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Long-term review: Suunto 9 Baro || Legit flagship watch, needs firmware fix

The Suunto 9 Baro is the nicest GPS watch I’ve used yet, and would be even better with a simple firmware fix.

For five months I’ve been using the Suunto 9 Baro GPS Sport Watch on a near daily basis, mostly while trail and road running, and occasionally backpacking. With few exceptions, it has supplanted my trusted Suunto Ambit3 Peak (long-term review). It’s the nicest Suunto watch that I’ve used yet, but has one significant blemish that I hope will be rectified in a future firmware update.

Long-term review: Suunto 9 Baro GPS Sport Watch

Suunto launched its fifth-generation GPS watch series with the Suunto 9 in June 2016. It expanded the family in September with the Suunto 9 Baro, which was sent to me for review several months before its release.

The Suunto 9 retails for $500; the Suunto 9 Baro, for $600. Nearly everything I say about the Suunto 9 Baro will apply to the Suunto 9 as well.

The Suunto 9 Baro is a legitimate flagship product — it either improves upon or rivals the performance and features of previous generations like the Ambit3 and Spartan. (As you might expect, it has taken over Suunto’s flagship price point, too.) It’s the most accurate and richly featured watch in Suunto’s line, while also being the nicest to look at, wear, and use.

Key product specs

  • Sapphire crystal glass, titanium bezel, and glass fiber polyamide case
  • Interchangeable silicone strap
  • Touchscreen color display with 320 x 300 pixels and LED backlight
  • FusedTrack (more info)
  • Optical heart rate sensor
  • Bluetooth connectivity
  • Built-in barometer
  • Battery life: 25, 50, and 120 hours at 1-, 60-, and 120-second intervals
  • Intelligent battery technology (more info)
  • $600 MSRP
  • More info

Form factor

The Suunto 9 looks nearly identical to a Suunto Spartan, sharing the same:

  • Easy-to-ready screen that can display up to seven data fields (although my 20/20 eyes will tolerate only five);
  • Three right-side buttons, which are smooth and responsive;
  • Integrated GPS antenna, so there is no awkward “hump” like on the Ambit2 and Ambit3 Peak;
  • Vibration alarm;
  • Magnetic charging/download cable, which secures quickly and precisely to the watch; and,
  • Optical heart rate monitor from Vallencel.

The Suunto 9 shares the same charging/data cord as the Spartan. It reliably locks into place with a magnet.

Thankfully, Suunto made one physical change to the Suunto 9: its silicone band. The band on the Spartan Sport Wrist HR (my review) was grabby and excessively pliable, causing it to catch clothing (and, worse, arm hair) and to collect lint; it also would not slide easily through its retention loops.

The band on the Suunto 9 does none of those things, and is notably more comfortable than the stiffer Ambit3 band. I’d like to see its “top” section perforated to improve airflow and evaporation, however.

The new band is also easily changeable, and can be swapped with third-party options to dress it up or give it more style.

The comfortable silicone band is easily detachable, so it can be swapped with infinite third-party options.

Battery life

The Suunto 9 is rated to 25, 40, and 120 hours when the GPS reading interval is set to 1, 60, and 120 seconds (described by Suunto as Best, Good, and Okay), respectively. This is substantially better than optical HR-equipped Spartan watches (e.g. Sport HR, Sport HR Baro), which were rated to 10, 20, and 40 hours. And at the 1-second interval, it’s even better than the Ambit3 Peak, which is rated to 20, 30, and 200 hours at 1-, 5-, and 60-second intervals.

Does five extra hours of battery life matter? Interestingly, for me it would make a big difference: I’ve completed five 100-mile ultras since 2015, and my finish times have all been between 20:12 and 24:44. With my Ambit3 Peak, I’ve had to set the GPS interval to 5 seconds. But with the Suunto 9, I could run it at 1-second intervals, which would be slightly more accurate.

Intelligent battery modes

Suunto has always allowed users to extend the battery life by adjusting the GPS ping interval. But it had to be done at the Movescount website or through the Movescount app, and it required a sync afterwards; the setting was also specific to a sport mode.

With the Suunto 9, the ping interval can be adjusted online or through its smartphone app, but also directly in the watch before the start of an activity. The ping interval is part of a “basket” of battery-saving adjustments, along with screen colors, screen brightness, touchscreen on/off, display auto-shutoff, Bluetooth on/off, and vibration alarms on/off. Suunto describes these grouped settings as:

  • Performance (1-second interval (“Best”), and most features are turned on or up)
  • Endurance (60-second interval (“Good”))
  • Ultra (120-second interval (“Okay”) and most things are turned off or down)

This on-watch adjustment is convenient, and could save the day if you forget to update your settings or charge your watch prior to an activity.

