After so much time with Suunto watches, it was high time to try out the major competition among sports and outdoor devices, those made by Garmin.
In particular, that applies to the battle royale of the Garmin fenix 3 versus the Suunto Ambit3, the perhaps most-discussed two devices in the area of devices with GPS meant for outdoors use and sports training, the devices the merits of which keepbeingweighed.
The usual way the question goes, it’s all about which of the two is better, the fenix 3 or the Ambit3.
I finally had a chance, spring to summer of 2015, to try out the fenix 3 parallel to the Ambit3, and I feel that my testing had the result that was to be expected: Both aren’t bad.
The real question is what you want from your GPS / sports device:
You may notice that I’m not having much to say about crashes or inconsistencies of the fenix3.
I simply did not see any performance I would call terrible, let alone any crashes.
The worst thing that happened during my testing of the fenix3 was that one time I went out for a mid-length tour and took the fenix3 when it was only 35% charged, which is no problem for a tour like it was with the Ambit3, and it turned off the GPS and stopped recording anything but the elapsed time when it had reached a 25% charge.
Not anything I liked to see, not the way I think this should be handled, but also something that I could have avoided simply by checking battery charge before going out…
In the end, I’m sticking with what I’ve argued for a while:
If you want (need?) a device that is more of a navigational tool and a stand-alone device (e.g. where customization is concerned), then a fenix3 has a good chance of being better for you. It also offers more smartwatch features and the rather nicer display, if you are after that.
If you want more of an outdoors watch that will help you in your outdoor pursuits as well as your sports training, but be made to do its job more quietly and unobtrusively, without errors or interruptions, then the Ambit3 has a good chance of being the better choice.
(By now, of course, there’s also the Garmin epix if you need even more of a maps-oriented tool on your wrist; and the news about the forthcoming Suunto I alluded to in the video, the Traverse, has started to break, too.)
Let’s also see what next year brings – but frankly, it continues to make the most sense to be less concerned with the technology on your wrist and more with your training and technique ;)
If you don’t yet have an Ambit3 or fenix3 and wouldn’t mind getting it from REI or Backcountry.com, consider following these links and I’ll get a commission if you buy there:
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…
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
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’…
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 (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
… and it took all of 20 seconds or so to get a fix.
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…
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.
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 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. 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.)
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.
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
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…
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.
Previews aren’t normally my thing, pseudo-exclusive first looks at products still in beta even less so, but Suunto’s GPS (and) training “wristop computers” have accompanied my path of getting “at home in…”
So, having just visited the OutDoor Friedrichshafen, I’ll break the usual rule for a preview of what’s coming with the Ambit3 line.
In terms of looks and basic functionality, not much seems changed.
There are the Ambit3 Sport models continuing the Ambit2S line, again in black or white, but also available in blue or in a Sapphire version in white with gold accents. They now run under the tagline of “The Multisport Experience.”
The Ambit3 Peak models continue the Ambit2 line as “The Adventure Experience,” in black or Sapphire.
But, while it looks as if there’s little change, there’s actually quite a change coming. The switch from the second to the third generation makes for a true generation gap, for ANT is now out, Bluetooth provides the connection.
The downside: Old accessories such as HR belts and PODs will not work with the Ambit3 line-up any longer.
The Ambit3 line is now “connected,” with a smartphone (for the release, only iOS) app that serves like Movescount and Moveslink in one’s pocket: changing settings, changing sports modes/screens, downloading “moves” on the go (wirelessly, no matter if online or offline) can now all be done via smartphone (right now: iPhone, iPad or iPod touch equipped with Bluetooth 4.0) and app.
Notifications from the phone can be shown on the watch, if so inclined.
Other bluetooth sensors can be used.
And additionally, the newly “smart” Bluetooth HR belt stores HR data also when no connection to the watch or the app is available – e.g. when swimming (and it can be used with either watch or app and has a new design which makes it easier to wash it and even more comfortable… I just wore it for 12 hours without problems).
And that’s not all, certainly not all I can tell, for I can also show a bit more…
But, there’s still time until the official release date of September 1; availability may well be very restricted at first; so expect products and sensible reviews in time for the Christmas sales. It’s shaping up to be, as Björn says in the video, a completely new tool – and another great one.
[Update, September 2014: The Ambit3 line is in stores, and my review is (coming) up: Part 1, Part 2 ]