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Long-term review: Suunto Ambit2 GPS watch || Training + navigating revolution

The Suunto Ambit2

The Suunto Ambit2

It’s rare that a product radically changes my outdoor experience or gear systems. I include the Therm-a-rest NeoAir, SPOT Satellite Messenger (long-term review), and Trail Designs Sidewinder (gear list) on this list, as well as the the Suunto Ambit GPS watch, which is the subject of this long-term review. In short, the Ambit helped take my endurance training to the next level, and made completely obsolete the altimeter watch that I previously used for backpacking.

I’ve been using the second-generation premium Ambit, the Ambit2, since August 2013. It has tracked more than 750 runs and hikes since then (including over 200 hours of activity already just this year), plus a few bike rides and backcountry ski trips as well.

Ambit2 alternatives

While you may be able to find an Ambit2 on Amazon, at this point I would upgrade to its successor, the Ambit3 Peak. You won’t miss anything about the Ambit2: the Ambit3 Peak has the same user-interface and core feature set, but is equipped with bluetooth and a longer-lasting battery. Plus, certified dealers still have inventory.

If you want a GPS watch mostly for endurance sports (e.g. running, biking, swimming) or for general outdoor use (e.g., backpacking, mountaineering, hunting), less expensive Suunto models may offer the functions you need. Read about top-line generational and model differences between Suunto GPS watches.

Finally, you could also consider a Garmin watch. I have insufficient first-hand experience to offer much of an opinion — given my experience with the Suunto Ambit2 and its related software and platforms (specifically, MovesLink and MovesCount), I haven’t been inspired to look elsewhere.



What does the Ambit do?

The Ambit2 (and the next-gen Ambit3 Peak) includes every feature of a conventional sport watch and altimeter watch. It displays:

  • Time, date, and day of the week
  • Cumulative and lap times
  • Current altitude and the barometric pressure (plus history graphs), and,
  • A digital compass.

But the comparisons stop there. The Ambit2 can also display and record your speed, distance, and altitude, which are tracked with its GPS antenna, accelerometer, and barometer. It also records or calculates cadence, calories, Peak Training Effect (PTE), and recovery time, although I don’t give them much consideration.

Multiple aspects of each measurement are available. For example, I can view my current speed or pace (as miles per hour, or minutes per mile), average split speed, and average cumulative speed. Or I can see my current altitude, cumulative ascent and descent, and even my vertical speed (vertical feet of change per minute).

With optional accessories, the Ambit2 can also record heart rate, power output, and cycling cadence. In late-2014 I purchased the Dual Comfort Belt (long-term review), and only regret not buying it earlier — when running on mountain trails, heart rate is a much more reliable measure of effort than pace.

Suunto’s GPS sport watches are also supported with an app store, but frankly I’ve never poked around it. The out-of-the-box capabilities of the Ambit2 have proven completely sufficient.

Ambit2 plus the Dual Comfort Heart Rate Belt, which I would describe as a critical accessory.

Ambit2 plus the Dual Comfort Heart Rate Belt, which I would describe as a critical accessory.

How I use the Ambit

I use my Ambit2 for both running and backpacking. Most of my runs are about 1.5 hours (plus/minus), although one race last year was over 20 hours. My recent backpacking trips are up to two weeks and 200 (hard) mile in length.

Running

While on a run, I mostly use the Ambit to monitor my pace and heart rate. For example, if I have a goal pace for a workout or race, the Ambit can help me find and maintain it; or, if I’m on a recovery run, the Ambit can help govern my effort. I also use the Ambit to make mid-run route changes if the distance or vertical profile is inconsistent with my training plan. In a race on an unfamiliar course, I use the Ambit to predict the distance to upcoming aid stations, or the remaining vertical to a high point.

When I return home I download the Ambit’s data with MovesLink software, which pushes the data to Movescount and then to Strava (follow me). With these platforms, I get a free training log that is more extensive and more specific than I could ever achieve with a manual log. For example, I can quickly analyze my weekly, monthly, and yearly training volume; and compare my splits (and my heart rate at that pace) across time, and against other runners. Socializing and one-upmanship can also be part of the Strava experience, but I generally keep a low profile on it.

