Thursday, November 11, 2010

Heart to Heart: Polar vs. Suunto

So this post is going to be a change of pace - a brief review/comparison of heart-rate monitors.

I'm not exactly a serious athlete, but my last personal training assessment puts me in the 85-90th percentile in terms of the general Australian public (this says more about the fitness level of the average Australian than my fitness level, really). Anyway, as a casual runner and frequent cycle commuter (and hardcore geek), I've long used all sorts of telemetry accessories such as a heart rate monitor (some other examples being the Nike+ accessory for my iPod, a GPS pod for my new HRM - more on this later, bike computer, etc.).

About ten years ago, I bought a Polar S410 for - if I recall correctly - about $200 on eBay. Although you can still find them on eBay for about $170 or so, this model has since been supplanted by the Polar RS400 (MSRP $USD269.95)

Polar S410

For its time, this was a pretty cutting-edge HRM. You could set up up to 30 different time-based or heart-rate based training intervals, and have it prompt you for each interval, and it would store up to 120 heart-rate samples for a workout, while storing up to five compressed (summary) workout files that would store average HR, duration, etc. Additionally, the SonicLink function allowed you to do bidirectional transfers between the watch and a computer so that you could look get a better look at your workout data, and setup workouts on your computer to transfer back to the watch. This technology basically used the same method as those wicked acoustic coupler modems from the '80s (remember those?) - by holding the watch up to your computer's microphone, data in the form of beeps and bloops gets picked up and decoded by the software. The watch also has a built-in microphone to allow the reverse process to occur. Pretty trick - when it works.

Alas, this proved to be not only the coolest feature, but also the Achilles' heel for this HRM. The SonicLink transfer process was extremely fussy: if the watch was too close to the microphone, it wouldn't work. If it was too far from the microphone, it wouldn't work. If the distance between the two varied too much during the transfer process, it wouldn't work. Nonetheless, I managed to figure out that holding the watch close to the mic from an audioconferencing headset worked pretty well - around a 1-in-2 to 1-in-3 success rate for transfers. When the data finally gets transferred, here's what it looks like in PC Coach Lite (the Polar-supplied software):
One of the really cool things about this is the sampling rate -  it stores 120 samples total, so if you're exercising for an hour or less, you're getting at least 2 samples per minute (once you exceed 120 samples, the watch automatically averages previous samples and then reduces the sampling rate). Of course, if you wanted to be really cutting-edge, you could have bought the S610, which has/had room for 16,000 samples.

At any rate (no pun intended), eventually I tired of this game with the microphone, and bought a shiny new Suunto T4:
OK, so the great thing about Suunto is that they have a whole line of essentially universal accessories, which they call pods. There's a bike Pod, a cadence Pod, a GPS Pod, a PC Pod and a foot pod,  all of which will work wirelessly with most Suunto watches - except for the basic ones, as far as I know. I bought my T4 as a package with the GPS pod from at some ridiculous discount (if you want an invite, let me know and I'll hook you up :)). The GPS Pod allows the watch to monitor and store your actual speed. Unfortunately, the Finnish engineers must have been stoned out of their minds (or spent too much time in the sauna) when they designed this thing, because - get this - the GPS doesn't store position data. If there's anything more frivolous than designing a GPS device that doesn't even tell you your position, well - I'm sure it exists, but I ain't gonna buy it. This is somewhat akin to buying an iPhone for use as a pocket watch.

Luckily, however, someone even geekier than I has figured out how to hack the Suunto GPS so that it's actually useful as, you know, a GPS. I haven't actually done this yet, but it's now on my list of things-to-do.

So that gripe out of the way, how does the T4 do as a heart-rate monitor? For the most part, great! The display is big and easy to read, and having the bezel display bpms in graphical format is great for quick reference. Their "training effect" zones seem like a useful shortcut for judging workout intensity, and actually seem to have some physiological research behind them. You can also display past training logs in bar graph format on the watch itself, which is neat. Downloading data from the watch to the free supplied software (Training Manager Lite) is a snap (once you buy the PC Pod, that is). It's all wireless and takes just seconds.

But there's a downside. The logging on the T4 sucks:
That's all you get in the way of information from a 1-hour workout. Or any workout, for that matter. Your average heart rate and your peak heart rate (and, since I have the bike pod, your average speed and total distance). It doesn't store any heartrate samples. You can't tell when you were going uphill or downhill, when you were moving or when you were stopped, how long it took you to recover after an interval . . . pretty much useless, at least for a telemetry geek like me.

No, if you actually want to store beat-by-beat data, you have to step up to the Suunto T6 - which starts at $260. I managed to find one on eBay for somewhat less than that - I just don't have my hands on it yet. When it arrives, I'll report back.


  1. Did you consider a Garmin? The forerunner 110 seems to do most of what you want, and the logging seems far better than yours.

  2. Thanks for stopping by, William.

    I didn't actually do my homework before buying . . . the Suunto was a bit of an impulse buy, and now I'm sort of "locked-in" to Suunto with all of the accessories I've bought since then. Clever marketing strategy, those bastards.

  3. PS - Just looked at your posting . . . your html is borked on your update linking to this post. :)