Some time has passed since I took a first look at the state of the Suunto Spartan Ultra back in May. If you haven`t yet, check out my in depth review with a comparison with the Ambit3 to get a basic understanding before you continue reading. In short you will remember that I had very mixed feelings about this “top of the line” sports watch. Now as promised Suunto finally delivered the long over due Firmware 1.11.56 codename “Dubai” that brings the outdoor features up to speed and supposedly fixes a lot of other issues. This article is meant as a follow up to my review. Let`s see what was added, fixed and specifically if and how outdoor features and upgraded navigation work now.
Suunto is known for really well thought out and stable products. With the Spartan they had hardware ready that was way ahead of the competition. Unfortunately like many products that are new, the need to bring it to market first and bad planing on the software side meant that when it was released it was still somewhere in between the alpha and beta phase of development. That burned a lot of first adopters who were used to Suunto delivering stable products that worked. Back then the Spartan was not one of them.
The whole situation got so bad that even review units were not passed out of fear of bad press. In the end even after a year the older cheaper Ambit3 was still the better watch. Now after a big uproar at Suunto an a lot of changes in the way the company works things are looking better. With the latest firmware the watch is finally where it should have been at launch. It`s not perfect by any means but it is becoming useful and more reliable. And that should be the main goal here. A solid feature set that is reliable. By listening to what users want the whole lineup of the Spartan watches has been extended to include a Sports WHR version with Baro and a cheap Trainer WHR version that is sure to replace the old Ambits and Core models.
WHAT IS FIXED
In my first look I specifically highlighted a few problems that needed to be addressed. Let`s go trough them one by one to see how well they got fixed:
- 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. – Touchscreen hangups seem to be gone. There does not seem to be more battery drain although it seems that with the outdoor watchface the battery drains a bit faster. Have not checked full battery life on activity + navigation as the Ultra has a really good battery life. Suunto claims improvements here.
- Missing graphs in custom modes. Reported Interval training issues. Have not tested yet. Auto interval seems to work ok. No waypoint intervals. – Basic intervals are fixed. Still no option to add graphs in custom sports modes. No waypoint Intervals. On alpine skiing auto laps are ok once you add the move to movescount. On the watch itself they are weird and unreadable *had 99* on my first test. Movescount fixed that to the right number.
- Issues with display corruption on the watch face reported by users. Have not had that myself. – Is gone and I never had this issue, no more reports of this on the forums.
- 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. – GPS works better now. Have not had problems on track since firmware. Weather was always great thou. Will have to try in bad conditions for final test. All in all I am satisfied with GPS accuracy now.
- 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. – Storm alert is now implemented and works. Have not found out how exactly but suunto usually triggers alarm when there is a rapid change of pressure in the last 3 hours. Icon appears on watchface and in pressure graph.
- Sunrise and Set times and countdowns should be normal function for outdoor. – Is now added with custom sunrise and sunset alarm you can set for how much time before either event you want a warning. Outdoor watchface also has info on sunrise and sunset times and a graphical round line that shows how long the day remains. Very well done.
- Moon phases should be normal on a outdoor watch – Are now implemented as part of the outdoor watchface.
- 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. – Improvement. Can pair it now with phone and get notifications but still not able to sync it with app. Is a OnePlus specific issue.
- Storm Warning is still missing. – Is now implemented and works.
- Navigation needs alert when you go off track and just simple breadcrumb navigation tracking without a sports mode that you can start and save, – Route navigation is very much improved. There is finally and off route alert when you deviate for 100m. Check navigation in detail later in the article.
- Adding waypoints and waypoint navigation within a route. Waypoints as auto interval points would be great for competitions. – Not added. Waypoints have to be added while planing the route in movescount. Also displays and alerts to possible POIs in the vicinity if you have them on the watch wich is great.
- Back to start navigation option for breadcrumbs would be great. – There is a Find Back navigation but it does not follow your breadcrum but is basically POI navigation back to your starting GPS coordiantes. Added are ETE and ETA times but the problem is that they are calculated in direct distance not your breadcrum way with your speed of movement so they are just a indicator.
THE “ALL IN ONE” OUTDOOR WATCHFACE
As a smartwatch the magic is all in the software. So for this firmware the programmers at Suunto have come up with quite an ingenious solution for the outdoor data display problem. Create a new flexible watchface with a smart design that holds all the info. This one is spot on and gives me all the data I wanted at a glance:
- Sunrise/Sunset times
- Moonphase in % of full
- Battery level
- Second Timezone
You can easily switch these secondary data by taping the screen or pressing the middle button. The watchface also has a really cool representation of time in a circle that fills up 24 hours. There is also a line that changes according to your GPS coordinates and date to give you a graphical representation of how long the day is and a indicator shows how far along you are on that given day. It also includes two side areas of different gradual faded color that symbolize twilight. It is really great because at a glance you know when it is time to prepare for the night when you are outside for multiple days.
