Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Gear Review: Suunto Ambit 3

A bit of advanced warning - this will far and away be my longest post to date, so if you're not into reading lengthy and detailed reviews...I'll give you the high level review:

The Suunto Ambit 3 is a beast of a watch, and is now very happily my primary training data device for triathlon.

There. You short winded readers can fall off and leave the rest of the review to the voracious readers out there.

Still here? Wonderful, let's get started for reals this time.

In the beginning....

I've long been a big fan of training and racing data, and it would be fair to say I rely on it to make decisions about how to train. That's not to say I don't rely on feel, but it's not the sole factor. When it comes to my body, I'm a combo of Missouri - show Me! - and Donald Rumsfeld -trust but verify. For a few years, I've been using a Garmin Forerunner 305 with a Garmin foot pod for treadmill and outdoor running, as well as for open water swims. I used a Swimovate Poolsense as a swim lap counter, then recently a Garmin Swim for even more detailed data. Lastly, I use a Powertap Joule for gathering my power data off the bike, faithfully transmitted from my Powertap G3. I don't commonly wear a watch for everyday use. 

I've had beefs with the Garmin components. I didn't like having to wear different watches for different things, and felt that the 305 was enormous size-wise. The upgrade path presented by Garmin - the 910XT - solved the multiple device problem, but I still felt the watch looked ridiculously huge. Suunto's Ambit2 and Ambit3 presented an interesting alternative. The watch looks much more like a regular watch, but with all of the same capabilities of the 910XT. As I was deciding to move toward Suunto, the Garmin 920XT was released, which cemented the choice for me in the Ambit3, for two main reasons - 1) The 920XT looks more ridiculous to me than the 910XT did, which is no small feat, and 2) Comparing the features between the 920XT and Ambit3, I didn't feel that the additional cost of the 920XT was warranted by the price difference. The one hangup I had was with the Ambit3 being Bluetooth Smart *only*, but I'll cover why I moved past that later on.

Unboxing

We start with a box:


And we find a watch, blue as it is.


Also the heart rate strap and charger:

The heart rate strap device is small, at least smaller than I'm used to. I have large-ish hands, but nonetheless, here's a decent approximation of the size:


Size-wise, it's bigger than most wristwatches, but not as bulky as my old 305, nor as bulky as a 910XT, which I've tried on before. Putting it on, it's immediately apparent this watch is of very high quality - the back of it seems to weight itself into place on your wrist, and the silicone material the watch band and chassis are made of feels sleek, flexible, and durable. I found myself saying out loud that the watch is well made, and have heard the same comment from others when they check it out\try it on. It's also...blue. Its blueness is mostly a mixup, and one I initially recoiled from (eh? not black??), but I've come around on. If you plan on wearing this as your everyday time piece, depending on your workplace it may cause some awkward stares. In my case, I kinda like being a little different here and there, and the blueness starts a conversation (what the heck is THAT? is usually how it starts), which I like engaging in. Here's how it looks on my wrist (the cut across the front is the partially removed plastic covering, nothing cracked!)



I also found the watch doesn't cause uncomfortable sweating underneath the band or body, which is a dramatic change from what I previously had, either with fabric straps or rubber\silicone straps. I get the feeling a lot of thought went into the physical footprint of the design, not just the insides. With that though, let's start playing.

Initialization

 I appreciate the little things, like covering up the USB charge cable from dust and stuff. Attention to detail:






I'm not exactly a luddite, but I pretty quickly figured out what each of the marked buttons can do, and the on-screen highlighting is clear as to what happens next. I tried very hard to steer clear of the manual completely and get a sense of how naturally I could navigate the features. Happily, it's quite easy. As with anything, I started by charging it fully (which wasn't necessary, as it arrived at 50% battery).



It took 2 hours to charge to 100%, which extrapolates to 4 hours to charge from dead. That's not a short amount of time at all, but considering that the battery will last up to 8 hours in 1-second GPS mode and 150 hours in watch mode, I think it's fine. After a couple of weeks, I charged it only twice, using it daily.

The Quick Start manual is just that - and it's pretty quick. You pick a language, decide whether or not to pair to the Movescount app on your mobile phone (which of course you do and takes about 2 minutes), choose metric or imperial units, and go. The Movescount app itself I'll cover later on, but quickly, it allows you to sync your data from the watch and also to control the myriad user settings. 

