I can’t quit Polar, Garmin accuracy lacking

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Backstory and Motivation

Skip to review if you don’t want to put up with how much I type or don’t care, I’ll understand.

It doesn’t make sense that I have been buying new GPS watches hoping to replace something that has never failed me. I think I’m doing it because I want something smaller and more attractive to me with a side of I’m a good consumer and also into gadgets. I bought a Samsung Watch4 recently because of some “free” money they gave me as part of a promotion that came with buying a new phone and I just didn’t know what else to spend the gift card on: I have plenty of SD cards and don’t need any other accessories… But while it was en route I did more research and the battery life just wasn’t going to fly with me – plus the 40mm round watch face still seemed way too big, though very much on the small side for baked-in GPS wrist devices. I sent it back without opening it. But as I was researching “small GPS watch” I ended up seeing all the other options out there and that led me to buy another.

I had a Swatch when I was young that I thought looked neat, but otherwise have never worn watches. I do, for reasons unknown, look at my left wrist when discussing the time, even if nothing is there and even if my phone is nearby or in-hand.

My First Integrated GPS Watch

I bought a Polar M400 in 2015 or so because I was running a *lot* more and decided to trail for a half marathon. Having distance accuracy and easy access to pace and cadence was immensely helpful. I only wear the watch when out of a run, its battery doesn’t last long enough for high-mileage hikes, let alone multi-day trips into the backcountry – but I have pushed it and always enjoyed the features during both activities. Splits are easy, what shows on the screen is customizable, etc.

It does not track heartrate, which I only glance at when I do have it, and it won’t buzz so I will occasionally not hear the beep if I’m in a noisy area such as along busy streets or near people talking. I do find it bulky – the band is kinda extra wide, too, and so long it wraps all the way around and I should trim it but never have. My small wrists combined with not wearing a watch often so it feels huge when on – but it’s gear for a purpose and hasn’t had any problems and I truly do not notice the perceived bulk while running. It is filthy currently, as seen in the photo, but that’s on me except that the band had these ridges underneath that I need to get a brush to clean and it’s unfortunate.

All-day Wear with Samsung Fit2

Samsung Fit2 and Polar M400 on my wrist
Samsung Fit2 and Polar M400

Anyhow, when I starting doing exercise from home Q2 2020 because, you know, Covid-19, I decided it might be fun to have a tracker. I love stats but also don’t care about them outside of right after the activity: I love the quick post-workout run down. Otherwise, it’s just calendar tracking which I still do on paper, too, since I print out calendars for work already. Helps me to see schedule, rest days, what strength training I did, etc. To that end, I bought a Samsung Fit. It’s basically a kind of Fitbit thing: tiny at under 19mm wide, no GPS, easy to track workouts and steps, does have heart rate which is useful for HIIT, and battery lasts a long time so I am able to leave the thing on *all the time* which offers sleep stats (but I found these questionable and pointless so I don’t look anymore). It does get phone alerts which allows me to ignore things that aren’t important and avoid getting lost in the phone too much. I upgraded to the Fit2 which gave a slightly larger usable screen while only being functionally a little taller. A physical button was lost, and sometimes the touch-only screen stops a workout if it touches my back or something else, but it’s rare and the battery life on this thing is incredible. I can do daily workouts of 45-60 minutes, go on a multi-day backpacking trip, and it still has juice for days. It also charges crazy fast, easy to do when I sit at work for a few minutes every few weeks. The old Fit is here, but dormant, as I just got used to this new one and just love it. Software updates have improved at lot and it accurately auto tracks walks and runs. It’s a pretty good guess for distance, too. <3

