Suunto Spartan Ultra vs Suunto Ambit 3 Vertical Review

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The Suunto Spartan Ultra – one of the most eagerly anticipated GPS watches of all time. Much has been promised and lots is expected. The question is – will this gadget live up to all the hype and is it worth the lofty price tag?

Last month Suunto asked me to trial their flagship product and I was more than happy to oblige. As I’ve only been using the watch for the last 4 weeks, this won’t be an exhaustive review. However, it should provide you with enough information about the Spartan Ultra should you be interested in an upgrade or looking to invest in your first GPS device.

When the watch arrived in the post I was most impressed with the lovely personal touch on the packaging – Suunto had obviously done their homework. I currently own a Suunto Ambit 3 Vertical blue (purchased in May 2016). Previous to this I had a Ambit 2R in black. The difference between these two models is vast so I was interested to see how much better the Ultra is compared to the Ambit 3. I use my watch primarily for running – road, trail, fell and mountain. I use the data in Movescount but I also upload all my activities to Strava as I like to engage with a wider audience and compare my efforts against those of others. Aside from basic use, the main feature I use is navigation, so much of this blog will focus on the accuracy and reliability of the GPS tracker and the ease of uploading and following routes (GPX files).

Ultimately I want to know if the Spartan Ultra is worth the extra money (RRP £599 compared to RRP £325) and how much better it is (if at all) than the popular Ambit 3.

Pictured above: (L) The Suunto Spartan Ultra and (R) The Suunto Ambit 3 Vertical Blue

Suunto’s comparison of both watches can be found here

1. FIRST IMPRESSIONS

I love my bright blue Ambit 3 Vertical but the all black Spartan Ultra is seriously nice. It’s lighter than I expected and the silicone wrist strap, like the Ambit 3, is soft, strong and very durable (this was already an improvement from the Ambit 2). The obvious difference between the two devices is the higher resolution, colour touch screen of the Spartan – a HUGE advancement in technology. The watch face is bigger than the Ambit and it’s much clearer to read and navigate through the menu. I was worried that the touch screen technology might not work that well in the outdoors, especially wet weather. However, I was surprised at how well it still operated with moisture on the screen (although when completely immersed in water you simply have to rely on the buttons to navigate the menu). The screen is also made from sapphire crystal which means it won’t scratch like the Ambit and I don’t have to worry about buying a screen protector. The bezel is made from titanium rather than steel, a more durable and superior material. Another big improvement on previous generations is the magnetic charger.

2. KEY FEATURES

Connectivity: Both watches use a bluetooth connection and I use the Suunto moves app to download my routes. I know some people would prefer a Wifi connection (like the Fenix 3) but I’ve experienced no problems with bluetooth and my runs are always downloaded and synced to Strava within minutes of finishing exercise.

GPS: The key thing for me is the quality of the GPS. The Spartan is quicker at receiving a signal (instant). Both watches have accurate GPS during exercise and I use the fastest recording rate on both which obviously impacts on the battery life. However, given that I never usually train/race above 3 hours, this is never an issue. The battery life of the Spartan is just slightly better than the Ambit – 15 hours rather than 14 in time mode.

Interface: Suunto have completely re-designed the user interface from the Ambit. The good news is it didn’t take me long to navigate the menu and it’s really clear and easy to use. There is also the ability to customise the watch face. A small improvement but one I really like.

Logbook: The Spartan Ultra gives a more complete summary of your training status on the watch. The colour screen enables much richer displays in general and more data on screen. All essential training concepts including pace, splits, rest and recovery are more clearly presented than on the Ambit.

Step and calorie count: This is a new feature on the Spartan and I have to say it’s VERY addictive. It gives you a preset target of completing 10,000 steps every day, although unfortunately this target cannot be changed manually. I’m not afraid to admit that I find myself regularly checking it throughout the day – eager to find out how many steps I’ve done. Prior to using the Spartan I was genuinely considering purchasing an activity tracker, so for me this is a key feature. There is also a calorie count, but the only thing this does is encourage me to eat more!

IMG_1026 2.JPGPictured above: The step count in action. The daily target of 10,000 steps is the blue line, which you can see has been achieved in this photo.

HR monitor: Both watches use the same chest strap, with monitor, to record heart rate. There isn’t an integrated optical heart rate monitor built into the watch, as I’m sure many people were expecting. To be honest it’s not something I’m too disappointed with. The HR strap was improved after the Ambit 2 – it’s comfortable to wear and gives an accurate recording during exercise.

Additional features: Suunto have promised many upgrades to the Spartan Ultra. ‘Coming soon’ seems to be the message, so expect some new features and software updates in the near future. See the specification for more details. I should also mention that I’ve not experienced the software problems that many other Spartan owners seem to have had. Perhaps it’s because I only use mine for mountain, trail and basic running – many of the negative reviews I’ve read are from athletes using it for other sports like swimming.

