Road Test: Exploring the Latest in Multisport Watch Technology

I’m a bit of a tech geek at heart and love playing with new toys and gadgets, so I felt like a kid in a candy store at work recently when I was asked to review the latest offerings in multisport watch technology – the Suunto Spartan Sport Wrist HR and the Garmin Fenix 5S. When the courier delivered the packages, it was like Christmas morning, and after opening the boxes, I was itching to have a play.

Both watches had a similar style, boxed packaging, with each box containing the watch, the charging cable and the user manual. The Garmin came with a black silicone band and a silver bezel, while the Suunto came with a bright blue band and a black bezel. Even though the Garmin, with the black band, looks very elegant, it was love at first sight when I saw the Suunto – I think I may have even let out an excited, “wow” at the colour of the watch and band. I love anything bright, so the bright blue definitely caught my eye. Both watches do come in a range of colours though, so I may have had the same reaction if the Garmin I got came with a coloured band.

The Suunto comes in thicker bright blue, black and light pink bands, which look like they would be quite durable. Durability is exactly what you want in a multisport watch – there’s nothing worse than losing your watch in an open water swim, for example, because the band has broken and the watch has come off. The Garmin band comes in a range of colours and styles as well – from black, blue and yellow to white and red. But the cool extra feature in the Garmin is that the bands are designed to pop on and off easily and quickly, meaning you can match your watch to your outfit without having to buy a whole new watch. The bands easily clip on and off – there is a lever, with a single-press button, below the band, against your wrist. The only thing here is, after wear and tear, will this potentially mean issues with the watch coming off in the water? The lever and button are below the band, and against your wrist, so this hopefully shouldn’t happen – it’s something to look out for.

As mentioned above, both watches came with a charging cable – really, you’d expect this to be the case! The cables for both the Suunto and Garmin come with a USB port – so, just plug it into your computer and let the charging begin. Both cables clip securely into the back of the watch – this does mean that you can’t have the watch on your wrist when charging. No real issue but may be a pain if you’re competing in a multi-day event and you want to quickly charge your watch using a battery pack, while you’re on the go – you’ll have to take the watch off to charge it.

Next up, the watch face.

The two main differences between the watch face of the Suunto and the Garmin are the size and functionality. Both have colour screens, and you can customise both screens as desired. But the Suunto is bigger than the Garmin. This isn’t a massive issue – the Suunto still felt fine to wear during training, and I really didn’t notice the size too much. However, aesthetically, particularly for a small female wrist, the Garmin looks better and more in proportion. The Suunto, when compared to the Garmin, almost looks like I’m wearing a small satellite dish. But I’m being picky here and like I said, this didn’t affect the wear of the watch at all. In fact, I really only noticed the size when I put on the Garmin after having worn the Suunto.    

The main difference in the functionality of the watch face between the Suunto and the Garmin is that the Suunto is touch screen. It took a little bit of time getting used to the touch screen, and it was a little frustrating at times during training because I’m so used to the buttons on a Garmin, and knowing exactly what to press and when to capture my training data. But this is no reflection on the watch itself – it’s a case of getting used to it. Although, I did find that the touch screen on the Suunto a little unresponsive at times, especially if my hands were sweaty and in the pool. However, the Suunto watch face does also come with three buttons on one side of the watch to help in these situations.

Possibly my favourite feature of both watches is the wrist HR (heart rate) sensor. Goodbye heart rate strap – it’s not me, it’s you! Monitoring your HR during training is useful in that it helps with keeping to the prescribed intensity and it can be used to calculate other data such as total calories burned. But wearing a HR strap, for me anyway, can be a pain in the…! HR straps can cause some serious chaffing and often slide down – they’re just annoying. Who’s with me? Doing away with the strap has been the best thing.

Both the Suunto and the Garmin use wrist HR technology – the Garmin uses Garmin’s signature Elevate™ optical wrist-based HR technology, whereas the Suunto uses Valencell, which is said to be the most accurate biometric sensor for wearable sports technology. The way wrist HR technology works is – underneath both watches are green optical sensors, which, when placed on your skin, detect your HR. The optical sensors are green as it is said green sensors better detect HR across a broader range of skin tones. You need to make sure the watch is on firmly and above the wrist bone to get the most accurate reading. It’s useful to note that wrist HR doesn’t work as well in water as water passing through, between the watch and your wrist is said to interrupt the technology.

