If you are in the market for a premium GPS sports/outdoor watch you will have heard about Suunto’s flagship watch – the Suunto Spartan Ultra (SSU). The watch was released in mid-2016 with big expectations from users but some initial software issues resulted in many disappointed owners.
Fortunately these problems have been mostly resolved and the watch is now really good – and it would want to be as it is not cheap (about AUD1000 depending on the model).
The SSU comes in a couple of different models (Titanium vs non-Titanium) and in a few different colours and with or without the heart rate belt. I went for the Stealth (colour) Titanium (bezel material) heart rate version. It is sort of a greyish-brown colour which is a bit more discrete than the other colour options – but in hindsight I think the All Black Titanium might have looked better. All the Spartan Ultra’s are waterproof, have sapphire glass and a colour touchscreen.
There is also a cheaper Spartan Sport model with a few less features and shorter battery life and a Spartan Sport with wrist heart rate due at the end of March 2017. Check out the Suunto website for the latest details of colours and models.
It’s a watch so yes it can tell the time.
This is the screen you get when you are about to start a move / activity. The icons at the top indicate you have a GPS fix and the heart rate belt is connected.
You can display up to 7 data fields of your choice with customisable sports modes. In the example above I have: average speed, time of day, duration, speed, heart rate, temperature and distance. There is a heap of other things to choose from including altitude if you are lucky enough to live anywhere near hills.
This is a customisable sports mode with 5 fields. You can choose to have dark text on a white background or light text on a dark background as shown below.
The SSU also has a barometer and the watch has many additional capabilities and features that I don’t know about and don’t need.
There are people out there much more qualified to assess and comment on GPS accuracy than me so if you are serious about this aspect of the watch I recommend you check out Fellrnr and Andrew Nugged for starters.
In my experience the GPS accuracy has been pretty good and seems to get better with each software update from Suunto’s Spartan Update Program.
I got one of these $3 handlebar mounts from eBay which makes it much easier to read the watch when riding and possibly results in better GPS accuracy as the bezel/antenna is facing upwards.
This is typical of one of my road cycling tracks which follows my line pretty well exactly – sometimes maybe 1-2 metres off but generally very smooth and accurate. Conditions are very favourable for GPS performance here as I normally ride along Melbourne’s Beach Rd which has unobstructed views of the sky on one side and 1-2 story houses on the other. I have done the same 30km circuit several times and the total distance is within about 100m each time.
I have tried the watch a couple of times in Openwater Swimming mode. The first time I stupidly had the Autopause setting On – which meant that I ended up being paused for most of the time as the watch struggled to get a satellite fix while my hand was underwater. Needless to say my time and distance were about one quarter of what they should have been.
The next time I made sure that Autopause was Off and my time and pace made much more sense. The GPS track doesn’t look very smooth and I put half of that down to me not swimming in a straight line (between 2 markers on a calm day) and the other half down to the fact that the watch is immersed in the water for more than half the time making it very difficult to get a satellite fix. It would be interesting to strap the watch to the back of your head somehow and compare the GPS track – I expect it would be much more accurate.
This is trail running in the Dandenongs with pretty solid, large tree cover and steepish hills. Generally the GPS tracks were OK but this section near Doongalla was a mess. (I was doing the Rollercoaster Run circuit – not the race). This was taken before the major GPS improvements were released on 25 Jan 2017 which has certainly made the GPS accuracy better – but I expect most devices will struggle in these types of conditions.
After the major GPS improvements were released on 25 Jan 2017, I did 7 laps on my mountain bike of this 500m circuit. There was moderate tree cover on at least half the circuit and it is mostly flat. I am pretty sure I had GLONASS turned on because it has just been enabled by Suunto and I assumed it would make the watch more accurate – but it seems that most users are getting more accurate tracks with GLONASS switched off.
This is a short section of mountain biking when I went up and down the hill twice – which is why there are 4 lines. Pretty heavy tree coverage and moderate hills so challenging GPS conditions. It is interesting that in the top right section there are 2 pairs of well aligned tracks. I think is caused by having the watch on my left wrist so I got a different view of the sky going up the hill compared with coming back the other way. If I had of used my handlebar mount I expect the tracks would have been closer together.
