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Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Suunto Spartan Sport WHR

Ever since Gerard Butler emphatically proclaimed “This is Sparta!” in 2006’s 300, Sparta and its adjectival variant have had a special spot in the American vernacular. Finnish sports manufacturer Suunto may have had this in mind when introducing its Spartan series of watches over the past few months. Because Suunto’s initial offering, the Ultra, had been documented as being riddled with bugs and other issues, so it was with great apprehension but greater optimism that I pre-ordered the Sport model. The Sport had a few more months of development and wrist-based heart rate (WHR), so the seemingly more basic model could prove to be more of a performer than its heftier-priced sibling. The trigger was pulled and a week later, the Suunto Spartan Sport WHR (in all black) was delivered to my door.

Suunto is no stranger to me. Since late-2010, when I was preparing for Ironman Texas the following spring, I’ve used their devices to train for and participate in multisport, starting with the t3d, a glorified chronograph that could pair with foot and bike sensors for tracking movement. Through the first three variants of the Ambit series (I loved the original Ambit, but the addition of cadence and swim options in the Ambit 2 wooed me to upgrade, while the introduction of Bluetooth (BLE) sensors and syncing with the Ambit 3 led to yet another), I have stuck with Suunto, preferring their design aesthetics and software interface Movescount to their competitors. It was, indeed, the little things.

Little things, again, led me to SSWHR. For some time, the endless beep alerts from the Ambit 3 (outdated since before Suunto entered the GPS market) had been grating on nerves around the house, so the addition of vibration alerts was certainly a game changer. Add in touch-screen controls (meh) and wrist-based HR, and the SSWHR was geared to be a winner. Despite having WHR through a Scosche Rhythm+ HR strap (the Spartan Sport WHR would utilize the same brand of sensor, demonstrated to be superior to its sundry competitors), having WHR integrated in the watch seemed just too good to pass up.

Getting Going
The Spartan series makes use of a new computer interface in order to sync with Movescount called SuuntoLink. Interfacing requires the use of a new USB interface cable, too. This one seems to connect with greater stability and ease by use of a magnet, instead of the clip style found on the older t-series and Ambit series of watches. The first link charged the SSWHR to 100% and updated the software to its latest version (1.8.26 at the time of this writing).

The SSWHR comes preloaded with several exercise profiles (activities) preloaded, each labeled as Basic. Logging into Movescount allows the removal of exercise modes not needed (I live in south Texas, so the likelihood of me going alpine skiing on a regular basis is pretty slim) and the customization of others. If not being utilized, Basic exercises will need to be removed from what’s called the Short List in order to keep said list short.

It’s been a precious few days that I’ve been sporting the Spartan sport, and a very interesting few days it’s been. At first, there were some issues in just how buckled down the strap needed to be to get a good HR reading (initial trials were beyond uncomfortable and almost painful level; that’s since been resolved), as well as how to engage an interval timer (Ambit watches had an advanced setting in Movescount for setting/adjusting intervals and were activated in a sort of secret screen on the watch; Spartan watches require an interval-specific screen to be added in Movescount, which requires enabling under activity options prior to beginning an activity AND manually engaging the interval timer after the selected activity’s general timer has begun—it’s really quite easy once it’s understood, but the setup is not terribly intuitive, requiring a bit of trial and error), but once things were understood, it was a fairly easy transition to the Spartan. It did make me wonder, though, how patient others might have been, especially given the rather high price point of the Spartan series.

Born to Run
The first “real” activity I got to do with the SSWHR was running, and I’m sort of glad but also sort of not that it worked out this way because, hands down, the SSWHR is the positively BEST running watch I have ever used.

Setting up several screens had been customary for me through various iterations of the Ambit series, so I followed suit with the Spartan. What I found, though, was the screen pictured above was really all I needed—with only one modification: Switching the bottom field from time of day to overall time.

