Suunto9, Hands-On In-Depth Preview

Finally, I can stop pretending to only know about Suunto Spartan 2 (or something) teasers and provide you with all you’d want to know* about the Suunto9 Baro.

You see, I have actually been serving Suunto as external tester again, contributing a few of the “thousands of hours of testing” the Suunto 9 has been put to.

Most recently, for example, I wore it alongside a Suunto Spartan Ultra and a GPS Track POD in the Hochkönigman Skyrace. Thus, you can find some GPS data to compare, there.

*However, this is still only a preview and won’t answer questions requiring lots of data, as the watch software is still being improved constantly. Talking of an accuracy analysis (let alone giving numbers on that) when a firmware is still in beta is just silly…

Full disclosure: What this “work” as external tester means is that I get the watch(es) for free in exchange for my time and feedback. Having watches for reviews and how-to is just a nice side effect. No influence on my reporting is exerted, I’ll only have to check myself to not, maybe, reveal anything that is under NDA. (Non-disclosure agreement, meaning I am not allowed to talk about it.) Otherwise, what you get is my pure experience and unadulterated opinion.

What the Suunto9 Is About

The Suunto 3 Fitness saw Suunto addressing a user base that feels new for the brand, of people generally interested in improving their fitness.

It is not really a new market for Suunto, but had not been the audience since the M-series of watches and the Quest.

The Suunto 9 instead aims at an audience that is very much Suunto:

Runners for whom 2+ hours of training in a session are just a fun run.

Trail runners who’ll head for the mountains for a whole day.

Ultramarathoners who will go for 100-milers and not necessarily finish them in under 24 hours.

For these, with new battery modes, runtimes similar to the Spartan Ultra but with oHR added on-watch, with the new FusedTrack enabled by a new Sony GPS chipset, the Suunto9 offers quite some enticing features.

What the Suunto9 also does, evidently, is get away from the “Spartan” name and thus, perhaps, make it easier to forget how badly this family of watches initially began.

What About The Spartan?

At the same time at which the Suunto9 moves away from the name Spartan and addresses a special audience, it may end up further strengthening the Spartan family.

If you aren’t in the user group for whom the Suunto9 is made, already have a Spartan Ultra or Baro, Sport or Trainer, you are still set for your training and adventures.

All the more so as there are good chances that the Suunto9 (like the Suunto 3 Fitness before it) shows something of where the Spartan software is going.

The Suunto 3 Fitness showed the basic logic (e.g., with a notification screen and a different training overview, as well as updates to the training screens / targets) that has come to the Spartan family with software update 2.0.

Similarly, the battery modes being introduced with the Suunto 9 may well come to the Spartan watches.

Let’s not get ahead of ourselves, though… but remember that a new look at the Spartan lineup with the current firmware for that is in order, as things look very different from how they did when that was introduced.

If you find a review dissing the Spartan watches, check if it wasn’t written (and never updated) two summers ago, when the Spartan Ultra was released…

The Suunto9 Look

Where you can easily see that this is an evolution, not a revolution (although…, we’ll get there) is in the Suunto9’s looks.

If it weren’t for the disappearance of the “Spartan” name on the basic watchface and the watch case’s back, you could think that this is just another new Spartan. A new Spartan Ultra with oHR added.

In the innards, the story is a very different one. Let’s remain on the outside a bit, though.

Models/Case

Suunto9

Suunto9

The Suunto 9 comes in either black or white, with the white version having a pure steel bezel (and being the one I have). The black version is all (polished, in the case of the bezel) black.

The major difference from the Spartans is the slightly different design of the bezel, with ‘chevrons’ carved into it at the cardinal points.

Watch Band

The case/band design is a mixture of the Spartan Ultra and (e.g.) WHR Baro designs: The case extends into lugs where the watch band attaches with quick-release pins; the band is made to sit flush with the case body, though.

If you want to, you can easily exchange that 24 mm watch band with another one.

The watch will look less sleek that way, in my opinion – but then, the curved original band fits my wrist perfectly and I like that look.

Should that be different for you, there is little holding you back from changing it. (It could be that more light gets to the oHR sensor, then, but that doesn’t seem to be an issue with a WHR Baro Spartan, so it shouldn’t be one here, either.)

