The Ambit, Suunto’s latest and greatest GPS watch/sports instrument, has now accompanied me for more than a month of training as well as through the Vienna City Marathon – and the next marathon is in two days – making it high time for a first review.
“A first review” may sound a bit strange, but for this “GPS for Explorers,” that is exactly what it will be.
After all, the watch’s software is currently at version 1.0.7, which came out soon after the official release of the watch, but the next, v1.5, update “to be launched in [end of] May 2012” is already in the pipeline (see below). Plans are for a version 2.0 to come out in October of this year and bring yet another, even more in-depth, upgrade of the Ambit’s features.
In other words: a second and third review will likely be in order this year…
Success in a Sea of Suggestions
Right now, I like to joke that the Ambit is the most successful failure Suunto has yet produced.
When you look around at online opinions, there are a lot of complaints regarding all that it does not (yet) do, and even more suggestions of all that could or should become possible with future firmware updates:
- There is no display that gives time, weekday, date and seconds, all at once;
- time does not sync with GPS time, and
- there is no automatic time zone or daylight savings time adjustment,
- nor a database of sunrise/sunset times.
- There is no stopwatch in time mode, and
- the stopwatch that can be set up as an “exercise” display does not show tenths of a second.
The perennial favorite from Jeff_C, forum moderator at watchuseek.com – why does it still not make me an espresso? – nicely puts things into perspective, though.
After all, Suunto is not only listening and has established a dedicated email address (firstname.lastname@example.org) just for user opinions and suggestions regarding future updates. On the “success” side, there are both market responses – i.e., sales numbers (which have apparently been excellent) – and there is strong satisfaction with the Ambit as a timepiece as well as a GPS-enabled sports instrument, in particular for ultramarathoners, runners, and hikers.
High points include build quality and design, GPS, battery lifetime, and customizability / upgradability. Let’s look at the Ambit’s qualities in turn, in-depth, and in action, though.
The Suunto Ambit as a Watch
Many sports instruments and GPS watches have come on the market by now, but the Ambit is the one that can really be called a watch. There is some outdoorsyness to it, and someone with an eye for such details would notice the extension of the watch casing at the 6 o’clock (lower) position housing the GPS antenna. And yet, the looks are those of a serious watch.
It does not look like, nor is it, a plastic-y gimmick. The casing consists of only two parts, a lower section housing all the electronic innards and the display, and an upper section with the crystal watch face and bezel.
These two sections are (as is the band) attached by Torx screws and with too little of a gap for even just dust to settle in between. The bezel rises up in a triangular shape to protect the watch face, which is very scratch-resistant in and of itself already. (A little warning is in order: the bezel looks – and feels – a bit as if the designers took a cue from the “strike bezel” on Surefire flashlight’s “Defender” series. Hit someone with the watch, and it will hurt!)
The watch diameter is basically the same as that of Suunto’s Core line of outdoors watches, meaning it’s not small, but nicely fitting on an average wrist; the antenna extension hugs the wrist (although the watch band can sometimes get a bit painful there if tightening it too much or when not used to it, and the watch tends to ride up a bit towards the 12 o’clock – at least it does for me).
The thickness is quite a bit above normal – all the electronics, plus the battery, have to go somewhere, after all – but it still fits under the average loose sweater or jacket sleeve, and even under the typical dress shirt (it won’t be accessible without opening the cuff then, though). For real outdoors use, the Ambit ought to go over all but maybe the outermost layer of clothing, anyways – and the watch band will be long enough to make that possible, too.
The display is clear and crisp – enough so that one wonders if Suunto could, eventually, put something of a map view on there. It also holds one of the Ambit’s distinguishing little tricks, the ability to switch between the cooler, but oftentimes harder to read, negative display (white text on black background) and the more ordinary, but also rather more easily readable, positive display of black letters on light background.
