In the battle of the bad-boy sports watches, the Suunto 9 brings big numbers. A whopping 120 hours of GPS tracking is the big boast of Suunto’s new flagship, with intelligent power management and alerts to solve the problem of running out of battery in the middle of your ultra marathon.
It's a sports tracking powerhouse as well with 80 sports modes, full GPS navigation, an optical heart rate monitor along with activity tracking and the smartwatch features that have started to pop up in Suunto's watches.
But does the training and sports tracking on offer here mount a serious challenge to Garmin, which has run away with the sports watch market in the last couple of years?
We got it sweaty to find out.
Suunto 9: Design and features
A big old piece of watch, the Suunto 9 manages to be a little thicker and beefier than the Garmin Fenix 5 Plus – and isn’t nearly as comfortable to wear. It has sharp plasticy edges and doesn’t feel as natural on the wrist. It measures 50 x 50 x 16.8 mm, which makes it one of the bigger sports watches on the market too.
Essential reading: Understanding your running watch stats
The touchscreen is a 320 x 300 matrix screen, which isn’t that bright to look at. The graphics are pretty high res, and it blows the very basic Garmin screens away in terms of sharpness. However, it’s not especially readable and it seems Garmin’s sacrifice on resolution to improve visibility was the right move.
It locks to prevent any miss-presses, which means you’ll need to push a button first, and then start swiping. The interface takes a lot of getting used to, and even after a few weeks we can’t say we really felt we knew our way round.
In terms of the key features, there’s plenty to choose from: 100m of water resistance is a headline, along with the boast of up to 120 hours of GPS in the leanest power mode (more on that later) and 80 sports modes, wrist HR and built-in barometer.
During a workout you’ll need to cycle through screens to get the information – however, each is nicely detailed and you get access to a lot more data mid-run than your standard Garmin.
The first screen shows pace and time, the second splits, the third heart rate. It’s a nicer experience than we’re used to – but again, the screen brightness makes it hard to read. We’re not sure any of this extra data really added to our training.
Suunto 9: Battery life
Battery life is normally last in our reviews, but with such emphasis here, we're tackling it right off the bat. While Fenix 5 also boasts multiple battery modes for longevity, the Suunto makes this easier and more transparent. When you start an activity you can swipe down to choose a mode – and you get an estimate of how long that will last. And there are three different modes to choose from:
- Performance, all on – 25 hours
- Endurance, 60 second GPS, screen brightness 20% – 40 hours
- Ultra, 120 second GPS, no HR, brightness 10% - 120 hours
We found that in Performance mode, the Suunto 9 was just shy of the Garmin Fenix 5 both in normal use and during exercise – of about 1% per 10 mins of tracked activity. Endurance mode drained slower than that, almost twice as slowly which checks out for around 40 hours.
We don’t have the fitness to test the 120 hours of Ultra – but two hours of running knocked just 3% off the total, which is around 66 hours of GPS tracking. Not quite the Suunto estimate, but pretty good. Oddly, all runs seem to knock 2% off the total immediately, which we found out the hard way, when we went for a run with 2% battery. The Suunto 9 said we'd get an hour, but it died immediately.
Then there’s the “intelligent” aspects. The watch will spit out alerts at 10% and 20% levels to remind you to charge, and identify when you should use a mode that can get you to the end of your workout. If you really push things to the limit, the watch will enter “Chrono mode” which will slim tracking down to a simple timer.
We didn't actually receive any reminders to charge, but we did like the rough estimate of how much battery you'd get for each run.
This does make this one of the best watches out there for battery life, although only the most extreme users will require this longevity. The watch could easily do a couple of days of walking in Performance mode, and extreme hikers will appreciate Endurance mode. While Ultra Mode will be music to the ears of those tackling challenges like Marathon De Sables where charging is just not an option, for the most part, we’d advise users to look at other features.
Suunto 9: Sports tracking
The number of sports tracked isn’t quite up to the Fenix 5 Plus, but it’s still excellent. Indoor and outdoor running, cycling (and mountain biking), open water and pool swims and triathlon. There’s also weight training, circuit training, and a tonne of ski modes as well. That should see most people right, although it's short of the Fenix which adds a really strong golf mode into the mix.
One of our favourite features of the Suunto 9 is FusedSpeed, which can algorithmically help to work out speed when GPS data becomes unreliable. It essentially melds GPS and accelerometer data together, and actually addressed one of our biggest Garmin gripes.
The system helps when you use Ultra power saving, when GPS location is only logged once every 120 seconds – but also made for a much steadier and accurate experience while running. Our Garmin Fenix 5 Plus is regularly flummoxed by tree-cover, which can mean live pace readouts appear incredibly slow – not great for trail runs. We found that in those situations, the Suunto 9 delivered more stable, realistic live pace.
We’re going to focus on running for the majority of this review, and will add swimming and cycling features on top. These things take time to test properly.
When you head out for a run, you can expect insights into the following: Time, distance, pace, calories burned and cadence are all included, as you might expect.
It’s big on ascent and descent with both tracked, as well as the time spent ascending and descending, and the highest altitude you hit.
