Since the first wearable appeared in 1961 , these little gadgets have had a fair number of ups and downs before entering the mainstream, truly, in 2015 (the so-called “The Year of the Wearable”). Us runners, on the other hand, have been dabbling since 1982 (with biometrics) and even more so since 2003 (with the introduction of GPS tracking). As such, years later, we have a near dazzling array on offer.
But while sub-$100 and $500+ options are offered by some GPS watch companies, most also offer profitable mid-range devices that hit the sweet spot between quality, features, and price. Currently, mid-range watches are sitting at around $200 and it makes sense that Polar is aiming their contender, the M400, exactly here. (And with a sneaky $27 price cut in the US, they’re in a very good position to take the crown for best mid-range running watch.)
The M400 by Polar offers the following highlights:
• 24/7 activity tracking
• Activity goal and activity benefit
• Inactivity alert
• Sleep duration and quality
• Built-in GPS
• Fitness test
• Heart rate with Polar H7 heart rate sensor
• Personal best tracking
• Training feedback
• Standard micro USB charging
• Polar Flow web service and app
• MyFitnessPal integration (iOS only)
• Smart notifications from your phone (iOS only)
Having used the Polar M400 for the past month, and having been through three versions of their firmware (hat-tip for keeping on top of that Polar), I can verify that all of the promoted features above work well (except for the ones that don’t, which I’ll get to shortly).
One of two features that really sets the M400 apart from other mid-range running watches is its inclusion of a daily activity tracker. During the watch’s initial setup, you can (based on your daily routine and personal goals) set a daily target which the M400 marks your progression towards. Spending most of my work days in front of a computer, I found that getting out for a run is the only way I’ve been able to reach and surpass the nagging 100% each day. After syncing your watch (via a smartphone or PC), the Polar Flow web service displays your activity percentage for each day and week – a convenient reference to check for patterns. Similarly, the watch will let you know if you’ve been sitting for too long and even calculate the duration and quality of your sleep (assuming you’re one to never take it off).
Moving onto the bread and butter, the M400’s running features . Checking all the regular boxes, on paper the M400 has everything most runners are looking: distance, speed/pace, elevation (GPS-based), duration, heart-rate, interval timers, finish time estimator, and so on. More unique features, or at least ones less common in mid-range devices, are Training Benefit, Running Index, and Back to Start. The last of these is the second feature that really sets the M400 apart – and something I’ve already come to appreciate on the twisty Taiwan trails (though keep in mind it simply points you back towards your starting point).
But there are unfortunately a couple of issues I have with the middle-weight contender. The first of these is accuracy. While on the open road it manages well enough (compared to a Garmin FR220, there’s only a difference of around 100m after a 10km run), but take it to a forested trail and the best you have is an inevitably short estimate (on a recent 14km race it chalked up 13.23). This is unfortunately not something you’re going escape until moving to higher-end models with barometers, but it is still something to keep in mind if you’re considering the M400.
The second issue is the widely used micro USB port on the watch. It’s great to not worry about losing a proprietary cable, but many people have had trouble with the port losing functionality. While mine still works, I have experienced its pickiness when it comes to which USB cables it’s willing to work with.
Third, no cadence information. While the unit does include an accelerometer, Polar would prefer you buy their bulky foot pod. Although foot pods are arguably more accurate, it’s an extra $60 for something my watch should be able to do on it’s own (Update: As of firmware version 1.8.4 released on 13 January 2016, cadence is now measured by the watch).
And finally, design. With the straps only slowly bending away from the watch face, it’s not a good choice for those with smaller wrists. Mine has also started to show rust around the watch face, perhaps fixable by adjusting the design to avoid moisture being trapped in these small areas.
Let’s take a quick detour and have a look at the local market as it currently stands. In Taiwan, you can find the M400 online for NT6500 (approximately $210, $37 more than in the states). Similar Garmin models include the Forerunner 220 (NT6990), Forerunner 225 (NT8990), and Vivoactive (NT7990). Of these, the Vivoactive may have an advantage as it supports Connect IQ (especially if they create an app for custom/interval workouts). Also available are the TomTom Runner Cardio (NT7900), Sony Smartwatch 3 (NT8990), and two locally made PAPAGO! Watches (the GoWatch 820i for NT5990 and 770 for NT6490). Taking into account these comparisons, the M400 is certainly good value for its extensive features.
So does the Polar M400 take the crown? The activity tracking reminds me to keep moving throughout the day and the “Back to Start” feature is great when exploring new trails. I would like to see its battery life pushed up to around 10 hours  and improvements made to the look and usability both of the watch UI and online/app services. But as it stands, if mine disappeared, I would go out and get another one (though perhaps not at the Taiwan price).
2+ Months In
Unfortunately the aforementioned USB port gave out earlier this month and I could no longer get the M400 to charge and sync. The good news is the kind people at Johnson Fitness in Taipei fixed my watch in only 7 days. The bad news is that buying things off Taiwanese e-commerce websites means you run the risk of slipping through the cracks in Polar’s official distribution network – and losing your local warranty. 500 NTD ($16) later, I found myself rather less impressed with the M400, but at least my watch was fixed and ready to take on another run.
 The M400 does also offer limited support for cycling, swimming, horseback riding, and other activities. These ‘Sport Profiles’ can be added via their Flow web service.