Polar’s $199 Ignite GPS Hands-On: Everything you ever wanted to know

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I always like it when Polar gets riled up. It happens every few years (the Finns don’t excite easily), where they turn around and drop a crazy full featured product on the market, driving a significant shift in pricing. I think the just announced Polar Ignite might do exactly that. This sub-$200 GPS watch is packed full of features, but more importantly, packed full of training-focused features. Nearly half a dozen totally new features to Polar (and some, even the industry) that aren’t seen on their higher end watches.

These features start to address the core points I’ve talked about in keynotes for years, which is the lack of integration between sleep/recovery data and daily training guidance. But with more Polar marketing branded feature names than I can shake a stick at, my first impressions after nearly a week of using it, is that they’re actually doing exactly that. If you have a crappy night sleep, it’ll influence the recommendations for training the next day. And even further, after you do your main workout for the day, it’ll even suggest recovery ‘workouts’ like stretching.

But first, an overview video of all the newness:

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Oh, and last but not least, before we cruise on, note that this is definitely not a review. That’d require final firmware, which at this point it doesn’t have (I believe it’s final hardware though). As such, things could get better…or worse. Usually things get better though from beta to final production. So this is just a hands-on preview. Review down the road.

What’s New Overview:

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For the most part, companies tend to introduce new features on higher end watches and those trickle down to lower end watches. Again, in general. But, that’s definitely not what’s happening here. In the case of the Ignite, it’s got a slew of new features that are not seen in Polar’s higher end watches (including their Vantage series). Polar has confirmed that all but FitSpark will arrive on the Vantage V & Vantage M units later this fall as part of Update 4.0 (including enablement of Galileo, too).

But first, some quick hardware basics:

– Color touchscreen display, single side button
– Display is not always-on (only turns on when raising wrist, like Apple Watch or most Fitbit’s), workout mode does have always-on option though
– Has Sony GPS chipset, like Polar Vantage series
– Polar Precision Prime optical heart rate sensor on back (same as Vantage series)
– Strap in two models, a harder rubber ($199 model), and a silicon strap ($229 model)
– Bluetooth Smart sensor support (though not power meters)
– Waterproofed to 30 meters
– Swappable wristbands
– No music/storage on watch, nor NFC/contactless payments
– Daily battery time of 5 days, GPS battery time of 17 hours

Most of what you see above is fairly standard. Actually, all of it is. Nothing earth-shattering there. The only ‘downside’ is that it’s not an always-on display. So unlike the vast majority of Polar watches (except the older Android WearOS based M600), this display turns off after a few seconds. And unfortunately, it’s pretty slow to turn back on too (about 3 seconds from wrist raise while running, 2 seconds sitting at a desk). But more on that down below.

The New Stuff:

Here’s a quick summary of the new features on the Ignite that aren’t really seen on any other Polar watches

– Added ‘Nightly Recharge’ feature that looks at breathing rate/heart rate/heart rate variability (ANS data) to figure out if you’re recovering at night
– Added ‘Sleep Plus Stages’ which adds in REM/Light/Deep sleep
– Added a nightly sleep score
– Added ‘FitSpark’ feature which gives you daily workout options based specifically on history + Nightly Recharge (this is huge)
– Added ‘Serene’, which are guided breathing exercises (like what Fitbit and others have)

Those 4-5 features are totally new to Polar, and also the ones I’ll be diving into down below in more depth since you won’t have seen them before. But more importantly, I think some of them are doing far more of what I’ve been asking for, for years. I’ve long said there’s such a gap between what happens at night (sleeping, not the horizontal shuffle) and training guidance. You could have a horrific sleep night, and then the device turns around and says to go do a 2hr long run.

Whereas that’s somewhat the entire point of ‘FitSpark’ relying on the Nightly Recharge feature. Again, in theory anyway. I’m only 5 or so days into it (and it takes 3 days before you see any Nightly Recharge data at all), so I’m just at the start line of understanding all the features in real-life.

The Stuff That’s Still There:

Next, this is a quick little section of things that aren’t new to Polar, but I just wanted to confirm for you that are on this watch.

