For all of Trail Running Month our Editor Tim was testing out the Suunto 9 Baro Titanium, Suunto’s latest and best multisport GPS watch with a claimed 120 hours of tracking in ‘ultra’ mode. Although running’s his main squeeze, Tim gave it the berries whenever he could and took a deep dive into the techy world of wrist-based tracking.
Remember the battery life on your old Nokia brick? Back in the day, plugging in your phone before going to sleep each night was unheard of, hell, I think it was bad for them, but now charging cables adorn our bedside tables like little life-giving plugs.
Well, prepare to welcome back the glory days, because the Suunto 9 Baro has more charge than Pikachu on a bender. The ‘Ultra’ recording mode can track your activity for 120 hours, that’s 5 whole days.
I’ve spent a few months testing out Suunto’s brand-spanking new multisport GPS watch and honestly, I still feel like I’ve barely scratched the surface. These things have come a long way and the amount of features they pack in is astonishing; I can track my heart rate, track activities from running to swimming to paragliding, navigate by GPS, check my exact altitude with a barometer, track my sleep, count my steps and get notifications about texts and emails.
There are some techy things Suunto isn’t doing that other brands are, like giving you the ability to load music onto your phone and send it to bluetooth headphones, or supporting contactless payment. There’s no doubt that, as a brand aimed at elite athletes (and us plebs who aspire to be), Suunto is focusing on features that help you to track, train and win, rather than smartwatchy gimmicks. I actually originally thought I wanted the music feature, but quickly realised that I’ll almost always have my phone with me anyway, making it pretty redundant.
For the elites, or anyone planning to run an ultramarathon, compete in an adventure race, go rogaining or ride share bikes up Kosci and back, this watch seems like a no-brainer. Even on its most battery-hungry tracking mode it’ll last for 25 hours. Alright, I think that’s my cue to start digging into some headings.
The Suunto 9 Baro is aimed at hardcore athletes and sells itself on robust, reliable engineering and a metric butt-ton of testing time. Obviously only time will tell but as far as the last 2 months are concerned, this thing’s been bombproof. I’ve banged it a bunch of times, used it between -10 and 30+ degrees, taken it up over 5000m and worn it out in the surf, all without any issues. I was worried I scratched it on a wall one time, but it actually scratched the wall.
So what makes the watch so tough? There’s a harder-than-glass sapphire crystal screen, a silicone wrist strap (with 2 holders for the strap) and a body made of ‘glass-fibre reinforced polyamide’ that feels like very tough plastic. On my model, the ‘titanium’, the bezel was made of, well you can guess. It looks excellent and titanium is a tough material, but I think it’s more aesthetic. Finally, the watch is 100m water resistant, so it’s fine for a swim or even a casual dive.
Speaking of looks, the Suunto 9 excels in this department. I’ve never received so many compliments on a watch. Whether this demonstrates my dubious sense of style or the watch’s looks is up for debate, but I reckon it looks pretty hot and just as at home on the trail or in the city.
If you’re into it, the understated black wristband can be pretty quickly swapped out for all kinds of universal straps. There’s no way I’m going to do this but it’s cool to have the option and I’m always a fan of standardisation. Finally, the watch is pretty big, at 50mm wide and 1.7mm thick (I had to start putting my backpack on left strap first to prevent it catching on my wrist) but apart from that, the size didn’t bother me and I didn’t notice the weight.
So how does it feel to use?
To operate the watch you can use the 3 buttons on the right of the watch or the touchscreen. I found the touchscreen nice to use when playing with settings at home, but for running and swimming I had to use the buttons thanks to sweaty fingers. The buttons are very easy to use while on the move but hard to press accidentally, they’re a decent improvement on the smaller buttons on the Suunto Spartan series.
The Suunto 9 Baro has a big LED screen that’s easily viewable in bright sunlight. The size was great for easily snatching a glance at the stat I was after without ruining my stroke or stride. Most of the menus are pretty logical and there’s definitely a ‘no fuss’ approach to the interface. Even the colour screen is pretty simple compared to other fitness watches, I liked this, very Finnish.
