There was a time when nearly all serious skiers, hikers, mountain guides, and climbers wore the same watch, a big chunk of digital technology called the Suunto Vector. They wore it because in 1998 the Vector was the only digital watch that featured what is now standard in adventure watches: an altimeter, a barometer, a compass (ABC), and a thermometer.
What the backcountry crowd appreciated most of all, however, was the Vector’s altimeter. With elevation tracking, the watch could record the vertical feet they’d climbed or descended. And for those into mountain sports vertical feet has always been the true measure of a trip.
Now, 18 years later, the same company has that same group of athletes and adventurers in its sights with its newest GPS-ABC watch, the Suunto Ambit3 Vertical. But in 2016, active people expect more from their watches — and the Vertical delivers. In addition to its ABC functionality the Vertical also logs daily activity levels, heart rate (when paired with a compatible strap), cycling power (with an additional power meter) and even dabbles in smart notifications (when paired to a smartphone over Bluetooth). Should it climb to the top of your shortlist?
Features and design
The Ambit3 Vertical is a large, sporty watch that screams adventure. The face features a 198 × 198 monochrome LCD under a mineral crystal lens that’s protected by a dark steel bezel. The watch, which weighs 2.61 ounces, is water resistant to 100 meters and features an adjustable, comfortable silicone band. The included Bluetooth heart rate strap is water resistant to 30 meters and works in the water. The Ambit3 Vertical comes in three loud colors (white, blue, and lime) and a more subdued all black version.
There are five buttons around the Ambit3’s face: two on the left side and three on the right. The left buttons are back and view; on the right are start/stop, next, and backlight/lock. The main display shows the time, month, and date, and it can be switched to show either seconds, battery charge percentage, or the number of smart notifications. By pressing the “next” button the display scrolls through a compass, total vertical ascents from the last week, and current recovery time. Those screens can be toggled on or off in the watch’s options menu, which is reached by pressing and holding the next button.
Inside the watch Suunto has included an altimeter, barometer, compass, thermometer, and GPS, but it also has an accelerometer that can record cadence while running (without a foot pod), as well as daily activity levels. It does not count steps nor track sleep, however. Once paired via Bluetooth with a smartphone running Suunto’s free Movescount app, the Ambit3 can sync activity with the Movescount.com website as well as sound an alarm or vibrate whenever it receives a smart notification.
By adjusting settings on Suunto’s Movescount.com website the list of available activities on the watch can be customized and reordered almost infinitely.
Ten different activities from running, cycling, and swimming to hiking, stand-up paddling, and windsurfing can be tracked from the watch’s exercise menu, and two more spots are reserved for ‘multisport” events like triathlon (you do those, right?). By adjusting settings on Suunto’s Movescount.com website the list of available activities on the watch can be customized and reordered almost infinitely, and those seeking an activity that isn’t on Suunto’s list can create their own.
Suunto’s App Zone allows users to customize the watch even more by uploading specialized apps that add even more features to the watch, including data like sunrise/sunset times, wave counting for surfing, and even complete, 15-week long training programs for those planning on running a marathon or 10K or completing a century ride on a bicycle. Those who still don’t find what they need can visit the App Developer section on Movescount.com and program their own apps using a point and click graphical interface.
Once your activities are tracked and synced with the Movescount app, data is automatically uploaded to Suunto’s Movecount.com website and then pushed to other fitness metrics sites like Strava, Trainingpeaks, MapMyRun and many more.
Performance and use
The Lime green Suunto Ambit3 Vertical we tested arrived with the watch, a USB connection/charging clip, a water resistant Suunto Smart heart rate sensor, and a printed quick start guide in 27 languages including English.
Getting full use out of the Vertical requires an account on Movescount.com, which was quick enough to create. Once connected, most of the watch’s settings are controlled in the Movescount app.
As a watch, the Suunto performs OK. The display can be slightly customized, and the LCD can be inverted, but that’s about it. While the watch has a countdown timer and stopwatch, both are located six button presses deep in the menu. The Ambit3 has an alarm, but it can only be set for one time and cannot be customized to repeat in any way. Our workout routine involves getting up at different times each morning, and having only one alarm is almost a deal killer. The battery life was amazing, however. With occasional GPS outings the battery would easily last a week. With longer, daily GPS activity it could survive three or four days. When we used it only as a watch (taking it off at night), the Ambit3 would stay charged for well over two weeks.
The Ambit3 Vertical is much more than a watch, however. It really becomes interesting when we put it to the action test. Starting an “exercise” requires at least three button presses: two to put the Vertical into exercise mode and a couple more to select the correct activity. Then, after a few seconds while the watch connects to the GPS network, there’s one final button press to start the activity itself. It’s not a crazy amount of button pressing, but Suunto’s engineers could have streamlined the process.