Perhaps what I liked most of all (apart from not having an HR strap attached elsewhere) was the real-time feedback on pacing. Suunto finally got away from having pacing round up or down in 5-second slots, so a 7:42/mi pace displays as 7:42, not as 7:40 or 7:45.

The new column layout for Spartan displays proved superb, with the 5-display field (heart rate, cadence, average pace, current pace, duration) easy to read at a glance, even while running a good clip—and while pushing a double running stroller loaded with two toddlers, too. Heart rate seemed to be on point with previously recorded efforts over the same course with a variety of straps (Suunto SmartSensor, Whaoo TICKR, Scosche Rhythm+), with screen shots of comparisons below.

When my wife and I began dating and running together, the latter required a previously ignored ritual: Stretching. Integrating this few-minute custom prior to and/or after efforts of varying degrees improved not only my physical performance but also my mental performance, during and (long) after the effort.

The routine has changed a bit over the years, mostly adding additional stretches as my body has aged, as well as slightly reducing the length of time each stretch is held. Regardless, a repeating interval timer has been an essential function of whatever watch I use; Suunto has been difficult in agreeing to play nice—but they are getting better.

Where the t6d would repeat (and with a single beep instead of the 10-second series common on most sport watches), the first beep was always inaudible due to the t-series’ design in that the first minute of any activity was spent searching for HR and/or other sensors, requiring either a mental countdown or watching the screen to see the countdown to know when to switch. Those first forty-five seconds were always the worst.

Ambit’s lineup was better but now required all timer setup to be performed within Movescount and then synced to the watch. It wasn’t until the Ambit 3 that this became somewhat better, thanks to BLE syncing; versions 1 & 2 demanded a direct PC connection with the charging clip. Once on the watch, intervals could be accessed after an activity began, so this was a step in the right direction.

Spartan sort of combines both ot these with how it handles intervals. Movescount still dictates whether or not an activity type can include an interval with the addition of an interval screen, with interval type (duration or effort) also configured in Movescount. Once synced, activating the interval is done in two parts: Part 1) Scroll through the Options prior to starting the move, how many the duration of either interval settings, and how many times the interval will be repeated—all of which is reminiscent of how intervals were configured on the  t6d; Part 2) Swipe to the interval screen once the activity is begun to manually begin the actual interval countdown—right away or at any point(s) during the activity. Why a basic function like an interval timer needs to be so complicated to configure and activate (at Wally World it’s, like, three or four button presses on a watch costing one-tenth of the SSWHR) remains a mystery to me. But, I’m no developer.

In the Swim
Thursday would bring day two of activity for a workout in the form of a quick swim at the neighborhood natatorium. It was probably best that the swim was not my first activity session with the SSWHR because, if had it been, it would have been the last.

This is not to say the SSWHR is not a good swim companion—it is. It’s just not as good of a swim companion as is the Ambit 3 Sport.

Because I like to tinker with the display settings in the watches I use, the basic settings for pool swimming were thrown out, and a fairly straightforward pool swim configuration of four fields was thrown in: Time of day, heart rate, lap duration, overall duration. But, when I activated the swim activity, I decided to use the light background instead of the default dark. Unlike the Ambit 3, the light background actually made the screen more difficult to see (through blue-tint Swedish goggles. anyway), so making use of the SSWHR’s display was fairly moot; nothing could be viewed on the fly.

A second swim on Saturday yielded slightly better results with the dark background, though the display is still not as clear to see as is the Ambit’s. However, having real time tracking of heart rate during a swim—without an additional sensor—is really quite nice. So long as the workout is configured properly prior to hopping in the pool, it is quite easy to track the workout through Movescount. How to make the most use of gleaned data is still being contemplated.

Unfortunately, I’ll not have time to head up to the area watering hole to test the open water swim feature for some time. This is a bummer, because I know how great the Ambit 3 Sport is for OWS; I’m hoping the SSWHR is at least half as good.