For my needs this is really the best solution I can think of and on top of that it makes the watch look super neat and high tech. What I do miss thou is access to this watchface while you have an activity track running with navigation. A simple option too keep the display on even when tracking activities would be great too. Ironically the watchface alone is the best improvement to the watch on the outdoor front in over a year.
The new firmware also substantially improves alarms and basic stopwatch functions. You now have sunrise and sunset alarms that you can customize and of course the most important addition to any outdoor specific use, the storm alert. I was a bit skeptical as to how it works at first but after a surprise wake up last week after a rapid pressure drop that matched the one recorded at out local weather station I am confident that it is going to be very useful on our glacial biwak outings. After a beep it also displays as a additional icon in the new watchface and the pressure graph until the pressure stabilizes. It emphasizes the change so you don`t miss it by just clicking away the alarm note. All in all a worthy upgrade that seems to work without any noticed bugs.
Another thing that finally has some more use now are the stop watch functions. Now found under the menu item “TIMER” you can alternate between basic functions like countdown timer and a stopwatch. The countdown timer has a few time presets and you can also choose a custom one. Finally something to use for those workout sessions with intervals in my climbing training :).
NAVIGATE AND YOU MIGHT NOT GET LOST
The first thing that I got this watch for was navigation. Deciding between a proven Traverse and this one was a bit of a jump into the unknown back in May. When I got it I was quite disappointing with the navigation. After all this thing was supposed to be my fallback in a glacial whiteout. At least to get me back to camp, or in a worsed case scenario. Navigate the mountain back to the valley. Back then the navigation did not work well. Everything except a mini map like display of the route was missing or was extremely prone to crashes.
Now you might say that any phone with GPS might be able to do this but as everyone who goes off grid for more then 24 hours will know. Phones with a few exceptions, are not meant to keep power for multiple days on end in extreme conditions. Short they can not be relied upon as a backup device. Sure the best backup is always a compass and a map. Keep that in mind regardless of weather it is a high tech outdoor watch or your phone with sportstracker on it :P.
To see if navigation really worked as advertised I put up a little test scenario to test a few points I will go into in more detail. The idea was to do a simple route with 3 waypoints, 1 POI *a water lake* and a route that also goes by a peak that is in close distance together an includes a shortcut, that you did not plan in advance. Often while outdoor you will make small deviations from the planed route. The Route navigation has to be smart enough to figure out when you left and when you are back on your original route to keep you on track. I also wanted to see if the waypoint, POI and “off route” alerts work because in the past they were not even implemented. So here are my test points:
Basic Navigation – FOLLOWING THE ROUTE
I set up a really basic route that you can see on the above image. I added 3 waypoints and a POI where on the small lake close to waypoint 3 named “Tretji Ribnik”. Assuming that basic navigation is ok now I wanted to see how the whole system behaves when deviations to the scenario occur. I took a shortcut up to the top of the Piramida peak to see if the navigation would get that. As all of this was less then a 100m inside and off the route in I did not get a “off route” signal. The system was behaving as If I was still on route. The altitude graph got stuck as it does when you do not stay on route. That did not surprise me. Since there is no option to make the off route alert work on less then 100m. I also wanted to see if at least the waypoint on route would give me an alert when I reached it at the top of Piramida. When standing next to it, it still did not register. That was a bit of a disappointment.
Thinking that that was it with the tracking I continued on route. A few minutes down the line the watch beepet. I checked it and the navigation system had figured out where I was on the route and moving in the right direction. The altitude graph put me back on the right spot and I got a notification how far the next waypoint was with and estimated ETE time at my current speed. I still do not know if the ETE time stems from direct line distance to the Waypoint or the actual distance on the planed track.
Another annoying thing that I noticed with the POI/Waypoint alerts is that they do not display the actual names of the Waypoints or POIs . It always just says next POI, even if you named them. If you have a lot of waypoints and POIs how will you tell them apart? I am presuming this was deemed lower priority for the programmers and will hopefully be addressed in the next update. Having a water source and a waypoint close together here spells for some confusion. Specifically I am thinking of scenarios where you are somewhere for the first time in bad weather.
Generally thou to my surprise the alerts kept on working well. While navigating I also saw the POIs I put on your watch show up in the breadcrumb mini map if you have a route open or not. This is great as it shows you everything you planed in at one glance. You also get an independent alert that a POI is in the proximity once you get to like 100m close.
