by John Yarington
The other day a friend asked me what kind of helmet her 8 year-old boy should get for skateboarding. I told her any helmet is great, but what really matters is if it’s on your head or in your backpack. A helmet you don’t like or doesn’t fit goes in the pack. This review isn’t about skateboarding or helmets, but it turns out the same is true of GPS watches!
The Suunto Ambit and the Garmin Fenix are the industries top of the line GPS enabled watches geared toward the outdoor adventurer/athlete. I’ve had the opportunity to extensively test both watches alone and head to head during the last 6 months. I’ve run them through the grinder during activities including a 17 day backpacking trip through the Sierras, 10 hour ski days in Montana’s Beartooth mountains, after work mountain bike rides and rugged, abusive day-to-day use on my carpenter wrist.
ABOUT THE REVIEWS
First, a few words about me and my reviews. I’m kind of a closet data geek, I love looking down at my watch and seeing how many vertical feet I’ve climbed during a ski day or what my heart rate is during a big mountain bike climb. But first and foremost I’m a mountain athlete who loves to listen to the sound of my breath outside with my friends. These reviews are not intended to be super scientific or data-geek oriented, they are more my impressions of what I like and dislike after hours of use in the real adventure world.
THE JACKHAMMER TEST
If I’m going to buy a watch that costs $400+ I expect it to be rugged and durable. Both the Ambit and the Fenix are winners in this category. They both are super well made and have a tough feel on my wrist, no cheap or easily breakable parts. One of the most impressive durability tests I preformed was an inadvertent one on the Fenix. I spent a day jack-hammering concrete and at the end of the day realized that I had forgotten to take my Fenix off after my morning run. No problem, and I believe the Ambit would have survived this test as well. In fact, I’d say the Ambit is the winner in the rugged build category, however that being said, it’s the Ambit that has a scratched crystal face after months of testing.
BATTERY LIFE – A COOL SOLUTION I FOUND
Both the Suunto Ambit and the Fenix have a claimed battery life of around 50 hours. However, this can be a bit misleading. If you are using your GPS watch as a day-to-day watch, which I like to do, you’ll find you can wear it for more than a week of daily use and daily short work outs before it needs a charge. If your using your watch for super long trips or ultra endurance events and you want the accuracy of 1 second GPS recording (which is the only way to get super-accurate speed and location data) you’ll find battery life is more in the range of 12-15 hours. The battery life issue I’ve found can be solved with a portable/lightweight solar charger like the Goal Zero Guide 10 battery, which can recharge your watch’s battery through the USB charger. Pretty awesome!
Editor’s note: Those interested in a superb solar re-charge kit for multi-day adventures should look at the Goal Zero Guide 10 Plus Mobile Kit
GPS TECHNOLOGY & HEART RATE DATA COMPARISON
Both the Fenix and the Ambit (when using 1 second GPS recording) are super-accurate. In side-by-side comparisons, they are almost always within a few percentage points of each other with respect to speed distance and location. They both can find a GPS signal quickly as well. Let’s face it, the GPS technology at this level is great. Both watches have basic navigation features and can pinpoint your location anywhere in the world to within about 10 feet (this still blows me away!) but if you are looking for navigation beyond the basics you are better off with a larger screened, hand held device. I’ve found the heart rate information that these watches provide to be accurate and reliable as well. However, I’ve had issues with high spike readings using the Garmin Ant+ heart rate strap. I can usually solve this problem with a little gel or saliva, but still it’s a little annoying. Thumbs up to the Ambit on the heart rate measurement front!
EASE OF PROGRAMMING & SOFTWARE USE
The Ambit and Fenix are highly customizable. You can choose from a huge array of data on both watches. Sometimes it’s a bit overwhelming how much information is at your fingertips, and you might need to remind yourself to pay attention to the beautiful world you are living in! The Ambit uses the Movescount website to customize the watch and view all its data as well. The Fenix information can be downloaded to the Garmin Connect website, the Garmin BaseCamp website and Garmin Adventures website while customization is done on the watch itself. While the level of customization possible is impressive on both watches, I’ve found the Suunto Ambit to be more intuitive to use and program. In fact, after a few month of use, I’m still learning how to work my way through the Garmin Fenix menus.
WHY ITS ALL IN THE FIT
OK, before I hit 1,000 words let’s get back to skateboarding helmets! Which watch will go on my wrist and which one stays in the pack? From the get-go I found the Garmin Fenix fit my wrist and felt like a watch rather than a super-computer on the end of my arm. As much as I love the Ambit (especially how intuitive and easy it is to use) I found that it never really fit my admittedly oddly shaped wrist and I never really felt comfortable wearing it. Like a lot of choices, it came down to “just what feels right to me”.
Both these watches are truly amazing and I’m constantly blown by what they can do, and how much fun they are to wear. Now you need to decide which one feels right to YOU!
Rusty’s Note – What I really love about John’s reviews is that he always surprises you and, his reviews are so honest and so from a users perspective, he doesn’t get so caught up in techno-babble like every other reviewer. Real people prefer real-speak to techno-babble. Great job, John, as always! WE don’t ever change much other than some topical headlines to keep his thoughts as pure as we can. Bet nobody else has ever run a Garmin fenix all day on a jackhammer.