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

Look Closer, Learn More, #GetAtHome In This World

Tag: review (Page 1 of 2)

Mammut Comfort High GTX

High Comfort, So Last Season: Mammut Comfort High GTX Surround Boot Review

When Mammut was looking to provide some people in the German-speaking area with a high Klout score (yep, they had still been using that) with a pair of their shoes to test, back in the spring of 2015, I’m pretty sure they were looking for some immediate support for their PR.

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Icebug Acceleritas5 Side View, Slightly Used ;)

Accelerating in Icebug’s Acceleritas5 RB9X. Running Shoe Review

Shoes are at least as exciting for the runner as they are for the stereotypical shoe-obsessed woman – if they are exciting.

Icebug’s Acceleritas5 are.

Where the Nike LunarEpic have an obviously different design and near-extreme sole, and where Icebug’s own Mist have their extreme-mesh upper, the Acceleritas do not immediately look special.

Icebug Acceleritas5 Side View, Slightly Used ;)

Icebug Acceleritas5 Side View, Slightly Used ;)

Lift them up, however, and you’ll notice what makes them special at once:
They are extremely lightweight, but their sole has lugs like hardly any other.

Icebug Acceleritas5 Front Lugs

Icebug Acceleritas5 Front Lugs

Step in, and it becomes clear that they do not only feel lightweight, they are also made to be like racing flats.

Flexible and minimalist, the Acceleritas5 fit like a glove (to the point where they do not even have an insole) and work very much like a “barefoot running” shoe.

Icebug Acceleritas5 Inside

Icebug Acceleritas5 Inside

So, yes, for both better and worse, you will feel every rock and stone and root on the track you take.

Taking these shoes for the first part of the Traunsee mountain marathon, thus, was quite a gamble.

There are very many sharp stones there, the “run” is often more of a climb – except when it isn’t – and this was hard on my feet.

Icebug Acceleritas5 during the Bergmarathon

Icebug Acceleritas5 during the Bergmarathon

 

At the same time, the feel for the ground was tremendously good, and that combined with the low weight of the shoes also provided benefits, making me more mindful and nimble, and thus faster.

Fast is also the key word.

With the “tractor tread” lugs on the sole, all made in Icebug’s highly durable and grippy RB9X rubber, the racing flat profile/cut of the Acceleritas5 isn’t the only thing that accelerates, there is also the “safe grip, free mind” of the sole profile and material.

Sure, I stumbled a bit on the loose gravel we have, had to be careful to try not to hit any sharp stones too directly and powerfully, but I felt and indeed was safe and fast. And it was fun.

It’s definitely not the fun of rolling roughshod over anything on your path, the way “maximalist” shoes allow you to.
For working on speed and agility, conscious of technique, however, these are easily the most special and promising shoes I’ve yet had the fun to use.

For tracks and trails, off the roads, not necessarily going the longer distances but dancing nimbly through forest, across meadows and over mountains, the Acceleritas5 are shoes to try.

I have used them a lot this year, have to thank Icebug very much for having provided me with them to try and review, and can’t wait to speed along in the Alps in them again.

In fact, out to present the Ambit3 Peak’s new route altitude profile and GPS comparison tracks between Ambit3 Peak and Spartan Ultra, even though there was some snow already, I still used the Acceleritas5…

In Acceleritas5 in Snow Under the Grosser Sonnstein

In Acceleritas5 in Snow Under the Grosser Sonnstein

When the weather turns yet “worse”, I might finally get a chance to finish trying out and then reviewing the Acceleritas’ BuGrip-spikes-enabled brethren, the Anima3…

Salomon Sense Ultra 3/Set Review: A Sense (Vest) for All Runs

The way things go sometimes, they haven’t (yet) worked out as planned, but led to serendipitous findings.

It was running vest/packs with 20l of volume I wanted to test this year, for some overnight running outings, but I ended up testing Salomon’s 3 liter Sense Ultra (Set) vest instead.

And I found a running vest I really enjoy using.

The Sense Ultra 3 may, on first look from afar, look like a running pack, but it quickly shows itself to be just a running vest.

The material is so thin, one could bunch the whole thing – without the Hydrapak soft flask bottles, of course – up into not much more than tennis ball size.

Consequently, it gets rather wet with sweat, but it is also not too noticeable on the body and highly breathable; one can’t quite speak of how it carries, rather, it wears just like another thin piece of very well-fitting clothing.
It may also sound as if it should be flimsy, but it has shown itself not to be; the material has been working out excellently.

Give it a look and listen:

For overnighters, staying out to sleep, this wouldn’t be it – but that’s clear from its volume alone, I’d hope.