Next thing I wanted to test was to get a POI up and running while my navigation was on. I picked up my point and it gave me it`s name and a direct line towards it. It all worked a lot smoother then it did on the old firmware and now also included an ETE time. If you taped the ETE time you would also get a ETA, battery life and time of day. Kind of a toggle for more info. Very smart fast and useful. A good thing was also that when I changed back to may old navigation route it just continued and did not start from the beginning. Now that is how I want this kind of thing to work. Multitasking :).
Off Route warnings
The final thing important and missing in the old firmware was the “off route” alert. I fell victim to this omission a couple of times in the past and having it would have saved me a bit of time and sweat. To see if it would kick in and how long it would take for it to do that I went straight off the route. A good 100m off the watch started vibrating and I saw a nice gray warning massage that I was off route. I turned around and headed back. Immediately it put me back on track and in the altitude graph the “off route” warning disappeared and I was back on track. A simple thing that should have been in the watch from the start and works well now.
The only thing to keep in mind here is that it seems to work at around 100m. That`s why I did not get a warning during my shortcut at the beginning of the navigation test and why it missed the first waypoint completely. Granted that was a bit of a rare scenario and you could still see it all on the minimap. As for the other alerts I am happy to see that they are working fine and that I will not have to check the watch constantly anymore in fear that the whole thing hanged or just glitched into uselessness.
A new function that has been added to the activity tracking is sleep tracking. I would see its main use in your average HR over a night to see if it stays around the same. If it goes higher your immune system might be more active indicating a oncoming sickness. This all works on the WHR versions of the Spartan but unfortunately for the Ultra this mode is omitted. Why it is not possible to use the smart sensor is beyond me but now as it stands it just uses the accelerometer to track how long you sleep. I tried it for a few days and it was pretty erratic. On day two it detected that I got up two hours after I was already active and on day three it thought I was asleep when I put the watch off my wrist in the middle of the day. All in all not very useful. I do not know if the detailed information from your sleep pattern as deep-sleep and awake time, aka the time you toss and turn at night are based on sensor data or on a algorithm. As it stands now I see this only as a gimmick, as it is erratic and prone to error.
Well the Spartan has come a long way. Finally I can say I am happy with it. The feature set is useful now. Of course to gain back the credibility of being a super reliable tool I will have to do a lot of long tracking sessions to see if there are any big crashes. After tracking two 2.5 hour sessions one after the other a few days back I had no issues. That of course is different for ultra marathon or very long ski tours with biwaks for a couple of days. Winter is around the corner and there will be plenty of opportunity to test battery life and long outings. I will keep you posted on these as they develop. Keep in mind that there have been a lot of other fixes, connected to Stryd pods ect. that I did not go into because I do not use these.
After this basic navigational test I can say that the Outdoor firmware does a lot for the usability of this watch. It finally surpasses the old Traverse and so the Ultra will probably become Suuntos new outdoor watch. Sure it still misses the night vision LCD version and military certification, but I bet they have something like that in the works already. As for us normal mortals I think it will be a good navigational tool especially for planed biwaking locations as POIs and water sources as well as other areas in remote locations finally show up where they are supposed to. It would also be cool to have access to the new watchface while you are tracking a move and navigating.
There still are a few issues that need to be addressed but the most important one is the Waypoint/POI alerts. Instead of a random next POI there really needs to be a name of that waypoint of POI displayed in the alert to avoid confusion and make things more user friendly. Also it would be nice if the “off route” navigation had a setting to make sure it starts beeping earlier then 100m off route. Maybe a 50m or 20m option would be nice to have. When navigation on a glacier with crevasses that would be important.
I am also still missing the possibility to use a track that I made a day earlier on the watch as a navigable route. Again for tricky terrain that you pass on the spot and can not plan on, like moving glaciers planing from an old satellite map just doesn`t cut it. this would be really helpful in a bad weather scenario.
Another thing that still bugs me is the inflexibility in setting up custom sports modes. There is still no way to put the graphs in them and the sunset and sunrise times can now be added but are not part of say the mountaineering default or ski touring defaults that I like to use. It would be great if one could make a custom profile where you could add graphs. A graph screen where you could toggle between the altitude, HR and air pressure graph would be awesome.
It is funny that you can not use the HR belt on the Ultra model for sleep tracking HR. That I think should not be to hard to add. It would be useful to get a good resting HR. or sporadic night test if you have trouble sleeping.
Well this is it for this. Now we shift focus to two adventures in the tyrolean alps in Austria, as we first head to Kaunertal for the biggest KTO Opening ever and then to Stubai Premiere to start of the season. So stay tuned for more posts soon :)!!!