Suunto Ambit2 Review – Lessons in Tech-Psychology…
As much as I write about various ways of getting and making oneself (more) at home in this world, it is definitely my Suunto reviews and similar posts that are garnering the most attention.
New additions to what has now become the Ambit family have just recently been released, so it’s definitely time for new reviews… and after the nice 100k on the Alpannonia, some 25-30 km training runs, bike-run-bike combos, and even a few swimming sessions (which aren’t normally my thing, but since there are new swimming functions…), I feel quite ready for them.
Social Psychology and Sports Technology…
The introduction of the Ambit2 (and Ambit2S) has been more of a lesson in psychology than in technology, though.
In a move that roused a mob, just one year after introducing the Ambit, having talked of its upgradeability, having asked for upgrade suggestions, having delivered quite a few of them, but not giving a future outlook, Suunto broke the news that no more major updates with new functionalities would (and could, due to hardware limitations) come to the original Ambit GPS outdoors/sports watch. Instead, the second generation, comprised of the Ambit2 and Ambit2S, was released.
People felt cheated, even as (official) talk had never been of unlimited upgrades and even as technology of course moves on (and companies need sales).
To assuage the masses, Suunto saw it as necessary to announce again that there would be further maintenance of the (original) Ambit (which was never really the question), and they found ways of reducing the watch software’s size so as to bring in some of the new features.
Many people seem happy enough with the news, some complaints still continue – but the interesting part of the story (for someone interested in, well, facing reality) is how the problems are 50% Suunto’s fault for not communicating its products and plans well-enough to its customers… and 50% the fault of those who imagined more than they learned what the watch was all about.
This can be clearly seen in the discussion of whether the Garmin Fenix or the Suunto Ambit is the better device, same as in who’s complaining and who’s content:
The Ambit may have been marketed as “the GPS for Explorers” (and with the 2 and 2S, it’s now “the GPS for Explorers & Athletes“), but it’s not a GPS in the sense of handheld navigation devices (or even classical Suunto GPS or ABC watches); it’s a different beast altogether. An excellent one – but for particular purposes. Those who understood that are still happy with it; those who didn’t, aren’t.
The Ambit’s Raison d’Etre
So, let’s leave the whole fruitless discussion aside and get back to why and what for the Ambits make a lot of sense and feature prominently on this blog: Not only that I personally have a bit of a relation to Suunto (having used this brand’s “wristop computers” for some 15 years and been in touch with some people there for nearly as long), but the combination of information about body and place they provide just suits the intention of this blog perfectly.
You get a device with which to plan an outing, especially when it comes to the likes of ultramarathons or long trail runs, before heading out; a training watch to set up beforehand so as to get supportive data later on while on the move, without thinking much about the device anymore; a navigational aid to help in staying on track without trying to take away from the need to have a map and compass – and to do some thinking; and a unit to analyze some helpful data while out and about, but mainly to record it for later analysis and perusal… and with good looks, wearable as an everyday watch.
We’ll get to much more detail just a little below.
When it comes to basic design, not much seems to have changed. Apart from the addition of the new top-of-line model, the Sapphire, with sapphire crystal lens and brushed stainless steel bezel, the Ambit2 continues to be available in a “black” or “silver” version.
The bezel on the black version has, however, lost its “strike edge” in favor of a somewhat more flattened shape and is now done in steel rather than aluminum (which is what it remains on the silver model). Both of those changes should make for more durability and less scratching (which was quite pronounced on that black model and a source of some discontent).
The Sapphire version has a look which one can see as either “bathroom fixture” or “modern minimalism”; it’s not exactly stealth, and wouldn’t be out of touch in a boardroom (and the way the lens sits flush with the bezel makes it slightly but noticeably less thick than the other models; it is, however, the heaviest of the bunch).
For the outdoors, a slight warning is in order: the brushed stainless steel bezel and sapphire crystal lens are likely to be a step up in durability, but they can also be used to reflect the sun for emergency signalling – or blind the wearer who tries to look at his/her watch (or the competition? ;) )…
Hardware & Functions/Features
It’s the inside that counts, though, and the Ambit2’s release has its reasons here.
