New gadgets typically arrive just in time for holiday season shoppers. This benefited me nicely during my recent purchase of the Fitbit Force, which came to market around the same time as the JAWBONE UP24. While those two companies have had wristband activity trackers for some time, there is a new guy in town who wants a piece of the action. Say hello to the Polar Loop Activity Tracker. Let’s put it into BATTLE with my Fitbit Force and see how it does!
You may recall in a PRIOR BLOG POST I discussed how I ended up with the the Fitbit Force as my wristband of choice. It really came down to the wire with that and the JAWBONE UP24, but the Fitbit won in the end. And I’m VERY pleased overall with the unit. My decision seems even better after yesterday hearing about my friend’s recent experience. A couple I know had each bought brand new UP24 devices, one for him and one for her. His unit started acting “wonky” after 5 days, and hers completely died after 7 days. They returned them both to the Apple store, and swapped to the Fitbit Flex device. They are MUCH happier, and she told me “oh it fits/feels so much nicer than the Jawbone too!” Another win for the Fitbit!
Still, I’m never satisfied with my gadgets. I’m always reading to see what is new and coming next, willing to trade up for the latest technology. When I found out that Polar Electro had released their new Polar Loop device to compete with the likes of Fitbit, Jawbone, Nike+ and others, it grabbed my attention. Polar is a household name in fitness, with over 30-years producing some of the highest quality heart rate monitors on the market to date. Had I purchased my Fitbit too soon? Was this unit going to be good enough to jump ship after just a few weeks with my Force?
As I’ve said before my site is NOT your typical review site, where I rush out to review every new product. Nope– my blog posts are ONLY going to be ones that benefit my life, available for your viewing pleasure. So if you want to read more about the POLAR Loop in a traditional review, please check out THIS ARTICLE which is a VERY NICE and in-depth review. Ray speaks highly of the device, and his review is what gave me the confidence to purchase the Loop for testing & comparison. After you read that, however, it may interest you to read THIS REVIEW which speaks less than stellar about the device. Even having read both of those, I’ve decided to give the Polar Loop a try– and set it toe-to-toe with my very satisfying Fitbit Force device. Here is how it has stacked up after one week of comparative use.
NOTE: For the rest of this article I will refer to the Fitbit Force as the Fitbit, and the Polar Loop as the Loop. Also, I will refer to the Polar H7 Bluetooth Smart Heart Rate Sensor as HRM (for heart rate monitor). Enjoy!
Purchase of the Fitbit was on a Friday, and it was fully charged before I began using it. From that date to the first low battery warning was one week (7-days) later. From then to the second low battery warning was over a full week (10-days!) later. That works out to thus far an average of 8.5 days between charging. Wow!
On the flip side, the first low battery warning for the Loop came less than 72-hours (3-days) after initial full charge. And the second need to charge came again around 72-hours (3-days) later. Based on this it will need charged 8 times per month compared to the Fitbit needing only 3 or 4 charges per month. This puts the Loop at a huge disadvantage.
When the battery is low on the Loop it will tell you on the wristband screen, but nowhere else. The Fitbit will let you know of a low battery via an email, and via an alert on your phone. In the case of the Fitbit, you can customize these notifications. With the Loop there exists no such customization.
Advantage: Fitbit (2x better)
HOW IT FITS YOUR WRIST
Before you purchase the Fitbit you consult their SIZING TOOL, to determine if you need a Large or Small unit. (In my case, small). Even once you choose a size, the band still offers 6 adjustable positions (8 adjustments for the Large bands) making it very easy to find the sweet spot you desire.
This contrasts to the Loop, which upon purchase requires cutting the rubber to achieve the final size for your specific wrist. It is nice to set-and-forget, but if ever you should need to resize it or want to sell it to someone with a different size wrist you cannot. This is a huge design flaw in my opinion. (Caution: measure twice, cut once! Or do what I did and cut three times, slowly progressing to the ideal size without ever over-cutting – If you do mess it up, read THIS)
Once on your wrist they both fit good and feel of very high quality. The Fitbit has a slight advantage thanks to the pleasing tactile soft touch rubber material. The Loop looks and feels similar to that of the Nike FuelBand, having a mostly plastic texture. Between these two, the Loop is more attractive. People who have noticed my two bands over the last week have routinely preferred the Loop’s stylish design, which is more of a bracelet or piece of jewelry when compared to the more utilitarian watch-style of the Fitbit.
