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Review: Suunto Spartan Sport Wrist HR Baro || What am I missing?

The new Suunto Spartan Sport Wrist HR Baro has a nice color touchscreen, but at $550 there are other watches I’d recommend.

For a few weeks I have been using a friend’s Suunto Spartan Sport Wrist HR Baro. I am a longtime user of Suunto’s original GPS watch family, the Ambit, but this is the first Spartan series model that I have worn. It has a few nice features, but my recommendation is to stay away from this watch: it’s overpriced for what it does, and it has several annoying (or fatal) flaws.

Review: Suunto Spartan Sport Wrist HR Baro GPS watch

Suunto released the Spartan Sport Wrist HR Baro — which I will shorthand to “Baro” for the remainder of this review — in September 2017, making it the fifth Spartan family member and the third Sport-level model. Its most notable features include:

  • Color touchscreen,
  • Bluetooth connectivity,
  • GPS and GLONASS compatibility,
  • 10 to 40 hours of battery life depending on the GPS accuracy setting, and
  • Some activity tracking and smartwatch functionality, such as steps, calories, push notifications, a customizeable watch face, and sleep tracking.

The Baro is different from its two predecessors — the original Spartan Sport and the Spartan Sport Wrist HR — in that it has both a wrist-based heart rate sensor and a barometer. The former enables heart rate monitoring without a chest strap (more on this later), and the latter creates additional functionality, including altitude readings in watch-only mode, weather forecasting, and vertical change tracking when the GPS interval is set at 5- and 60-seconds (not only when at 1-second intervals).

At the time of publishing, it’s $550 price point seems to be holding. It costs $50 more than the Spartan Sport Wrist HR (which does not have a barometer) and $230 more than the now-discounted Sportan Sport (which does not have wrist HR or a barometer).


Product line clean-up

Before diving into details, I feel compelled to criticize the big picture. The Baro is the third Spartan watch that has been released individually. The collection started with the Spartan Ultra and Spartan Sport. Then Suunto released the:

  • Spartan Sport Wrist HR, which is a Spartan Sport with a wrist HRM;
  • Spartan Trainer Wrist HR, which offers most of the Spartan Sport Wrist HR features (notably, not the touchscreen) but for a $280 price tag and in a smaller size; and, now the,
  • Spartan Sport Wrist HR Baro, the subject of this review.

These standalone launches have filled gaps in the original series, but they’ve come at a cost to the overall product line architecture:

  • Suunto can no longer tell a good-better-best story, because two of its mid-tier Sport models have a significant feature (wrist-based HRM) that its flagship model, the Ultra, does not.
  • Its latest model requires a 6-word name to differentiate it from existing models. And,
  • The minor functionality difference between the Spartan Sport Wrist HR and Baro makes it more difficult for most customers to make a decision, not less.

I think Suunto would be well served by restructuring its product line. Create a three-model Spartan2 family that shares wrist HR. Make tweaks to the Spartan Trainer and carry it forward. Drop the Spartan Sport Wrist HR. And outfit the Ultra with a wrist HR.

Okay, let’s move on.

The good

I don’t recommend the Baro, but it does have a few praiseworthy features:

1. The color watch face is easy to read, even in low light. Its graphics are pleasant. And I appreciated the size of its display — even though the Baro and Ambit3 Peak have 50-mm watch faces, the Baro’s display is a little bit bigger, which affords room for additional display arrangements (e.g. 4-field views).

2. The buttons have good action and are responsive.

3. The magnetic USB charger/data cable snaps immediately into place. It’s as user-friendly as the male/female cable on the Garmin Fenix 5 series, and much better than the Ambit’s fussy pronged clamp.

The magnetic USB cord snaps perfectly into place.

4. After every workout the watch immediately asks me, “How was it?” and gives me the option to rate it as Excellent, Very Good, Good, Average, or Poor. If this feature is consistently used, it could establish quantitative training trends. With the Ambit, I only have qualitative narrative assessments that I must add later.

This simple question can create quantifiable trends in training.

5. When I’m wearing warm clothing, running in crunchy snow, or surrounded by loud vehicles, the vibration alarms are very helpful in confirming start/stop/lap.

The bad

Why do I not recommend the Spartan Sport Wrist HR Baro?

