February 24, 2018
by Ariel Adams
What I want a smartwatch to do when I am hiking or engaged in any manner of outdoor activity is to remind me of information I would otherwise have to calculate in my mind. I also want it to learn my habits and predict what I am going to need. For example, most hikers don’t want to be walking in the dark. Given that sunset times change daily, why can’t a smartwatch know when I am starting my hike, take into consideration when sundown times are, and then notify me when I should turn back to return? It would know this because it understood my current location and time of year, the time it took to reach my location, what time sunset is, my average speed, and approximately how long it will take me to return. Using that data why not “be smart” and remind me when to head back? Being able to rely on such a notification would allow me to relax more because it would be one less thing to worry about while hiking. If a smartwatch can allow me to be more relaxed while I am being active, then it pays for itself in no time.
With Bluetooth connectivity, the Spartan Ultra could be a full-functionality Smartwatch, but Suunto didn’t design it that way. This is a smartwatch for people who can have an experience without notifications about calls, messages, e-mails, or news updates. While notifications from your phone are available, they appear to be turned off by default and I never feel like I was missing anything in the smartwatch experience without knowing about my incoming text messages. The utility in this watch from my experience appears to be best when mostly dedicated to GPS and data sharing with the Suunto Movescount platform and community. It would have been nice for Suunto to do a bit more with the smartwatch functionality, even though I totally agree with their decision not to make this a “notification watch.” For example, I think Suunto could have offered information such as easy to see updated weather as well as local area map graphics using a data connection. The watch does offer information such as sunrise/sunset times, but I think Suunto could increase its use of internet data for future versions of this watch.
Suunto doesn’t publish much about the tech specs of the hardware inside of the watch, and the software appears to be entirely proprietary. That can usually be a good thing since it is easy to maintain high performance within a closed system, but it does prevent you from being able to customize the wearing experience with third-party software. That means if you want to customize the user interface, you are given only a few options that Suunto builds-in, and there is no way to customize the software experience when working out to help you see just the information you want. For example, in standard workout tracking mode, the current time is oddly not on the default home screen. In order to view the time, you need to physically tap the screen with your finger. It would have been great to let the Suunto Movescount community design custom displays (which can be voted on) that help users customize how they make use of the available data and then share it with other product owners.
More good news is that Suunto designed the Spartan Ultra to have an always-on full-color display. I’ve come to learn that I much prefer smartwatches with always-on displays. The always-on display here is not back-lit, unless you activate it by pressing a button. With the back-light on you can read the screen in bright sun. The same goes for when the light is off (for the most part). Though in the dark, you’ll need the back-light to read the screen. I would have liked Suunto to include a system which automatically detects when you lift the watch to your face as a means of automatically activating the back-light. The 320×320 resolution screen is sharp, with a high-quality, attractive software design theme. This is certainly one of the prettier user interfaces to use and I give high marks to Suunto for offering limited, albeit non-ugly interface options.
I haven’t mentioned it until now, but the Suunto Spartan Ultra’s software allows for a touchscreen interface. This is in addition to the three pushers on the side of the case. I welcome this since I feel that while touchscreen functionality is very useful, allowing users not to smear the screen and use pushers for regular tasks on a smartwatch is a very wise decision. Suunto attempts to maintain relative consistency to what the buttons do, but at times it can become unclear how to access the information needed. A lot of the time I end up experimenting on screens by swiping to various sides, making a long finger hold, or pressing all the pushers to see what happens. I’ve discovered some neat functionality that way!
In addition to selecting a particular type of exercise to begin tracking (and then doing so), the Spartan’s software has a few things you can do with it. One function is a stopwatch (pretty normal), as well as tools like viewing the current barometric pressure, altitude, and also access to a digital compass. You can also view a log of your recent workouts (though I believe you need the Movescount app to see the navigational details). Assuming you have a good connection, the navigational as well as sensor-based tools in the Spartan Ultra watch will be useful to people outside of when they are strictly tracking a current workout.
I do take issue with the fact that when the software is currently tracking a workout, accessing various features of the watch isn’t available. That tells me the Spartan Ultra software can’t really multi-task, and that is important for some users to be aware of.
Among the high-end fitness-themed smartwatches I’ve reviewed, the Suunto Spartan Ultra stands up with the best of them. It isn’t a perfect device, but neither are any of its competitor devices. I would say that Suunto’s biggest competitor is Garmin (as well as Apple for that matter), who also specializes in GPS fitness and adventure smartwatches. Neither brand’s products would win in a fight as I see it, but they aren’t the same products. I would suggest that those familiar with Suunto products who want the latest and greatest navigational smartwatch buy one of these. Anyone looking for a feature-rich adventure watch that also doubles as an exercise watch should look into the Spartan Ultra as well. Though, Suunto’s top-level Spartan Ultra will appear to be at a disadvantage to on-board heart-rate monitor-equipped competitors who are also at the high-end of the fitness smartwatch spectrum.
Suunto certainly has room to improve the Spartan collection, which it will ideally do in the future. Given the rapid pace of data-connected gadget technology, I think it is clear that people investing in smartwatches will need to get a new one each 12-24 months in the same way people do with smartphones. If you are the type of person who likes to buy the best of what is available, then the $970 USD Suunto Spartan Ultra is the way to go. You won’t feel like you paid for anything unnecessary, and the premium look and feel will make you less ashamed to don this timepiece should it be on your wrist anytime you are in a more civilized setting. Prices for the Suunto Spartan Ultra watches begin at $749 and go up to $970 ($920 without the heart-rate chest-strap monitor for this Suunto Spartan Ultra Gold – or Copper – Special Edition model). suunto.com
>Model: Spartan Ultra (Spartan Ultra Gold Special Edition HR as tested)
>Price: $970 USD as tested
>Size: 50mm wide, 17mm thick, 73 grams.
>Would reviewer personally wear it: Yes, when wanting to track my outdoor adventures in style.
>Friend we’d recommend it to first: Tech-savvy outdoor exercise enthusiast who wants a reliable and precise GPS fitness smartwatch that won’t annoy him or her with phone notifications.
>Best characteristic of watch: Lightweight, beautiful design is a definite highlight. Confident customers have a world of customization choices. Sapphire crystal and 100m of water resistance make for good durability. Software might be limited, but it is snappy and attractive.
>Worst characteristic of watch: Legacy heart-rate monitor system on top-tier Spartan model will put product at a disadvantage for some. Limited software interface customization. Can’t access many of the watch’s features while it is in exercise tracking mode. Replacement straps will need to be ordered from Suunto. Top-tier Spartan Ultra model only adds cosmetic enhancements over lower-priced versions.