Polar V650 GPS cycle computer review

by Matt Wikstrom


Polar is well known for wireless heartrate measurement and the company has also been involved in the cycle computer market since the early ‘90s. Now Polar is embracing GPS with the release of the V650, a cycle computer that uses Bluetooth Smart for data collection. In this review, CTech editor Matt Wikstrom looks at what the V650 has to offer.


Polar was born in Finland during the late ‘70s with the idea of a portable heartrate monitor for skiing. The company released its first device in 1982 then patented wireless heartrate measurement in 1985. The products that followed built upon the company’s interest in heartrate measurement with a variety of devices as well as analysis software.

Polar released its first cycle computer in 1990, which integrated heartrate measurement with speed and distance. Subsequent cycle computers refined and expanded on this design including the development of a novel powermeter. This device used chain tension and speed to calculate power but it suffered from poor accuracy. Polar subsequently partnered with Look to develop a pedal-based powermeter in 2011.

The company recently entered the GPS cycle computer market with the release of the V650. Labelled as the “smartest cycling computer with GPS”, the device eschews ANT+ connectivity in favour of Bluetooth Smart. Polar Australia recently supplied the V650 with a heartrate sensor for review.

What’s in the box?

The V650 is offered with or without a heartrate sensor for $449 and $399, respectively. In both instances, the device is provided with a USB cable (for charging and data transfer), stem/handlebar mount, and a quick-start manual.

V650-11

The heartrate sensor is Polar’s H6 model, which was originally designed for use with smartphones. It comprises a Bluetooth Smart transmitter and an adjustable elastic strap. The transmitter is powered by a CR2025 coin battery, which is easily replaced by the user, while the strap has a clip that makes putting on and taking off the sensor a little easier.

The stem/handlebar mount employs a twisting lock mechanism to secure the V650. A tabbed disc built into the back of the V650 mates with the mount—twisting it 90 degrees locks it into place—and ratcheting teeth prevent the device from rattling free. It’s a design that resembles Garmin’s system, however the two are not interchangeable.

Buyers can expand the capabilities of the V650 by adding Polar’s Bluetooth Smart speed and cadence sensors ($119; cadence only, $79) and Look Keo Power Pedals ($2,499). As mentioned above, the V650 does not collect ANT+ data however there is the promise that it will work with Bluetooth Smart sensors from other manufacturers.

Bluetooth Smart versus ANT+

A small battle is underway as Bluetooth Smart challenges ANT+ to become the dominant standard for wireless data transmission for the bicycle industry. It’s a battle that recalls other showdowns such as VHS versus Betamax.

ANT+ has a proven track record as a low power protocol for wireless data transmission. Developed by Garmin, ANT+ ensures lengthy operating times for transmitters and receivers. It is also well suited to pairing multiple transmitters/sensors with a single data collection device.

V650-7

In the past, Bluetooth has suffered from excessive power consumption but Bluetooth Smart (also known as Bluetooth Low Energy) was developed specifically as a low power protocol. It shares the same radio frequency as ANT+, but where ANT+ is a closed standard, Bluetooth Smart is open. It is also widely used by mobile phones and tablets, giving the new standard enormous weight in numbers.

As a consequence, many predict Bluetooth Smart will become the dominant standard for wireless data transmission, and that’s why Polar has adopted it exclusively for the V650. However, ANT+ is deeply entrenched in the cycling industry, where the majority of sensors and expensive powermeters rely solely on ANT+.

Polar is obviously looking ahead but their decision won’t have any appeal to riders that own devices using ANT+. And buyers that opt for the V650 will have to accept that, in the short term at least, they will have fewer choices for compatible sensors and powermeters.

Overview of features and functions

The V650 is a relatively large device (105 x 63 x 15mm) with a touch screen and colour display. The unit weighs around 120g (the V650 sent for review weighed 119g) and is water resistant with an IPX7 rating. Polar claims that the rechargeable battery is good for around 12 hours of operation (with GPS and sensors activated) and that there is enough storage space for 10,000 hours of data.

The device employs GPS to measure speed, distance and pace along with route tracking and a back-to-start function. However, the V650 does not offer any other navigation functions, such as following a route or displaying a map. A barometer measures altitude and total ascent/descent while the device is programmed to calculate a value for real-time VAM.

The V650 displays heartrate data in beats per minute or as a percentage of maximum. The device also make use of graphics to compile a real time column graph that displays the amount of time spent in each of five heartrate zones. Touching the graphic zooms in on the data so that the user can monitor the position of their heartrate in the current zone.

A small light is included at the front of the V650
A small light is included at the front of the V650.

One interesting feature is the inclusion of a safety light at the front of the device. It can be set to turn on automatically (according to ambient light conditions) and operates continuously or in a blinking mode. The output is modest, hence its designation as a “safety” light.

Owners are able to program the V650 for use with up to four different bikes. Programming is simply a matter of stipulating the wheel size of the bike and any linked sensors. Owners are also able to program the data display using one of four “sport profiles” (designated road cycling, mountain biking, indoor cycling, and other). Each profile provides up to six pages (or “views”) of data with a maximum of eight fields per page. The user also elects whether to activate features like GPS, automatic pausing, automatic lap timing and training alerts when programming a sport profile.

Polar provides its own software called Flow for uploading, displaying and analysing ride data. The V650 does not have WiFi connectivity however Bluetooth Smart can be used for automatic data transfer to a smartphone running Polar’s mobile app. Otherwise, the device has to be connected to a desktop or laptop via USB cable. In this case, a second app called FlowSync is required to enable the transfer of data.

Putting the V650 to use

The V650 proved to be very easy to use. The device powers up and locates GPS satellites in less than 30 seconds. At the same time, it automatically searches for any sensors that have been paired with it. A row of icons at the bottom of the start screen allows the user to monitor the status of GPS and sensor connections at a glance (a solid green circle indicates a successful connection).