– Has structured workout support (download workouts from Polar Flow to watch)
– Tracks general activity metrics (e.g. steps, distance, calories, etc) 24×7
– Tracks heart rate 24×7
– Tracks sleep (see new sleep features though)
– Includes VO2Max score (aka ‘Running Index’)
– Includes ‘Fitness Test’ feature (VO2Max test while lying down)
– Includes *both* pool swim mode and openwater swim tracking
– Does *NOT* have multisport (aka triathlon) mode
– Includes ‘Training Load Pro’ feature, but not ‘Recovery Pro’ found on Vantage V
– Includes timers (countdown timers & stopwatch)
– Includes ‘Training Benefit’ metric
– Includes distance
– Maximum of 20 sport profiles on the watch itself (far more than Apple, Garmin, Fitbit, or Suunto allow at this price point), some 100 sports on platform to add to watch
– Can apply both heart rate zones and speed zones (no power zones/nor power meter support)
– Accelerometer based speed/distance when no GPS is available (or inside on treadmill)

Phew, got all that? Good. We’ve just played feature and function buzzword bingo, so it’s time to shift into understanding why all these things are interesting.

Digging Into The New Features:

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My goal here is to get you to the new features as quickly as possible. But first, a brief overview on some basic functions. Namely, the display. As you can see below, unless you raise your wrist, it’s blank. Black. Dark. Non-illuminated.

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While this is common for Apple Watch, Fitbit, and others, it’s far less common for endurance sports type watches that have displays designed to handle days (or weeks) with the display always-on. So it’s somewhat unexpected for Polar to head this direction without a significant deviation on the display itself.

By that I mean that yes, the display is color, and yes, it’s definitely far brighter than a Vantage series unit. But it’s not streaming video either, or doing anything else akin to what we’d see on some of the Apple/Samsung/etc watches. Thus I’m a bit undecided on that trade-off.

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Note that Polar does allow you however to keep the screen always-on during a workout, whereas most other companies don’t. So that’s positive for sure.

For the touch element, it mostly works OK. But one interesting caveat is that the screen needs to be ‘grounded’. Which is never an issue when it’s on your wrist, but if you were to try and hold it in your hands and use it, unless you’re touching the outer bezel, it won’t react. This helps keep things like your coat from causing all sorts of wonk. And is in fact the same on many touchscreen devices, including some of Garmin’s devices.

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I bring this up as the cautionary thing to contemplate when looking at online videos/reviews that may discuss the touch screen and show non-responsiveness. Stick it on your wrist like a normal use case and you’re mostly fine. I say ‘mostly’ because there’s still places when on my wrist it seems to have issues with (such as confirming Yes/No type questions). Usually takes a few goes.

Also, the band is fully removable on both editions (the $199 one with the black TPU rubberish band, or the $229 silicon band).

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Moving along, let’s talk the new stuff. Cause frankly, that’s the cool stuff. And really – it is legitimately cool. And basically it all boils down to four specific things, which do actually build on each other:

– Sleep Plus Stages
– Nightly Recharge
– FitSpark
– Serene breathing guidance

Ok, actually, Serene doesn’t build on anything. But the other three do have ties to each other. Let’s start with Sleep Plus Stages, as that’s the first building block. This functioning basically takes Polar’s existing sleep tracking and gives it a solid boost. Now it tracks your specific sleep phases (Deep/Light/REM), sleep cycles, your interruptions, and then gives you both continuity and overall sleep scores.

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For bits like Deep/Light/REM sleep, there’s no easy way at the moment for me to 100% scientifically validate that with the tools I have. So instead, I’m going to focus on the other bits, things like interruptions and continuity, which I know for me personally are core factors in how well I feel the next day. If the kids are sick (like last night with one of them), and up a bunch, my continuity and interruptions are shot. And that’s reflected below:

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That then gives you a sleep score. Now you can see that score shift over time. The first few days I was home with the kiddos (including the sick one). But the last few days I was on vacation with my wife, sans-kiddos. And holy cow, sleep nirvana! At left, a score of 54, whereas at right a score of 78.

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And here’s a quick pile of screenshots showing all the Sleep Plus Stages data that’s available on the app (which is also on the unit).

