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Suunto Spartan Ultra: Initial Review

The release of the Suunto Spartan Ultra having gone as it has been, lots of people have found lots of reasons to complain.

They aren’t entirely wrong, for the Spartan Ultra promises a lot, but right now delivers a 700 to 850 Euro/dollar watch that is definitely a new hardware platform (color touch screen and all), but doesn’t even have an alarm function.

There is also potential, however – and I want to give Suunto the benefit of the doubt.

Looking back and complaining, after all, is cheap.

Looking at what is there now is better, and where it offers reason to complain, we’ll also have reason to look at what has been introduced, shortly. What is here already doesn’t look half as bad as the usual online discussions may make you think.Suunto Spartan Ultra

Then, September will already bring an update that improves the Spartan’s functionality a lot, and going by the features Suunto mentions in its update note and customer/user survey on how the Spartan gets stronger, this platform may well have even more potential than we realize now.

So, as I said, I’ll give them the benefit of the doubt.

Or rather, the benefit of decades-long experience in which they have never failed to bring things forward quite a bit. On that note…

Full Disclosure

I have some-one-and-a-half decades of experience with Suunto, know people (from) there I’d consider friends, and have regularly been supported with watches for review/testing and/or supported them in watch development as a beta tester.

This also applies here with the Spartan Ultra: I have received it from Suunto, to work on it as a beta-tester.

Thus, I have seen a few of their devices in early stages and beyond, and this makes it look like the release of the Spartan was a bit rushed compared to Suunto’s usual approach, but it will be in a much better state soon.

 

In my review(s), I will tell things as they are, anyways, if a bit more focused on how things work (hence, the Ambit3 Manual series).

After all, my work here is about living with the reality of the world, not in this popular fairy-tale land where every device works and makes a person much better without effort.

Like I said, I may give them the benefit of the doubt, but I also have enough good experience with them to do so – and only too many people online are only too fond of providing more than enough kvetching and moaning (or just type up PR material), anyways. No need to contribute to that.

That said, here goes:

Suunto Spartan Ultra Unboxing

So, if you decide to get a Suunto Spartan Ultra already, this is what you get:

The type of box Suunto introduced with the release of the Ambit family, with the Suunto Spartan Ultra, its (new) charging cable, a Movesense HR belt (if you got an HR version), and the “essential” info material, i.e. Quick Guide and warranty.

And a Suunto sticker; let’s  not forget that ;)

Movesense

The Movesense HR belt is the same it has been ever since Suunto updated their HR belts and went BTLE-only (rather than ANT+). So, if you have such an HR belt from an Ambit3, you don’t have to get an HR version Spartan – though you should remember that the belt part needs regular replacement; it degrades with use and then stops giving reliable results.

[Thank you to Goran – see comments – for reminding me that the switch to the new, BTLE-only, Movesense HR belts only came with the Ambit3!]

Charging Cable

The charging cable is entirely new.

It is still a USB cable for charging as well as the connection with a PC or Mac, now using the program/utility “Suuntolink,” a version of which has only been used with the Suunto Kailash before, rather than the “Moveslink” used with Ambits and other Suunto watches.

However, it no longer is a “datasnake”-style cable “biting” onto the side of the watch, but rather attaches to the watch via a magnet. Thus, there are no more moving parts which might fail (but you should take care not to get the magnet anywhere it shouldn’t be).

Suunto Spartan Ultra with USB cable attached

Suunto Spartan Ultra with USB cable attached

Warranty

Quick guide and warranty aren’t the most interesting things, as usual, but it should be noted that Suunto recently changed/expanded their warranty to that international one

The most interesting thing, of course, is the watch…

Suunto Spartan Ultra Start-Up

The Spartan Ultra itself comes ‘asleep’, like all recent Suunto watches. Here, the quick guide may come in handy, to know to hold the top button for a few seconds in order to awaken the watch.

After the first booting, the watch goes straight into the setup, asking about some basic data it needs to function properly, which you can also see in the unboxing video above…

… and more than likely, you’ll want to connect it to your computer to charge, update, and sync it.

Spartan Ultra and Suuntolink

It’s no longer “Moveslink” which is used to sync the Spartan watches, it is “Suuntolink”. So, download that, install it on your PC or Mac, hook up the watch and see what it does.

For example, it updates the firmware:

Suuntolink also, of course, sync the GPS data to make reception quicker and better, syncs the settings between watch and Movescount, syncs moves data, downloads routes, and so on.

(There are still some connectivity issues, but they are being worked on.)

A First Close-Up

Just to give you some impressions of how the watch’s touchscreen works and what customization options (and modes) there currently are, especially of the watch face, let’s browse a bit:

First Runs

My first run, I still had the Spartan Ultra at the very first firmware with which it was ever made available outside of Suunto.

