Hands-on: The New Suunto 9 Multisport GPS Watch

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Today Suunto announced their next generation series of high-end multisport watches, the Suunto 9.  This line is designed to be the successor to the Suunto Spartan Ultra range of GPS watches, which is the most expensive offering Suunto has in their stable.  While the Suunto 9 is the replacement for the Spartan Ultra, look at these changes more akin to evolutionary than revolutionary.  Still, there’s some pretty cool stuff in there – none of which is being done by their competitors, and all of which are laser-specific in them understanding their core target audience of hardcore endurance athletes.

I’ve been using the Suunto 9 for almost a month now, across running, cycling, and hiking within the Alps.  This post isn’t an in-depth review, as that’ll come sometime in July, after the company starts shipping the final software/hardware versions of the Suunto 9 on June 26th.  Until this, this is just an early first look at the new features and what’s unique to this watch series.

With that – let’s dive into it!

What’s new:

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It’s likely obvious that Suunto is in a tough pickle when it comes to finding a way to match the features of their competitors, either from a hardware (such as music or contactless payments) or software standpoint.  So in the case of the Suunto 9 – they don’t try.  Instead, they’ve focused on areas their competitors aren’t.  Some of these areas may not be seen as super sexy compared to streaming music, or box-splashing graphic worthy.  But I suspect for Suunto’s core audience, they’ll greatly appreciate and find value in these features – perhaps more so than some of the more common features being added to smartwatches today.

Let’s dive right into it with a bulleted list, and then I’ll circle back throughout the post with more detail on each of these.

– Added FusedTrack: Ability to get GPS tracks without GPS data (seriously, and seriously cool)
– Switched GPS chipset providers from SIRF to Sony
– Addition of new battery performance options
– Ability to dynamically change battery options mid-workout to get to finish
– Ability to go into super-low power chrono mode to finish workout
– Added ‘intelligent’ low battery warnings day before your long workouts
– Swappable bands using industry standard 24mm straps
– Slightly bigger buttons (depth), different bezel styling too
– Added optical heart rate sensor from Valencell (latest generation 1.2 sensor set)
– Added 24×7 continuous HR tracking
– Now compatible with new ‘Suunto’ mobile app, and Sports Tracker based web platform
– Price is 599EUR/$649USD, and for $50/50EUR you can add chest HR strap

Do note that interestingly, the new ‘Adaptive Training’ schedules/load bit from the Suunto 3 Fitness is not on the Suunto 9 series.  I suspect the main reason there is that adaptive training bit is a bit…well…basic, and Suunto doesn’t really see it aligning as well to this higher end unit.  Unfortunately that misses a key tidbit that Garmin has noted with the Fenix 3/Fenix 5: A crapton of people are buying these watches that aren’t ultra-endurance athletes. Instead, they’re buying them because they like the rugged look and want something for less crazy athletic endeavors.  That adaptive training piece would still be very much applicable to them.

In addition, note that the Suunto 9 also gained all of the features from the Spartan series, including most notably the new feature updates that were just rolled out over the past two weeks.  These included:

– Addition of power and pace zones (previously had HR zones)
– Addition of extended workout targets (I.e. duration/intensity/etc…)
– Addition of temperature data to barometric altimeter units
– Addition of smartphone notification history (so you can look back at missed alerts)

What’s nice about these new features is that while they are core to what’s going on within the Suunto 9 series, it’s not something they without from existing Suunto Spartan users.  You’ll notice that the vast majority of the non-firmware changes seen above are really driven by new hardware in the Suunto 9.  So aspects like the battery switching and FusedTrack from primarily from the new GPS chipset capabilities.  While the new custom battery modes could technically likely be done on other watch firmware, Suunto at least gives you the complete list of settings so that you can replicate it within a given sport mode pretty easily.

