Suunto X9 GPS

The theory sounds great: A full-featured watch with a GPS receiver, altimeter and compass. Based on its specs, the Suunto X9 wrist-top computer (street prices around $700) should be the ultimate navigation tool. However, in the real world, this is as much headache as savior.
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The theory sounds great: A full-featured watch with a GPS receiver, altimeter and compass. Based on its specs, the Suunto X9 wrist-top computer (street prices around $700) should be the ultimate navigation tool. However, in the real world, this is as much headache as savior.

First, to be clear: The X9 is a major technological achievement -- loading a GPS receiver into the same package as its very successful line of altimeter watches. The X9 retains most of the features of the popular X6 ($400), while adding satellite tracking with a built-in loop antenna and signal processing.

Because GPS tracking would eat $3 batteries like a kid plows through a bag of potato chips, the X9 has a rechargeable battery (good for 500 charges before it must be sent in for replacement) instead of user replaceable ones. The work-around for extended trips is a portable battery charger (included) that uses a 9-volt battery. This DC charger also works with the AC adaptor (included) and serves as the computer interface.

The first frustration with the X9 arises at the trailhead. Turning the GPS on requires removing it from your wrist, finding a clear view of the sky, and waiting five to 10 minutes to get an adequate signal. Even just a couple days after the last use, you must go through this long procedure. You'll also discover that the buttons are very hard to push and just about impossible when wearing gloves.

Once it's up and running, the X9 does a very good job of tracking your position -- as long as you're out in the open. For activities like road biking, hiking above treeline and walking on the beach, the X9 is as good as any other handheld GPS. But the X9 is almost useless in a forest where the signal drops out much more frequently than even a $100 GPS. When trail running and mountain biking through ponderosa pines (one of the least problematic trees), it loses its position for minutes at a time and readings fluctuate wildly.

Back home, downloading information to your PC (no Mac support) is fairly simple; just hook the X9 into the cradle. The accompanying software is rather primitive but gets the job done, once you figure it out. You must import your own maps to have the tracks show where you went, which means you must either scan the topos or purchase a third-party program that can export them.

The Trek Manager program will not allow you to edit tracks (a drawback), but you can enter waypoints and routes then upload them to the X9. Information can also be exchanged with its website but it doesn't offer much. Unfortunately, the X9 does not use standard protocols so you cannot import its data into far superior programs such as Maptech Terrain Navigator.

The X9 does what it promises; just don't count on the GPS function for which you pay dearly. All of the other features work well: Altimeter does its thing; the new compass no longer has to be held level; backlight is bright; and the watch keeps time. A wristband extension is included for wearing the X9 over ski clothes but we haven't tested the X9's cold-weather performance.

Since this is a first generation product, we expect that it will improve considerably in later editions. If you have a large disposable income and are a gear freak, you'll probably like the stylish X9 and wear it proudly. But, for a bit more weight and bulk, you can get far better performance for much less money with a more conventional GPS. And if you are tech-shy, don't even think about the X9 -- user-friendliness is not a strong-suit, unlike other Suunto computer watches of the past.

SNEWS® Rating: 3 hands clapping (1 to 5 hands clapping possible, with 5 clapping hands representing functional and design perfection)

Suggested Retail: $769

For more information:www.suuntousa.com

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