The battery settings can be changed directly on the Suunto 9 immediately before starting an activity, rather than going through the Suunto app or Movescount.

Accuracy

From what I can tell, the Suunto 9 is at least as accurate as the Ambit3 Peak when its GPS ping interval is set to 1 second. During track workouts, it has seemed spot on, and recorded distances for my most established runs are about the same. I have yet to complete a marked course with the Suunto 9.

GPS track recorded by the Suunto 9 in Best mode while running the switchbacks in lower Skunk Canyon. The track is never off by more than a yard or two.

FusedTrack

The most exciting technology in the Suunto 9 is FusedTrack, which activates in the Endurance or Ultra battery mode (or when the GPS ping interval is set to Good or Okay through the website or app). It combines data from the built-in accelerometer, gyroscope, and compass to “fill in” location data between GPS pings. The resulting data is not as accurate as a 1-second track, or a 5-second track recorded by an Ambit3 Peak. But the Suunto 9 does not cut corners as badly as the Ambit3 Peak in 60-second mode.

A satellite view of a recent run that I recorded with the Suunto 9 (blue, set to 60-sec pings) and Ambit3 Peak (red, set to 5-sec pings). The Ambit3 records a more accurate track, but the Suunto 9 is never too far off, despite grabbing its GPS location only about four times in this image.

Optical heart rate

Wrist-based heart rate technology is not yet as accurate as chest straps. So for serious heart rate training, you’ll need the Suunto Smart Sensor or another Bluetooth-compatible device. (Note: I’ve been frustrated with the Smart Sensor’s long-term performance, but it sounds like competing straps have their own issues.)

The Suunto 9’s optical heart rate sensor should be sufficient for more casual activities and users. Based on reviews, it sounds like that’s generally the case.

The optical heart rate monitor seems to work for most, but unfortunately not for me.

But that has not been my experience. The heart rate readings seem accurate when my arm is mostly still, like when I’m sleeping or when I’m waiting for the watch to connect with GPS satellites immediately before a run. During a run, however, the HR readings are rarely accurate, and thus largely worthless.

I don’t have an explanation for this, and I have not found a solution (besides wearing my chest strap when I want HR data). I suspect it may relate to the size of my wrist (6.75 inches/17 mm in circumference) and/or how I position or tighten the watch.

November 13. The HR reading was roughly accurate from 15-30 minutes, and maybe 35-45, although I think it was probably reading 5-10 bpm high.

November 23. Sustained readings at around 180 bpm, which is approximately my cadence and about 5 bpm higher than my max HR.

November 28. Accurate HR readings from 10 to 35 minutes, and maybe from 55 to the finish.

Smartwatch and activity tracking

The Suunto 9 offers basic smartwatch and activity tracking features. Specifically:

  • Several watch face options,
  • Push notifications from a smartphone,
  • Step and calorie counting, and
  • Sleep tracking.

In this area, the Suunto 9 falls short of the Garmin Fenix 5. Some users might care, but I don’t. It’s not important to me that I can control my music selection through my watch, that I know how many flights of stairs I’ve climbed in a day, or that I can download new watch faces in an online store.

Like its predecessors, the Suunto 9 is best considered a piece of equipment, like running shoes or a running vest. I put it on before an activity, and take it off afterwards. For the remainder of the day, I wear a Bertucci A-2T Super Classic or a dressy Citizen. Even with a nice leather strap, a clunky GPS sport watch will still look like a, well, clunky GPS sport watch.

Firmware fix request: Custom sport modes

Pre-installed on the Suunto 9 are 80 “sport modes.” Each mode displays data that Suunto thought would be relevant for an activity. For example, one pre-installed running mode is described as “Interval,” and its description says, “Designed for interval running. Use the lap table view to compare intervals with duration, average heart rate and max heart rate. This mode stores the run with the Move type ‘interval’ so you can follow your progress over time.”

These modes may be helpful for someone unwilling to dig into the functionality of the Suunto 9. (Dare I ask: If you spend $500+ on a watch, why aren’t you digging into its functionality?”)

But I’m not one of those customers, and none of the pre-installed modes are set up the way I want them. For example, my go-to settings for backpacking, for road marathons, and for mountain ultra trail marathons look nothing like the pre-installed modes.

Unfortunately, the pre-installed modes cannot be modified.

Custom sport modes would seem to be a workaround. However, these modes are limited to just four display screens, one of which must be dedicated to a breadcrumb navigation track. That screen is useless to me, so essentially Suunto has given me only three screens to display all the data that I want.

Why did Suunto limit the number of custom sport mode screens to four, especially when its pre-installed modes have up to six and when the Ambit3 Peak allows up to eight? And who at Suunto thought three screens was enough?

