Testing the Suunto 9 Sports Watch

New tech automatically adjusts settings to keep the watch in tracking mode longer, without sacrificing accuracy

The watch comes with three modes that automatically adjust to give you extra battery life. (Courtesy Suunto)
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How many times have you forgotten to charge your fitness watch the night before a long run, then found yourself stopping on the side of the trail to dim your screen and turn off Bluetooth connectivity in an attempt to eke out just a little more juice? Suunto’s newest watch, the Suunto 9 ($600), has a solution for just such a moment. 

The watch comes with three modes (performance, endurance, and ultra) that adjust various settings to preset levels, including vital battery-saving maneuvers: dimming the screen, reducing the saturation of the color display, turning off touchscreen capabilities, and lowering the frequency of GPS tracking from every second to every 60 or 120 seconds.

Normally, lower GPS-tracking frequency means less accurate GPS tracks. To compensate, the Suunto 9 aggregates the user’s speed and direction of travel to fill in the gaps between satellite pings. This FusedTrack technology is not as accurate as regular once-per-second GPS tracking, but Suunto claims it’s more accurate than the readings runners typically get when they reduce GPS frequency to save power. 

Two runs with the new watch were enough for me to understand it represents an important evolution in sports-watch technology, letting athletes adjust to unexpectedly long days on the trail without entirely sacrificing the detailed GPS tracking that makes these devices relevant in the first place.

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(Courtesy Suunto)

The Suunto 9 looks and feels much like Suunto’s Spartan Ultra and Spartan Sport Wrist HR (big and chunky), with much of the same functionality: GLONASS and GPS tracking, altimeter, barometer, and a flurry of sport-specific options like interval timer and heart-rate zone display. But the new battery-life adjustment with FusedTrack puts the Suunto 9 light-years ahead of is predecessors.

Before starting an activity, users can select their preferred battery mode from a menu, which displays the amount of tracking time each mode will yield. Fully charged, the watch can track for 25 (performance), 50 (endurance), or 120 (ultra) hours. In the thriftiest mode, touchscreen, Bluetooth, vibration alerts, and optical heart rate are all shut off; the screen is dimmed to 10 percent and set to go dark after 10 seconds; and GPS is set to update every 120 seconds. 

You can switch modes at any point during a run. If your battery is running low, the watch may even prompt you to do so. Halfway through a morning run, the watch beeped to let me know the battery was at 10 percent and offered more-economical settings to keep the watch alive until I finished. I clicked a single button and it was done. The watch also uses your training history to track what days you typically do long runs, and it reminds you to top off the charge the night before. (I haven’t been using the watch long enough for this feature to kick in.)

As for how well the FusedTrack functions, I have not tested the Suunto 9 on any long, meandering runs (i.e. the kind that require high-frequency GPS pings to produce accurate data), but an out-and-back bike-path run using performance mode in one direction and ultra mode in the other produced distance readings within a few tenths of a mile of each other. That’s pretty good.

This watch, with its top-end sport features and data collection, is most obviously useful for athletes who go out for longer than a single day at a time. But the smart-battery and FusedTrack technologies are relevant far beyond the core endurance realm. They could conceivably be ideal for sailors, hunters, backpackers, travelers, and anyone else who relies on GPS and navigational data during long trips away from regular power access. 

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