But overall I am very happy with the GPS accuracy. I have reviewed the tracks on most of my moves and sure there is the occasional cut corner or something a bit out of line – but overall it is very good and the updates from Suunto have made a significant improvement. The current benchmark for GPS accuracy (and reliability) seems to be Suunto’s own Ambit3 Peak and the SSU is often compared against it. Many users have reported that the SSU is getting very close in terms of accuracy although I wouldn’t expect it to match or beat the Ambit3 which has an external GPS antenna (bump on the wrist band) which I expect would get a better view / angle of the sky in normal wrist positions. But I really don’t know anything about GPS antennas, satellite signals and have never used the Ambit3 so treat my opinion with the contempt it deserves.
I am not sure if it is a GPS or a barometer issue but I found the watch overestimated vertical ascent, but that was a couple of months back and I understand Suunto have been trying to address this. There is a couple of different altitude settings you can choose and I haven’t had a chance to thoroughly test this yet. When I next get into the hills and get a chance to test this I will update this review.
This feature is fantastic – and that is based on my experience before Suunto added Points Of Interest (POIs) navigation on 1 March 2017. The POIs will just make it better and I look forward to testing it out as I believe it will make it much easier to use.
If you scroll back up to the first photo you will see the track I was following on a 29km trail run through Victoria’s High Country (I came last but I didn’t get lost). Only once did I have to get my phone out to check the official course mapping app. The process is really very simple when you have done it a couple of times:
- Find or create the route you want in Movescount (on your computer)
- Select “Use in watch” so it syncs from the computer onto the watch
- When you are preparing the watch before starting your move (in this case trail running) go into the options and select the route you want to follow
- When you are running (or riding or whatever) you just hit the middle button a couple of times and it will scroll from your speed and distance data to the navigation / breadcrumb trail screen. Press the middle button again if you want to go back to the speed data etc
I found the blue line (the route) easy to follow with the breadcrumb trail showing my progress / actual track. With a quick glance of your wrist you can see there is a right hand turn coming up for example. 95% of the time that is all you need and the confirmation you are the right track. The other 5% of the time you might need your phone, a map or a real (handheld) GPS unit.
It will also show you which way is north but like other electronic compasses I have used I would treat the direction shown as indicative only. The best thing I found was it seems to auto-scale. For example, in the first photo (and the one below) the scale is shown as 100 metres – but I have noticed that if I had a straight line route for say 1km before a turn, it would adjust the scale and show the next turn.
In the case above I went on a short bushwalk without a route programmed into the watch. I was recording my move in Hiking mode and went to the breadcrumb view to ensure I could “track back” to the car. A very handy feature that outdoors people will love. I haven’t tried it but I don’t think you even need to be recording a move to use the navigation functions.
Notifications and connectivity
The SSU is a serious sports watch and not aimed at the smart watch market, but being able to get notifications on your watch is really convenient. Like when you are running through the bush and you get a call or a message on your phone you can instantly tell if it is something important that you need to deal with.
This used to be longest message you could read – but Suunto have now improved it so that you can read and scroll through long messages. Big thumbs up.
To connect your watch to your phone you need to download the Movescount app, in my case the Movescount for Android App which seems to work well. You can choose from about 50 things that you might want to receive notifications for but I only use it for phone calls and text messages. And obviously you need to turn on Bluetooth on your phone. But if you want to make or answer a call you need to get your phone out.
I am one of the last 6 people on the planet that has the misfortune to still be using a Blackberry and not surprisingly there is no Movescount app available. So another good reason to accidentally smash it and buy an Android phone.
The most reliable way to sync your moves is to connect the watch to your computer with the supplied cable but you can also sync with your phone via bluetooth. I have had many times where I had to take a few attempts to get the watch to sync a move through the phone – but I think it is getting better / more reliable.
I have had no problems pairing with the included Suunto heart rate belt. It is the most comfortable heart rate belt I have worn. I tried wearing it in the pool once but whenever you pushed off the end of the pool the HR belt would slide down and out of position. I wore it under my wetsuit another time while open water swimming which was fine but for some reason it didn’t sync the HR data at the end of the move. I haven’t tried swimming with it for many months so hopefully it was a once off error or Suunto have fixed it since.
Update May 2017: I have been successfully using the Milestone Pod connected to my Spartan for a month or so now. I registered for their beta testing program to get real time cadence data on my watch when running and it paired easily and seems to work well. You may be able to get other metrics like stride length but I haven’t looked into that yet. You should also be able to use the footpod for distance instead of GPS (for use on a treadmill for example) but again I haven’t tried that yet. I expect that the Milestone people will shortly roll out the real time data to all users.