Research Led Me To Garmin

On my quest to find a smaller GPS watch I ended up back at Garmin, which I do use already: I carry a handheld unit for hiking and backpacking. Those units have battery power for an entire day at least. I had the 64 and it was very accurate, bullet proof, and I needed nightly charging. I just switched it out for the new 66 mostly because I was ready to starting using Satellite for emergency help back up and for my loved ones to track me (monthly only when needed). The 66 is having fairly significant distance issues: in-unit is overestimating by enough to bother me but when I sync up at their website, the elevation chart is accurate and ends long before the summary so with every single recording I check the chart and edit the distance on the main stat. I have been with customer service about it, it doesn’t matter. The 64 had no such problems. The 64 unit used GPS and GLONASS and GALILEO. The 66 unit could get the same 3 plus more, but for the InReach capabilities the antennae set up cannot handle it so it’s GPS and GALILEO only. I think it also tracks some statistics different due to a barometric altimeter as I am finding elevation stats also way off. Some settings have gotten this better, but it is absolutely nowhere near as accurate as the 64 was. I might find myself 30 feet off on the maps, but now the distance and elevation stats are significantly wrong. The screen is far better and the battery life is outstanding, but I’m fairly upset at the lower accuracy compared to cost. ANYHOW, the point is that I am coming in angry to another Garmin device.

Samsung Fit2 and Garmin Venu Sq on my wrist
Samsung Fit2 and Garmin Venu Sq

Back to the watch part: Garmin makes “women” watches which basically just means they are smaller and, arguably, more cute. I found their color selection very boring: white with gold (ew), lilac (no to pastels), and grey (better than black, I guess). Zero fun colors. I did consider a “kids” one but those lacked features, I think.

The round faces were, just like the Samsung Watch4, 40mm, which I still find too wide. Good news, though, as the Venu comes in a square variant, also drastically on sale (ie. on the way out) and it’s a bit thinner. It’s good looking, IMO, but the touch screen wants my attention and I’d rather use buttons while running or hiking: my hands are sweaty and dirty so having to go without buttons is very annoying and works less often. There are buttons, but it seems to want other input for a lot of things – the physical buttons just don’t always do what I’d like them to so forced to touch the screen to change screens and make choices. I also thought being in the Garmin ecosphere might be good since I was already there for hiking, but… more on that later.

My Review: Garmin Venu Sq vs Polar M400

Size & Looks – GPS winner is Garmin.

For reference of what I like for all-day wear, the Samsung Fit2 is 46.6mm high x 18.6mm wide x 11.1mm tall, touch-only, an underneath band setup so no bits poke out, and it’s a fun, bright red color. The charger is like an inch long, lol, and is snap in (the first gen was is also a custom cradle, but is an un-fidgety magnetic grasp and the cord is long).

Polar M400 is 50mm high x 38mm wide x 12mm tall, the band is effectively as wide which is big for me, the band is long and really sticks out the other end which sometimes catches on things, it’s just solid black, I don’t like how big and black it is. To be fair, during activity I don’t really care, but no way I’d wear this thing all day. Very rugged: it can take a beating. Micro USB to charge, a cord I have for a lot of things like cameras and the Garmin handheld.

Garmin Venu Sq is 40.6mm high x 37mm wide x 11.5mm tall, it’s a generic grey that doesn’t offend or ask for attention, the band is thinner / standard at 20mm and is still long but not so much it catches on things, the screen is touch and wants to function that way for most things leaving the 2 buttons not doing much which is difficult during activity, it just *feels* smaller than the Polar M400, though almost seems too delicate for rough use, which is better for looks but unsure about what happens if branches hit it or I bump a rock. The cord connection is completely proprietary: I hate that!

In-Watch Functionality – Tie

Polar M400’s screen is simple in black and white with large letters that stay visible so very easy to read during a run. With no touch screen, the four physical buttons are so easy to start, manage, and end activity. I love how it works, I love being able to show four stats of my choosing that I can read easy without pausing my run to inspect and how easy it is to get to other screens with more stats. No heart rate integrated and it does kinda have a clunky old tech feel to it. I have never had a problem operating it, but there is only a small beep and sometimes I cannot hear it. Gets GPS real, real fast on clear days. The battery life on 9 mile was good, lots left.