Before I got into triathlon, I was a diehard cyclist. A roadie, mostly, though I would also toy around on the trails at a local park to work on cadence or just “get away from it all.” As such, when it comes to bike computers, I’m fairly a traditionalist, for datafeed, as well as setup: I think a bike computer should be mounted to the bike. Additionally, I don’t like wearing things on my wrist when I ride—at least on my road bike; TT and MTB are both negotiable.

Through the t- and Ambit-series, I generally did not use them for cycling functionality. For the most part, though, the SSWHR could fix that. Sure, I could get over my preference for keeping things off my wrist whilst riding, but the limitation of a single speed/cadence sensor (and presumably the same with power—were I to have a power meter) is really quite irritating. Pairing a different sensor between my road and TT bikes is really no big deal, and the same could almost be said for a mountain bike, except that the wheel circumference would be different—a change which necessitates a computer connection to Movescount to remedy.

All that said, I genuinely enjoyed using the SSWHR as a cycling computer—if for no other reason than the fact I did not need an additional HR strap or other peripheral on my bike, save that of a speed/cadence sensor. Again, power is not present, though there may be room for that down the road.

The display of the Spartan was clear and easy to read in its “dark” mode at a variety of angles, proving itself superior to the display of the Ambit 3. Tracking via GPS was on-point with previous rides using both the Ambit 3 Sport and a Garmin Edge 520; both used the same Wahoo speed/cadence sensor, since it transmits in both BLE and ANT+ simultaneously.

Screen configurations for the SSWHR are pictured below.

Rowing with It
Weight training with the SSWHR does not really require mentioning here other than to say that it’s nice to go through a routine with nothing more on me than what amounts to a watch—all while gathering HR and set data. One additional indoor activity, though, where the SSWHR promises to surpass its predecessors is indoor rowing.

I came to indoor rowing in early 2011, while prepping for Ironman Texas. While I don’t get to row near as often as I should or as I should like (especially considering the fact that I have an indoor rower in-house), it’s still the best go-to workout when nothing else seems to be able to come together.

Suunto’s SSWHR goes into the indoor rowing game by offering a rowing pace option in its sport configuration, basic and customized. You can bet I’ve added it to a customized screen display.

What I’ve found regarding this pacing feature is that it’s useless. For the timed 500-meter test row (done at well-below threshold pace), the central display was just dashes, and the completed move recorded no distance. Needless to say, I am most disappointed in what could have been a saving grace for the watch.

Closing Comments
Admittedly, WHR was what sealed the deal for me in ordering my SSWHR. I really like how the watch sits on the wrist and reads/operates for daily operation. Not having my wrist beep every time I receive a notification is a nice plus, too. Plus, being able to engage in almost any activity with only the watch and not have to find (let alone put on) a chest strap or other HR-related apparatus is nice beyond almost any means of measurement.

