Review: new Suunto Spartan Ultra

When it comes to gear releases, trail running has come a long way – the anticipation surrounding the new Suunto Spartan Ultra GPS watch has been speculatively spectacular. The murmurs. The guesses. The pre-judgements. It’s the trail equivalent to the release of a new Apple Mac. The trainspotters and tech geeks go a bit manic. They wee themselves a little. Luckily we have access to our own ‘Q’ (hello Bond fans) when it comes to inspecting the intricacies of space-aged boxes that can tell you a whole lot more than just how fast and high you run, at what rate, how hot it is, what your heart is doing, is your pace okay, how’s your power output doing, oh and there’s a message from your mum – will you be home for dinner? Yep, a watch ain’t a watch no more. It’s its own life force threatening you with near-AI. And the goal posts just shifted again with the Spartan… here’s the inside line on what to expect when your order does through, courtesy of Paul Day. Trail runner. Statistician. Data Guru. Tech Jedi. He got down and dirty with a pre-release Suunto Spartan Ultra. This is what he found. 

Introduction

As Beta Tester for Suunto, I have the fun job of testing out the majority of new hardware, firmware and software Suunto release before it gets pushed out into the public. This means I get a product while it still has a few rough edges and I then put it through its paces to report back any bugs, issues, unexpected behaviour or even just things I don’t like. I’m a rather particular guy and I don’t like it when a piece of technology is not working as it should!

Not surprisingly, the last few weeks have been spent in a serious relationship with the new Spartan Ultra Black HR – Suunto’s next major release that went on sale globally on the 15th August. And I’ve agreed to give you all a bit of a preview of this new beast. This isn’t designed to be an exhaustive review – I don’t think I’ve spent enough time with the watch to deliver that.

Despite being a tester for Suunto, I’m not under any obligation to say nice things about them. That said, I’m obviously a bit of a fan of their gear so feel free to consume a small pinch of salt before proceeding!

Most of my testing of the Spartan Ultra was done with an Ambit2 on my right wrist. If I’m such a Suunto nerd, why the old Ambit2? Because the Ambit2 is still a very capable watch and this way I only need to wear one heart-rate strap: the dual BLE/ANT+ Stryd power meter which will talk to both my Ambit2 (ANT+) and a more modern BLE watch like the Spartan Ultra.

Release Timeline

While the public release occurs mid-August, this is really only the start for this watch. Suunto have a solid track record for continuing to supply firmware updates long after a watch’s release and the Spartan is looking to be no different (if anything it’ll be more so). Even the old Ambit2 received an update in June 2016 – 15 months after being superseded by the Ambit3.

Suunto has already released details on a number of new features for the watch that are planned for release in late September including new planning tools and personal bests and there’s plenty more in the pipeline.Mt Buller

The watch I’ve been testing is prototype hardware (almost identical to what’s now going out), has been running pre-release versions of the firmware and is connected to a test instance of Movescount via a pre-release instances of the new SuuntoLink and Android Movescount applications. Long of the short, that means I am dealing with bugs and some missing features – the exact reason I’ve been given the watch! By the time you’re reading this, some of what I’m writing about will already be out-of-date, updated or have had more features added.

Additionally, I’ve only been using the watch for a few weeks now and I really don’t feel that does it justice. There’s plenty I just haven’t had a chance to touch and plenty that I’ve drawn some initial conclusions about but need more time to test exhaustively.

Physical

Let’s get physical and yep, it’s gone – the bump is gone.

Personally I don’t mind the GPS antenna bump that sticks out of the Ambit line of watches – I’m out on the trail to get dirty, not win a fashion award. Maybe it’s also the nerd in me that appreciates it for what it is: a mighty fine GPS antenna! More on that later.

That said, I personally think the Spartan is a big improvement in the “good looks” department when it comes to wearing the watch day-to-day. Heading out the door with the wife to a show the other day she asked “are you going to wear your new dress Suunto?”. I think it’s a strong competitor against the better looking Smart Watches now on the market and the suave looks of the Garmin Fenix 3.

Not having a large manly wrist, I was a little worried that the wider bezel (and screen) would result in a watch that’s spilling over my wrist, but it actually fits surprisingly well – better than the smaller Ambit3 Peak. The weight is also quite light at only 73g. Compared to the Ambit3 Sport (80g), the standard Ambit3 Peak (86g) and the Ambit2 (~89g), it’s noticeably lighter on my wrist. It’s also marginally thinner than the Ambit3 Peak it’s designed to replace.