For overnight runs with the barest of essential/mandatory equipment, however, it works out very well.
For the essentials for a quick training run or longer outing – even a little forest forage run – it’s been working out perfectly for me.

OR Helium Jacket, Salomon Sense 3L Vest - Leeks Delivery System

OR Helium II Jacket, Salomon Sense 3L Vest, Salomon XA Pro 3D – Leeks Delivery System

And it rides very well on my backpack when I head for the mountains, to go running there, too…

Salomon Sense Ultra 3 on Arrakis backpack

Salomon XA Pro 3D

Salomon XA Pro 3D Review

There are a lot of new – or rather, same but changed/improved – shoes coming from Salomon this fall/winter (2015), as seen at the ISPO already. (I’ll report from the upcoming OutDoor Friedrichshafen with more details). At least some of them, I hope to get a chance to check out, but they won’t be out for most testing until September.

For the meantime, I asked one of their marketers for his recommendation for a shoe for mixed running, and the XA Pro 3D was the interesting choice.

Salomon XA Pro 3D

I’m a big fan of trail running through forests and in the mountains, and of the specialized shoes for that as well. Also, rather niche brands sit well with me. Salomon, consequently, is a brand I approach with some hesitation; they have done a lot of good through their support for running, but they are also so ubiquitous in trail running, it can get a tad disconcerting.

Then again, most of my running starts and ends on roads, very much of it goes over gravel roads that aren’t much different from paved roads, so a specialized trail running shoe is not necessarily the best choice.
A road running shoe, on the other hand, wouldn’t work for too many of the gravel roads, let alone the trails I end up on whenever I can.

Salomon shoes and gear, when in doubt, are a running staple to turn to and know to expect lots of choices and a decent quality.

There is also their store in the nearby Outlet Center… and even when I didn’t like how the Inov-8 TrailRoc had fared in Hong Kong’s humidity and needed to find another pair of running shoes, it was a pair of SpeedCross (SpeedCross CS, strangely enough) that I was able to find in my size even in Hong Kong and that enabled me to run comfortably out in the Hunan countryside.

Running in Hunan Countryside

Later, I would go on to use those same SpeedCross in running at the Grossglockner, and in the Linz Marathon, and in Beijing, doing the Beijing Marathon. Oh, and on the Great Wall as well.
Yep, I abused them in mountains and on roads, for two years, until they had no more lugs on part of their soles.

Running on the Great Wall

Not exactly a bad experience.

And back to the XA Pro 3D…

The XA Pro 3D are usually described as a (mountain) trail running shoe; mixed conditions are what I got them recommended for, and everything from road to gravel to mountain trails is what I have used them on for a while now.

Like many a ‘standard’ kind of running shoe, they have a rather thick sole (compared to shoes like Inov-8’s TrailRoc or Icebug’s Zeal, which I generally prefer). This, alongside their rather burly build, makes them less of a racing or nimble trail running shoe, but well suited for the road-to-trail running I have been using them for…

Not a bad pair of shoes at all. Now, let’s see what the true top-of-line models are bringing next.

at home in… Trail Running, Cradled by Icebug’s Zeal

Time for another (preliminary) shoe review, this time of the Zeal RB9X (“Rubber 9 Extreme”) from Icebug.

Icebug Zeal

Icebug Zeal as presented at the ISPO Munich 2015

The small Swedish brand has been on my radar for a long time; they are pretty much *the* experts when it comes to shoes for running on snow and ice, especially thanks to their different sole designs incorporating carbide spikes (“studs,” as they say, in the OLX and BUGrip technologies, see http://icebug.com/int/grip-tech/grip/ ).

Getting into the snow was not really the intention behind (this version of*) these shoes, even if the GearJunkie tested them on a skiing slope, but they have been handling it quite alright. Feet got wet but not uncomfortably so – and I’ve finally begun running out of the snow, over the rocks and roots and through the mud of spring weather that these shoes were made for.

Rather than spikes, these Zeal “only” use Icebug’s RB9X (rubber 9 extreme) compound which promises very high friction levels and therefore good grip while being as abrasion-resistant as road running shoes.

Furthermore, there is the “Holy Grail Midsole Soft AND Stable – technology” (HGMS²), meant to make these *the* shoes for trail running in tough terrain with high stability and comfort as well as softness and flexibility, well-protected and low to the ground.

So many promises, it made for problems – and then the realization that, oh yes, these shoes are made for running, and that’s just what they’ll do…

*There is also an OLX version of the Zeal with fixed carbide spikes – see http://icebug.com/int/produkter/zeal-olx/

Go and try them out; these are the shoes for racing those trails!

