at home in... w| Gerald Zhang-Schmidt

Suunto Ambit3 Review, Part 1: It’s all Connected, but Is It Smart Enough Yet?

There’s no wifi in the forest, but you’ll find a better connection” goes the sentiment, but we sure like our technological connections, too.

The Suunto Ambit has, from its start, been a connecting device:
From the heart inside you to your position on this Earth as calculated via GPS satellite signal, from your speed/pace across the surface of the land to the differences in altitude you climb and descend, it connects many a data point speaking to many a connection between a person and the world.

It is for this reason, as a tool that supports the everyday adventure, an exploratory lifestyle, and the thinking about connections that make one at home in a place, as a body, in this world, that it features on these pages.

It’s all connected, and now so much more so, in a way we often talk about as such, that Suunto speaks of the “connected family“. In that product line, BTLE/Bluetooth Smart provides the link between the heart rate sensor, the watch, and the Movescount mobile app.
But, it also comes out just as smart watches are beginning to emerge and rumors about a forthcoming iWatch circulate again, raising the question whether we and/or the Ambits are smart enough to stand their/our own…

This review will spare you the nice but ultimately useless things like unboxing pictures to focus on the value in the device and its best use, instead.
First, here and now, we’ll have a look at what’s new about the Ambit3 line (also for those who already know the Ambits).
Later, we’ll compare how the Ambit3 performs, before it’s time to re-visit what the current Ambit models offer for training, sports, and navigation. That latter part will be for those who haven’t used an Ambit before, but should also include a few tricks which may well come in handy for those who have.

The information given is based on and shows a white Ambit3 Sport Sapphire, which I had the opportunity to test for Suunto since the end of June (and which, I should mention, will probably come out with a somewhat different look from this pre-production model).

The videos are not always in the proper place in the text, given that they talk about a few things each, but follow a logical sequence from introductory thoughts to a run to the syncing and review of the ‘move’ afterwards.

Little Change to See

Suunto Ambit3 Sport Sapphire (Note that the design is likely to change; this is a pre-release version)

The Ambit3 generation is both another merely incremental update, meaning that there is not much of a need to upgrade from an Ambit2 to an Ambit3, and a very different hardware, making for a completely different foundation.

If one just looks at the outdoors and/or training-related functions on the watch, there is very little change.

FusedSpeed (and FusedAlti on the Peak models) are still there, meaning that both GPS and accelerometer (or GPS and barometric altimeter) are used to determine speed/pace (or altitude, respectively) more accurately than either alone could.

Heart rate measurement and calculations based on R-R values are there, mainly meaning heart rate in beats per minute or percent of the (user-set) maximum HR, peak training effect and recovery time.

GPS is used for distance and speed/pace measurement, track recording, and navigation (with routes to create on Movescount, Suunto’s online platform, or with find back or track back).

Training plans can be created in Movescount and synced to the device to get reminders and (heart rate or speed/pace) guidance, too, same as the second generation Ambits have been offering since their last firmware upgrade.

And, of course, the various sports modes can be set up to work with the GPS fix and recording rate, and to give the data fields, the user decides to be the most useful for him/her.

Active Recovery

Suunto Ambit3 Recovery Time Display

The only truly new functionality directly visible on the watch is the “active recovery” monitoring whereby the accelerometer (otherwise used for putting the watch into its power-saving mode and waking it, to measure cadence, and to provide FusedSpeed) works like an activity tracker.

It does not, however, count steps or distance covered in daily activity, but rather uses the data on daily activity to adjust the recovery time calculated via heart rate monitoring during activities, based on whether one has really been recovering/relaxing or moving around a lot.

On a side note, two ‘upgrade’ pathways to this functionality come to mind, but these are just my personal thoughts.

The one, obvious-seeming possibility, is that Suunto could give activity trackers a run for their money by making the active recovery feature also work like the various FitBit, Jawbone, etc. bracelets. It would only need to count the movement as steps, calculate a probable distance – or maybe be more exact and just use it as a a measure of activity(?) given in a number, like it is done with NikeFuel – do sleep monitoring, and sync that data with Movescount.