As shown above, both devices are very light weight. The difference shown on the scales in not perceived on your wrist when wearing them, and they are almost identical in size when clasped.
Oh and one more thing- the clasps! People love to harp on the Fitbit for the “difficult to fasten” design, and you can add me to that list. While I finally know what to expect when I fasten it on after my shower, I’m still annoyed by the difficulty level. The Loop on the other hand goes on and off so easy! Not a deal breaker, but room for improvement on the Fitbit.
Advantage: Loop (easier to clasp, looks better)
Both wristbands have monochrome displays, with the Fitbit being an OLED design in a white color, and the Loop being an LED grid with red color. However the pixel density of the Fitbit makes it the clear winner here.
While both are easy to read in all environments, the Fitbit’s display can be a bit too bright when you are in extremely dark settings. Ergonomically speaking, the Fitbit’s display is more comfortable to read on your wrist as it faces you, where the Loop’s display runs perpendicular to your arm, which I found less natural feeling.
When you first start off learning your new device, the higher resolution screen of the Fitbit allows for icons that just make sense compared to the text on the Loop. It is easy to understand the icon of feet relates to steps, the flame is calories, and so forth. On the other hand reading the manual and then the FAQ for the Polar is almost a necessity to fully understand the display on the device. (Their FAQ can be found HERE)
For example, on the ACTV page of the display it talks about TO GO, WALK, and UP — features I think are somewhat pointless but I’ll come back to that in a later section.
Advantage: Fitbit (ergonomics, pixel density, etc)
BUTTON PRESSES & WRISTBAND MENUS
In a few reviews people complained about the button on the Loop. Indeed I found it to be unresponsive more times than not. Being a capacitive touch design means you won’t accidentally press it by bumping into things. This allowed Polar to place the button on the face of the wristband. However because the button is just barely denoted with a slight “texture” in the face of the band, finding it in the dark was almost impossible. Overall I give the Loop poor marks for interface. You cannot customize the menus on the wristband. For some people it may be nice that it remembers the last data item you looked at, but I prefer my clock to be the first thing I see whenever I tap the button.
For the Fitbit their button was perfectly responsive every time. And you can customize the menu on the Fitbit. So if you don’t want to see a certain item, such as stairs or distance, you can hide that from showing up. And even better, you can change the order it displays things on the wristband. Or even choose which of the measurements you want to use as your personal goal. One thing that I LOVED then about the Fitibt then was that every time I pressed the button the menu was always in the same order, starting at the same spot, which in my case was the time.
Both devices display the time, calories burned, steps taken, and their own version of activity (or active minutes). The Fitbit Force adds to it logging of distance and flights of stairs climbed.
Advantage: Fitbit (reliability, customization)
INITIAL DEVICE SETUP
Using my iPhone 5S, the setup of my Fitbit was extremely easy. It took just minutes and I was on my way, all done from just my phone. Their iOS App is free and allows you to make virtually all the changes you would want to make. I’d dare say that you could probably own a Fitbit and never use their Dashboard if you did not want to — their app is just THAT GOOD!
Setting up the Loop sadly requires a computer. I tried to use their free iOS App, but it still prompted me to hookup the band to the computer first before I could use the mobile app. Once you download and install Polar’s Loop software you simply plug in the device via USB. After you setup your account and perform your first sync on the computer you can rely solely on the phone and Bluetooth sync, but that first time requires the computer.
Although I never heard back from Polar, my suspicion is that future updates (Firmware) will require USB connections to the your laptop. This is not the case for the Fitbit, which needed a software update when I first got it yet was able to do these updates over the Bluetooth connection to the phone. In a wireless world the ability to do things without cables is a huge step in the right direction.
Advantage: Fitbit (no computer needed)
SYNCING YOUR DEVICE WITH YOUR PHONE
Note that my results are using my iPhone 5S. Your results may vary.
Anytime that I would unlock my phone the Bluetooth icon flashes and goes solid, and a background sync occurs with the Fitbit. This helps ensure the data in the Fitbit app (and on their cloud) is always up to date. Even with all this updating the battery life is amazing. When you do finally launch the Fitbit app it performs another sync, but it usually doesn’t even need it — it is typically already up to date.
