Best heart rate monitors review 2014
Gone are the days when monitors simply relayed your current heart rate. Nowadays, you’d need to be chief technician at NASA to maximise the features of some wrist-based technological training tools.
Key when purchasing this training mainstay is not to be seduced. As triathletes, many of us are fuelled by competition, caffeine and data. Heart rate monitor (HRM) manufacturers know this. They realise integrating a feature that measures how long your feet strike the ground may ultimately be of no use to you whatsoever, but it’ll pique your interest, draw you in and, before you know it, you’ll be spending £400 on an HRM – all in time to train for your first triathlon on your borrowed MTB!
So be realistic. If you’re new to our sport and training by heart rate, an entry-level model that offers accurate heart-rate data, the ability to input training zones and a stopwatch is enough. If you’re breathing down the neck of Sebastian Kienle and break your training year down into macrocycles, microcyles and the like, you can justify the extra spend on features like swim metrics, wireless connectivity and GPS. As you’ll discover, the more you spend, the greater the number of multisport features. That’s why many of the more affordable HRMs on test are run-specific. That’s fine. You can still use them on two wheels.
What you’ll also find is a new era of heart-rate measurement. Some have left the chest strap in the locker and chosen optical sensor technology. It’s an interesting development and one that’ll be seen on the Apple Watch. Our main concern is accuracy but, in general, we were surprised with the results. As you’ll discover by reading on…
… and don’t forget to check out our other 2014 round-ups: best aerobars, best run jackets, best turbo trainers, best tri bikes, best tri bike shoes, best wetsuits, best lightweight run shoes, best trail shoes, best energy bars, best bike jackets, best bike helmets, best TT helmets, best recovery drinks and best tri-suits.
Price: £59 from www.sigmasport.com
Germany company Sigma has been producing cutting-edge HRMs and bike computers for over 25 years. The problem is, their technical approach has often been eclipsed by a lack of style and usability, leaving the more streamlined and easy-to-use Polars of this world to take centre stage. Does this change with the RC1209? Possibly not, with looks and interface a basic affair. You switch between functions via five solid buttons and, for the price, the checklist is impressive.
Yes, you receive heart rate, you can input zones and there’s the traditional calorie counter. But, via some technological miracle, the chest sensor measures speed and distance too. For the tech-heads, info’s collected and sent to the watch via an R3 transmitter. Accuracy’s pretty impressive based on comparisons with our benchmark, the Garmin 620, and unlike GPS it doesn’t drain the battery.
Verdict: Great value for money and highly usable, 82%
Garmin Fenix 2
Price: £389 from www.garmin.com
The success of the 910XT has overshadowed the impressive package that is the Fenix, perhaps because incarnation no.1 seemed pitched at outdoor enthusiasts. Well, with chapter two’s addition and upgrade of swim, bike and run features, that’s set to change. You can track stroke count, distance and even type of stroke, both indoor and out; if your power meter’s ANT+ compatible, it displays your wattage; and, with the addition of the RUN-HRM chest strap, you receive all the dynamics featured on the new 920XT (review here), including race predictor, VO2max and ground contact time.
It hasn’t forgotten its adventure roots as it can also track hiking, mountaineering, skiing and parachute jumps! The navigation mode will even put your assigned waypoints on a map. As you’d expect, the Fenix 2 links up to Garmin Connect for further analysis.
Verdict: Great HRM, but Garmin’s tri-specific 920XT is better, 84%
Garmin Forerunner 15
Price: £149 from www.garmin.com
The FR15 is a bulbous-looking beast with pixelated numerics reminiscent of Casio circa 1980s. That retro finish will please some; others, like this tester, feel it cheapens the aesthetic. There’s no doubting the substance, with GPS pick-up and retention impressive and an activity tracker from the Garmin Vivofit, which measures your daily steps.
Many triathletes may feel this is too ‘health and fitness’ for their performance lifestyle but, as we noted in our 920XT review, daily steps monitoring can come in useful to ensure rest days really are rest days. (That doesn’t apply to parents. We know they don’t exist!) Its eight-hour battery life signposts its run pedigree (there are no swim or cycle functions), which might deter short-course athletes looking for a touch more ‘multisport’ from a £150 spend. You can download your results to Garmin Connect via USB though not Bluetooth, which is a shame.
