I’ll start with my main conclusion: this is a watch that focuses on performance. It’s not a smartwatch full of gimmicks you’ll never use, it is designed to help you get the most from your adventures in the outdoors, and that’s it. No nonsense, no fuss.
The physical design is very much in vogue now; that rugged look with an always-on screen that looks good as both daywear and when exercising. Although it’s a sizable unit, it still sat well on my rather small wrist and I soon used it as my everyday watch rather than swopping between a small day watch and my Suunto Ambit3 as I did previously.
The watch is controlled by three big, solid buttons, or you can use the touchscreen. I tended to use the buttons during an activity, just to avoid leaving a sweaty streak across the screen. You have the choice of eight watch faces, and a variety of colours for each, though you can’t download additional screens as you can with a smartwatch. Each face displays a number of metrics; you make your choice. The silicon strap is suitably wide enough to match the watch face and has enough natural stretch to allow a comfortable fit. It has a simple quick-release system and there are lots of aftersale variations available to allow you to customise your look. Although this is not a true smartwatch, you are able to push notifications from your phone to the watch; you can set a ‘do not disturb’ feature which will stop notifications if you are in a meeting or asleep, for example.
Enough of the basics, what we are really interested in is the performance features. There is a health and fitness tracker which collates data on all the usual metrics such as sleep patterns, daily steps, active calories burnt and 24/7 heart rate tracking. Although this data is probably not at the top of the list for a prospective Suunto 9 buyer, it is something that is useful to identify trends that may impact on performance.
Heart rate is tracked via an optical wrist sensor. I’ve got small wrists and have a love/hate relationship with optical heart rate sensors. Like other watches, I found that I get an accurate, consistent reading from the Suunto 9 when in daily use but prefer to pair the watch with a chest strap when exercising to get that precise reading for training. Fortunately, the Suunto 9 can be paired to a Bluetooth chest strap and I was able to simply use my old Ambit3 strap.
When it comes to actually doing an activity, there are about 80 different sports modes pre-installed on the watch, each of which has a number of screens with many data fields. That’s a lot of on-the-go data at the touch of a button.
As you would expect, you can customise via the Suunto App and create your own sports modes for specific activities, displaying data needed for that particular session.
You can define a basic interval training session before a workout; prescribing the length of warm-up, repetition and recovery length, number of repetitions and cool down length. The watch will buzz at the appropriate time/distance, defining the session. I like this feature as I regularly train with intervals and it’s easy to set up on the watch, however, at present you are not able to import sessions from a third party platform and you can only define a session with intervals of a set length/time, you cannot define repetitions of varying lengths within the same session. Hopefully, this will be addressed by Suunto via a future update.
If you are aware of your training target zones, you can program your heart rate zones and the watch displays a colour coded bar to indicate which zone you are training in at that moment. Post-workout, you can review that data via the logbook and, in even more detail, via the Suunto App. The Suunto website suggests that there are in excess of 50 metrics available post-activity; that should keep the data geeks happy.
Now we come to the feature that makes this watch stand out; battery life. I am an ultra-runner and battery life is a high priority for me. If you are doing any activity that goes beyond 10 hours, the choice of GPS watch was fairly limited if you wanted to maintain quality GPS tracking, beyond that, you would have to reduce GPS accuracy. All that has changed. In normal time mode, you will get two weeks from the watch, add 24/7 heart rate/sleep tracking and you’ll still get a full week. But when you push the start button for a sports activity with GPS tracking, things get exciting. The Suunto 9 has three GPS tracking battery modes; performance, endurance, and ultra. Performance mode takes a GPS signal every second and keeps all the main features of the watch turned on, yet still gives 25 hours of battery life. As an ultra-runner, that’s enough to get me through most races
Going longer? No problem, switch to endurance mode and you’ll get 40 to 50 hours of battery life with GPS signal taken every 60 seconds though the screen is less bright. Finally, there’s ultra mode. This potentially gives an incredible 120 hours of battery life, yet (here’s the clever bit) you can still maintain a good GPS trace even though the signal is only updated every 2 mins. Firstly, all none essential features are reduced/turned off; the screen hibernates after 10 seconds, there are no notifications, the screen dims and heart rate tracking is stopped. The watch then uses “FusedTrack” which makes use of the compass, gyroscope and accelerometer to fill in the gaps between the GPS readings so you don’t get a straight line dot-to-dot trace, you still get a reasonably accurate GPS trace.
Suunto uses the term “intelligent battery modes” to describe the way the watch adapts with the wearer to provide the best battery life at any particular time. As you enter a sports mode, the watch will display an estimate of how long the battery will last in the current mode and gives you the option to change the mode to a more economic choice. Whilst in the middle of a workout, the watch will give you a warning when the battery life drops to 20%, again giving the option of changing to a different mode, all while the workout tracking continues. The watch will even learn your usual training patterns and prompt you to recharge the battery when you are due to head out on a longer activity.
As you would expect, there is a navigation mode. It is important to point out that if you want actual maps on your watch, you’ll have to look elsewhere; Suunto persist with the “breadcrumb trail” format for navigation. By default you have a breadcrumb trail indicating where you have been but, more importantly, you can access nav modes and follow a breadcrumb line of routes you have uploaded via the Suunto App. The breadcrumb line has improved since my Ambit3 and now includes an indicator for changes of direction which certainly helps. You can easily upload routes planned on 3rd party platforms as a .gpx file or plan a new route on the app itself. Now, I’m a map lover and would always have a map and compass with me but the ability to switch to navigation mode for that simple guide is invaluable and, I suspect, one of the main reasons why people buy a GPS watch.
The Suunto 9 also pairs with your smartphone. For many years, Movescount has been the app and desktop site to work alongside your Suunto device, however, Suunto is phasing out Movescount leaving the Suunto app as the required platform. The app works fine, I had no issues with syncing and set up and, after a recent update, you are now able to import all your previous Movescount sessions to the app (but not the other way). If you prefer Movescount, you can still use this platform but need to be aware that it will, eventually, cease to exist. For me, the Suunto App needs some work to match the features of the older Movescount app and desktop site. I keep mentioning the word “desktop” as I much prefer to do my training and racing analysis on my laptop, not my phone, however, at present there is no desktop option for the Suunto App. Planning a route is possible on the phone app, but it’s much easier on a laptop. There is a lot of feedback being given to Suunto supporting the need for a desktop version of the app; watch this space. A final small gripe, again connected to the app, is that on the older Movescount system you could customise the units in greater detail; I like to have distance in miles but height in metres – this is not currently an option in the Suunto App or via the watch itself. All these negatives are, quite possibly, going to be addressed as the app evolves.
This watch is typically Suunto; smart enough for daily wear, easy to use on-the-run and geared for the user who is focused on performance; helping get the most from your training or adventures. There are no extra frills like music storage or contactless payment; you are buying a sports watch but, and this is a big but, the battery technology and how the watch uses it is market-leading; in normal use, you’ll only charge it once a week. If you are going long, beyond 30 hours or over multi-days, yet still want an accurate GPS trace, this is the watch for you