Polar’s approach is not as reliable. Even when you unlock the phone there is no background sync. And when you open the Loop app, it STILL does not automatically sync with the device. The ONLY way to sync the device with the phone is when you “awaken” the wristband. Tapping the button to wake up the wristband causes it to search for your phone and perform a sync then. So don’t be surprised if you open the app and see this:
Here is the before-and-after of the sync with my device. When I first opened the app (left) there was data missing (as indicated with my text/yellow circle). Once I tapped my wristband’s button to wake it up it performed a sync, and then the data updated (right).
Just knowing that you have to manually wake up your wristband to sync is a real annoyance. I’ll go for hours sometimes not checking the wristband, and really isn’t the device supposed to be passive? Making the user need to perform the sync manually is a problem.
Oddly, though, there had been times where I would get inactivity notifications while sitting. This indicates that perhaps the Loop does some BT sync in the background, but it was flaky at best. One average I would find the data in the app at least 1-3 hours old on the Loop, versus the almost always up-to-date Fitbit data the moment you open the app.
Advantage: Fitbit (reliability, frequency)
SYNCING THE DATA TO THE CLOUD
Whenever the Fitbit performs a background sync it pushes the data to the cloud if possible. When you open the app, it will again automatically sync with the device, and the cloud. And what you see on the screen is simple and not at all intrusive. (See below)
Overall the Fitbit does a superb job doing a sync with the device & cloud and I’ve never had any errors that I’m aware of in the few weeks I’ve had the device. On the other hand, the Loop is not visually as nice, or as reliable. (See below)
When it does sync (left) there is this intrusive grey bar that comes down. They could have just as easily had the spinning fan show up on the white bar, but instead it moves the whole screen down which is annoying. I was afraid to tap the “X” since I was not clear if that would simply hide the sync or actually cancel it.
But the worst part of the cloud sync has been the failures. As shown above (right), the device had issues with cloud sync. The error you see here is just one screen capture of the at least half dozen times I had this error. This makes the web dashboard useless since the data it contains is not current. At one point I was only able to resolve the sync by deleting the app from my phone and re-installing it. But that hardly seems like a reasonable expectation.
(11-Dec-2014 – Update: It has come to my attention that yesterday was a server upgrade for Polar. I’ve tired this morning and still have the same cloud sync issues. I believe their servers are back up as it was only supposed to be down 8-hours yesterday per an email Polar had put out. And since the sync errors started over the weekend, I’m still fairly confident this will be an on-going issue for now)
Also note that the sync times (both device-to-phone and phone-to-cloud) are much slower for the Polar items than the Fitbit.
Advantage: Fitbit (reliability, speed)
COMPARING THE PHONE APPLICATIONS
Since all the data you can see on the phone apps are also available on the web dashboard, I’ll use this section to compare/contrast ONLY the differences or advantages, as it pertained to my use over the week I compared the two devices.
If you manually enter an activity you can later adjust it. However if you recorded an activity using the stop-watch feature of your wrist device, (used typically to record non-step-based events to later go in and adjust them properly for caloric burn), you can only adjust them online. The lack of the ability to see recorded events on the phone app is a bummer, since this forces me to use the web app to adjust for my stationary bike rides.
With the Fitbit app it will alert you when you’re near your goal (in my case usually within ~1500 steps), and it vibrates when you hit that goal. It even commends you when you exceed the goal. But it doesn’t remind you to move like the Loop.
The Loop does remind you to move if you sit for an hour (you can disable this feature), but since the device has no vibration function it sadly requires your phone to be in ear shot. This lack of a vibration feature means no silent alerts or alarms, either. But it does use the phone to let you know you’ve met your goal, and you can see your goal on the device, too.
Loop App (1 of 2)
Loop App (2 of 2)
Overall, the Fitbit app has been more reliable (no sync issues) and it is just cleaner and easier to follow. I’ll admit the HRM features (see next section) make the Polar app more complex but also more powerful. But for the average consumer I have to say I feel the Fitbit app remains the winner. It was my preference visually and functionally– and the ability for it to sync to MyFitnessPal and record food and other items makes it my favorite.
