MEC Ultra/Trail Runing GPS Test Champion (June 2016)

Ok, after a year and a bit we’ve finally exhausted the MEC’s pool of GPS trail running watches. This has included Garmin’s FR310XT, FR910XT, fēnix 2, and fēnix 3, Suunto’s Ambit2, and Ambit3 Peak, and Polar’s V800. Having put all these through extensive and objective real world trail testing we learnt a few things.

How to test

The context of testing is critical, just because it performs in a suburban park doesn’t mean much in the trail conditions you are likely to encounter in NZ. And sample size matters, some issues just don’t present after a weekend’s worth of fun. You need to repeat the test again, and again. And again. All the time controlling for conditions. Finally you need to test against some actual known truth, ie. a properly surveyed course.

Who to believe

Watch marketing is obviously heavily pitched towards the feature list and the vast majority of review sites do little more than extend the marketing reach of the brands. ‘Good’ reviews close to release date may shift product, but are ultimately meaningless if they don’t test what is important to you. And explaining features is not really testing, it’s like counting the tyres and calling it a race car. So ask yourself, honestly, is your review site of choice really testing or just teasing with a bunch of nice pics and gadget jargon.

We get it, it’s difficult and time consuming undertaking quantitative real world reviews with so many factors in play. But we care a lot about accuracy. We also are rather keen on reliability and the practical implementation of features (aka functionality). And true battery life in real trail running situations, we really do absolutely need to know if a watch can last more than 12hrs. Bottom line for us, performance equates to authenticity at this price point.

And you know what, it turns out you can’t take accuracy, performance, or reliability for granted. Even models from the same brand can fare very differently. We are reviewing these GPS watches simply because we want to see great trail watches from a variety of brands. That’s it. No sales agenda, no brand preference.

And the envelope please…

So our pick of trail GPS watches for NZ conditions? If accuracy, reliability, and endurance are your thing Suunto’s Ambit3 Peak is well clear of the rest. It tops all the accuracy tests we measure, and won the battery endurance test to boot. It’s not all roses though, the screen is a bit limited, there’s no vibrate alert, buttons are rather non-responsive, course navigation is basic (though still beats the competition with waypoint alerts on the breadcrumb course), and the battery savings modes aren’t very ultra friendly, and that charging clip! Also the Android mobile app is still not up to standard with daily re-pairing required (July 7 update – Ambit3 FW version 2.2.16 with app version 1.3.1 has survived a couple of days without losing connection).

See here for Trail Running GPS Review Roundup (June 2016) with links to each full review

If you don’t want to splash out big bucks and still value accuracy and endurance if you can find a Suunto Ambit2 or Garmin FR910XT you’d be well served (note the 910XT not the 920XT – which we haven’t tested).

And if you absolutely must have all the gazzilion features of the fēnix 3, or simply wish to support Garmin for their excellent openness towards data, you’ll be ceding a fair amount of accuracy and endurance (without a battery I.V. hookup). That said the fēnix 3’s screen, vibrate, and positive feel buttons make the user experience better than the rest.

So what now?

So now we’ve finished with the pool of available watches now what? Sure there are some more recent models, Garmin’s FT920XT, the fēnix 3 HR, and FR735XT. Yet I can’t see anyone in MEC ditching their current watches as none of those really add anything to the trail, and all have reduced battery life. Suunto’s pending Spartan Ultra looks intriguing, though with the touch screen and lack of detailed specs we’ll be waiting to see how that pans out before leaping in (especially at that price point).

In the interim we are reviewing Sony’s waterproof Xperia Z5 Compact with the Sports Tracker app (another Finn) as the combo gives barometric altitude and manual lapping capabilities. At present it’s beating about half the GPS watches in terms of accuracy. Looking forward to seeing if we can outrun it in the battery endurance test.

Also our lead tester, Ron, is about to go on a 6 month sabbatical in Italy so lots of running but not so much testing.

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