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Review: Suunto 9 Baro

Part 1 : New Features & Design
Part 2 : Battery Life & FusedTrack
Part 3 : Optical Heart Rate & Take-Away

The Suunto 9


The Suunto Spartan Ultra has been my go-to multisport GPS watch for almost two years now, and used to be Suunto's highest end device, their flagship model if you may. A few months ago however, Suunto announced the Suunto 9 Baro, a device that replaces the Spartan Ultra as the top tier model. For some reason, it is always quite exciting to see something get dethroned.

There are plenty of resources out there that analyse the wealth of features that the Spartan Ultra has to offer. In this review however, I will be approaching things from a slightly different angle, and will be tackling the DIFFERENCES between the old and the new flagship models, the Suunto Spartan Ultra and the Suunto 9 Baro, and hope that this write-up may help those who are considering making the upgrade.

Before we begin, here is a quick disclaimer...

Disclaimer
Both the Suunto 9 Baro and the Suunto Spartan Ultra have been provided to me by Suunto Malaysia.

I have also been testing the Suunto 9 (without a barometer) for several months now as an (unpaid) external field tester. This model has recently been announced to the world so the things that I will mention later do not violate my non-disclosure agreement.

I will also not be mentioning anything about the mobile app. Whilst I may be considered IT and tech savvy, I am a bit 'old-school' in the sense that I find the over-reliance on mobile devices to be somewhat disconcerting. I also feel that it is one of the reasons why our society is so disconnected from nature. I personally use a computer for internet access, for synchronising data with my Suunto devices, and for the analysis of my activities on movescount. A phone is just something that I carry around in case I need to contact people in an emergency.


Suunto has approached things from a slightly different angle when compared to all the other multi-sport watch brands out there. Instead of cramming the watch full of as many features as they possibly can, Suunto has decided to focus on refining and perfecting the features that they, and a vast majority of their users, deem to be the most important: prolonging the battery life for ultra runners and multi-day hikers, increasing the reliability of their devices, and honing the GPS tracking accuracy--all of which I will go through a little later.

Suunto is also trying to keep their prices low in order to make their devices more accessible to a wider range of athletes and outdoor aficionados. At first glance you may think that the prices are a little exorbitant, but there is a significant difference when you compare the current price of the Suunto 9 Baro, which is MYR2699 (USD599) to the price of the flagship model of Suunto's closest competitor, which is MYR4019 (USD850).


New Features


"Suunto 9 is a multisport GPS watch designed for athletes who demand the best from their sports watch. Intelligent battery life management system with smart reminders ensures your watch will last just as long as you need it to. The robust Suunto 9 is made for long, arduous training and racing and extreme adventures."

www.suunto.com

Aside from the aesthetic changes, the additional features of the Suunto 9 Baro are:

FusedTrack™ for improved track and distance accuracy - This is an algorithm that combines both GPS and motion sensor data such as the accelerometer, gyro and compass, in order to improve track and distance accuracy. This allows the battery life to be extended without compromising the GPS accuracy significantly.

Predefined battery modes – Three new predefined modes, 'Performance', 'Endurance', and 'Ultra', the latter of which extends the battery life to up to 120 hours with GPS tracking.

Intelligent battery technology with smart charging reminders – These provide low battery warnings that are based on your activity history, and also help to ensure that the device has sufficient charge for your next exercise or adventure.

New GPS Chipset – Switched GPS chipset providers from SirfStar to Sony.

Swappable straps – The industry standard 24mm straps are now easily changed without requiring additional tools.

Optical heart rate sensor – An optical heart rate sensor from Valencell has been added that allows continuous heart rate tracking.


The Design


The first things that most people notice are the redesigned chevrons on the cardinal points of the bezel and the introduction of the new watch face. This watch face comprises of two circular gauges that run around the external circumference of the screen, with the internal gauge indicating the remaining battery charge and the external showing the current week’s activity in hours. Both the Suunto 9 Baro and the Suunto Spartan Ultra are equipped with touchscreen sapphire crystal displays that are very responsive, although I personally do not use the touchscreen all that much.

Suunto 9 Front Face

The front face of the Suunto Spartan Ultra on the left, and the Suunto 9 Baro on the right

From the front the two devices look remarkably similar, but once you swivel them around the physical differences become more noticeable. The case is slightly different and the buttons of the Suunto 9 Baro have been sized up.

Suunto 9 Side

A closer look at the buttons and case of the Suunto Spartan Ultra on the left, and the Suunto 9 Baro on the right

On the underside of the Suunto 9 Baro lies the conspicuous optical heart rate (oHR) sensor from Valencell that is nestled into the newly designed case. Where the case and the straps meet lies a tiny discreet 'pin release' that lies flush with the strap itself. This pin is the mechanism that allows the straps to be changed out easily without additional tools.

