Suunto X9i GPS REVIEW

Wrist-mounted 2.7 oz GPS unit targeted at done-in-a-day activities, tested with Topo! 4.0 mapping software.

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by Alan Dixon | 2006-02-21 03:00:00-07

Suunto X9i GPS REVIEW

Introduction

I spent extensive time testing the original Suunto X9 wrist-mounted GPS (see X9 Review). In that testing I found a number of problems that hobbled its usefulness, especially for the North American market. Since then, Suunto has extensively revised and improved the X9 (now the X9i):

  • It has significantly improved GPS reception — on par with similar wrist-mounted GPS units like a Garmin ForeTrex
  • It is compatible with National Geographic Topo! version 4.0 electronic mapping and waypoint management software via a USB interface.
  • It is now compatible with the combination of North American Datum 1927 and UTM coordinates.
  • It now includes a USB cable to connect it to a computer.
  • It is not field rechargeable and still has poor battery life and an awkward menu system making basic task performance cumbersome.

Test Conclusions for the new X9i and Topo! Interface

With the revised X9i, Suunto addresses many of our criticisms of the original X9. The new X9i is far more useful in the field than its predecessor, especially in North America. The X9i can still benefit from improvements in battery life and user interface for navigation tasks, but these are minor gripes.

The X9i is targeted for done-in-a-day activities. It is at its best when the GPS receiver is on full time and you are not worried about running out of battery power. The X9i focuses on performance measurements like speed, distance, and altitude gain and loss, more than navigation. This is in keeping with industry trends. GPS manufacturers are putting their dollars and technology development into the hot portion of the market — wearable, personal-performance-measurement GPS units. Garmin is focusing just as hard on this market with their Forerunner series. To Sunnto’s credit, the X9i holds to some of its navigational roots with a barometric altimeter and magnetic compass, which the Garmin Forerunners lack. Still, it may be a while until GPS manufactures design a slim profile, watch sized GPS unit focused on navigation.

What Worked

  • The X9i USB interface with Topo! works. I was able to download waypoints created in Topo! California into the X9i and verify them in the field. The required USB cable is provided with the unit.
  • The NAD 27 datum and UTM coordinate problem is resolved. The unit correctly reports NAD27 UTM coordinates that agree with USGS NAD 27 maps labeled with light blue UTM tick marks. Naming the datum selections in the X9i, rather than using numbered codes as in the original X9, is a huge help when in the field (and the paper manual is back home). The inclusion of the “NAD27ca” datum is a nice touch.
  • GPS fix times are significantly improved. Cold fixes - greater than 24 hours since the last fix or after large geographic movements - are a bit longer than with Garmin units but are now at least in the same ballpark. A Garmin cold fix runs 45 seconds to 5 minutes versus the Suunto X9i's 1 minute, 15 seconds to 6 minutes. Warm fix times - less than one hour - are on par with Garmin units, usually requiring 15 to 20 seconds. Sometimes the X9i was a few seconds faster.
  • GPS fixes under limited sky views are greatly improved. The X9i performs on par with the Garmin units, both in fix times and the ability to get a fix in difficult situations. Anytime the Garmin unit could get a fix the Suunto did as well. Likewise, both units were unable to get a fix in similar situations. During my testing, neither unit was able to get a fix where the other could not.
  • I took the X9i on a 10-mile trail run in a fairly open canyon with some intermittent tree cover. It did a reasonable job of keeping a GPS fix, under reporting mileage by around 10%, which was not unexpected. Garmin wrist-mounted GPS units also underreport mileage by a similar amount on this route. This seems to be something to do with occasionally missing GPS reception, and the unit’s mileage calculating algorithm compensating for it. I've noticed that GPS units, even with a perfectly clear sky view, do not have completely accurate mileage, although they’re more accurate with a clear sky view than in areas with intermittent reception. To date, non-GPS, accelerometer driven units like the Suunto T6 are more accurate in heavy foliage and/or deep canyons.
  • In addition to charging from a multi-voltage adapter (110 volt for US) you can recharge the X9i from any powered USB port on a computer, laptop, or similar device.


With Topo! Version 4.0 you can download or upload waypoints to the Suunto X9i. Connection to the computer is via a USB cable (provided with the X9i). This makes loading waypoints into the X9i a piece of cake.

