Polar Vantage V3 vs Suunto RACE vs Garmin 965 – The best-ever sports watches?
More: Polar Vantage V3 Review
We’ve finally reached peak sports watch. The Polar Vantage V3, Suunto Race and Garmin Forerunner 965 have to be the best sports watches ever made. Each one has solved the problem of having a beautiful high-resolution screen at the same time as a good to excellent battery life.
Apple Watch Ultra 2 isn’t included here as it hasn’t solved that particular problem, nor would it be as good as any of these 3 watches for sports if it had. That said, it’s still the best-selling smartwatch of all time but that’s not because of its excellence at all things sporty.
3 All-Time Greats – How did we get here?
The road to sports watch excellence has been a long one and I have trod along dutifully for the whole journey. It started in earnest with Polar’s first running watches like the s720i but then the brick-on-your-wrist Garmin Forerunner 305 took the market by storm and kick-started Garmin’s growth and eventual dominance of the sporty tech realm.
Polar seemed to think about decent software and accurate HR data as an underpinning to our performance and to aspects of our physiology. But soon it became obvious that a chest strap was not enough as GPS speed and pace also made their way onto our wrists. In the early days, you were grateful for the ability to take manual and automatic laps, and if your watch battery made it to the end of your marathon that was a bonus rather than a necessity. Optical heart rate monitors and power meters were but a twinkling in 220 Triathlon’s eyes.
Garmin seemed to think that features were king; Polar that meeting the needs of top runners was king; and Suunto seemed to take an unhealthy interest in trees, mountains and adventures. Around this time, Polar and Suunto made the crazy mistake of assuming that people actually wanted accurate sports devices. How silly! Garmin invested in 23 more features and kept quiet.
Then came optical HR, then came bike power meters, then came sports profiles and more. A thing called the internet, which you might have heard of, had taken off and smartphones also became handy little gadgets to check your performances on ever more specialist apps.
Someone, somewhere figured out there was money to be made and then much more serious investments were made in linking maps, routes, social competition, exotic sensors and much more. I’ll skip a few years but we’ve now got to a situation where we have seemingly every possible kind of richness in our sports device ecosystem.
The point is that Suunto Race, Polar Vantage V3 and Garmin Forerunner 965 each have a great-to-excellent take on almost every aspect of sports tech. Reviewers can and do highlight all the subtle nuances and differences but the bottom line is that the vast majority of the needs and wants of athletes, fitness fanatics, cross-fitters, lifters, cyclists and triathletes are covered.
For most people, it doesn’t really matter which one you buy and that’s why I’m going to talk about looks and usability a little more.
How do you want your sports watch to symbolise your lifestyle?..or maybe you don’t? Maybe you want to just put it in a drawer until your next workout? Maybe you want to wear it with a suit?
Those previous paragraphs have all left a few ends and inferences intentionally dangling. I won’t go into those here but one of the key, less-mentioned trends is that the Apple Watch (NOT the best ever sports watch) is slowly getting more sportingly competent and already covers most people’s meagre sporting needs. People tend to want an add-on to their smartphone. The smartphone is their life, and the Apple smartwatch makes some of their 24×7 life just that little bit easier and richer. People who should be buying sports watches are actually buying true smartwatches.
So as recessions kick in, global tensions rise, and we all worry about AI robots doing the jobs our kids will never have; is the industry at a commercial turning point? The financial side of the sports watch business is soon going to get tougher, that’s for sure. In 5 years, will Polar or Suunto still exist as companies in their current form? and will Garmin have burnt through its $1.5bn cashpile? Who knows? But I suspect that the sports technology we see in 5 years WILL be similar to what we have today but the commercial landscape will have changed significantly and the fortunes of companies with it.
So make the most of these 3 sports watches while you can. You might never see 3 such excellent competitors, newly released, at the same time ever again. (Although ask me in 2025 and I may well have re-posted this with some new pictures and added a Coros Pace 4 and Apple Watch Ultra 3; hmm)
Garmin, Polar and Suunto – Overall Looks
These watches basically look the same to the untrained eye. From a meter away, any of them could be made of plastic and you can’t appreciate the quality until you get up close and personal.