HEART RATE MONITOR CAPABILITIES
For those times when you are performing non-step based activities neither of these devices alone can provide the caloric burn data you may desire. In the case of the Fitbit they tell you to manually log the activity on the web dashboard. You can use the stop-watch feature of your device to log the time, but then you must use a computer/tablet to log in and record that activity. You CAN manually record an activity on the phone, you just cannot edit stop-watch-recorded logs from the phone only from the web (from what I could fine).
However, the Loop has an even better answer, and this was what drew me to their device in the first place.
When you sync their wristband to a HRM it starts a “session” which it then logs data into the wristband. Using your heart rate and the personal profile data you’ve supplied it can accurately calculate your caloric burn during that time. I’ve got a whole blog post comparing that data (CLICK HERE), so I’ll save the data analysis for that post.
But as it pertains to the comparison here, the fact that you can hook your HRM into the Loop so easily is a HUGE plus. My first time getting the HRM and Loop to find each other took a few minutes, and sometimes the H7 strap takes a moment to find my pulse and start working. But once it is going you can see your rate displayed on the wristband which is a very slick feature.
When working out using the HRM you can tap the button on the Loop to show your heart rate and either FAT or FIT, indicating your heart rate is in a FAT burning zone or a FITNESS zone. This isn’t quite as nice as the LCD bar that slides on the watch devices Polar sells, but it is better than nothing. It is also important to note that their LCD watches will display your rate constantly, where you must tap/awake the Loop to show the current rate. Given the bad battery life the device already has, I can understand why the display blanks out.
Although my other blog post goes to prove that, at least in my case, the Fitbit does a fine job estimating caloric burn for non-step cardio exercises .. there is no arguing that this is a selling point for some people and it may be the one that makes them look past some of the Loop’s obvious flaws. Kudos to Polar for making their HRM work with a step counting activity tracker!
Advantage: Loop (ability to track HRMs)
COMPARING THE BASIC WEB DASHBOARD
When my original shopping for the Fitbit had begun, one of the items that swayed me to their product was a great web dashboard. The interface is clean and simple, and moving around within the site is easy Things are colorful but not too overly cartoon-like. There was a small learning curve understanding the food plan and some calorie counting aspects, but overall I find that Fitbit’s cloud app (Dashboard) is still in my eyes the benchmark. There is just enough social interaction with friends to it to keep it interesting, while still helping you concentrate on what matters most, the data.
When it comes to the Polar Loop dashboard, they went a little bit off the deep-end with regards to the social side of things. I’ve got no interest in the Explore section (map) or the Feed section which mimics social media sites. And goodness, I don’t need street view maps to relive someone’s morning run. C’mon!
So when I use their site it really is only in the Diary and Progress sections. I’ve not gone deep into the Progress section as that would be more interesting over time, and I have no doubt that Polar’s multi-decade experience could make that a really nice piece of the puzzle for an athlete or fitness buff. For someone simple like me, however, their dashboard is overly complex beyond my actual needs or desires.
Instead of the steps and calories bar-graph that Fitbit gives you, the Loop’s dashboard shows you this really neat 24-hour clock they call the Activity Overview. This is quite useful, and I’ve found is cleaner and easier to see the data compared to the Fitbit. I was also really impressed with the ability of the Loop to break down your time standing, walking (slow) and walking (fast) into their Active Time data.
On the Fitbit’s site you get some data that I’ve thus far found to be neat, but relateively useless. For example, they provide you “very active minutes” but in comparison I’d rather have the three-tier breakdown that the Loop gave me. Their “very active minutes” per day was just less interesting, especially for future comparison and analysis. Plus, my wife/I have discussed how achieving very active minutes seems sometimes hit-or-miss.
Additionally, the Fitbit has the ability to show distance traveled and floors climbed. While it might help encourage you to climb more floors (if you haven’t met your goal), many days I just don’t have any reason to climb floors. My work office is on a single floor (ground level) so unless I’m going to “run the stairs” at my house, I am not often confronted with stairs as an option.
Curious question here- since the Fitbit can record stairs, does it add calories due to the increased intensity? I thought I had read somewhere that it could adjust for altitude. Does that mean a hike up/down a hill would be more accurate when recorded with the Fitbit versus Loop? Interesting question.
