2012: Polar RCX5 Mini Review for Running Duathlon and Triathlon

Polar RCX5

Here’s my bias. I started with Polar HRMs many years ago. They were great. I liked how they looked and they worked fine. The Polar software for post-exercise analysis was certainly great at the time. I had/have all the sensors a gadget-geek could ever want and I don’t know how many HR straps I have lying around the house.

Like all good love affairs it had to come to an end. I never fell out of love with Polar; it was just that I was distracted by another model. My wife bought me a Garmin 305 for my birthday and I got hooked on the GPS features that gave me speed and pretty route maps when I’d finished. I never looked back and I neglected Polar to the extent where I probably didn’t even know what their top Triathlon-watch model was.

It’s the RCX5. Can she turn my affections?

My review will come from this perspective. IE Should you switch from Garmin 910XTs/310XTs to the RCX5 for a triathlon watch?

Here is  a link to the cheapest RCX5 I found and some reviews

First Impression

The size is great. Thinner than Garmins.

It looks OK. Better than maybe the Garmin 310Xt and 305 but personally I prefer the looks of the Garmin 910XT. My wife does not like it, my son absolutely loves the look of it. There we go…personal taste.

Oh but wait a minute what’s that? the screen shows the date and time. You could actually use it as a watch! That will please many people who want the date on their watch which you can’t do with the Garmins – although they can display the time.

The strap feels nice enough with a nice locking mechanism that just will never accidentally come undone and lots of holes to accommodate every possible wrist size. Perhaps a better strap than the Garmin but being narrower I can only have a lingering doubt about its longevity.

I don’t like the look of it. Then again who likes the look of a Garmin 305? and really can you trust my aesthetic opinion as I still like the looks of my old Polar S625x and S720i. If you like the look of it then what does it matter what I think?

The armband thing. What’s going on here then? This is the GPS device. I can see the benefit of ditching the GPS pod when you don’t want GPS (say inside). But I can also see the faff/impossibility of wearing it throughout a full triahtlon or duathlon,say under a wetsuit, when you might want GPS.

I’m not too keen initially on the display both in terms of the pseudo-hexagonal display itself and the vertically-aligned metrics. I suspect that I am being very harsh here as from my experience with GPS watches you tend to get used to what you wear and grow to love it as you get mroe acquainted with it and its functions. And let’s face it you are going to be spending probably at least 4 hours and maybe more than 14 hours a week wearing this thing. So you WILL get used to it ad you WILL adapt to it.

The Swim

We know the RCX5 doesn’t have all the clever swim metrics of the 910XT. Some yes, all no. However it does have the ultimate trump card which for some people might beat the limited metrics. And that is that you can get HR data underwater. To me, this has been a gaping hole in my training stats. The RCX5 can and does fill that.

I am a big fan of SportTracks Training Load feature. Polar has a similar feature themselves. I enquired with Polar about how it works in detail – but they wouldn’t tell me! I suspect it is similar to SportTracks’ Training Load plugin.

Previously I had been estimating my HR data. Well actually I was guessing, which is very different. Guessing based on what other people estimated. Hmmm. I’d kind of assumed maybe my HR was in the 130s at times and I then estimated how many TRIMPS per 100m and extrapolated from that for each session.

The watch worked fine in the pool. It collected a good HR data track. The buttons worked, the display worked. However the beep for the lap was not audible through a swim cap for me. And I mean not AT ALL audible. I would often press it several times to be sure. It needs to be louder and/or with a vibration. Still a multiple press rather than a single one is only annoying, the data still comes out correct.

I liked how the bottom left button paused the session and then stopped it if you pressed it again. It was never obvious to me if a Garmin did the same thing whereas the Polar tells you it’s paused and then clearly tells you it stopped.

The lap button is nice and big; good. Big enough to press with your teeth when you are wearing swim-paddles (or going fast on a bike when I also use my teeth, sometimes!). Although it is recessed perhaps a little too much but I’m nit picking there.

I’d read other reviews and kind of laughed when they said that the HR strap moves when you push off. Don’t be silly you people, you just do it up a bit tighter. Well no, that’s not how it works it was not that simple. It does come down even with one of my (probably modest) push offs. A decent tumble turn would exert much more pressure. So you have to fiddle around a bit every now and then OR wear a tri-suit or be a woman with a one piece suit that the strap will be constrained underneath. I REALLY tightened it up for the next session and it was OK. As I say though even then with a big turn it might not be OK for some of you really good swimmers.

