Have you decided to make 2015 the year that you train for that 5K? Are you an avid cyclist and finally want to add an Activity Tracker to your arsenal of cycle computers and pedal sensors? Or are you just an average person who wants to get a bit more serious about your fitness program? In this comparative review I’ll look deeper into the pros/cons of three different devices for a wide spectrum of potential users. Time for another epic BATTLE, and in this go-round we’re testing the Fitbit Surge versus Garmin Vìvoactive versus Polar M400.
FORWARD: Plenty of other sites offer reviews & testing, showing off each and every capability of the devices they test. Since I’m not a marathon participant, nor do I possess the full spectrum of accouterments needed to test all of these devices to their maximum potential, my reviews are more comparisons from my hands-on testing as well as hours of web-based research. What you see here is the cumulative data, laid out in an easy to read format. My omissions of certain photos or aspects of the device are intentional, to help streamline the data into a concise piece of work. Enjoy!
Before we chomp down onto these three devices individually, let’s look at what they offer by first taking a step back. In the case of the Polar M400 you have a unit that starts at a mere $199, making it the lowest cost of the bunch. I’ve already put that unit head-to-head with the Fitbit Surge in my prior review RIGHT HERE. Since then there have been some updates (firmware) that have improved the Polar device, as well as the Fitbit. Price wise the Surge comes in at $249, same as the newly released Garmin Vivoactive. And really, it is the release of this new Garmin that warrants another look at this three-way battle.
Originally, I had planned to write a review broken down by category. But there are just too many unique features for each of these devices, and doing so would seemingly make it harder to point out the strengths and weaknesses of each piece of hardware. So instead, in no particular order, here is a quick excerpt on each device. I’ll finish with a conclusion that offers, to the best of my ability, a suggestion of which device may be right for you.
For many athletes the Polar brand is well known, as they’ve been making running watches for years. They continue to push out great products, thought they only just recently opened up their cloud to third party integration. The Polar M400 is a powerful device, with the best battery life of the group here. It is also the largest of the bunch, with the most traditional look. It was comfortable to wear, and easy to read in all conditions. It also comes in at the lowest cost here, though if you bundle it with a heart rate monitor for $249 you’re basically apples-to-apples with the Fitbit Surge.
Polar makes a strong companion app, which I’d place as being slightly more reliable than Garmin but not quite as pretty as the Fitbit. Like Garmin, if you own other Polar devices you can aggregate your data in their cloud. That is to say if you perform a workout using a different Polar device (other than the M400) it should upload to their cloud, adding to your overall caloric burn. All three of these devices here work with MyFitnessPal, if that is important to you.
There are three categories that cause the M400 to fall sightly below the other two competitors here, and that would be with regards to cycling, swimming, and smart-watch features. First, there is no support on the M400 for cycle sensors (cadence, etc). This omissions is a big one I feel, as the cost for a Polar device that does all-day activity plus cycling ends up costing you more than 2x the cost of the M400 (See Polar V800). Swimming has a mode, but no lap features, etc.
But for many it will be the smart watch features that matter. If you’re a Polar fan and don’t need SMS notifications on your wrist, the Polar M400 may be ideal. But if you want something that has a smart-watch type feel, plus supports cycling or swimming, I’d keep looking. Although the M400’s solid build quality, nice user interface, long battery life, and great companion app make it a solid device, it isn’t my top pick for this battle.
When I first acquired the Fitbit Surge it was going to be for me, but The Wife ended up snagging it and for a good couple of months it was her device of choice. Based on her feedback it seems Fitbit has really done a nice job of giving folks the right level of fitness accessory, smart-watch, and simplicity that I think will win the hearts of many users. Let’s remember that Fitbit still makes the best companion app around, which helps the overall user experience quite a bit.
Let’s get this out of the way first– the Surge is the ONLY device in this group that has a built-in on-board heart rate sensor right on your wrist. This means that, unlike the Garmin or Polar, there is no need for a chest strap or similar to record your workout. There have been plenty of reviews (my own included) that speak to the faults of the sensor, but overall it provides a feature that the others lack. It works well enough to be worthwhile, especially for those who crave simplicity.
Where the Fitbit really shines is that the experience is streamlined. There aren’t a lot of bells or whistles, the interface on both the device and the app are simple and straightforward, and you don’t need any additional hardware to make this all work. While this means that, like the Polar, there is no ability to use a cycle sensor with the Surge, you do get the benefit of a resting heart rate or more accurate caloric burn during all of your workouts. Yes, even a sweaty yoga workout can be recorded with some additional information.