Switching from the one to the other can be done in the menu, via Movescount, or more easily and quickly by holding the lower left (“view”) button for ~3 seconds (in any mode and even when the button lock is on).
(For those who look extra-closely: the negative display tends to show some slight discolorations. The spots visible in the image are just dust, though. These disappear when raising the display contrast, which one can do in the service menu, entered by holding both the two top buttons for 11 seconds. The service menu also serves to check firmware version, test the display, reset the GPS,…)
The buttons, by the way, are ridged so as to provide a nice grip and have a strong, smooth touchpoint, again adding to the (feeling of) build quality.
Standard displays in time mode show when an alarm is turned on, date (day and month), time, as well as the “view” (lowest line, changed by pressing the lower left “view” button) of weekday or seconds or second timezone.
A press on the central (right) “next” button leads to the altimeter or barometer view, showing barometric pressure or altitude, a graphic display of recent pressure/altitude change, and temperature or time or reference altitude (/pressure).
Mode can be set to altimeter or barometer either manually, or through auto-mode (as on Suunto’s Core watches; however, there is no storm alarm – yet?).
Another press on “next” leads to the compass, which shows an arrow towards the north, bearing, and the “view” of cardinal direction or time or an empty field. (As the Ambit-interested reader has probably heard already, Suunto is showing its know-how in outdoors instrumentation here very well, this being a “3D compass” that will show North/bearing without being disturbed if the watch is not held level, and with the ability to put in a declination setting if necessary.)
There is also a battery icon at the bottom of the screen (displaying charge status as full/not-quite-full/soon-empty in a way that is quite sufficient, but far from the best solution). When switching from one display to the next, the battery icon gets replaced (for 2 seconds) by circles indicating how many different screens there are in that mode and on which of these screens one is currently.
The backlight, given earlier unhappiness with some of Suunto’s training watches, is all the more of a pleasure: it lights the entire watch face up very nicely and evenly, can be set to the desired brightness (and can go to very high brightness levels), and does not flicker when using GPS and HR belt / PODs.
Another nice little trick of the Ambit (in time/ABC modes) is its automatic power-saving mode: When the inbuilt accelerometer senses no movement for 30 minutes, the watch turns off the display to conserve battery. Even just slight movement returns the display to its normal state. (Power saving mode can also be turned on in the service mode.)
The upper right “start stop” button is where the action really, well, gets started. Pushing that button leads into the menu offering to display the summary of the last previous exercise (earlier ones also get saved, as far as the memory allows, but are not shown on the watch itself), and switch to “navigation” or “exercise” modes.
Navigation, surprisingly for the “GPS for Explorers“, is a weak point of the Ambit – so far.
That is not to mean that the GPS, using a SirfStarIV chipset, were any bad at all, though. GPS fixes are fast, in fact.
First fixes typically take around two minutes, which is long enough but not longer than the Samsung Galaxy SII using A-GPS data I compared it against.
Having used the GPS recently or connected the Ambit to Movescount, GPS assist data is stored and the Ambit typically takes only a few seconds to get a fix. Even with tree cover and indoors, and except for two seconds also in a short underpass, I have always gotten a fix.
However, one can only view the current location, set it as a waypoint, or navigate to a stored waypoint (which can either be stored on-location or set in Movescount using Google Maps and synchronized to the watch).
Navigation to a waypoint is as-the-crow-flies and there are no routes (sets of waypoints) – yet.
As usual, at low speeds, the compass is used for the bearing to the waypoint; at slightly higher speeds, GPS is used – that is, the Ambit shows the heading to the waypoint in relation to the direction in which the watch is facing when at low speeds, and in relation to the direction of travel when at least running, respectively).
Waypoints themselves are stored in a menu based on the date (day) of their creation only, at the moment, which is hardly the most intuitive when you try to find a waypoint (to navigate to) which you set up a while ago.
