Having gone through at least seven of my own over the course of my running career, and tested another five on behalf of Mashable, it takes a lot for a smartwatch to wow me these days.
The Polar Pacer Pro, recently launched alongside the slightly pared-down Pacer, has managed to pull it off. A new-generation GPS watch with an integrated barometer, a high-performance core processor, and a brilliant display, it’s surprisingly lightweight and compact. Priced at $299.95, it’s also more affordable than many of its less impressive competitors. And just two weeks into wearing it, the Pacer Pro is officially in the running for my all-time favorite watch. Here’s why.
It’s a beautiful watch
Let’s start with the superficial: The Pacer Pro is an attractive watch. Neither discreet nor flashy, it’s light (41 grams) and thin (11.5 millimeters) and has a screen that absolutely pops (more on that soon). It goes as well with jeans and a tee as it does with spandex shorts and a crop top — and is one of the only GPS watches I’ve wanted to wear all day long, rather than take it on and off for runs. The Pacer Pro is available in black, navy, maroon, and white, and the band can easily be swapped out for any of Polar’s other 20-millimeter bands.
It accommodates a wide range of wrist sizes
One of my biggest complaints about smartwatches is how beefy so many of them are. Clearly designed with the male population in mind, they slide around as I run and look way out of place on my narrow wrists. The Pacer Pro, I’m happy to report, is a great fit for both myself and my foot-taller husband. The strap is comfortable, too, wrapping snuggly around my wrist without constricting, itching, or otherwise distracting from my run.
The display is incredibly bright and clear
The nicest feature of the Pacer Pro, in my opinion, is its display. It’s a noticeable step up from older Polar watches — which were not at all shabby — due to a number of improvements, including: a thinner (1.1 millimeters) glass screen that’s as durable as before; a memory-in-pixel reflective color display that makes it extremely readable in all conditions, even bright ones; and enhanced backlight management, which allows you to adjust the screen brightness to high, medium, low, or only with light button. That description won’t mean much until you get your hands on a watch and see just how vibrant and crisp it is.
The CPU got a big upgrade
I never would have considered the Vantage M2, my go-to training watch prior to receiving the Pacer Pro, slow. Now, it would be hard not to. The Pacer Pro has a new CPU (central processing unit) that makes it twice as fast and increases its internal RAM (random-access memory) by a factor of seven. Basically, that means the watch “thinks” quicker and stores more information, reducing your overall wait time and making the whole experience feel smoother.
The integrated barometer is an exciting addition
While wattage has long been a key metric for cyclists, runners have been slower to see the value in measuring their power output. (Polar has a definition for running power that includes lots of technical-sounding words, but basically in simple terms, if heart rate measures your internal effort, power measures your external effort.)
For the first time in a Polar running watch, the Pacer Pro includes an integrated barometer that shows your real-time mechanical energy output in watts. I’m still learning how to interpret my running power, but am enjoying watching it fluctuate alongside changes in intensity, whether caused by an incline or an increase in pace.
The GPS is more accurate
The Pacer Pro got a bump in GPS accuracy compared to older Polar watches, which is music to any runner’s ear. In addition to a new antenna design that boosts the accuracy of the internal GPS, the watch supports GLONASS and Galileo global navigation satellite systems, plus QZSS regional navigation satellite systems for East Asia and Oceania. Essentially, you can be just about anywhere in the world and trust that your watch not only knows where you are, but can also track your speed, distance, and route with a high degree of accuracy.
The heart rate tracking is better than before
Although wrist-based heart rate trackers are inherently less accurate than chest- or finger-based trackers, Polar is constantly improving the way it measures heart rate (and offers much-appreciated transparency about its methods). The optimized heart rate tracking of the Pacer Pro can be attributed to an improved algorithm, a smaller sensor, and the inclusion of 10 LED lights that span a range of wavelengths, as well as four light detectors. The result is a better (though still not perfect) reading of what your heart’s up to while you’re pounding the pavement.
If you really care about accuracy, you can always purchase the H10 heart rate sensor, Polar’s chest strap that costs $89.95 and comes in two sizes and four colors.
