BATTLE! – Fitbit Surge vs Garmin Vívoactive vs Polar M400

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.

Gallery for Polar M400 – click to view full size:
polar-m400-1 polar-m400-2 polar-m400-3 polar-m400-4

POLAR M400

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.

Gallery for Fitbit Surge – click to view full size:
fitbit-purepulse-dec2014-app-01 fitbit-purepulse-dec2014-app-02 fitbit-purepulse-dec2014-app-03 fitbit-purepulse-dec2014-app-04 fitbit-purepulse-dec2014-app-05 fitbit-purepulse-dec2014-app-06 fitbit-purepulse-dec2014-app-07 fitbit-purepulse-dec2014-unboxing-2 fitbit-purepulse-dec2014-unboxing-3 fitbit-purepulse-dec2014-unboxing-4 fitbit-purepulse-dec2014-unboxing-5 fitbit-purepulse-workout1 fitbit-purepulse-workout2 fitbit-purepulse-workout3

FITBIT SURGE

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.

Gallery for Garmin Vivoactive – click to view full size:
battle-surge_vs_vivoactive_vs_polarm400-1 battle-surge_vs_vivoactive_vs_polarm400-2 battle-surge_vs_vivoactive_vs_polarm400-3 battle-surge_vs_vivoactive_vs_polarm400-4 battle-surge_vs_vivoactive_vs_polarm400-5 battle-surge_vs_vivoactive_vs_polarm400-6 battle-surge_vs_vivoactive_vs_polarm400-7 battle-surge_vs_vivoactive_vs_polarm400-8 battle-surge_vs_vivoactive_vs_polarm400-9 battle-surge_vs_vivoactive_vs_polarm400-10 battle-surge_vs_vivoactive_vs_polarm400-11 battle-surge_vs_vivoactive_vs_polarm400-12

GARMIN VÌVOACTIVE

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!

CONCLUSION

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!

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Published by

Ari Jay Comet

Sharing my life experiences. Interacting with technology. Digital self-expression. Binary is black, white, and many shades of grey.

11 thoughts on “BATTLE! – Fitbit Surge vs Garmin Vívoactive vs Polar M400”

  1. Hello!

    Thanks for your review.

    Just some remarks:

    – Please embroid what you mean by ‘Polar both have very basic user interfaces’? (The Polar is extensively customisable, to also (quote from your Garmin sentence) ‘…so you can tailor the watch to your specific training needs, viewing only the information that matters most.’);

    – Battery life (Polar vs Garmin); In the end which one had the best endurance with occasional / none GPS use. (Some reviews report not even a week of battery life on the Garmin?). Also – which hardware will give you the longest endurance when used full on with GPS 100% active, + HRM, e.g. running an Ultra marathon?;

    – Better Smart notifications are coming to the M400 in due course;

    – Additional sensors can be linked to the M400;

    – The Garmin GPS records on a variable scale (Smart GPS logging 4-7 secs) , so you might not see a 100% accurate reflection of your track when mapped (e.g. around corners etc). I believe the M400’s update interval is one second if I look at my TCX or GPX export files.

    – No much mention about the various Platforms : the Connect.garmin.com is a VERY unstable platform, e.g. I couldn’t upload my Garmin files for approx 2 months at the beginning of the year. Just browse the Garmin support forum to see all the issues continually being experienced;

    – Lastly – what is the essence of an activity watch? Should its core functionality be supporting training & fitness, or (‘gimmick’) apps primarily, e.g. to see who is phoning you while you are training 😉 By all means a smart watch will always have the better ‘app’ capability.

    If you want ‘kind off’ GPS / HRM accuracy for general fitness purposes I think the Vivoactive and Garmin is 100%. If you require a focused serious training device with EGC quality HRM & GPS accuracy the Polar fits the bill. Horses for courses.

    Kind regards

    Pieter O.

    1. Pieter, wow that is a lot to chew on. Thank you for the reply and interesting questions.

      My interface questions point to the fact that the Garmin had the most colorful interface, with the most information and interest. I did not spend much time customizing any of these units as that did not meet my needs, so I do not disagree with your comments one bit.