Suunto is getting a lot of flack for already bringing out a whole new model (or two, technically), lots of ire had been raised by “the big f*ck you to its customers” (that’s a quote) of not just updating the Ambit’s software (and with exactly those features desired by the respective person, naturally) – but of course, life (and technology) goes on, and so do updates and new model releases.
Seems that, even if not obviously visible, it was not only the great sales the Ambit had seen, but also the availability of updated hardware and the need for greater memory than was (made) available in last year’s original Ambit that have led to this decision.
There is, for example, an updated version of the SirfStarIV GPS chipset (v2.2.) working in the Ambit2 (and 2S); hardware changes are also what makes it possible to have the easy way of switching between ‘exercises’ offered through multisport mode and to have multiple apps running simultaneously.
At the same time, the update done by way of this second generation is a step forward that in no way makes the original Ambit obsolete.
Quite a bit has been improved for those who already appreciated the combination of training and outdoors (GPS) features that was introduced by the Ambit, especially when it comes to the usefulness of – or at least the capability of the device to handle – apps:
- ANT+ support has been expanded
- FusedAlti that combines GPS and barometric altitude measurement is implemented
- biking features are improved
- swimming features are introduced
- multisport modes/capabilities are implemented
- watch mode offers both stopwatch and countdown timers
- up to five apps (rather than one app on the original) can be used per custom mode, and the results from two apps (rather than the one) can be recorded to Movescount
- sunrise/sunset times, storm alarm, tide information are added through apps, which now offer more complex logic functions for their creation (some of which has now been announced as coming to the original Ambit as well)
For navigation (as in general), however, basic operation is still the same: up to 100 waypoints (POIs), up to 10 routes of up to 1000 points (and/or the total of 100 waypoints), guidance along a route with visual display of the route (as set up) or of direction and distance to the next waypoint (along line-of-sight).
In a little change for the altitude-obsessed, besides FusedAlti, the “view” button now usually works as a shortcut to the altitude settings menu (and to invert the display only when in a sports/custom mode) to make it easier to get to altitude readings that are even more likely to be correct. This goes perfectly with the display of vertical speed and the use of FusedAlti to make the skyrunners and other vertically obsessed happy.
Those who wanted to just read “GPS,” think of Suunto’s outdoor/ABC watches, and assume they’d get all that in the Ambit2, though, would still – if not even more so now than with the original Ambit – be missing the point.
The much-asked-for track-back along a previously recorded track, for example, continues to be absent (only the “find back” to the start of the recording, as the crow flies, is available – but makes a lot of sense for the loop courses often enough taken by the outdoor athletes who are the 2’s target users); GPS fix rates also continue to be only either 1 sec (continuous) or 60 sec.; sunrise/sunset times are implemented as an app giving a countdown, not the more traditional tables of times; storm alarm is an app…
So, the list of (even just changed) features is a bit overwhelming, and yet complaints about “missing” features could well go on – but the Ambits are excellent tools for their particular jobs, mainly hampered only by insufficient communication and understanding of just what those jobs are.
Thus, let’s have a look not at what would be possible if the Ambit / Ambit2 (/ Ambit2S) were something other than they are (and are meant to be), but look at what works, what the best practices are, and what they are the right tool for…
Like the t6/t6c/t6d before it/them, the Ambits record not just heart rate (and are able to show bpm, %maxHR, avg.HR…) but also record and analyse R-R values, the heart rate variability which can be used to calculate how intense a training session was. This is reflected, mainly, in the peak training effect (PTE) value and the suggested recovery time, both of which are very useful for giving one’s training some guidance beyond mere feelings.
Having these values stored online in Movescount also gives an automatic training diary with the possibility of checking one’s progress over time.
(For those who don’t want all their data only on Movescount, e.g. Firstbeat Athlete has recently become able to download the workout data from Movescount, store it locally, and re-analyze it according to their algorithms, which are basically doing the same calculations as Movescount, but have been developed a bit differently and, since the most recent update, include METS development over time.)
