Anybody used the Suunto Observer?

9:43 p.m. on May 16, 2005 (EDT)

Is it any good? are the various features, compass, altimeter, etc. accurate? If you haven't used the Suunto, any general thoughts about wristop computers?

12:09 p.m. on May 17, 2005 (EDT)
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Suunto and wristop "computers" generally

While I haven't used the Observer specifically, the innards of Suuntos are pretty much the same, except for (1) some extra chips on the boards of the fancier ones and (2) fancier cases and straps (in some models tripling or quadrupling the price for the same unit).

I have a Vector which I have had for something like 6 or 7 years and an X6 more recently. I had an X6HR briefly, which Suunto sent me instead of the X6 I had requested, but without the transmitter strap.

At this point, Suunto has about a million different versions, with another million versions coming out next year. Ok, that's a bit of an exageration, but they have something like 21 different ones. The most basic is the Altimax with "only" watch, stopwatch, altimeter, and barometer functions (no compass). There are 3 (or maybe now 4) versions with GPS receivers in them, specialized for golf, sailing, hiking (the "9" series). Several versions have heart rate monitors in them (frankly, the HR versions are not anywhere near as good as their countrymen's Polar units).

To give some examples of the costs for little difference, the X6 (a "cross-sports", like the Observer) is listed at $359, the X6HR (add heart rate monitor) is $469, the X6HRm (the X6HR in a metal case) is $649, and the X6HRT (a titanium case and titanium "elastomer" wrist band) is $1099.

The Observer has much in common with the X6, T6 and S6 series, and really is not that different from the Vector.

You ask specifically about accuracy of the altimeter and compass. First thing is these are all barometric altimeters with the usual limitations of barometric altimeters. They depend on the atmospheric pressure, which of course varies with the weather. That means you really need to understand how the atmosphere and its movements affect pressure so you can avoid being misled by what seems to be happening. Second is that the Observer and 6 series have a 1 meter step size (3 feet), and the barometer calibration is 1 hP. Since the atmospheric pressure can vary by the equivalent of 10 or 20 feet altitude in a few minutes, and does vary over a day commonly by the equivalent of 100 feet or more, you really need to compare to a calibrated precision altimeter. The wristops don't do all that well compared to a top-quality altimeter or barometer, but are adequate. If you want a very small but accurate altimeter, I suggest either the Kestrel 3500 or 4000 (the 4000 has logging functions) or the Brunton equivalents. I have used my Vector on numerous mountain climbs, including Denali, Ixta, and Orizaba for 17,000+ peaks, and the Vector is adequate, providing you do frequent recalibration at known points and mentally compensate for the peculiarities of the atmosphere. However, the step size of the Vector is really too coarse (5 meters). I have not had the X6 on any big hills, just to our local Sierra. One nice thing about the 6 series is that it has a computer interface for easy download of your hike profile. The Observer does not have the computer interface. The fancier Polar heart rate monitors with altimeter functions (620, 625, 710, 720) have computer interfaces and match calibrated altimeters better than the Suuntos. You should be aware that Suunto, Polar, and the rest of the wristop crowd have a strong warning not to depend on the altimeter in life-critical situations (airplane, hang-gliding, etc).

The compass functions are a bit of a joke, frankly. It is difficult to obtain consistent bearings within 5 degrees when the Suuntos are on your wrist. You are far better off carrying a cheap baseplate compass (Suunto has one for under $10 that is much more accurate, easy to read, and easy to use than any of their wristop units with the flux-gate compasses). For one thing, you have to be very careful to hold the watch level. Another problem is that the flux-gate gets uncalibrated very easily with a large variety of electromagnetic interference. An example is that if you are talking on your cell phone while holding it in the hand with the watch and happen to be on an analog band, it gets decalibrated. Another is that certain electronic ignition systems in cars will decalibrate it (Ford SUVs and pickups, for one group in my personal experience). Static discharges (putting on a nylon shell in dry air, like in the mountains, for example) also do it sometimes. You can spot the problem easily, but having to do the "circle dance" needed for recalibration is annoying, especially since it is usually at a critical moment. No such problems with a basic baseplate compass.

One thing about the X6 and S6 is that they have clinometers and can be used to measure slope. Then again Suunto and Silva (I mean the real Silva in Sweden, sold under the Brunton name in North America) have compasses with more accurate clinometers in them fairly inexpensively). The S6 (the skier version) has some software that takes the slope (store by a button push) and altitude drop during your run to compute the distance travelled and hence (with the stopwatch function) your speed.

I would suggest if you want the functionality, you are better off with the X6 than the Observer. Yeah, ok, the Observer is jazzier looking and more "fashionable". You have to decide - function or fashion. But keep in mind, the compass and altimeter in these watches is only approximate. It is by no means precision. Same goes for the GPS versions. The tiny size of the antenna and fact that it is on your wrist and moving through all sorts of orientations limits the useability and accuracy.

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