Suunto 9 optical hear rate

The Valencell oHR sensor on the Suunto 9 Baro; the 'pin release' can be seen where the strap meets the case

One big improvement that I am very grateful for is the new lock screen. Since I accidentally ended an exercise on my Suunto Ambit way back in 2012, it has been a habit of mine to always lock the screen during an activity. One gripe that I used to have was that I was never able to scroll through the screens of the Suunto Spartan Ultra when the screen was locked. The lock screen on the Suunto 9 Baro however, fixes this.

The table below compares the dimensions and the weight of both the Suunto 9 and Spartan ranges. You can see the changes to the weight and the thickness based on the battery and the elements that have been added or removed, such as the barometer, the optical heart rate sensor, or the type of display.

DEVICESuunto 9 BaroSuunto 9Spartan UltraSpartan Sport BaroSpartan Sport
DIMENSIONS50 x 50 x 16.8 mm50 x 50 x 16.5 mm50 x 50 x 17 mm50 x 50 x 17 mm50 x 50 x 13.8 mm
WEIGHT81 g72 g77 g74 g70 g
BEZELStainless steelStainless steelStainless steelStainless steelStainless steel
GLASSSapphire crystalMineral glassSapphire crystalMineral crystalMineral crystal
CASEGlass fibre reinforced polyamideGlass fibre reinforced polyamidePolyamideGlass fibre reinforced polyamidePolyamide


Next : Battery Life & FusedTrack (Part 2)

Battery Life


Normally, the battery life for GPS devices is extended by either increasing the amount of time that goes by between each GPS sampling point, or 'fix', or by simply reducing the power of the GPS signal. The Suunto Spartan Ultra has three different GPS modes: 'Best' takes a GPS fix at full power every second which gives it an estimated battery life of 18 hours; 'Good' takes a GPS fix at low power every second which gives it an estimated battery life of 35 hours; and 'OK' takes a GPS fix at full power every 60 seconds which gives it an estimated battery life of 140 hours.

The Suunto 9 Baro on the other hand, also retains these three different GPS modes, but with slight changes: 'Best' retains its GPS fix of every second which gives it an estimated battery life of 25 hours; 'Good' now instead takes a GPS fix every 60 seconds which gives it an estimated battery life of 50 hours; and 'OK' doubles that by taking a GPS fix every 120 seconds which gives it an estimated battery life of 120 hours.

The watch then goes a step further and introduces new power modes that don't just stop at changes of the GPS sampling rates. The 'Performance' mode for instance uses 'best' GPS accuracy and keeps everything else enabled except for the touchscreen. The heart rate, either via the optical sensor or via the Suunto Smart Sensor chest strap, is also enabled, as are all the notifications and vibration alerts. The 'Endurance' mode reduces the GPS accuracy to 'good' and the display brightness to 20%. The 'Ultra' mode on the other hand, uses 'OK' GPS accuracy and turns off everything that is non-critical such as the notifications and vibration alerts, reduces the display brightness to 10%, enables the display timeout after 10 seconds, and turns off the oHR sensor (although it still picks up the Suunto Smart Sensor chest strap if used). All this helps to extend the battery life to 120 hours.


Suunto 9 battery modes

The new power modes of the Suunto 9 Baro

Just before you begin an activity, or 'move', an estimate of the battery life that remains is displayed on the watch face. This estimate is based on both the current charge as well as the power mode that has been selected. Simply pressing the upper right button then allows you to quickly toggle between the power modes and to select the one that best fits both the duration of the activity and the accuracy of the GPS tracking that you might require. The Suunto 9 Baro also displays low battery warnings when the battery drops to critical levels, and allows you to dynamically switch to different power modes even whilst in the middle of an activity.

Suunto 9 power modes

An example of the smart charging reminder; battery life estimates and quick toggles between the power modes


FusedTrack


When the amount of time that goes by between each GPS sampling point is extended, the accuracy of the GPS tracking will undoubtedly be compromised, and ends up turning nice windy trails into jagged zig-zags. This is where the magic of the Suunto 9 Baro comes in, with the introduction of something that Suunto calls 'FusedTrack':

The 'Fused' concept has been around for quite a while: 'FusedSpeed' corrects the speed and the pace by taking into account data from both GPS and accelerometer readings, whilst 'FusedAlti' corrects altitude measurements by combining GPS and barometric data, and is a process that is done automatically on the Suunto 9 Baro based on the movements that are tracked on the accelerometer.

'FusedTrack' on the other hand, combines data from the gyro sensor, the accelerometer, and the compass, in order to generate a track even without GPS data. This is what fills in the 'gaps' in-between GPS fixes for the 'endurance' and 'ultra' power modes--gaps that would otherwise just be straight lines. The algorithm for FusedTrack also takes into account the number of watch oscillations, which is why it is enabled for running and trail running.