Verdict: Better models at a better price in the Garmin range, 74%
Bryton Amis S630
Price: £240 from www.brytonsport.com
Bryton’s S630 doesn’t begin life well, that square shape feeling cumbersome on the wrist. Mind you, you can’t knock the feature list, which is impressive at this price point. GPS covers the three disciplines and there’s a triathlon activity option to switch between legs. Disappointingly, satellite pick-up is slow though, especially in built-up areas. The metronome’s useful for working on stride rate, but it can become monotonous.
Programmable intervals are a boon for speed training, though we’d recommend turning off the notifications feature. Via Bluetooth Smart it communicates messages and calls, but we exercise to escape family and work, not be chased by them. Functions are activated via buttons and touchscreen, the latter working fine with thin-fingered gloves, less so with thick ones. The included bike mount certainly adds value. You can analyse your results on the Bryton app, though it’s not as usable as some here.
Verdict: Loads of features for the price, but many lack substance, 75%
Epson Pulsense PS-500B
Price: £169 from www.epson.co.uk
Fax machine? Check. Laser printer? Check? Optical heart rate monitor that measures activity levels on a daily basis? Uh, check. Epson’s entry into the sports training tool market may be a surprise, but they’ve made a decent stab with the PS-500B. It’s an HRM/activity monitor that tracks steps, distance, calories, heart rate and sleep quality. Like the TomTom below, it’s opted for the optical sensor path, with similarly good accuracy, despite the occasional anomaly when cranking up the cadence.
With this aortic feedback you can train to intensity, with five blue LEDs below the screen that flash depending on which zone you’re in. It’s a neat touch and saves switching on the backlight when running in the dark. Distance and speed are measured via accelerometers. Unlike GPS, you receive instant readings, but it’s not as accurate. You can send your data via Bluetooth to the smartphone app, which offers basic performance analysis.
Verdict: A touch basic for data-heads, but an impressive debut, 80%
We continue our look at ten of 2014’s best heart rate monitors for triathletes…
Raleigh RSP Elite
Price: £54 from www.raleigh.co.uk
The Elite matches Sigma’s RC1209 in the aesthetics stakes, its slightly bulky and elongated design ‘complemented’ by four hefty buttons. It’s a similar price point and is also brimming with features, but that’s where the comparisons end. Speed data is based on pedometer readings – in other words, a digital motion sensor within the watch – but results are inconsistent, especially when running at pace off-road.
We expected the exertions to confuse this tiring user, not the watch! Heart data seems reliable though, and the interface is clear to read at speed. It also offers feedback on your current fitness level and calculates body mass index, though again the latter fed back inconsistencies. You suspect the Elite’s fallen into the trap of cramming in features to seduce the consumer but, in this case, less is definitely more.
Verdict: Solid enough but feels like it’s been sent from the 1980s, 69%
Suunto Ambit3 Sport Blue
Price: £325 from www.suunto.com
First impressions, beyond the Smurf blue, are that it’s a bulky beast, up there with Garmin’s Fenix 2. Thankfully, on the fly, it’s less noticeable than you’d predict, each function flicked through via one of the reassuringly positive buttons. Its feature list is immense, including GPS, navigation, compass, altitude, triathlon option (by manual button press) and bike power support via Bluetooth Smart, which replaces the ANT+ connectivity of the previous model.
The screen is highly readable on land and at sea, which is one of the major sells of the Ambit3 – with the Suunto Smart Sensor chest strap it measures heart rate under water. Though it displays swim stats after rather than during the session, it’s a worthwhile feature for total multisport analysis. Just be careful not to push too hard off the pool wall as it’s susceptible to slipping off. Finally, a whole world of analysis awaits on the excellent Suunto Movescount app.
Verdict: Not the slimmest, but brilliant functionality and ease of use, 86%
TomTom Multisport Cardio
Price: £249 from www.tomtom.com
This is one of a number of HRMs dispensing with chest straps and replacing them with optical pulse sensors. They’ve licensed the technology from Mio, whereby sensors measure the colour of your skin (which changes slightly depending on bloodflow) via two green LEDs shining onto your wrist. It’s certainly refreshing to free your sternum from that sweaty band and it’s a reliable guide at moderate pace. Feedback can be erratic, however, when intensity rises.