Me, I’ll be out there, too – and then coming back when I can tell you how the Zeal hold up ;)

Thunderbolt Sportswear Softshell Jeans, 4 Years Later

Even in a field of many brands that are unknown to all but those in the know, Thunderbolt Sportswear is an outlier.

Given the Schoeller Dryskin used in their (now so-called) “Originals” softshell jeans, they fall right into the category of “technical menswear.”

Their focus, however, was less on the fashion than on the performance side of things; their jeans were even presented as a potential climbing jeans.

And so, even as many a brand in the category of tech-wear comes from a background in sports, especially cycling (Outlier is probably the best known; 7Mesh is newly getting started, to name just two), they went quite unnoticed in that field.

For me, too, the material was the main point of interest back in 2011 when I got my pair. And while I still love my Veilance Spec Pant, I have gone through two different other models from Veilance while the Thunderbolts are still going strong…

Where one of the selling points of Arc’teryx Veilance pieces are their very particular cuts, Thunderbolt’s offering is considerably more run-of-the-mill – but it’s a good mill: Schoeller Dryskin, and a classic five-pocket jeans cut.

As much as I like the peculiar cut and functionality of Veilance pants (with their angular lines and hardly visible ‘cargo pockets’ along the outside of the upper legs of some models), the comfort of the Thunderbolt’s softshell material is just amazing.
After four years of use, they are still the favorite pants of mine for most situations, from casual lounging to not-entirely-too-formal business wear.

Where Veilance’s materials work well, but can get to feel a little clammy when it gets warm, the Schoeller Dryskin is quite alright in a hot summer (for which it is somewhat too warm, of course) and still enough for me on a cold winter’s day.

(When temperatures get below freezing, however, it is time for the Veilance Spec Pants…)

The material cleans up well (even with the DWR gone), has withstood everything I’ve thrown at it reasonably well – and what faults in it have come up are not visible from the outside or without very close inspection or were easy enough to repair – and if there is one problem with it, it is that the feel is almost too comfortable.

It has, more than once, reminded me of the feeling of pajama pants, it feels that soft on the skin.

Hence, I enjoy going out in them, and they are a favorite for just lounging around at home, all the same.

Things had gone quiet around Thunderbolt Sportswear, but they are still around and on the verge of updating their original softshell jeans (stronger thread in the stitching was one of the few needed improvements) and introducing new products.

We’ll see what comes. I’m sure it will be good.

(And the date for the new releases has just been announced: March 16.)

Arcteryx Veilance Review 2: Field Jacket, Spec Pant, Stealth Shirt

Clothes to Be at Home in: Veilance Spec Pant and Stealth Shirt (and Field Jacket)

Some new piece of gear, a new fashion trend in a new season, something that disappoints – such things give something to talk about.

It can be seen on the vast majority of blogs; it can be seen with my previous review of the Veilance Diale Composite Sweater (good, thus not talked about at length) and the Cargo LT (and Voronoi) Pants (which failed and therefore gave me a lot to talk about).

Where are the things that make for the earlier-mentioned “wardrobe for all seasons”?

Their disappearance, so far, is another example of one of the big issues in making oneself at home in places and with things: the large extent to which both the good and the familiar disappear.

Familiarity, by and large, means nothing but such a disappearance of the new and noticeable into the background – and to a forgetfulness of what would actually be there. Good products, similarly and very differently, often fulfill their purpose and suit us so well, they also disappear from our attention.

If we want to make ourselves more at home, then, we need to become more conscious of what we are overlooking in our lives and in the places we are, but also to find those things that fit for us and for what we do, so that we can be less conscious of them.

In my daily and in my less-ordinary life, when it comes to clothes, these good things have included a few pieces from Arc’teryx Veilance. For a few years now, the Spec Pant and Stealth shirt(s) have been staples in my wardrobe. They have held up well; they give the look of being well-dressed but not seasonally-fashionably so; they suit and protect well.

Sure, as usual, a lot of it may be due to the placebo-like ‘enclothing’ effect of a Windstopper cargo pant that can very nearly pass as a pair of slacks and a shirt that includes Kevlar in its material mix – but when it works, it works…

Of course, there is one big problematic issue perfectly pointed out by such a review of things which have proven good, but come from a brand deeply involved in quarterly earning figures and, with this line, twice-yearly product releases with few constant items: You can find out that these things are good only at a time when you cannot get them anymore…

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.

Suunto Ambit3 Sport Sapphire

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.

Ambit3 Sport BacksideIt’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

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

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

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

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…

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