Sunday, September 08, 2019

Suunto 5 In Depth Review - A Full Featured, Compact, High Accuracy, and Affordable Suunto

Article by Jeff Valliere
Suunto 5
Colors:  Black (tested), White, Burgundy Copper, Graphite Copper
Available now
The Suunto S5 fills the gap between the Suunto S3 fitness tracker (with no GPS onboard) and the flagship S9 Baro ($600) the S9 without Baro ($500).  The S5 is very close in size to the Suunto Spartan Trainer with a similar strap based GPS antenna bump also found on both the Spartan Trainer and Ambit series watches.  The S5 however has a stainless steel bezel and mineral glass screen (vs. plastic) for a classy look and increased durability.
The S5 is ALMOST a miniature version of the S9, but with a few key differences. Some features are lacking, such as no barometric altimeter, no compass, smaller battery, no FusedTrack, touchscreen, no adjustable screen brightness, no access to Movescount and only two GPS tracking intervals: Performance(Best) and Endurance(Good) and dropping Ultra(OK), the 2 minute interval rate.

This said, the S5 has some interesting upgrades that are not currently available on the S9 such as sleep, VO2, stress, body battery metrics, and adaptive training plans. All this at just under half the price of the S9, which makes for a comparative bargain if you are looking to save some money, prefer a smaller GPS watch, want the upgrades and are less concerned about maximum extended battery life.
Key Features:
  • Intelligent Battery Modes:
  • Fitness Level and Stress Tracking
  • Estimated Wrist HR
  • Over 80 Sport Modes
  • 24/7 Activity Tracking
  • Stress and Recovery Tracking
  • Adaptive Training Guidance
  • 50 Meter Water Resistance

Weight:  66 g/2.33 oz
Bezel material:  Stainless steel
Glass material:  Mineral crystal
Case material:  Glass fibre reinforced polycarbonate
Strap Material:  Silicone
Strap width:  22mm
Battery type:  rechargeable lithium-ion

Very accurate GPS
Smaller size (than S9)
Battery life (accounting for it’s smaller size) actually exceeds specs in my testing.
Classy looks
Value - nearly the functionality of S9 at about half the price, and 30% less than the non baro S9
Accurate elevation
5 button design with no touch screen

Lack of screen brightness setting - hard to read, especially in low light.
Small screen/font
Limited to using Suunto app.
Some may find the strap fit with the antenna bump a bit rigid.
Lack of 3rd party apps and customization
Distance to Alert When Off Route

Tester Profile
Jeff  runs mostly on very steep technical terrain above Boulder often challenging well known local FKT's. 

Body/Bezel/Weight:  The S5 is overall significantly smaller than the S9 Baro and many other premium GPS watches, and with the GPS bump, is somewhat reminiscent in looks to the Ambit series watches, though with a more refined and elegant bezel.  The S5 weighs 66 grams (vs. 81g for the S9 Baro), which is very noticeable on the wrist.

The S9 Baro (left) and the S5 (right) are similar in general design, finish and quality, though the S5 is notably smaller, has the satellite antenna bump and a 5 button design vs. 
The fit of the S5 works very well on my thin wrist (5.5” circumference).  I have heard complaints of the GPS antenna bump on previous Ambit series watches feeling uncomfortable for some, though that was never really an issue for me when wearing my Ambit 3 Peak and it is also not an issue here, where it goes mostly unnoticed.  The silicone band is slightly narrower than the S9 Baro, with very similar styling and feel, however the S5 band is not quick release, as has become the increasing trend here and elsewhere (Suunto S9, Spartans and other brands). At the time of this writing, I do not see other compatible straps available for the S5.

The S5 with GPS antenna bump and rigidly affixed band is reasonably comfortable on small wrists, but those with larger wrists may find it a bit stiff and awkward fitting.
S9 front S5 rear
Charging is the same as the with the Ambit series with a clamp like cable end and 4 pins. 
It is easy to use and works well, however I have come to prefer the more positive magnetic style on the Spartan series watches and S9.

The S5 is a smaller watch, which helps reduce weight and makes it look/feels less bulky, but along with that comes a smaller 46mm screen (vs. 50mm for the S9), so the overall screen size is noticeably smaller, with a more compact and considerably lower resolution 218mm x 218mm data readout.  The size works OK for me, but find that I need to hold my arm up a little closer and break my concentration a bit more to read the digits than I do when wearing the S9. The photo above illustrates the difference in screen size and consequent difference in digit size.

In addition, the S5 does not have a brightness adjustment, which is mostly an issue when wearing the watch daily in dim light, although it is less of an issue when wearing outside in activity mode and brighter conditions.  Wearing it inside for daily use, I almost always have to turn on the light to see the watch face. The pre-set, non adjustable screen brightness is about equal to an S9 set at 15% brightness. I know that with a lower price watch you just can’t have it all, but I find this to be a bit of a frustrating oversight (or deliberate omission).

