Suunto Ambit3 Recovery Time Display

Suunto Ambit3 Review, Part 2: Performance Matters

Reviews all too often reflect the worst of the superficial living we have fallen into.

We have been conditioned into thinking that the latest product must be the best that will solve all its predecessor’s, if not all our life’s, problems. The first thought when wanting to be better at something is not of the steps to take in order to grow into this better state, but the product to get in hopes of immediate deliverance.

It’s not “I will practice my photography in first this, then that, way so that I will become a better photographer,” it’s “I want that camera, it’s so much better than the one I have, with that I would sure take much better pictures!

It’s not “I will follow this periodized training plan, set an impulse for growth here, have the necessary recovery period and cross-training there,” it’s “If only I had the money and time to train in this amazing place, that latest piece of gear…

And so, when a new product comes out, everyone rushes to be the first to come out with a review and get all the attention – even if it’s only after an extended period of usage that one can really say how well the product serves its purpose.

It’s all the worse because we are, even in the rush of new products that we get to see, also ignorant of the development work that is behind it, all the ideas and concepts that we never get to see…

A Little Product Development Background

One recent case in point: The Apple Watch has just been presented, heated discussions over its likely success or failure, its revolutionary or disappointing nature, the great and healthy or ‘meh’ and constantly-watched future it entails, have ensued. And it looks as if a new product suddenly emerged – but its development was speculated about since at least 2013, and it won’t be out until next year, 2015.

I have had the chance to see something of the Ambit’s development for much of the time it took (as it happened, I interviewed for a social media communications position with Suunto, which was promptly canceled as unnecessary, at just the time the original Ambit was nearing completion). In the case of the Ambit3, it’s especially been since it was ready enough for external testing (by testers outside Suunto) at the end of June.

It was a fascinating journey, for at the beginning of the year, nobody outside of Suunto really thought that a new model would be coming out this year. Of course, it was under development already, but then, there are always new models under development and new ideas being thrown around. Promptly, it was revealed at the OutDoor Friedrichshafen in the middle of July, and marked Suunto’s switch to Bluetooth Smart.

In the lead developer’s words, “we think Bluetooth Smart is the future, and decided to make a clean shift from one ecosystem to the other at this point.”
Regarding PODs, by the way: “We don’t have immediate plans to create Bluetooth Smart pods as there are plenty of them already existing on the market. This is still something we may reconsider at some point.”

I went and used the Ambit3 Sport, for testing purposes, alongside my “trusty old” (read: last year’s) Ambit2 on the Traunsee mountain marathon on July 5, even as it was only in beta and not even officially announced as coming out, by then – and the HR belt just stopped transmitting after about 3 hours, the GPS regularly puts me as having been in the lake itself:

Ambit3 Sport / Movesense still in beta firmware
Ambit3 Sport / Movesense still in beta firmware
Ambit2 vs. Ambit3 in Beta
Ambit2 (greenish track) vs. Ambit3 in early beta (red track)

That was then, however, when the software was still in beta. By now, things look a lot different.

Now, only the Movescount servers seem to be in need of greater care and attention. Or perhaps a complete upgrade. And while we’re at it, a local software would be nice to have, after all, in spite of all the recent infatuation with ‘the cloud’…

GPS Performance

Mid-August, with the release approaching, I took the Ambit3 (connected to the Movescount app on my iPod touch 5G) and the Ambit2 on the Hong Kong Trail, and it all performed flawlessly.

Ambit2 vs. Ambit3 on the Hong Kong Trail
Ambit2 vs. Ambit3 (1.0 firmware) on the Hong Kong Trail. (The Ambit2 was set to mark auto-laps at every 1 km.)

The tracks are, for all intents and purposes, the same (except for the auto-lap markings from the Ambit2, which I had set up to make those). The Movescount app even showed my position on the map, even though I was not aware I had stored the maps for those parts of Hong Kong Island locally – but there they were.

The data recorded was good, too:

The Ambit2 gave 39.99 km,
HR 161 bpm avg. (and in a range between 101 and 212 bpm),
EPOC peak 226 ml/kg,
4.6 km/h avg. speed (not sure why I didn’t see pace on Movescount instead),
65 ‘rpm’ avg. cadence,
4494 kcal, all in 8:38 hours.

