.

Our review unit was the £174.50 black and silver version with its TPU wristband. I personally wouldn’t pay extra for the other colours, simply because the silver finish looks nice and the strap easily comes off via a push pin mechanism. In other words, you can add whatever 20mm watch strap best suits your style at a later date.

Polar Ignite review: Performance

First off, the switch to the lovely IPS screen isn’t entirely painless – it switches off when you’re not looking at it, and there’s a good two to three-second delay between putting the watch in front of your face and it flicking into life, which is a right old pain when running. The faint always-on screen of its predecessors may have looked worse, but they always showed the metrics instantly. 

 
This is where more buttons might come in handy because, while you can spring the Ignite’s screen into life with a light tap of its button, that also happens to be the same place you pause exercise via a long press. It doesn’t take a huge imagination to guess what happened here a few times. Still, that screen timeout is good for battery life, and I can’t fault the Polar Ignite here, with the company’s claim of five days of regular use or 17 hours of continuous GPS tracking proving believable enough.

Elsewhere, the Polar Ignite experience is, for me, a pretty good one. The options on the watch itself are pared back, and you won’t be overwhelmed with functions you never use. Not all of them work perfectly, but conceptually the simple functionality is a very good thing.

So before I get onto what works and what doesn’t, let’s start with what the Polar Ignite aims to do. In short, the watch aims to do three things: track your activities, monitor your performance and recovery, and then recommend new activities based on this. Polar’s thinking is that this three-step process can create a tailored workout programme that works for anyone.

And, when it works, it’s very clever. Take Nightly Recharge: this goes beyond your standard sleep tracking to give you an overall “nightly recharge” score based on the time you’re awake for and your Autonomic Nervous System (ANS) measurements. Swipe to another screen on the watch and it uses this, along with your recent exercise schedule and performance, to tell you what’s recommended for today.

So today, for instance, it told me that my nightly recharge was okay, with an ANS charge that’s better than usual (+2.1), but a sleep charge that’s worse (70). I can compare that to my average scores, but alternatively, I can cut straight to the case by swiping again to see what exercise Polar thinks I should do. Having last recorded a training session 44 hours ago, it’s a cardio day, with Polar suggesting medium-effort cardio for 53 minutes in HR zones 1-3, or 90 minutes in 1-2. Alternatively, it’ll guide me through a regular circuit training session, where it’ll tell me what things to lift and stretch, and for how long. You can preview what’s coming before you start, so you can be sure you have all the equipment within easy reach, assuming any is required.

I like this. I like the fact that I can essentially outsource my training to something that should know my capabilities better than me. But does it? Well, that’s where it begins to fall down a little bit...

I’ve now done three parkruns in my Polar Ignite, and the measured 5km courses have come out at three different lengths: 4.73km, 4.91km and, most damningly of all, 4.47km. To be entirely fair to that last one, it was a twisty course covered by trees and the watch on my other wrist was equally off, but, even so, it isn’t hugely encouraging. On each run, I was sure to let the GPS lock on before I set off.

What this means is that the average pace is off both during and after a run. So if you know you can normally complete a 5k in 25 minutes and, therefore, need an average pace of five minutes per kilometre, your watch may tell you you’re not going fast enough, even when you are. That’s a recipe for failure.

I was trying to figure out why it was off, and I’ve figured it out after a long 9km run around south London. Here’s a zoom in on my Strava map:

That’s right: Polar thinks I was bulldozing through people’s houses and gardens, rather than sticking to the street. Suffice it to say I was on the bottom side of Lavender Avenue for this entire section, so even when it was “right” it was still a full width of a road off. That explains why it was missing large swathes of runs – this one, comparing Polar’s data and me manually plotting my route into Mapometer, was around 300 metres short.

I have similar misgivings about the other ways Polar records the data it bases its recommendations on. Fitness Test is supposed to give a VO2 Max estimate based on getting you to lie down and measuring your heart rate for three minutes directly from the wrist, only I could barely get the damned thing to work. Each time, after around 90 seconds it’d alert me to say it couldn’t get a reading. This is clearly a bug, as I took to watching the screen when I was supposed to be relaxing, and it showed various numbers right up to the moment it claimed it couldn’t get a reading.

I finally got it working on my tenth attempt or so – a “good” score of 47. The problem is that you’re supposed to do this regularly to track improvements, and I doubt anyone would be bothered if it involved 15 minutes of failed attempts before success. 

The same is true for the Serene mode, which encourages guided breathing. The idea is nicely implemented: set the time and the length of breaths and then follow the bubbles moving in and out of the screen for your chosen time. Here again, though, it couldn’t always track my improvements, because it claimed not to be able to get a consistent heart rate reading. Something that clearly wasn’t a problem while running where it seemed to track quite believable figures for the entire distance each time.

Polar Ignite review: Verdict

I really want to give the Polar Ignite top marks because it gets so much right. But you don’t get points for trying and, ultimately, this feels more like a great prototype rather than the finished article.

It looks lovely, it feels nice on the wrist, the way it links sleep to training is great and the software with recommended exercises is brilliantly intuitive. It’s just a bit hard to trust said recommendations when the GPS accuracy is highly dubious and the heart-rate monitor seems to choose not to work at random.

Don’t get me wrong: I have no doubt that you’ll get fitter if you follow its instructions regardless, and maybe that’s enough for some people. But if you care about pushing yourself to new PBs, as well as improving base fitness, you’re probably better off spending a little more.