3. NAVIGATION

Navigation is another key feature for me so a ‘proper fell run’ was needed for a true test. I chose the new Castle Carr inaugural race route. Prior to this test I’d never done the race, I’d no idea of the route and without a map or guidance from a watch I would inevitably get lost. Thankfully the navigation feature, on both the Ambit 3 and Spartan Ultra, allows you to download or create a route and then follow it on the screen whilst running…

14206059_279436152440579_743139688365304502_oPictured above: (Old vs new) Gav Nav vs the Spartan Ultra on the Castle Carr race route

I needed this feature to be simple. I don’t do instructions, I’ve better things to do with my time than read through a booklet when I can just fiddle around, press a few buttons and hopefully get a gizmo to work. I wanted to see how easy it was to upload a route to my watch and just follow it. So I found the Castle Carr race route on (Race organiser) Bill Johnson’s previous Strava activities. I downloaded the GPS file to my computer, uploaded it to Suunto Moves and then synced my watch (i.e. plugged it in to my computer). 1st job done in about 1 minute! No instructions, no messing, easy to work out – route now saved and ready to use. This process is the same on both devices.

14138646_279437039107157_8625262177785166540_o.jpgPictured above: Using the navigation feature on the Spartan Ultra. The blue line is the route I’m following and the white ‘bread crumb’ line is the actual line I’ve taken.

suunto-ambit3-vertical-blue-hr_664_2_8_1393Pictured above: Using the navigation feature on the Ambit 3 Vertical. I’ve used this during races and in training and it’s a good visual aid. However, the screen is smaller and harder to use when navigating at pace.

I opened the route on my watch screen and use the navigation feature so I could find my way. A few menu choices and button presses later and, as if by Harry Potter magic, I had the route up on my display. The display is also bigger than my Ambit 3, and because it’s also touch screen and in colour, then it’s clearer to see. It shows a white trail, where you’ve been and where you are, compared to the blue line which is where you should be going.

Although both watches have the navigation feature, the ease of use and clarity of the large colour screen (when navigating at pace) is far better on the Spartan Ultra than the Ambit 3.

Video above: Once a route has been saved, uploaded to Suuntomoves and synced to the watch, it’s really easy to open and use the navigation function.

4. SUGGESTED IMPROVEMENTS

  1. Personally I really like the information that the Ambit 3 vertical provides about ascent gained. As a mountain runner I like to know how much climbing I’ve done during the week. Unfortunately the Spartan Ultra doesn’t display this information on the watch.
  2. The ability to customise screens for the chosen activity.
  3. The step count resets every day and it’s not possible to view your weekly total. (n.b. this feature has now been included since this blog was published – Dec. 2016)

5. THE VERDICT

Based on my comparison it’s clear to see that the Spartan Ultra is a better watch than the Ambit 3 – but so it should be for the price. How much better depends on what you need it for, how you use it and how often you use it. The Ambit 3 Vertical is a fantastic watch. If you already own one and it ticks all the boxes for you, then I wouldn’t say you have to rush to get an upgrade just yet. Also if you are new to exercise and are just looking to purchase a watch that tracks your GPS during exercise, then there are much cheaper alternatives serving that sole purpose.

The Spartan Ultra is a watch for the serious athlete. It’s also a gadget that would appeal to tech geeks and those who spend hours poring over training data. It looks good and feels good – far more robust than its predecessors. I love my Ambit 3 but admittedly I’d find it very hard to go back to using it now I’ve experienced the Spartan Ultra. In my opinion it’s a watch that could potentially be the difference between winning or losing a race, when precious seconds count. For me, navigation in races is vital. I would genuinely purchase the Spartan just because of the improvements of the navigation feature and the large, colour touch screen. I think it’s worth spending a bit more money to have some extra confidence in a race. That said I don’t think it should ever be solely relied upon for navigation – I use it as a back up for confidence or when I’m really really lost on the hills. Which to be honest is almost every fell race that I do!

So there you have it – my simple review of the Suunto Spartan Ultra. If you can afford one and it meets your requirements, then this could well be the watch you’ve been waiting for. Plus it looks damn good on your wrist!

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Italian adventures (Part 2)

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I’m sitting on the hotel terrace enjoying one last drink with friends before the transfer picks us up for the airport. It’s always a sad moment when something so good has to come to an end. I’ve enjoyed the most amazing holiday. It’s usually at this point where I dread having to fly home and go back to reality. This time however is very different. I have to keep reminding myself that my Italian adventure is far from over. I’ve another two weeks to enjoy in my favourite country. It’s the longest I’ve ever been away from home and I’m in danger of getting seriously used to this kind of lifestyle.

