Your Ideal Sports Watch

I’m sure we can all agree that buying a sports watch is one of the more daunting aspects of any athlete’s career, novice or pro. There are so many factors to take into consideration and the overwhelming decisions of features, functions, quirks and the terrifying price tag may just land you making the wrong decision. So we tried to solve that for you and took a handful of the markets current competing top sports watches and put them so the test to determine what is ideal for YOU. 

The TomTom Multisport Cardio, Polar V800, Suunto Ambit 3 Peak Sapphire and the Garmin Fenix 3 Silver were the weapons of choice.

Working with each watch, I immediately noticed the TomTom and Polar have been aimed at entirely different markets than to the Garmin and Suunto.  The Ambit 3Ps and the Garmin Fenix 3s have the most similar features, but they operate differently and have a few stand out qualities than their competitors. That being said, all 4 devices do offer some sort of competition to each other by matching or having very similar functions, features and viewable stats. Ultimately, at the end of this review, you should be able to choose the right watch specific to your needs as best as possible.

There is an incredible amount of traits and elements to talk about, but simply put – not all of it can be discussed in a single blog. So I decided to limit this blog to what I think is really important and items not mentioned in the blog will just end up being an add-on for when you get your watch. Call it, the element of surprise, if you will.

In this blog I will cover about the Look and Feel, Online Programmes and Connectivity, In Sport Use, Apps and the Watch Features.

Look and Feel

Out the box, the Fenix 3 stood out. I was amazed at the clean finish and the style of the watch.

The tough feel of the strap, stainless steel bezel and colour display didn’t look like a sports watch and was a definite stand out from the other three “sporty” styled watches.

Although the Fenix 3 felt like the heaviest, it actually places second to the ambit 3ps. This could very well be because of the style of the Fenix. The strap is designed as a free moving wrist band which allows them to move on your wrist freely both when relaxing and exercising. This was a minor bug-bear when running and mountain biking. The colour display is a nice to have; personally I wasn’t too fazed about it, but I get why some people would want to boast about it. My only criticism on the Fenix 3 is on the delicate looking screen which made me a little reluctant to go full throttle during training at the risk scratching it. Overall, the Fenix 3 Sapphire is the neatest of the bunch and would suit the arm at both exercise and work.

Garmin

The most comfortable watch I wore was the Polar V800. The V800 had a strap made from similar material to the Fenix 3 and Ambit series but the strap is fixed to the body of the watch. The watch face does look good, very good. It’s a full face matrix screen mounted in what I think is a stainless steel body. Once on my wrist, I couldn’t help feel but cautious as if it was going to break. Much like an IPhone, I dread to see the bill of a replacement glass. Why was it the most comfortable? I don’t know. It’s just fitted well. The face size and combination of the fixed strap could have been a perfect fit for my wrist, who knows? It just felt right. When exercising, the V800 also stayed in place and didn’t bounce around. By far, the most comfortable.

Polar V800

 

The Ambit 3 Peak Sapphire looks like an adventurers watch. The type of instrument you’d find on an Everest enthusiast and the real ‘mountain goats’ of society. Like the Fenix 3, it features a stainless steel bezel and with its glass made from a scratch resistant Sapphire Mineral Crystal and a fixed strap made from Elastomer, the Ambit comes across as almost indestructible. If the terminology is a little baffling, it basically means the watch feels stain, dirt and practically bomb resistant. The Ambit 3 Peak Sapphire is the heaviest of the lot by 7g but feels great on the wrist. I feel it fits well because of what is believed to be the GPS compartment below the watch. The compartment is fixed to the body of the watch face and is moulded to fit an average wrist size; it purely acts as the device’s GPS housing and in no way agonises or burdens your training session.

Despite the comfortable fit, looking at the new Suunto Traverse and taking Suunto’s evolving innovation into account, I do predict they will slowly remove the navigational stump to go for a sleeker and more compact visual.