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Finally, it’s worth noting (and something I’ll dive into more in my in-depth review), that the Suunto 9 pairs to both of Suunto’s platforms. Yes, they have two platforms.  The first is the tried and trusted Movescount platform that’s been around for a while and is what most Suunto watches use.  The second though is the rebranded Sports Tracker platform, which is what the new ‘Suunto’ mobile app connect to. This is the platform that the Suunto 3 Fitness uses (exclusively).  However, that platform is a bit limited (for example, you can’t sync to any 3rd party apps like Strava or Training Peaks).  Nor can you do much in the way of analysis.

Thus, I’d recommend using Movescount and not the new Suunto app.  That does mean you won’t get some of the additional activity tracking and sleep data as cleanly presented in the mobile app, but it does mean you get a halfway descent backend platform.  Suunto says they’ve largely stopped investing in Movescount, and all future investments will go towards the Sports Tracker platform.  Personally, I think they’re heavily underestimating how much work it’s going to take to get that platform up and running to be acceptable to this specific crowd (endurance sports folks).  But, maybe I’ll be proven wrong.

The New Battery Features:

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Suunto says one of the biggest challenges they’ve had from a support standpoint is how to give guidance to ultra-distance athletes on how to get the best battery life from their devices.  The product team would come up with all these recommendations, which were essentially just a series of settings to enable/disable.

But that meant the settings were tied to a specific sport profile, rather than a more general concept.  Meaning that you specifically had to pre-configure these all into a specific sport mode, and couldn’t easily just use a different sport mode with your special battery setups.  So Suunto aimed to separate battery modes from sport modes via what they dubbed their ‘Intelligent Battery Modes’.  These are three and a half battery modes which simplify how battery drain occurs, regardless of sport mode selected.

The way it works is that when you go to start a workout/exercise, you’ll see a battery mode option prominently displayed in the upper edge.  Pressing the upper right button toggles through the different battery modes:

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This battery mode then corresponds with a slew of settings attached to it, but it also corresponds to the hours remaining.  Even more importantly, it does real-time math on how much battery juice you have left to let you figure out if your planned activity will go over the duration required.  For example, you can see below how many hours are left for the different modes on my watch when I took this photo:

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The three modes are ‘Performance’, ‘Endurance’, and ‘Ultra’.  There’s also a ‘Custom’ mode that allows you to find some middle-ground between these modes if you need it.  The different GPS accuracy modes roughly correspond to the number of seconds between refresh rates.  ‘Best’ accuracy is every second, while ‘Good’ accuracy is every 60 seconds on the Spartan.  And ‘OK’ accuracy is every 120 seconds.  Also note that in both Endurance and Ultra modes, they use FusedTrack for Running and Trail Running modes (more on that in the next section).

The claimed battery life for a totally full charge on the watch is the same as the top of the screenshots below – 25 ours for Performance, 50 hours for Endurance, and 120 hours for Ultra.

Here’s the full chart of what each mode does:

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As you can see, there’s actually a fair bit of tweaking going on here to get to these battery levels, especially in the case of the Ultra one.  It’s turning off the touchscreen and Bluetooth communications. It’s reducing the brightness down to 10%, and killing off optical HR (wrist HR), as well as reducing the number of colors the display uses.  All of these tweaks add up.

But, things actually get even more interesting than this. Suunto has added two layers of mid-activity battery switching. The first layer triggers when you reach 10% battery remaining, and will ask you if you want to switch to a lower battery mode – for example, setting down to ‘Endurance’ from ‘Performance’.  It’ll also give you how much battery life you’d get out of that.  So you can make the call as to whether that battery life switch is overkill, or not enough.

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But it even goes a step further than that.  Rather than the watch dying entirely, when the battery gets to an even lower level the unit will toggle into a ‘Chrono mode’, which shuts off everything except a simple timer.  It turns off the accelerometer and all other functions to simply give you the total finish time for your activity.  This means that if all else fails, the total time that’s shown on Movescount and in the logbook of your watch will be correct, no matter what.  Obviously you hope to never get to that point, but at least it’s there.

This concept is roughly akin to what Garmin does on some of their Edge cycling units in going into a low-battery profile mode turning lots of things off, but, a wee bit more drastic.