IMG_0480Pictured above: A view of Collina from the top of the valley, on the climb to Rifugi Lambertenghi

The next part of my journey takes me to Collina, a tiny village nestled high in the Carnic Alps and only a couple of miles from the Austrian border. I’ve been chosen to be part of a three-man Great Britain team that will contest the prestigious mountain relay, *Tre-Rifugi. I’m on leg 2, which climbs the infamous Sentiero Spinotti, by far the most dangerous section of the race but equally the most exciting. I’ll start at 2000m and climb another 397m over 3.8km from one rifugio to another. I’ll also have to wear a helmet because the route is so exposed and the danger of falling rock (or falling mountain runner!) is exceptionally high. I’m excited. A strange way to get my kicks you might think, but it’s these kind of experiences that I live for.

*It’s also worth mentioning that anyone can enter a team into Tre-Rifugi – you just need 3 (slightly crazy) mountain runners!

This video on Youtube shows footage from leg 2 (2014).

Pictured above: (L) Climbing Sentiero Spinotti and (R) Annie Conway approaching the foot of the climb (both photos from a route recce the day before).

Pictured above: My inov-8 GB racing helmet.

Joining me in the team is Max Nicholls, one of our country’s finest young talents and a good friend of mine. We ran together in the World Mountain Running Championships last year and this is his first year as a senior international athlete. Such is his climbing prowess that he’s already made the senior Great Britain team at this year’s event and he’s the perfect choice for leg one (uphill only with 4.5km and 739m of climb). Callum Tinnion (recommended by Ricky Lightfoot), is on anchor and has the task of throwing himself down a 871m descent in 4.7km to the finish.

“I DON’T HAVE TIME IN MY LIFE FOR REGRETS OR MISSED OPPORTUNITIES

The GB women’s team is also a serious contender for the win. World Long Distance Mountain Running champion, Annie Conway, is on leg 1, Georgia Tindley on leg 2 and finally Charlotte Morgan on leg 3. In addition, Ruaridh Mon-Williams and Euan Nicholls (brother of Max) are running as part of a GB junior team and hoping to impress on legs 1 and 2 respectively.

IMG_0484Pictured above: The mountains are calling…

We arrive late on the Friday night after a long day of travelling. We’re staying with my friend and race organiser Tony Tamussin, along with Anne Buckley (team organiser) and Triss Kenny. Tony’s wife, Maria, is waiting for us at the airport and has just driven 2.5 hours from Collina to Venice to pick us up. It tells you everything you need to know about the Tamussins. Tony is such a great guy, an absolute legend in my eyes and I’m very grateful for his family’s generous hospitality.

It’s worth the long journey because Saturday is a brilliant start to my Tre-Refugi experience. We recce the route as a team and I get my first look at what I’m about to face. Tony, had previously warned me about the severity of the climb but his description didn’t do it justice. It’s a crazy but exhilarating leg, I love it. These kind of experiences, to race on a route like this and in a beautiful place like Collina, don’t come around very often. I don’t have time in my life for regrets or missed opportunities. I’m going to enjoy this race and savour every single moment.

Video: Climbing Sentiero Spinotti on the route recce

IMG_20160820_125620Pictured above: With Annie Conway & Georgia Tindley after we’d climbed Sentiero Spinotti

Race day finally arrives and it’s a bizarre feeling having to climb 739m just to get to the start of my leg. I’m classing this as my warm up and even though I’m only walking, this activity is definitely going on Strava. I’m not climbing this high just to waste all the ascent I’ve just gained – I don’t care what Phil Winskill says!

22_Il_Lago_VolaiaPictured above: Lago Volaia with the Austrian rifigio (Wolayerseehutte) 

When we finally reach Rifugio Lambertenghi, I’m greeted with the most wonderful panoramic views. There’s a small lake (Lago Volaia) at the summit and to the left of it is another rifugio – Wolayerseehutte. Oddly enough this one is in Austria! Crazy to think that if I walk about 100 steps I’ll cross the border. I decide to stay in Italy as I don’t feel comfortable about being in a different country with less than 30 minutes to go before the start of my leg – it just wouldn’t feel right!

“IT’S A GOOD JOB I AM RACING BECAUSE I HAVEN’T GOT TIME TO THINK ABOUT HOW CRAZY THIS CLIMB IS”

As I warm up I spot none other than mountain running god, Marco De Gasperi. Oh jeez! I’m going to need more than my pre-race shot of espresso to keep him in sight. He has the very impressive record on this leg and he’s favourite to take the spoils today.

It’s a nervous wait until we’re greeted by the first glimpse of a runner. It’s Antonino Toninelli. No surprise – he’s a class act. To be honest I feel sorry for his teammate on leg 2 – he’s going to have Marco chasing him down and the guy’s an animal on this kind of climb. Rather him than me! Sure enough, a few moments later the legend himself sets off in hot pursuit when Xavier Chevrier comes home in second place. Max is in 7th and he’s had a great leg. I’m pleased that we’re in the mix for a top 10 finish and I’m more than happy to be chasing rather than being chased.