As the table above shows, they are ALL made of quality materials but the Garmin looks like it’s made of the same plastic as its cheaper siblings. They all have very nice design elements, Garmin has nice buttons and an interestingly detailed bezel and etched glass, Polar has sweet tactile buttons and Suunto has an Apple-like digital crown. Suunto feels sturdier and of better quality, it has tasteful markings around the metal bezel and, to me, it’s the pick of the bunch visually. All have fantastically awesome screens that we might never have dreamed possible 5 years ago.
Polar’s default strap is a bit cheap and cheerful, Suunto feels nicer but with a funny fastening button at its end, whereas Garmin’s strap is built for sport. But, hey, they’re all changeable so it doesn’t matter.
Finally, finally, the horribly oversized black bezels around the screen areas are gone. Or at least gone sufficiently to stop me moaning about them.
Suunto – up one at this point.
Suunto has a couple of very nice watch faces. This area is my bete noire of 2023. If I spend $500-700 on a sports watch I want to be able to customise it. Apple lets me do that. Companies like Coros have recently tried to do that but most out-of-the-box watch faces, I’ve said before, are designed by children for children. Most look truly awful and aesthetically naive, albeit many can do that whilst still showing very useful bits of data. At least Garmin lets you use 3rd party watch faces.
Garmin pulls a point back
Then we come to look at how we interact with these watches. The future lies with audio control, haptics and gesture controls. But the present doesn’t. The present relies on buttons and touchscreens. But the present is a good place, finally, we have very good touchscreens, we have buttons that press nicely to the touch and Suunto’s nod to Apple’s digital crown shows that it is also thinking about usability rather than out-and-out looks. I find my interactions with these watches bring on a bout of RSI as I twist and contort my wrist and fingers through the dance of the buttons I know so well. The better you know the dance moves, the faster you go and the more it hurts.
Suunto does this the best. But it doesn’t yet deal with as many features as Garmin. So, no points.
Next comes the interface visuals as you scroll through the menus. Garmin has been very clever in recent years with widgets and widget glances. There are some nice ways to quickly show bits of high-level information that tantalisingly tease you into wanting to learn more and interact more. But I just think Garmin’s visuals fail to gel nicely and coherently in all the different parts of its complex menu systems. Suunto has just tweaked its interface with some nice tiles but it’s let down when it comes to getting your watch ready for your session. Polar suffers a similar fate to Garmin, in that it seems to combine at least two screen styles on the watch and the deeper you delve into the menus the more old-fashioned it seems.
Apple’s visuals are much cleaner and more consistent. I don’t especially like them but I know where I stand with them. I know Garmin will just keep different internal departments tinkering away at changing and improving different parts of the watch, I can’t see them ever being as clean and consistent as Apple. Suunto is kinda on the right track here towards consistency and I feel that although I initially liked where Polar was out a few years ago, they need to get more up-to-date with the on-screen looks.
Again, no points for anyone except Apple but they don’t count for this article.
That’s where I’m going to stop. Looking in more depth at features, accuracy and suitability for sports is the realm of more detailed product reviews that are elsewhere on this site. Garmin has the most features and the richest features.
All that said, I love where these 3 watches are at. I’ve had a few debates with friends as we look over each one. To me, the Suunto wins on looks, quality and usability but friends disagree even accounting for Suunto’s significantly lower price. My partner likes Polar/Apple and another mate likes Suunto/Wahoo RIVAL. Everyone slates Garmin but then still goes out and buys one! #Features.
Adding 3 new features is usually easier than revamping the interface and experience of the watch. So Garmin CAN be caught but it’s not easy.
This content is not sponsored. It’s mostly me behind the labour of love which is this site and I appreciate everyone who follows, subscribes or Buys Me A Coffee ❤️ Alternatively please buy the reviewed product from my partners. Thank you! FTC: Affiliate Disclosure: Links pay commission. As an Amazon Associate, I earn from qualifying purchases.