The navigation features encourage exploration
The Pacer Pro is a great watch for a road runner and marathoner like myself, but it works well for more off-road and adventurous types, too. It has a handful of features that encourage you to get out there and explore, including:
Route and elevation profiles, which you can find after each run in the Polar Flow app
Turn-by-turn guidance, accessible when you map out routes in advance and sync them to your watch
A back-to-start function, so you can return to your starting point as quickly as possible
Automatic hill detection, which knows when you’re going up- or downhill and factors those elevation changes into your performance insights
It helps you stay on top of your recovery
As any athlete knows, recovery is an integral piece of the performance puzzle. When you keep your watch on at night, you unlock two of the Pacer Pro’s rest-related features: Sleep Plus Stages automatically tracks the quantity and quality of your sleep; reports how long you spent in light, dark, and REM sleep; and scores your night as a whole. And Nightly Recharge considers your overall sleep as well as the behavior of your autonomic nervous system to determine how recovered you are from the previous day.
In my opinion, the sleep insights are way more valuable than the recovery ones. That’s because the science of sleep is relatively advanced, while recovery, at this point, is more of an arbitrary metric that can look quite different from person to person. For that reason, I’m inclined to keep an eye on my sleep score but take the recovery bit with a grain of salt.
Lastly in the recharge department is Serene, a guided breathing exercise intended to relieve stress. Based on the duration and inhale/exhale rate you choose, your watch times the session and guides your breathing with subtle vibration and imagery on the screen. Although it’s a nice-to-have feature, I don’t anticipate Serene replacing my meditation apps anytime soon.
It features a whole suite of training tools
Data lovers and self-coached runners will appreciate all of the training tools their Pacer Pro puts at their disposal. Admittedly, I don’t often take advantage of such features since I’m pretty dialed into my training program with my long-time coach, and also highly skeptical of any device that assigns a number to my fitness. But that’s not to say that plenty of other runners don’t love them. In the Pacer Pro’s training toolbox, you’ll find:
Running performance test, which allows you to identify your personal training zones and compare fitness at different times
Running programs, tailored to 5K, 10K, half marathon, and marathon training, and lasting between nine weeks to 20 months
Season planner, where you can plan and customize seasons (such as base training or a specific race buildup)
Training Load Pro, which assesses how much you’re straining your cardiovascular and muscular systems
VO2max, a rough gauge of your fitness and even rougher estimate of your aerobic endurance potential
Running index, a calculation made after every run that attempts to approximate your maximal aerobic performance (in other words, how in shape you are and how fast you are able to race a variety of distances)
The battery life is great
The battery situation is another highlight of the Pacer Pro. In addition to coming with a small and well-designed magnetic charger (that’s much easier to attach to the watch than the older charger), the watch boasts an impressive battery life. Used just as a watch, it lasts up to 1,032 hours (43 days!), and when used while training, will give you up to 100 hours in power-save mode and up to 35 hours in training mode (with GPS and heart rate tracking on). However you use it, a single charge is meant to last you roughly one full week. For me, who typically trains twice a day, it’s more like five or six days.
A few final features worth mentioning
On top of everything mentioned above, the Pacer Pro does everything you’d expect from a running smartwatch, and then some:
Basic running functions of pace, time, distance, stopwatch, lap timer, and interval timer
Activity tracking for more than 130 different sports and workouts
Push notifications for incoming calls and messages (if you want them)
Music control when connected to apps on your phone
Compatibility with a host of running apps
Pass or pull the trigger?
The only reason I’m not calling the Polar Pacer Pro my favorite watch ever is that the couple of weeks I’ve been wearing it feels too short for such a bold statement. It’s everything I want in a running smartwatch: lightweight, comfortable, attractive, and, most importantly, high-performing. Compared to earlier Polar models, it has a faster CPU, more accurate GPS and heart rate tracking, and an exceptionally readable display. It also features an integrated barometer and offers a host of training tools and recovery insights. Wherever you are in your running journey, the Polar Pacer Pro is every bit worth its $299.95 price tag.