Suunto Spartan Ultra review

Introduction

Suunto Spartan Ultra is a very strange watch. It’s one of the watch that was destroyed in the reviews and tests just after release in June 2016. And there were good reasons for it! Although the watch design and look was really great, the firmware was lacking most basic features like e.g. data field customization or possibility to set up an alarm. On top of that the GPS accuracy was terrible. Back then for me, and for many others, the watch was dead! But Suunto is doing their best to bring back the Spartan to life. After almost a year the situation is much better but still many things are missing. Is it worth now to buy a Suunto Spartan Ultra? Can it be a good replacement for e.g. Ambit 3? How does it compete against Garmin (Fenix 3, Fenix 5, Forerunner 920XT or the newest Forerunner 935) or Polar (V800) competitors? Or even Suunto’s own Ambit 3 Peak? Let’s find out!

Just to clarify. My review is based against the latest Spartan firmware – 1.8.26. I wasn’t impacted by the early days missing features.

About the watch

I have to be honest with you. I love the design of the Spartan Ultra. Everything: the metallic bezel, sapphire glass and very soft and solid strap. It looks and feels great on the wrist. The display is also so much better and crispier than any other watch I’ve seen (except Android Wear watches or Apple Watch – but that’s different category, 1 day battery life category…). It has much higher resolution (320×300, in contrary the Fenix 5 or Fenix 5x resolution is 240×240). I don’t know how many colors it can display but it looks kinda similar to Fenix 5 range and way better than e.g. Fenix 3. To summarize: the design and feel is great!

 

But the software is laggy. After some time consuming actions we need to wait few seconds. What are time consuming actions? E.g. finishing the activity or… setting the alarm clock:). There are definitely some improvements needed here. Sometimes the screen went black (no loading indication) and we just need to wait in hope that something will eventually happen.

It is bulky though. I have a quite big wrist so it fits me perfectly but people with smaller wrists be aware and try it first in real life.

The watch has got 3 physical buttons and a touch screen. For pure training purpose I don’t see any added value of the touch screen. And with gloves and during rain it is kinda problematic. It is good for day to day use but still I prefer buttons. It may be a great addition for the developers to have the touch screen input if Suunto would introduce a similar to Connect IQ apps platform. But it isn’t. We get what’s in the software and it couldn’t be extended.

And about the buttons. The watch interface almost entirely can be operated by those 3. Up for swiping the screen up, down in the opposite direction and middle to confirm. Additionally the middle button long press is the back gesture. And that’s it. The only thing that I’ve found cannot be done with the button is to enable/disable the backlight when the toggle mode is enabled. To enable the backlight a double tab gesture is needed. But first we need to wake up the watch if it’s in the standby mode. So to check the time during the night we need to first press any button and then tap the screen with 2 fingers – it was driving me crazy. Also the need to long press the middle button to go back from the menu after some time is annoying – especially if we’re in a hurry. So in my opinion a back button and backlight toggle button would be much better solution. Just like in the ambit series.

There are no apps. End of story. In my review of Ambit 3 Peak I’ve introduced the Suunto app platform. It’s nothing compared to ConnectIQ but at least there was some possibilities to extend the watch functionalities. Here Suunto has abandoned this idea and didn’t developed anything new. Even cheaper Garmin watches have got extension possibilities (like Vivoactive) or your old watches. Shame on you Suunto.

The watch support notification from the mobile phone. They are fairly simple. We cannot e.g. view email content just some start text. And if we got 2 notifications like 2 messages on Whats App we cannot read it’s content- there is just a info that there are 2 notifications. Pretty useless in my opinion.

And lastly let’s talk about money. Oh my god. Right now on Amazon it ranges from about 499€ to 800€ – depends from the version. It’s hard for me to justify such price with almost no additional value of the watch over the Ambit 3 Peak. The only difference that matters in my opinion is the screen, vibration alert and nice design. There is nothing in the software that could convince me to spend such money on this watch.

Also what’s important. The watch bands are changeable but there are no leather or metal option like for e.g. Fenix 3/5.

Watch settings

Below the possible settings of the watch. As you can see it’s fairly basic and straightforward:

We can configure the clock, alarms, edit personal data, change language, set the activity tracker goal and change the watch faces from build in examples.

