Suunto Ambit vs. Garmin Fenix – Long-Term Head to Head Results

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.

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5 Responses to Suunto Ambit vs. Garmin Fenix – Long-Term Head to Head Results

  1. Ian Smith says:

    6 months, all that hype, and all we get is that the Ambit has better Heart Rate and Menus but has a scratched face and the Fenix fits his odd shaped wrist better. Not really worth the wait was it.

    • hrwcblog says:

      Yes, the Garmin 910XT would last a good 16 hours at one second recording intervals but it is a bit bigger than your average everyday watch to be sure.

      The Polar RCX5 G5 GPS sensor needs charging about every 15 to 20 hours, so if you want the G5 to run in GPS you still have to charge it, just like the Garmin’s. To me the ultility of the GPS watches and the quality of the maps make the charging a fairly small issue bit I realize that is different for different folks and many share your issue with the charging.

    • hrwcblog says:

      Dear Ian,

      John is still working on it. He is in Russia at the moment.

      Ambit has only 100 way points so it is not as good a navigator for longer trips. fenix has 1,000 way points and over 5,000 track points so it is a better navigator.

      Suunto just updated Ambit to ANT+ which was a super useful addition and continues to stay ahead of Garmin in the firmware update department.

      Also, a lot of the Garmin fenix watches have been leaking with very limited pool exposure, they are supposed to be good to 50 meters, so that has been a disappointment, although Garmin says watches that fix this problem will be in March 1, 2013.

      I still think the Ambit is the far better watch for me personally but Yarington still likes the navigation capabilities of the fenix because he is a back country guy.

      Bottom line is still – it depends upon your vantage point and use requirements.

      Cheers,

      Rusty Squire

  2. You mention that a solar charger can be useful for keeping the battery charged; is it possible to record and charge the battery at the same time on either of these watches? I ask because I’m looking for a replacement for my Suunto X10M and one of the problems I have with it is that if I try to charge it when I’m recording a track, it will abort it.

    • hrwcblog says:

      Dear Stephen,

      Yes, but it would not be real practical as the Suunto Ambit charge cord is a clip and it probably would not stay well seated on the fly. I believe the Ambit has the similar issue you discuss with the X10 but to be certain you could call Suunto at USA +1 855 258 0900 (toll free). I’d be curious to know the answer as it is a question that has never come up.

      —Rusty

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