Data Fields 
In a stark contrast to Garmin, where the data fields can only be customized on the watch in a somewhat slow and tedious manner, Suunto does a great job integrating data field manipulation into the app., where you can alter existing sport modes, or create an entirely customizable mode with whichever data fields you wish.  Of course that presumes that you have your phone nearby, which may not always be the case on a run, so plan ahead! Ideally, I would love to see options to change data field on the watch and within the app.

Simply select sport mode customization
Then select one of the existing modes to edit, or create a new custom sport mode.
You can then select anywhere from 1 to 4 data fields per screen with a maximum of 4 screens.

Unlike the S9, there is no touch screen. Instead the S5 relies upon a more customary 5 button design.  In my opinion, this is an advantage, as I don’t really find myself ever using the touch screen on the S9, finding it to be unreliable during activities and unnecessary otherwise, drawing additional battery power and consistently leaving smudges on the glass watch face.  With the 5 button design, I can more easily and intuitively navigate through the menus and data screens. Since the watch is a bit smaller, the buttons also sit lower and closer to the skin, so those with hairy forearms beware!
The buttons are prominent and easy to operate, but not obtrusively so. 
I find that they are positioned somewhat low however, so always have to be deliberate to not pinch arm hair.

Watch Faces  
The choices of watch faces are limited but there is an assortment of analog and digital watch faces to choose from.  This is not necessarily an S5 limitation, but instead characteristic of Suunto in general.  

The available watch faces are very simplistic with very limited data display options and no customizable options beyond accent color, and there is no option of downloading a watch face to the watch, as you can with Garmin.  Add to that, the available watch faces are somewhat grainy due to low resolution of the display. For the user simply looking for no frills, pure sports tracking, this will not be much of an issue, but for those looking for a multipurpose watch for more varied use, it is something to keep in mind.

GPS Accuracy
The S5 has a very high level of GPS accuracy, at the very least equal to that of the S9 Baro and the Ambit 3 Peak.  Though any GPS watch can occasionally have a bad day or at least hiccup every so often, I have seen very consistent performance from the S5, no matter the topography, from running along the coast of Oregon, old growth forests, high mountain ridges above treeline in Colorado, deep valleys, tight canyons and among skyscraper size rock formations.  Tracking very closely mimics real footsteps on the ground within several feet and contours very nicely around switchbacks and such without any straight lining. The S5 only has 2 different tracking rates vs. three on the S9 and includes Performance (pings at 1 second intervals) and Endurance (pings at 60 second intervals). The above accuracy comments are based on usage in Performance mode at 1 second intervals, where using Endurance mode, will cost accuracy in favor of battery life.  One other difference from the S9 is that there is no Fusedtrack feature on the S5, where the S9 Fusedtrack feature calculates and estimates the missing data between the longer spaced pings in Performance (60 second) and Ultra (120 seconds) modes for a more accurate representation (very good approximation) of actual path. It would be great to see Fusedtrack on all watches, but given the S5 is about half the price of the S9, this is no surprise.

Obtaining a GPS signal prior to a run is generally quick, perhaps 30 seconds to a minute, however I have found that on occasion, it can take several minutes to lock on.  Sometimes I don’t always catch this and begin a run, only to realize that a GPS signal has not yet been obtained.

In the screenshot below, the S5 (blue) pulls some odd moves, where the Fenix 5 Plus is a bit closer through the switchbacks, though this is a bit of an anomaly for the S5, as S5 typically shows slightly better accuracy in such situations.
Graphs and Comparative Mapping: DC Analyzer
For the most part, they track much closer together.

On a 16 mile/4+ hour run through tall trees, above treeline summits and a long, deep canyon, both the S5 and Fenix 5 Plus were spot on exact in their mapped track and only .18 off on distance (the S5 reading .18 more) and within 85 vertical feet gained (4,199 for Suunto where Garmin read 4,114).
Elevation Accuracy
The S5 has no barometric altimeter, though I find that to not necessarily be a limitation, as elevation accuracy is always within a foot or two when I cross check on mountain summits and various known elevation points. In contrast, watches that I own that do have a barometric altimeter, such as the S9 Baro, Ambit 3 Peak, Garmin Fenix 5X and 5 Plus are rarely as close to true elevation as the S5.  At best, if I remember to calibrate at the start of a run, they might be spot on or close within a few to 5 feet, but more often than not, they drift and are off by 100 feet or more if I do not keep up with calibration. I am admittedly not diligent about keeping up with calibrating altitude on my GPS watches, unless I am testing for review or know that I will be reliant upon accurate elevation readings for navigational purposes.
In the screenshot above (not a Suunto mapping product), I was able to verify the high point of a recent family hike to the Continental Divide as 12,850 feet.

