For a week I have been wearing a borrowed Garmin Fenix 5X, which is Garmin’s flagship multi-sport GPS sport watch. I’m a longtime user of the Suunto Ambit3 Peak (and, before that, the Ambit2), and this first-hand experience with a competing brand and product has been informative.
I’ve always been curious how the Ambit3 compares to the Fenix 5, and what would compel the purchase of one model over the other. The differences are more significant than I thought they would be, and to make an informed buying decision you need not immerse yourself in the minutia of product specs. It’s easier than that.
Before I compare the Fenix and Ambit models, let me give a quick overview of each collection.
The Fenix 5X is the most feature-rich of the three-watch Fenix 5 family. Versus the base Garmin Fenix 5, the 5X has a larger face so that it better displays pre-loaded 100k topographic maps. (The 5X is the only map-enabled Fenix watch.) The Garmin Fenix 5S is a shrunken version of the Fenix 5, with identical software but a smaller face and less battery life.
For the remainder of this article I will cumulatively refer to these watches as the Fenix 5. For a more in-depth explanation of their differences, read this preview.
The Ambit3 Peak is the top-of-the-line Ambit, followed by the Ambit3 Vertical. There is also an Ambit3 Sport and Ambit3 Run, but they have been discontinued and are being sold out. The Ambit3 Peak is more accurate and has a longer lifespan than the Vertical, while the Vertical has a vibration alarm and comes in a smaller package.
Again, for simplicity I will refer to these watches as the Ambit3. To better understand this family, and Suunto’s other GPS watches like the Spartan series, read this history.
The Ambit3 is ideally suited for endurance sports like running, biking, and hiking. It tracks pace, distance, vertical change, heart rate (with a compatible heart rate monitor), and other key exercise metrics, with a surprising level of accuracy.
It’s almost exclusively an exercise watch, and is best thought of as workout gear: like my running vest or trail shoes, I put on the Ambit3 before working out and take it off afterwards. Between exercise sessions, it’s of little value.
The Fenix 5, meanwhile, combines the functionality of the Ambit3 with the design ethos and features of a smart device like the Apple Watch and an activity tracker like the Fitbit Charge 2. It is meant to be worn all day, which its relatively refined looks (at least for an athletic watch) makes generally permissible.
In addition to recording the details of your run or ride, the Fenix 5 will alert you after long periods of inactivity (i.e. “Hey, you, step away from your desk.”), track you sleeping patterns, and even tell you the distance to the 8th hole from your current spot on the fairway.
Through Connect IQ, more functionality can be unlocked by downloading free apps. For example, the Uber app will display the name of your driver, a description of their vehicle, and their exact ETA. There is a Suunto app store, too, but the programs are overwhelmingly exercise-centric.
The Fenix 5 and Ambit3 are analogous to an iPhone and Google Pixel 2. Similar in function, but so sophisticated and different that it will take days or maybe weeks for an expert user of one device to become proficient in the other.
The Ambit3 is part of the Suunto ecosystem. It connects through Moveslink desktop software or the Movescount app, and recorded data is displayed in the Movescount online portal or the Movescount app. If interested, the data can be forwarded to an independent platform like Strava.
In contrast, the Fenix 5 is part of the Garmin ecosystem. It connects through Garmin Express desktop software or the Garmin Connect app, and recorded data is displayed in the Garmin Connect online portal or the Connect app. If interested, the data can be forwarded to an independent platform like Strava.
In terms of functionality, my experience with both ecosystems has been positive. They’ve now each developed three or four generations of GPS watches, and in the process they have found and fixed most of the bugs. Software is updated automatically and doesn’t cause crashes; accessory devices pair successfully; and the platforms don’t go down.
Design and user interface
The Ambit3 is utilitarian: it works exactly as intended, but has little polish. Most notably, it has a two-color matrix display (which limits the styling of data fields and menu system), and the GPS antenna awkwardly protrudes from the bezel. When I asked my wife to describe it, she said, “It’s very plain, kind of ugly.”
Similarly little effort has been invested into beautify-ing the Movescount platform, which has a dark background, small type, limited color palette, and always stoic imagery.
The Fenix 5 and the Garmin Connect platform are more refined and welcoming. The Fenix 5 has a high-resolution color display and clean look. When I showed it to my wife, she immediately said, “I like that one a lot better.” Garmin Connect has a fun, light, and colorful look, and celebrates everyday-looking people.
Critical specs and features
As previously stated, the Amit3 and Fenix 5 will both accurately track your run, ride, hike, and other activities. They record very similar data, including all of the most important stuff.
I give the Fenix 5 a slight edge in exercise tracking because of its optical heart rate monitor. I have not found it reliable enough for specific heart rate-based training or racing — it’s often off by 5-10 bpm at any given moment. However, the average HR is usually within 1-2 bpm, which makes it accurate enough for easy runs or unstructured training.
Activity tracker and smart watch
The Fenix 5 also serves as an activity tracker and smart watch. The Ambit3 really doesn’t try.
Unless you’re into ultra-distance events (e.g. ultra marathons, 24-hour races, adventure races) or backpacking, the battery life of both watches is sufficient. The Fenix 5 models range from 14 to 24 hours with 1-second GPS pings, and 35 to 60 hours in UltraTrac mode, which is less accurate.
The Ambit3 gets the win here. The Peak is rated at 20, 30, and 200 hours when the GPS ping is set to 1, 5, and 60 seconds, respectively.
The Ambit3 and Fenix 5 both have a barometer-based altimeter, which is useful for navigating in mountainous environments. They also have a digital compass, which is handy for finding north but not much more; and some other clumsy or frustratingly hidden features that I don’t bother to use.
The Fenix 5X is unique for having pre-loaded 100k topographic maps. For serious navigation I prefer paper maps on 11 x 17 paper, but I could see occasional value in this feature if running or day-hiking in an unfamiliar place.
Overall, the Fenix 5 is “better” than the Ambit3, with superior functionality and design.
However, how valuable is that extra functionality and gloss? I can’t answer that for you, but personally I don’t feel like I’ve missed out for the past 36 years of my life because I didn’t have a watch that tracks how many glasses of water I have drank today.
If you decide you want the Fenix 5, you will pay a premium for it. Retail prices on the Fenix 5S, Fenix 5, and Fenix 5X are $550, $550, and $650, respectively, with a $100-$150 extra charge for a sapphire face and $70 more for a heart rate strap. Garmin controls their distribution tightly, and you won’t see them available for less in the usual places (e.g. Amazon).
The Ambit3 costs substantially less. The base Ambit3 Peak is available online for low-$300’s, and the heart rate strap bundle adds about $25.
Bottom line: My buying advice
If you want the better watch and can afford it, go with the Fenix 5. The 5 will work for most. The 5S will be preferred by those with smaller wrists. And the 5X may be worthwhile if you would at least occasionally rely on the pre-loaded 100k maps.
If you would like to have an activity tracker and/or smart watch in addition to a multi-sport GPS watch, again go with the Garmin. It may actually save you money, if you would otherwise buy one of these devices.
If you just need a multi-sport GPS watch, buy the Suunto Ambit3 Peak. I love mine, and you won’t be disappointed.
If you want a watch for backpacking or ultra-distance events, the Ambit3 is the winner again.
Need help in making a decision? Leave a comment.
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