So far, though, Suunto has rather gone the way of making it possible to turn off that activity monitoring in case one does not feel a need for it, keeping with how they are about real training and outdoor activities rather than the couch potato’s need to see data on his/her having moved at least a bit.

The other idea around active recovery monitoring is that R-R values may actually be rather more indicative of one’s state of stress or recovery, and this could also be used. There is an (attempt at doing so via an) app for that, actually, in the form of the “orthostatic HR test” app, but it could probably be improved.

A Different Platform: Bluetooth Smart

While the outdoor and training functions and, even more so, the design may look pretty much the same, the hardware that underlies it all has changed quite a bit.

There is (or should be, Suunto is never very forthcoming with these details) the latest Sirf GPS sensor and double the memory. Most noticeably, however, the communication protocol used is now Bluetooth Smart instead of ANT+.

Suunto Movesense

With that change in connection technology, old HR belts or Suunto PODs will not work with any Ambit3 anymore. If you have used an ANT or “Dual” HR belt, a Suunto FootPOD or BikePOD, therefore, you may want to give them away. It may be a bit confusing, then, that the menu to pair the Ambit3 with such PODs is still there, but it makes sense because it should be possible to use (any) other Bluetooth sensor with it (and perhaps Suunto will start producing new BT-equipped ones).

Suunto’s own heart rate belt provided with the Ambit3 models packaged as “HR” versions (they can also be bought without the HR belt, saving some money but missing out on major functionality) has naturally been changed to run Bluetooth Smart.

Not only that, but it also introduces a new concept and sensor, Movesense.

Movesense

Right now, it is only noticeable that this heart rate sensor comes in a slightly different form factor from the earlier heart rate sensors/belts, as it is smaller and lighter and gets clipped onto rather than into the heart rate belt. The battery, too, changes from the earlier (larger) CR2032 to the smaller CR2025.

There are indications, though, that this is part of a new concept where the Movesense sensor could either, perhaps, also record data other than the heart rate or, definitely, be used for measuring data not just on this breast strap, but utilizing sensor-equipped clothing as well. (This has been mentioned by Suunto in the press release, so something on this front is to be expected, probably from Salomon.)

Where one can see the greater smartness of the Movesense pod already: Its software can now be user-updated, and the remaining battery charge is visible, via the new Movescount app.

Not to forget that it can continue to record heart rate data by itself and sync it with the Ambit (or app) later, meaning that it can be used to record HR data while swimming.

One should note, though, that it is not like the earlier “Memory Belt” because it cannot start recording data and download it by itself; it still needs to be connected to an Ambit3 or the Movescount app for a move / HR recording to be started and stopped. In between, however, the connection can be lost (e.g. being in water) and the HR data will still be stored and then synced when the connection is re-established.

It is here where a, if not the, major reason for the changed communication protocol becomes visible. New and interesting things become possible with BTLE/Bluetooth Smart, chief of all the interaction between the watch and the (new) Movescount app.

Movescount in Your Pocket

A Suunto Movescount app for iOS had been around for a while, and it had been rather badly received. Stand-alone as it was, it just did not provide much of any value. It was just another way of recording a move to have it show up in Movescount, but there were other and better apps for recording one’s training – and if you had an Ambit or other Suunto watch, you didn’t really need to lug your iPhone around while training.

Suunto Movescount app

You still don’t need to do that, but the all-new Suunto Movescount app offers quite a few improvements.

One simple and basic, but rather nicely implemented, feature is the display of the training summary.

Start the Movescount app, and it gives you an overview of the last ‘moves’ that you recorded and uploaded to Movescount (or didn’t upload yet; see next section). Usually, this is done for the last 30 days, but more moves can be loaded for display.

The topmost section of this “Me” display just gives your Movescount account name, profile picture, and a background picture (if there are photos associated with moves).

Below that, there is a visual summary with total training/’move’ time recorded, calories expended, and distance covered. This is shown for all activity types at first, but slide it to the right and you can select individual training categories and get the summary for just that category.