In the graph below, the S5 and Fenix 5 Plus track the elevation neatly parallel, with the Fenix reading low, as I did not calibrate before this run.  Accuracy was consistently good as long as I maintained GPS signal, which it did in all of the terrain in which I tested, be it deep canyons, tree cover, among building sized rock formations or on high peaks. 
Graphs: DC Analyzer

We spent about 15 minutes on the summit with the S5 hovering at 12,848-49 feet which I found to be quite impressive.  This is consistent with all other hikes/runs where I confirmed elevation on known summits.

Optical Heart Rate Accuracy 
Optical heart rate accuracy has been mostly accurate and in line with what I have found on the S9 Baro and my Garmin Fenix 5 Plus.  By this I mean that if I have the watch band cinched tight, I will get mostly accurate readings, much of the time throughout the course of a run.  The overall average by the end of the run is consistent with the aforementioned models OHR and chest strap readings. However, I have found that OHR readings for all watches can vary depending on temperature, humidity, mood, or just misbehave at random no matter the conditions or circumstances.  For example, if I am pushing somewhat hard and know from wearing a strap or just guesstimating based on 25 years of HR tracking that I am in the 150’s or 160’s, with the watch reading in the 70’s, it may catch back up, run high or run low again for a short time, or just quit displaying altogether.  I am not constantly watching the screen, so I can’t specifically say how often this happens on the S5, S9 or Fenix, but would guess that it happens 5-10% of the time (looking at post run HR graphs however confirm this variability). I do have a particularly thin wrist, so that may be a factor, but if I were doing any sort of serious interval training/HR based training, I would certainly default to a strap and only use OHR for 24/7 tracking or a general baseline.  To clarify though, these occasional anomalies are not unique to the S5 and are consistent with what I experience with other watches.

In the graph, the S5 (Blue) and the Garmin Fenix 5 Plus (purple) track fairly close to one another, aside from a few odd diversions in opposite directions.  I am not sure which watch was in error in each moment, however at the end of the run, the overall average for the run was 141 for both watches, with the Garmin reading a 167 max and S5 reading a 163 max HR.

In non sport modes, day to day 24/7 tracking of heart rate, I found the S5 to be spot on.

Battery Life 
Battery life is advertised as 20 hours in Performance mode and 40 hours in Endurance mode, however on screen estimates indicate up to 23/48 hours and I have found those higher estimates to be accurate over the course of 3 months of testing.  Of course with the intelligent battery custom options, you can toggle on/off heart rate, notifications, screen on/off, etc… to conserve even further, but I think that for a small sized, lower price option, battery life is excellent all things considered.  For daily use, battery life varies greatly depending upon whether or not you choose to keep the optical HR sensor active or not for 24/7 tracking. Without OHR activated, the battery seems to barely register any drain over the course of a day, however with OHR activated, the battery life drops significantly.  I was not able to obtain a specific calculation for non GPS battery life, using 24/7 tracking vs. not using, but would say that the 14 days estimate for not using 24/7 is accurate and the 7 day estimate is optimistic. Of course using the GPS in the mix alters those numbers once again. Based on my typical use, 1-2 hours of running per day with 24/7 off, I charge every 5 or 6 days just to be on the safe side, though could probably stretch that a few more days.


Though navigation on the watch is comparatively rudimentary without the ability to view topographic maps loaded to the watch, the use of heatmaps or freehand creation of routes and then loading them to the S5 is really handy and easy to use, allowing for an easy line to follow on the “map” screen.

In the screenshot above, you can see popular running or cycling routes. You can easily select a route or modify create as desired based on terrain, distance, activity, direction and surface.
Above is a route I created and followed within the Lost Creek Wilderness of Colorado. I was able to easily follow along and check in periodically with the S5.
Above you can see that Boulder has a lot of heat going on!
Above are some of the options to choose when planning a route...
Above, mapping a route on the ever popular Mt. Sanitas in Boulder.
Which I appropriately name “Swoop” (above)
From the watch, I can then select either of my routes from within the Navigation options.
Once selected, the S5 shows a general outline of the route. When ready press navigate and off you go.
You generally have to be moving though for the watch to catch its initial bearings.
You can also select from Points of Interest you may have loaded ahead of time or waypoints you create along the way, or use breadcrumb to backtrack to your starting point and of course backwards on routes.
No fancy Topo maps here, but you can get a rough visual representation of the route/track/position.

When following courses that I create within the Suunto app., I can easily follow along on the map screen and find that it is spot on, however when I deliberately run off course, the S5 takes a whopping 275+ feet to alert me of that fact, whereas my Garmin Fenix 5 Plus alerts me within about 75 feet.  