The next firmware update (which will be played in via the Ambit connection to Movescount on the user’s computer; no need to send it in), version 1.5, is scheduled for end of May (as I’ve just been told, May 30, in fact). It is already meant to address these shortcomings and said to bring:
- Route creation and navigation based on waypoints
- Improvements in how waypoints are named and listed
- Improvements in how compass and navigation can be used while exercising
- Manual adding of waypoints directly in Ambit
- Some additional local grids and datums
(As I was just recently informed, aside from bug fixes, that update is pretty much finished and will indeed bring a nice navigation mode guiding the user from one point to the next, the way it should be done, plus a kind of track-back. Stay tuned…)
As operating time is typically a problem with GPS devices, and a comparative high point of the Ambit, it’s worth addressing this right here.
Suunto promises 15 hours of operation with constant (1 second) GPS fix and also using HR belt/PODs; 50 hours with a GPS fix every 60 seconds, e.g. for trekking. And it delivers.
Still having a memory of the battery life of the X9, Suunto’s earlier (earliest, in fact) GPS watch, I very much wanted the Ambit fully charged before heading out for the Vienna City Marathon, for example – and it was absolutely unnecessary.
The battery level indicator is one of the things people like to complain about (because it is small and only shows full/half-empty/empty indications), but you can be sure that it’s still as ready as you are for a long romp through the woods or run for miles even if a half-full battery is shown.
Only before a true ultramarathon, it will be advisable to fully recharge and decide whether the 15 hours/1 sec. fix is going to suffice and be appropriate (or 50 hours/60 sec. are better for that). Recharging is performed when plugging the watch into the computer’s USB, and Moveslink 2 also displays the charge level as exact percentage.
Memory may be the problem on long tours, not battery, in fact: The Ambit “dies” after some 15 hours 30 minutes (or so it did on a long-term test I did), stores about that long a log (at 1 sec storage/fix interval; even if it shuts off completely) – and the memory is cyclical. Thus, if you record a “move” beyond the limits of what the memory can hold, the oldest data gets erased.
So, connecting the Ambit to a PC regularly is strongly advised (an internet connection is not required, though; the logs get stored locally when communication with the Movescount server is not possible). Otherwise, stored data not yet downloaded may simply get erased – but, other than on the t6/c/d, where you got to see how much of the memory is free but had to delete old logs to make space for new ones (and ended up without a recorded log if you forgot and ran out of memory while on the move), the Ambit thus makes sure that the latest activity does get recorded.
The assumption, apparently, is that the Moveslink/PC connection is necessary, anyways: It downloads logs, updates settings and waypoints (if changed), synchronizes time (if set up that way), downloads GPS assist data, and recharges the battery – so, it is definitely recommendable at regular intervals, or at least whenever activities are planned or were recently done.
(PC/Mac connection is via a USB data cable again. Given how long log transfers can take and how large a file they are, wireless transmission would presumably take far too long to make sense – and it would still be necessary to plug the device in somewhere to get it recharged.
On a computer, USB connection activates the button lock on the Ambit; but recharging and using the device at the same time is apparently possible with an external power pack for USB devices – and no buttons are covered by the USB cable. The Solio Bolt was advertised for that during the Outdoor Retailer trade show in early 2012; e.g. the Solar Joos is sure to work, too.)
Exercise mode is, currently, where the Ambit really shows its strengths when it comes to its main functions, navigation and training; and it is also where the power of customization plays out.
What started with the t6c and was pushed forward in the Quest has become a strong feature of the Ambit: display customization.
Rather than giving the user a set combination of displays, the Ambit can be set up for different activities, all using different functions and showing different data sets, with up to eight different displays per mode/activity.
Just want a big display of your heart rate and nothing else? No problem.
Prefer to see a graphic showing your change in altitude and current ascent/descent, another graphic of recent heart rate (and the current HR in bpm or %max), and more? No problem either.