Here’s a few pictures of how it sits on my wrist compared to an Ambit3 Peak (Nepal Edition – same size as the standard Peak, different bezel):

Combined views

LEFT: Spartan Ultra vs RIGHT Ambit3 Peak NE

Display

Another concern area I had was around the new display. I’m not even a fan of the negative display (ie, black background) you can set the Ambit’s LCD screen to because I find the positive display far easier to read when running. I also find my OLED mobile phone screen is sometimes difficult to read in strong sunlight or flat overcast light even with the backlight is on 100%. How will I be able to read a colour LCD screen with the backlight on or off while running?

Surprisingly, quite easily. The reflective colour LCD is easier to read than I was expecting. With the backlight off you do definitely lose some of the colours’ vibrancy, but when out running the display is quite readable – even the new seven-metrics-on-one-screen. With the backlight on (which happens automatically whenever you interact with the watch – although that can be disabled), the colours look similar to an average mobile phone’s OLED display.

I’m not going to try and do the screen shots justice when Suunto themselves have already done a far better job than I’ll ever be able to, so I’ll simply link to this page if you want a better idea of the screens and lay-out: http://www.suunto.com/en-AU/sports-watch-collections/Suunto-Spartan-Collection/

Suunto-moveSuunto-stepsSuunto-training

 

 

 

 

Images courtesy of Suunto. Source: http://www.suunto.com/en-AU/sports-watch-collections/Suunto-Spartan-Collection/

Likewise, I was suspicious how well the new touch screen would perform out in the field: sweat, rain and gloves. Like most modern mobile phones, the Spartan uses the more sensitive capacitive touch screen. My mobile phone’s touch screen gets rather confused when I simply breathe on it – let alone add sweat or rain. The screen simply has to be dry to work properly. The Spartan Ultra, on the other hand, works quite well with moisture. Condensation, drizzle, light rain and thin polypro gloves were all no problem for it. Heavy rain (ie, me testing it out directly under the shower head!) was a bit more of a struggle and operating it underwater was, not surprisingly, out.

Navigating using touch interface is quite simple and calibration of the finger movements and taps required is about right.

Should you not like the touch screen or be in a situation where it doesn’t work well (heavy rain or big fat ski gloves), the Spartan does still have three physical buttons on the right hand side of the watch which can be used to navigate all the same functions that you can access with the touch screen. Even compared to some of my newer Suunto watches that aren’t yet full of sweat and sunscreen, the buttons feel very nice – easy to push, no stickiness and a nice positive rebound.

Interface

The user interface of the Ambit line has stayed roughly the same from the original Ambit right through the latest v2 firmware release of the Ambit3 series. Moving to the Spartan has not been the same as moving from the Ambit2 to the Ambit3. Suunto have completely re-designed the user interface from the ground up and comparing it to my Ambit3 is more like when I moved my old Nokia Symbian phone (remember those things?) to my first Sony Xperia Android phone.

It took a little while for me to give up on my pre-conceptions based on years of the Ambit but overall the interface is really quite straight-forward and very easy to navigate. The learning curve to get used to it was literally minutes.

After you’ve customised the watch display itself (you’re not stuck with just a digital display), you can navigate down to get to activity tracking, training and then recovery information. Navigate up and you get exercise, navigation, the logbook and settings. From each of these you can swipe right (or press the middle button) to enter them and interact.

The new interface includes adds an upgrade to activity monitoring. Personally this doesn’t tickle my fancy much – I’m more interested in my training – but a lot of users have been asking for it. There are now a screen dedicated to a 24/7 step counter, along with the same calorie monitoring you find in the Ambit3. A 7 day history screen is coming soon.

Sports mode displays have also been completely redesigned and you can have up to 7 metrics displayable at a time. I was worried this would be too difficult to read while running but it’s actually not too bad. If you find the touch screen is being activated while running (eg, from long sleeves) you can lock it by pressing and holding the bottom right button.

Companion applications

Not surprisingly, The Spartan is compatible with the iOS Movescount app at release and the updated Android app with Spartan compatibility is planned for release in late September. As I don’t own an iOS device and the Android app hasn’t been publicly released yet, I’m not going to go into too much into detail here.

Via the Movescount app the Spartan does display system notifications from the smart phone is much the same way as the Ambit3 series did. However, the larger screen and higher resolution does allow for more text to be displayed with is nice.

notification

As with the Ambit3 series, most notifications are supported, including incoming calls.

The Moveslink2 PC and MacOSX application has been replaced with the new SuuntoLink application. Essentially it achieves the same functions: sync moves/settings/routes, GPS pre-caching and firmware updates. Unlike Moveslink2 it does, however, come with web proxy support which corporate users without direct Internet access should appreciate.

suuntolink

GPS Performance

So the first thing I’ll point out here is that the pre-release version of the firmware I’m running doesn’t have the Russian GLONASS system activated, despite the chip in the watch supporting it (SiRFstarV – same as the Ambit3). As with the Traverse and the Vertical, it’s likely this will be enabled in the watch shortly after release. It will improve accuracy a little further than what I’ve noted below, but the benefits are likely only marginal down here in Australia and New Zealand.