Ambit3 Sport: 40.2 km,
HR 167 bpm avg. (and in a range between 101 and 212 bpm),
EPOC peak 190 ml/kg,
4.7 km/h avg. speed,
56 ‘rpm’ avg. cadence,
3981 kcal in 8:38 hours

A difference of 0.5% in recorded distance (200m over a distance of 40 km) could be explainable by the watches having received different data (or even traveled different distances) because they were worn on different wrists and the turns I did account for that difference, perhaps. Which is to say, it’s basically no difference.

The GPS reception continues to be simply astounding. I just tried getting a fix putting the Ambit3 (with recently updated satellite orbit data) at my window, on the ground floor of an apartment building that is six floors high, close by another building that is even taller, with a gingko tree right ouside/above the window…

View from which Ambit3 got GPS reception without problems
View from which Ambit3 got GPS reception without problems

… and it took all of 20 seconds or so to get a fix.

GPS Squiggles
Squiggles GPS gives just lying somewhere

(In five hours of the watch lying there, GPS reflections did make it believe that it had traveled 2.28 km, but the track recorded makes it obvious that there were no truly outlying positions recorded.

Had there been any recording of a position far away from the actual, it would be a bad sign; the ‘jittering’ is a normal GPS issue and not much of a problem when on the move.)

The different average cadence recorded is the one value that truly has me puzzled…

HR Recording/Analysis

Suunto HR belts
Strapped in to get data for comparison

The difference in (average) heart rate data (of 6 bpm) speaks to the different HR belts getting somewhat different readings.

The analysis given by Firstbeat Athlete still finds artifacts (heart rates recorded but likely to be wrong according to this software’s algorithms); I have also seen different readings and what looks like a different rate at which the heart rate displayed is updated on the different Ambit generations…

The question would be how much of that is due to differences inherent in the technology and how much of it due to e.g. the different position that the HR belts had to have on my chest, plus chest hair, plus the amount of sweating,… maybe making one less well capable of picking up the heart rate.
(Also, I frankly think that my old ANT belt may once again be a bit worn out. Its fabric part needs to be regularly replaced – and the battery in the pod replaced, too – to make sure the ‘reception’ of the heart rate is as good as possible.)

Same with EPOC peak and energy expenditure (kcal), which is largely dependent on heart rate measurement but also influenced strongly by the algorithms through which they are calculated. It’s not that large a difference, and I’m not even sure I had the two watches set up with exactly the same parameters, so I don’t see much of a problem here, either.

Calorie ‘measurement’, in particular, is a good example of  a value that people like to obsess over, just like weight, when that’s not really what it’s about (and notoriously difficult to calculate).

What was a lot more interesting was the experience, which was a great one – and relived and relivable in yet another fashion, thanks to the “Suunto Movie” produced by the app, which I promptly used in a mash-up with the videos I had taken on this tour along the Hong Kong Trail:

Altitude Measurement

Altitude measurements are the one thing which has to be taken with a grain of salt – or a pint of caution – here and now, because we are comparing apples and oranges: An Ambit2 with barometric altitude measurement (and FusedAlti) and an Ambit3 Sport that measures altitude via GPS alone, which is well-known to be rather inexact.

On the HK Trail, the Ambit2 gave readings of: ascent 1528 m, descent 1165 m, lowest point 15 m, highest point 430 m;
the Ambit3 Sport, in contrast, recorded an ascent 1286 m, descent 1033 m, lowest point 11 m, highest point 436 m

Ambit2 vs. 3 Sport, Altitude
Ambit2 vs. Ambit3 Sport altitude recording on a recent run. Most of the problems with the GPS altitude recording (apart from some aberrations in it) are actually from the very beginning of the recording, when GPS fix was probably not yet all that good. (Click for larger view.)

Considering the problems with GPS altitude, the high and low points given by the two devices are positive surprises, but I’ve seen worse.

On a recent run on my Beijing Trail #1, the Ambit3 Sport’s GPS put it at a much-too-high altitude at the beginning; the correction which later set in put me at the appropriate altitude, but that shift then messed up the descent recorded.

This is a problem inherent in the technology, though, and it’s a problem which exists in the same way with the Ambit2S (and Ambit2R) – or any other device that gives a GPS-based altitude reading.