The variety of different combinations that it is possible to set up is, in fact, rather overwhelming – even before one gets to profiles for power shopping and Sasquatch hunting 😉
Movescount, where this customization has to be done (unless one just sticks to the default modes/activities set up already), makes it rather easy, though – if still requiring quite some forethought: One can get a lot of useful data, but also has to find out what it is one wants and needs. And if you don’t set the displays up so that you are shown the time somewhere, you’d have to exit the entire exercise mode (stopping the recording of the “move” in session) in order to simply check what time it is…
Except for the graphic displays, all possible data fields can (as far as I have seen) be chosen for every line of the different screens available within one “activity”.
Activities that can be used as foundation are all those that Movescount has in its database (and they are automatically synced as such – as with the Quest – when uploading the data onto Movescount, not saved there as “undefined activity” until manually set). These also underlie some of the settings, especially whether FusedSpeed will be used in that mode or not (which is visible in the “Advanced Settings” submenu). The names for the modes can be chosen by the user and are the names displayed on the Ambit itself.
To start (recording) an activity, you press “start/stop”, press “next” while “exercise” mode is highlighted (which it is when entering that menu), choose the activity/mode you intend to do/use, push “next” again to choose that…
The next screen shows the search for HR belt and/or PODs and/or GPS, one after the other, if set to be used in that activity/mode. HR belt/PODs are typically found within a few seconds, displayed as “searching” and then “found” before going to the next screen. The search for a GPS fix is displayed in % completion, sometimes going backwards a bit, but as mentioned before, with assist data downloaded/stored, typically jumps to 100% within just about 10 seconds. Acquisition of a GPS fix is also indicated by a “GPS found” display and an acoustic signal (if they are not completely turned off).
While on a search screen, one can also push the “start/stop” button, as indicated on the display, to “start without” that particular item. After the searches, the first display of the selected mode is shown and an arrow (again) indicates that “start/stop” should be pressed to actually start recording.
For a quick intro to this pattern – which is really much more simple than it sounds, check out this short video (which also goes through the stop of the recording):
From exercise start to stop and saving, just for illustration
While exercising, an indicator shows that the recording is running and that/when a GPS fix is locked or being sought (the HR indicator is shown at the beginning but replaced by the “stopwatch” indicator of a running recording). The various displays in that mode can be accessed, as usual, by pressing “next” (or the lower left “view” to change the view, i.e. the lowermost line on a display, if set to show more than one item).
Having set “autolap” to on, total time, lap time and lap number is also displayed automatically as laps are completed.
This is worth mentioning, in my opinion, because it makes it very useful to have the normal display show the graphical display of the heart rate, for example, so as to avoid overdoing it (unfortunately, a concern of mine…) while also getting a reminder of progress and pace (through lap number/kilometer, at the usual setting of one auto-lap every km, and lap time/pace per km) …
I have to admit, though, that I also set some manual laps – surprise: done with the “back/lap” button on the upper left – during the prior marathon, because the laps/kilometers were coming at rather different points from the km markers on the course. In the end, the distance recorded on the Ambit was still only “off” by 600 m (which is easily explained by all the weaving around other runners one had to do).
Navigation during Exercise
One can switch to navigation while exercising (to set a waypoint or navigate to a waypoint) by holding the “next” button, getting into a menu where HR limits can also be turned off and the “alti-baro” menu can be accessed (to set the used profile or enter a reference value).
For navigation, see above; but it is necessary to note here that switching back to the exercise mode means losing the navigation and having to go through the whole shebang for navigation to that particular waypoint again if having a need to do so (or, of course, staying in navigation mode but not seeing anything but that display during that time…)
It may prove helpful, it is a start, but it’s certainly something that can and should be improved (and was among the points that should be addressed by the 1.5 update of the firmware at the end of this month).
After an Exercise
The user-friendliness that is normally a hallmark of Suunto devices is seen again when stopping the exercise:
You “stop” (or actually, at first pause) the recording by pushing “start/stop”, and then you can re-start with “start/stop”, stop and save by longer pressing “start/stop”, or push “back/lap” (all as indicated by arrows shown on the display) to get to a menu asking first whether you want to stop the activity now, and then if you want to save it or not. (This can also be seen in the video just above.)