 

Suunto

The TomTom Multisport Cardio has a different design altogether. For starters, the watch face is the smallest. The watch itself is the lightest and the face can be easily separated from the strap – A neat intended function. When on your wrist, the Multisport Cardio must be worn on the elbow side of the wrist bone. If you want ‘accurate’ heart rate (HR) readings then the watch needs to be flush against the skin, just behind the pointy bit of the wrist bone. This bugged me as I'm particular about where I wear my watch; a personal habit that can be corrected. A week in, I didn’t notice it until I put another watch on. Like the Suunto, the multisport cardio face is moulded to a set shape because of the single button navigation. It fitted well, but I am concerned about how it will feel on a thinner wrist. The strap is wide to stop it from moving on the wrist, I found this to be ineffective while running as the watch wanted to move closer to my wrist bone. The screen is also rather small. One big plus is the design of the strap. It clips into its self which means there is no breakable strap fastener. 

 

TomTom

I wore each watch for about a week and tried to take note of how they felt on my wrist. Just a reminder, this is personal preference as I like to wear mine on the fingers side of my wrist bone.

Main Features

All the devices are GPS and HR enabled sport watches designed to provide similar results, but as I said, are aimed at slightly different markets.

As GPS and HR devices these record: heart rate, average heart rate, speed, average speed, pace, distance, calories and GPS based altitude with ascent and decent.

The Suunto Ambit 3 Peak Sapphire and the Garmin Fenix 3 have a built in barometer which add; accurate altitude, ascent and decent. Again the Suunto goes one step further and has added a weather meter and storm alarm which is based on in watch readings and trends.

When testing the devices, all watches showed a similar distance, never more than a kilometre off for the longer runs. The Multisport cardio on average showed a shorter distance for each run. While the Garmin and the Suunto where fairly close. The shorter distance could relate to a more accurate GPS or inconsistent points.

While testing the HR readings, I used the Multisport Cardio as a base as it is the only watch with a HR sensor built into the watch itself. I then used each other watch along with it using the standard HR belt. I really thought this would help iron out which watch might be consistently different but it didn’t. On each run, working with the different watches the Multisport Cardio and another watch (either the V800, Ambit 3ps or Fenix 3) the stats never matched. Each watch would either drop recording, spike and or show a HR to low. I frequently ran the same 5km route just to make sure I was putting in the same effort over the same distance. The Multisport would often show my HR as too low. The Fenix struggled to connect and would drop signal along with the V800. The Ambit 3ps seemed the most consistent, but again…. against what bench mark? The Multisport Cardio and the Ambit 3ps picked up the HR signal faster than the other two.



All watches seemed most consistent while reading the speed and average speed while on route. Obviously this is related to the GPS. If started and stopped at the same time with a close end distance they would naturally be the same or to the nearest decimal.

An altitude reading on a watch is a tricky thing. If there is no barometer then the watch is basing its reading off of a GPS location and very little calculation, while not the best it does the job. As the V800 doesn’t have a barometer you cannot see the altitude on the device while not in exercise mode. The Multisport Cardio doesn’t show altitude at all but does show ascent on a screen. The Fenix 3 and Ambit 3ps have built in Barometers which allow for accurate pressure readings. The pressure reading along with a GPS location allow for a more accurate Altitude, ascent and decent.

The trick here is to make sure you have correctly referenced the watch. Far too many people tell me it’s wrong when they have just used the watch out of the box. If the barometric pressure or altitude is set wrong on the watch, it will not work right. The altitude and barometric pressure can be seen as screen add-ons while not exercising.

 

Personally, I'm not a calorie counter and so I didn’t test it. The calorie readings are based on body biometrics set in the settings of the watch and a reading from HR. All a calculation, nothing set. This is a feature in all 4 watches.

GPS watches and HR monitors for swimmers has always been an issue.  In the case of the Polar, the data display was always ‘live’ in that it showed you what your heart rate was at that exact moment on the watch – this is dependent on the strap settings and current signal.

The Smart Sensor belt from Suunto went with a ‘store and forward’ option. In this scenario it didn’t aim to transmit the data in real-time to your watch, but rather record it for later viewing. 

The challenge however with both methods is that they depend on the heart rate strap staying put. 

For women this isn’t an issue, since you’re generally wearing a swim top or full body costume during pool swims which keeps the water pressure from sliding the watch down when you push off the wall. But for men the strap almost immediately slips to one’s waist when pushing off the wall with any reasonable force, let alone intervals.

The Multisport Cardio when entering swim mode just turns off the HR functions as it will not allow for HR readings as the water interferes with the optical sensor. The standard Garmin strap does not work well swimming, but Garmin has released swimming specific belts. Although if they are available in SA, I haven’t seen them.