The number one thing that the Suunto 9 Baro is made for is tracking your activities, and it does this damn well. I tested out the running, trail running, pool swimming, open water swimming, hiking, mountain biking, SUP boarding and paragliding modes. There are heaps more modes but I reckon this represents a pretty good spread of the watch’s abilities.
The Suunto 9 is using a new Sony GPS that in testing connected quickly and tracked very accurately. The only time I had issues was when I was hiking in Nepal in typically tricky GPS conditions (next to very steep cliffs or in deep, densely forested valleys) and it looked like I climbed out of the valley and fell back down in the space of 5 minutes. This was a bit of a bummer but after a software update I haven’t been able to replicate the issue anywhere in Aus.
The GPS has 3 modes, ‘ok’ (every 2 minutes), ‘good’ (every minute) and ‘best’ (every second). These are tied to the battery performance modes, a major feature of the watch that I’ll deal with below.
One rad feature was FusedSpeed. This is a feature Suunto uses to smooth out speed tracking by combining GPS tracking with wrist accelerometer data. It turns on during fast-paced activities like running, orienteering and some ball sports. Does it work? I reckon so. My watch displayed much more consistent times than other GPS watches I’ve used in the past and responded very quickly to bursts of speed or sudden slowing.
FusedSpeed has been around for about 6 years so it’s not that surprising that Suunto have it dialled in, but FusedAlti and FusedTrack are newer ones that I’ll get to in the barometer and battery sections.
Heart Rate Tracking
The Suunto 9 features an optical heart rate sensor made by Valencell. Apparently it’s pretty high end and in the future will be able to track many more measurements but at the moment, the software only allows it to track how often your heart’s beating.
It does this pretty well. Whilst running you can check your heart rate to see how hard you’re really working, and you can set up ‘power zones’ to keep your training in specific power bands. It even works while swimming, though Suunto admits that the water might mess with it (my heart rate always seemed about 60 beats per minute too low, but admittedly my swimming is a cross between freestyle and drowning).
I digress, if you’re serious about tracking your heartbeat, the Suunto 9 pairs with a whole range of sensors for you to nerd out on.
Another feature of the Suunto 9 is 24 hour heart rate tracking. It’s pretty nifty to see how your heart rate changes throughout the day, but currently this data is only on the watch and doesn’t save anywhere. If it saved you’d be able to get averages and see how you were recovering, or track changes in heart rate and predict getting sick. I’m sure this will be available after a software update.
The model I was testing was called the Suunto 9 Baro Titanium, meaning that the watch had an inbuilt barometer to measure altitude. Why? Basically, GPS-based altitude isn’t as accurate as you might expect, it needs a really clear signal and reacts quite slowly to changes.
If you’re running over hills or using your watch to bag peaks, a barometer that samples every second is going to give you a way better elevation profile and spot heights than any GPS. Just check out this graph from one of my local runs.
That being said, Suunto uses FusedAlti tech to help calibrate and optimise the barometer readings, this combines the barometer readings with GPS data. I used the Suunto 9 Baro up to 5103m above sea level (getting a reading of 5064m, but it was always questionable how accurate the Nepali altitude signs were). After adjusting the ‘known height’ I didn’t notice a readout that seemed off, but I’m not sure why the watch didn’t auto adjust.
The barometer’s always on and you can display the current altitude on the watch face along with the time. Pretty neat!
I didn’t get a chance to test out the storm alarm, but a side feature of the barometer is that it can detect sudden pressure drops and alert you that a storm is probably on its way. This is a pretty smart feature if you’re intending on gallivanting around in the mountains.
Battery life is what the Suunto 9 and Suunto 9 Baro are all about. The core feature is not only a whopping great Lithium-Ion battery in an (only slightly) larger than normal watch, it’s the ability to change modes to make sure you don’t go flat, even when tracking your ultramarathon.