That wasn’t even the worst problem, it was – Surprise, surprise! – that some things about its use have changed quite a bit: You do not get the Ambits’ “GPS Searching” with the progress bar anymore, the Spartans just show their readiness for use with the GPS (and HR, and Start? – it was all still a question) symbols turning from mere outline to being filled when they are (somewhat) ready.

Not knowing about that, I started the recording when the watch was not yet ready, and it started recording the GPS track only after quite some time.

Considering that, the total distance measurement was not bad – and this very first run was in Hong Kong, where even the Ambit3 Peak had tremendous problems with the GPS reception, as you can see on the track for the move

HK Run Ambit3 Peak Track

So, you don’t get to see much of the Spartan Ultra in the following video, but I want to include it here, anyways. It was still fun, gives some impressions of Hong Kong – and I’m about more than just sports watches, after all! ;)

Fun as it was, it is still highly recommended to first connect, charge, and sync the watch to ready it. And to update the firmware, if there is an update. Not to just go out…

So, now, since I couldn’t record quite so much of how all that looks like for the video above, what should you do for starting a run (or other exercise / “move”), having done all the syncing and updating? How does it look?

Recording a Run

First off, don’t forget to pair your HR belt to the watch!

Unsurprisingly, to start recording an exercise, you go to “Exercise”, pick the sports mode you want to use/do, set options if you want to do that (those are still limited to setting a target, which is still limited to a duration only, and/or to activating a route – more on routes/navigation below).

Just know that the Spartan Ultra no longer shows dedicated startup screens for the HR belt and the GPS, it just shows a location icon and a heart icon, which turn from outlined to full when GPS and HR belt, respectively, have been found.

Ready like that, the “Start” button on the display also turns from an outlined to a filled icon.

Hit Start and you’re ready to go…

You can, of course, scroll through different displays (currently, as pre-set by Suunto, but the customizability of sports modes is already in the list of updates that will come soon) to get different data.

You can pause the recording (to resume or to stop it), and it’s no longer likely that one forgets to unpause, as that is now a dedicated screen showing either total time elapsed or time of day (switch via tap or middle button), with big “resume” and “stop” icons at the bottom and top, respectively.

To avoid accidental button presses, these icons don’t serve as touch buttons; the actual buttons have to be pushed to resume or stop.

At the end of a recording, a summary is still/again displayed, with one screen for the various items of data and another for laps (or actually, one for autolaps and one for manual laps, if both were used).

Logbook and Training Overview

Judging by the ads for the Spartan Ultra, there is still quite a bit more to come on the watch and on Movescount when it comes to training (progress) overviews.

Definitely, one can already go into the logbook to see data of recent training sessions or swipe down from the time display to get to the overviews of (first step counter, then) recent training times or distances and then recovery time.

More than likely, there will be more – if it’s not all just coming to Movescount (the website).

Navigation

I just so happened to have to hike to Arche Noah in Lower Austria again, one of my places for a little ‘adventuring’ – so I took the Spartan Ultra, pre-loaded with the necessary route, as navigation tool:

Night hike GPS tracks (from Ambit3 Peak, worn on right wrist and set to “trekking” mode with “best” GPS, and Suunto Spartan Ultra, worn on left wrist, and apparently, going by the options/setup for the “hiking” mode, set to “good” GPS only) can be viewed and compared here:

(The route I had set up to follow, just using the “follow roads walking” option, is also shown, in blue.)

Still some issues to work on, but overall, the navigation worked at least as well as it does on the Ambits (except for waypoints not really being used yet) and the data/tracks recorded are quite alright here, too.

Syncing

Suuntolink was already mentioned, but this spot seems good to also mention the sync between the Spartan Ultra and Movescount via Suuntolink…

It “optimizes GPS” (i.e., downloads the GPS satellite SGEE data which helps get a faster and better fix), syncs settings, syncs moves, and (though you don’t see that unless there is a new one) checks for firmware updates.

The way this looks now is really nice, but of course it’s more important that it works… and there are some connectivity issues which Suunto has acknowledged and is working to get them fixed.

Thoughts Right Now

People didn’t much like that video (especially with it coming first), but I think there are some things you need to hear and consider: From what can be seen so far, the Spartan is a very promising platform, but it does not yet fulfill too many of those promises.

As I said in my introductory words, going by my experience with Suunto, they will more than likely deliver – but that will take time.

At the current time and state, if you are happy with your Ambit, I would recommend sticking with it. If you need a serious and reliable (in terms of both function and accuracy) training and outdoors device, it will still serve you better than the Spartan Ultra in its current state.

If you want to be an early adopter and see how far Suunto gets in how (comparatively) little time, you could do worse than to get a Spartan Ultra already, though.