Goodbye heart rate strap – it’s not me, it’s you. — Margaret Mielczarek

In terms of HR monitoring, the main difference between the two watches is that the Garmin measures 24-hour HR, sampling your HR every 1-2 seconds, regardless of whether you’re at rest or training. Whereas the Suunto is not able to measure 24-hour HR. Instead, the Suunto lets you check your HR throughout the day as desired, showing you your HR trend over the previous five minutes. Both watches measure HR in training. Knowing HR trends (including HR trends at rest) is useful to help detect any potential issues such as illness. This makes the Garmin the stand out in this case.

Another difference between the watches worth mentioning is the ability of the watches to sync and save collected data with their respective Apps – Garmin Connect and Movescount. The Garmin saves collected data on Garmin Connect, including the 24-hour HR, and resting and average resting HR. Unfortunately, Suunto only saves training data on Movescount and doesn’t save the HR trends at rest. This again, makes the Garmin the standout.     

With the plethora of gadgets and App’s available on the market to measure and monitor your training data, you’d be hard pressed to find a triathlete who isn’t number-obsessed. “Have you seen my latest ride on Strava,” sound familiar? Both Garmin and Suunto have come to the party when it comes to data collecting with easy to use App’s that sync with their respective watches, enabling better data interpretation, along with an assortment of other functions and capabilities. However, Garmin Connect appears to be the stand out here with a lot more information being available to the athlete, including HR, stress scores, training load, VO2 max, training effect, time in training zones, calories in/out and more. While the Suunto App, Movescount does seem a little more basic in comparison – it has a cool heat map feature, which Garmin Connect doesn’t have. The heat map shows you popular training spots (for say, swim, bike and run) in your area. This is great if you want to train with others. It’s also great if you want to avoid people.

Another cool feature on the Movescount App is the ‘Suunto Movie’ (as far as I can tell, you can only watch this on your phone). Once you’ve uploaded your workout to the App you can watch a movie of your workout – a movie tracking the map where you ran or rode. Throughout the movie you’ll see the title of the workout (bike/run etc.), the date, duration, the location, how many stops you made (great information for your coach – just because you paused your watch doesn’t mean you didn’t stop. Ha!), your fastest time and peak heart rate. What’s more, you can share your Suunto Movie on your socials for your friends and family to see. Along with the heat map, this was probably my favourite feature on the Movescount App.         

I found both Garmin Connect and Movescount easy to use – I had no issue downloading both Apps onto my iPhone (I actually already had the Garmin Connect App on my phone and found no issues adding a new watch to the App). However, I did find initially, that syncing the Garmin to the App to upload my training data took a little longer at the start, compared to the Suunto, but that resolved itself pretty quickly. What’s more, both Garmin Connect and Movescount are integrated into Strava. So, no matter which watch you choose, you can still challenge your mates to that Strava segment!

Other features of both watches worth noting include:

  • Water resistance up to 100m
  • They are both multisport, and you can choose from about 80 sports profiles, including SUPing
  • Long battery life – the battery in both watches seemed to last for days
  • Basic smart features – the Garmin also has weathzer and calendar features, which the Suunto doesn’t
  • Navigational features
  • The ability to create training plans or training routes on each App, which can be downloaded to the watch (for both the Garmin and the Suunto)
  • Activity tracking (step counter)
  • Stopwatch
  • Alarm
  • Compass

The latest offerings in multisport watches, the Garmin and the Suunto are both top of their class. While the Garmin appears to be the superior of the two (particularly for triathletes), Suunto still has some cool features. So, whichever brand you choose, you will get a high-quality multisport watch. But personally, given the extra functions and capabilities of the Garmin – I’d choose the Garmin.

The Cost:

Suunto Spartan Sport Wrist HR: $699

Garmin Fenix 5S: $799

IMAGES: Suunto and Garmin


Margaret Mielczarek

Margaret Mielczarek is the deputy editor at Australian Triathlete Magazine and writes the web series 'Shenanigans of a Deputy 2.0'. She is a passionate age-group triathlete and four-time Ironman finisher - currently in training for Ironman number five!

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