Sports modes

The watch supports up to 80 sports profiles + the variations. The build in profiles are:

Additionally we also have the sport profiles configured in the Movescout. The above are build in into the watch and can be used any time.

Activity tracker

The watch counts steps and burned calories. Additionally the activity totals (distance, duration) and heart rate zones are presented. Additionally the data from last 30 days is available in the Movescout platform since the update 1.8.26. And basically that’s it. There are no floors counting or sleep tracking. Also no badges like in Fitbit. It’s a very simple activity tracker. What’s also important. After the watch restart or firmware update the data activity tracker data on the watch is wiped out. Just like on Ambit 3 which for me was a big shame.

I get that the Suunto’s watches are performance and training first devices. The casual things like activity tracking is only a addition but I think if you want to do something just do it right.

Movescout

I’ve described the Movescout platform in my Ambit 3 Peak review so I will not gonna review it again here but just focus on the new things and section related to Spartan.

The Spartan settings are basically the same as for Ambit’s. The only difference that I saw is the sport mode configuration.

From new things added with the newest release I noticed the last 30 and last 7 days view that contains the activity data of our training.

What’s also new is the personal bests site:

And that’s basically it. As always we can view the moves, view the heatmaps, generate movie from our move, see the activity feed. Create training plan and sync it with the watch (limited functionality in my opinion, more below). More about that in my Ambit 3 Review.

Running

Out of the box we got 5 training modes:

  • Track- for tracking indoor/outoor runs without GPS with the foot pod.
  • Basic- outdoor with heart rate.
  • Power- to use with the Stryd power meter.
  • Interval- with special display for the intervals.
  • Race- stores activity as race for further comparison.

The above modes are build in an cannot be editable. Additionally we can add manual sport modes. The only difference with the custom mode is the fact that the graphs cannot be added. Custom modes can be used for intervals when the interval screen is added.

And what possibilities we have for customizing the data fields? We can add up to 3 screens. Each screen can have 3,4,5 or 7 data fields. Additionally we can choose 2 types of column fields (2 or 3 columns) that are perfect to show the laps as a list. The last 2 types of screens are the intervals – with 7 or 3 data fields. That’s how it looks like:

Every time if the GPS is enabled the last data screen that cannot be otherwise disabled is the navigation screen with the breadcrumbs.

The available data fields are:

Additionally we have the following data fields configurations available:

For every activity we can also configure the below settings.

I have to say I really like the 7 data fields screen. Personally it provides all the data I need during my training. On other watches I sometimes need to switch the data fields and here I got everything I need. Also I really liked the column screen that are showing the laps. Those fields could be configured so possible configuration is to show lap number and lap average pace and average heart rate.

Before starting the training we have a few options:

Once we start the activity we can switch the screen by swiping left right. To pause activity we need to press the up button, to mark lap the down button.

That’s how the data screens looks on the watch (both with white and black background):

After pause we can resume or stop the activity. After stopping we can see the summary:

The activity can be afterwards reviewed in the Logbook:

From the activity or just before we can enable navigation. As default we have the bread crumbs view. Additionally we can start the navigation to POI or follow a route:   

For the POI navigation we have the compass like view. For following a route we have just a simple breadcrumb view in a given scale. There is a off route alerts but without distance left metric like on Garmin navigation.

Recently Suunto introduced the Interval support. Intervals can be configured for the build in activities and custom activities with interval screen enabled. They can be only created on the watch itself and enabled any time during the activity:

Intervals can be created by distance or time + warm up and recovery. There are no intervals by pace, speed, power or heart rate. That’s a shame in my opinion. But in general the interval creator and the interval screens are working very good.

There is a support for training plans. But as a training Suunto understand a set of instructions to follow. The training plans are not integrated with the interval training functionality. So once we generate or take an existing training plan from the Movescout it’s synchronized with the watch but the only thing we can do is to view the steps in the training calendar:

Spartan is the top model from Suunto so I am expecting much more from the training calendar function. Both Garmin and Polar allow to create a training plan or single training that can be synced to the watch calendar and then followed with live instructions. The Sunnto implementation is useless in my opinion since instead of it I could just read the instructions on my smartphone or print them on paper:).

The watch uses the FusedSpeed for pace calculation. It means that the pace will be smoothed with the wrist movement. And it worked very well. Just like with the Ambit 3.