1. At least on this this watch, I don’t think the touchscreen offers any value. The technology cost is reflected in the price, but it doesn’t give you anything in return. The menu system is simple, and it can be navigated quickly and efficiently with the buttons. In fact, I prefer the buttons — I don’t have sausage fingers, but I still find that my fingertips lack the precision necessary to navigate such a small screen.

2. The stretchy silicone strap is comfortable. But it makes the watch irritatingly difficult to put on — the silicone is slightly tacky and very pliable, so the excess strap material does not feed easily through the slider loops. The end also grabs clothing while running (especially when wearing looser-fitting shirts/jackets or in strong cross winds), and the entire band collects lint. I do not have hairy arms, but I would be scared for those who do.

The silicone strap is the worst I’ve used. It’s comfortable once on, but its overly pliable and tacky, and it collects lint.

3. The wrist-based HRM is unacceptably inaccurate. Its behavior on this 8-mile run (different than the run shown in the graph below) is representative of my experience with it. Supposedly, my average HR was 160 bpm, max was 188 bpm, and minimum while running was 148 bpm. I have religiously worn a chest strap for years, and can say with 100 percent certainty that the HR was NEVER accurate during this run. My average HR was probably around 140 bpm, and it probably never went above 150. At 188 bpm, I would be dead. And 160 bpm is my 50K race effort.

Wildly inconsistent and inaccurate heart rate readings. On this 7-mile run, my HR apparently averaged 172 bpm. That’s probably my 2-mile race effort.

4. The lap button’s lower-left position is a poor place for it. Pressing it with the right-hand index finger or thumb is awkward while on the move — go ahead, try it at home. I would strongly prefer that this button be in the upper-left corner.

5. When set to the “Best” GPS accuracy (1-second pings), the battery lasts just 10 hours. When set to 5- or 60-second pings, it will last 20 and 40 hours, respectively. For ultra endurance athletes like myself, this spec is a deal-breaker, because it wouldn’t last through most of my races. But even for the majority of users, the short battery life is annoying — it has to be charged too regularly.

Recommendations

Don’t buy the Spartan Sport Wrist HR Baro.

If you have a $550 budget, consider the Garmin Fenix 5 instead. Like the Baro, it has a color screen (no touch), wrist HR sensor, and barometer. It also has a longer-lasting battery, fuss-free wrist strap, and more activity tracking and smartphone features. I also find the Garmin ecosystem to be more visually welcoming.

But, personally, I would buy the Suunto Ambit3 Peak HR, about which I recently wrote a long-term review. You’d give up the larger color touchscreen, magnetic USB cable, some activity tracking, and the unreliable wrist HRM. But you’d get much better battery life and a strap that doesn’t annoy you — and you’d save $225!

The $550 Spartan Sport Wrist HR versus the $325 Ambit3 Peak

Questions about the Suunto Spartan Sport Wrist HR Baro, or have an experience with it? Leave a comment.


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10 Responses to Review: Suunto Spartan Sport Wrist HR Baro || What am I missing?

  1. Rex February 22, 2018 at 11:19 am #

    Seems to be the consensus with the spartan series. Hate that. Still love my ambit 3. Hope they don’t discontinue it.

  2. Brian February 22, 2018 at 11:28 am #

    I just bought a used Spartan Ultra with chest HRM for $317.67 +tax on Amazon. This route is definitely something to consider.

    It’s my first proper training watch so I have a lot of learning to do to interpret all of the data and put it to use.

    My biggest complaint is the comically weak vibration alerts for text/email notifications from my phone. This is the main reason I chose the Spartan Ultra over your recommendation of the Ambit3 Peak, hoping it could replace my smartwatch and be worn 24/7. Suunto support has acknowledged the weak vibration and said maybe a stronger one will be an option in a future update.

    • Andrew Skurka February 22, 2018 at 12:32 pm #

      $317 for the Ultra with a chest strap is a good deal, nice shopping. This is probably even a better deal than the Ambit3 at $325. Give up a little bit of battery life, but otherwise a lot of perks like the color screen, vibration alarms, charger cable, etc.

      Haven’t used the Ultra, so good to know about the vibration alarms. Seems like such an easy one — How’d they mess that up?