GPS – Speed, Distance, Track
Having insight into one’s physical side thanks to the training/body parameters is nice, but the Ambits are also for people who want to and will typically go places. With the GPS, the Ambits deliver speed and distance data (adapted through the use of FusedSpeed) as well as a recording of the path taken, and the newly updated Movescount now offers very nice ways of seeing what time during an exercise corresponded to what spot on the map, how heart rate, speed, altitude, cadence, etc. developed over time, distance, and place…
Here, there is a noteworthy difference between the Ambit2 and the original Ambit: The tracks and especially their total data aren’t so different as to make the Ambit untrustworthy, but the second generation’s track (whether thanks to the new iteration of the GPS chip and/or thanks to updated algorithms that provide a better smoothing; Movescount, as I’ve been told, treats the data from both generations the same) does look more consistent and more consistently on exactly the place on the map where it should be.
Here’s one of the points to understand: the Ambits are GPS devices, but they aren’t meant to replace a handheld, mapping GPS or map and compass – and the knowledge of how to properly use them.
Having planned a route in Movescount beforehand (or imported it from a GPS track), the Ambits are able to give a display of the route and (if set up so) to show the direction and distance to the next waypoint in direct line of sight, though.
So, if you are looking for a device to do all your ‘directional thinking’ for you, to replace maps and markings, then the Ambit won’t be for you, whether the original or the second generation.
For getting navigational help while following markings, or for finding back to the starting point when venturing out on a loop, however, they are very useful.
My ‘move’ along the Alpannonia (see here) was the second ~100k “run” after the Vienna Circle that I did without maps, only following my knowledge of the route, trail markings, and the Ambit’s pointers… There were some turns I didn’t quite catch, some markings that were hidden or off – but typically, it was easier to find the path again or be on the way to the next waypoint using the navigational display of the Ambit2 than looking for the markings. Some bushwhacking became necessary, some of it may have been very difficult had it been in more dangerous terrain… but more mapping on a device like this wouldn’t have helped with that (if not given a false sense of security).
Some higher zoom into the route display (it shows either the whole route or a display at 500m or 1km zoom level, switching between the latter two automatically) would sometimes have been useful. Then again, it would only be truly useful if the route previously created is always exact enough, and it would thus require even more track points or waypoints to be set up and stored…
One “best practice” to mention:
Make the route as good as possible, especially taking care of where it points at turns; and put in a few but not too many waypoints, with names that make them recognizable.
For one, when moving with the navigation turned on, this makes for a nice display of the next point one is approaching (particularly helpful with aid stations on races or the like) with a possibility for estimating how much farther away they are.
Passing past a point, it gives a good sense of progress.
And finally, for switching to the next/another waypoint, e.g. if one was not reached exactly enough for the next one to get activated automatically or having turned off the navigation (navigation being active sets the GPS to 1 sec fix, meaning that the battery lifetime will be reduced accordingly, even if the mode is set to 60 sec GPS fix – navigation would then need to be turned off to get the 60 sec fix and conserve battery, and turned back on when needed), it’s good to have not too many but well-named waypoints so as to be able to pick which one to navigate to next.
Battery Life and Log Time
The original fascination with the Ambit wasn’t necessarily based on upgradeability or anything like that, it was the long battery life of 15 hours (with 1 sec GPS fix) or 50 hours (with 60 sec GPS fix), with the maximum log file size just about the same.
On the Alpannonia, the Ambit’s log (set up for 1 sec GPS fix and 1 sec recording, and also with autolaps every 1 km) tracked my progress for some 20 hours before it stopped recording new points; the totals, however, were still recorded properly, apparently. (See ‘move’ here.)
The battery warning came on after about 13 hours; down from the original ~15+ hours but still quite good considering the device has been used at least 3 hours per week for a year. At that point, I recharged it for about an hour from a portable USB charger.
(The GPS Track POD was set up – and recorded in – just about the same way; check its recording here.)
The Ambit2’s log ( ‘move’ here) is not directly comparable because it was set up for 1 sec fix but 10 sec. logging; it recorded all data for the entire ~112 km and 21 hours of motion (22 hours in total counting the hour I spent sleeping, at which point I paused the Ambits and recharged the Ambit2, bringing it from 22% back up to ~66% – and yes, the battery indication in % rather than with the icon is an excellent update which will fortunately also be coming to the original Ambit)… and then, its logbook still also showed the (~5 hours, 40 km, 3/4 of them in 1 sec recording) done in the last 4 moves.
GPS and FootPOD Interaction
DC Rainmaker has criticized the predominance of FootPOD over GPS data on the Ambits, i.e. that having both connected means that the Ambit will record the speed and distance information from the FootPOD and take only track points from the GPS, rather than use GPS for all but data correction, e.g. when the GPS is not available in a tunnel.