Firstly, the bump. The bump on the Ambit3 is a thing of beauty. It’s lovely. It sticks out there saying “I am an awesome! Challenge me with rain! Cloud cover! Thick undergrowth! I will smite them all!”. Ok, so maybe it doesn’t go quite that far but that stellar performance is because in that bump is a very sensitive ceramic patch antenna perfectly located to face up at the sky while sitting on top of one of the best consumer GPS chipsets available. For me, the Ambit3 is the gold standard for watch GPS measurements. But heck, don’t believe me – check out this extensive testing done by fellrnr: http://fellrnr.com/wiki/GPS_Accuracy

 

GPS_Accuracy

GPS watch comparison by fellrnr. Source: http://fellrnr.com/wiki/GPS_Accuracy

Some people have commented about the drop in GPS quality of the Ambit3 Vertical – myself included. The pace measurements on the road fluctuate more than the Peak and on the trail the post-processing done by the GPS tends to log points only every 3-4 seconds. On tight winding single track that can lead to corners being cut and distances being slightly under-measured. Additionally, the track does lose a little accuracy in tough conditions (eg, valleys with thick foliage under cloudy skies). Does that make the Vertical a bad GPS watch? No, it’s just not as good as the Ambit3 Peak – which is a very high standard to be held to. The Ambit2 (with the older SiRFstarIV chip) also logs points a little less frequently than the Ambit3, but it’s overall accuracy is still a little better.

It comes down to form over function. Sacrifice the bump to get a better looking watch and you’re sacrificing some GPS performance. There’s simply no avoiding it.

So, how does the Spartan and its no-bump antenna perform? Well, you’re probably spotting a trend here but… surprisingly well. Overall it’s considerably better than I expected given the new antenna, better than the Vertical and probably about on par with the Ambit3 Peak – perhaps a shade below it. It’s generally logging more points and they’re almost as precise as the Ambit3 Peak. Note that in the following pictures one watch was on my right and the other on my left wrist. This seems to create a few meters of offset between the tracks – so ignore that.

Here you can see the higher sampling rate of the Spartan over the Ambit2:

Ambit2 vs Spartan Ultra GPS track

Ambit2 vs Spartan Ultra GPS track

And here you can see where that highly sampling rate doesn’t lead to the same cut-corners as the Vertical:

Ambit3 Vertical vs Spartan Ultra GPS track

Ambit3 Vertical vs Spartan Ultra GPS track

But sorry Spartan, I’m not sure you can’t quite yet compare to the raw beauty of the Ambit3’s track:

Ambit3 vs Spartan Ultra GPS track

Ambit3 vs Spartan Ultra GPS track

The difference in the “smoothness” between the Ambit3 and the Spartan could simply be the software filtering (eg, applying stronger Kalman filtering across the data) rather than the GPS performance itself. It’s not necessarily an indication of one unit being more accurate or better than the other.

By using Suunto’s new heatmaps feature and the rule of averages, you can accurately estimate where a track is: the hottest part of the heat indicates where most people’s watches placed them, suggesting that’s the middle of the track. At the 70km Berry Long Run this past weekend the Spartan stuck to the centre of the heatmaps far better than my Ambit2.

Overall, I was really quite surprised at how well the GPS tracks were recorded.

Unfortunately, I haven’t yet had a chance to test the new power save 1 second mode and how its accuracy compares to the Ambit’s “good” 5 seconds mode. Feedback from one of the other testers was quite positive.

The Spartan’s distance measurements are pretty much spot-on with the Ambit3 Peak and Ambit2. I have all my watches set to auto-lap (and beep) every 1km and they will reliably beep within a few seconds of each other on anything under 30km – road and trail. At the 70km Berry Long Run trail race on the weekend the Spartan did slowly separate from my Ambit2 by a factor of 0.897%. Which one measured the more correct distance? Who knows! Given the Spartan’s better ability to track the centre of the heatmaps I’m going to award it the medal. I’ll wait for someone to successfully ride the course with a Jones-counter-fitted road bike to give me an IAAF approved course measurement to prove me wrong!

The Spartan’s pace measurements are also considerably better than what I experienced with the Vertical. Based on holding a steady power output on a flat road run I’d say perhaps not quite as good as the Ambit3 Peak – but very close and in need of further testing. Interestingly, the Spartan no longer rounds to the nearest 5s/km like the Ambit series: it gives you per second granularity. If you’re really after spot-on pace, get yourself a foot pod. Like the Ambit3, the Spartan allows you to pair a Bluetooth foot pod. I tested mine with the Adidas MiCoach SPEED_CELL – the same DynaStream foot pod that every company re-brands but with BLE rather than ANT+. People often dismiss foot pods as an inaccurate relic from the past. However, if you calibrate one properly on a typical run of decent length it will out-perform any current GPS watch when it comes to accurate pacing info. Again, don’t take my word for it: fellrnr still lists a calibrated foot pod as the most accurate.