I didn't figure out right away that holding down each button for a few seconds resulted in a different mode, but eventually it clicked and I found I was able to navigate easily and intuitively. This is of course in comparison to the ultra-confusing menu tree in the Garmin world, where even the lowly Swim crippled my brain. I felt instant relief.

In use - Running

Selecting Start >Exercise>Running, and the watch asks if you'd like to pair your heart rate monitor. You say "Yes" or "Later" and it follows instructions. Simple. Now the big unveil...will it find a satellite or will it leave me waiting on the side of the road for 2 minutes? Gang, it found a satellite in less than 5 seconds. The second time I ran from the same start location, it was nearly instant. This, to me, is one of the strongest features - the GPS acquisition is amazing. It also has yet to have me run 400 meters into the ocean before finding my way back on shore - meaning it's also apparently accurate, which my 305 wasn't all the time. 

I went for a nice run and found that the pace display was rounded to 5 second chunks, which I felt was nicer to look at than choppier data I was used to. The View button allows me to cycle through a variable display, all of which can be customized in every imaginable way through the Movescount app. You get a 'Main' data field, with a smaller header field, and a scrollable footer field. Like Alice's Restaurant, you can get anything you want.

Indoors, I had high hopes after hearing I wouldn't need a foot pod on the treadmill. Alas, this proved not to be the case. On a known, calibrated treadmill, my pace was overestimated by 1:00 per mile in the beginning of my workout, fluctuating erratically at first and then wildly near the end. I found after multiple trials that it did a pretty decent job of figuring my pace in the 8:00-9:00 minute per mile range, but anything faster or slower it couldn't figure out. This isn't too surprising once I thought about it though - my particular gait is such that my arms don't move differently the faster I go, I just apply more force as I push off on each stride. As such, my arm movement - and the accelerometer-tracked motion in the watch that would be used to gauge pace - can't really be a good predictor of pace. Cheers for trying!

There's not many Bluetooth foot pods out there, unfortunately. I ordered an Adidas miCoach off eBay and learned after getting it that it was NOT Bluetooth (they make two kinds, difficult to tell which you're getting, I got Ant+, didn't try again). I next tried the iGotU/Jarv POD-30. That paired, but didn't work. At all. It didn't work with its own application on the iPhone either. Utter piece of shit, and one I'll be asking for a refund on. Next up I'm ordering the Adidas miCoach directly from Adidas so I know it's definitely BTLE.  I'd love to shed more gear, but I much prefer accurate data than bad data, so my treadmill workouts will have to continue with a foot pod. Given the long winters we have in Connecticut, this was a big requirement for me. A large portion of my training is done on the treadmill.

In use - Swimming

My first trip to the pool with the watch was semi-successful, in that it did capture my workout, but it didn't do it in the way I thought it was. If you're not planning on examining the data at a future date, then it's really pretty great, in that you never need to hit the lap or start/stop button, you just swim and the watch detects when your swimming and when you're not, and only displays your lap time when you're swimming. Pretty neat. However, it's a terror to look at after the fact in Movescount. Movescount thought I swam backstroke as often as I did freestyle and made a hash of distances. I also couldn't intuitively figure out how to go into drill mode.

To be fair, swimming watches are *all* pretty finicky, and all they reliably do without messing up horribly is counting laps, which it did accurately, albeit in a way I'm not used to seeing - it shows total distance, not lap count. Confusingly, you can trigger an "Interval" with the "Lap" button, if you want to record a specific sequence. I had to hit the manual to figure out where the drill mode was accessed after the fact, and also learned while I was in there that it's best to 'teach' the Ambit3 your stroke. On my second trip to the pool armed with this knowledge, everything worked great, and the Movescount-altered display made a lot better reading.

It bears mention that Suunto now offer heart rate tracking for swimming. This is potentially some really interesting stuff, particularly when it comes to estimating training load and recovery for swimming, which is really not very well understood. The general consensus on swim training is nebulous - swim around 6000 yards a week to maintain, more to improve, but how much more and how to achieve that aren't nearly as well postulated as biking and running, where there is much study on how to mix slow distance and high intensity training. Heart rate allows us to approach the data from a VO2 perspective in a way we couldn't before. I'm personally intrigued with the idea of playing with different existing formulas to see what works for training, and incorporating it into my plan.