Suunto, please address this. It’s the most significant flaw of the Suunto 9 Baro, and it seems entirely fixable.

Suunto 9 vs. the competition

How does the Suunto 9 compare to other popular GPS sport watches?

Suunto 9 vs. Suunto 9 Baro

The Suunto 9 and Suunto 9 Baro differ in just one respect: the 9 Baro has a built-in sensor to measure barometric pressure and to help generate altitude readings. The original Suunto 9 cannot display barometric pressure and relies solely on GPS to calculate its altitude, which will be less accurate if GPS strength is low (e.g. when running under heavy tree cover).

The barometer becomes helpful in two situations:

  • When the 9 Baro is not tracking an activity, it still tracks trends in barometric pressure, which can forecast changes in the weather; and,
  • When the GPS ping interval is set to 60 or 120 seconds (“Good” and “Okay” in Suunto speak), the 9 Baro will more accurately record vertical gain and loss.

If these situations don’t sound relevant to you, stick with the Suunto 9 and save $100.

For a more in-depth explanation of baro vs. non-baro watches, read this.

Suunto 9 vs. Suunto Ambit3

The Ambit3 was Suunto’s third-generation GPS watch series. The “newest” Ambit3 product was released in early-2016, and the last firmware update was December 2016. Suunto still produces the Ambit3 Peak and Ambit3 Vertical, but has discontinued the Ambit3 Sport and Ambit3 Run (although it’s still liquidating inventory).

Between the Ambit3 Peak and Ambit3 Vertical, I preferred the Peak. (Read my long-term review.) Its battery was longer-lasting and its GPS accuracy was better. The Vertical was more svelte and had vibration alarms.

Versus the Suunto 9, the Ambit3 Peak has three advantages:

  • Price. The Ambit3 Peak retailed for $500, but is now regularly available for less than $300 on Amazon.
  • Battery life. When backpacking, I set the GPS ping interval to 60 seconds, which gives the Ambit3 Peak a 200-hour lifespan. The 9 Baro lasts 50 hours at this setting and 120 hours when set to a 120-second interval, although its accuracy will be better because of FusedTrack.
  • Sport modes. Within each sport mode, the Ambit3 Peak allows up to 8 display screens. The Suunto 9 only allows three, plus a required breadcrumb track screen.

Otherwise the Suunto 9 is a better watch.

Suunto 9 Baro (left) and Suunto Ambit3 Peak (right)

Suunto 9 vs. Suunto Spartan

The Spartan was Suunto’s fourth-generation GPS watch series, and was last expanded in September 2017 with the Spartan Sport Wrist HR Baro (my review). In almost all respects, the Suunto 9 matches or exceeds the Spartan watches. The major exception is price — Suunto currently lists the Spartan Sport HR Baro for $440, and I’m sure it’s available for less elsewhere.

Questions about the Suunto 9 Baro, or have an experience with it? Leave a comment.


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20 Responses to Long-term review: Suunto 9 Baro || Legit flagship watch, needs firmware fix

  1. Bob S. November 30, 2018 at 7:35 pm #

    Does the Suunto 9 Baro have an alarm that senses a rapid drop in pressure to alert you of an approaching storm?

    On a personal note I have a Suunto x9i I purchased around 2005. The watch still works but even new the GPS would usually drain the battery before it acquired a lock. The barometer on the other hand is more accurate than my modern Garmin watch(es).

    • Andrew Skurka November 30, 2018 at 7:50 pm #

      Yes, the Suunto 9 has a storm alarm. Go to Settings, then Alarms. Same place for alarm clock, sunrise and sunset.

      It depends on where you are, what you’re doing, and what other equipment you have with you, but personally I find little value in a storm alarm anymore. Most of my trips are 5-7 days long, and I can get a decent weather forecast before I go. While on a trip, I can also pull weather off my inReach and/or if I get temporary cell service.

  2. Eli November 30, 2018 at 7:45 pm #

    How has the distance accuracy been for backpacking, especially in 120s mode?

  3. barry burton November 30, 2018 at 10:12 pm #

    Optical heart rate sensors work best when there is minimal light pollution. This happens most reliably when the watch has well padded skin to seal against, so it doesn’t work well if you are lean.

    On the other hand, electrode based sensors like chest straps work best when there is minimal insulating material under the skin, so they are reliable if you are lean (and sweaty).

    • Andrew Skurka November 30, 2018 at 10:41 pm #

      So you’re telling me that my scrawny runner arms leaves my wife wanting more AND messes up the optical HRM?

      • Bob S. December 1, 2018 at 7:04 am #

        I find chest straps uncomfortable stretched around my more than ample frame. I was wonder if you ever tried an armband optical sensor (worn around the forearm) and if so, is it any better/more accurate than what’s built into the watch?