So in conclusion, I was pleasantly surprised and really quite impressed with the Spartan Ultra’s GPS performance given the loss of the bump. It will be interesting to see how much of an improvement the addition of GLONASS and other future firmware tweaks makes to the Spartan Ultra. Perhaps it might completely out-perform the Ambit3, which would really impress me!

Navigation

With the higher resolution of the screen and colour, navigation is a little easier to follow on the Spartan compared to the Ambits. A real-time bread-crumb trail is also recorded as you move which makes it easy to retrace your steps without having to go into the menu and create a “Track Back” route to replace your current route.

nav

Typical navigation screen

One navigation feature that hasn’t yet been implemented in the current firmware is full way point support. Personally when creating a route I will create way points at intersections telling me which way to go. On the Ambit series this means as I approach the intersection my watch beeps and says “Approaching Left”. As I exit the intersection I get another beep and a dialog saying “Continue to Right”. Currently on the Spartan way points are simply displayed as flags on the map – no notification or dialog displaying the name.

Ascent and descent measurements on the Spartan Ultra are pretty much spot on and very closely match my Ambit3 Peak and Ambit2. As with distance measurements in trail running, it’s very hard to say which one is “right”. FusedAlti works well – after 7h19n on the run and a mild weather change, the Spartan said the finish line was 2m above what it did at the start. The Ambit2 said 10m. Use of a barometric altimeter is old hat for Suunto and even FusedAlti is well and truly tested having been introduced back in the v2.0 firmware of the Ambit2. Pretty much any of the Suunto models with a barometric sensor and FusedAlti is going to give you a very good result.

Battery Life

Ok, so this is one area I will admit I was little let down on (hey, I didn’t want this to be a complete puff piece!). That said, I’m not yet convinced it’s exactly as it appears – I need to do more testing.

When trail running I’ve found all of the Ambit series (other than the Vertical) get very close to their specified battery life on the best GPS setting (the main consumer of the battery). When taking the Ambit3 Vertical out on trail I did notice that despite having the same GPS chip, battery size and specified battery life (10 hours) as the Ambit3 Sport, I would only get a little over 9 hours when out on the trail. Given the only thing that changed significantly was the antenna, my suspicion is that with the slightly less sensitive antenna the GPS chip is working slightly harder to maintain a fix and is drawing slightly more from the battery in the challenging conditions of trail running – tight turns, foliage, hills and valleys blocking the view of the sky.

After Saturday’s Berry Long Run 70km, my Spartan Ultra went from 98% to 40% after 7h19m of running time with the GPS set to best/full power. That implies a total running time of 12.6h as opposed to the specified 18h. The other item to note here is GLONASS is not yet enabled which will likely utilise a little more battery life.

Now this could be a number of things. One suspicion is around the fact that I’ve noticed the battery depletion rate on road (less challenging conditions for the GPS) is much closer to the specified 18 hours. So this could simply be similar to what I noticed with the Vertical’s battery: trail running is more challenging for the GPS than road for the new bezel-mounted antenna and it depletes the battery faster. The other thought I had is that I’ve never run this new watch to empty (LiIon/Pol batteries prefer frequent short discharge/recharge cycles) and the percentage meter may not yet be calibrated properly between “full” (100%) and “cut-off voltage” (0%) to give an accurate linear drop over the full course of the battery life. And finally this move was made with a pre-release version of the firmware which I am aware had at least one potential minor power-hungry bug.

As mentioned above, I also haven’t yet tested the new Power Save mode, but the specifications sheet has it listed as adding an additional 44% battery life at 26h.

So I’m afraid this jury of one is still out deliberating!

Conclusions

Overall I’ve been very pleased with the new Spartan Ultra. Suunto have built an impressive looking hardware platform and I believe we’re going to see plenty of additional features and improvements over the coming month.

Would I use this as my primary watch for trail running over my Ambit3 Peak? Yep, I already am!

It also goes nicely with a shirt, tie and suit.

TOP: Spartan vs Ambit3 Peak NE – top view BOTTOM: Spartan vs Ambit3 Peak NE – side view.

 

The editors of Trail Run Mag would like to thank Paul Day for his awesome contribution, time on trail (and in front of screen) in testing and allowing us to run this review of a pre-release test model of the Spartan Ultra for the the benefit of the rest of us gear geeks. He who treads the path first…and all that jazz. Thanks legend. 

 

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