Tre Refugi_BenPictured above: The start of leg 2 with Rifugio Lambertenghi in the distance

I’m off! Straight into full race pace as the start of the leg to the foot of Spinotti is a super-fast descent. It’s also extremely rough and very technical. I’m playing catch-up but I know I can’t go too quick or I’ll risk blowing a gasket before the climb even begins. I know what’s coming and I have to hit this ascent with fresh legs or it’s game over.

I’ve paced it well. It seems I’ve also managed to claw back some precious seconds as Roman Skalsky of Czechoslovakia comes into full view. He’s firmly in my sights as I begin to climb…..and climb…..and climb. Wow! This is seriously steep! Now, you may have looked at the picture above and sniggered at the fact that I’m wearing a helmet. Well, right now I’m not laughing because a few falling rocks have just missed my head. Unfortunately they hit me on my back and I’m immediately reminded of how dangerous this race really is. Maybe I should’ve worn a suit of armour!?! I’m feeling a little under-dressed right now. A few more loose rocks fall and strike my arm as I reach out to pull myself up on the metal chains. I’m on a via ferrata. Worse than that I’m RACING on a via ferrata!… Holy S**t! It’s actually a good job I am racing because I haven’t got time to think about how crazy this climb is. The only thing I’m thinking about right now is trying to catch Roman. I take a few risks by climbing straight up the rock face rather than following the faint zig-zagged path. I’m digging my nails into the rock, spreading my weight and using every single lug on both x-talons for grip. This is completely mental. This is VERY dangerous. This is absolutely brilliant!

IMG_5628Pictured above: Sentiero Spinotti. You can see the approach from the left and a faint path up the face of the climb.

I’m exhausted when I finally reached the top. I’m not sure if it’s the altitude or the fact that I’m working on my absolute limit. Probably a combination of the two I think. My legs feel like lead and I’m drawing breath like I’ve been underwater for hours. I’m not holding anything back that’s for sure. There’s no smiling for the cameras and no time for conversation with the small group of spectators that have gathered at the top. The only thing on my mind is 6th place, and I still have some serious work to do. I don’t feel like I’m making much time on the climb but as soon as we hit a technical, rocky descent, I’m back in my element. I’ve always been able to descend well at pace and right now I’m putting this skill to good use. I manage to catch Roman on one of the more runnable sections and I make my move immediately. I jump in front and attack like a Tour De France cyclist in the Alps. I want to put as much time as possible between us so that I’m not having to battle with him all the way to the finish. It’s working. Suddenly there’s clear daylight between us and I’ve only one climb left before the final descent.

“IT TAKES ME ABOUT TEN MINUTES TO COME ROUND BEFORE I FEEL VAGUELY HUMAN AGAIN”

It’s not much of a climb but this feels seriously tough. I’m blaming the altitude again. Either that or the fact I’m fresh from a 2 week all-inclusive holiday and right now I’m regretting every single slice of pizza that’s passed my lips. It’s one of those races where I’ve not taken my foot off the gas since the start and I’m in a world of pain. I can’t tell you how relieved I am when the gradient begins to point down and I can finally see the finish.

Pictured above: The agonising sprint to the finish and the 2nd changeover.

It’s deceiving how far away the finish is. It looks within my reach but I feel like I’m in a bad dream where I’m running on the spot and I can’t go any faster. Just another few metres to go…..come on….keep going….nearly there….YES!!!! Thank god for that! Callum is off and I collapse on the floor. My work is done. I’ve gained a place and we’re up to 6th with a decent lead over the Czechs.

It takes me about ten minutes to come round before I feel vaguely human again. The hot, sugary, lemon tea that’s being served in the Rifugio Marinelli is working its magic. I’m drinking the stuff like it’s Aperol Spritz and at this rate there’ll be none left in 10 minutes. They need to have this stuff after races in the UK – this is liquid gold!

As we walk back down to the finish, news filters back that Callum has comfortably held onto 6th place, the women have finished 2nd and the juniors have won! Plenty to celebrate at the presentation – I can’t wait for that first beer.

Video above: Ruaridh busting some serious moves on the dancefloor…completely sober.

Pictured above: Partying hard in Gino’s bar (Marco still wearing his helmet from leg 2!)

The après-run celebrations do not disappoint. It’s always great to spend time with the team, Tony (absolute legend!), his family and the other italian athletes like Luca Cagnati and Marco De Gasperi etc. All I can say is thank god I didn’t have to race up Sentiero Spinotti on Monday morning.

I’m blaming the altitude for my monster hangover 😉

 

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