More interesting may be that the silicone watch strap is said to be improved.

It sure hasn’t attracted dust or shown signs of the finish rubbing off the way earlier bands did. Then again, it is the white strap I have now, not a black one (where all that would be more visible).

Buttons

The buttons of the Suunto9 are actually a bit deeper (stick out a bit further) than those of Spartans, but that’s not exactly a relevant detail.

Size

The Suunto9 is the exact same size as the Spartan WHR Baro, just a touch heavier.

This is getting interesting, as it means that the Suunto9 probably has a battery the size of the Spartan WHR Baro’s – which is half the size of the Spartan Ultra’s battery.

Inner Life

Half the battery, comparable runtimes…

This is one of the aspects of the Suunto9 where its new Sony GPS chipset comes into play.

Yes, the S9 looks like a Spartan, acts like a Spartan, but shifts from a SirfStar to a Sony GPS chipset.

This little change is actually quite major. For one, in the just-mentioned battery runtime/weight game. But also because it is this Sony chip that enables the FusedTrack feature.

The oHR is again/still provided through a Valencell sensor.

New Features

Naturally, the Suunto 9 doesn’t just have a new name, doesn’t add different hardware just-so. It is all about providing new functionality.

FusedTrack

Finally, the headline feature. Or, what should be the headline feature, in my opinion, but doesn’t get quite as much attention as it should.

The GPS Problem

On a watch with GPS and touchscreen like the current Suunto (or Garmin, let alone smartwatches with LED displays like the Casio ProTrek Smart), display, touch, and GPS are typically the major power drains.

Too bad they are, for the most part, also the most important things.

There is already the possibility of saving battery by setting a lower GPS sampling rate.

On a Spartan Ultra, for example, one can not only have the GPS record the position every second in full-power GPS with a (claimed) battery life of 18h.

There is also the fix every second but with low-power mode in between fixes for 35h battery life (“Good” GPS setting).

Or there is the “Ok” mode with a 60 seconds fix rate with full power, for 140h battery life.

The problem is that the “Good” mode can already miss some turns; a fix every 60 seconds in the “Ok” mode does not make for a very okay track if comparing it to reality (or a higher GPS fix rate).

The Magical GPS

Better FootPODs have long claimed that they don’t just record a footfall, their algorithms “draw” the actual motion of the foot.

The Suunto 3 Fitness (and actually, even the Ambit line, to some extent) are not half-bad at determining speed/pace and distance covered just from their accelerometer, e.g. when there is no GPS reception (or it’s not connected, as happened to me at the Salzburg (Half)Marathon…).

This, after all, is the technology behind Suunto’s FusedSpeed, which corrects speed/pace data by combining accelerometer and GPS data.

There has also been FusedAlti, combining GPS and barometric altitude data.

Take that accelerometer data, add in gyrometry and compass data, and you could get a magical GPS that knows the shape of the track you ran even without GPS.
Add in some GPS fixes, and that shape has a start and end point and corrections in between…

And that’s how you get FusedTrack.

Now, it is a bit of a marvel, but thus, it will also take some further work and testing.

The FusedTrack Caveats

FusedTrack is utterly impressive an idea. That it is possible at all is quite amazing.

That said, when lots of users employ a watch with that technology, things will get interesting, as there are some things to consider. Things that may require improvements…

Compass / Sensor Influence

For one, having the compass calibrated and working correctly (i.e., without disturbances) must be essential.

I like to compare it to the DJI Spark giving “Compass Error” messages (and potentially showing erratic behavior) if it  gets too close to anything metallic/magnetic.

It sounds far-fetched a comparison, perhaps, but the drone also uses (at least) the compass in combination with GPS for determining flight data.

Try taking off with a Spark in magnetic fields that are disturbed, it will give you an error message.

Use FusedTrack in areas with too much electromagnetic interference (or having calibrated the compass in such an area…, let alone, with the magnetic charger cable attached) and you will probably get erroneous data.

With lots of people using it, in highly divergent conditions, it will be interesting to see the results in their different places.