The display can be slightly customized, and the LCD can be inverted, but that’s about it.
Once an activity it started it can be paused with a short press of the start/stop button, and when the activity is completed it can be saved by holding the same button for two seconds. Getting activity data to Movescount.com requires either manually syncing the watch to a paired smartphone (it does not sync automatically) or connecting it to a computer via the USB charging cable. There are quite a few steps and it is not all that intuitive, but the system does function — and once we got it set up we had no trouble manually uploading activities to Movescount and then on to Strava.
One of the coolest features of the app is Suunto movie. After uploading an activity, the app can automatically create a stunning aerial view “Suunto movie” that shows the activity on a relief map with speed, heart rate, and climbing peaks called out. The movies have the same professional graphic style as previews for a Tour de France stage, with automatically built-in titles that include the athlete’s name, location, activity, and distance traveled. You can set the length to 1 minute, 20 seconds, or 5 seconds, perfect for uploading to Youtube, Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter. Letting friends know how gnarly your activities are has never been easier or more pro looking. Once we began making movies we clogged our social feed with map after map of runs, surf sessions, and bike rides.
Train with the best
Suunto movies may be pure flash, but the function that makes the Ambit3 Vertical attractive to anyone training for an event is the ability to upload training plans, or as Suunto calls them “planned moves.” It’s a snap to create a daily training plan of up to 15 weeks in advance on the site before loading it into the watch. Those needing professional help can choose from hundreds of planned moves that guide training for nearly any kind of event. Once the planned move is loaded, the watch sends an alert each morning outlining the day’s scheduled training plan. This is nothing that a smartphone app couldn’t do, but it is cool to wake up, look at your watch, and know exactly which exercises are on the menu for the day. After completing the training, the watch can also predict recovery times based on an athlete’s resting heart rate and the level of activity in the training — a great tool for curbing overtraining.
The Ambit3’s smart notification capabilities are functional, yet sparse. All the watch delivers is an alert that can be set to a tone or vibration. Calls generate a caller ID display and emails show the sender and the first few words of the body of the message. The watch seems to completely ignore email subject lines (at least on iOS devices). As there is no way to view more than the notification, subject lines would be a useful thing. With a text message the sender and the first 30 or so characters are displayed, but again, there is no way to scroll to read more of the message. And if you don’t catch the notification when it’s on the main display, getting back to it requires pressing three different buttons a total of six times. Other sport watches handle this much better.
On the whole, the watch does so much more than is outlined in the manual that we wonder if the engineers and the people responsible for communicating to the general public ever speak. And navigating the Ambit3’s customizable options can be daunting. Suunto’s documentation features very little regarding the use of apps, and what little we could find was in the form of Youtube.com instructional videos. Add to that the fact that most of the apps are user generated and things can get messy.
To try the apps out, we loaded one designed to count the number of waves ridden during a surf session. The logic of the app is simple: Every time we moved faster than 12 miles an hour on a wave it would be counted as a surfed wave. It made sense. The problem was that each and every time we got the Ambit3 in the water, the speeds it recorded were completely off. On our first surf the app logged a wave each time we paddled. Not only that, but it said we paddled a mile just getting into the lineup (it was only 75 yards). After about 35 minutes in the water we’d logged 45 waves and reportedly paddled and surfed over 8 miles. Eight miles!
None of this made sense until we got home and analyzed that data on the Movescount.com websites. For some reason the Ambit3 was logging our top speed on a wave as 251 mph. It also claimed that we’d climbed and descended 800 feet during our surf session, even though we were technically at sea-level the entire time.
A call to Suunto’s support number resulted in over five minutes of hold time and then being hung up on. When we called back we were guided through a reset and firmware update. It soon became obvious that we had set the wrong activity on the surf app. We had chosen “windsurfing/surfing,” and for whatever reason, that was logging the speed errors. When we selected “open water swim” the errors disappeared and everything worked perfectly. Sadly, that process took nearly a week of fiddling around. We don’t know many people with that kind of technological tenacity.
The DT Accessory Pack
The Suunto Ambit3 Vertical is an interesting beast. It’s a great-looking action watch that’s comfortable on the wrist and has all the right sensors for planning, recording, and logging athletic pursuits. But the watch is not easy to use. The menus are complex and confusing, the documentation sparse, and getting maximum benefit out of it requires tinkering. And because the watch has so many options, the amount of button pressing can get extremely annoying.
Those who enjoy noodling around with their fitness technology will get hours of entertainment out of the Ambit3 Vertical, while others who simply want to log an activity may find the watch frustrating. At $470, it’s as expensive as it is challenging — but after three weeks of work our efforts were rewarded … and we’ve grown to love the Ambit3 Vertical, quirks and all.