Hold the phones, stop the presses and insert your own archaic exclamatory reference here, ladies and gentlemen! The biggest complaints about sports watches are price, size, price, weight, price and features in that order. OK, we totally made up that "data" but it's right-ish. The Suunto 3 sports watch knocks all those reasons right down in a stylish, compact package that's as easy to use as it is easy on the eyes, and with heart rate monitoring to boot!
The first thing you notice about the Suunto 3 is that it's a good looking sports watch, with clean modern lines and a little smaller and sleeker than your average sports watch. It comes with an attractive and very comfortable silicone strap available in a nice palette of colors that match the body color you choose. When you pick it up you'll be surprised at how light it feels, and by how clear and clean the default display face is. So first impressions: very good, and you know it because you immediately want to start using it, and so do all your family members who saw you unbox it.
To charge it up use the included USB to proprietary four-prong connector (same as the higher-end Suunto Ambit) and make sure the firmware is up to date, which you can do through your phone app or computer. All navigation is done using the three buttons on the right and two on the left – no touch screen here, but frankly we didn't find that to be a big minus. One of the very few things we did count as a minus is that you can't adjust the brightness of the backlight, and it is on the dim side to our eyes. Once you get used to it it works well enough, but if you really desire a bright backlight this will not work well for you. We understand it was a battery life decision, but c'mon Suunto, give us back the power!
In terms of features, all normal sports watch functionality is there and works well. Some of the things tracked, like steps (the whole 10,000 steps thing is basically BS anyway) and sleep (relies on movement, which is very rough data compared to the only really reliable indicator of tracking brain waves) – but we'll just discuss what we found most interesting: heart rate monitoring, GPS functionality and activity tracking. So HRM first: the wrist HRM is conveniently accessed with a single click. We tested it against our pulse oximeter and it was within 2-3 beats per minute, which is plenty accurate enough for training purposes. It's definitely more convenient than a chest strap, which is more accurate but a pain to carry around and wear, so wrist HRM FTW.
On to GPS, the magic satellites in the sky. The Suunto 3 actually uses your phone's GPS, and it is enabled with activity tracking and by opening the Suunto app on your phone. You can quickly select an activity like hiking and head down the trail. It does uses a bit more battery life, but it's not a huge hit and we were pleasantly surprised by how economical it was to record a track for a few hours. If you're doing a through-hike over a week or so you'll want a solar charger anyway, but for half-day hikes or a bit longer it's not a problem if you start out with a full charge. The track displays on the app with data on calories, HR etc. in a very easy to browse format. You can use your finger to drag over your track and see the data at different points, and you can name your track as well, e.g. biking to work or whatever. Overall we found this to be very handy and easy to use. Even when we went indoors and lost the GPS signal, it picked right back up when we went back outside.
Finally, activity tracking. With or without the GPS the app gives you a lot of truly useful data, including speed, altitude, heart rate and perhaps most importantly heart rate zones. Training by HR zones is the way top athletes do it. It takes the rough and mostly useless time-based advice you see all the time (walk for 30 minutes a day!) and translates it into useful quality based data: e.g. you can do intervals in a specific zone to achieve specific training goals. Start by finding your resting and max heart rate and go from there.
So, the bottom line: the Suunto 3 is the most affordable way to get into data-driven activity tracking using actionable data about your heart rate combined with speed, distance and other variables. It's also a fashionable and easy-to-wear device with good battery life and relatively simple button-based navigation. For many of us, we'll likely never need more than what the Suunto 3 can give us, so it's a great investment no matter how you measure it. If Suunto gives us control over the backlight, it will be simply perfect.