We Review the Polar Pacer, A Budget Smartwatch for the Multisport Masses
Building off the tech and lessons learned from Polar’s $300+ smartwatches, the Pacer is aimed at entry-level runners and triathletes. But is it missing too much for the price?
For just over $200, the Polar Pacer has precisely the basics that a multisport athlete would need: six-day smartwatch battery life (35 hours of GPS), open-water swim, cycling, run, triathlon, and multisport modes—along with enough smartphone “lifestyle” functions that make it OK for everyday wear.
- Faster response than previous Polar models
- All necessary multisporter modes
- Light weight/small footprint
- Color display with easy-to-read screens
- Very good optical heart-rate sensor
- Iffy GPS reliability (despite what’s advertised)
- No running with power
- Slightly underwhelming battery life on smartwatch mode
- Small screen per overall footprint
Heading out the door? Read this article on the new Outside+ app available now on iOS devices for members! Download the app.
While Polar has a long and storied history in the heart-rate monitor game, up until last year, if you wanted a quasi-capable multisport training smartwatch from the Finnish brand, you were likely going to spend upwards of $300 for the Vantage M2, as they didn’t really have a budget model. With the release of the Pacer, finally Polar fans have an opportunity to get a very capable watch right around $200 with pretty much all of the basics that a swim, bike, run, triathlete would need.
The Pacer boasts six days of battery in smartwatch mode (35 hours of GPS workout time), all of the open-water/pool swim, bike, run, tri modes you’d expect in a modern smartwatch, as well as a color screen and physio metrics like sleep analysis training readiness. Also, like other watches in this category, it does have smartphone music control (no music built in), smartphone notifications, and basics like activity tracking. Polar also offers a “Pro” version of the Pacer that adds basic navigation, cycling and performance testing, and on-wrist running with power for another $100.
RELATED: How to Choose the Best Smartwatch for TriathletesSection divider
Polar Pacer Review: The Good
First off, the smartwatch world needs more serious sports-capable devices around $200. Before the Pacer, the only smartwatches with the open-water/pool swim, bike, run, tri functions that would satisfy a triathlete under $300 included the (awesome) Coros Pace 2 and the Apple Watch SE (kind of). While the latter has scary low battery life and isn’t quite the best choice for serious triathletes, that short list proves there’s a place for a budget-priced multisport smartwatch like the Pacer. With little competition, the Pacer hits the bare basics well.
As such, the Pacer has decent marks for sports functions, good GPS workout time, and a really nice form factor. It’s not the smallest or lightest smartwatch on the market—that distinction goes to the Coros Pacer 2—but it’s smaller than plenty of smartwatches, even in the $300+ range. Likewise, the non-touch color screen is incredibly capable and reacts quickly and crisply to feedback on the buttons (unlike Polar’s upper-end watches, at times). In terms of data display, there’s as much flexibility and power as Polar’s more expensive models, as a result of some great trickle-down tech. The optical heart-rate sensor is also unsurprisingly excellent.Section divider
Polar Pacer Review: The OK
This is a tough one because there’s only really one serious contender in this price range, so we’d hate to complain about missing functions when almost no other brands have a watch around $200 with open-water/pool swim, bike, run, and tri/multisport. Obviously running with power would have been nice (the similarly priced Pace 2 has it), and the battery could probably be better, but the only really troubling gripe we have with this watch is the iffy GPS.
Though Polar advertises that the Pacer uses Glonass, Galileo, and QZSS, we found that in practice that this smartwatch had hit-or-miss accuracy and relied on the “assisted” versions of those GPS services maybe more than other models. In our testing, distance wasn’t too far off of watches three times this price, but we lost a lot of signals in canyons that we don’t usually, and as a result had big, glaring discrepancies in total altitude—on the measure of missing 60%+ of the elevation gain/loss. This is due to the lack of a built-in barometer and its reliance upon the (OK) GPS system.
RELATED: How a Military Science Tool Morphed Into Endurance Sport’s Most Important TechSection divider
Where does the Polar Pacer stand?
As we said before, there’s not a lot of competition under $300 in the “true sports” smartwatch zone. Sure, there are more fitness/lifestyle smartwatches in the $200 range, but not many of them have open-water swimming and triathlon/multisport (meaning switching between sports, like for a brick workout or swimrun event). That said, the Coros Pace 2 (yes, the names are super close, it’s been noted) is cheaper, lighter, smaller, has a (much) longer battery life, a barometric altimeter, and built-in, on-wrist running with power.
But the Pace 2 doesn’t have as powerful physio functions, music control (for what it’s worth), nor as good optical heart-rate monitoring or a form function that would blend into a non-workout environment. Also, the Pacer is a much much more capable full-function training smartwatch than the slightly higher-priced Apple Watch SE. Though in terms of lifestyle functions, the SE blows both the Pace 2 and the Pacer out of the water—assuming you live in the Apple ecosystem.Section divider
Polar Pacer: Who is this for?
If you’ve done more than a handful of triathlons and you’re looking into tracking all of your workout data (all of it), this is a great place to start and maybe even end. It’s unlikely you’ll miss the more advanced training/recovery functions for quite some time—or ever. The Pacer is enough watch for probably 75% of all triathletes, and the price isn’t enough to trigger a credit check. That said, if you know you want a touchscreen, running with power, mapping and/or navigation, or built-in music, there’s no way around the fact that you’ll need to spend at least another $150 or more.Section divider
Polar Pacer Smartwatch Review: Conclusions
If nothing else, the mere fact that this wholly capable multisport smartwatch even exists is a great thing. It’s unfortunate that if you want most of these multisport functions from Garmin or Suunto, you’d have to spend at least another $100. As a result the Coros Pace 2 was once a crazy outlier in terms of multisport capability versus price for years; nothing even came close. Now that Polar is knocking on that $200 door with a very decent offering, hopefully other brands follow suit. In terms of a smartwatch that’s got all swim/bike/run/multisport functions, good physio tracking/data, sleep metrics, and enough smartphone “lifestyle” features to be worn all day, the Pacer checks all of the boxes with almost no exceptions at this price.