If you want altitude/ascent/descent readings that are as good as they get, you’ll need to go for the Ambit2 or Ambit3 Peak, not the 2S / 3 Sport.

I should have an Ambit3 Peak ready to roll in a few weeks and will get back then, but it can be expected to have the same accuracy as the Ambit2, if not a slightly better one as its GPS chipset is the latest.

(Other differences between the Ambit3 Peak and the Ambit3 Sport should be the same as with the Ambit2 vs. Ambit2S, as well, i.e. that only the former provide the “weather functions” showing barometric trend or altitude display, storm warning, and next sunrise/sunset times for the present location – and, of course, they have the larger battery.)

Battery Life

Talking of battery: The batteries/runtimes in the Ambit3 line look to be the same as in the Ambit2 line.

With activity tracking/active recovery and Bluetooth connection active, that makes for a slightly shorter runtime of the Ambit3, but the effect of BT appears to be close to negligible (on the Ambit3 as well as on iOS devices with which it is connected, as it were).

So, the Ambit3 Peak’s battery still lasts up to 30 days in time mode, up to 50 hours with GPS on and set to 60 sec GPS fix rate; for the Ambit3 Sport, it’s 14 days or 25 hours, respectively.

Constant GPS fix, then, as also used when using the navigation functions (route display or trackback/findback) gives around 16 hours max. on the Ambit3 Peak and 8 hours on the Ambit3 Sport. In real-world use, these runtimes can well be a bit shorter as GPS reception is difficult, the use of Ambit apps draws additional power, etc. – though on the Hong Kong Trail action, I still had battery left after more than 8 hours.

Connectivity

With the Movescount app for storage of moves, to work as an extended display for the Ambit3, and all that, connectivity is the big story – and question. (See part 1 of the review for a more detailed look.)

As already mentioned, the Ambit3 connects via Bluetooth (4.0, Smart, BTLE), and the effect of this connection on battery lifetime seems to be very low. If one constantly gets notifications, it will probably reduce the runtime more noticeably, but it’s nowhere near as bad as GPS reception.

Suunto Movescount app
Suunto Movescount app

Something of the opposite is worth pointing out in detail, now that people are wondering if one would need a watch like an Ambit when a smartphone can display (GPS) location all by itself and a smartwatch / Apple Watch will also give fitness/sports features:

The current breed of smartwatches does not have GPS built in, but rather uses the phone’s GPS. But while a phone’s battery will typically be run down in about 3 hours of continuous GPS use, even the “small” Ambit3 Sport will last for 8 hours (on “best / 1 sec” GPS fix, i.e. continuous GPS use).

And it will do so even when sharing the location data with the Movescount app on the iPhone, which can display the position on a (Google) map and record the track.

(Not to mention that a Suunto Ambit is 100m waterproof while the presentation of the Apple Watch didn’t even include any mention of it even being water-resistant. Heart rate measurement from the wrist may sound more comfortable than a HR strap, too, but the optical sensors used for that cannot record R-R values / heart rate variability, and thus data such as training effect and recovery time cannot be calculated by such devices – as far as I know, anyways.)

The BTLE connection between Ambit3 and iOS appears to be rather stable; I do typically have to keep the Movescount app running in the background to get notifications, but turning it off and on again, or having moved out of range and returning, the connection is almost always resumed again automatically.

If not, turning the BT connectivity of the iOS device off and on again and/or closing and re-starting the app seems to help; I have only had to do re-pairings between Ambit3 and iPod at times, when there were new versions of the Movescount app (for testing).

As mentioned (and seen) in part 1 of the review, when/if both the Ambit3 and the Movescount app try to communicate with the Smart Sensor / Movesense, some connectivity problems can result, e.g. ending with the HR sensor not being found by the Ambit3.

A Note on Android

The Android version of the Movescount app is still in the state of “will follow.”

Android devices have only supported the Bluetooth 4.0 standard since the second iteration of Jelly Bean, Android 4.3, making iOS devices (and even here, only starting with the iPhone 4S, iPad 3rd gen and iPod touch 5G – but Apple acolytes are rather more likely to just have to have the latest…) the easier starting point.