In my opinion, this is misunderstanding the intention – which is why I want to point this out as something of a “best practice” example for the Ambits:
For one, something of a data correction is done by the Ambit’s FusedSpeed capabilities (using the inbuilt accelerometer alongside the GPS), anyways. I’m pretty sure I’ve seen that at work in tunnels myself; some people have even reported having used the Ambit (wrongly set up to look for a GPS signal) on a treadmill and gotten sufficiently good speed and distance readings. (I wouldn’t recommend that, but it’s worth a note.)
Secondly, both FootPOD and GPS can be off, both being affected by sources of error as they are (differences in stride length and miscalibration for the FootPOD, bad signal reception of various kinds in the case of GPS). Taking FootPOD data as primary source, however, means that the GPS track could still be exported to other programs and checked for recorded distance there.
For two test runs, I used the Ambits, connected to the FootPOD, alongside the GPS Track POD, in order to get a comparison of distance data recorded from FootPOD and from GPS:
|Ambit||Ambit2||Ambit2S||GPS Track POD|
|Loop||30.59 km||30.58 km||30.58 km||31.76 km|
|Alpannonia||112.5 km||112.3 km||(not used)||112.1 km|
[Note: As already mentioned at #4 above, Ambit and GPS Track POD were set to 1 sec GPS fix and 1 sec recording; track points for the last ~10 km were not recorded because the log went over its maximum file size after some 19-20 hours, but total time and distance apparently were. Ambit2 was set to 1 sec GPS fix and 10 sec logging interval; maximum log size was not reached with that setting, even after the nearly 21 hours I was on the move and recording all data available.]
Make of the difference (in just the shorter run) what you will, but here’s the thing: For the extra-long events that the Ambits are made for, this combination of data sources and use makes it possible to get more detailed and responsive (instant, basically) speed and distance information from the FootPOD, while recording sufficiently-good GPS track points (for later analysis/display) by using the 60 second GPS fix, getting 50 hours of battery life and log recording.
(Making the alternative of GPS data being used over that from the FootPOD a user choice would still be a good idea; just changing it to the standard way of handling the info, not so much.)
This here is one of the bigger differences between Ambit and Ambit2 – with the 2 being able to run up to 5 apps per mode, simultaneously, logging the results of two of them, and with more complicated functions, as mentioned in the list above. Some changes as to app functions will be coming to the original, but its memory still limits it, whereas the Ambit2 may be showing the way in which Suunto plans to develop the Ambit line further, towards customizability of screens as well as functions (and ultimately, perhaps, towards smartwatches that are completely customizable except for basic operation).
Some critics have been unhappy with the availability of e.g. sunrise/set and storm alarm as an app rather than a time/ABC mode. The Alpannonia run, however, made it quite clear how this was meant and is, indeed, very useful:
The storm alarm ran quietly in the background, just in case of sudden weather changes (which would be rather good to know while on an ultra, but isn’t necessarily the most useful warning to have go off while in a meeting).
A switch to the display that included the sunrise/sunset app, and a countdown until the sunset – and after the sunset, of course, until the next sunrise – was shown. It’s different from how GPS devices normally handle this view (showing the times), but very nice to have it shown like that, making it handily apparent how much more time can be run in sunlight or has to be run in darkness, with the headlamp (and its declining battery).
If you want storm alarm or sunrise/sunset (or similar) in a time-like mode, it is quite possible to use the custom modes for that: Set one up without GPS use (or at 60 sec fix), without HR or PODs, wit 10 sec logging, with screens showing the data you want – such as time, the respective apps,… – and switch to it / turn it on, as desired. Voilá, a display that looks like simply the watch/time mode, but with apps. (If it’s not set up to use GPS, that will need to be turned on by getting the location manually before it can display sunrise/sunset times, since that app needs to know the position.) Set up like that, neither too much battery nor much memory is used while the custom mode is running, and the memory used can be freed up again by simply not saving the “exercise.”
Another selling point of the Ambit2 over the original Ambit is the introduction of FusedAlti, combining GPS and barometric altitude readings in order to make up for the drift that could be caused by barometric (weather) rather than actual altitude changes.
