Review: Polar Loop 2 activity tracker & H7 heart rate sensor

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The Polar Loop 2 activity tracker looks simple with a touch of style(Credit: Stanley Goodner/Gizmag.com)

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The market for wearable activity trackers continues to grow, which means greater choice for those interested in using technology to help maintain a better quality of life, but it also makes it tough to decide which one is right for you. We got some wrist-on experience with Polar’s latest activity tracker – the Loop 2 – to see how well this device measures up.

Design & Connectivity

The Polar Loop 2 activity tracker is made of soft silicone with an appearance that’s one step-up from plain, owning a touch of style without looking ugly or garish. The hardware is embedded within the thicker portion of the band, secured in place by four hex screws. This design helps to make the tracker sweat- and waterproof. A silver pair of plastic slivers flank the unit’s LED screen, which glows through the silicone when active. The Loop 2 is designed to be custom fit, with trimmable ends and a secure metal clasp that prevents the bracelet from accidentally falling off.

Aside from the clasp, the only other physical interaction with the Loop 2 is via the charge/sync port underneath and the button on top. The included USB charge/sync cable magnetically attaches when aligned properly. Pressing the capacitive button triggers the LED display, and repeat presses cycle through the information shown. Users can review activity, calories burned, steps taken, and the current time. The LED display automatically shuts off after a couple of seconds.

The Polar Loop 2 doesn’t show battery levels except for when it's charging. When the LED screen is dim, then you know the battery is around 20 percent. Once it hits 10 percent, the LED screen will actually tell you the battery is low. The battery life can last up to a week, but we found that you need to keep notifications off and button presses to a freakish minimum to achieve this. The internal motor, which vibrates for notifications, and LED screen tend to drain the battery quickly. A full charge takes around four to five hours, and if you charge the device for an hour every few days it’ll stay topped up well.

The LED display on the Polar Loop 2 is, well, ok. It gets the job done so long as you’re not in direct sunlight. Even light shade has a tendency to wash out the brightness, forcing you to hover a cupped hand over your wrist. The button sometimes needs a second press to register. And if you happen to be washing dishes or making messy watermelon slices, you’ll notice the LED screen light up on its own when liquid connects the button to your skin.

While the Loop 2 can sync data through its USB cable, most users will opt for the convenience of Bluetooth wireless connectivity via the Polar Flow mobile app. The app makes pairing a simple process. So long as Bluetooth is enabled on the paired device, the Loop 2 will periodically sync data regardless of whether the Polar Flow app is active or open. This can, on occasion, interrupt Bluetooth speaker playback for the entire duration of syncing, especially each time the app requests a "hard" sync.

The Loop 2 wirelessly pairs and syncs with only one device at a time, so you can't have it connect with both a smartphone and tablet, even if the devices are using the same account.

Getting Started & Polar.com

Adjusting the band to custom-fit your wrist size is a little fiddly. Although the company will provide replacement bands, it’s better to proceed slowly and do it right the first time. If you want to get a straight, clean cut through the silicone as you're sizing, use a sharp, thin blade instead of scissors. With all the measuring, cutting, replacing of pins, refitting, and more cutting, one can easily spend 15 to 20 minutes carefully sizing the band. But for all the work done just this one time, the Loop 2 ends up as a custom-fit activity tracker that won't fall or rip off through activity. And it's quick and easy to remove.

The initial setup requires that the Polar Loop 2 be connected to a computer via the USB cable. After visiting the website to download the software, install it, and then create an account, the Loop 2 will need about 10 minutes to update and initialize. This is is a good opportunity to explore the Polar website and make any profile changes (especially if you're concerned about the default privacy of your activity). The site presents a clean layout of training/history to users. You can sort through graphs and cumulated statistics of steps taken, distance walked, calories burned, and so forth. Some personal information, along with the selection of a fitness level, is mandated in order to determine goals and more-accurate estimations of tracked activity and calories burned.

There is also a social element to using the Loop 2 and Polar.com. You can explore publically-logged entries worldwide through an interactive map. Names, dates, routes, and activity statistics are visible (if allowed by the user). You can follow other members – some only an approved request – in order to view their training activity in your mobile/browser feed. Although you can write comments, the interaction is rather thin.