My splits over time, from the Gregory Lot to the summit of Green Mountain. Overall, I'm getting slower, though I haven't yet determined if it's due to fitness, age, body weight, trail conditions, or a more recent slower-is-better shift in my training.

My splits over time, from the Gregory Lot to the summit of Green Mountain. Overall, I’m getting slower, though I haven’t yet determined if it’s due to fitness, age, body weight, trail conditions, or a more recent slower-is-better shift in my training.

Hiking and backpacking

Among endurance athletes, GPS sport watches are widespread. But I think most hikers are still using a basic watch or an altimeter watch (or no watch at all). This equipment works, but a GPS watch is more powerful and useful. Moreover, if you (like me) do any kind of endurance training between trips, a GPS watch is dual purpose.

When hiking, the Ambit tracks my distance and rate of speed (from my camp or from a point in between), and vertical gain and loss. It’s faster, more convenient, and more accurate than manual dead-reckoning or map-reading. I know how to do it that way, too, but it’s kind of like having a calculator once you know mathematics — it frees you up to focus on other things, like guiding a group or finding the line of least resistance through a tricky off-trail section.

With better data, I can better plan the day or a trip. For example, if my group seems to comfortably average 2 MPH, I can identify prospective campsites that we will reach around dinnertime. And if I observe that I climb about 7,000 vertical feet per day on a high route (which is the true limitation on these routes, not miles per day), I can create an accurate itinerary for a new route.

When I arrive home, I download my route data — and edit and share it, if I care to. In fact, the specificity of my Wind River High Route Guide and Kings Canyon High Route Guide was greatly enabled by the data collected during my thru-hikes of each route.

An average day on the Wind River High Route. By recording accurate data about it, I can better plan future trips, by knowing exactly what my capabilities are.

An average day on the Wind River High Route. By recording accurate data about it, I can better plan future trips, by knowing exactly what my capabilities are.

Display customization

The Ambit can display up to eight customizable screens, each with three fields (two are static, and the third field can be toggled among four data points). For example, view my preferred displays for an ultra marathon. I have three other display profiles, too: for normal runs, track and tempo workouts, and backpacking.

The displays can only be changed while logged into your Movescount account. It cannot be done in the field, unfortunately — that would have been convenient when I was tweaking them to perfection.

In Movescount I can customize my Ambit displays. I have four "Sport Modes": three for running, and one for hiking.

In Movescount I can customize my Ambit displays. I have four “Sport Modes”: three for running, and one for hiking.

Setting customization

In addition to its displays, the Ambit’s GPS interval and data recording interval can be changed. Specifically, the GPS can ping at 1, 5, or 60 seconds. This dramatically affects the battery life — the Ambit2 gets 16 hours at 1-second intervals, but 50 hours at 60-second intervals.

(When I need to recharge the Ambit in the field, I use the Anker PowerCore+ mini. With 3350 mAh capacity, it can recharge the Ambit’s 480 mAh battery nearly seven times, enough to backpack eight hours per day for 45 days.)

The Ambit’s data recording interval can be set to 1 or 10 seconds. The 10-second interval results in less exact logs, but it does not fill the watch’s internal memory as quickly.

Recharging the Ambit with an Anker PowerCore+ mini in southern Utah. When set to 60-second GPS intervals, the Ambit2 lasts 50 hours. The newer Ambit3 Peak will go 200.

Recharging the Ambit with an Anker PowerCore+ mini in southern Utah. When set to 60-second GPS intervals, the Ambit2 lasts 50 hours. The newer Ambit3 Peak will go 200.

Accuracy

I’ve had one opportunity to assess the distance accuracy of the Ambit: the Colorado Marathon. At the finish line, my Ambit read 26.44 miles, whereas it should have been 26.22 (assuming I followed the course exactly). So it was 0.84 percent optimistic. For my purposes and for a 3-oz wristwatch, that’s close enough. When the 5- or 60-second GPS interval is used, its accuracy probably decreases, maybe not in my favor since it will shortcut corners.