Unfortunately, I won't be able to swim in the open water with the watch for several months unless I unexpectedly travel to warmer climes. I'd love to stop keeping my 305 in my swim cap, and I'm hoping to find the GPS tracking is as good as advertised.

In use - Skiing

Before going for a ski with my family one weekend, I added 'Alpine Skiing' as a sport mode on the watch and hit record as I did the one run of the day without my 4-year old between my legs. I didn't feel like looking at it while I was skiing, but afterwards I saw it captured speed and GPS, but not much else to be interested in. If I were a competitive skier I could see speed being important, but for hacking around with my family on the weekends, I can't see that I'll bother recording again. I can say the GPS altitude tracking was within 10 feet of what was written on the sign at the peak, though. The Sport model has a GPS, not barometric altimeter, so for this to be close as it was is good.

In use - Biking?

I'd like to do a review of how well the Ambit3 paired to my power meter, but of course...it doesn't. My power meter - and many, many, many others - transmits Ant+, not Bluetooth Smart. Of course, GPS works just fine for speed and elevation data, so I did take the bike out on the road for a ride anyway. Not surprisingly, everything went great. It worked solely off of GPS data, but picked off speed correctly, as it did with running. Again, the satellite acquisition was near-instant.

You might think I'm bumming on not having power data on the watch...but I'm not. It's winter here, and will be for a long time, so as much as I'd like to think I'm riding outside all the time, I'm not. And so I don't care at all about my power meter and the Ambit3. Really. Here's why:

Bluetooth Smart - really?

Justifiably, a lot of folks are going to ask why Suunto moved away from Ant+ data transmission and towards Bluetooth Smart. The simplest answer is because every other industry other than the fitness industry had already moved to Bluetooth, and specifically mobile phones. The future is here, and it's long been Bluetooth. It matters to triathletes, though, because all our gear has been Ant+ based. Help! Actually, it's not quite as big a deal as one would be led to believe. On the run, your only sunk cost in Ant+ would be a foot pod, if you even have one. That's not a deal breaker, and if you wanted to sell it and replace it with a Bluetooth Smart-compatible foot pod, you can do that. On the swim, there's no gear to replace, in fact you *gain* the only underwater heart rate monitor currently on the market. All that's left is the bike.

Unless you have a Stages power meter, which already transmits Bluetooth concurrently with Ant+, you probably have an Ant+ power meter, or no power meter, in which case this isn't a big deal at all. Powertap (Saris, that is) have redesigned their power meters to allow for swappable caps, meaning your hub-based core power meter stays put, and you simply swap out the cap for a Bluetooth one, as opposed to an Ant+ one, for about $130. That's not cheap, but it's hardly a new power meter. If you have any other power meter (currently, that is - Polar\Look are supposedly coming out with a new BT power meter soon), it's only transmitting Ant+. However....I propose that you don't care, and here's why: you probably already have something to record that data and it isn't on your wrist.  If you're like me, you use your power meter on the trainer with some sort of third party software, be it Trainerroad,  Golden Cheetah, MaximumTrainer, etc. That data is being picked up via a USB stick on your computer just fine right now. If you're using a Computrainer, the power data isn't coming from your power meter anyway, it's being calculated off the trainer itself. *Off* the trainer, I submit that if you're actively looking at your watch for power data while you're riding, you're going to crash some day. Your wrist simply isn't ever in a good position to be read off of while you're riding. So shame on you. Your watch can *record* the data, but displaying it? Meh, there are better solutions. You might have a Garmin 500, or 800, or a Joule, or something along those lines, where the display is somewhere you can look at it. If you're using a bike mount for your watch, I feel bad for you, it's just one more thing to fidget with in transition for no reason. Again, personally I don't pay much attention to the granular detail of my race data. I'm concerned with whether the swim was long or short so I can correctly determine my swim pace, but the bike and run are measured accurately, and so long as I know I held my power numbers, there aren't any nuggets for me in race data. Training data is different, but again-  I have all of that data. So it really doesn't matter to me whether my bike can talk to my watch yet. Of course, your opinion may be different.