All 4 watches have different batteries and so, can last for different length of time. The Multisport Cardio has the worst battery with a set prediction of 8 hours while in use. The GPS setting cannot be adjusted like the V800, Fenix 3 and Ambit 3 to allow for longer use. The V800 and Fenix 3 come in second with 13 hours in full GPS and HR mode on the V800 and 16hours for the Fenix.  Set on ‘GPS save mode’ for the V800 and ‘Ultra Trac Mode’ for Fenix, both can last for an advertised 50 hours. The Ambit 3ps on another level; It’s the only watch that’s offers the ability to change both H and GPS settings. To start, you can set the HR belt to record either 1sec or 10 second intervals. The GPS can be set for 1 sec, 10sec and 1min. In full use, the Ambit 3ps lasts 20hrs and can be pushed for an advertised 200 hours. I never tested the 200 hours but I easily managed to photograph two events for 16 hours at a time and still have 50% battery left with no charge.

The Multi Sport cardio does no offer navigation. The V800 has navigation but it really isn’t the best of all the watches. It’s quite basic actually. Essentially you have two choices; 1. You can navigate via compass to a Point of Interest (POI) or 2. You can navigate along a route via compass you have already completed. Unlike the Fenix 3 and ambit 3ps, you cannot plan a route and navigate by following a track and actual route that is on the display. The Fenix 3 and Ambit have similar navigation features. Being mountain watches, you can do a number of things that work well. For starters, you can plan a route, send it to the watch and then follow it. When following a route, you have it on the display of the watch and you can follow the panned route line like any other GPS. The watches only display the route and no other geographical information. You can also add and save POI’s to the watched and navigate to them using a compass. A cool feature on both watches is Track Back. If you’re out and about exploring new mountains and get lost, you select track back. This builds a route based on you GPS track and navigates back along that route - Awesome safety feature.

All the watches have been aimed at multisport use. This is a new feature to watches and has come with some reasonable focus on triathletes. That being said, the Multisport Cardio when in its multisport mode doesn’t actually allow you to interchange between disciplines, meaning if you doing a triathlon then you actually stay in one mode or ‘sport’ known as multisport and that’s as far as it goes…. kind of pointless. The V800 and Fenix 3, on the other hand, have pre-set multisport modes, like triathlon where you can change from swimming to, cycling and running and include transitions. This is awesome but they could have taken it one step further like the Ambit 3ps. The ambit allows you to program the sports you plan to do in the multisport mod and then save them as a pre-set on the watch, so if you plan on doing a biathlon or 7 sports multisport, you can. 

 

While sports in on the mind, each watches include a ghost training mode where you can challenge a past run. All include it however needs to be added onto the Suunto as a stand-alone app from Movescount.

I'm a big fan of customization and what I want to see when I'm exercising. The only watch that offers this is the Ambit. Suunto, through movescount allow you to set the screens and stats you wish to see. These settings sync with the watch and work like a charm - full customization - right down to adding a beer counter app on a screen while to run, just so you know how many you can have after.

 

Online Programs

The great thing about all these watches is they all connect to some sort of online programme. If you don’t already own one of these, then you may be wondering why you’d ever need it or what actual part it plays for something you wear on your wrist. Well, the two most important reasons are viewable stats and customization.

All 4 devices when connected to a PC immediately begin to recharge themselves and with internet connect to an online account, the online account provides access to programmes which sync with the watch and download your activities, any settings are synced since the last time it was connected and any software updates are installed.

Before I go into specifics, all have the basics which allow you to view heart rate, average heart rate, speed, average speed, pace, distance, calories, GPS based altitude with ascent and decent in colourful and neatly organised display, some event with graphs!

TomTom MySports is pretty straight forward and only lets you do what THEY think is needed, nothing more; once connected you can view you last and all previous activities. Each activity displays the above and has an embedded map showing you route and a basic graph. The map is a fully integrated Google map, as seen on any other website the graphs a simple two, you can compare two of four stats on one graph, Pace, Speed, HR and elevation. The page also displays splits for the various km run. A nifty feature is you can hover of a split and it shoes that section of the run. All other services only show you those stats for that point in time. When online, you can also adjust very basic settings on the watch. All-in-all, you are restricted to personal customization.