Through the t6d, three versions of the Ambit series of GPS-enabled sports devices, and countless updates to Movescount, I have continued with Suunto and genuinely think they make a superior product. The Finnish-made Spart Sport WHR finds itself superior in many respects. Below, though, are a few thoughts on where the SSWHR and the Movescount interface required to configure it falls short:
  • Interval timers. As mentioned above, a $35 digital watch from the local megamart has a more functional (and easier to configure) interval timer than does the SSWHR. Why the hybrid configuration between the t- and Ambit-series watches was chosen is beyond me, but I would think that as many years and versions it has been since the first Ambit was introduced that the development team at Suunto could get this one thing right.
  • The backlight is too cumbersome to operate. T- and Ambit-series both activated the backlight with a single button press, with the Ambit adding the toggle feature. Since so much of my running (and some outdoor cycling) is done in the dark, a return to a more simple activation would be nice. The current 2-finger activate/deactivate operation is intermittent in operation (depressions must be rather and deliberately precise—not always an option in the midst of an activity) and requires the watch to be “awake” in order to turn on or off, adding an additional step when one might just want to check the time in the middle of the night. Further, the shower at the pool has activated the light on more than one occasion—it just must have the right amount of heat and pressure.
  • Modifying the Basic configurations in Movescount would be nice—especially since there is no way to add a graph to any of the new/customized sports configurations. Sure, this is more of a Movescount feature, but, since Movescount is required to update the watch in the first place, I consider the two inseparable.
  • For God’s sake, build a better bike mount. Suunto’s bike mount solution is just short of insulting: The wrist-to-handlebar adapter harkens back to 2001, when I had my first heartrate monitor. Given the cost of the Spartan and the countless advances made in bike computer technology, my expectation is that a better solution would be available; it’s not. Yes, the SSWHR complicates things with that whole OHR/WHR feature, but, perhaps even a new (Suunto) product that attaches to a bike in a fashion akin to Garmin’s Edge series that can mirror the display of the SSWHR—sort of like how the Movescount app on a smartphone can—is a possibility.
  • Broadcasting HR to BLE receivers, such as computers. My schedule keeps me from riding outdoors much of the time, and indoor bike training solutions such as Zwift have been a godsend. Being able to wear the SSWHR and have it broadcast HR data to my Mac Mini while on Zwift would be nothing short of amazing, making the SSWHR a true, all around training tool. As is, I must resort to either a chest strap or a different OHR, such as Scosche’s Rhythm+. Again, given the rather steep price of the SSWHR—and that its competitors (costing less) do offer broadcasting—it would be worth looking into.
  • Improved customization of alerts. A mix of beeps and vibration alerts would be a very nice touch: Beeps when a button is pressed but only vibration for notification alerts—or only vibration alerts when not in an activity. Or customizing what types of notifications can be received and/or how those notifications are alerted within Movescount.
  • Better battery life is a must. For day-to-day wear and use, the battery life seems pretty good. However, for Ironman or other really long endurance races, the published 12 hours simply isn’t good enough. Sure, I’ve finished 140.6 events in well under 12 hours, but race plans don’t always go to plan and having the bug in the back of one’s mind that their $500 timepiece might crap out on them prior to reaching the finish line does little to calm one’s already stressed nerves.

Optical heart rate is so choice. Sure, there are those who tout that OHR or (when worn on the wrist as in the case of the Spartan Sport WHR) WHR is not as accurate as a chest strap, and they’re probably right. But I am not one of those athletes who is at the caliber of performance where that sort of accuracy is so crucial. I’m willing to bet that the overwhelming majority of users of HR—chest strap and optical—are also not at the level. And even chest straps are not without their problems, be it spikes in performance or outright dying due to dead batteries or other issues. To be honest, HR is not something I monitor so much in real-time, and a good chunk of athletes and coaches likely feel and operate the same. In this respect, then (OHR/WHR), the Spartan Sport WHR is an absolute winner.

That said, I’ve returned the watch to Suunto/Amer for a refund. I’m just not convinced that the $500 plucked down for the Sparton Sport WHR is worth it. Given the above bullet points—and that the rowing pace feature did precisely squat—I could not rationalize keeping the watch. After all, the Ambit 3 Sport did/does nearly everything I’ve wanted in a sports watch, save optical heart rate and vibration alerts. A Scosche Rhythm+ resolves the former, and I can just make-do without the latter until later down the road. Plus, I know the Ambit 3 will make it beyond 12 hours of battery life in race conditions.

While Suunto do appear to have done better than the even pricier Spartan Ultra model (I’ve experienced no issues with syncing, data discrepancies in Movescount, or other maladies plaguing users of the Ultra), my issues with what the SSWHR isn’t in comparison to its older, allegedly inferior cousin the Ambit 3 Sport are just too great to justify such a great expense.

Still, I’ll keep an eye out for sales on the Spartan Sport series down the road. Were it to fall to a price point below that of the Garmin Forerunner 235, I could definitely make a more wholehearted go of it. Until, the Ambit 3 Sport will continue to grace my wrist and help me find my direction in training and in racing.