GPS has improved since we tested the Runner Cardio in issue 303 and the addition of swim metrics such as laps completed will appeal. Just make sure you unleash a powerful push-off at the end of each lap, because it’s the accelerometers that gauge how fast and far you’re swimming. The package comes with a bike mount that flips on and off seamlessly. However, the jury’s out on the clunky button and rather uncomfortable strap.
Verdict: Better than the Runner Cardio, but still too flawed for £250, 74%
Price: £74 from www.polar.com
Dainty: a rarely used word in the rather masculine world of data collection, but one that definitely applies to the FT4. Alpha males need not apply, but it’s perfect for slimmer wrists. It measures heart rate and offers zone training, though you need to input this manually, which is a touch cumbersome and redundant, as there’s only limits for one zone. The FT4 stores up to 10 training files, which is relatively useful for post-run analysis and comparison.
Mind you, detail is limited by its inability to download data to Polar’s online personal trainer. To be fair, that’s expected at this price point. Where the FT4 really falls down is ease of use. The buttons are sharp, rigid affairs that require substantial pressure. When on the fly and fatiguing, simplicity is what you want – especially as you’ll be switching multiple times because the HR and duration data fields aren’t shown on the same screen.
Verdict: Basic functions and looks good, but too impractical, 74%
Price: £399 from www.polar.com
Finnish giant Polar has been refining athletes’ training since 1977, but only in the past couple of years did it create its first all-in-one GPS/HRM, the RCX5. That still lagged behind the then multisport industry-standard, Garmin’s 910XT, but that gap is closing with the V800. Its slick design sits comfortably on your wrist. Satellite pick-up and retention is impressively fast. A triathlon function monitors your efforts from start to finish, and is soon to receive updates that include ‘extensive swim metrics’.
By early 2015, indoor and outdoor swim functions, including pace, stroke count and swim stroke identification will elevate the V800 to a new level. It measures readiness to train as well – though it consistently told us we were good to go, when we felt battered post-intervals. Battery life’s a touch short too, at 14hrs, but that’s compensated by the usable and analytical Flow web and mobile service.
Verdict: Will impress even more with impending swim upgrades, 82%
The past few years might have seen the rise of the power meter, with HRM detractors citing inaccuracies because of outside influences like ambient temperature and internal ones like race-stimulated adrenaline skewing results. But as Chris Boardman told us recently, “The ideal is to train by the three Ps: perception of effort, power and pulse. If I was training today, I’d choose an HRM over power meter any day. It tells you more about yourself and the conditions you’re training in.”
And that insight applies at all prices. Take the impressive Sigma RC1209. For under £60 you’re given speed, distance and heart-rate data, all within a neat package that, if other Sigma tools we’ve tested is anything to go by, will last until you decide you’re after more metrics and want an upgrade.
That upgrade will take you right past the Garmin FR15. Nearly £150 is a pretty hefty outlay for a relatively basic model, justified by Garmin because of the activity tracker, which many triathletes simply won’t use. Their £120 FR70 will serve you much better.
Or you could spend a little extra and enter the world of optics. Epson’s Pulsense PS-500B, at a smidge under £170, joins the growing band of monitors measuring heart rate via optical sensors. The jury remains out on accuracy, especially at high intensities, though for the most part the results were positive. Also, for a brand better known for manufacturing stationery goods, we were impressed with the ergonomic design that wrapped round the wrist and was very comfortable on the move.
Whether Epson enters the elite end of the HRM spectrum remains to be seen. What is clear though is that when you move up to the levels of spending over £300 you expect a lot. And that’s what you get with the Polar V800, Garmin Fenix 2 and Suunto Ambit3. They’re all usable, packed with useful triathlon features and will improve your performance.
The Polar V800 could well prove the best of the lot thanks to the imminent swim-metrics upgrade. But that’s to come. The Fenix 2 is a feat of micro-engineering and only loses marks for too many features being superfluous to the triathlete. That leaves the winner as the Ambit3. It’s not the most refined looking, but it works brilliantly on the fly or when analysing post-workout. It’s also the easiest to use, which helps you to maximise every single feature – and is exactly what you want at this price.
Don’t forget to check out our other 2014 round-ups: best aerobars, best run jackets, best turbo trainers, best tri bikes, best tri bike shoes, best wetsuits, best lightweight run shoes, best trail shoes, best energy bars, best bike jackets, best bike helmets, best TT helmets, best recovery drinks and best tri-suits.
Did Santa bring you a new heart rate monitor? Let us know in the comments!