Movescount

Movescount is Suunto's web-based application for viewing, publishing, and analyzing your training data. I think it bears mention in this review because of the obvious connection between the Ambit3 and the mobile version of the app. On the mobile version, you don't get anywhere near the feature count you do on the full online version, it's more pared down to allow you to change settings on the device and quickly confirm that your latest 'move' (Suunto's term for a workout) has synced successfully. Not that I mind, I don't think the size of a mobile phone lends itself to even semi-serious data analysis, and I can't imagine anyone -even an ultra-busy coach - doing their work on a mobile phone. That said, the Movescount online version is enormously feature rich. It's quite colorful and incredibly detailed. Here's an example view of a ride I imported:

This site in my opinion actually elevates the Suunto family above its competitors, mainly Garmin. Garmin's Connect site always felt too illogical to me, and even with the 'Modern' update they've done, it doesn't seem to be quite right, mostly due to strange navigation. The emphasis in Connect is more on custom display, and less on getting to your data.

When it comes to getting data in and out of Suunto, I think it falls down a bit though. You can export individual moves, but it doesn't always make sense format wise. For instance, with the above ride, I can only export to Excel or .fit format, not .tcx. A bit strange. On the import side, Suunto has missed the ball completely, in that there is no official Suunto way to import *anything*. I don't understand the point of that. They do point you towards a third-party tool called MXActivityMover, but it's not a very solid application at all. MXActivityMover is not an official Suunto app, so the fact that it doesn't work correctly (you can't import a tcx file, you can only import a Garmin file from Garmin Connect? Huh?) doesn't bear directly on Suunto, but it's odd that Movescount doesn't have its own import function. This was surprising.

As a developer, I had a poke around and was able to find a very well composed web API running behind Movescount, so I reached out to Suunto to see if I could acquire an app key (like a password, unique to a developer\application) to try to use it. Several weeks passed before I was ultimately told no.

I think being able to easily get your data in and out of Movescount is a big point, and I'd love to see Suunto open up the usage of the API to anyone and everyone, especially since their main competition in the space - Garmin Connect - sees fit to charge $5000 for an API key (although it bears mention, so long as you pass a valid user name and password to Garmin, you can freely access their API over the web without issue, as done by such sync sites as Tapiriik). Strava can be linked directly from Movescount, as can MapMyFitness and others, but it's mystifying why the list should stop. Hopefully Suunto addresses this gap moving forward.

The lack of access to the API is especially surprising when you look at the other huge feature of Movescount, which is the ability to write custom 'apps' that can be synced onto the Ambit3. There's a wide array of apps from the ridiculous (including Beers Burned!) to the important (VO2, TSS, et al), and any of them can be shown on your watch with a few simple key strokes. To that extent, the amount of features on the watch is truly limitless. For instance, although I really like the total distance display while swimming, I quickly put together an app that shows me my lap count in a 25y pool. Handy? Not sure, but it made me feel good.

Conclusions

The look and feel of the Suunto Ambit 3 are in my experience unmatched. Feature wise, it holds court with the current competition -the 920XT - extremely well. The features where it loses ground:
  • No vibration
  • No walk mode
  • No Ant+ compatibility
  • No pre-loaded workouts
  • No running dynamics (vertical oscillation, ground contact)
Where it gains ground on the 920XT:
  • Satellite acquisition speed
  • Stability with Mobile App
  • Movescount
  • Customer Support
The Ant+ compatibility, at least today, will matter a lot to people, and that's a very valid concern. I would have loved to see a dual Ant+\Bluetooth solution offered, which would have been amazing, but I'm sure there's an engineering cost there that was too great to overcome. Suunto for now offers the Ambit2 as a solution for the Ant+ folks, but you don't get the mobile interaction that's really quite sexy. In my opinion, running dynamics aren't tremendously valuable, but over time I could be proven wrong as more data is collected and analyzed, so I'm not sure that even belongs on the list. I left off the Altimeter functions, because if you want it you can get the Peak model (as opposed to the Sport reviewed here) for $100. If you need an altimeter worthy of a mountain climber, you're more than 'just' a triathlete, though, and outside my ability to review.

I'll update this review as information changes, or as I figure more things out. I've tried to be comprehensive while steering clear of being a user manual, because that isn't really what a review should do. I hope you find this review helpful!