Sunday, November 25, 2018

Garmin Fenix 5 Plus or Suunto S9 Baro - Having Trouble Deciding Which? We Compare!

Article by Jeff Valliere
Garmin Fenix 5 Plus or Suunto 9 Baro

Unsure which flagship watch to pull the trigger on for cyber Monday or over the upcoming holiday sales season?

Any of the Fenix 5 Plus series or the Suunto 9 Baro line would be fine choices, but much depends on your use and preferences.  

-Are you an ultra runner looking for maximum battery life?  
-A mountaineer, climber or avid adventurer looking for rugged durability, pulse ox and  mapping functionality?
-A daily runner looking for music, contactless payments and day to day smartwatch functionality? 

We have had the opportunity to review both the Fenix 5 Plus and the Suunto 9 Baro over the past months and are often asked which one we would recommend.That is a bit of a tricky question to answer, but we’ll do our best to weigh the pros and cons of each, as well as what common attributes they share.

For a deeper dive into the details on each, please read our detailed review of the Fenix 5 Plus (here) and Suunto Baro 9 (here).

GPS Accuracy:  Both watches have very comparable GPS accuracy in their best 1 second ping rate interval setting.  Occasionally, one or the other, may drift a bit to one side of the other or cut a corner, but no GPS that I have ever used is immune to having a bad day every now and then.  Both the 5 Plus and S9 Baro track very accurately over time on average, with comparable distance readings and produce a track that closely resembles actual steps taken on the ground.  I would say these two watches are tied for being the most accurate I have used to date-at least equalling my Ambit 3 Peak which I have relied upon as a benchmark.

Altimeter:  Both watches are very close here as well, accurately calculating accumulating vertical over the course of a run.  Like any watch though that relies in part upon a barometric altimeter (both of these do), they are subject to drift due to fluctuations in barometric pressure or rapid variations in altitude.  I have found that with both watches I need to calibrate often to a known elevation if I want fairly accurate altitude readings. Over the course of a review, I will do this often, but over time I slack off and only check in on it once every week or 3.  If I were navigating in tricky terrain and finding key passage at a known elevation were critical, I would certainly calibrate at the trailhead and be confident that I am within 10-20 feet, but for my day to day use, my only real concern is that I get an accurate vertical gain/loss number.  Both of these watches do that quite accurately.

Wrist/Optical Heart Rate:  results will vary from person to person, but I have found accuracy to be comparable with both watches, however they are not always accurate.  In the summer and on my dominant wrist, I get comparably and accurate readings, generally within a beat or half beat over the course of a run with another watch using chest strap, but is often preceded by a ~10 minute "warm up" period.  In colder temperatures however, results can vary wildly, enough so that I don’t even bother to look, either during a run or afterwards, it becomes somewhat of an irrelevant data point. Again, results will vary by individual, but for my thin wrists and in colder temperatures, I would need to use a chest strap for any sort of reliable readings.

Screen resolution/readability/data fields:  Kind of a draw here.  I find that both the 5 Plus and the S9 Baro are very easy to read across the spectrum of lighting conditions.  The S9 Baro I think does a slightly better job utilizing available space on the watch face with a bit more real estate for data fields.  I personally find the Suunto data field preferences to be more configurable and more easy to decipher on the run. This is completely splitting hairs though, as some people that I know find Garmin to be easier to read.  While we are on data fields, with the S9 Baro, you can cycle through data fields while the buttons are locked, where this is not an option with Garmin and I find it annoying to have to unlock buttons on my 5 Plus if I want to cycle through my data field screens.
Overall sport modes and functionality:  Both share a very wide array of options that should satisfy the majority of endurance athletes/multi sport athletes.  Garmin has an edge though with a more diverse selection of supported platforms and compatible devices.

24/7 Tracking: Suunto/S9 Baro will lightly track HR (sampling every few minutes), track sleep, calories burnt, steps, activities, but only shows on the watch for a week and HR for only 4 hours.  Sleep results show once when you wake up, then pfft, gone. Garmin however tracks every aspect of everything you do and provides detailed metrics within Garmin Connect and can be viewed in part on your watch.
Smartwatch functionality and overall customization/configurability:  With the S9 Baro, you can see incoming messages when paired via Bluetooth to your phone and read enough to get the gist of the message, but that is about it.  Improved over previous versions, you can cycle through previous messages and read, but you can’t delete them. Otherwise, there is really no other smartwatch functionality.  