Not only that, but the map feels like a haphazard data dump, as there are no tools to sort by date, person, or activity type. By zooming in some areas, you're likely to find multiple, sometimes dozens of entries by one or more very active individuals. If you're internally motivated toward exercise and activity, this "social" aspect may not matter much at all. But if you're externally-motivated, it's probably going to fall short of meeting your needs.

Between the band sizing, software installation, and Loop 2 initialization, the whole process can take a casual 40 minutes from start to finish, but at least it's a one-time affair.

Although the Polar website offers a more comprehensive presentation of information, the mobile app is far more convenient for staying on top of daily activity and stats.

Polar Flow Mobile App

One good thing (except for when it interrupts music streaming to a Bluetooth speaker) about the Loop 2 and Polar Flow mobile app is that they like to sync a lot. The bursts are short, but frequent throughout the day, making it easier for users to stay current with activity and information. Opening the app on your mobile device always triggers a hard sync right then and there.

Similar to Polar.com, the mobile app presents a clean layout of information, with stats easily accessible for prior days, weeks, or months. While the app may not be as comprehensive as the site, it’s a quick and convenient way to check one’s statistics. The main activity screen can show the breakdown as a pie chart or a clock face, color coded to identify the activity intensity with representative icons (touching them offers an explanation of intensity types) and total time spent located at the bottom of the screen. The second half of the daily report, accessed by swiping up on the screen, shows goal progress, time required to achieve those goals, and the current tally of metrics reflected on the Polar Loop 2 tracker.

The Polar Loop 2 also features sleep tracking, which has shown to be very accurate with respect to time spent (naps included). It even accounts for bathroom breaks during the night, showing only a sliver of activity within the entire block of sleeping time. The Loop 2 seems to factor in sleeping patterns, starting its count once you’re asleep and not just when your head hits the pillow. But when it comes to details, you only get to see the total amount of sleep tracked and how much was deemed as restful. There are no REM-related patterns or suggestions on how to improve the quality of sleep. But at least the Loop 2 is smart enough to know the difference between sleeping and sitting/lounging-inactivity.

One big appeal of the Polar Loop 2 is that it can let you know when it’s time to get up and move about; it’s generally recommended to stand up and walk around for a few minutes for every hour of sitting. After about 55 minutes of continuous inactivity, the tracker will double-buzz and show an orb slowly bounce across the LED display. If Bluetooth is also enabled on a connected device at the same time, it will receive an inactivity stamp in the notification bar. This feature is indeed useful for those of us that tend to sit a lot, especially when it’s work-related.

In addition to inactivity reminders, the Loop 2 can alert users to incoming phone calls and notifications. For calls, the LED screen scrolls the name of the caller while continuously vibrating. If you happen to miss/ignore the call, the Loop 2 repeats "missed call" and vibrates four times before stopping. Calendar notifications pop up as "calendar" and all other mobile notifications are labeled as "message" on the Loop 2 screen, flashing and vibrating only once each. The mobile app lets you select which sources to block so you only receive what’s important to you.

Most of the time these alerts come through to the Loop 2 instantly. Sometimes they can be delayed by up to a minute. Just keep in mind that the Bluetooth-connected device has to be in range for it to work. But with the way the Loop 2 also indicates that it has found/lost Bluetooth connectivity, enabling this option can help make sure you don’t leave your smartphone behind someplace. The only real downside to all of this alerting activity is that it can severely drain the Loop 2 battery. Over half of the device’s total battery life can be used up in just one day if there's a high frequency notifications.

Activity Tracking

Unlike a simple pedometer that only counts steps taken, the Loop 2 tracks your overall activity, no matter the type. The sensors do a pretty good job at determining when you’re sitting, standing, walking, or engaging in higher levels of activity. However, the results aren’t immediately registered. You can take and count 40 steps before checking the Loop 2, and maybe you’ll see it show an increase of 12. Or zero. But if you sit down and take a look a few minutes later, you might see a 50+ increase in the step-count displayed on the screen. Because of the Loop 2’s method of measuring over time and equating everything in steps, direct correlation to one’s activity is very difficult to determine.

But what makes the Loop 2 a great activity tracker is that everything that matters counts, not just walking or running. Spending five to seven minutes of stretching, followed by a 25-minute yoga session, can total a few hundred steps, easy. Putting away dishes and then reloading the dishwasher also counts, even though you may have only taken a score of actual steps back and forth. Yardwork? Counts. Swimming? Counts. The Loop 2 registers physical activity through its internal sensors, giving credit where it’s due, and then tallies it up as steps.