(The screen asking whether to save the log or not is especially useful if you want to customize one of the “exercise” modes for use just to display certain data, but not to have that data stored in the memory – e.g., for a simple stopwatch functionality or to observe but not -permanently- record your heart rate).
A nice side-effect of the way this is set up is that it is possible to stop/pause the recording at the end of an activity, stay within the exercise mode and see how well the heart rate goes down post-exertion, but not get that time recorded as part of the activity when stopping it.
After the final stopping/storage of the activity, a summary of the exercise is also shown. It is here that suggested recovery time is displayed, which is useful as an indication of how exhausting – and helpful in improving baseline endurance – the activity was overall.
(PTE – peak training effect – in contrast, can be shown during the activity and indicates the effect of the exercise on maximum aerobic performance.)
FusedSpeed, which combines data from the Ambit’s inbuilt accelerometer with the GPS data so as to “know” whether a change in pace is real or just an aberration in GPS signal reception, is meant to give a faster and more accurate display of pace.
Verdict on it is still out, including from me – and I honestly don’t “pace myself” that much other than by feeling, heart rate, and km (hence the mention of auto-laps above) time. It is clear that the display of pace does react quickly, and it does seem appropriate – but it is so sensitively tied to the arm swing during running, which it is mainly meant for, that even just looking at the display (and holding the watch steady for that) changes the indicated pace…
In combination with the lack of support for interval training and the (current) incompatibility with the FootPOD, that may reduce the usefulness of the Ambit for the fitness or interval training enthusiast. You’d have to mark intervals yourself, you wouldn’t get speed/distance data while doing indoors training (such as on a treadmill), and display of pace seems better than on other GPS devices, but is never their strong suit.
The main guidance for fitness training is through heart rate limits (set in Movescount, indicated on the Ambit when set to do so by visual and acoustic means), and by the calculated PTE (peak training effect) and recovery time.
It is, once again, all too easy to talk at length about those shortcomings or dubious impressions.
Fact is, though, that the Ambit has been performing pretty flawlessly in doing what it can and should do right now.
Here, if you want to take the time, is a rather longer video showing the Ambit in action in “trekking” mode, with a first fix in a new location, fixes at 60 sec. intervals, data displays as set up in that mode from the start, and even quite a bit of the navigation function during an exercise (with a little bug in there)…
The major shortfalls in navigation will be rectified at the end of the month [this May 2012], and it already is a very valuable and trustworthy tool for the outdoors athletes who are its audience: people such as ultrarunners, trail runners, and hikers.
The data displayed on the device and stored for display in Movescount looks correct enough and is very good to have – from heart rate, pace, altitude, ascent/descent to peak training effect, the recovery time suggested after the activity, and the track recording and storage/display of all the data in Movescount.
Add in the quick acquisition of GPS fix and the excellent battery life, and it is a great tool for guidance (in terms of HR and pace, and also training effects) as well as data and track recording, during ultramarathons or marathons, an excellent tracker for hikes, and useful for any other activity where a GPS location or track is nice to have, be that for using the data in geotagging photos or recording points of interest found during a city trip.
For me, certainly, it does what I expected and in a way that makes it a pleasure to use.
The data displays are as beautiful as they are useful; there would always be the possibility to store waypoints while on the move or to have them stored beforehand and to use them as a help in finding one’s way, and having tracks stored and downloaded makes rambles through the countryside (or for that matter, the city) all the more fun as they can be re-lived and re-checked on the map and in terms of physiological data.
You still have to know what data you want displayed – let alone where you are or how to handle a map. Not to forget that you still have to run yourself. No tool will – or should – do that for you, but the Ambit gives data that is helpful, makes recordings that are fun to have, and does it all in style.
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