Run and Swing

Also, FusedTrack is meant to be used in running or trail running only; its algorithm is set up to count on a certain amount of watch oscillation.

In other words, you swinging your arms while running.

(Also, something like cycling does not get the differences in acceleration that are constant in running, thus also lacks data that would be necessary for such an algorithm to work.)

It will be interesting to see how it works for different people with different arm swings, moving at different speeds… all the more so considering the battery life it contributes to.

After all, when out for more than 30 hours, not all the time will be spent at a running pace.

The Suunto9 Battery Life with GPS (and FusedTrack)

The comparison of battery life gives interesting insight into the differences between e.g. a Suunto Spartan Ultra and a Suunto 9.

For the Suunto 9, the claimed battery life is:

  • 25 hours in “Best” GPS (SSU: 18 hours; SSWHRB: 10 hours)
  • 40 hours in “Good” GPS (SSU: 35 hours; SSWHRB: 12 hours)
  • 120 hours in “Ok” GPS (SSU: 140 hours; SSWHRB: 40 hours)

On the Suunto 9, these are not GPS fix rates of 1 second, 1 second with low power or 60 seconds (as on the Suunto Spartan Ultra and Spartan Sport WHR Baro.

Rather, the Suunto 9 has GPS fix rates of 1 second (“Best”), 60 seconds (“Good”) or 120 seconds (“Ok”).

Suunto9 Battery Compared to Spartan Ultra

Now, comparing to the Spartan Ultra, the battery life improvement may not seem all that great.

Potentially 7 hours more runtime, almost one-third more, than a Spartan Ultra with best GPS is not bad at all – and if you consider that the Suunto9 does that while also running oHR heart rate measurement, on a battery that is half the size of the Spartan Ultra’s, this is outstanding.

The better comparison, given battery size and oHR, is actually with the Spartan Sport WHR Baro, which the Suunto 9 shares its size with.

Suunto9 Battery Compared to Spartan Sport WHR Baro

Compared to those of the Spartan Sport WHR Baro even in the “Best” GPS mode with the same fix rate (of 1 second in full power mode) the Suunto 9’s runtimes are more than doubled.

This is achieved through the combination of longer GPS fix rates, making for great energy savings, and lower energy requirements from the Sony GPS chip.

“Good” and “Ok” GPS settings increase runtime even further, (more than) tripling them.

At the same time, thanks to FusedTrack, the recorded tracks should be much better than a simple GPS fix every 60 seconds would give.

In the following, you can see a sample from a run of mine, with the Spartan Ultra using “best” GPS and the Suunto 9 in “Endurance” mode, with “Good” GPS + FusedTrack.

SSU (Best GPS) vs Suunto9 (Endurance Mode, Good GPS)

SSU (Best GPS, track in blue) vs Suunto9 (Endurance Mode, Good GPS, track in green)

How tracks recorded with a GPS fix every 120 seconds, i.e. two minutes, and “drawn” in between only by FusedTrack end up looking will be very interesting.

Current tests are promising, but I do not want to show anything before the software hasn’t come out of its current pre-production status and data has been collected sensibly.

Now, part of that battery life is also achieved by way of the Suunto9’s new battery modes!

Battery Management on the Suunto9

A – or the – other big update with the Suunto9 is the help it gives with battery life management.

There are actually two components to that; notifications and modes. And, if you will, the new watchface it comes with…

The Suunto9’s New Watchface

The new watchface introduced with/on the Suunto9 nicely points to its focus on battery life, long training sessions, and an audience doing that:

Around analog watchhands in the middle and some tap-to-change data just above the center, this watch face shows the battery percentage at the bottom.

Two circular gauges complete the screen, one inside with the remaining battery charge. The other lies outside and shows the current week’s logged/tracked hours (going up to 24 hours).

I am not sure how many people will ever track – let alone train – 24 hours in a week. (Hence, I do not want to call them hours of training.)
And no, when you get over the 24 hours, nothing special happens, the gauge just remains at the completely-full level.

Nor am I sure how many people really have too little battery all the time.

The battery gauge of the Casio ProTrek Smart was something I wanted to keep an eye on, all through every single day of using that, because it needed a recharge every single day.