Now Suunto says they ideally don’t want people to get into that pickle to begin with, so they’ve added one last battery related feature: Proactive battery recharge notifications. The Suunto 9 watch will actually learn which days of the week you tend to do your long runs/rides/hikes and proactively remind you the day prior if it doesn’t think you’d have enough battery to complete that.  So if you tend to do a 8 hour workout each Sunday, and you only have 35% battery life on Saturday afternoon, it’ll remind you to give your watch a charge.

I’ve been charging my watch a bit more frequently to have this trigger yet, but I’m looking forward to seeing it happen in real-life.

FusedTrack (GPS without GPS):

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Probably the most technologically innovative thing to come to the Suunto 9 is FusedTrack.  Suunto has long since used the ‘Fused’ branding for other areas, such as FusedSpeed and FusedAlti.  The concept behind both of these was simple: Start with a baseline of GPS data, and then fuse it together with other sensor data, such as wrist based accelerometer data to get the best possible real-time pacing data – thus FusedSpeed.

FusedTrack though takes that to entirely different level.  The primary purpose here isn’t technically to give more accurate GPS data.  No, it’s to give GPS data where no GPS data exists.  See, when you need the Spartan to go upwards of 120 hours of ‘GPS-on’ time, that means it reduces the GPS update frequency.  In this case, down to once every 60 or 120 seconds (Endurance or Ultra modes).  That means if you were to plot GPS points, you’d get a less than awesome track in the woods while running.  Sure, it’s mostly fine for hiking since you’re moving slow enough – but not great for switchbacks and such running.

So what FusedTrack does is take those GPS points every 60/120 seconds and uses the compass, gyro and accelerometer to fill in the data.  All of which makes an astounding amount of logical sense.  If you think about it, if they have the GPS starting location, then they can roughly figure out everything else from tat point forward.

Thus, to illustrate this I give you the following track I just created this morning (for realz).  It’s got the Suunto Spartan Ultra in 60-second GPS mode, then the Suunto 9 in 60-second GPS mode (aka Endurance mode), and then a Garmin FR935 in regular 1-second GPS mode as a reference.

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What you’re looking at above is mind-boggling.  At first glance it may look like a bit of a messy thing, but in reality it’s almost a thing of beauty.  Here’s what each track is doing:

Purple – Garmin FR935: This is recording at 1-second intervals with GPS+GLONASS
Red – Suunto 9: This is within ‘Endurance’ mode sampling GPS once every 60 seconds, and using gyro/accelerometer/compass data in between
Teal – Suunto Spartan Ultra: This is set to 60-second GPS sampling mode, with nothing in between.

To set the baseline, the FR935 at 1-second intervals is without question exactly where I ran. That’s fine.  But what’s incredible is that Suunto 9 track. That’s astoundingly close. Sure, it meanders a few times on the north side of the park, undershooting a bit in one section, but then clearly corrects itself again.  It undershoots slightly again elsewhere, but otherwise is amazing.

The older Spartan (teal) doing its fix every 60-seconds is of course cutting across vast swaths of swamp and trees (and ends prematurely in the water since it doesn’t get it’s next 60-second fix).

I have no doubt Suunto will continue to refine this further (mostly because they’ve said so), but frankly: This is effin’ incredible.  GPS…without GPS.

Note that it’s limited specifically to running and trail running, since they need higher quality (read: consistent) pacing data than a normal walk or hike would give.  And cycling of course doesn’t give you enough accelerometer data to figure out the speed portion (and thus, distance).

Also, Suunto warned that it’s incredibly important you calibrate your compass with almost nothing nearby.  Like, go to a field and calibrate it.  If you calibrate it next to a building or under power lines or what-not, you’ll get crap for results.

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Now, Suunto says their visions are actually more grand here.  They’re hoping to have this implemented in the openwater swim mode as well by time they start shipping the Suunto 9.  In doing so they hope to have the most ‘hyper-accurate’ GPS swim tracks out there.  No problem, I head tomorrow to beachy locations for the next few weeks…so I’m all geared up to test that!

