The Polar RC3 GPS training watch is designed for runners and cyclists. With a built-in GPS receiver, an arsenal of optional accessories and a powerful free web interface for your computer, Polar's watch could prove incredibly useful for anyone who’s keen to track and improve their fitness.
The device has an old-school digital watch feel, with a rubber strap and an LCD screen, and it comes in a choice of blue, black or red. The bright red colour on the one we tried certainly stood out but we probably wouldn’t wear it as an everyday fashion item. It feels well made, too, although the lack of any tactile response in the buttons is disappointing. When you’re on a run, you’re never sure if you’ve pressed a button successfully because there is no click or loud beep to confirm your action. It's a minor gripe, but it can be distracting.
The training watch is water resistant to one metre for half an hour, so it will survive a run in the rain, but if you're looking for a device for swimming or triathlons you’ll need to look elsewhere (check out our review of the Garmin Fenix here).
You can connect the RC3 to a Windows PC or Mac using any micro-USB cable both for syncing and charging. Polar says the watch can survive up to 12 hours of continuous use with the GPS turned on before the battery runs out, and while we didn't quite have the stamina to test this claim, we had no battery problems even after a week of training.
Depending on which bundle you buy, you’ll also get a chest strap and wireless heart monitor. These help the watch understand what sort of a workout you're doing, so we strongly recommend you buy a package that includes them.
If you plan to use the RC3 GPS for cycling, you’ll need a separate cadence sensor, which tracks your pedalling activity to build up a more complete picture of your session. There’s also an optional speed sensor for cycling and a stride sensor for running if you want to augment your watch even further, but as each of these extras costs between £30 and £50, you’ll need to increase your budget if you think they’re necessary. We tested the RC3 without any of these accessories and used it only for running.
On the run
Before you take the watch out on your first run, you need to give it some basic information including your weight, gender, age and height. From this it calculates the heart rate you should expect to hit under different exercising conditions, as well as the number of calories you’re burning.
After you've strapped on the heart rate monitor, simply tell the device you're going for a run and it searches for the heart rate monitor and a GPS signal. We found that even in the most open spaces under clear skies the RC3 took at least two minutes to find a GPS signal, and we couldn’t get one at all in a built-up environment surrounded by tall buildings. If you're lucky enough to be in an open space, the wait is bearable, especially if you do your pre-run warm-up while it’s searching. Once the GPS sensor had managed to lock on to some satellites, we had no problems with it. Even in the middle of the city surrounded by buildings the watch was reliable and didn't appear to go awry at any stage.
While you’re running, the Polar RC3 tells you your speed, heart rate, calories burned, altitude and even your direction relative to where you started. The information is easy to read, and there are plenty of layouts to choose from so you should be able to find one that suits you. The more devices you pair with the RC3, the more bewildering the choice of layouts becomes, but at least Polar has covered every base for every type of user.
The watch can tell you most of the information you'll want to know about your session, but if you synchronise it with your PC and upload the data to Polar's web-based personal trainer service, you can take a much deeper look into all your activities, with graphs, maps and charts showing you exactly how you performed every step of the way. The more sessions you do, the longer the watch takes to sync so you may wish to delete some of your stored sessions from time to time.
You can create your own training programmes, complete with targets that Polar then turns into a training schedule and synchronises with the watch. There are no smartphone or tablet apps available that can interact with the watch because neither it nor the heart rate sensor has Bluetooth built in. This is a shame and puts the Polar RC3 GPS a little way behind some of the latest activity trackers.
With a training programme loaded, the watch beeps if you slow down too much or begin to over do it, which makes it a very effective personal trainer provided you know what you want to achieve. If you're not sure what you want out of your training, you can download one of Polar’s training programmes or even one that another user has made.
While the web interface is powerful, it’s also quite complicated and we often felt overwhelmed by the way the site is laid out. It's certainly less user-friendly than those from the likes of Fitbit and Nike, but it’s still useful if you can get your head around it.
In these days of smart watches and mobile phone apps, the Polar RC3 is starting to feel a little dated. If you look at it another way, though, it's refreshingly simple – it does what it's supposed to do extremely well, and it’s reliable.
The RC3’s main problem is the wealth of Bluetooth-enabled heart-rate sensors that can be paired with GPS-enabled smartphones, and apps that can do essentially the same job. What you’re buying with the RC3 GPS is the ability to see this information on your wrist.
As a training companion, we think the Polar RC3 GPS is a great piece of kit for anyone who’s serious about their fitness, and if used correctly it’s a useful tool for improving your times, stamina and endurance.
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