Installing the software.

The dongle installed correctly and easily enough for me in Windows 7. I didn’t have a CD so I installed polar websync 2.5 from the web site and created an account. It wasn’t obvious which bits of software I needed but I figured it out. I don’t want to export 10 years of data from SportTracks so all I need is the software to get the data from the watch and onto the PC in the right format for SportTracks. It was a bit of a faff using websync to do that but I got the hang of it soon enough, just a learning curve.

I can’t remember exactly, but essentially you export the Polar HRM and GPX files to a folder and then import into SportTracks from there.

The hrm file and GPS/GPX file seemed to create two separate exercise sessions in SportTracks. Fine for me on a temporary basis. I would not be happy with that if I made a permanent switch. Maybe I missed something? Maybe I could have merged them but I think that would have required each to be imported separately and not at the same time, again that would be a faff too.

Navigating through the menus

I liked how some of the watch’s setting could be changed on the PC and synchronised. You can do SOME of that with Garmins but not all settings. A big +1 for Polar here.

The menus are not nice to use. I never really liked Garmin’s and I don’t like Polar’s either. Polar here I guess has an edge in that you can avoid using the menus more easily by doing it all on the PC.

Changing the screen metrics is easy enough. There are sufficient metrics for my purposes. However, the range and breadth of metrics is much more limited than with Garmin. Not a problem for me but it might be for you. Check before you buy.

There’s a lot of stuff on the screen. Heart symbols and lots of stuff. I have the same criticism of Garmin here. Garmin will tell me that one display metric-box is HR…I know that I only need the data, not the words. Polar is worse than this with too much clutter on the display. OK I’m cycling: 97; 33.4; 164; 274; and 22:34. What can they be? It’s just obvious that they are cadence, km/h, HR; power and time. Well it is to me anyway. OK,  there will be many exceptions but you get my drift that if it is you who has created the metrics on the screen you will just know what they are and the units of measurement are not really required. As I say Garmin has the same issue for me. Keep the screen simple, alert me to exceptions (audibly or by vibration).

The metrics are aligned vertically. I didn’t like this at first but it’s actually OK. For some reason when I have my 4 Garmin metrics on the display I only see either the ones on the left or the ones on the right. With the vertical alignment of the RCX5 for some bizarre reason, my eyes seem to see them all much better at the same time. Then again I could just be weird.


I used the RCX5 alongside the Garmin 910XT for the same sessions. They are both equally as accurate in terms of GPS (speed distance pace) and HR. And so they should be, this technology has been around for ages. It’s not rocket science anymore.

Other Points

It has a replaceable battery, unlike the Garmin’s rechargeable one. Battery life was an issue with the 305 but not with the 310XT or 910XT. If, however, you are the sort of person who forgets to recharge a Garmin then I can see how you would want a Polar RCX5.

Switching from Garmin 910XT

So, these watches are different. But in reality, you will get used to a Polar as easily as you would a Garmin.

The only material differences are:

Garmin: +ve = variety of metrics, swim functionality and ant+ compatibility

Polar: +ve = HR Swim data

Garmin: -ve = Some stories of units being sold with bugs (update firmware)

Polar: -ve = separate GPS pod, not ANT+ compatible for power meters.

So on balance there’s not really much in it. I would not swap my 910XT for a RCX5. Similarly, if  I owned an RCX5 I would not buy a 910XT.

However, and it is a big however. If I owned both I personally would use the RCX5 because of its HR-in-water capability. But during testing I was ALWAYS tempted to wear both because I also like the 910XT swim functionality (Yes I know I would have looked stupid).

So the RCX5 is your mistress or your toy-boy-on-the-side. You would not leave your longstanding partner (910XT) of several years for this sexy looking watch. But if you started out with the sexy one you would get on with it well enough to stick with it for a long, long time.

Switching from Garmin 305 or 310XT

Garmin: +ve = ant+ compatibility

Polar: +ve = HR Swim data

Garmin: -ve = a bit big (and orange for the 301XT)

Polar: -ve = separate GPS pod

I would probably consider switching from the 305 or 310XT to the RCX5.
Here is  a link to the cheapest <RCX5> I found and some reviews

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