        • Andrew Skurka December 1, 2018 at 9:21 am #

          I’m not bothered by them so I’ve never tried another style (besides wrist).

          • barry burton December 1, 2018 at 10:46 am #

            😂 haha but isn’t your wife impressed by how well your chest strap works???

            The wrist is about the worst place to try to measure heart rate, and the lighter the device the less it will tend to bounce around when you move, which means a better signal, so on paper a dedicated optical sensor worn on the forearm or bicep would be more accurate than one worn on the wrist and encumbered with a screen and other watch hardware.

            I personally have very skinny wrists and have gotten better optical HR data from watches by wearing them on my forearm or ankle (my forearms and ankles are also quite skinny so a normal watch fits). Cranking the band down super (painfully) tight also helps optical HR to work better.

            Most products also do some sort of signal processing, so you’ll see better results if your movements introduce noise that they specifically happen to be able to filter.

            There’s really no substitute for trying HR sensors yourself while doing the activity you want it to measure if you want to know if it will be accurate for you.

  4. Zach December 1, 2018 at 10:35 am #

    Is this Suunto’s best watch for backpacking and hiking?

    • Andrew Skurka December 1, 2018 at 5:50 pm #

      Hmm. It’s definitely between the Suunto 9 Baro and Ambit3 Peak.

      With the Ambit3 Peak, you get a break on the price and better battery life. But with the Suunto 9 Baro you get more technology (e.g. optical HR, FusedTrack, activity tracking & smartwatch features) and a much better looking watch. I really like both models and you can’t go wrong. You just need to prioritize your needs in consideration of your available funds.

  5. Lagrandeimage December 1, 2018 at 10:39 am #

    Hello Andrew,

    Thanks for another very nice review.

    Battery life is my concern as I am looking for a backpacking watch for trips of a week or more.

    If I only set the GPS during walking hours, would it last a week? Could it be recharged? Does the charging cable have a USB ending so it would fit to a battery?

    Thanks in advance.

    • Andrew Skurka December 1, 2018 at 5:47 pm #

      For backpacking trips of 7+ days, you options are the Ambit3 Peak, Spartan Ultra, and Suunto 9. No other Suunto rivals the battery life of these models, and really neither does the Fenix 5, which is rated to 75 hours in Ultratrac mode.

      The Suunto 9 is spec’d at 120 hours when set the watch to Ultra mode. In that mode, GPS readings happen every 120 seconds (and in between those readings, the watch pulls in data from less battery-intensive sensors like the compass and accelerometer), the optical HR is turned off, and the display is turned down.

      In comparison, the Ambit3 Peak gets 200 hours when it’s set to 60-sec pings, although it does not have the FusedTrack technology.

      These estimates are for pure run times. But both watches consume some battery when they’re not in use, the Suunto 9 more so. You’d want to get into the setting and turn off most features in order to hit that 120-hour mark. If, for example, you left on the optical HR while you slept, the battery would drain some overnight.

      These watches can be easily and quickly recharged in the field. The batteries are not big and you can give it more than enough power for the following day in the time it takes you to make dinner. The charging cables are USB on one end, so you can plug them into portable batteries like you do with cables for your phone and inReach.

      • Lagrandeimage December 3, 2018 at 1:48 pm #

        OK, great thanks for all the details Andrew, I am going to put the Suunto 9 on top of my gift list!

  6. Michael December 1, 2018 at 10:52 am #

    Does the 9 Baro allow for structured workouts to be uploaded like the Garmins, e.g. 10 mins at certain HR, 4x:20 at certain pace, 10 mins at certain HR?

  7. Stanislav December 1, 2018 at 11:19 am #

    With HR disabled and all other options unchanged Suunto 9 lasts 34 hours in Best mode. Perhaps that should be mentioned in the review.

    • Andrew Skurka December 1, 2018 at 1:44 pm #

      Right, thanks for pointing that out. This watch has a lot of battery-sucking features AND individual controls over them, so actual battery max life is probably more of a range than set numbers like previous generations.

  8. Ito December 1, 2018 at 7:53 pm #

    I’ve been going through the manual of the 9 (I’ve owned a Peak 3 for years) but one thing is unclear to me – perhaps somebody can shed some light?

    Can you put a timer on the 9 and have it vibrate, and then have it automatically repeat?

    I would love to be able to set a repeating timer for every 20 or 30 minutes and just get a subtle vibration, not a full alarm like on my cheap Casio.

    Thanks in advance for any info.

    • Andrew Skurka December 3, 2018 at 8:16 am #

      In the Sport Mode settings, there is an Auto Lap feature that can be set to distance or duration. I don’t know if it will beep or vibrate at you, or both.

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