Moves, shown below with the symbol for the type of move and a summary of the time, distance, average heart rate, and how long ago that move was done, are also shown according to whether “all” or individual types of activity are selected in the visual summary.

Touching one of the moves in the list, provided it is synced to Movescount (and you’re online, of course), opens the individual move display where more detailed data can be seen, in a summary table at the top and graphically at the bottom. In between, there is a ‘media’ display where photos are or can be added to that move and where the Suunto Movie (see video) can be started and the map display where the recorded track is displayed.

Syncing on the Move

An oft-heard complaint about the Ambits had been that one would require a PC (or at least notebook) with Moveslink running on it and preferably an internet connection in order to download (and view) the recorded data.

Especially on long tours away from it all, which are just the ones you’d want to have a record of, and just the ones most in danger of getting an older log deleted before it has been synced, this would be a problem. (The Ambits run a looping memory: rather than make the user delete old logs – and not get a new log stored if there isn’t enough free memory available, the oldest memory gets overwritten automatically as new logs are stored.) Try finding an internet café that lets you install software somewhere in the Andes or Himalayas – or Alps or Appalachians, for that matter…

The Ambit3 has obviously been designed with these users in mind – with more or less success.

The new Movescount app now functions as another tool, aside from Moveslink running on a PC or Mac (and still needed to update the watch firmware when there are updates – and of course, the watch still needs to be recharged via the cable, from USB), with which the logs of saved exercises can be stored on Movescount.

So far, there is one potential wrench in the gears of that system, at least for the power-users:

The Ambit3 can be synced with the app even when there is no internet connection, and the app will then show that there is an unsynced move (displaying duration and distance, if that data was gathered, and how long ago that ‘move’ had been started, but no average heart rate and no detailed view); such a move/moves are shown in grey rather than color in the list of moves.

As it also works on a computer, moves are only synced to Movescount when the watch is synced while a connection to Movescount is active. Whether this also works, especially via the app, when a move that would still need to be synced has been overwritten on the Ambit, however, is still a bit of a question.

On a computer, it seems to work (frankly, I don’t think I’ve ever faced that problem, but Moveslink certainly tells when there are unsynced moves, keeps locally stored files for them, and asks the user to reconnect the device so that they get synced).
When the Movescount app showing unsynced moves gets closed down, however, the unsynced moves are not displayed anymore in the app (until the watch gets synced with it again, anyways) upon re-starting it. This makes it look likely that a move has to still be in the watch memory/logbook in order for it to get synced to Movescount via the app…

[Update! Answer from Suunto is:

The app can show as-yet unsynced Moves on the Ambit – this is indicated by a grey Move row in the iPhone app interface. Moves are not marked synced until they have been verified to exist on Movescount by the app. 

If the Ambit3 has been synced to an iPhone the moves are physically synced to the iPhone. When the iPhone app has Internet access the app will then sync the moves to Movescount on next sync. The move, once synced to iPhone, will not disappear. ]

Here, too, I have to be frank: I also don’t see myself running out of memory on the Ambit before getting a chance to bring it online and sync moves any time soon… especially now that all it requires is a data connection on an iOS device; an iPhone is rather easier to carry than a laptop, a phone is not the worst thing to have with you when you go out, and mobile internet or wifi are competing with food and water as the essentials of daily life.

Syncing, by the way, can be set up to either run automatically or not, in the main menu’s “Connectivity” settings, reached by holding the “Next” button for a few seconds. The manual “sync now” is accessible in the sports menu, reached by pushing “start/stop” and going to “MobileApp”, where new notifications can also be looked at and leaved through.

(One thing to note: The Ambit3 cannot multitask. While a sync is running, a ‘move’ can only be started by pausing the sync. So, if you want to go for a run, newly turned on the app, and thus have a sync running, when you push “start/stop” to go into the sports menu, the Ambit will ask if you want to pause the sync. Similarly, when Movesense is used by the app, it can happen that it is not discoverable by the watch – which seems to be what happened when I went out for the run, as you can see in one of the videos.)