For running we can also use the foot pod. We cannot however, like on e.g. Fenix 3, manually the calibration factor or set the pace/distance source. Ideally I would like to have the possibility to manually set the calibration factor calculated from known distance and set the pace from foot pod. It’s sadly not possible here. Although I’ve read that with Stryd as a foot pod the Spartan is taking the distance from the pod, not the GPS. I haven’t confirmed if that’s the case with other pods like the Polar Stride Sensor or Adidas speed_cell.

For indoor running we can use the build in accelerometer or the foot pod. With every run with GPS the watch calibrates the accelerometer and the foot pod so theoretically after some time the measurements should be pretty accurate. I’ve compared the watch with treadmill and basically against my treadmill the results with a steady pace were repeatable:

  • With calibrated foot pod the distance was about 50m less on 1km.
  • With calibrated accelerometer the distance was about 50m more on 1km.

That’s for steady pace. With intervals, pace changes the distance was even more off and here the foot pod really shines. So sure the watch itself can be used on treadmill but if we want accurate, stable pace we need to use the foot pod.

In general I was pretty happy with the watch for running. I love the 7 data fields screen. The pace is stable, the distance is pretty accurate, the altimeter as well. And there is navigation support.

Swimming

I wasn’t able to do any open water swim session. So I cannot judge that. I’ve done several swim sessions and both the heart rate and distance calculation was working fine for me. And since the firmware 1.7.30 the pool length can be changed so one of the biggest flaws was solved. What’s also important, the touch screen can be disabled for certain sports but I didn’t found that option for swimming.

The watch calculates the stroke rate and SWOLF. The pool count was calculated correctly in my case (actually only 1 watch until now has problems with that – TomTom Multi Sport). Automatic intervals are also working great. Sadly the swimming style detection and automatic swim style learning that was present in Ambit 3 is not here. So here there’s definitely a downgrade.

Biking

I’m not a big bike freak but either way I’ve done few rides. My TomTom Speed&Cadence sensor was compatible. The wheel size need’s to entered manually. Afterwards everything was working as expected for me. The heart rate sensor, speed & cadence sensor. Also the navigation feature was a big help for me. But as mentioned below – not as helpful like e.g. on Forerunne 920XT. I’m not a big bike enthusiast and because of that I’m not a demanding user. Everything that I wanted for biking I’ve found more or less in the Spartan Ultra.

Navigation

One of the biggest advantage of the Suunto watches are it’s navigation features. And the fact is that the navigation works here as expected. We can navigate to a POI or altitude. There the watch shows us the a compass and with direction and the distance we need to travel. We can also navigate with a route. Then we have a standard view with breadcrumbs. And here I have a small problem with it since it’s really basic. We only have the breadcrumbs with no additional info like how far are we from the route, or how long is it left until the end of the track. Those are features I loved in the 920XT navigation and here they are missing. They are useful especially for biking. With a tap we can switch between 2 scales of the map.

So we can save the POI, navigate to it. Navigate with route and breadcrumbs. We can also navigate to altitude and sadly I wasn’t able to test this feature.

The navigation feature is in my opinion comparable to the one that was available in the Ambit 3. It’s good but it’s nothing compared to the full mapping support of the Fenix 5X or Epix. For such expensive device I feel that such feature should be implemented.

Sensor support

I didn’t have any problems with the sensors that were connected with the watch. With the firmware that I was using (1.8.26) I didn’t noticed any drops of the heart rate sensor or foot pod.

The devices I’ve successfully tested (besides the Suunto Heart Rate Strap):

  • Polar H7.
  • Polar Stride Sensor.
  • MilestonePod.
  • CooSpo H6.
  • TomTom Bike Speed & Cadence sensor.
  • Adidas Bluetooth speed_cell.

All of those were working without any problems so everything ok here.

The only problematic thing with the sensor support is the fact that at given time we can have only 1 type of sensor paired. For me it was problematic since I have a bunch of them and then before a run I needed to repair it. Also we don’t actually see which sensor we have connected to (like on Polar V800). Minor thing for most of users but I needed to mention it.

GPS Accuracy

I did many runs with the Spartan Ultra together with the Polar V800. After almost 2 years of usage with many other watches I have the feeling that V800 is my best watch when it comes to GPS accuracy and precision of drawing the GPS track.

I’ve done many runs with those 2 together and the results for the Spartan Ultra are average (sometimes good). The distance is almost always underestimated. The GPS track is often crooked on straight lines. Especially with some tree cover or buildings.

