There is no shortage of GPS running watches. Seriously. When I ran the New York Half Marathon last month, I quickly lost count of the different brands and models of watches I saw on the wrists of my fellow runners. Runners are among the most eager to quantify their training data with technology – whether with watches, smart shoes, smart insoles, apps or even a connected treadmill. So I wasn’t surprised when Polar priced its $299.95 Pacer Pro as a GPS watch specifically designed to help runners take their running to the next level.
Thing is, I don’t really see how its features are so different from Polar’s other multisport watches. I also don’t see how this is a watch aimed at runners.
In practice, we’ve basically seen this watch before. In terms of price, feature set and design, it reminds me a lot of the $299.95 Polar Vantage M2 from 2021. In fact, I’d say the two watches are so similar, I don’t understand why this watch is just not the Vantage M3.
It’s not that there aren’t differences. The Polar Pacer Pro has faster hardware and 5MB of internal RAM. It might seem low compared to something like the Apple Watch, but it’s a lot more than all the other Polar watches have. One of my biggest issues with Polar watches over the years has been lagging screens and timing. The Pacer Pro fixes that. The Pro also adds a barometer, which Polar says can help you measure running power, or your output, in watts. And while the Pro and M2 have similarly sized screens, the Pro’s screen is easier to read. The case also feels a bit smaller, thinner and lighter. The way the straps attach is also different. The Pacer Pro uses Polar’s proprietary Shift adapter while the M2 uses your standard spring-loaded release pins.
(A little detour regarding the Shift adapter. I appreciate that it allows you to use standard straps that you may already have. That said, it’s annoying. You have to use a ballpoint pen to get out the proprietary pin, then swap out to a different set of lugs just so you can use standard straps. It’s not easy to figure out just by looking, and I had to google a video tutorial. I have also now black ink on my white review unit.)
Aside from the Pro’s resemblance to the M2, 99% of the features you get on the Pacer Pro aren’t new. Hill Splitter, FuelWise, Nightly Recharge, Fitspark, Training Load Pro, running performance tests, turn-by-turn route navigation – we’ve seen it all before on other Polar devices. Sure, high-end Polar watches like the Grit X Pro come with a bit more (i.e. more dashboards, fitness test types, etc.), but that’s a lot like a redesign of features without really adding new value.
When Polar says this watch is going to help running “pros” gain an edge, the average person would probably expect running-specific tools and information – maybe mid-run alerts for increase your pace or reduce your intensity to maintain endurance. The closest thing to the Pro is the running power feature. It’s meant to help you gauge your running efficiency, but of all the similar features I’ve tested on other running watches, it’s not the most intuitive implementation. I was often puzzled as to what this meant during a race and how to correctly interpret this graph afterwards.
The reality is that the vast majority of this watch’s features aren’t just for runners. Turn-by-turn navigation is useful for hikers, cyclists, walkers, and anyone who has difficulty navigating outdoors. Recovery insights like Nightly Recharge and workout suggestions like Fitspark are great for nobody trying to develop a training program. Hill Splitter – a feature that contextualizes your climbs and descents – also works for cyclists. The same goes for Fuelwise, which is a feature that helps you determine your nutritional strategy for endurance sports. It is ideal for long-distance runners but also for cyclists and hikers. It’s not necessarily bad! Usually having multiple functions in multiple categories is a good thing. It’s just a little misleading to market this as a watch for runners when triathletes, cyclists and outdoor enthusiasts on a budget would also get a lot out of it.
The only completely new feature introduced by Pacer Pro is the walk test. Polar markets this feature as an easy fitness test for people just starting out on their fitness journey who may not be physically able to take Polar’s running performance test. In total, the test takes around 25 minutes – 5 minutes warm-up, 15 minutes brisk walking on level ground and 5 minutes cool-down. At the end, you are supposed to get an estimate of your VO2 Max score. (This score is often used to measure your cardiovascular fitness and progress over time.)
This is a good idea for beginners. Brands like Polar tend to be intimidating because, let’s face it, they cater to athletes who already have good habits in place and know what they’re doing. Polar’s run test is no joke either. It takes 30-40 minutes of running at an increasingly faster pace until your lungs hurt, your legs burn and you break down sweating on a nearby bench. It would be difficult and not very useful for real beginners.
But, in my testing, the walk test was way off. To start, you should walk at a pace where your heart rate is at least 120 beats per minute (bpm). According to my Apple Watch, my comfortable walking pace is about 17 minutes per mile (or 3.5 miles per hour). My heart rate at this rate was only around 100 bpm. To get to 120 bpm, I had to sabotage it at 14 minutes per mile. Several times the watch warned me with a message saying, “Don’t run!” But I was not. And for my issues, the watch told me I had a VO2 Max score of 28 – which is, by Polar’s definition, poor for my age and gender. Prior to this test, Polar and Garmin both rated my VO2 Max score at around 39-40.
Admittedly, the walk test is for beginners just getting started. It’s probably not designed for people like me who already run several times a week, which could have seriously skewed my results. Still, I can’t say it gave me confidence.
I admit I have a lot of complaints about a very functional GPS watch whose biggest crimes are unclear and somewhat boring marketing. In all other respects, the Pro is your go-to Polar fitness watch. Battery life was excellent, matching Polar’s estimate of seven days without any issues. The screen, while not pretty and cursed with huge bezels, is incredibly readable in direct sunlight. In my running tests, GPS tracking was perfect with my Apple Watch Series 7 and Garmin Fenix 7S. Heart rate monitoring was also reliable and exactly what you’d expect from a multisport fitness watch. It may have struggled to accurately describe my heart rate during the walk test – at times it was around 15 bpm before correcting itself. But, as I mentioned earlier, this particular test wasn’t Polar’s best work, nor was it intended for someone like me.
The worst thing I can say is that the Polar Flow app is convoluted and its smart features are limited – but those aren’t new complaints either. The Polar Flow app is still difficult to navigate even though it gives you good information without bombarding you with a wall of data like Garmin sometimes does. You can receive push notifications, set timers and control your music, but you won’t get more sophisticated features like security alerts or NFC payments. Just as features are things we’ve seen a million times before, we’ve also seen the Pro’s weaknesses before.
In fact, I take it back. The Pro’s biggest crime is that it makes Polar’s current lineup confusing. At $299.90, the Pacer Pro is priced competitively for the advanced feature set it offers. Multisport GPS watches are an expensive category, but you get the majority of the same features as the $499.95 Grit X Pro. And, as I mentioned earlier, there’s really no reason to buy the M2 anymore because the Pro is basically the same thing with more updated hardware.
I would say the math could change if you find a heavily reduced M2. But, in another twist, Polar will soon launch a cheaper entry-level Pacer watch. This watch costs $199.95 and is nearly identical to the Pacer Pro. It just lacks the barometer that enables race power metrics, Hill Splitter and step-by-step navigation. If you don’t like these features, you better save an extra $100.
I’m glad Polar offers more of its advanced features at a lower price. I really am. The Pro is a good GPS smartwatch, and I’d happily recommend it to runners, triathletes, and multisport athletes who don’t want to spend a lot and don’t care about a ton of bells and whistles. But I could also say that about Polar Vantage M2, Pacer and Ignite 2 at $229.95. I wish Polar spent a little more time clearly differentiating each watch in its lineup. Even though Garmin watches also share a ton of overlap, you can just look at a Venu, a Fenix, and a Forerunner and get a good idea of who each watch is for. It’s a lot harder to do that with Polar watches across the board – and that’s a disservice both to consumers and to everything Polar does well.
Photography by Victoria Song / The Verge