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Review: The Suunto Ambit2 R GPS has features for indoors and out

Review: The Suunto Ambit2 R GPS has features for indoors and out

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Go ahead, start wearing your Ambit2 R GPS watch in the gym. Really, do it.

Why? We’ll tell you in a bit.

But first, the specs.

The Ambit2 R is Suunto’s running-specific GPS watch and the much cheaper alternative to the pricier multi-sport Ambit2 and Ambit2 S.

How much cheaper? The R will run you $249 ($299 with heart rate monitor) compared to the S’s $350 ($400 with HRM) and the Ambit 2′s $500 ($550 with HRM; splurge and get the Saphire for $600 and $650).

[We've got eyes on the Ambit3 Peak ($500-$650, available in September), more on that later.]

So which features do you have to sacrifice to save all that money?

Obviously if you want to use this for anything other than running you’d be out of luck. It can calculate cycling speed — based on GPS data — but it won’t pair with bike computers; and while you can swim with it — it’s water resistant to 50 meters —  it won’t track laps. For those features you’d need to upgrade to the S or the Ambit2.

But as a runner, the only feature I miss are the live temperature readings (which frankly aren’t super accurate) and the long-life battery.

 

Battery life

The Ambit2 R gives you the same ability to change the GPS cycle rate as the other Ambits. (Decreasing the frequency that your watch pings the satellites will increase your battery life, but decrease the accuracy of the data. It’s a tradeoff, you can’t have both. Sorry.)

The R and the S have the same battery life: 8 hours at once-per-second, 12 hours at once-per-5 seconds and 25 hours at once-per minute.

The Ambit2 has way more: 16 hours at once-per-second, 24 hours at once-per-5 seconds and 50 hours at once-per-60 seconds. This is why it costs the big bucks.

As a mid-pack ultrarunner I’ve found that the R has enough battery life for most of my races. For 50Ks I set it to the once-per-second “Running” mode. For faster 50-milers I can probably get by with the once-per-5 seconds “Trail running” mode. For a recent over-night 50-miler I chose to run on the one-per-minute setting to give myself some extra breathing room. Even then the watch tracked 49.75 miles of the 51ish I actually ran. In my eyes that’s pretty close.

Want to go even farther? Here’s how to do it with the R.

I ran my first 100-miler this month. Going into the race I assumed the battery life at once-per-minute would be closer to 22 or 23 hours rather than the advertised 25. I’m not that fast, so I extended the battery by charging the watch mid-race with an external battery. The R charging cable stayed snugly in place even while I was wearing the watch and the screen showed all the display modes. The only annoying part was dealing with the cord. I tended to shove the whole thing in the pocket of my handheld, and then just stay tethered to it until my watch is fully charged.

If you already own an external battery then this makes sense. If you don’t, then shelling out $300 for the watch and $100 for the battery puts you in striking distance cost-wise to the Ambit2 and its longer battery life.

 

FusedSpeed

This feature combines GPS with the watch’s integrated accelerometer to provides a more accurate graph of pace data. It’ll also help the watch recognize changes in pace more quickly by tracking cadence through the motion of your arm swing. It’s a great feature that’ll help bridge the gap in data if you lose satellite signal. FusedSpeed by default is already on with most sport modes. Which segues into …

 

Sport modes

You can’t change the display settings on any of the Ambits, which is why the sports modes come in so handy. The R is preset with several modes, including indoor running, track running, regular running and trail running. You can also set it to Run a POI and Run a Route. Each mode can have up to eight customized data screens. This is also the place where you can tell the R to look for accessories such as a foot pod or heart rate monitor, change the auto pause, auto lap and GPS frequency. Each mode can have its own batch of customized settings.

But here’s the most useful part: Because you can’t change the GPS cycle rate on the watch itself, you can set up a different cycle rate on different sport modes. This lets you change your cycle rate settings after you’ve stepped away from your computer. I have mine set up like this:

Running: once-every second.

Trail Running: once-every-5 seconds.

Ultrarunning: (I created this one) once-every-minute.