(Note: All of the charts in these accuracy portions were created using the DCR Analyzer tool.  It allows you to compare power meters/trainers, heart rate, cadence, speed/pace, GPS tracks and plenty more. You can use it as well for your own gadget comparisons, more details here.)

Testing the Watch:

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I’ve been putting the watch through it’s paces since mid-May, though at present while the hardware is indeed production level, it’s still on variants of beta software.  Like any beta product you occasionally see oddities that hopefully aren’t there by time it releases/ships, in this case later this month on June 26th.

Still, I figured I’d go through some of the testing I’ve been doing.  First up in that lineup has been some hiking in the Alps last week.  There’s no better place to put watches to the test than the mountains around Chamonix.  Even on nice warm Spring days this region still has the ability to wreck havoc on almost any product, production or beta.

In my case I focused my efforts on two different hikes, each between 3-5 hours. Both of which were all-climbing, all the time.  The average gradient on the climb the first day was 16%, climbing a total of ~3,000ft/1,000m in less than 2 hours.  But how well did the Suunto 9 did in terms of tracking that climb (Day 1)?  Let’s start with the elevation gain.

Below I took on this hike a number of units, including the Suunto Spartan Ultra and the Garmin FR935 – both of which are also plotted below against the Suunto 9.  As you can see from an elevation standpoint, things were very close in terms of tracking.  For all the units I made them figure out their own altimeter data.  Sure, there was altimeter markers readily available, but I like to force GPS watches to figure out the right starting elevations. Most people aren’t lucky enough to have boatloads of elevation markers at every trail they stumble across.

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You can see above that the two Suunto units are clustered closest together, and then the FR935 a bit offset.  They track similarly, but just offset.  In order to figure out which is correct, here’s the chairlift I walked right up to (I walked right next to it after taking the pic).  In this case it said 2075m, and the highest point on the Suunto 9 appears to be 2009m (so about 66m short if that’s to be believed).  The Garmin unit tops out at 2067m (or about 8m short).  Again, hard to say for absolute certain if that altitude is truly correct, but that gives you something to ponder.

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Next, let’s take a look at the GPS track.  In this case, the Suunto Spartan Ultra bowed out early from a battery life standpoint.  I apparently didn’t charge it enough.  But, this would have been the perfect scenario for the new Suunto 9 battery recommendations, as it could have wound-down the battery refresh rates during the hike to make sure it got to the end, instead of ending slightly early.

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Now, as you can see above, there’s what GPS track that crapped itself – and that’d be the Suunto 9 (in purple).  Despite saying it had GPS lock in the village, it actually didn’t.  Or, it least if it didn’t it wasn’t right.  The Suunto 9 GPS track started half-way up the side of the mountain, and then was essentially wrong for almost the entire hike to the top.  A hike that lasted a few hours, more than enough time for even the worst initial acquisition to sort itself out.  It’s not clear why this happened, but it did manage to somewhat fix itself on the way back down.

Whereas the red track and green track of the Ultra and FR935 are nearly perfect to each other going up.  Correct, I don’t precisely follow the trail on the way up (or way down), due to avalanches that had taken out a portion of the trail and hadn’t been fixed yet this year.

Next, let’s look at Day 2 of Alps testing.  In this case it was another big climb, complete with the course plotted ahead of time into the unit.  First, here’s the elevation graphs from Day 2, comparing the units:

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Again, not too shabby here, all’s good insofar as being tracking at the same offsets. There is an offset of about 90m between the two of them in terms of initial lock.  The two Suunto’s say the same thing (logical, since most brands will mimic each other), compared to the Garmin.  Since I started within a few meters of the lift, it was actually easy enough to look-up this starting elevation value – which was 1,220m.  The Suunto 9 specifies the starting value as 1,225m (so 5m off).  Not too shabby!

(In case you’re wondering why there’s a gigantic flat-line atop, that’s where I shot videos and photos for a slew of products for a long-ass time.)

And then the GPS graphs? Ahh, much better this time!