I’ve never assessed the accuracy of the heart rate feature. It’s at least consistent, which is more important anyway when training and racing by HR.

The altimeter is much more accurate than a conventional altimeter watch, because the watch factors in its GPS position (“FusedAlti”). I can’t recall the last time I calibrated it. Yet on today’s run, it was only 50 feet off.

Durability

Even after such extensive use, my Ambit’s battery life seems to be about as good as new. The best test was last September during Run Rabbit Run, during which I had the GPS interval set to 5 seconds. At this interval, the watch should last 24 hours. When I crossed the line in 20:12, the watch still had an 18 percent charge, which is right in line with Suunto’s estimate.

The only durability issue has been a sticky upper-right button (to start/stop and pause), which has been pressed thousands of times. Customer service told me to submerge it in water overnight, but I had better results by dabbing some olive oil around the edges.

The standard glass does not have a single scratch on it, which I find remarkable given the use and the (occasionally) very rugged conditions.


Disclosure: This post contains affiliate links. I received the Ambit2 directly from Salomon, with no expectation that I would review it. If it hadn’t become a favorite product of mine, I probably would not have.

4 Responses to Long-term review: Suunto Ambit2 GPS watch || Training + navigating revolution

  1. Sean July 11, 2016 at 11:00 am #

    I’ve been eagerly awaiting to see how you set your ambit up for backpacking ever since you sold me on an ambit3 peak last year.

    Incidentally, at 60 second intervals, the Ambit3 Peak will last for 200 hours. If you turn off GPS in between, it actually will last longer.

    The one thing I miss, and wish it would do, is sync with your phone when there’s no phone signal. IE: I wish it would cache your data on your phone instead of directly upload to movespeak.

    I’ve noticed that as you run or walk or keep tracking GPS data with the watch, it gradually becomes more accurate in the event of no GPS data. Treadmill distance now that I’ve started running has matched up with watch run distance even though I’m not moving so GPS is irrelevant. I guess it learns your pace over time and applies it when GPS isn’t of use. Pretty nifty.

    But I’ve been thrilled with it. It’s actually my main daily-wear watch too.

    • Andrew Skurka July 11, 2016 at 3:30 pm #

      You’re the second person who has requested a post about displays for backpacking. Give me a few days.

  2. Russell J July 14, 2016 at 6:47 am #

    Thanks for this timely article; I’ve been lusting over GPS watches for a while now. Problem is I have a (for me) significant cost sunk into a Casio ProTrek – a great watch that I love. In addition to the time functions, I frequently use the compass and altimeter features, both of which are extremely accurate. Nonetheless, I sometimes wish I’d have opted for the more expensive GPS watch, mainly for keeping tabs on distance and pace.

    It occurs to me, however, that Gaia GPS on my smartphone does the same thing I’d want a GPS watch for. From what I can tell, the only advantages of a GPS watch over a GPS smartphone app are:

    1. Ease of use. Much easier to glance at your wrist, maybe punch a button or two, and quickly get the information you need. Easier than unzipping my pocket, pulling out my phone, removing it from the Ziplok, punching, swiping, etc. I guess I could explore strapping my iPhone 6s Plus to my wrist 🙂

    2. Battery use. My limited experienced using Gaia GPS’s tracking feature tells me that, even in airplane mode, it is a power hog. However, when not using the tracking feature, it is a power miser. GPS watches seem to be power misers.

    So my question is: am I missing any other advantages of a GPS watch over Gaia GPS, considering what I’d want a GPS watch for? Assume I have no interest in monitoring my heart rate (I don’t). With the exception of long-distance training hikes, my fitness regimen consists almost exclusively of high-intensity interval training sessions that rarely exceed 30 minutes. To monitor my exertion, I use my highly accurate gasp-o-meter.

    • Andrew Skurka July 14, 2016 at 4:00 pm #

      I think you’re seeing it correctly for your circumstance: convenience and battery power. Maybe I’d add that I sometimes go on hikes when I don’t take my phone.

      For others like me who are endurance nuts like me, it’s duel use: running + backpacking. Certainly though, your gasp-o-meter is probably just as sufficient for the type of training you are doing.

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