Update - Suunto Vertical Titanium Solar GPS Watch
It's not me, It's you
I wasn't entirely thrilled about the performance of Suunto's flagship Vertical model when I reviewed it for the second half of 2023: Suunto Vertical Titanium Wrist Watch.
A seriously powerful watch with an incredible battery life, I found it uncomfortable on my wrist and severely lacking in software performance. The angular and sharp-edged wings of the strap's mounting points dug into my skin if the watch was loose. When the bike was pointed downhill, the vibrations amplified the discomfort and some blood was shed from raw flesh. The UI was slow and buggy and some of the data interpretation was misleading. As of November, an update to the software changed everything, almost.
The classic dress watch design did not mesh with action sports comfort until Polar, Garmin and Suunto started coming up with wearables designed for that purpose. I don't know many people who wear traditional timepieces while mountain biking. Heck, most people don't wear one at all, relying entirely on pocket and wrist computers for daily use.
I still remember my first Casio G-Shock. My mom brought it back from a trip to Japan. It was humongous for my 10-year-old wrist and had a mission and Morse code decoder that was super cool at the time. The scope of my nerdiness continues to be boundless. The Casio G-Shock was the original tough watch, but the industry slowly caught on.
After re-evaluating my traditional approach to wearing a watch, I adjusted my habits slightly since the original review. Because it's not you, it's me. Every wrist is different and how a watch sits on it depends on where and how tight you strap it.
The silicone band on the Suunto is extremely soft and comfortable but the unique one-button keeper comes loose if it snags anything. Just about any 22mm wide strap will work on there and I have had good luck with Barton Elite silicone straps in the past on other watches; a 30 CAD expense if the stock one won't work for you.
The biggest change came in the first week of November when Suunto released a major software update: 2.30.38. This update meant that I had a whole new watch to learn and set up.
The Watch Face
This part remains unchanged, which is a little disappointing. With a complete software overhaul like this, I hoped they would include new watch faces, the ability to modify existing ones or at least an option to download new ones. The watchface I use is simple and can show vital information on the go. I'd like more from it but it may have to wait until the next update.
Moving past the watch face, the location of widgets (god I hate that term) and the addition of the control panel is useful. Instead of widgets scrolling horizontally across the screen, they are now vertically stacked below the watch face. This allows a more three-dimensional menu layering that speeds up access to the information you are looking for.
Speaking of scrolling, the speed at which pages slide across the screen has improved dramatically. This not only makes using the watch and its functions easier and more tolerable, but actually possible. The touchscreen interface now works and is a great way to get through information quickly. The screen is a little too sensitive for use when it's raining as it gets confused by raindrops on its surface. Buttons still work excellently in those cases.
Suunto also incorporated some features Garmin users are bragging about like long hold functions for the quick access button. You can also pin a widget for frequent use and a few other functions like the flashlight.
It's not you, it's me
One update that deserves the biggest applause is the addition of HRV (Heart Rate Variability) reading. HRV is a measurement of the pauses between heartbeats. It turns out the heart does not tick like a metronome and has a degree of variability between each beat that can carry important information. I am just tapping into the potential that is HRV information. So far the statistics on what happens to my HRV are quite interesting when I train hard or slack off. The main focus of HRV monitoring is to see if your parasympathetic and sympathetic nervous systems are working as they should.
The parasympathetic nervous system controls your internal organs and keeps you alive. It's like an autopilot that is responsible for involuntary functions, while the sympathetic nervous system controls how your body reacts to demand. That may be a demand for increased blood flow for exercise, physical exercise and impacts, injuries and everything that triggers a fight or flight response. These systems compete with each other to control heart rate. While the sympathetic system wants to speed up your heart rate for immediate blood and hormonal response, the parasympathetic system wants to do the opposite by slowing the heart rate down for recovery and basic functions. This battle is evidently good for your heart and the variability is important within a range for your age group and fitness levels. There is no specific number that is acceptable and everybody is unique. The Suunto Vertical has been helping me establish my norms since the update.