Especially thinking of the sports/outdoor use, I’m also very much waiting for it, though. Samsung Galaxy S5, Sony Z2/Z3, for example… they are all even IPX7-certified and could thus be immersed in water for a while, which is a lot better for outdoor use; drop your iPhone 6 (or Apple Watch?) in water, and there goes your money…

Sports/Training/Navigation

All that should really count the most, since that’s what the Ambit line is made for – and why these here pages talk about it, even though they aren’t about gear reviews – is how the Ambit3 performs as an outdoors and/or training device.

In one word – well, sentence: Same as the Ambit2, very well.

Except for the new recovery / activity tracking feature that was already presented in part 1 of the review, there is nothing new here – except to add that I asked whether it would be developed further, towards a real activity tracking that also uploads its data, to which the reply was “we most probably will continue developing the activity monitoring feature, as we do with all our features” – though.

Better topic, then: How do you use your Ambit (2 or 3) to its fullest potential… And, the manual to that is now coming online.

As always, if you have any questions, feel free to write them in the comments.

23 thoughts on “Suunto Ambit3 Review, Part 2: Performance Matters

  1. Hello,
    Thanks for the review :)
    When following the track on the iPhone map, is there a way to display a predefined route for navigating, and it shows up on the iPhone map?

    1. Hi Jeremy! Thanks for the good question, you remind me of some use cases I completely forgot about.
      The iPhone/app map can only show the track one has already covered, only the Ambit3 will show a route loaded onto it. There’s no communication/sharing of routes between Ambit3 and Movescount app. Wouldn’t be the least surprised if that came in a 3.0 version of the app, when/if it becomes possible to sync routes to the Ambit3 via the app and/or to use routes in Movescount app ‘moves’.
      To my (ultrarunner’s) mind, it’s not a great oversight because I’d use the route display on the watch for my primary (well, secondary, behind brains and experience) guidance and only look to the map if I a) get really lost or b) need to divert from my planned route. Having the route on the map might just tempt into using the iPhone too much and drawing down its battery…

  2. i want to know the function difference with Garmin Fenix 2. if i have to choose one, which one should i buy?
    thanks!

    1. Well, the typical reply is this:
      If you want a watch that screams “outdoors” and tries to replace a full-fledged handheld GPS with a device on your wrist (especially in the ability to display maps), fully customizable in the field, you’ll want to get a Fenix 2.
      If you want a watch that can conceivably be worn with a dress shirt and blazer as well and that supports you in both training and outdoors adventures (but doesn’t pretend to fully replace map and compass if you venture to places unknown), then get an Ambit2 or Ambit3.

      Things have become a bit more complicated, though, as the Fenix2 now offers some more running metrics, and the Ambit3 offers an interesting trick re. the maps in the combination with the Movescount app.

  3. Hi,
    Since I haven’t been able to find anywhere , can you tell me how can I replace battery in Ambit 3 peak?

    Thanks,

    Almin

    1. If the battery needs to be replaced, you need to send the watch in to Suunto (via their customer service/warranty program). That shouldn’t be necessary in quite a long time, though.

  4. I see in the review you say- “The current breed of smartwatches does not have GPS built in, but rather uses the phone’s GPS.” So can the watch function without your phone? I am heading to Southeast Asia and won’t have data on my phone. I would be able to sync once I get back into a WIFI zone but for the activity won’t always have my phone. If you could offer any advice that would be greatly appreciated.

    1. Sorry if this is causing any confusion… I’m talking about smartwatches such as the Sony SmartWatch or Samsung Gear here, as opposed to a GPS-equipped sports (and navigation) device like the Ambits.

      The Ambits are not smartwatches (of those kinds) exactly because they do not absolutely need to be tethered to a smartphone (Suunto used to talk of those its products as “wristop computers,” in fact). Just remember to set the Ambit up the way you want to have it beforehand, in terms of things like the customization of “exercise” displays and, if you want/need any, routes or POIs. There is a certain chance that not all your “moves” (recorded exercises, GPS tracks) would be synced and stored online if you didn’t at least sync the watch with the app on your phone, but that only comes after quite a few hours of recordings and (as per Suunto) doesn’t happen if you do sync, even without internet connection.