With the Fenix 5 Plus series however, you can read incoming messages and then delete them at will. If you are on Android, you can even reply to messages via preset message options. However this is not yet available for iOS.  

This is just the start. Through the Garmin Connect IQ store, there is a vast selection of widgets, data fields, watch faces and overall handy tools that make the Fenix 5 Plus series appealing for daily use. Though I don't use it very often, the 5 Plus series also offers on board music storage with loading Spotify of playlists on Premium plans, as well as wireless payments by swiping watch over readers at participating stores/restaurants.

Navigational capabilities:  The S9 Baro has trackback capability to backtrack your steps accurately and the ability to navigate by compass/headings. You can load pre-set tracks to follow, but you are only following a very simplistic breadcrumb line.  

In stark contrast, the new 5 Plus series all have built in maps now, as was the case with the Fenix 5X previously. The pre-loaded 100k basemap is quite thorough and detailed, but for greater detail, you can purchase 24k regional topo maps.  As with the S9 Baro, you can navigate by compass/headings or from a pre-loaded track, but is a huge advantage to be able to see surrounding topographic details, nearby points of interests, street detail, trails, rivers, creeks and other bodies of water.  Additionally adding to the mapping functionality, the 5 Plus series offers Trendline Popularity Heat Map Routable Course Building for even easier and more diverse navigational options.

Battery Life:  The S9 Baro averages 25 hours at best GPS setting, while the 5 Plus is advertised at 18 hours, though we find closer to 14-16 hours in real life use.  The 5X Plus advertises 32 hours of battery life, but we have not reviewed that model and can’t confirm. However, Suunto has an ace up its sleeve here with the new Intelligent Battery Modes and FusedTrack, extending battery life up to 140 hours while providing a reasonably accurate GPS track.

Software/Web Platforms/Apps:  Garmin is light years ahead here, with Garmin Connect being reliable and offering robust functionality, where Suunto seems to be struggling with how to consolidate Movescount and their new Suunto app., neither of which are very comprehensive or robust.  Currently there is nothing offered for the S9 in the way of additional customization with widgets, watch apps or custom watch faces, which may sound minor to the hardcore Suunto loyalists, but Suunto even used to offer this with their Ambit series watches, so why it was not offered/improved upon for the newer Spartan and now S9 series is a bit of a mystery.  They are clearly falling behind here. Garmin, in stark contrast, offers a zillion different app./widget/watch face/data field options to completely customize your watch and add functionality.

So, which one to buy?
It depends on your use.  I often say that the Suunto (any model) is a piece of gear that you put on for an activity, as you would your running shoes and hydration vest.  The S9 Baro is a high quality watch and accurate training tool, but has few if any frills. I think if you are into ultra distance events and are looking for maximum battery life and a high quality, highly accurate watch, the S9 Baro is worthy of consideration.  The Intelligent battery modes combined with FusedTrack is really worthy and effective and I hope to see this technology spread to other models/brands.

The Fenix 5 Plus Series however is much more appealing to wear all day long and with a high level of customization and good smartwatch capabilities.  The 5 Plus series is at least as accurate in every way as the S9 Baro and is much more user friendly, has a much better web platform, better 24/7 tracking, connects with more 3rd party apps and training tools, comes in 3 sizes and very critical to many, the 5 Plus also has built in maps, which is truly awesome and I use it often.  

The primary knock I have on the 5 Plus is variable battery life that falls short of expectations for me (even less than the advertised 18 hours at best GPS tracking and still down 6 hours from the previous Fenix 5). This would be problematic for ultra athletes looking for max battery life, but there is the 5X Plus version that gives more battery life (which is heavier, costs more, but has Pulse Ox).  Finally, the 5 Plus series costs more, but given the sales as of late, that cost difference is negligible given you can get into a Fenix 5 Plus starting at $550.

Reviewer Bio
Jeff Valliere is a former pro cyclist who now runs and climbs the mountains of Colorado. He has been top 5 Masters, top 25 overall, at the Pike's Peak Marathon several times, finishing 2d Masters in 2015. Jeff loves vertical accumulating more than 500,000 vertical feet per year, has climbed all the Colorado 14's and 200 of the 13's and has held FKT on several. 
For a deeper dive into the details on each, please read our detailed review of the Fenix 5 Plus (here) and Suunto Baro 9 (here).

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