      Battery life of the Polar would probably best the Garmin, without GPS on. I did not perform a battery test with GPS turned on, only during regular day-to-day usage, sorry. But given the simpler display of the Polar, it should last longer on that alone.

      If you research other blogs such as DCR and similar, you’ll find that serious athletes often fall into two distinct camps- Polar vs Garmin. This is like Apple vs Google, and so many other timeless classic arguments. I don’t take sides, feel both have their strong/weak points, and suggest people research and pick what fits their needs.

      For me, I’m going with neither Polar nor Garmin, because I’m just not that serious about my cardio workouts. Instead, I’ll be using my Apple Watch when it arrives in a few weeks. 🙂

  2. Just switched from a Garmin to the Polar M400 and agree 100% with Pieter Oosthuizen. The Polar platform is reliable and intuitive and ridiculously customizable. I don’t care about the smart watch features as I want a pure running watch, but the M400 has it anyway. I do like the fitness tracking and step counter, and it uses Bluetooth (BLE) vs the outdated ANT+.
    I would place the M400 at the top of these 3 watches.

    1. Great feedback, thanks for sharing. Garmin and Polar have been long-time competitors, so it is always interesting to see people flip sides and for various reasons. Glad to hear you’re enjoying the M400, it remains a great unit and is light weight and versatile. Enjoy it in good health!

  3. Hello

    Thanks for the reviews.

    I am hoping you could help me.

    I am looking at buying a fitness watch with GPS but not sure which one would be best for me. I would like a watch that I could wear everyday. The training I will be doing is outdoor running and gyming with a personal trainer. Which watch do you recommend for this and for everyday wear? I really love the look of the Garmin Vivoactive but is it the right one for me?

    1. Alicia it sounds like you want the GPS for the outdoor running only. When you go perform this task, will you be taking your phone with you? Many people use their phone to play music or simply desire to stay connected, even when out for a run. If that is the case, be aware that your phone has GPS that can work in conjunction with Fitbit devices. Meaning, if you were to buy a Fitbit device that lacks built-in GPS, but you keep your phone on you when you do outdoor runs, you can still gain the benefits of GPS by using the phone in those instances. This actually also works out nicely since the battery in your phone is much bigger, so it helps keep the device on your wrist running longer.

      My TOP pick for a watch with built in GPS right now is the Fitbit Blaze:
      http://amzn.to/1WHSsgZ
      This device includes HR recording, which will give you the best data for how intense your workout is, while combining the best ecosystem out there. You probably have more friends using Fitbit than any other brand, and this social aspect is awesome. I also just personally tend to love the hardware quality you get from Fitbit above most others.

      My SECOND pick would no longer be the Vivoactive, but actually the newer Garmin Vivoactive HR:
      http://amzn.to/1ZrVLe6
      This is a step up from the older Vivo devices, adding HR capabilities as well, has the GPS you asked about, and is quite similar to the Fitbit. Deciding between the two might come down to your feelings on price, or the cosmetics of the two.

      At this point I’ve personally gone over to the Apple Watch device, and have stopped reviewing the new wearables in the Fitness segment. I don’t have any immediate plans to test the two devices above, head-to-head… but i’ve played around with both, and would expect the Garmin to win based on price, but the Fitbit overall based on the app quality, and the larger support/ecosystem. Hope this helps! 🙂

      1. Thank you for your reply. You have helped. One last question between the Fitbit blaze or surge and the Vivoactive (not the HR as we don’t seem to have it here in South Africa), which is the best for the gym or do they work the same? All the people I know that have these devices don’t train in the gym, only outdoors as they are training for Ironman. So they can’t give their opinions.

      2. Most of these devices will have the ability to tell them you are doing indoor activities. This allows you to perform with the GPS turned off, saving battery life. If the indoor activity is step based (treadmill for example) it will count steps. But usually all you are recording at that point is heart rate for intensity and caloric burn. As I recall the Garmin offers indoor running or cycling, and the Fitbit the same plus a few other non-GPS options. Cheers!

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