Some hiccups still occur, even some things that already work still need improving (which wasn’t how Suunto has usually released its watches, though not everything was quite as good as it is now with the Traverse when it first came out, either) – but it will get there and beyond.

The watch already looks good, is starting to perform well, and shows enough potential.

Like I did with the Ambits, I’ll return with a new post when there is another jump in the firmware version, i.e. a serious software update – and then we’ll also take a deeper look at the data provided by the Spartan, at Movescount’s new features, at the way the Movescount app works together with the Spartan, and all that.

Later this year, I’ll even head to Suunto HQ for talks and interviews…

Questions?

Ask and you shall get answers – and also ask if you have (serious ;) ) questions for potential interview partners of mine at Suunto later this year…

Availability

If you’re interested in a purchase – and in supporting my work here (i.e., yes, those are affiliate links) – the Suunto Spartan Ultra is available here, for example:

Or, you can get it on Amazon (also with affiliate links):


    • ginge on 2016/08/28 at 08:59

    Reply

    hello
    what gps system is available now? the spezifications a few days ago on the suunto hompage says that there are severel systems, like on the other watches? for me the mrgs system is important?
    is it possible to show on the watch the current gps possition?
    in the spezifications, they also canceld the POIs?
    is it possible to change the compass from degree to mil?
    do you know anything about those issues????
    thanks

      • Gerald on 2016/08/28 at 12:14
      • Author

      Reply

      There’s still nothing of that at all; it’s all probably set to come (I’d assume), but only later…

  1. Reply

    good and objective first impression, thanks for that!

      • Gerald on 2016/08/28 at 12:10
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      Reply

      Thank you!

    • Dan Scoular on 2016/08/28 at 12:41

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    Thank you for the balanced review. Seems quite unusual for Suunto to bring a new product to market with so much functionality missing. A couple of questions for you, and a couple for Suunto:

    1. How clear is the Spartan screen? (When I tested the Fenix3, the screen was barely legible in overcast conditions.)
    2. I notice you tested the model with the steel bezel. What’s the benefit of the more expensive titanium bezel… is it more durable?

    My questions for Suunto are predominantly about “professional” use, as I think the company produces more reliable products than the competition:

    3. With the advent of colour screens, will Suunto continue to invest R&D into conventional LCD products?
    -For smart watches with GPS
    -A replacement for Core
    4. Some users will not have the luxury of regular charging, but still need watches with robust GPS performance. What is the potential for Suunto to develop product lines which have greater stamina. (I appreciate there is a tradeoff here…)

    Thanks

      • Gerald on 2016/08/28 at 19:25
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      Reply

      Thank you. It *is* quite unusual…

      I find the screen very good to excellent. Helps that pretty much any activity turns on the backlight, but even without, it’s crisp (to me). And re. backlight, I just found that I seem to have it set to only(?) 50% brightness. I may do a video just about the screen, but the different videos already give an impression, anyways, I thought.

      Not sure about steel vs. titanium. I have to admit, as I also mentioned some places, that the Kailash has made me want to have titanium, but it might be more of a psychological than practical thing. I do hope to eventually check out the titanium as well, and we’ll see how the steel has held up until then.

      Thank you for your other questions. It’s still a while, but I’ve already noted them…

    • Goran on 2016/08/29 at 22:52

    Reply

    Hi Gerald,
    about the sentence: So, if you have such an HR belt from an Ambit (of whatever generation), you don’t have to get an HR version Spartan.

    You chould correct it to: If you have Ambit3, you don’t need a HR version as you can use old one. Older Ambits have ANT belts.

    BRG

      • Gerald on 2016/08/30 at 05:43
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      Reply

      Ah, thank you! I was wondering (but couldn’t quite remember) when that switch was made. Right, just with the Ambit3!

    • Cato Hals on 2016/08/30 at 02:14

    Reply

    How is the screen in dim lighting compared to Ambit3

      • Gerald on 2016/08/30 at 05:46
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      Reply

      In my opinion, pretty good. Opinions differ, but check out the “night adventuring” video under the “Navigation” header…

        • Cato Hals on 2016/08/30 at 14:25

        Reply

        I want to know how it compares to A3 in a relatively dark room, just to see what time it is

    • Shahaf on 2016/09/03 at 11:01

    Reply

    Hello.
    Today I have encountered a serious issue with my new Spartan. When I started my running training, the watch went into some kind of freeze in its initial starting screen and did not recover even after a two hours run. The only thing that made the watch “come to its senses” was to reset it through the Suuntolink and loosing all unsynced data :-(
    Have you seen any of this while using the Spartan ?
    I have to admit that right now I’m worried about either having a defective unit or that the Spartan has not only software issues but also hardware issues…

    I’d love to have your opinion about this.

    Thanks,

    Shahaf.