HRV is measured while sleeping at resting heart rate as that's when you get the most accurate results. Some research suggests measuring the HRV first thing when you wake up but Suunto won't tell you exactly what part of the sleep cycle the HRV is monitored at. For the HRV to work, Suunto had to improve their sleep tracking algorithms.
Sleep stats are not only more consistent with my nightly observations but also more realistic too. Before the update, the app tracked your sleep on the hours you set manually and not outside of those parameters. It is more flexible now and if you do happen to wake up in the middle of the night and fall back asleep, the tracking will account for that. So an hour of doom scrolling at 3am will register as awake hours (in a zombie sense) and if you do manage to fall back asleep, your total sleep time will reflect that second part. The 'Good Morning' welcome message now appears almost immediately after getting up or pressing a button. This increase in accuracy was necessary for reliable HRV data which I found fascinatingly drifted into HIGH when I went on a vacation and did not raise my heart rate over 130bpm for 2 weeks. This informed me of my successful, extreme recovery and low-stress situation. My heart rate could beat at a more relaxed pace as it bathed in sweet feta cheese and rich Turkish pastries.
As soon as I got back to the North Shore and jumped on the bike for 5 days in a row and pedalled my ass off, HRV levels started to level out to my normal range for a relatively fit person, who is working to improve. This was reassuring and a great reminder that, while on vacation, just make the effort to do some exercise especially if there is copious amounts of cheese involved.
The HRV values are shown daily, weekly and bi-monthly. Nightly readings are taken and averaged into your weekly stats which are then formed into your normal range over the course of 60 days as long as you let the watch take a minimum of 14 measurements. Not impossible even if you don't like wearing your watch to sleep every night.
There is a ton of reading to be done on HRV and how paying attention to it can benefit your health. I am diving deeper into this as I train for upcoming events. So far, I am placing myself in the hands of the Suunto Coach as it prepares me for a pretty shitty heart exploder of a race in Whistler at the end of May.
Room for Improvement
I think Suunto has taken an excellent step forward with the latest update. If you have this watch, I recommend going for the update. There are still several areas in which the firmware is lagging behind its competitors. Mapping did get a worthy update with the ability to zoom out to a 2km radius which makes it infinitely more useful but the lack of topo lines at that zoom level (it stops showing lines at the 50m radius) and the overall lack of labels is still unacceptable. In a familiar area, you are less likely to use the maps so the labels and elevation values would make the map feature much more useful. The app is still a decent way of creating routes and sending them to the watch to follow if you do need some guidance in the wilderness.
On my international trips, I've noticed confusion in the software as I took my phone out of airplane mode upon landing (I know some of you never put it in that mode to begin with). The time updated almost immediately as it talked to the phone but the sunrise, sunset and weather information does not automatically update. You need to do this manually by syncing to the app and in the Sun/Moon case, pulling up the map function to get a GPS lock to update those parameters, which is almost impossible indoors.
Again, a very minor complaint but when you take 9 flights within 2 weeks, the problem escalates.
Not everyone deserves a second chance but the Suunto Vertical earned its keep on my wrist despite its shortcomings. As Finnish engineers iron out the kinks their design was initially riddled with, the user experience has exponentially increased. There's a way to go until a Garmin-level of wrist integration is reached and the prices need to come down to make the boutique option more palatable. The very recently released Suunto Race has a better price tag with almost identical features save for the solar charging. I would consider that in a heartbeat if I was training or regularly recorded my activities.
Everyone else please get yourself a nice little number from Farer, Seiko or even Citizen. Do not forget the Casio classics and if you want a-full blown computer on your wrist, an Apple Watch Ultra. I think life is better with fewer screens screaming at us from all angles, but for those who take pleasure in wrist-based data collectors, there has never been a better time.