A look at the SUUNTO Spartan Ultra HR How spartan is the Spartan 10 months after release on Firmware 1.8.26?

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I will admit I am rather new to the world of sports watches. I know they have become rather wide spread with the advent of the running revolution and the affinity of upstart “disrupters” like fit bit. These so called start up community companies are proving more and more to be a cheap one shot to get to your cash and offer little substance. But unlike those there are other companies on the market that have been making products for the purples of navigating, making you fitter, better for a while. One of these is Suunto est. 1936 from Finland. They make sports watches, dive computers, compasses and precision instruments for civilian and military use.  Eight months ago they release their latest products, the Suunto Spartan Ultra HR in different combinations. Now on Firmware 1.8.26 here is a overview of how things are now.


DESIGN AND USE – BEAUTY AND USABILITY

I have to admit. I usually don’t wear a watch. I have not for years. If I had the cash for extravagant symbols of power for my wrist thou I would go for a Briteling. A watch with a big watch face. With that said the mechanical design og the Suunto Spartan Ultra HR does appeal to me. Clean lines and a really nice steel bezel on my Ultra version make for a really nice watch that I can take to work to. It does grab the occasional… what kind of watch is that too if you are into that. It is in essence what I would call futuristic minimalism. The weight is 77g and you do not feel it drag you down while wearing it even while swimming. So it is lighter then the ambit3 peak (86g) and the same as the Traverse (77g).

The Spartan Ultra HR (right) and the Spartan Sport HR (Left)

It has a touchscreen, that should be like a big deal and three side buttons. That said I personally am not a fan of the touchscreen. After a bit of use it would actually be completely redundant if they added just one button on the left side of the watch face as a back button. Right now to get to the left on the really well designed and self explanatory interface you have to swipe it. After a few weeks I tend to use the buttons more then the touchscreen, also because of a bug that seems to make it go to the right a lot. Rebooting fixes that.

FEATURES – DOES IT WORK FOR OUTDOOR

The Suunto Spartan series of multi-sport watches comes in multiple versions. You have the basic sports version for your daily multi-sport workout, the Suunto Spratna Ultra HR for Outdoor and Ultra marathon use. As of last month they added another flavor of the Sport version, Sport HR with a integrated HR monitor. Browsing trough forums there are rumors abuzz that a Trainier version of the watch will also hit the market before the end of the year. It should replace the Ambit3 Series as the entry level watch from Suunto. The recharging and syncing is done via a special magnetic cable and 4 connectors on the back. That allows for a water seal of up to 100m. I wonder if anyone ever tested that 😛 The Ultra also comes with Sapphire glass and a Steel bezel. The latter I found is rather prone to scratching so be weary in a pool or while climbing. Alos the Ultra comes with a lot better battery running time. Active stated as 18 hour on max GPS and 65 on good. The Sport should be somewhere in half of that.

The basic outdoor function is limited to altitude and air pressure graphs.

As a outdoor guy who spends most of the time freeskiing and searching lines and climbing steeps for epic powder in the back country I was especially interested in the Outdoor functionality of the watch. The hardware seemed super solid and with the Suunto Traverse being one of the best outdoor watches available I was keen to see what I could do with it for navigation, scouting and tracking basic HR. I was not that interested in super sports tracking for marathons etc., but the watch changed my attitude towards that a little.

Navigation

The Navigation functions I have to say are rather limited on the Suunto Spartan Ultra HR. You have basic POI that you can set and have digital compass navigation to. You can also make breadcrumb trails aka moves and upload them to the watch. There as of now is no basic breadcrumb trail recorder that would just track your path with the option of saving it and following it back. When selecting a predetermined move you saved the screen navigation is really nice offering different zoom levels. Unfortunately there is no alarm to beep when you are getting off trail. So you have to continuously check the watch.

For ski touring the navigation works ok if you have a predetermined GPS track uploaded to the watch. On the second day I got the watch my first move was actually tracking the last powder day of the season at Obertauern. 6.5 hours of up and down doing 35 km and descending around 4.5K with GPS to max I still had 60 % of battery. Looking at the track later and knowing that the cable cars always lead to the same altitude I was pleasantly surprised that it worked so well out of the box, even thou I had not even set the reference altitude and the weather was shifting all the time. You can find the whole track here.