Notifications

In the connectivity settings (in the main menu), one can also turn on or off the notifications.

Having them turned on, an Ambit3 performs one of the, until now main, functions of a smartwatch, which is to show when there is a call or new e-mail or other event for which the iOS device gives a notification.

Depending on how you’ve set up your notifications and how busy that is, it can be a godsend or a nuisance, especially with such an outdoor device. Sometimes, seeing quick info about messages on one’s wrist is a really nice thing to have, especially when it gives the added feeling of security from knowing one’s still in touch with the world. On the other hand, it can be quite the nuisance to get reminders of work while out for some training or fun.

The smarter thing may well be to sometimes turn it off or even leave the phone at home…

If you really want to use notifications and get more than one per hour, I suggest setting the “view” button as shortcut into the “notifications” display: From the main time display, push “start/stop” to get into the sports menu, go into the “MobileApp” menu, highlight the “Notifications” menu item (which is only shown when you do have at least one notification!), and hold the “view” button to define that menu item as shortcut.

Then, provided there are notifications, long-pressing “view” in the time display will lead you straight to the notifications. (If there are none, it will only tell you “Shortcut inaccessible,” though.)

The reason I suggest doing this is because notifications will be shown for a while on the main display, but then disappear – and if there were two and/or you just quickly got rid of it, you will need to get into the notifications display, which is quite a tour through the menu without the shortcut. The lowest line in the time display will default to showing the number of notifications (when there are some), but there’s no fast way of reaching them – as far as I’ve seen yet – natively built in otherwise.

This way of defining a shortcut can be done for all but a few of the menu items and from/for all the different normal (time mode) displays (and also on the Ambit2 models), by the way.

New “Ambit3” Move in the Movescount App

One of the more-interesting interactions between Ambit3 and Movescount app is the possibility of using the iOS device as an extended display for the Ambit3.

To do that, one goes into the “(new) move” menu of the app (in the lower right), selects “Ambit3”, and hits “Next”.

Then, when you start your move on the Ambit3 (with active bluetooth connection between Ambit3 and Movescount app, of course), it is also started in the app, and the app’s data display shows data straight from the Ambit3, its map display shows the position according to the Ambit3’s GPS, overlaid on a (Google) map.

(The third display/function of the “(new) move” section of the app, the one for taking photos, is also active but does not – currently? – offer data overlay and thus not save photos taken here to the move.)

[Update! Data overlays will be available for 2nd screen/Ambit3 mode. Combining photos taken in 2nd screen mode with the eventual Ambit move is under development. ]

(Right now, I’m also seeing a bug here where the map view on the app seems to think that all my moves start and stop in Helsinki; while doing the move, the position is shown correctly, though, all data is recorded correctly, and it is all shown correctly once the move has been synced with Movescount, too.)

[Update! Suunto confirms:

This is under development – Helsinki was chosen as the default location to display until the Ambit starts sending GPS data. The actual Move will have the correct track as recorded by the Ambit.  ]

This has its limits where maps are not the most exact (such as many places in the mountains) or where maps don’t agree with actual coordinates (the problem I’m having here in China now, as street maps have an offset from the real positions) and when no internet connection is available.

It’s been working quite well even with maps that have only been saved locally, though (as on the iPhone touch 5G I’ve been using with my Ambit3).

After a fashion, it may well be the best of two worlds:

The Ambit3 still shows nothing but a route for navigation, with views giving the distance and heading to the next waypoint as the bird flies, the overview of the whole route, or a zoomed-in view with zoom level set automatically (and still no closer than 200 m).

But then, showing a map with any more detail on such a small display does not appear particularly useful – and now, one can always check the map, plus the position as given by GPS, on the phone. There, given the possibility to zoom in or out and get the view updated, it makes a lot more sense.

Moves, With the App Alone

This “(new) move” section of the Movescount app also makes it possible to use the app as a stand-alone training recorder, without an Ambit3.