In the image below, the green line was taken with a GPS sample rate of 1 second, which is as accurate as one can get; the blue line however was taken with a GPS sample rate of 60 seconds without FusedTrack enabled--notice how it begins to deviate from the green line. Hover your cursor over the image to see how well the red FusedTrack line performed on a GPS sample rate of 120 seconds, which is a rate that is double that of the blue line:

The second image shows a section where a backtrack was required. The closer the two lines of the same colour are to one another, the more consistent the GPS measurements are. The closer the other lines are to the green line, the more accurate the measurements are. Once again, the green line was taken with a GPS sample rate of 1 second, and the blue line was taken with a GPS sample rate of 60 seconds without FusedTrack enabled. Hover your cursor over the image to see how well the red FusedTrack line performed on a GPS sample rate of 120 seconds:

Very impressive for GPS without GPS!

Next : Optical Heart Rate & Take-Away (Part 3)


Optical Heartrate


The Suunto 9 Baro comes equipped with the latest generation PerformTek 1.2 sensor from Valencell, which is one of the best optical heart rate sensors out there. No matter how good it is though, no optical heart rate sensor can match the accuracy and precision that heart rate belts like the Suunto Smart Sensor give.

Despite this, the optical sensor does seem to do quite well, at least once you manage to find your own sweet spot. You see, the accuracy of optical heart rate sensors depend on a huge range of factors: how much you are sweating, the position of the watch on your wrist, how tight the watch straps are, the ambient temperature which affects your blood flow, and factors like how much your arms move and whether you tend to clench your fists or not. Once you do find the right position however, the results will fairly accurately follow the 'trend' of your heart rate. The graph does spike and drop on occasion but the trend is indeed there:

Suunto 9 heart rate graph

The peaks and troughs of the Valencell optical heart rate sensor can be seen in turquoise. Once these are omitted, you can see quite clearly that the graph matches that of the Suunto Smart Sensor (in orange) quite closely

If it were up to me however, I would have left it out to save weight and reduce the cost, and for the time being at least, will still continue to use the Suunto Smart Sensor for my runs. I also do realise that optical heart rate sensors have been added to Suunto watches before, but this write-up is a comparison between the flagship models, and this is the first time an optical sensor has been added to Suunto's highest end device.


Baroless Option


The baroless option--referred to as (just) the Suunto 9, as opposed to the Suunto 9 Baro--was announced just a month ago. The biggest physical changes on the Suunto 9 are the different chevrons on the cardinal points of the bezel, the straps now lie flat, and of course the lack a barometer port on the underside of the case.

Suunto 9 baroless

The underside of the case of the Suunto 9 Baro on the left and the Suunto 9 (baroless) on the right.
The absence of a barometer port can be seen on the right of the case.

The lack of a barometer also slims the Suunto 9 down slightly, and reduces its width by 0.3mm. This, and the change from a sapphire crystal to mineral glass display, make the weight difference quite considerable--a reduction of 9g, more than 10% the total weight of the watch. This weight reduction should, at least theoretically, increase the accuracy of the optical heart rate readings since the watch will be less likely to flop around on your wrist. The lack of a barometer does not mean that altitude readings have been completely omitted however, as the watch still takes GPS altitude readings which, although not completely precise, still manages to capture the ascents and descents. The Suunto 9 may have been announced but it is still in its pre-production phase, and as such, my field tester NDA prevents me from releasing any test results. At least, not at this time.

So, to wrap-up.. here are the pros and cons:

Pros

• Amazing battery life of up to 120 hours with GPS tracking.

• Intelligent battery modes and warnings.

• Swappable straps without additional tools.

• Rugged and can withstand the demands of the outdoors.

• Has a very sleek modern appearance.

Cons

• The Suunto 9 requires a figure-of-eight arm movement to re-calibrate the compass each time FusedTrack is enabled. Whilst this may indeed be necessary for improved FusedTrack accuracy, the wild flailing does attract a lot of unwanted attention.


The Take-away


The results that the FusedTrack algorithm produces are nothing short of extraordinary. The Suunto 9 Baro (and Suunto 9) can effectively track routes relatively well without the presence of a GPS signal. This in turn allows the amount of time that goes by between each GPS sampling point to be extended without adversely affecting the accuracy of the GPS tracking, which subsequently results in a battery life that is vastly extended.

The device also comes with an array of intelligent and customisable battery modes and settings that boost the battery life even further, which is ideal for ultra runners or for those who are out in the wilderness for multiple days at a time. The accuracy of the GPS and the barometric altimeter readings, and the navigation capabilities of the watch are perfect for those who call the mountain wilderness their home. The sleek yet robust form factor will also be able to withstand almost anything that demanding weather and terrain can throw at it.

This is a watch that has indeed been 'built to last'.


You can find the Suunto 9 at
Suunto Malaysia's official Lazada store

* Both the Suunto 9 Baro and the Suunto Spartan Ultra have been provided by Suunto Malaysia.