Adding this HRM data comes at the sacrifice of battery life, where The Wife complained about having to charge the Surge every 4-5 days. Additionally, the Surge interface was a bit clunky to navigate at first, and the screen/display rather small. It was easier to read the Fitbit’s display over the Garmin, though the Polar was the nicest in all lighting conditions. Comfort wise she complained that it was clunky, caught on the sleeve of her jacket/shirts often, and the wide band made it generally speaking less enjoyable to wear over the other devices in this review.
For those of you who may already be coming from the Fitbit family, the Fitbit Surge is a very logical step up. Serious athletes will probably find the Surge lacks a bit of punch, especially when you look at what Garmin/Polar offer not just in these three devices, but also in the rest of their product offering. I’m surprised Fitbit has not yet taken more of a stab in that arena, with items like a bike computer, or even allowing the Surge to link up to a speed/cadence sensor, or similar hardware. Perhaps they will down the road, to capture a broader spectrum of users.
As you’ve probably come to realize by now, this is going to be my favorite of the bunch. But that isn’t to say it is the right option for everyone, so be sure to read the conclusion section at the bottom. Still, for the money, the Garmin Vivoactive brings the widest range of features and functionality, and a good blend of battery life and interface.
First off let’s talk on-wrist comfort. Where the Surge felt bulky, the Polar felt kind of big/tall (the face was thick), the Vivoactive is neither. It is slim, thin, and the narrow band makes it feel quite enjoyable to wear. Like the Polar, the white band is a mistake if you have pets or lots of household dust/lint to deal with. One thing to consider, the Fitbit needed to be worn tightly enough for the heart tracking, which this device and the Polar did not, so that hurts the overall on-wrist feel of the Fitbit comparatively.
Battery life on the Vivoactive was superb, with users being able to get two to three weeks if you don’t perform any GPS-based activities. So in the winter when you might be primarily training indoors, you’ll get a lot more days between charging. Even during the nicer weather months when you are outdoors this device should see 7-10 days, which is plenty more than the Surge. Charging it also is easier, as the attachment base (clip/magnet) is far more enjoyable to attach versus the other two.
Where the Fitbit/Polar both have very basic user interfaces, Garmin decided to make the Vivoactive more of a smart watch. It has customizable watch faces, as well as custom apps you can load onto the device. It also does smart notifications better than the others, offering a nice multi color display and larger screen for reading. And where both others have fixed bands that are not able to be changed, you can swap out the Vivoactive for nicer, leather bands or other rubber units offered in a wide range of colors.
When it comes to cycling, this unit will link up to various sensors using ANT+ frequencies. And for swimming the Vivoactive will do lap recording and other features. Another benefit is the customizable screens that the Garmin provides, so you can tailor the watch to your specific training needs, viewing only the information that matters most. Again the granular level of customization that the Vivoactive offers blows the Fitbit and Polar out of the water. Polar does have some nice training feedback (for runners) that the Garmin lacks, but that seems less important when you really get into the tweaks you can do with the Vivoactive.
My only real complaint about the Garmin was the display’s brightness, which I presume has more to do with battery life than anything else. It was the hardest to read in most lighting conditions of the three, but when you could read it, did boast the largest size display and the only one with multiple colors. I loved the ability to see things like weather and my calendar right on the display, easily swiping left/right to view these functions. It made me realize that the 2-way communication coming soon (Apple Watch) will be great!
So which device is right for you? If you’re serious about training, need to capture a broad spectrum of sports, and want the best device you can get for this price-point, the Garmin Vivoactive is a clear winner in my book. However, many folks don’t need such a “serious” device, and in those cases if you want a more streamlined user experience, with the strongest companion app, and a huge user base, the Fitbit Surge is a very close second (and I’d argue that for MOST of the general public, is actually the better purchase for its simplicity).
In the case of the Polar M400, I’d rank this high for runners, and especially for those with a history of enjoying the Polar interface. My wife used the Polar iOS app for many months a year or so ago, and really enjoyed the feedback they provide after each workout session. Their indexing of your performance over time is one of the best, and should not be overlooked. Still, it doesn’t blend the smart-watch features many people want, and it doesn’t look quite as modern as its competitors.
Price-wise the Fitbit Surge offers the best bang for the buck, since it has a built-in heart rate monitor, where the Garmin Vivoactive will require one be added for an extra $30-50. But scalability is best on the Garmin, since it offers better multi-sport functionality. Look at your current and future needs when you’re shopping, and pick the one that best suits your needs. And remember, the Apple Watch Sport will start at $349 later this month, and includes on-board heart rate monitoring just like the Fitbit. That device may very well become the better option of this bunch, so stay tuned for that review soon!