Suunto AMBIT Review

by Chad Brackelsberg

I have been a huge fan of GPS running watches since I purchased a Garmin Forerunner 201 over five years ago.  Since then, I have upgraded to the Garmin Forerunner 205 and eventually a Garmin Forerunner 310XT.  I was never happy with the Garmin heart rate monitors so ever since I started using a GPS watch, I also wore a Polar hear rate monitor (C210 and RS400 models).  I felt that Polar had a superior heart rate monitor with several functions that I liked (OwnZone, pretty accurate calorie counting, max heart rate, average heart rate, etc.).  I always found it a pain to wear 2 separate watches, but I did like the ability to see 7 screens of data at a glance to both wrists.  I also wanted a device that I could use while backcountry skiing.  I wanted the ability to track my vertical (I have a Suunto Vector and Suunto Core I used for this for this), but I also wanted to be able to set a waypoint for things like snowpits, great lines to ski, etc. or track my route.  I didn’t want to carry a handheld GPS while skiing so I never had this opportunity.  When the Suunto Ambit was announced last winter, I was excited to try it out.  I felt this would be my opportunity to have a single device for all of my activities and to free 1 of my wrists.

I purchased my Ambit in May not sure if it was the right device for me or not.

Setup:  I setup the displays for all of the information I might want to see for various activities. Activities I configured it for are: Road Running, Trail Running, Mountain Biking, Road Biking, Backcountry Skiing, Resort Skiing, Nordic Skiing, Indoor Training (treadmills, weight lifting, etc), and Recovery (used to measure my heart rate for a period of time immediately after a workout).  For each activity, I tried to create a primary screen with the main information I would want to see (for example for trail running, time, distance, and pace for a run), then select 2-4 more pieces of information I might want to quickly look at (for trail running, this is heart rate, calories, and average pace).  I then created additional views that I may want (I have specific views for heart rate information, lap information, vertical gain/loss, altitude graph, and heart rate graph).  Initial setup of the device takes some time and I found that as I used the device I had to modify these views to get them perfected.  Being able to configure the device from the MovesCount.com website is a huge benefit (and time saver) over the Garmin watches I have used.

Satellite Acquisition: I had read on several reviews that satellite acquisition can take some time.  On my first use, I was happy that the unit acquired satellites very quickly.  I have found that when I move to a new location (more than 100 or so miles from my last use), the device can take 3-5 minutes to acquire satellites.  I have also found that on random occasions the device will take 3-5 minutes to acquire satellites even though I am using it at the same location as the previous usage.  I expect that as new firmware updates are released by Suunto that this is an area that will be improved upon.

Using the Watch: My first few uses of the watch, I used both my Garmin Forerunner 310XT and the Ambit.  On these side by side comparisons, I have found that there can be up to 10% variation in the distance readings of the Ambit and 310XT.  On several known distance trails, it appeared that the Ambit was off compared to the 310XT.  Here is a comparison of the 310XT and Ambit on a recent hike on Mt Mansfield, Vt.  The Anbit ready 0.48 miles less than the 310XT, a difference of around 5%.

I immediately liked the look and feel of the watch.  I did find that with my small wrists, I needed a wrist band to take up some extra space as I couldn’t get the watch to fit correctly so that it wouldn’t rotate on my wrist.  I also found that I missed having 4 screens of data.  I had grown very accustomed to being able to see my time, distance, pace, and average pace all at a single glance at my 310XT.  Even after close to 6 months of use, I miss this feature.  

The calorie counting also appeared to be low.  On a 10K trail run of 48 minutes with around 1,000’ of climbing, it would read only around 400 calories.  This seems low for my perceived exertion and average heart rate.  On the long hike on Mt Mansfield, the device registered 1555 calories over the 5:22 of hiking.  To me it seems low to only have burned an average of 290 calories/hour while hiking steep terrain.

As expected from Suunto, the vertical gain/loss is very accurate.  It is nice to be able to see this information real time and not have to wait to upload the data and go to the Garmin Connect website to get accurate data (the 310XT uses GPS altitude and when the data is uploaded to Garmin Connect an elevation correction is applied).  The photo below is an example of the discrepancy between the 310XT and Ambit on vertical gain during the Mt Mansfield hike.  When downloaded to Garmin Connect, the Garmin vertical gain was adjusted to 4,696’, which more closely matches the Ambit’s reading.

Navigation: I have not tested the new navigation features included in the latest firmware release.  The previous ability to navigate to waypoints or routes was limited and difficult to use.  You could get a directional arrow to a waypoint or import a route to follow, but you could not import a route, then try to start following the route mid-way through the route, you had to start at the beginning.  With the new advanced navigation, I am hoping this is resolved.  Regardless, with the small screen your navigation abilities are limited and if you need to navigate, I am much more likely to rely on a map and compass or handheld GPS unit.

Battery Life: The Ambit has been praised for the 15 hour battery life.  As an ultra-runner, I find this is a little bit low.  I had grown accustomed to the 20+ hours of battery life from the 310XT.  It was nice to be able to finish almost a complete 100 mile race with the 310XT.  There are settings in the Ambit to decrease the recording interval in order to increase the battery life, but this setting comes at the cost of accuracy for distance, pace, and average pace while running.

Summary: I am very happy with all aspects of the watch.  As summarized below in pros and cons, there are things from the Polar and 310XT that I miss, but so far, the pros out-weigh the cons.  While the cost of the Ambit is high, this is a highly functional, highly customizable device that meets 95% of my requirements and would likely meet 100% of most people’s requirements.

Pros

  • Up to 10 sports specific, highly customizable displays
8 different screens per display
5 options for bottoms view on each display
  • Accurate altimeter based on barometric pressure 
  • Accurate elevation gain/loss tracking 
  • Can be worn as a regular watch 
  • Watch can be fully configured from MovesCount.com website. 
  • Suunto has released 2 firmware updates since I purchased the watch each adding additional functionality.  I expect this to continue which will likely increase my satisfaction with the watch.


Cons

  • Only has the ability to view 3 display fields at a time
  • Routes are limited to 100 waypoints 
  • Only 15 hours of battery life (as opposed to Garmin 310XT which is 20 hours) 
  • Heart rate monitor lacks some of the features of Polar heart rate monitors I have previously used. 
  • Device does not wirelessly transmit data (Garmin Forerunner 310XT uses wireless ANT technology to sync data so as soon as I walk into my house the watch syncs). 
  • Can’t create custom workouts and upload to device.  This is a great feature of the Garmin watches as you can create custom workouts for intervals, Tabata sprints, and other workouts that I frequently use. 
  • Cost: the Ambit is twice the cost of many of the other GPS units.