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We can zoom in on some of the more complex trail parts in the densest of forests to see how it handled:

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And…well…they’re all roughly the same. None of them are straight as an arrow perfect, but neither was the trail. They’re all in sub-standard GPS conditions against rock cliffs and tall/dense trees.

But what’s most important is that none of them are hundreds of meters off the trail.  Each is generally within a few meters of the trail.  Note in the case of placement the Suunto 9 was on my right wrist, and the Suunto Spartan Ultra and Garmin FR935 were tied atop my backpack facing upwards/outwards.

So what might have changed between these two?  I’ve got no idea.  Sometimes units need to GPS ‘soak’ after being reset (as was the Suunto 9 shortly before the Day 1 hike), though, it’s unclear if that was it.  Usually even in doing a GPS soak (which is a fancy way of saying let a watch see/track GPS for a while outdoors), it would resolve itself in tens of minutes, not hours.  It’s something I hadn’t seen an issue with elsewhere though.

I’ve done runs and rides in Paris, Helsinki, Italy, and Amsterdam, and only the once in the Alps did the GPS stumble (and that was within an hour of totally resetting the watch for a firmware update). It’s something I’ll be watching for – and tracking closely to see how well it handles over the next month or so.

Speaking of tracking, what about optical HR?  I don’t have quite as much comparative data there yet.  For my hikes I wasn’t really focused on HR tracking too much, and some of my runs have been more about GPS than HR.  Coming off the Suunto 3 Fitness, where the optical HR sensor wasn’t quite as good as I’ve seen in the past, it’s something I’ll be diving into more closely between now and the full in-depth review.

Product Comparison Photos:

Here’s a look at how things size up compared to the existing Suunto Spartan Ultra.  Suunto 9 is on the left on all photos.

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And from a weight standpoint, I’ve got that too:

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So as you can see, it’s just a tiny bit heavier than before, but not too much.

Wrap-up:

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Suunto sees the Suunto 9 as the top later of a their watch series sandwich, with the bottom layer being the recent Suunto 3 Fitness watch.  It probably won’t take a marketing genius to figure out how they might name a different series of watches to slot into the middle of this.  After all, the Suunto 9 is designed to be the successor to their top-end Suunto Spartan Ultra models, while the Suunto 3 Fitness is designed to be their least expensive models.  Missing in the gooey middle are successors to units like the Spartan Spartan Trainer and Suunto Spartan Sport lineups, which today are distinct units.  it remains to be seen if those merge into something else, or still somehow remain separate.

Suunto’s biggest marketing challenge going forward though will be the naming itself.  Suunto envisions the Series 9 watches to ultimately get generational appendages. In fact, the technical name given to retailers for the Series 9 watch is actually listed as ‘Generation 1’.  In my conversations with Suunto, they are aiming to move to an Apple-like model of iPads (or Wahoo with KICKR’s) whereby all models have a year or generational suffix on them.  Personally, I’m not really sure that works – Apple or otherwise (especially otherwise).

Nonetheless, marketing aside, I can say that while the Suunto 9 isn’t a revolutionary change, its modest updates will be appreciated by many, especially those in the longer-range endurance crowd that really do need significant battery life to make the end of their races.  Between the battery plans and the FusedTrack, those folks should get what their looking for.  Additionally, those that have long-wanted the optical HR added to the Suunto Spartan Ultra, now you have your wish too.

I think if nothing else here, the message from Suunto is more simplistic: We’re going to beat to our own drum.  And by that I mean they clearly aren’t going the direction of others by adding in music, contactless payments, apps, and a slew of other features that are quickly becoming standard issue in watches.  Instead, they’re trying to cater very specifically to a segment of the endurance population that’s out there for more hours than it takes to watch an entire TV season.  Whether or not there’s a big enough market there remains to be seen.

Still, I like the innovation that Suunto is injecting in this area, and I’m looking forward to my continued testing of it over the next month or so, ramping up to a full review sometime in July.  By then I’ll be able to dig more deeply into the new modes and and the new GPS chipset to see how they stand the test of more workouts (including more time back in the Alps).

With that – thanks for reading!

Source: dcrainmaker

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