      • Brian February 24, 2018 at 2:17 pm #

        The storm alarm triggered today and I felt the vibration while hiking in the wind. Hopefully they increase the strength and intensity of the text/email notifications and time alarms, or better yet make them configurable.
        I feel the vibration from the text/email alerts at most 75% of the time if I am sitting still. Otherwise forget it.

  3. Bob S. February 22, 2018 at 5:24 pm #

    Does the chest strap for your Ambit3 work with the “Baro” and how well does the “Baro” optical HRM compare with the fenix 5 optical HRM?

    Not to nitpick but Suunto’s first GPS/ABC watch was the x9 series.

    • Andrew Skurka February 22, 2018 at 6:32 pm #

      Yes, both use the Smart Sensor, which is Bluetooth compatible. Neither watch works with older ANT devices like the Duel Comfort.

      In sharing wrist HRM experiences with my friend, it seems that the experiences are highly individual. For him, he found that the Baro was about 30 bpm short on uphills, 30 bpm over on downhills, and “predictably inaccurate” on flats. He thought the Fenix 5X wrist HR was much worse, totally unusable. My experience was somewhat the opposite: the Fenix 5X was usually 5-10 bpm off, but overall about right; but the Baro was useless.

      Wrist HR technology is simply not there yet. You can use it for “directional” trends, but for any serious HR training you absolutely need a chest strap.

      • Bob S. February 22, 2018 at 9:37 pm #

        I noticed similar issues with the accuracy between wrist monitors and chest straps being off by more than 30 BPM but the average heartrate was only off by a beat or two per minute over the duration of the activity. It made me question if the device was not accurate counting heartbeats or if there was just a difference in the time it takes for the devices to display the data which I suppose could look pretty drastic when your heartrate changes faster then the watch can keep up. Only caveat is wrist-based HRMs have a tendency to momentarily drop up which produces an ugly graph, annoying readings for a second or two, and little affect on the overall average data.

        I guess it depends on what your definition of accuracy is in consumer electronics.

      • Jay February 23, 2018 at 10:16 am #

        My watch (Garmin FR235) does an okay job with HR in aggregate, but at any specific moment and I’m as liable to get a very high reading as I am to get a very low one.

        During exercise, if I’m doing intervals, for example, I know about what my heart rate should be, but the watch is consistently pretty high (at least 10 BPM, often 20 or so) and lags a good 30 seconds to a minute or more in showing the change in heart rate. And it simply doesn’t work when I’m riding a bike (or swinging a kettlebell or doing anything that causes the muscles in the forearms to be contracted for any extended period of time). It also sometimes locks in with my cadence instead of my heart rate. I’ve done hourlong runs and had my watch record my heart rate between 170 and 180 for the entire time.

        Anyway, these are all within the realm of known issues with wrist HR. Ray Maker at DCRainmaker.com does a lot of testing and writing about sports tech, and has had some interesting things to say about all this stuff, too.

  4. Steve February 28, 2018 at 2:37 pm #

    I think you should try out the Spartan Ultra, which I think is much more what you are looking for. I have one and love it. Wrist HR monitors are notorious for their inaccuracies, and the Ultra doesn’t do wrist, it’s a chest strap. Since I’m using the Ultra primarily for hiking, I didn’t bother getting the model with the included HR monitor (besides, the included strap wouldn’t fit my 46″ chest). I was able to get one for $380 from a major online watch retailer (including a $20 first time buyer coupon), which is still available as of my writing of the review. At that price, I decided it was a good upgrade to the Ambit3. The Ultra’s battery life is much better (specs say 140 hours vs 40 hours for the baro) and has GPS ABC. You are able to lock the screen and use the buttons only. The breadcrumb trail is a great feature, as seeing where I am relative to where I want to go (my waypoints) is very useful. I believe to add their HR monitor with the Ultra is an additional $40.

    • Andrew Skurka February 28, 2018 at 2:52 pm #

      I agree, the Ultra is probably a better fit for me. In my recent review about the Ambit3 Peak, the Ultra is the only watch that I identified as rivaling it, and in some respects it’s quite a bit better (e.g. color screen, vibration alarms, more (albeit limited) smartwatch and activity tracking features). For only $50-75 more, it seems like a reasonable choice over the Ambit. When I bought my Ambit last August, the Ultra was still selling in the $500’s, I think.

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