What was really strange. The best accuracy was measured in heavy rain and clouded sky. That may be a coincidence but I think it’s worth mentioning. But it’s a accuracy of GPS watch compared to another GPS watch. Where in case of Polar V800 the repeatability of reading compared to my km marks on my known route is incredible.

And just to clarify. I was running with the best GPS settings without Glonass. Why? Because it makes the drawed track much worse than GPS only. I don’t know why since Glonass should help but in my case it makes things worse every time. And that’s not only with the Spartan (Garmin 920XT or Fenix 3 also has the same problem). I will show 1 run with Glonass enabled and you will know what I mean.

Here are some of the examples of my runs with comparison:

Suunto Spartan Ultra Polar V800 Track compairson
4.88km 5.01km
4.72km (Glonass) 5.00km
6.88km 7.00km
5.01km 5.05km
5.01km 4.92km
8.00km 8.04km
7.01km 6.79km
20.43km 21.11km
5.01km 5.04km

Most of the time Spartan was underestimating the distance once compared to the Polar V800 (but not always). The track drawn by the Spartan is much worse than V800. But during my tests I noticed that even though the track was much worse the distance was often not so much off.

Every GPS watch has got it’s bad days. Personally I have feeling the Spartan has got them a little bit more than my V800 or Forerunner 920XT. I saw that especially once my 21km run – 2 watches measured almost exactly 21,1km, the Spartan was almost 700m off.

The measurement repeatability is also questionable. On my usual route I know exactly where are the km markers. V800 was almost always on pair with them. With Spartan I didn’t get such stable result.

Just a remark about the altimeter accuracy. I’ve included the graph in the above screens. It’s always on pair with the V800 which. The exact values are not always the same but the graph looks almost identical.

Battery life

In day to day use with about 3-4 hours of GPS usage per week (accuracy best, with foot pod and heart rate sensor) the Spartan Ultra managed to last about 9-10 days. Pretty good in my opinion. That’s for a average day to day use.

Like always I’ve done my balcony test. I started the GPS tracking on my balcony with the best GPS accuracy, without backlight or any sensor. Glonass was also disabled. Then I wait how long it will last. In case of Spartan Ultra the result was 15h 51min. Advertised I see 18 hours for this configuration and here we have more than 2 hours less. That’s bad in my opinion. I can only predict that after Bluetooth sensor this number will be even less. About 14 hours.

There are some tricks in the firmware 1.8.26 to extend this time – the screen can be turned off after some time or low color mode could be enabled but I’m not sure how this will impact the battery life. One thing is for sure. Even my almost 3 years old Ambit 3 Peak managed to get almost 20 hours with similar settings without any tricks.

But what’s important the watch can be charged during run/ride. And the charger cable is very comfortable on wrist. It’s basically a flat magnet connector with 4 pins.

Heart rate strap

I find the heart rate strap very comfortable and the sensor very accurate. I wanted to do a comparison with the Polar H7 but in my opinion that’s not needed. I looked through my results and they were nearly identical. The sensor can be also used underwater to measure heart rate while swimming. Here it work’s the same manner as the HRM-SWIM. It records the data during the swim and at the end it’s transferred to the watch.

What I didn’t liked in the sensor is the “non standard” connector span. It’s different than the H7 or HRM-RUN. That means that my Kiprun Cardio t-shirt cannot be used. Also the Polar or Garmin straps. We are forced to use the Suunto strap so if it would give chafes we cannot do much about it. That’s a shame in my opinion. On the other hand the sensor is much smaller than H7 or Garmin (because of the connectors span).

Bugs/Problems

During my usage of the watch I have experienced the following problems:

  • Occasional restarts. I noticed it happened only while syncing.
  • Long wireless sync’s. Seriously to transfer 21km run I took about 3-5 Minutes. It reminded me the times when I was using Forerunner 310XT with ANT+ stick.
  • 3 buttons. Almost every action can be completed with the 3 buttons but that require a long press of the middle button which take time.
  • Touch screen. I don’t see the added value of it for a sports watch. In my opinion it only
  • Occasional problems with syncing- both on mobile and desktop app. It happened when with the release of the watch firmware or new version of Movescout.
  • Occasional problems with Movestout. In fact the day I received the watch (1 March 2017) I couldn’t sync it and configure because the Movescout was down. It was the day a new Spartan firmware was released. It was fine after few hours but it was a real bad first impression.
  • Laggy interface.

