Catching waves: Putting the Nixon The Mission SS to the big surf test

One surfer. One board. One steely Android Wear watch. Here's what happened.

When Nixon decided to get in on the smartwatch game, it made sure the essence of its first connected timepiece stayed true to its outdoor roots. So with the Nixon The Mission, it focused on building a rugged Android Wear smartwatch that would pique the interest of surfers and skiers.

Since launching The Mission back in 2016, the watchmaker has rolled out a new-look version that keeps hold of those surfer and ski-friendly features, swapping that silicone look for a black, gold or silver stainless steel finish. As a big surfing fan I wanted to know how well equipped the new The Mission SS and its surf-friendly features really were for hitting the water.

Essential reading: Best outdoor watches to own

Could it match up or even better what the Garmins and Suuntos offer surfers right now? Whether it's delivering insightful data from your session or checking in on performance in the water, I wanted to find that out and more. So I've been putting the Wear watch to the test for a few weeks to see what it's made of. Here's my surfing verdict on the The Mission SS.

Built for for surfers (and skiers)

Putting the Nixon The Mission to the big surf test

If you want to know what you can expect on the hardware and specs front, you can take a read of the review of the first The Mission. I'm focusing on its surf-friendliness and on that front I'd say that the general heft and chunkiness of The Mission SS is not to be underestimated. It may well be great for durability but it looked frankly ridiculous on my skinny wrist.

This is a 48mm beast that sits at least 5mm proud of the wrist. Its case is fashioned from polycarbonate and stainless steel, and a 316L grade stainless steel forms the monster bezel, which Nixon claims performs as a 'roll cage'. When compared to the more subtle but equally robust Garmin Fenix 5S that was also wearing to compare The Mission to, it feels a tad overkill, while the tall casing makes it a pain to slip on underneath a wetsuit - but more on that later.

The Mission SS is unique in a sense that it has Nixon's very own The Mission app already pre-installed. The app subsequently takes a feed from Surfline's expert surf reporting and forecasting tool, which means it's possible to receive notifications on incoming swell, weather conditions and other factors that determine whether the surf is going to be any good.

There is also Snowcountry compatibility, which offers a similar service for snowboarders and skiers, but seeing as I live a world away from the nearest slope, I wanted to focus on its surfing abilities.

Getting set up

Putting the Nixon The Mission to the big surf test

Initial set up of The Mission is fairly simple, even for an iOS user. It requires a quick download of the bespoke Android Wear app, as well as Nixon's The Mission app, but once installed, the remainder of the setup is pretty speedy.

Read this: Best Android Wear apps to download first

As with most other Android Wear watches, The Mission is navigated by first pressing a large button on the right hand side and then a casual swipe of the face flicks between watch faces or scrolls through options and installed apps.

First impressions are largely good, although as a frequent user of Garmin's ecosystem, I found the initial set-up of the Fenix a bit easier. This is partly due to the fact that all of my information is already installed in the Garmin Connect fitness app, meaning I simply had to tether the new watch via Bluetooth to get started, but also because its watches come pre-installed with a huge variety of available activities.

That said, there's currently no option to track surf directly on a Garmin watch, with only Stand Up Paddleboarding and Open Water Swimming on offer that use vaguely similar algorithms. So, before a maiden dip in the sea, I had to create a profile on the Garmin Fenix 5S that closely mimicked the movements of surfing to get a good overview of the activity.

Out in the water

Putting the Nixon The Mission to the big surf test

As well as being fickle, the surfing conditions in the UK are largely freezing, so frolics in the sea require a good wetsuit that hovers around the 4-5mm thickness mark.

Such a surfeit of rubber not only impedes manoeuvrability, it also makes cramming the enormous bezel of The Mission under the suit almost impossible, and so I resorted to wearing it on the outside.

It's not really ideal, as surfboards are made from relatively flimsy fibreglass, so any heavy knock on the rails of the board could potentially cause damage, although the model I tested was the slightly ridiculous metal-strapped SS, rather than one of the sensible, rubber-coated standard variants.

On top of this, the thick gold-plated, stainless steel bracelet had a tendency to spring from its catch, bringing me to the conclusion that this variant was really designed to cruise the streets rather than cruise waves.

The Garmin 5S, with its snug rubber strap, was small enough to slide underneath my wetsuit and once the push buttons were locked, it remained largely untouched and unchecked throughout the surf session.