Then, instead of picking your sport mode by what you’re actually doing (road vs trail), pick it based on which battery length you need. You just have to remember which one is which, so name them accordingly.

 

Indoor Running

This is the first GPS watch I’ve tried that is actually useful in the gym. My tried-and-true Garmin Forerunner 310 XT didn’t have a standby mode, so it was utterly useless unless it was on and connected to satellites. The R on the other hand acts as a normal watch without satellite connectivity.

But the feature I’ve grown to love is the indoor running mode. This lets me track my treadmill runs in Movescount and lets me monitor my heart rate while I lift or do other cardio.

The watch likely tracks distance based on the built-in accelerometer. I’ve noticed it’s less accurate when I’m running slower, but at faster speeds it’s pretty dead on. The indoor setting will track your cadence, speed, distance and time.

 

Fit

I bought the white version because it has the softer silicon band, advertised to fit women’s wrists better. Does it? Eh. The fit of GPS watches will always be determined by the size of the watch face — which is never small — meaning most watches move quite a bit on my tiny bird wrists. This one does fit better than most, and the white is reasonably attractive enough that I don’t feel like a huge nerd wearing it outside of running.

The heart rate strap is soft, not plastic like some other brands. It’s as comfortable as a heart rate strap can be and adjusts to fit a large variety of sizes.

 

Movescount

Movescount — Suunto’s online platform — still needs some work.  What I miss most, coming from Garmin Connect, is an easy comparison between elapsed time and moving time. So far, I have been unable to locate any option for moving time, which I find useful to let me know how much time I wasted lingering at an aid station or stuck at a stop light. Pausing the watch when stopped will give you a more-accurate look at your total moving time, but the pauses will be factored into your lap splits, giving you a skewed look at your mile-to-mile pace changes.

(For example, if you ran for nine minutes, paused the watch for a minute at a stop light, then ran another minute to finish a 10:00-mile, Movescount shows you an 11:00 pace for the the mile, not the 10:00 minutes you were actually running.)

It’s now integrated with Stava, which I’ve found has a much more useful data set and better graphs. Link the two in Movescount, then upload your moves through the Movescount plug-in and they will automatically show up in Strava. The site will show you your total moving time vs elapsed time, but — as far as I can tell — will not show you moving vs elapsed in splits. I’m also not putting a lot of faith in Strava’s method to calculate moving time from Suunto’s data. It tells me during most ultras that my moving time is hours faster than it actually is. At the 100-miler, my elapsed time was 24:55 and Strava said my moving time was 15:33. Sorry, Strava, I did not take a 10-hour nap in the middle of the race.

Strava will also show you something they call GAP — grade adjusted pace — which I don’t find particularly useful.

According to them: “Grade Adjusted Pace estimates an equivalent pace when running on flat land, allowing the runner to compare hilly and flat runs more easily. Because running uphill requires extra effort, the Grade Adjusted Pace will be faster than the actual pace run. When running downhill, the Grade Adjusted Pace will be slower than the actual pace.”

I don’t really care how fast my pace could be if the hilly, technical trail were suddenly flat and smooth. It’s never going to be, so why bother thinking about it?

Pros

  • You don’t have to activate the GPS to get the time, the R will last up to 14 days in standby mode.
  • The  indoor running mode will track distance and heart rate, so you don’t have to manually enter your treadmill runs.
  • The price.
  • It’s nicer looking than most GPS watches. I don’t feel silly wearing mine in public.

Cons

  • The short battery life and inability to change settings on the watch means you have to plan ahead.
  • Movescount lacks some of the better features of Garmin Connect.

Verdict:

The moving time vs elapsed time data is what I miss most after dumping Garmin. But it’s still not worth giving up the Ambit. It’s nice looking and it works nicely. And for $250, there’s not much else on the market that compares.

Get it: www.suunto.com. $249; $299 with HRM.

Sara Davidson

Sara Davidson is an ultrarunner and contributor to PT365. She's run 7 marathons and 32 ultramarathons -- including her first 100-miler. This fall she is training for the Marine Corps Marathon using our PT365 Run Plan. Reach her at sdavidson@gannett.com .