The displayed amount of calories burned is a close approximation that’s based on activity and the personal information provided (gender, weight, height, and age). The Loop 2 starts each new day of tracking at midnight, so when you wake up you’ll see the amount of calories burned while you were in a sleeping/resting state. And if you walk or exercise more during the day, this number will increase. Even if the value may not be precise, it’s still a personal reference. So a quick glance at the Loop 2’s calorie count can certainly help determine whether or not you can splurge on dessert or one more beer.

The Loop 2 also keeps track of distance in either metric or imperial units. Similar to how calories are calculated, the distance shown factors in your height along with the intensity and cadence of activity. Between the steps, calories, and distance, the Loop 2 presents a good overview of personal activity. You can get a clear idea of where you’re at and what you need to do in order to achieve personal goals.

H7 Heart Rate Sensor & Polar Beat Mobile App

Those who want/need to know about heart rate levels while training or exercising can purchase the H7 sensor. It’s lightweight, comfortable, and stays out of the way for most any type of exercise or activity. The device comes with a CR2025 battery and an adjustable neoprene chest strap, which is available in a variety of sizes. The included documentation doesn’t do much for instructions, other than pointing to the Polar website or other devices for further information.

The H7 heart rate sensor automatically activates once it’s been snapped to the chest strap. If you want to save battery life, disconnect the sensor from the strap after each use. Right out of the box, you can pair the H7 to your mobile device via Bluetooth, but will need a compatible app (there are many) in order to do anything with it. Unfortunately, Polar Flow doesn’t support or recognize the H7 sensor, which is why the Polar Beat mobile app exists. Thankfully, you can use your existing Polar account and sign in after downloading the app.

While on and making contact with your chest, the H7 sensor continually tracks and reports your heart rate by measuring electrical activity, similar to that of an ECG (electrocardiogram). With the Polar Flow app open to its main screen, you can view your current rate in real-time. The app is simple to use and offers 19 different sport activities to choose from, including all the popular ones you would expect (e.g. walking, jogging, running, cycling, skating, tennis, treadmill, etc.). You can view workout history with the H7, a weekly summary, and your current set of target metrics.

What’s nice about using the H7 is that the chest strap helps it maintain constant contact against the skin without being uncomfortable. Some wrist-wearables can momentarily lose connection through activity, missing out periods of data. And while the H7 may not be "perfect", it seems to be quite accurate and responsive. Training sessions within the Polar Flow app start/stop like a stopwatch. You can watch the data as you go or revisit each session history later on when you’re done. The app’s analysis screen shows the heart rate over time and time spent in each zone, which is color-coded for easy reading.

The Polar Flow app can measure and evaluate workouts and activity performances, but it will cost you. The in-app purchases (IAP) range from US$3 to $4 apiece, or you can get the whole set for $7.

The Verdict

When it comes to quantifying physical activity, the Polar Loop 2 is both practical and effective. The silicone band is comfortable, and the clasp design ensures a secure fit that is quick to remove with just one hand. The data shown through the activity tracker and the Polar Flow app should be easy for anyone to understand, and the frequent syncing keeps the data up-to-date. While the battery life isn’t quite the advertised 8-day span – at least without turning off notifications, Bluetooth, and not activating the screen – it needs only a few hours worth of charge time every few days.

The biggest weakness of the Loop 2 is that the LED screen can’t hold up against bright light. So, for example, if you happen to be jogging outside, it’s difficult to check time or see what type of notification just vibrated. And although the Polar Flow app functions well for its core features, there is still room for improvement. There’s no setting for sync intervals, which means that music streaming to a Bluetooth audio device can be interrupted when you least expect it. And the weight tracking over time and social aspect of using Polar’s platform would benefit from a little refinement.

But at the end of the day, the Polar Loop 2 does a fantastic job at measuring what matters. So long as you’re up and moving, the activity tracker counts it all. You can be walking, exercising, or simply doing weekend house chores. Although the values are estimations, they appear to be well in-line with one’s overall activity. The Loop 2 tends to be more accurate over the long-run of hours, and, with the app, it provides metrics and monitoring that help individuals be more aware of personal patterns. The Loop 2 activity tracker is available now for $120 in white, pink, or black silicone bands.

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