Suunto t6 wrist-top computer

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We want to rave about the Suunto t6. We really do. Over the past decade, we've tested a lot of wrist-top computers with a heart rate monitor function from Polar and Suunto, as well as several other brands. For the most part, the t6 is right up there with the best.

First off, the dimensions are significantly smaller than several other similar wrist-top computers, including a number of popular Suunto altimeter watches or the full-featured Polar. One rather petite female tester could even wear it comfortably. The t6 is low profile and contoured so it doesn't snag on clothing. Buttons are mostly easy to operate (although you do have to hit them right on and if you're wearing sunglasses in the shade or on overcast day, you may have to fumble a bit for the right spot). And the user interface is simple once you get used to it, with menus that make good sense. The t6 combined with the rather pricey accessories (foot and bike pods), can measure speed, distance, altitude, heart rate and then upload the data to a computer program that interprets it all – every tech and data geek's dream, really.

The contoured heart-rate chest strap transmitter, which is a bit thick in the middle for smaller-boned users, fits well and has a user-replaceable battery. (Note that the plastic slot to open the battery compartment door can become rough when you open it, causing two testers bad chest chafing until they discovered it needed post-battery change smoothing.)

The Foot Pod is smaller than many, becomes imperceptible when running and has never fallen off after dozens of trail runs. It features three accelerometers (most others have only one) to give a more accurate estimate of speed and distance. The Bike Pod is a nuisance to switch between bikes (remove front wheel, remove skewer, install, replace skewer and wheel, install magnet on spoke, change wheel setting on watch) so multiple bike owners may want more than one. Once installed and calibrated, however, the Bike Pod collects speed and distance data well (the lack of a cadence option is a huge omission).

Connecting the t6 to your computer is very simple with the USB cable (included). Just clip it to the watch. This is much better than the system used on the X9 GPS watch. (One minor nit, leaving the cable plugged into the computer prevents it from going to sleep.)

So far, so good. A bit on the pricey side, but an excellent athletic, wrist-top computer. The big let down is in the Suunto Training Manager software (included), even if you disregard that it isn't Mac compatible. Quite simply, the user interface leaves a lot to be desired.

The program is indeed quite smart at interpreting all of the data and turning it into meaningful charts. Some of the calculations (oxygen and energy consumption, respiration rate, ventilation) are more trivia than meaningful for your everyday athlete. But seeing heart rate, altitude, and speed plotted against each other helps give a good analysis of each workout.

The truly brilliant feature is called EPOC (Excess Post-Exercise Oxygen Consumption), which has to do with how well you recover from a workout. It's too technical to explain in any more detail here but suffice to say, this measure is the best we've seen yet (outside of a laboratory) of how effective a workout was for improving fitness. After months of experience, we are very impressed with the way EPOC helps people understand what their body is trying to tell them.

But, oh the misery of using the Training Manager 1.3.4 itself. Aside from it being painfully slow, there are so many bugs and missing features that it's irritating to even launch. For example, you can't drag-and-drop workouts to reorganize them, and the program doesn't even put them in chronological order. You can't send a snapshot of a graphed workout to someone who doesn't have the program installed. Ah, just print it out or make a PDF you think. Well it only prints the graph of heart rate and EPOC, leaving off speed and altitude graphs. The list of program design flaws goes on and on.

Then there are some oddities in the settings that are used to calculate EPOC. To get this great feature to work properly, the user must estimate his or her level of fitness on a scale of 0 to 7. Level 0 is for someone literally getting off the couch for the first time. But level 4 just requires a run of “less than one mile per week or spend less than 30 minutes per week in comparable physical activity.” And Level 6 is achieved by a “Run 5 to 10 miles per week or spend 1 to 3 hours per week in comparable physical activity.”

Okay, call us fitness whackos, if you must, but those standards are absurdly low. This greatly reduces the value of the Training Manager software for any serious athlete seeking maximum performance (which is likely the biggest market for this kind of analysis). And it's right at the edge for someone who is in good but not great shape.

If you are an athlete who doesn't want or feel compelled to download data and analyze charts and graphs (and can still spend $450), the watch can become a great training friend. But if the software is for you a key feature, we would have a problem recommending the package. We hope Suunto comes out with a more user-friendly 2.0 upgrade soon – and it better not charge for it.

SNEWS® Applause Meter: 3.5 hands clapping (1 to 5 hands clapping possible, with 5 clapping hands representing functional and design perfection)

Suggested Retail:
$450; foot pod, $100; bike pod, $70

For more information:
www.suunto.com, or Suunto USA, (800) 543-9124

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