Sleep data is recorded by both devices and shown on both sites. Although the data seems rather useless, you do get an advantage on the Fitbit of seeing restlessness logged. But what am I really going to do with that data? In that regard just knowing how long I was motionless (which is how the the Loop determines sleep time) is more than enough for me. If my sleep was that bad, I’d go seek a medical professional.
Each of the two sites have an advantage that the other one does not. In the case of the Fitbit, it can record food intake. In the case of the Loop, it can record heart rate sessions.
Example of a heart rate monitor session as logged on Loop and seen on web dashboard:
For the Fitbit, syncing with MyFitnessPal was a huge thing for me, since I’ve been using MFP for over a year. That means I don’t have to go into two sites/apps to see how many calories are in vs out., making their dashboard a one-stop-shop for me.
Example of zooming in on calories in vs out on the Fitbit dashboard:
On the other hand, the Sessions feature of the Loop means if you decide to use an HRM to record workouts, those integrate directly into the Polar site. No having to record manually the caloric burn your HRM says you achived. However, if you’re dead-set on using an HRM and want it to sync with your Fitbit, I’ve heard really good things about DigiFit. Their app is not free but the cost is relatively low ($2.99 for the basic in-app purchase of sensors ability).
UPDATE 12/20/2013 – I’ve written a blog post (CLICK HERE) that talks more about Digifit, and using a heart rate monitor to log sessions. Check it out!
One advantage to the Fitbit site is the ability to log/record “activities” that are non-step based. I’ve been unable to figure out how/where you can log such data in the Loop, so if you decided to use the Loop device but opted to NOT purchase an HRM (or the HRM battery was dead, the device was lost, etc), you’re stuck with inaccurate caloric data for that time period. Versus the Fitbit where you can enter just about any activity you can think of on their site, and it replaces the step-data for that time with your manual entry. Nice!
In conclusion of the dashboards then, the Fitbit is better for the average consumer, providing the basic data you want in a fashion that even my retired parents could handle. The Loop is for a more advanced user, giving you access to things only an athlete would typically desire. Add in the lack of manual logging and food integration with the Loop and the Fitbit edges past just enough to win this section.
Advantage: Fitbit (caloric intake features, simplicity, MFP integration)
KEEPING YOU ACTIVE & LOGGING YOUR WORKOUTS
As mentioned above, you can record a manual activity on the Fitbit. Let’s say your device needed charged but you still wanted to go for a walk — just manually enter it when you get back. This also works for things like a bike ride, a swim, or other situations where your Fitbit won’t be accurate or won’t be worn. This ability to record activities manually is great! Plus, if you are wearing your Fitbit during those activities you can use the built-in stop watch to record the time, so that later on you know just how long you spent doing that cardio workout. I’ve found this useful for keeping tabs on how long I spent on the home gym doing strength training.
On the Loop you cannot manual enter anything. If you want to over-ride the caloric burn data (step-based) you have to use a heart rate monitor. Without a doubt one of the best on the market is their Polar H7 Bluetooth Smart Heart Rate Sensor and I found it both comfortable and accurate. But as there are times that wearing the HRM won’t make sense, the inability to record manual entries into the Loop is a big negative.
Both devices aim to keep you active, yet both provide alerts for slightly different things. With the Loop the alerts I saw were with regards to once I had achieved my goal, or if I had been sitting for more than an hour (provided the sync actually took place). This was good to keep me active, and healthy.
The Fitbit approach is a more passive one, letting me know when I’m 75% of the way to my primary goal but not reminding me to move during the work day when I’m otherwise typically sedentary. There are a lot of other notifications you can configure for the Fitbit system, from friend requests to low battery warnings and so forth.
ISSUE: For some reason NEITHER of the two HRM sessions recorded on 12/7 with my Loop will open on the web dashboard. I can view them on my phone perfectly fine in the app, but when I try to click on them in my diary on the Polar site it gives me this error: I’ve reached out to Polar about this, as well as other questions but have heard nothing back yet. Their auto reply said they would reply in 2 days or less, and it is now that point. If/when they do reply I’ll update this blog post– but for whatever reason 2 of the 5 recorded sessions thus far won’t view/open on the web.