What Didn't Work

  • Battery performance relegates the X9i to done-in-a-day activities, which meshes with the X9i's focus on personal performance measurements rather than navigation.
  • The X9i is not as accommodating to those who are more interested in GPS navigation — users that want to quickly turn the GPS reception on and off to perform brief navigational tasks and conserve battery life. Operation of the unit in this manner is slow and cumbersome compared to units like Garmin ForeTrex series.
  • Battery life continues to be an issue for the X9i on extended trips. The Garmin units like the ForeTrex with longer run times and field replaceable batteries have a significant edge. I only take the X9i on day trips or longer trips where I intend to use the X9i's GPS functions for limited periods. There is still a niche for units like the X9i and I like taking it on day trips, trail runs, when I paddle, or possibly a long weekend backpacking trip. But with a spare set of AAA batteries I can get 48 hours of continuous navigation with a Garmin ForeTrex. This is enough to use the ForeTrex on a fulltime navigational basis for a weeklong trip (7 days at 7 hours on-time per day for the GPS). One will not get 48 hours of GPS navigation out of an X9i.
    [Note: A few of our readers reported recharging the old X9 in the field with its docking cradle loaded with a 9 volt battery. This was a heavy and awkward solution but it worked. For the time being, the X9i is not field rechargeable. Suunto says a field recharging option is in its future but gives no date.]
  • It would be really, really nice to be able to add alphanumerically named waypoints in the field. Using “date and time” or “RIVER” from a pull down list of preset names is not the same as selecting your own six-character alphanumeric name.
  • The menu system required for performing a few simple and important tasks is slow and awkward. In particular, quick access to a GPS position and quickly marking a waypoint (needed when one is on a trip and trying to conserve batteries and so typically the GPS is off). By contrast, the Garmin wrist-mounted units let you do these tasks much faster, especially marking a waypoint.
  • The X9i is still hard to use. I was reasonably familiar with the X9 operation a year ago and have used Suunto wrist units as my primary navigational tools — Vector, X6, and T6 - for some time. I still found the new X9i a challenge to use in performing all the functions I wanted. (And yes, I didn't read every page of the 98 page PDF manual, but neither will most users.)
  • In particular, many users may be confused by the complex interrelationships between the Activity settings, Navigation settings, and the various GPS fix modes. This includes keeping track of whether the GPS is running or not. This increases the likelihood that you’ll accidentally leave the GPS receiver on and unintentionally drain the batteries. Using the manual fix mode to conserve battery life is the most confusing mode of GPS operation.
  • The menus are still deeply nested for many important navigational functions. Marking a waypoint is still five menus down, takes 19 button presses and can only be accessed from the Navigation screen. Needless to say this slows operation down and may give you sore button pressing fingers.

Conclusion

Despite the remaining glitches, the X9i is a big improvement over the original X9. I regularly enjoy my X9i for training, on day trips, and even long weekend outings.

The ideal ultralight, wrist wearable, GPS unit of the future would combine the best features of both the Suunto X9i and the Garmin ForeTrex. With the industry focus on done-in-a-day activities and performance measurement, it may be awhile until we see a slim wrist unit with a barometric altimeter, a magnetic compass, and good navigational GPS functions all rolled into one. Until then you’ll have to decide between:

1) The slim wrist mounted form, barometric altimeter, and excellent magnetic compass of the Suunto X9i

or

2) The excellent navigational functions, ease of use, good battery life, field replaceable batteries, and lower price of the Garmin ForeTrex 101 (it’s wrist wearable, albeit in a bulky design, and lacks a barometric altimeter, and magnetic compass).

Specifications and Features Suunto X9i

  • Weight: 2.72 oz (77.0 g) with battery - weighed by Backpacking Light
  • Size (H x W x D): approximately 2.0 x 2.5 x 0.6 in (5.1 x 6.4 x 1.6 cm), excluding band
  • Battery Life: 4.5 hour for 1-sec GPS updates to over 2 months with GPS off using Time and/or Alti/Baro modes only (Suunto reported times - not tested for X9i - assumed to be close to battery life of the old X9)
  • Battery Type: Lithium Ion, non-replaceable, rechargeable up to 500 times
  • Barometric Altimeter: Yes
  • Electronic Compass: Yes, tri-axial, can operate at up to 30° angle
  • WAAS Enabled: No
  • Screen Resolution (H x W): 74 x 84 pixels
  • Screen Size: 0.81 x 1.07 in (2.1 x 2.7 cm)
  • Display Type: Black and white LCD
  • Auto Locate GPS Fix: Not available
  • Cold GPS Fix: 1 min 15 sec to 6 min - Backpacking Light field tests
  • Warm GPS Fix: 15 to 20 sec - Backpacking Light field tests
  • Waypoint/Route Memory: 500 waypoints/50 routes up to 50 waypoints each
  • Trackpoints: 8000 (25 tracks)
  • Additional Memory: No
  • Additional Memory Type: N/A
  • Computer Interface: Yes, Windows PC via USB cable (possibly Mac via Topo! 4.0 software)
  • Basemaps: No
  • Additional Maps: No
  • Water Resistance: 330 ft (100 m)
  • Celestial Info: Yes, sunrise and sunset only
  • Included Equipment: Universal voltage charger (110 volt for US), USB cable for computer interface/charging, Trek Manager Software, extension wrist strap which enables you to wear the X9 with a heavy jacket.
  • MSRP: $499

Citation

"Suunto X9i GPS REVIEW," by Alan Dixon. BackpackingLight.com (ISSN 1537-0364).
http://backpackinglight.com/cgi-bin/backpackinglight/suunto_x9i_gps_review.html, 2006-02-21 03:00:00-07.

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