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All this sleep phase/score stuff by itself isn’t actually super innovative in the grand scheme of the sports tech industry. It’s just a building block. But what comes next is. And that’s the ‘Nightly Recharge’ feature. That feature looks at three core things:

– Heart rate
– Heart rate variability
– Breathing rate

And it’s that third one where we take the hard left turn off of normalcy road and get into unchartered territory for mainstream wearables. Take Garmin and Suunto for example. Both use heart rate and heart rate variability as part of their ‘Body Battery’ and ‘Resources’ features, which give you a constantly shifting score throughout your day. As you chill or sleep, your body battery score recovers. Both of these companies leverage FirstBeat for these metrics.

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But neither company leverages breathing rate as part of that, so Polar’s adding another dimension to the data they collect.  All of this is termed ANS (autonomic nervous system), which is designed to measure how quickly your body calms down in the first few hours of sleep.

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Once you’ve slept three nights, it’ll start giving you nightly recharge scores, including the underlying ANS score as well.  You can see these on the watch itself or on the Polar Flow app.

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Now it’s not fair to say that this method is ‘totally better’ than Garmin/Suunto/FirstBeat’s method, as there are some nuances to be aware of. For example, in the Garmin/Suunto implementation you can recharge during the day. So if I sit down and just relax for 45 minutes, or even take a nap – that’ll recharge my body battery. Just as you’d expect it to feel. Whereas Polar is only looking at nightly sleeps. So if it didn’t happen in bed, it didn’t count. Also probably the tagline for many other things.

But where we get into the next level of differentiation is what Polar does with the 3rd new feature, FitSpark. While I think the name is a little wonky, it’s at least memorable. FitSpark is basically a virtual coach that has no overarching fitness/seasonal goal in mind, except to give you a workout of the day. But the biggest and most important take away is that it looks at your nightly recharge scores and underlying sleep data to determine whether or not you should be doing anything at all.

That’s a super critical gap that’s been missing. Mostly automated training guidance coaches/platforms don’t do that. And by ‘most’, I mean, ‘none do’. You could have a newborn at home and be days deep of horrific sleep, and they’ll tell you to go out and run a 2hr long run. Whereas Polar will look at that sleep data and give you a go/no-go type guidance, and then depending on what your greater training data looks like, will also give you specific workouts to do.

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Remember, this isn’t tied to a plan. Meaning, you’re not tied to some 5KM running plan. This is basically saying ‘Hi there, I know a scary amount about you, here’s four options for workouts today. Pick one.’

Oh, right, yes, it gives you options. Numerous options. Pick your poison:

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And then for each of those options it’ll give you the specific steps and guidance in the watch itself. There’s cardio focused running workouts with different intensities. And then there’s core type workouts too, and for those, it’ll give you the specific moves to do, along with animations and text for each one:

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But let’s say you choose the cardio workout, go run an hour or so, and then finish up. At that point the watch gives you new suggestions. Specifically ones around active recovery such as stretching and related core workouts that’ll help and support that initial workout.

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Seriously.

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It’s like for once the coaching aspects of the unit are actually smart. It’s not just following some blind plan telling you to do something just because it was on the schedule. It’s making up the schedule on the fly based on what it knows about your exact day thus far.

Last but not least, there’s Serene. Best I can tell, it’s got no integration with anything else. And for the most part it’s not much different than what Apple or Fitbit or others do. It simply guides you through breathing exercises. The default is to do 3 minutes of breathing, inhaling and exhaling each in 5 second phases. Rinse, repeat (I show this in the video as well).

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After it’s done, it divides things up into different special zone buckets with very jewelry store sounding names:

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Unlike some of their competitors, I haven’t seen any proactive recommendations from the watch telling me to do the breathing exercises. But perhaps that’ll come in time. For now you have to remember to dig into the menus and do them yourself.