There are 3 battery modes, performance, endurance, and ultra, as well as a custom mode. These modes offer between 25 and 120 hours of tracking time. Admittedly, as performance mode already offers over a day’s worth of tracking, you’ll be using it most of the time.
The Suunto 9 claims that it will last 14 days in ‘watch’ mode and 7 days with 24/7 heart rate tracking and Bluetooth-enabled mobile notifications. How’s this work in person? After using my watch for 11 days I’d tracked 4 short runs, 2 day-hikes, a bike ride and an ocean swim, and it was down to 26%. It’s mental. Reports have this watch running for over 30 hours on performance mode. I can’t run for that long (yet!) but I don’t have any doubts that the Suunto 9 would be with me the whole way. Actually, even if you manage to run the watch dead in ultra mode, it’s got a ‘chrono’ feature that’ll save enough juice to keep just the timer going so at least that info will be complete.
If you’re planning a longer slog (or forget to charge your watch) you can select or change over to a less energy hungry mode. This was all pretty easy to do on the go and it was a relief to not have to end my activity to change modes.
The Suunto 9 also has this sweet little feature where it remembers your normal activities and reminds you that it needs charging. I thought this sounded super gimmicky but right on cue the day before a big run, the reminder made sure I put it on charge. It’s almost more important in a watch with this much battery life, as you don’t charge it every day like a phone. I also tested the charging time: 17% to 100% in 2 hours, 15 minutes, not too shabby!
Changing the battery modes simply changes the settings to save power, from lowering brightness, to turning off vibrations and bluetooth, even heart rate tracking, to give you more juice. I was stoked that there was a custom mode to give you some control. The display timeout on the ultra mode, for instance, could get annoying.
The largest power saving though, will always be GPS refresh rate, but Suunto have been making some big moves to track your big moves (and stop your GPS track looking so angular).
What they’ve come up with is FusedTrack, an algorithm that works with the wrist-based accelerometer and compass to ‘fill in the gaps’ between GPS pickups in ‘good’ or ‘ok’ mode. It only works with running at the moment as you need to be moving about a fair bit, but when I tested the feature out I found it to be pretty impressive — sure it’s not perfect, but considering power you’re saving, the track is super accurate. I reckon with further software updates and calibrations it’ll only continue to get better too. Check out this comparison run:
One thing: you have to calibrate the compass on the Suunto 9 and often I had to do this before using ‘good’ or ‘ok’ mode. I’ve read that this is best done outside, away from metal or powerlines (ideally in a field) but Suunto didn’t really stress this in their own information.
I used the navigation features a few times whilst hiking. Whilst the watch doesn’t provide actual topo maps (that was never its aim) it does have an inbuilt compass that accounts for the tilt of your wrist, can log coordinates and mark Points of Interest, load GPX files used for following pre-set routes (it’ll warn you when you go off-route too) and the ‘Find Back’ feature will point you back to your start point.
These all worked super well — it was a joy to simply check my watch to see if we were on track, instead of whipping out the map, stopping and orienting myself.
Analysis & Training
When I got the Suunto 9 I found the app situation pretty confusing. There was a speccy looking new Suunto app, something called ‘Suunto Movescount’ and finally, the app I was hoping to use: Strava.
So what’s the deal? Basically, Movescount is the old platform and the Suunto app is a rapidly evolving new platform that Suunto is working on. At first I was straddling both apps, using Movescount to sync with Strava (the free app where all my mates post their activity, regardless of the device they’ve bought) and the Suunto app, which has the cleanest interface and best analysis.
Within a few months Suunto had fired through a bunch of updates and it wasn’t long before I could connect with Strava through their new app automatically (and much more effectively) than with Movescount. One gripe I have with both of these apps is that I wasn’t able to upload my activities without the phone connected to the internet. I wasn’t able to check out our hiking route in Nepal each night which was a bit of a bummer, hopefully they can change this.