Suunto App  
With the S9, you can choose between the newer Suunto smartphone app. and the soon to be phased out Movescount app (both smartphone and pc).However with the S5, you are strictly limited to using the Suunto app., which leads to one of the areas where Suunto could really improve upon.  While the Suunto app is quickly improving, they have not (and I am not positive that they will) carried over all of the functionality over from Movescount, so you are somewhat limited in that regard (though you can perform a one time transfer of all previous Movescount activities to the Suunto app).  Additionally, there is no real PC application that rounds up all of the functionality in one spot, instead, relying upon the the very limited Suunto Sports Tracker site to view activities or import/export .gpx files and such. Additionally you can only sync one watch with the Suunto smartphone app, which may go unnoticed by many, but if you own multiple watches, this is extremely frustrating.
Additionally, Suunto allows for no 3rd party apps as was the case when I was relying upon Movescount and the Ambit 3 Peak several years ago.  To not allow for this going forward with the Spartan and S5/S9 series watches is baffling to me.

The app provides a fairly complete set of summary overviews and activity details

Overall I find the S5 to be a great little watch and at a much needed lower price option in the Suunto line at $329  With a smaller/lighter design, high quality materials, excellent GPS accuracy, competitive HR accuracy, excellent altitude tracking, good battery life and the majority of the features found on the flagship S9 but adding some focused on Stress, Recovery, and Adaptive Training, the S5 is a bargain.  This said, the screen can be very difficult to read depending upon the lighting, as there is no screen brightness adjustments with the smaller screen size adding to the legibility difficulty. Some may find the GPS antenna bump to be uncomfortable (though I think that it does help with accuracy and does not bother me much on my smaller wrist) and many may be frustrated by the app/web platform confusion and limitations.

Suunto S9 Baro (RTR Review)
Jeff: Larger in size with superior battery life, easier to read brighter and larger screen, Fusedtrack, barometric altimeter, touch screen, yet at nearly twice the price, many may find the S5 to be a much more reasonable option.

Garmin Instinct (RTR Review)
The Garmin Instinct ($300)  slots into Garmin's Outdoor category and as such includes a barometric altimeter, compass and weather predictions. It is potentially more ruggedized and rugged and a bit old fashioned looking ( up to you which look your prefer) than the S 5. While its training battery life lags the S 5 by 4-5 hours its 24/7 battery life with HR monitoring far exceeds S 5 as it can extend to 14 days. Instinct has a lower resolution 128 x 128 screen vs 218 x 218 for S 5 but it is an incredibly legible one in all light conditions unlike S 5's. GPS and wrist HR accuracy were up to Garmin's usual standards. 

Garmin Fenix 5 Plus  (RTR Review)
Jeff: Comparable in GPS accuracy, the Fenix 5 Plus weighs more, has inferior battery life and costs twice as much, but I find it to be much more useful whether running day to day or using as a daily watch, as it is more comfortable, has an easier to read the display and I like that it is nearly infinitely customizable to my needs and preferences.  Not to mention having detailed maps on the watch greatly aid in navigation while having music on board and Garmin Pay on the watch may be very handy for some. The Fenix series strikes a great balance between carrying over all the hardcore GPS sport watch functionality and an impressive amount of civilian day to day smartwatch features (no, not an Apple watch, but for me it does plenty).  I often say, a Suunto is a piece of gear that you put on along with your other running gear, whereas a Garmin is a watch you will wear all of the time.
Read reviewers' full run bios here
The product reviewed was provided at no cost. The opinions herein are the authors'.
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Jeff Valliere said...


Anonymous said...

Hi Jeff,

How would you compare the Suunto 5 to Garmin's Instinct?

Jeff Valliere said...

Great question! I will defer to Sam on this one and ask hime to chime in, as he used the S5 a bit before handing over to me and also has reviewed the Instinct. Thanks for reading!

Sam Winebaum said...

Hi Anonymous,
Thanks for asking as it is a good comparison. I did some testing of the S 5 before handing off to Jeff and plenty for Instinct so can comment on Instinct

The Garmin Instinct slots into Garmin's Outdoor category and as such includes a barometric altimeter, compass and weather predictions. It is potentially more ruggedized and rugged looking ( up to you which look your prefer) than the S 5. While its training battery life lags the S 5 by 4-5 hours its 24/7 battery life with HR monitoring far exceeds S 5 as it can extend to 14 days. Instinct has a lower resolution 128 x 128 screen vs 218 x 218 for S 5 but it is an incredibly legible one in all light conditions unlike S 5's. GPS and wrist HR accuracy were up to Garmin's usual standards.
I have added the comparison above and linked to the Instinct review.
Sam, Editor