Putting the Nixon The Mission to the big surf test

Once out in the water, The Mission SS proved very easy to interact with, as its clever gesture sensors always knew when I was about to look at the face and neatly illuminated to tell me the time and allow me a peak at the Trace surf tracker app I was running. Even with thick rubber gloves on, the screen happily accepted a few prods and it was easy enough to navigate the menus without too many fumbled selections. The screen was also extremely bright and easy to see with a low winter's sun beaming down onto the face, while salt water residue could easily be wiped away.

The Garmin in comparison proved slightly more difficult to look at mid-surf, thanks largely to its smaller casing and the fact that its display simply isn't as sharp as the 1.39-inch AMOLED screen found on its rival. Regardless, the push button system found on the Fenix 5S is infinitely simpler to navigate with gloved hands, despite The Mission proving pretty impressive.

Unfortunately but quite predictably, The Mission's built-in microphone must be locked into a waterproof position when heading out for a surf, meaning "OK Google" and other voice recognition systems can't be used in the choppy foam.

It's a shame, as it could come in quite handy, but shouting at your wrist probably wouldn't go down too well with fellow surfers.

Diehard surf and snow fans will appreciate the Shred Alerts and built-in Trace functionality but unfortunately, the novelty did start to wear off after spending a few weeks with the watch. I need to mention the battery life performance as well, which is pretty poor. When using The Mission and its surf-analysing Trace app for around an hour, I found the battery could easily drop between 40 and 50 percent of its total life and it became habit to plug it in every night.

On top of that, the magnetic charging cable is ridiculously weak and often came unplugged midway through charging up, especially if the hefty watch decided to tip over.

Surf's app

Putting the Nixon The Mission to the big surf test

Apart from receiving regular swell, tide and weather information through Nixon's Mission app, the rugged smartwatch also comes pre-installed with Trace software, which allows users to track a number of stats when out in the water.

Although Trace is designed to work with a separate tracker that you stick to the front of a surfboard, The Mission SS's built-in thermometer, altimeter, barometer, gyroscope and accelerometer can be harnessed to give a fairly comprehensive overview of a sessions.

After selecting the app and hitting the record button, Trace Surf will keep an eye on time elapsed, total distance covered, temperature, max speed and a rough calculation of calories burnt.

Unfortunately, this condensed version of the app doesn't allow Google Map overlays or session sharing via social, but you can swipe right to see data from a few recent surfs. Alas, for some odd reason, those saved sessions were lost when my watch ran out of battery.

Putting the Nixon The Mission to the big surf test

By comparison, the Garmin Fenix 5S doesn't have a dedicated surf activity tracker, but it's easy to set up a profile that counts stroke rate (lifted from the open water profile), distance covered, heart rate, speed and a plethora of other statistics. It's also easy to see where the surf has taken you on a map, share the session on Strava and flick through an entire catalogue of previously saved sessions.

Android Wear and Play Store makes it possible to install a multitude of different fitness apps, from RunKeeper to Strava, increasing the usability of The Mission SS tenfold. On top of this, The Mission app is absolutely brilliant at notifying its user when the surf is on, as it's possible to map conditions in the smartphone app to create a 'Shred Alert'. In essence, The Mission SS watch will vibrate and flash like a lunatic when optimal surf conditions at your local spots are either present or on their way. Should you be inclined to drop everything and dash to the surf, the alerts could prove vital in any search for waves.

Nixon The Mission SS: The surfer's verdict

I have no doubts that surfers will appreciate certain aspects of The Mission SS. Like the slick Android Wear OS, the crisp, bright screen and many of the surf-centric features like the built-in alerting system for instance. But it's also a chunky beast and the battery life is pretty poor, especially if you're planning to track regularly during the week.

I couldn't help thinking that sports watches from established rivals as well as the latest Apple Watch, which does offer surf tracking via the likes of Xensr offer up better options right now as well. Watches that actually make better companions when it comes to physically tracking a surf session. Even if they don't gently remind you to quit that day job and go hunting waves full time.

The Nixon The Mission SS certainly brings some new ideas that surfers will like, but when you counter that with the limitations around battery performance and that big chunky look, maybe it's one that's best left behind when it's surf o'clock.

What do you think?

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