Suunto claim 18 hours battery life using the best GPS setting but I have not done a move anywhere near that long. From what I have heard 18 hours might be a bit optimistic but I am guessing that you should get at least 12-15 hours out of it. You can also extend the battery life when doing a long move (such as an ultra marathon or an overnight hike) by reducing the GPS accuracy. There is also the possibility that battery life can be improved in future software updates.
I find that I need to charge the watch about once every 7-10 days depending on how much exercise I do – but that would typically include several hours of exercise at the best GPS setting and notifications on all the time. [For comparison, Mrs Bretto’s Samsung Gear Fit 2 has to be charged every day whether you use the GPS or not!]
You charge the watch with the USB cable that has a strong magnet on it and locks onto the back of the watch. Seems to work well.
Comfort, fit and style
I know the watch is meant to be used for sports and outdoor activities, but it’s good to know you can wear it to work without looking like a complete knob.
Although the watch is quite large and chunky, it is surprisingly light so I don’t normally notice I am wearing it. The band is comfortable and it hasn’t come undone while swimming.
If I had $6k to spare (which I don’t) I wouldn’t hesitate to buy something like this:
And all it does is tell the time and look good.
So when you consider these Spartans have a list of features as long as your arm and start at about $650 in Australia (Spartan Sport no HRM) up to $1200 (Spartan Ultra Titanium Copper with HRM) I reckon it is pretty decent value. But there is certainly cheaper GPS watches out there.
Suunto’s Movescount website
Being my first Suunto product I had to sign up to their Movescount website (free) which then stores all your moves (activities) and data for later review and comparison. It is pretty much like a fancy version of Strava. Things I like:
- It connects to your watch so you can change the settings
- You can identify popular running or cycling areas and routes using the “heatmap”
- You can plan your moves (routes) on the computer (or copy someone else’s) and then it automatically appears on your watch.
- It will automatically sync your moves to Strava or other services
Here is a screenshot of Movescount on my PC where you can create your own sports modes.
This is the Movescount heatmap showing popular trail running routes which is great for finding new places to run (or ride or whatever).
Is the Spartan a lemon?
In my opinion (which is why you are reading this) definitely not – but there was some people very frustrated with Suunto and this watch. For those of you that haven’t been following the situation, my summary is as follows:
- Mid 2016 – Suunto release the Spartan with big claims about the performance and features. They noted that some of the features would not be available in the initial release but full functionality would be provided through software updates.
- The early adopters and Suunto fans purchased the Spartan and many were surprised and annoyed that some basic functions were not yet enabled or working properly.
- Many users found the GPS accuracy to be inconsistent and speculated that the software was not mature enough – especially for such an expensive watch.
- Suunto tries to alleviate user concerns and advises the dates and plan for updates through its “Spartan Gets Stronger” program.
- End Sept 2016 – Suunto release the first software update, with more updates following every 2-4 weeks.
- The watch gets better each time with bug fixes, new features and improved functionality.
- Suunto attempt to appease their customers by offering an extra year of warranty to anyone who purchased the watch in 2016 (making it a total warranty of 3 years).
- By the end of January 2017, Suunto have released 8 software updates including a release focused on improving GPS performance. User opinions start to become more favourable as the capabilities of the watch are realised.
My experience with the watch
I got the watch in October 2016 and have done about 60 moves -mostly running (street and trail) and road cycling. I have also used it pool swimming, open water swimming, mountain biking and a couple of walks. There is about 50 other sports modes in the watch for things as useless as table tennis or cheerleading which I doubt anyone would ever use. Overall I am very happy with the watch. It does everything I want although I understand elite athletes and other users might be more demanding of their gear.
The watch seems to be very reliable and I have never had it crash, freeze or lose a move and every update has worked smoothly.
I can’t deny that I like my gadgets so if nothing else, having this watch has motivated me to get out there and test it so I ended up doing more exercise than I would have otherwise.
My only gripe is the screen can be a bit hard to read in some light conditions if you don’t have the backlight turned on.
Bretto Rating: 9/10
My score would have been more like 6/10 when I first got it. I wasn’t disappointed with the watch but it is definitely better now and I look forward to each update to see what new features have been enabled. The people that are less satisfied with the Spartan seem to be serious athletes that need specific functions like custom interval training and need to connect multiple devices like bike sensors and power meters.
Would I buy it again: Yes. I reckon it is a great watch.
If you have had a good or bad experience with the Spartan – or you are thinking about getting one feel free to share your thoughts in the comments section.
Disclaimer: I purchased this watch at a discounted price from Suunto