The startup screen provides access to the V650's core functions while the icons provide information on the status of the GPS and sensor connections
The startup screen provides access to the V650’s core functions while the icons provide information on the status of the GPS and sensor connections.

There are two buttons, a touch screen, and a swipe-down menu for operating the V650. The function of each menu is largely self-explanatory though the swipe-down menu completely evaded me until I read the manual.

The power button resides on the left-hand side of the device. Pressing it after the unit has been turned on summons a menu with a few housekeeping functions such as altitude calibration, locking the display, searching for sensors, and turning the unit off.

The main screen serves as the gateway to the V650’s core functions—history, settings, bike selection, and sport profiles—that can be selected by touching the screen. The menus that appear are easy to navigate and self-explanatory. Switching bikes or data display profiles is simply a matter of touching “Bikes” or “Profile” and selecting one of the four available options. Swiping downwards on the touch screen brings up a menu with options for operating the safety light and adjusting volume and screen brightness.

Getting started with recording is simply a matter of selecting a bike and a profile then punching the big red button at the bottom of the screen. The unit starts displaying the data as dictated by the sport profile, where the touch screen allows the user to swipe from one page of data to the next. Holding the red button at the end of the ride halts recording and allows the data to be saved.

Polar has developed a real-time column graph to display the amount of time spent in each of five heartrate zones
Polar has developed a real-time column graph to display the amount of time spent in each of five heartrate zones.

Polar makes admirable use of graphics to enhance the display of ride data. For example, heartrate and speed can be viewed as a line graph that provides some retrospective context for the current effort. And as mentioned above, there is a real time column graph that displays the amount of time spent in each heartrate zone along with current heartrate and indicator for the current heartrate zone.

The graphics combine well with the use of colour to make for an attractive display. The large screen size also adds to the quality of the display (though at the expense of a hefty chunk of stem/handlebar real estate). Direct sunlight dulled the contrast of the screen to some extent but never to the point where I had difficulty reading the display.

At the end of a ride, the V650 provides three pages of summary with a variety of totals (duration, distance, calories, and cadence), maximum values (speed, cadence, altitude and heartrate) and averages (heartrate, cadence and speed) along with the total ascent and descent. There is also a bar graph (very similar to the live heartrate graphic described above) that depicts the time spent in each heartrate zone along with a short statement on the “training benefit” of the workout.

The battery run time is efficient for a device like the V650 and Polar has provided plenty of storage space. Each ride is recorded chronologically and can be individually selected and reviewed. There is also a totals page where the accumulated duration, distance and calories are displayed while distances are shown for each bike. These fields can be easily reset using the touch screen and serve as a convenient overview of the work done on a weekly or monthly basis.

The swipe down menu provides access to a few functions including the safety light
The swipe down menu provides access to a few functions including the safety light.

Polar’s Flow website and FlowSync software are essential for retrieving data from the V650. Thus, new users will have to download the software and create a user account before they can start uploading their rides. I didn’t try uploading the data to a smartphone using Bluetooth Smart, but it promises to be as convenient as a WiFi connection. Instead, I used my laptop and FlowSync does a good job of automating data transfer including downloading updates to the V650.

Unfortunately, there is no option for directly uploading data to other applications such as Strava. The only way to add a ride to Strava (or other mapping and/or analysis program) is to export the data from Flow—there’s a choice of GPX, TCX and CSV formats—so that it can be imported manually at a later time. As a consequence, dedicated Strava users are likely to be frustrated by the V650 when other products such as Garmin’s Edge 510 or Magellan’s 505 can be configured to automatically send ride data to Strava.

Polar’s Flow website offers a range of tools for analysing and sharing your ride data with the hope that it will develop into a social hub. Amongst many familiar features such as a training diary and detailed data display (which includes a map, of course) there is a novel function called “Relive”. Clicking on this button creates a short video presentation for the selected ride in just a few moments.

The video revolves around an animation that maps out the ride and displays highlights, such as the points where the maximum heartrate and speed were achieved, along with a soundtrack and images of the start and finish points (harvested from Google Street View or similar). It’s perfect fodder for your Facebook feed however I couldn’t find any way to share the video.

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All told, I didn’t have any difficulties with the V650 during the review period. The touch screen was reliable and I didn’t encounter any software bugs. Polar has been slow in bringing the V650 to market since it unveiled the new device last year, but the result promises to be a robust and reliable performer.

Summary and final thoughts

The pricing of the V650 puts it up against Garmin’s Edge 510 and Magellan’s 505. When compared side-by-side, the V650 offers many of the same functions and even trumps its competitors with the quality of its heartrate data display, but its devotion to Bluetooth Smart hinders its compatibility with the majority of sensors and powermeters on the market.

The absence of navigation is another potential weakness for the V650. Here, it seems as if Polar is positioning the V650 in a different niche—as a training device—so they haven’t bothered with maps and navigation. However, the device lacks a workout function, which almost seems like an oversight, especially when Polar’s V800 (a multisport watch) allows users to program and follow their own workouts. A variety of pre-programmed workouts with different training benefits would be a valuable addition to this device, and it would help to further distinguish the V650 from its competitors.

As for those riders that are currently using their smartphones and Bluetooth Smart sensors, will they find any value in switching to a devoted cycling computer like the V650? In many ways, Polar’s device resembles a smartphone—it too is large, offers a touch screen, and utilises Bluetooth Smart—so the familiarity may hold some appeal. That the device has been optimised for pairing with a smartphone should also help, but buyers may hesitate at Polar’s lack of interconnectivity with third-party analysis platforms.

Polar V650 Gallery

 

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