To do that, you just need to select the type of activity you will be doing; data such as speed/pace and location are taken from the iOS device’s sensors, and data overlays (for heart rate, speed,…) are offered when taking photos in the app.

One new thing here is that the Movesense sensor/heart rate belt can be directly connected to the Movescount app, so that heart rate can also be displayed and recorded using the app alone rather than an Ambit3.

[Addendum/Update: Creating a Move on the app by choosing an activity (Running, Cycling etc) is always a new and independent Move, except with the Ambit3 mode.  ]

Movesense and the Movescount App

Talking of using the Movesense sensor with the app: Not only can it be connected to it to record one’s heart rate; the “Heart Rate” display in the app (accessed via the settings wheel symbol in the upper right corner) also shows the firmware version running on Movesense, checks for updates and offers to update the Movesense firmware when there is an updated version of the software, and displays the charge status of the (CR2025) battery in the Movesense pod.

So, no more guesswork on when it’s time for a new battery for the heart rate belt.

(One thing to note, though: There can be problems when/if both the Ambit3 and the Movescount app try to connect to the Movesense sensor. This, I think, is what happened when I started the move in the video and the heart rate sensor could not be found. If something like this happens, try turning off your iPhone’s Bluetooth, connecting Ambit3 and Movesense, then re-starting Bluetooth on the phone.)

Ambit3 Settings and the Movescount App

Another way that the Movescount app provides a link to Movescount in one’s pocket – well, on one’s phone – concerns settings and customization of the Ambit3.

The same settings that can be changed on the watch, via the options menu (hold “next” to enter into that), can now also be changed via the app – and it’s rather more comfortable to change them there. These are available whether there is an internet connection or not.

With an internet connection to Movescount, sports modes can now also be customized via the app rather than just on the Movescount website. This mainly applies to the sports mode displays, which already offer a lot of customization options, but it does not (yet?) extend to the advanced settings such as GPS fix rates. To change things like these, one still has to head to the Movescount website (settings done there get updated to the Ambit3 whether it gets synced via Moveslink and cable or Movescount app and Bluetooth, though).

[Update: Advanced sport mode settings are under development. ]

To be frank here, too: It is nice to have this additional option for changing exercise displays on the go; many people will still end up complaining that a) not every setting can be changed via the app and, even more so, b) the sports modes cannot be changed without a connection to the internet/Movescount; yet, it remains as it has been ever since the t6c running watch from Suunto started giving the opportunity to customize data fields to be displayed – the best thing to do about sports mode customization is to figure out what data field one wants, set one’s modes up accordingly, and then run with them, not constantly change things around.

Smart Enough?

Like I say in my introduction video, the big question for the near future may be just how smart watches are and get, and how smart we ourselves are and will be about it all.

The Ambit3 line is connected in a way that the earlier models hadn’t been, and this enables it to offer some possibilities that we haven’t had before and that are nice to have. Essential, however, they are not.

On the other hand, the smart watches that we have been seeing so far, even as they offer more possibilities as long as they are connected, fall short on their own. The Ambit3, just as the Ambit2, shines there exactly because its “connected” abilities are not strictly necessary.

For the user – and first of all, the potential customer – the question is what they want, as always.

If you are usually at home at your own PC and hardly ever anywhere where you couldn’t plug in your Ambit to sync it, then an Ambit3’s expanded connectivity may just be another source of techno-frustrations that could just as well be avoided. (Sorry, but the more connections there are, the more potential for trouble there is.)

If you like your tools/toys to sync automatically, use the latest in software (well, apps) and hardware, but also be able to hold their own without constantly needing all the connections, giving training advice and guidance as well as offering navigation capabilities that are great for city (and) trail exploring, as I have set out to do in Beijing, then the Ambit3 is well-worth considering.

 

So much for this look at the new capabilities of the Ambit3 line.

Next up: a look at the evolution and state of the Ambit3’s capabilities as compared to the Ambit2.
Later still [now getting online]: a guide to using an Ambit2 or Ambit3 to its full potential.

If you have any questions or suggestions, feel free to put them in the comments…