The navigation portion thou still looks like a work in progress here. What it needs badly here is a off-line breadcrumb recorder as you go, a option to set waypoints and navigate them and a”back to start” feature. Abide of course the already mentioned storm warnings and sun and moon rise and set times that are badly needed for any serous multi day outdoor biwak in the mountains.

Altitude and Weather

Unlike the Traverse this is an area where the Spartan Ultra HR is behind the times. The hardware is in the watch of course but the software is just not there yet. The latest firmware has an outdoor tab under normal watch displays that can display your current altitude (for the last two hours) and barometric pressure (for the last twelve). That is all nice but it lacks basic info like sunrise/sundown. Moon pattern and position and a storm warning.

I understand that they still wanna sell the Suunto Traverse Alpha at that end of the market but since our target audience of extreme sports enthusiasts and multisport athletes is venturing more and more into the wild and with a price tag of a “I can do it all” 700 EUR a weather alarm in case of rapid pressure change is probably way easier to implement in software then a 12 hour graph function for barometric pressure.

Battery life

After reading a lot of mixed accounts from users and old firmware I have to say that after getting the watch a good month ago I had to fully recharge it only 2 times. That is after a good 3o-35 hours and wearing it daily as a watch with the steeps counting  and more then 30 moves usually done with the HR sensor and GPS set to best accuracy. This would get to around 15-17.5 hours on full use on a charge. Since Suunto claims 18 hours that is a top notch. I have not tried it but with the low power mode on the screen and the screen off snooze function, that was introduced in the latest firmware, you can probably get even more time out of it.

Mulitsport tracking

Since the main aspect of this “all in one” tracking device is tracking your mulitsport performance I have to say that this is where the Suunto Spartan Ultra HR shines. If you are like me and have always just relied on your guts… then you will be lost in the ton of information. I tested a multitude of sports that all worked well. Trail running, Freeride (alpine skiiing), Running, Hiking, climbing, cycling, pool swimming. As there are presets for 80 sports available in different configurations, and you can make your own profiles now, you can tailor what data you need and when. Still in the custom presets you can not put graphs in it. Something I hope future firmware updates will address.

From a mountain perspective I was especially interesting to see my heart rates, ascend speeds and rates to see how well I do. Since I got the watch I am getting a far better picture of that needs improvement. In short it helps improve my overall fitness. That is good for my contest season and I can focus my training on my weak spots. Generally, except for know bugs and current software limitations, as is now the watch it works ok for these things and gives you a lot of information about your body that you can use to improve.

DO MOVES COUNT ?

As we live in a cloudy world of intranets and big data, the watch itself is only part of the puzzle. Suunto harnesses all this data in a giant sports analytical hub that is called moves count. Here you have your profile and all the data the watch collected on your training from the beginning of time XD. It is all presented out really well, easy to understand and you can even add training plans (that you can schedule but not yet start on the Spartan#nextfirmware) to make you fitter and stronger.

The main overview in moves count gives you all the data and more.

If this is your thing thou is a question of preference. I for one like the whole overview of what I did and when, because I tend to forget and am rather lazy at keeping tabs on my training. The second part of the movescount portal is a community. The idea behind it strikes me more as a facebook for sporty people. Find friends who do comparable workouts in your area. See how well u stack up and maybe even find a trainer who will check your tracks and give you tips. You can also add fans but there are limitations, for example you have no list of people you “fanned” but only see if they added a new activity when they do. It also offers syncing to sports tracker, strava, preva and trainingpeaks.