And then there’s the physiological factors from the heart rate monitor. You get average heart rate, maximum heart rate, PTE (Peak Training effect), EPOC (the amount of oxygen required to normalise your body), and recovery.
In terms of a breadth of data it’s impressive – but we had a few issues. A few of these data fields aren’t explained at all within the app (PTE and EPOC), and there’s no context offered. We’re sports data heads but even we found these a little baffling – and it’s not a patch on the Training Effect, Training Status and VO2 Max stats offered by the Fenix 5 Plus which are easy to understand and useful.
Finally, we had issues with cadence, which was way off being tracked accurately. We tend to run at around 160 steps per minute – give or take – and the Suunto repeatedly estimated our efforts at between 70-80. We can only assume it’s tracking one foot (given the score being around 50% short) but like most other stats, there’s no explanation.
In short, for those looking for raw numbers there’s plenty here to work from, but as we will see, it’s a slightly dated approach that stems from an app that’s not up to scratch.
Like Garmin and Polar, Suunto has swim tracking (pool and open water) well covered and that sizeable screen has its advantages and disadvantages in the water. Firstly, it's good because it makes it a lot easier to quickly review your swim data during your sessions. That data includes pace, distance and heart rate (via Suunto's Smart Sensor chest strap). There's no SWOLF scores though. The bad is that because it's such a chunky beast it can weigh a little heavy on the wrist in comparison to other sports watches.
As far as accuracy is concerned though, we were pleased with the performance, as we have been on most recent Spartan watches. We put it up against the Garmin Forerunner 935 and it served up the same distance and pace. Bottom line, it's a solid performer in the water.
Suunto 9: Heart rate tracking and accuracy
The Suunto 9 features an optical heart rate monitor on the rear, as pretty much every sports tracking device has done for years now. The Valencell sensor is capable of 24/7 tracking, as well as during workouts in Performance and Endurance power states.
Read this:Best heart rate monitors to buy
So let’s drill down into accuracy – how good is it? Well, at low-medium intensity ranges, we found the sensor to be excellent. It was locked onto a chest strap, accurately tracking peaks and troughs on a stop/start training run, in which we were moderately pushing.
But as per most optical sensors, performance dipped drastically when put through hard intensity. We performed a series of hill sprints at the end of the session, which completely bombed the sensor. The chest strap measured each peak at around 182bpm, but of the four intervals the Suunto read 170 bpm, 144bpm, 182 bpm and finally 148bpm. And such was the lag on the sensor that when we reached the top of the hill, the Suunto was still climbing through the 140s and would peak round 20 seconds after we’d finished.
Clearly, if you’re looking to get accurate data from hard interval sessions or explosive gym classes, the data here isn’t going to be excellent. That’s an industry-wide problem and investing in any sports watch (Suunto, Garmin, Apple or otherwise) requires an understanding what optical sensors are good for: all-day HR tracking and steady runs/cycles.
The Suunto 9 is compatible with Bluetooth chest straps, so that’s the answer for anyone who wants that level of detail during intense classes or sessions. And it might not just be Crossfitters that that should interest – some features are only compatible with the Suunto Smart Sensor specifically, namely RR intervals (heart rate variability) and swimming HR tracking.
Suunto 9: App and ecosystem
We’ve been fairly critical of Garmin Connect and Polar Flow over the years, but both platforms have recently undergone overhauls and are shaping up to be pretty good places to review your performance. Sadly, the Suunto experience still has a way to go.
There’s an all-new Suunto app, which feels like Strava from around five years ago. It’s visually underwhelming, and leaves all fitness tracking elements to a separate Movescount app – which means it’s for workouts only. But the fact that you can only set up Strava pairing via Movescount shows you what kind of ill-considered mess we’re facing here.
OK, that’s a little harsh. But the Suunto app is pretty basic – showing your workout history, which you can tap into to see relevant data. That element is fine, with all the graphs based on heart rate, topography, pace that you would expect.
The screen is dominated by your progress to a weekly workout goal measured in hours. That’s not a target I’ve ever adhered to, so this already feels wrong to us. What’s more, there’s precious little macro detail on your workout history – you can tap into the Diary tab to see graphs on your workout mins/steps/calories and sleep over the last day/week/month/year but it’s a pretty simplistic number, which will highlight whether you’re accumulating more or less.
There’s a Leaderboard where you can add Friends from Facebook, and there’s a Map tab which shows running/cycling/walking heat maps – very similar to Strava.
We’ve heard plenty of concerns around syncing – and that’s certainly an issue around Android. On iOS we found syncing to be fairly reliable, but with some odd quirks. A few runs uploaded without maps, and a hike seemed to be imported, but dated three years early and again, with no mapping. This was between runs that had synced perfectly. Weird.
In short, the newly-released Suunto app is way behind the competition – and doesn’t repay the hard work of the Suunto 9 out on the trails.
- Huge battery life
- Nice mid-run feedback
- Decent mid-intensity HR accuracy
- Strava integration
- Syncing issues
- Not a great app
- Fiddly to use
- HR craps out at highest intensity