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Athletes On Track

Product Review – Polar RCX5

Posted By on November 1, 2011 in Product Review |

Polar RCX5 Review

Quick Summary:

Great training tool with a lot of nice features, but fails to live up to the competition in many ways.

Full Review:

There are a lot of things I love about this watch, starting with the watch itself. It is a very attractive watch. Not only does it look like a watch (I’m looking at you, Garmin 310), but also it is a nice watch that you wouldn’t be embarrassed to wear in non-sporting public.

The screen is big, bright, and clear. I found it much easier to read under a variety of conditions than my Garmin 405. The controls are easy to use; the buttons easy to push whether bare-handing it or wearing gloves. One really nice feature is called Heart Touch, which allows you to skip button pressing altogether; just swipe the watch past the heart rate strap, and whatever function you set is performed. At night this can be activating the night-light, and during a hard interval session it could be triggering a new lap.

Menu navigation is simple and easy. I had a run with my wife the day the unit arrived, and made a last minute decision to grab it on the way out the door. I was able to get the watch set up at stoplights between my house and the park, and the park is only 4 miles and 5 lights away.

The GPS, foot pod, and cycling speed sensor were all accurate and performed on par with other similar devices. Each was a snap to pair, and both the GPS and speed sensor have lights that tell you if they’re working.

The watch and sensors all have user-replaceable batteries, making life quite simple. For comparison, I have a Garmin 405, and I often forget to charge it, or to bring the charging cable when traveling. As a result I often end up using my backup, a Garmin FR60. It’s nice to have a fancy sport watch that just works, as opposed to ending up an expensive paperweight.

The GPS pod uses a rechargeable battery and a standard USB cable. With a 20-hour battery life it will get you through several workouts, but does require that you remember to charge it once a week or so.

After the workout, downloading files is a snap with wireless downloading via a USB stick; something any Garmin users out there will be familiar with, and something any current Polar users will find a huge improvement over infrared downloading.

The RCX5, when paired with the correct heart rate strap, will allow you to capture heart rate data while swimming, a first for any sport watch. The watch and heart rate strap are fully waterproofed, while the GPS pod and foot pod will survive a brief dip. This means trail runners don’t have to worry about creek crossings, triathletes can use the baggie-in-the-swim-cap method, and of course you can actually swim with the watch; nifty, welcome features all.

If you’re thinking to yourself that the RCX5 has a lot going for it, you would be right. But there are also some drawbacks that, in all fairness, I have to address.

First, while I’m a big fan of the watch, the accessories bug me a bit. To start with, it feels like there are a lot of them. In reality, there’s only one more piece than my Garmin 405, but it’s a big piece, the GPS pod. It comes with an armband that I’m not that fond of since it looks goofy and is uncomfortable. While I found that I could use the pod in a pocket, or hydration system, it then becomes one more thing to keep track of and worry about. Finally, guys with bigger arms might find the armband too small

The foot pod may well have been the most frustrating part of my relationship with the RCX5. When I pulled it out of the box, I was amazed that it is 3 times the size of my Garmin foot pod. When I started to put the pod on my shoe, I was annoyed that I had to unlace the shoe to get it on; no snapping on and off like the Garmin pod. Sure you can still transfer it among shoes, but now it’s a longer, more annoying process. Finally, when I went to install a battery, I was even more annoyed that it takes a CR2430, not a CR2032 like every other piece of sports electronics in my house, including the RCX5’s own heart rate strap. There’s just no good excuse for having the two accessories use different batteries, it’s not user-friendly and it’s unnecessarily complicated.

The heart rate strap was a bright spot among the accessories; it worked well and was comfortable for me. The material looks like it should hold up well over time. However, I think this heart rate strap is actually a step backward for women. Most ladies I know prefer to remove the elastic band and simply slip the plastic part under their sports bras. To get the elastic off the Wear Link band would require cutting it off and the added thickness of the transmitter might get in the way or prove uncomfortable. There’s another issue with swimming with the Wear Link Hybrid, but we’ll get to that more in a minute.