Garmin Venu Sq doesn’t seem to offer the same screen settings (not all the stats I wanted on one view) and I often think the font is too light, but the screen is super bright so it’s still easy to see. Integrated heart rate, if you are into that, plus an oximeter and generally it feels modern. It is also basically a smart watch, so will get alerts to let you avoid picking up the phone, and it vibrates so I can feel each split and never miss passing a mile. Took a bit longer to lock onto GPS, but not enough longer to matter. Battery was similar to the Polar, I think it got a bit less once I was near my phone – the whole “smart watch” thing sucks juice. But does it have to? The Fit2 does the same thing: I get notices from every dang thing on my phone on that wee band, do workouts daily, and its battery lasts forever.

Accuracy – Polar wins and, to me, it isn’t even close

As I mentioned in my long, meandering intro, I did come in biased as the new handheld Garmin has accuracy problems during use, but I have brought all three watches on 3 trips: two 1 mile walks and one 9 mile hike/run and every single time the Garmin is over. And not just against the Polar, but also the non-GPS Fit2, which is only guessing based on steps (pedometer). First 1 mile walk: Garmin says 1.07, Fit2 guessed 1.02. Second 1 mile walk: Garmin says 1.04, Fit2 guessed 1.01. 9 mile hike/run: Garmin says 9.24, Fit2 guessed 8.88.

I know these paths, I can build them with Google Maps or add up known park trail lengths, the Polar is accurate, the Garmin is not. If we look at the two maps screens zoomed in to an area of the 9 miler from today (below), it’s easy to see the accuracy of Garmin isn’t at all the caliber of Polar. The lines vary, not tight like Polar. This will not matter if you are 10k or less – it’s close enough – but I am glad I was using Polar while training for that half-marathon! I continue not trust Garmin for long runs and hikes. Also, I wouldn’t want to pay *hundreds* of dollars for a high-end watch, like I did with the handheld 66i, and have it not be this accurate. I can’t say whether this is unique to the more lifestyle-y Venu or not, but since the handheld also has problems, I can say I’m getting fairly upset with new Garmin devices at this point.

The cadence on all three varied wildly so it’s impossible for me to say which is accurate unless I manually count, too, which I will never do. First 1 mile walk: Garmin says 99 avg/132 max, Polar 102/120, Fit2 95/109. Second 1 mile walk: Garmin says 96/133, Polar 102/112, Fit2 99/144. 9 mile hike/run: Garmin says 120/178, Polar 130/208, Fit2 118/161. This tells me these stats are generalized. The Garmin seemed more believable on the long one, and the averages on walks seem correct, but it’s max’s were too high on the walk. I don’t know what to think about the others – but I have used Polar cadence to try to move my legs faster vs just loping along and during a run it seems accurate – ie. looking down from time to time seems to work… EDITED to add link to comparison tool: even the elevation chart on Garmin is not smooth, which is wrong. )-:

Websites – Polar wins, easily, but could be preference

The dashboard for Garmin is far to messy for me, and even with the handheld I thought this. Polar’s calendar dashboard is a dream for me: easy to see all the recent activities, tiny summary, all space used. Garmin had left over white space, I could add a calendar widget but that doesn’t show activities at all! It just wants to hook into my personal calendar. LLLAAAAMMME

The activity page is much the same: Garmin has it all, but the right side space is wasted, it’s all spaced out so there is more scrolling. I far prefer the condensed view, with option to see more, on the Polar page.

Bottom line: I wish Polar was easier on the eye and much smaller, but I’m selling the Garmin because for GPS accuracy is king

I want to keep the Garmin Venu Sq because the form factor is superior for me. I can get used to website differences and using a touch screen on the watch face. I’m sure there are settings I just don’t know about to fix some watch style issues and screen data. But, man, I just can’t with that accuracy. It just falls farther and farther behind as the miles stack up. I have no idea what that is about, but I have to guess that software and methods of processing data are just way, way better on Polar. Honestly, a ton of people that use other GPS watches still buy the Polar chest straps for heart rate monitoring, which proves some of their gear is just way better for accuracy on key metrics.

I am about to resell the Garmin to make a few bucks back, but I do want to have one more outing after I spend time with some settings. I do NOT like that you have to dig in to get Garmin accuracy better: I don’t feel like Polar or Samsung are like that at all. Polar just works – the only settings I dug into was watch faces and that has a website interface that makes it sooooo easy. Never had to monkey with it to get GPS to work better. /-:

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