First Run & Bike Tests

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With everything roughly figured out, it was time to head out for a first run, which I’d then follow up with recording some around town bike commute style rides, primarily for GPS accuracy. First up, the run. For this I did a simple loop around the Amsterdam Bos, which includes a variety of fields, forests, and running paths. Trees and all. Here’s the high level overview (full data set here if you want to dig around), as compared to a Garmin MARQ Athlete (left wrist), and Forerunner 935 GPS watch (hand-held) – with the Polar Ignite on my right wrist:

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As you can see, definitely not ideal. I had ensured full sync with the app numerous times before the run (to ensure it has GPS-A data downloaded), as well as giving it a solid 10-15 seconds after it acquired GPS just for the fun of it. It cut many corners, and also wandered off into the fields here and there too.

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In talking to Polar, they noted this level of variation wasn’t expected. And to be fair, I haven’t seen this specific level since – in either rides or some other shorter activities (I’m on vacation at the moment, sometimes timing sucks).

For example, I’ve been using the watch in GPS mode for a slew of rides around town. Bike commuting and such. And honestly, it’s not been ideal there either. There’s many places where it significantly cuts across buildings. For most of these I don’t have comparative data, though frankly, I don’t need it. I know I didn’t cross through four huge apartment buildings (actual route in dotted white lines).

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In discussing these specific workouts with Polar, they were a bit focused on the results. Essentially saying that there are cases where the Ignite won’t perform as well as the Vantage series. Still, I’m hoping they’re able to make some progress here. Things aren’t off to a great start on the GPS front. I’m going to give Polar their proper chance to sort this out over the next couple of weeks before publishing a final review (they start shipping today, but I wouldn’t have had enough time for a review anyway).

So what about heart rate? Well, that’s considerably better. Going back to that run, I’ve got it compared against the optical HR sensor of the Garmin MARQ on the other wrist, a Polar OH1+ sensor on my upper arm, and then a Garmin HRM-DUAL chest strap. More or less things are near identical between all of them, including the hard sprints at the end, designed specifically to trick HR sensors.

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There is a bit of a delay on the three optical HR sensors compared to the chest strap, more than I’ve actually seen before from any of them. At first I thought it might be a time offset of sorts, but in looking at other data points in that file, I don’t believe that to be the case. Realistically though, most people don’t care too much if the HR is delayed a few extra seconds – as long as it’s correct. Which, all these units were (even the start wasn’t too shabby).

Again, these are just some initial tests, but usually they help figure out the general flavor of the device. My full in-depth review down the road sometime in July will have far more data in it.

Summary:

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Overall, I’m pretty impressed with the Ignite in most ways. While I’ve been skeptical of Polar’s ability to innovate lately, they seem to nail it in this watch in terms of the new physio-focused features around sleep and training guidance. And perhaps most astoundingly do it all in a sub-$200 GPS watch. That’s the most impressive part.

While I think the sleep stages and related nightly recharge features are important and key to the foundations of what they’re doing, I think it’s the FitSpark piece that actually lights up the whole scenario. By giving you specific workout recommendations that don’t have to be tied to a greater training program, they’re putting forth a watch for active people that aren’t necessarily tied to going out and running half marathon at the end of the season. They probably just want to keep fit, and perhaps even super fit. I’ve got no doubt if you followed these recommendations daily, you’d end up pretty darn fit.

Unlike some recommendation routines from the likes of Fitbit, the Polar recommendations mean business. I’ve often felt like the guided programs from many companies are too wimpy. Too feel-good and ‘Go jog for 15 minutes you’ll be great!’. Realistically, that won’t get you super fit. But companies seem to be afraid to say that. Based on the workout recommendations I’m getting from the Polar Ignite thus far, that’s clearly not the case here.

The singular area things are less impressive is GPS accuracy. It’s not good. But, it’s also not done yet. As noted, this wasn’t a review because it’s not a finished product. So if they can sort out that piece, it’ll likely get a solid recommendation (and, assuming they don’t break anything else between now and release).

With that, thanks for reading, and stay tuned for a full review once they start shipping down the road.  And of course, feel free to drop any questions below.

Note: You can pre-order the Polar Ignite (which should start shipping near-immediately) via Clever Training, which helps support the site here. You’ll get free US shipping, plus if you use DCR Reader code DCR10BTF, you’ll save yourself 10%. Woot!