(11-Dec-2014 – Update: I’m able to now view/edit/etc the two Saturday sessions. This may be due to the upgrade performed by Polar early this week. However I’m still having cloud sync issues most of the times — But as far as the web app goes, it is working as expected now)
To keep you going there is the ACTV menu on the Loop, and displays of similar data on the web site. But their suggestions are more funny than anything. Example:
While I’ve said already I prefer the 3-levels of activity displayed by the Loop, the approach to keep you going is odd. I’m not planning to do any “gentle dancing” anytime soon, but, umm, thanks?!
Just having the wristband on is enough reminder to get me off my arse — and then the big issue here is that I can log activities after the fact. makes the Fitbit a winner here. HRM features are nice, but not enough to win this section.
Advantage: Fitbit (ability to log manual events, reliability, usefulness of features)
FINAL DATA COMPARISON
When you look at these two devices they are both monitoring the same basic data during the day. But how they convert those steps recorded into calories may differ. And for the case of the Fitbit, it doesn’t have the benefit of the HRM so any exercise you do that isn’t step based needs to be manually recorded.
NOTE: When I would exercise on my stationary bike during the past week, I would use my H7 HRM on the Polar Loop. I would then log those into MFP using their calculator, which pushes the exercise into the Fitbit Force. If you want to see how that data compared, look at my other blog post comparing HRMs to Activity Trackers. (For what it is worth, the Fitbit estimated data that, during my testing, was almost identical to the Loop HRM data!)
As you can see in the chart above (click to see larger), the data is amazingly similar. Calories even matched for my final day of testing! At most they varied in caloric burn by 5% on any given day, but typically far less. Steps would vary more, but never enough to cause issue with caloric burn. Sleep data was off, especially on 12/8 where I took the band off at 3am because it was bothering me to wear them both. But again, the sleep logs are manual in the Fitbit and auto/estimated in the Loop.
After reviewing this data you might think the Fitbit gets my instant approval simply because it won 4-times as many categories as the Loop. And while that is true, in reality it just isn’t that simple. Here is why…
For me the only two cardiovascular activities that I normally participate in are stationary (in my basement) using a treadmill and a bike. If you were to use the GPS features in your phone linked with your sessions on the Loop you can get distance data and other goodies. So if you’re an avid biker or runner/jogger, you’ll potentially find added benefit with features of the Loop I did not test here.
Also I’ll admit my two cardio workout routines are VERY limited. For someone more active with more cardio routines in their arsenal, having the ability to track even more heart rate data with the Loop has great possibilities. But as I said, for me (your “average” consumer with a desire for fitness but not a lifestyle), the use of a HRM becomes more a novelty as shown here when the data doesn’t change and the Fitbit estimates pretty darn closely!
For me, and the Polar Loop, I just can’t get past the horrible battery life, the sync issues with the cloud, and the fact that I don’t really need the heart rate monitor. As you’ll see in the blog post I have coming in a few days, the non-step based activities recorded with the Loop/HRM end up being extremely accurate when compared to the estimates that the Fitbit gives. In which case, for me, having a wristband that syncs to an HRM is not necessary. Why wear a HRM if I don’t need to?
For the AVERAGE CONSUMER who wants to increase their activity awareness and keeps tabs on their caloric burn, I recommend the Fitbit devices. The interface is great, the software is super reliable, and the data is adequate for someone who maybe just wants to do an occasional fitness workout.
For the MORE ATHLETIC CONSUMER who wants to be able to record heart rate data during a cardio workout then yes, I do like the Polar Loop. If you don’t already have a Polar exercise/HRM watch, the Loop provides all-day activity tracking with other great features. Just be prepared for software that isn’t yet the polished Fitbit quality, and battery life that is a real let-down.
For MY PLANS …. I’m going to keep rocking the Fitbit Force, and see where that takes me. I’m not a hyper-fitness-geek, but I’m considering keeping the Polar H7 Bluetooth HRM just for fun. I’m also curions about the DigiFit iCardio app for those occasions where I want an HRM experience. But from what I’ve seen, HRM recording it isn’t really necessary, because the Fitbit is REALLY accurate both in estimates (non-step) and calcuations (step-based) for activities. And the Fitbit keeps things nice and simple– just the way I like it.
Stay healthy… and Happy Holidays! ~ Ari