(The Ambits – but not the 2S ! – can be set up to either switch automatically between alti and baro modes, or to use the one over the other; FusedAlti adds one more layer of correction which is automatically used in the Ambit2’s exercise modes or can be turned on in time mode – for a maximum of 15 minutes in a go, since it requires GPS to be turned on. Once turned on in the latter case, there is no way of turning it off again that I’ve found so far, other than to wait for it to stop again automatically.)
All I can honestly say from the comparison of altitude and ascent/descent information is that there are considerable differences between them, but not so many as to make them unusable. Expecting exact data from either barometric or GPS altitude (both even more prone to errors than the location, and thus speed and distance, data) is the wrong thing to do, anyways; a measure of consistency is necessary, though – and the way FusedAlti does it certainly sounds like a way forward…
|Training Loop||Ambit||Ambit2||Ambit2S||GPS Track POD|
|Ascent||365 m||370 m||/||429 m|
|Descent||365 m||368 m||/||449 m|
|Highest Point||301 m||298 m||301 m||298 m|
|Lowest Point||150 m||146 m||149 m||150 m|
[Not the theme here, but note that the Ambit2S only uses GPS for altitude and only gives highest/lowest point.]
|Alpannonia||Ambit||Ambit2||GPS Track POD|
|Ascent||4187 m||4261 m||4605 m|
|Descent||3478 m||3543 m||3516 m|
|Highest Point||1715 m||1760 m||1751 m|
|Lowest Point||248 m||290 m||292 m|
Honestly, my recommendation would be not to get hung up on altitude data, but to hope for consistency in ascent/descent numbers across ‘moves’ (and within them, when doing loop courses). That way, it’s also less of a big deal when forgetting to set a correct reference altitude at the start (which, incidentally, may be the explanation for the ~45 m lower “highest point” and “lowest point” data recorded by the Ambit, as in the second table of the Alpannonia data above…).
Another new feature of only the second generation of the Ambit family is their capability to switch between different sports/custom modes in one go. Thus, a triathlon race (which is a multisport mode pre-set up, as well) or similar training does not need to be separated into different ‘moves,’ having to re-start the exercise modes, getting PTE readings for the separate ones, etc. …
Rather, a simple long press of the “back/lap” (upper left) button activates the next sport mode (having set up a multisport mode on Movescount and activated that) or leads into the “exercise” menu in order to choose and activate another mode.
This ability to switch from mode to mode may be useful also for switching between slow hiking or other sports for which 60 sec GPS fix are sufficient and faster-paced running for which 1 sec GPS fix (and/or a more detailed track recording, e.g. if going down switchbacks) is desired.
Swimming and Additional Bike Functions
Honestly, these are not my (main) interests and not the Ambit2’s main orientations as I’d see them, but they are on the Ambit2 same as on the Ambit2S (which is more strongly still aimed at triathletes and for training). I’ll talk more about them in the 2S’s review.
The changes from Ambit to Ambit2 aren’t all that apparent at first sight, they aren’t even making the Ambit2 an obviously better choice, but they are making it a yet more capable device, especially for the triathlete and Ironman competitor who also does trail ultramarathons, the mountain trail runner who also practices other sports for training or who’ll appreciate the updated GPS chipset, more-exact altitude measurement, and further customizability with more complicated apps.
Those who are looking for a GPS to replace their handheld mapping unit or who want an ABC/GPS watch of the more classical kind (e.g. giving them a storm alarm that is always running and sunrise/sunset times in the form of time tables) would do well to look to the competition; those who are into sports and training more than into long outings with lots of verticals could do worse than to look at the Ambit2S or even, if they feel a need for training plans on their watch plus tracking, for the combination of the Suunto Quest with the GPS Track POD.
The Ambit(2) is for the trail runner and ultramarathoner who wants long battery life in a small form-factor, the best (though still imperfect – nothing’s perfect) in altitude and speed/distance/track measurement and recording, great customizability and possibilities for pre-race planning and post-race analysis (via the Movescount platform) – and otherwise cares to forget about the technology on their wrist in favor of the experience on the trail once out there.
Set it up at home, plan at home – but once outside, being active, start it, check data with a quick glance at your wrist, and otherwise forget about it. Analyze and re-live the memory once back, if so inclined.