 TomTom

Polar’s Flow wasn’t much different; in fact… give what was on display to see it was quite a challenge to get around. I struggled to find certain setting I thought would be basic. This might be because I never worked with a polar before and their system was new to me. When in Flow you’ll get an overview of your recent activity by going to the ‘Feed’ button. Alternatively, you can click on ‘Diary’ to open up a calendar view of things.  You’ll see your daily activity shown along the bottom with that grey/teal bar, and then workouts shown up above that with the sport icons.  Everything is totalled at the end of the week to the right. You can click on an activity to look at the details of it. The upper half of the activity will show summary stats including total distance, pace and attitude stats. The graphs on flow have far better details and include a section specifically for heart rate zones. A cool feature is the progress tab, this puts together a last activities evaluation to help you how you are progressing as you train for you next big event. When you break them down, Flow was very similar to TomTom’s My Sports with the addition of a half-hearted community page aimed a social side of exercising. 

Polar V800

Garmin has a service known as Connect. A while back, this programme was horrible but lately it seems to have had a big update. Now, it’s not so bad. While I still think there is room for improvement, it was quite easy to use, had what you need and what you wanted. Connect has everything mentioned above and more. The side bar shows a serious amount of pages that needed to be explored, almost too much. If you jump past the jumbled home page, click on the side panel of what you want it’s bearable.  Simply put, the side bar shows you everything the programme does and has minimal link between them, including: activities, badges, calendar, calories, challenges, connections, courses, device and a couple more. It’s sort of a mix between Strava and Movescount. This section seems like less but remember, Garmin Connect includes all of the above from Polar and TomTom. For future reference, course is a section where you can add, save and edit route and apply them to the watch, an awesome feature once you get into.

Garmin

My favourite service of the lot was Movescount by Suunto. I'm not sure if they were first into doing the whole online thing, but I think they got it right at some point and stuck with it. Upon opening you are greeted with a spacious home page and striking colours. The page gives a basic outline of the last 30 days of exercise, a timeline feature of what you friend have been up to and... That’s it. If you want more, you have the option of viewing your latest move, or a summary which really work off of the same page. The page has a calendar on top where you can select the activity and all the details of that activity below. It has a map function and graphs like the above services, the maps and the graphs relate. There is also a laps and bar chart section for comparing ‘moves’ and sections. What really get me excited about moves count is its Plan and Create sections. This section allows you plan moves based on a calendar working with a vast selection of training programs from Suunto and other people. The create section also include an app zone where you can design your own app or apply supplied ones to you watch. Garmin also have this feature, but it’s nothing work mentioning.

Suunto

The top feature of all is the route planner section. For far too long have I trained on the same route, when I learnt about the route planner and its functions and how easy it was to navigate in watch, this truly changed my training and upped it to a whole new level. It’s cool. Not only because you can create, but also because you can steel other people route. Example, I can look at the world best record up the Matter Horn, analyse and save the route to my profile, add it to my watch and go give it a try. Suunto also has a good, but could be better community service where you can search a map for people, routes or activities and follow/add them to your profile. The last great feature I didn’t try on the other services was managing the setting for multiple watches. Suunto make it simple, so simple it encourages you to start a collection and work with as many watches possible. 

 

Phone Connectivity and App

All devices have a mobile app. The apps allow you to sync your phone to your online service and view a more basic version of the online pc Programs. In additional, the devices act as smart watches allowing you so see who is calling while exercising or perhaps a message. I never managed to get the mobile notifications to work on the Multisport Cardio or the V800. It’s harder than expected or I'm technically challenged – but I do doubt it the latter.

The Fenix 3 worked incredible well. The watch and app synced perfectly. More than just called and messaged came through. Once synced with your phone, the Fenix 3 displayed a weather screen, calendar and world clock with data pulled from your phone – I thought this was pretty neat. The Fenix 3 also connects automatically when in range of your phone unlike the ambit.

The ambit works equally as well, not offering as much features as Fenix. Calles and messages came through no problem and syncing work well to, despite taking a little longer. A big difference between the Fenix and the Ambit is the auto connects. The ambit doesn’t do so and I have been told it is to save battery life. I can see why, it makes sense and I did notice the need to charge the Fenix more.