For all the above, my biggest complaint with the Polar is the lack of ANT+ capability. It has become the industry standard for good reason, and to avoid it is again inexcusable and extremely user-unfriendly. I walked around my house and started counting, and there are at least 12 ANT+ sensors and 2 ANT+ download sticks. A Garmin starts to look cheap in comparison to the RCX5 when I add up the cost of a new HR strap, new foot pod, and new bike sensor. Plus I’d have to juggle that many additional accessories and make sure I’ve got the right ones each time I head out the door. The situation is a little better if you’re a current Polar user, but be aware that the RCX5 is only compatible with some Polar HR straps. Finally, I can’t use any Power Meters with the RCX5, not even Polar’s own unit – again, way user-unfriendly and cost ineffective.

While I will admit that the Heart-Rate-while-swimming feature is cool, it just doesn’t compare to other options on the market. First, heart rate is simply unnecessary when swimming – pacing by time is simpler, easier, and more accurate. The Finis Swimsense, the Pool-Mate Pro, and now the Garmin 910XT will do that for you and alleviate the need to hit lap buttons with their turn-sensing technology. Hitting the lap button while executing a flip-turn is a bit of a hassle, but it pales in comparison to having to constantly stop and re-adjust the heart rate strap. I always train and often race with only jammers, and without a one-piece suit or a wetsuit, the force of the water will soon push the HR strap down around your stomach. As soon as the novelty wore off, this quickly became a deal-breaker. Additionally, all three of those options offer some pretty advanced swim tools and metrics that the Polar does not.

After I went for a nice run with my wife and dogs, I came home to download the files, and that’s when I got really frustrated. First, I couldn’t install the software on my laptop for lack of available hard drive space. 51.3MB is on par with the Garmin ANT+ Agent already installed but in this case I just didn’t have space for it on top of everything else already on there. Okay, frustrating, but probably just one more sign I need to upgrade my laptop. Still, it’s something to keep in mind if you’re on and older system and not quite yet ready to upgrade.

However, it’s when I did download things to my desktop that I was flustered. Since the watch and the GPS pod are two separate units, they download as two separate files. Okay, no problem, Training Peaks, my training log of choice, will auto-sync them, right? Nope. Polar decided to use different time stamp on the different units, so they won’t sync. Apparently there is a work-around, but I don’t want a work-around, I want to upload my data to TrainingPeaks. And I can’t. It’s a bit easier to do in Sport Tracks, but those are the only two online options for your data at this time other than Polar’s own personaltrainer.com site, and both require extra work if you want to view your GPS and HR data together as one file.

I gave the Polar Personal Trainer a quick peruse, and it looks and feels fairly functional and user-friendly, but I’m happy with TrainingPeaks and will not be changing any time soon (and besides, if I did, it would be to RaceDay Apollo).

I really like the RCX5 in many respects, and in some ways I really wanted to like it. When I first pulled it out of the box and started playing with it I thought I would be buying one after I sent my review unit back. But for all the great features, there are a few too many drawbacks for me, and I just don’t think the unit is quite up to par with other products in its class and price range.

If you’re buying your first premier sports watch, or upgrading from another Polar model, the RCX5 might be a good choice. Just realize that there are a few extra pieces, a little more hassle, and limited compatibility with training logs and accessories. If, however, you already own an ANT+ sports watch or cycling computer, use an online training log, and are used to all-in-one functionality, you’ll probably be disappointed with the RCX5.

I’m in the market for a new triathlon watch, and the new Garmin 910XT is by far the front-runner. The RCX5 with all the accessories for tri is $639 on Amazon. The 910XT is $544. But since I don’t need a cadence sensor, bike mount, heart rate strap, or foot pod, the cost is $400. Plus I can use my power meter, TrainingPeaks, and get better swim data. That’s just a no-brainer. Hopefully Polar can continue to improve their product line, because this unit does have a lot of potential; it’s just not quite there yet.