      So, whenever possible, I would recommend syncing while the iPhone is on WiFi, to get the data stored, but even completely without a phone, an Ambit will be helpful. (That’s what it was like, by and large, when the first model came out…)

      One tip: if you want to just have a GPS record of places you’ve been, e.g. also for a file to use for geotagging photos (if your camera doesn’t do that; assuming here you don’t just take photos with your iPhone), set up a “sports”/”exercise” mode for that with a name like “photo safari”, GPS setting “good” (which records where you are only every 60 seconds, saving storage space and battery), and not showing much more than time of day. That way, you can turn that mode on when you go out for a photography tour, still see what time it is, not use up too much battery or storage, and still have a record of where you’ve walked around (and taken pictures, which can be geotagged using GPicSync and the .gpx – or .kml, can’t exactly remember right now – later downloaded from Movescount’s record of that “move.”

      Have fun in SE Asia!

  5. I don’t have any tracking watches yet. I want to buy one. I wonder should I buy ambit2 or ambit3.
    any suggestion?

    1. Well, if you get the Ambit2 now, you get a great deal, but you’re missing out on the active recovery tracking, the smartphone connectivity, and the HR belt that can record your HR for you also when you’re swimming.
      The Ambit3 gives you those features (and is more likely to get more updates when/if any are coming) but costs you more now.

  6. Hi, I saw that you were planning on a third post: ” Later still: a guide to using an Ambit2 or Ambit3 to its full potential.”. Is this up? If not, please know that there is lots of interest. Thanks!

    1. Working on it (late) as we speak, trying hard to get it done before this year is out. May have to bring it out in parts, yet again ;)

      Thank you very much for the words of encouragement/interest!

  7. I am wanting to make sure that I get the most out of each watch charge. If I am not using it, is there anything I should make sure is turned off to prolong the time in between each charge.

    1. Personally, I wouldn’t worry about that too much. But, hey, that’s not your question.

      The easiest thing you can do: Just put the watch somewhere it won’t be moved, and it will turn off the screen to save battery.
      If you want to save even more juice, on the Ambit3 line, you can turn off all the extra functions in time mode (which you can see in the “customizing time mode displays” video in this post), especially the activity tracking/active recovery. Of course, also turn the sync with the app off, then.
      For travel, some people have also set their watches back into that standby mode they come in, where you need to plug it into its charging cable to wake it up again. Possible, but that’s a bit trickier – and I’d rather be wearing my Ambit to make sure it’s on me and working. It’s made to be plugged in, synced, and recharged continually, after all.

  8. Hello,

    I don’t have any watch for training for running and road biking? I trying to chose between Fenix 3 and Ambit 3.
    thanks for any help.

    1. This could easily be the most hotly debated topic in outdoors sports watches: Fenix vs. Ambit.

      General trends in opinion so far have been twofold:
      The Fenix series has been offering more in terms of outdoors GPS (breadcrumb track, for example) and easier access to the data, but there are lots of complaints about its (lack of) stability.
      The Ambit series watches just about never crash, may be the better watches for training guidance, but are cause for many complaints about slow (but stable) updates and a need to have an internet connection in order to customize them.

      Best way of deciding, perhaps:
      a) Check if the talk of device crashes (with the Fenix) or Movescount downtimes (with the Ambits) puts you off that device.
      b) See if there is any particular feature that you deem essential and that only one of them offers (basemaps(?) and breadcrumb tracks on the Fenix is often a point that leads people there.
      c) Ideally, see if you can get them at a store that would let you return it if you are unhappy; go and try it out…

      Time for me to ask Garmin if they have a test unit for me yet ;)

  9. I ended up buying the Ambit 3 Sport and all seemed good for the first year then the wheels fell off. It would be good to see an updated review the watch with the latest firmware and to see how it holds up after a year or so.

    Battery life certainly doesn’t hold up after 16 months. With a recent bare basics test (blank activity, GPS at 10 sec/15hr, 10 sec recording interval, 1 screen, no apps, no HRM, 100% charge) I only got 9:19’26 before the watch went flat (should have been a lot closer to the advertised 15hrs).

    There is confirmed bug in the firmware that means the watch doesn’t process speed data send my Bluetooth speed/cadence sensors like the Wahoo Blue SC).

    Other than that I loved the watch (bit hard to love when you can’t use it for biking for 4 months so far and for long events with higher accuracy). I had an issue with the HRM and Suunto were great replacing the strap.

    Suunto have refused to build an App for Windows which just seems crazy but the MovesCount site works fine and I Haven’t had any downtime that I recall.

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