    • Darren Loftas on 2016/09/08 at 22:12

    Reply

    Hi. I have after nearly 4 weeks of utter frustration returned my Suunto spartan ultra. Major issues with the Suuntolink software and connectivity plus a HRM that just dies after 3km (I run ultras so not much help!). Seemed to have spent most of my life on the the phone to their customer support team whose only answer seems to be to ‘be patient and we might have the issues fixed by the end of the month’. Not good enough for a 550GBP watch. Its obvious Suunto have released this product too early perhaps due to pressures from other makes and their offerings. Suunto have certainly damaged their reputation with me (I have had 2 x vectors and 1 x ambit 3 sapphire) and I have gone back to a Garmin

      • Gerald on 2016/09/09 at 06:10
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      Reply

      I almost wish I had a reason to not show your comment – but I can very much understand. It would not surprise me if you came back later; Suunto will likely deliver – but that will all take time and after the Ambits, that’s not the place where anyone would want to start with such an expensive watch, indeed.

    • Lasqueve Raubenheimer on 2016/09/29 at 11:58

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    Hi, my spartan ultra keeps reverting back to the default watch face. Is this normal? How do I fix it?

    Thank you!

      • Gerald on 2016/09/29 at 12:43
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      Reply

      I assume you mean the simple watch face it shows when you haven’t used it for a while, where you have to push the middle button before you can use the touch screen again?
      In that case, it’s a sort of standby display to save power.

      If it does not get back to the display you’ve chosen when you push the middle button, then there is something wrong…

  2. Reply

    what are your thoughts on GPS after a few months of use? fellrnr and dcrainmaker are not happy with it. I appreciate fellrnr does lots of sampling and stat analysis – yet I found both Spartans as good, sometimes better, than the v800 and 920 and edge 820. obviously they all have their moments. Yet other people show quite bad tracks. I always did a 15 minute gps dummy run first to warm up the gps. maybe that helped.

    suunto pr tell me its the same chip as the a3, surely suunto would be in a good position to know it’s strengths and weaknesses

    from your old workmate contacts

    Q: have suunto said what the GPS bug is that they are fixing?
    Q: do you know if it is the sirfstarv?

      • Gerald on 2016/10/30 at 16:31
      • Author

      Reply

      Had to look at my recordings again to sensibly decide what to say.
      My requirements aren’t the highest. And so, I don’t find it as bad as some. Well, that’s also because I had many pretty okay results. The trend is in the right direction, as well.

      But, all that said, it is true that there are still issues… I had worse before, if on a pre-release device, though, and Suunto have said they’ve found a bug, so let’s see.

    • John Mayer on 2016/12/28 at 02:43

    Reply

    Please learn proper English, or resort to review in German.

      • Gerald on 2016/12/28 at 06:15
      • Author

      Reply

      Dear John,

      How is my English not “proper” enough for you, how is your German, and what has been happening in your life (especially just past Christmas) that you feel a need to comment like that on a stranger’s blog? (Also, why shouldn’t I just block you forever for a comment like this?)

      Sincerely puzzled,
      Gerald

    • Willem on 2017/01/19 at 20:56

    Reply

    I assume since last firmware updates the accuracy and functionality improved a lot? Still in doubt to upgrade my 4 year old Ambit 2 for a 3 or the Spartan. In 4 years the 2 never let me down but slowly starting to give up now so time to get a fresh suunto.

      • Gerald on 2017/01/20 at 22:31
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      Frankly, not as much as I’d like it to have improved. Then again, that’s also in large part because the 3 Peak has been developed so far…

        • Willem on 2017/01/20 at 23:29

        Reply

        Thanks for reply Gerald. Slowly better reviews of the Spartan are getting online lately. Do you already use it as your first choice or do you stick with the Ambit ?

          • Gerald on 2017/01/21 at 11:13
          • Author

          Reply

          Hope you’ve seen my own “Watching as/if/when Spartan Gets Stronger” posts ;)

          Well, the situation is a bit different with me since I’m also testing the Spartan for Suunto, so usually wearing both a Spartan (Ultra) and an Ambit(3 Peak, mainly). It’s still an interesting way of asking about that…

          If I needed waypoints and didn’t want to worry about battery life and GPS fix, I’d still reach for the Ambit, I think.

          I’ve seen the Spartan Ultra get a GPS fix faster than the Ambit, indoors, without a totally-new SGEE (the help file for GPS), though. And then I promptly thought I’d started the log on the Ambit but actually hadn’t, which you can’t do on the Spartan without noticing.

          So, it’s starting to get there and, even without things like recovery testing or running performance (as the Ambit3 Peak offers it), I’m starting to prefer the Spartan for getting an overview of my recent training right on the watch – and there’s a lot more on that planned from Suunto…

Feel free to contribute