I cannot, however, remember a single time I took any Suunto and couldn’t record my next run because of low battery.

Still, it seems to be an issue for enough people, and the Suunto 9 doesn’t stop there.

Battery Notifications

When it comes to battery notifications, the Suunto9 is designed to learn when you typically go out for a (longer) training/activity.

In advance of such a time, when the battery level isn’t high, anyways, it displays reminders to not forget to recharge if you are “Training soon?”

During an activity, too, you will get a warning if/when the battery gets low.

This already exists on the Spartan (and Ambit) watches, but on the Suunto9, it will also offer options to change to a different battery mode and show how much longer the battery should last (in the current or other, suggested, mode).

Intelligent Battery Modes

Battery modes themselves, finally, are already suggested when starting a recording and immediately show how much battery runtime they will (probably) give.

Hit the upper button to change from one to the other, or go down into the options to set them and check their settings.

The modes set up by Suunto are Performance, Endurance, and Ultra, and there is also a custom mode.

Basically, these modes correspond to the different GPS settings, but they all also employ additional “tricks” to balance functionality and battery life.

Suunto9 Battery Modes

Suunto9 Battery Modes

Battery Mode Tweaks

All of these battery modes deactivate the touchscreen and turn the display to “low color”.

Low color versus full color is not such an issue, as the low color mode is improved and not very noticeably different anymore.

The disabling of the touchscreen on a watch (technically, the successor to a watch) that had its touchscreen be one of its outstanding features is a bit strange, though.

Endurance Mode

In Endurance battery mode, GPS is changed from “Best” accuracy in “Performance” to “Good”.

Endurance battery mode also reduces the display brightness to 20%.

Ultra Mode

The Ultra battery mode switches GPS sampling rates further down to “Ok,” meaning once every 120 seconds. Yes, only every 2 minutes!

It squeezes out battery life by reducing display brightness to 10% and shutting it off after 10 seconds, turning off oHR (WHR), vibration and Bluetooth.

Custom Mode

In custom mode, one can choose which GPS accuracy to use, whether to enable or disable touch, use low color or full color mode and/or let the display (screen) timeout (like in standby mode when the watch isn’t being moved).

Some details on how exactly the setup and especially customization of sports modes in Movescount (or later on, the Suunto app) and the battery mode adjustment on the watch will interact still remain to be seen.

Probably, that will become a great topic for at least one of my how-to videos…

Wrap-Up

As I said, I will provide further, in-depth, and hopefully somewhat statistically significant comparison data as the watch software stabilizes. Beta and pre-production software is always a bit spotty.

(In that post I just linked to, there is a map showing what tracks an Ambit2 and an Ambit3 Peak with early firmware provided. It was not pretty.)

Initially, I was a bit worried that the Suunto9 focused on battery life so much.

After all, for everyday training, it is hardly necessary to be able to switch from 18 to 28 to 38 to 100 hours of training – the estimates I am currently being given, at 71% remaining battery – at the push of a button.

For those people who want or need such battery runtimes at least sometimes, though?

If you run ultramarathons, go on hikes in the mountains over long weekends – or perhaps, don’t want to have to recharge your watch too often even as you track all your day’s major runs and rides and everything… this is good.

The technology, even if not making it necessary to upgrade from a Spartan (which can now be had for a very good price!) points in an interesting direction.

Definitely interesting: With the Suunto9, the company shows that it is willing to play its very own game.

Sure, you can still miss custom workouts (not just the simple intervals currently offered), wait for the possibility to pair multiple PODs of a single type at the same time… all the common complaints.

But, that Suunto aims not only for a general and easy customer potential (as with the Suunto 3 Fitness) but also for a small-but-dedicated customer base in need of special features, that is great.

No music here. Listen to the sound of your footsteps.


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5 Comments

  1. How did you get the Custom mode with display on all the time and Best GPS to show 42 hours? Thx!

  2. Tobias

    so this activity scale on the main watch face is always set to 0- 24hrs or will it adopt to a more sensible ratio set e. g. depending on traning hours done? with my 3hrs training per wk it would be waste of screen real estate! 🙂

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