Also, I'm not to fazed about auto connecting or event manually doing so when I'm in the mountains – this is where I try and escape my phone. It’s a bit of a gimmick if you ask me – for all devices. Something to note, the HR belt from Suunto can connect tot eh app of the phone… in case you forget you watch at home or its charging.

As mentioned before. All programs are a simpler version. You can just about the same as the online programs but it looks basic and works basic. The only exception here is the Multisport cardio doesn’t allow you to change settings via the mobile app. 

Brands and similar devices

TomTom

TomTom is new to the market, in training with Action Gear they stated this watch was aimed at a very specific market – the average Joe sportsman. There is a number of version available with similar features that you can look at depending on the sport you do. The Multisport Cardio in the 2nd from the top only bested by the Multisport Cardio with a built in Altimeter. I doubt many of these are sold or hunted for as a watch with a battery life of 8 hour won’t do you any justice in the mountains therefore an altimeter is almost pointless. TomTom also sell a Runner Cardio, basically a cheaper version of the watch without the multisport function. I think this is the only difference, if so, as a software add on I'm not sure why the difference in price is so large.

TomTom Runner Cardio – R2799.00
TomTom Multisport Cardio – R3499.00

What is cool is TomTom are increasing their presence in the market. You can see them at various trail runs and other events which gives good peace of mind. If something goes wrong or you need a hand, you can just ask when you see them.

Polar

I'm not quite sure what to say about the V800. I found it to be the trickiest of all watches to place. While using it, every bit of it screamed “elite athlete” at me, like I almost wasn’t good enough to use it. While using it, it constantly pushed me to push my limits with pop ups and unchangeable screens by showing my previous best. Although not a bad thing, it was rather annoying when I just wanted to run. The looks, the feel, the over analysis of HR in the online program, it didn’t feel right for the laid back adventure like I consider myself to be. While doing my research, I notice this caption below the watch, “Smart Coaching and GPS for peak performance. For professional and devoted athletes who want to reach peak performance”. I think that says it all.

The V800 is priced at R6499.00. A price I think to hefty for what you get.

Also, I have never seen polar at an event.

*Note: I only go to off-road events.

Gamin

The Fenix 3 is a good watch it fits well in the adventure market, one I think aimed for at the upper class adventure market. I'm not sure if I can class it like that but I did. It’s strong and capable and looks good. When worn to work, it can easily been seen as a formal watch and when on the trails, an adventure watch. Its direct competition with the Suunto products as the latest release it will obviously have the od 1up on Suunto. The colour screen was cool, but nothing I will miss.

The Fenix 3 Performance as it is called, the one I tested sells for R7495.00. I feel I should mention the cost of the sapphire version as the Ambit I tested was a Sapphire version. The Fenix 3 Sapphire sells for R9999.00 and really just looks better than the performance bundle.

Garmin do have watches similar to the Fenix, the Garmin Forerunner 910xt with HRM is a watch for multisport however might lack a lot of the features the smart watches in this review offer.

Suunto

Suunto have a well organised line up of devices, you can see the thorough planning when releasing their device by catering for all markets. Although I tested the Ambit 3 Peak Sapphire, there are 4 other watches to look at. The simplest version is the Ambit 3 run which doesn’t have a Barometer or multisport. It also has a slightly shorter battery life. The ambit 3 sport features a intermediate battery life, and multisport functions but no Barometer. The Ambit 3 Peak features all as mentioned in the block, just no Sapphire crystal glass and looks slightly different. I find it interesting that all the Suunto devices cover every market talked about in the blog and each device can match to beat the current ones that have been reviewed. The last and final point to be made is Suunto SA has a presence at events, this includes of road and on-road events. If you have any issue, you can even go to their offices and they will assist.

The Watch For You

I have limited this section to only the watches in the review as if they were the only watches available. I think I mentioned enough about other devices on the market from the 4 brands.

I believe the best way to do it is describe a lifestyle and mention which watch might be best suited if money were no issue.

 

Sport

TomTom

Multisport Cardio

Garmin Fenix

Ambit 3 Peak Sapphire

Polar V800

Recreational Road Running

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Recreational Cycling

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Trail Running/MTB

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Mountaineering, Climbing, Adventure Racing

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Swimming

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Competitive Cycling or Road Running

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Track and Field

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General Adventurer

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Any Sport Requiring Specific Navigation

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