The map feature in the Suunto app also has another cool feature: heat maps that anonymously show where people have been training in different sports. This is a great way to find new trails in your area and adds to the community feel of the app.
Anyways, I’m not going to dwell on the software aspects too much. The GPS watch game is moving incredibly quickly and most of the watches (this one included) are much more powerful than the software that’s loaded onto them. This is pretty awesome — you won’t be left behind by a flash new model.
Heart Rate & Pace Zones Are Pretty Cool
Once you get serious you might want to start making sure you’re training at certain intensities for certain periods. The Suunto 9 lets you set heart rate and pace zones to ensure you maintain that crankin’ level til the end of your workout. You can even set power zones and pair it with compatible power metres. There’s support for interval training as well if you’re keen.
There are multiple screens for each activity, pulling on over 50 different parameters, and most screens are customisable to display the exact information you’re after (like the time, sometimes that function gets forgotten on these watches). Whilst you can cram up to 7 onto one screen, 5’s a pretty good sweet spot.
You can also choose from a bunch of custom watch faces, with features like showing the sunrise and set, to your daily steps or training goals, digital or analogue. I’ve had it on the sunrise one for a month now because the digital time is quicker to read and there’s something cool about correlating the time with the sun as the day goes on.
So when you’re not running an ultra across a mountain range, how does the Suunto 9 Baro fit into your life? Let’s check it out.
There’s a dual clock so you can easily check the time back home, no auto update though, which was a bummer for a watch that connects to GPS and my phone. There’s step tracking so you can hit your Steptember #goal and estimates of total and active calories burnt — pretty good if you’re dieting. Likewise, there’s a cool feature where the watch estimates the recovery time needed after an activity.
If you’re serious about your rest, there’s a sleep tracking function that was pretty accurate. It knew when I’d slept badly and sometimes putting a number to it reinforced that I should pack it in early. It’s not for everyone but if you do, your watch will also say ‘Good Morning’ on the screen when you wake up, strangely satisfying. I only said ‘Good Morning Suunto’ twice…
One gripe was the temperature tracking. It basically only works if you take the watch off and leave it somewhere for about 20 minutes. I’m not sure how I’d fix this issue if I was responsible for creating a complex GPS multisport watch, but I thought Suunto could have been clearer about just how much it would be affected while being worn.
A Short Note On Price
The Suunto 9 Baro Titanium retails for about $1000; it’s by no means a cheap piece of kit, but I think that’s ok. As a multisport GPS watch at the top of its class it’s not about making compromises and the amount of tech crammed into such a small and tough device is pretty mindblowing. It’s even cheaper than some of its competitors. That being said, there are many less expensive GPS watches that could suit your needs and save you a mint in the process.
Whew! Are you still reading? The length of this review alone should give you an idea about just how much they’ve packed into the Suunto 9 Baro — it’s still surprising me on the regular. Here are my key takeaways:
The Battery Life Is Phenomenal
Truly, this thing lasts and lasts and a bunch of smart, user-friendly features make managing the power levels a breeze. There’s not much on the market right now that can compete for ‘ultra-level’ tracking.
It Screams Function, But It’s Enjoyable To Use
There’s nothing on the Suunto 9 that doesn’t need to be there. The menus are clear, the buttons are logical and it does away with the gimmicky features of some of its competitors. You can tell that the watch is designed for (and by) athletes.
Looks Suave But It’s Tough As Guts
Despite looking fantastic, it’s clear from the materials used (and the fact that mine still looks brand new) that the Suunto 9 is a durable piece of kit. It’s also very comfortable, credit to the ‘thousands of hours of testing’ that went into it.
The heart rate, GPS and altitude tracking were all excellent on the Suunto 9. While I did have a few glitches (GPS isn’t perfect) they were far less than I’ve previously experienced or seen on Strava. The Barometer was also awesome once calibrated.
Tim was provided with the Suunto 9 Baro Titanium for review purposes and got to keep it afterward. The views are entirely his own.
More Gear For The Runner Within