That is all nice and good but the feature that for me is what makes moves count excellent is the so called move mapping known as heat maps. Heatmaps accumulate all the moves data that this big data system collects and maps the GPS paths of these broken down into sports on a world map. The brighter the trial the more people go there. It is a really fun way to find interesting new trails to do in winter or summer, on the bike or in the mountains. It allows you to see the world from other vantage points and lets you get creative with making your own paths. Since it`s integrated with google maps and a ton of other map providers it gives you endless  data to plan, lets say your biwaking adventure in Kazakhstan or your Vulcano ascent in Indonesia. I already spend tons of hours here making fun secret roots to do with my friends. You know who you are ;).

A example for a finished move.

GPS ACCURACY TEST- AMBIT3 VERTICAL VS. SPARTAN ULTRA HR FW 1.8.26

I read quite a few articles that focused a great deal of time on the accuracy of the GPS on the Spartan compared to Garmin, other Suunto and Polar. Since for me the accuracy of the GPS/GLONASS aka Putin GPS 😛 is by far the most important feature of the watch I was really skeptical. I knew for research that there was a bug that needed to be addressed that affected a lot of early users. That was of course bad PR for a 700 EUR watch. Suunto said back then that they were working on it and that it should be worked out by now. I did a bit of running and the tracks were quite ok at first glance. Since I am no GPS tracking expert I would say they was within a 5-15m margin of error.

Since I was really positively surprised by my first day of testing in Obertauern I decided to do a side by side with my riding buddy Jan and his Ambit 3 Vertical. Check out his blog too #shamelsesplug. The Spartans also downloads GPS/GLONASS satellite pre-data while syncing that lets the watch get a faster fix as it knows what satellites should be overhead. Mostly my fix was quite instant.

The Spartan GPS failed on the way up but was great on the way down. The Ambit worked all the time but was not that accurate.

On our testing day we decided to do a trail run to Prevala bellow Begunjščica from Begunje. The weather was really odd very mixed with clouds coming and going with a little rain some sun and a lot of changing preasure. Demanding conditions for tracking. When we got out of the car Jan fired up his GPS fix on the ambit and it took quite some time to get a fix. I did the same with my spartan. It took about a minute for Jan to get a fix. After about 3 minutes I still did not have a fix. Then finally it got one and we were off. I was confident that the Spartan could keep the lock even thou the clouds were coming and going with some light rain as we were moving higher.

I checked the breadcrumb once and saw no breadcrumbs. Odd. I did not think much of it because we knew where to go. The watch looked like it kept recording my data. At the top we made a break and then we started a new track on our way down. The weather had improved a little and there were a less clouds and more sun. We made good time and when I got home I put the track on the computer.

Surprise :/ The track uphill was missing about half of the route in GPS data and overlapping it with the way down showed a lot of bad inconsistencies. Jan`s Ambit did a lot better job here. I found it very odd that after half the trail it just stopped recording the data. I know that I checked and the breadcrumbs were back when I was almost at the top. I guess this is something that seems more like a software problem.

The situation looked quite different on our descent thou. Here the Spartan seems to have feared far better then the Ambit with the latter wearing off quite substantially once we got deeper down the valley. But at least the Ambit3 Vertical kept most of the track. Even if it was about 50 m off at the end.

The display is really good in direct sunlight.

I will be honest I am a bit at odds here. Since my initial moves seemed to indicate good GPS performance this test did not bode well for reliability in changing conditions. Do not get me wrong here. The general performance of the GPS here is seems pretty good, but I do notice odd behavior in certain scenarios. Little inconsistencies doing the same laps… I will have to investigate this further to see if it repeats itself. Basically the GPS antenna design of the Spartan should be superior to the Ambit3 vertical. Hardware wise both watches use the same chipset a SiRFstarV. I did a bit more digging and found this interesting article on more detailed GPS accuracy testing, thou it was for firmware 1.6. It also seems that GLONASS enabled seems to degrade track accuracy. I only tested one move with it on and it looked to be about the same on a short trail up Pohorje mountain. I will do a few more tests to see how well it fares. Running the same lap in my local wood gives very mixed results that you can see in detail here and here. I do not believe that the trees are that much of an issue here. Also from the testing on other sites it seems like the sport has better accuracy then the ultra model. All seems to be substantially better then the horrid release firmware.