Other then the above I didn’t find any fatal bugs or problems with the watch. I didn’t experienced any hr sensor dropouts or freezes during training.

Missing features

Even after almost a year of development there are still a ton of missing features. Spartan and Movescout in general. Here is my quick summary of them:

  • Countdown timer.
  • Multiple alarms configuration.
  • Activity tracker – floor counting, storage on the device.
  • Activity tracker data. It is synced into Movescout but we have access only to the last 30 days.
  • Training plans with training calendar and intervals. Something that’s was available long time ago on Garmin or Polar platform.
  • Better interval support. Now we can only have interval by time/distance. It would be nice to set up the intervals limits by pace, heart rate or power.
  • Data fields customization limits. The heart rate and altitude graphs cannot be added to custom sports modes.
  • No foot pod manual calibration.
  • Very limited mobile app. We can only configure the watch basic settings. No sport modes edit or interval training configuration like for Ambit 3.
  • Lack of apps. And I’m not talking about the ConnectIQ style apps. The Ambit like apps with addition of parameters would be enough for me. But sadly this feature is completely removed.
  • Music control widget.
  • Auto laps by position.
  • Smartwatch features like: calendar sync, better notification support, custom apps or widgets like weather.

It’s just my wish list that I also send to Suunto. If you have any other things please post them in the comment section.

Summary

I think my biggest problem with Suunto Spartan Ultra is the fact that, besides esthetics and color screen, it has nothing to offer to convince me that it is worth it’s price. It is a nice looking watch. It has average but mostly decent GPS accuracy and native running power meter support (Stryd). In general it works quite ok. But software is the big problem. I cannot say it’s beta now since it’s already quite stable and the most basic features that were missing on the release date are already implemented. But still there are so many missing features that should be already from the start. And instead of developing e.g. advanced training calendar support Suunto’s developers were implementing things like data screens customizations… It was a beta release, I’m sure of it. Developers were rushed to make a quick release and the result was terrible and probably also very expensive for the Suunto’s image.

Everything Spartan has to offer we saw already in Ambit 3 Peak, Fenix 3 or Polar V800. Which are available now days for half the price (or even less). The Suunto Spartan Ultra feature set looks so poor when compared to Forerunner 920XT or Fenix 3 or even Polar V800. And those watches are already more than 2 years old. It could not even start to the competition with them so imagine how far it is from Fenix 5 or Forerunner 935.

Even the almost 3 years old Polar V800 works better and have more complete feature set than Spartan Ultra. On the other hand I saw already that the prices of the Spartan went down to about 450€. I bought mine, used with warranty, for 350€ on Ebay (I saw one recently for 250€!). Personally I think if the new device would cost 300€ then it would be a really good deal. But now days, when the Fenix 3 can be bought for 299€, Garmin is a no-brainer for me. Let’s face it – it’s far better watch when it comes to software. Hardware wise it’s on the same level. The only difference is the design but that’s an subjective thing.

If you are Suunto fan and want to upgrade from Ambit 3 Peak then in my opinion it doesn’t make sense. And it you want to buy new Suunto device? Then still I would recommend to buy the Ambit 3 Peak. It’s still in my opinion superior to Spartan. Just not so good looking and without color screen.

It’s possible that Suunto will improve the firmware and implement more features but right now I cannot see the next steps in the Spartan Gets Stronger road map. Which could mean that the main features are already implemented and we can only expect bug fixes. Hopefully that’s not the case but we can only predict now.

Just to clarify. I bought the Spartan my own. The review is not sponsored in any way by Suunto (or any other company). After my review I’ve decided to sell the Spartan since I don’t see any additional value of it against my other watches that I currently use (other than “wow effect” from my friends:)).

And just to clarify. I don’t think Spartan is a bad watch. It’s a decent training watch but very lousy smartwatch. And above all it doesn’t offer anything new.

2 comments

  • Does this watch allow you to see friends’ data directly on the watch screen? My husband and I want to compete real time.

    • Nope. I don’t know any watch that could do that. The closest thing I could imagine are the Strava Live Segments available on some Garmin watches e.g. 735XT, Fenix 5 or Forerunner 935. But you need Strava Premium account.

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