SUMMARY ON FIRMWARE 1.8.26

The current firmware is a big deal for Suunto. It seems to reach the basic feature set that the Suunto Spartan Ultra HR should have had at the initial lunch 10 months ago. They even made an extra manual for it. Regardless of that I noticed issues and missing features I find should be irked out sooner rather then later:

  • After long moves touchscreen goes awry. Wants to go to the right all the time stays on and eats battery. Users reported battery drains. Some people seem to say adding a screen protector against smudges should help. Fixed by reboot. Right now I don`t think it is a mechanical issue… saw the a few posts on the same issue on forums.
  • Missing graphs in custom moves. Reported Interval training issues. Have not tested yet. Auto interval seems to work ok. No waypoint intervals.
  • Issues with display corruption on the watch face reported by users. Have not had that myself.
  • Implement Vsync and double buffer on the display GDI please. The display tearing when switching between modes looks cheap.
  • Custom moves and navigation data on gives bad displays in movescount *reported in forum* have not tested yet myself.
  • GPS on best dropped track in tough conditions test aka wired GPS inconsistencies on the ULTRA model. Multiple Tests of late rate the SPORTS better in GPS accuracy.
  • Normal use should have weather alert implemented as standard (add in options to turn on and off) as of now there is only an active altitude graph and air pressure.
  • Sunrise and Set times and countdowns should be normal function for outdoor.
  • Moon phases should be normal function for outdoor
  • Can not pair on Bluetooth with my Android 6.0.1 OnePlus X phone. Issues seems to have existed on a old firmware. After entering the passcode the watch fails to pair. Works on other phones and is probably Android 6.0.1. issue.
  • Storm Warning is still missing.
  • Navigation needs alert when you go off track and just simple breadcrumb navigation tracking without a sports mode that you can start and save,
  • Adding waypoints and waypoint navigation within a route. Waypoints as auto interval points would be great for competitions.
  • Back to start navigation option for breadcrumbs would be great.
  • A ton of little bugs connected to certain sports modes that users experience. Here I seem to have had quite ok results so far but I do not have another reference to verify.

FINAL VERDICT

All in all the Suunto Spartan Ultra HR has come a long way since its release. Still it does seem a lot like a work in progress. A lot of things still need to be kinked out. Things that should not be the problem of users who pay a lot of money for a premium product of this category. To put it mildly. If the Spartan was a watch for 200 EUR you would say.. ok they’ll figure it out, but for the price its great. Being a product for up to 700 EUR, with the cheapest Spartan Sport Wrist HR starting at 450 at extreme vital here, these things would have to be in the state they are now at the product launch and not 10 months later.

As a gadget guy I have often been burned by products with stellar hardware design and bad code. As companies move in cycles they will undoubtedly already be planing the Spartan 2 by this stage with all these kinks ironed out. Until then the question will be if the company is willing to still put so much effort into fixing the issues or will it move on to the next big thing. The ton of patchwork that lead to the 1.8.26 firmware thankfully hinged on the user backslash that followed the initial buggy dear I say “alpha state” release.

The good news thou here is that it now kinda works. Still missing a ton of basic navigation features but at least it does not freeze anymore and you can put some custom modes on it. Basic intervals are implemented thou waypoint intervals are still no where near reality. The display and interface are really nice and once you get used to them you will find it hard to go back to a ambit or traverse. The sports mode are well thought trough and give you a lot of useful information in real time. The mechanical design is also really nice. The touchscreen I find to be more of a gimmick then a real addition, witch it could be, if the interface and the code of the watch reach a certain level. I also miss the apps ability that would alleviate a lot of the user requests with apps already available on the ambit series.

With the release of the Ambit replacement in the form of the rumored Spartan Trainer on the horizon I would have to say that the Spartan Ultra is an expensive piece of beta software. If you need to be on the bleeding edge then get one. The battery life is great for anything up to 100km, or in conservative GPS even multi-day adventure outings in the wild *test pending :P*. If that is not your thing  use the gap that the new watches will make and get a Traverse or an Ambit3vertical for for half the price.

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