by Alan Dixon | 2004-07-21 03:00:00-06
This review covers the factors we believe most influence the suitability of the Suunto X9 for lightweight backpacking and mountaineering. It is not an exhaustive review or in depth analysis of every feature and every application of the X9. If you want a more detailed list of features for the X9 see our first look at the X9 from the winter OR show: Suunto X9 GPS Watch
We felt that to accurately assess the X9’s performance we needed a benchmark GPS similar in both weight and functions. We choose the Garmin Geko 301 which has a barometric altimeter and magnetic compass like the X9. We would expect the smaller and lighter wrist mounted X9 to have battery life and screen size issues when benchmarked against the larger handheld Geko 301, and it does. The X9 has good battery life for its compact size and ultralight weight and fits into its own niche. Since it is wrist mounted, it provides continuously readable navigation and GPS functions, something a handheld cannot do. Therefore, this review should not be viewed as a direct comparison between competing products. We are not officially reviewing the Geko 301 here. A detailed review of the Garmin Geko 301 will appear along with our upcoming GPS Gear Guide. We did not choose to use the wrist mounted Garmin Foretrex 201 as a benchmark because it does not have a barometric altimeter or a magnetic compass.
At 2.7 ounces (75.6 g) and wrist wearable the Suunto X9 may be the lightest, most compact and most easily carried GPS receiver on the market. In the hands of an experienced navigator who is comfortable operating complex electronics, the Suunto X9 will handle backcountry navigation at half the weight of handheld units like the Garmin eTrex series. Compared to a handheld, the wrist mounted X9 provides continuously readable navigation functions such as a magnetic compass, barometric altimeter, and GPS functions.
Despite its 2.0 x 2.5 inch (5.1 x 6.4 cm) size, the Suunto X9 is a full featured, 12 parallel channel GPS with an integrated loop antenna, waypoint storage and management features for backcountry applications including: following routes, marking waypoints, calculating speed and distance traveled as well as recording elevation profiles. However, the Suunto X9’s functions are generally more basic and difficult to use than those on a handheld GPS. In addition to the GPS functions, the Suunto X9 has the magnetic compass, barometric altimeter (which can be auto corrected by the GPS), temperature, barometer, and time/stopwatch functions of the Suunto X6, which has already achieved status as the standard of excellence in backcountry navigation watches.
With good sky view and good satellite configuration, the X9’s GPS receiver locates position as accurately as larger and heavier handheld units. The X9 will accurately navigate a route or to an individual waypoint, normally acquiring GPS positions within a reasonable amount of time. The X9 has more difficulty acquiring GPS positions and is not as reliable as the Geko 301 in less than optimal GPS reception conditions.
The X9 has good battery life for its size and weight. A proficient navigator using the GPS function sparingly in Manual Fix mode will probably have enough battery life for a week-long trip. However, the X9 has a much shorter battery life than the Geko 301 and batteries are not field replaceable.
A highlight of the X9 is its ‘Position’ screen. It succinctly presents essential satellite status and GPS position information on a single screen - an accomplishment in 74 x 84 pixels. It takes two screens and working through the menus to get the same information on the Geko 301. The X9 also has a tri-axial compass that will operate at up to a 30° angle, eliminating the difficult task of holding a wrist mounted unit level. The X9 even has sophisticated functions like a cross track error alarm.
Suunto X9’s excellent Position screen: starting from top left it shows the number of satellites used for positioning* (left number - 4) and the total number of visible* satellites (right number - 5), GPS operation status (two solid bars over the ‘4/5’ = the X9 has a good GPS fix), positional accuracy (epe = estimate position error of 1 meter), and of course UTM coordinates and altitude. When operated in conjunction with Manual GPS Fix mode, this is a good combination for battery conservation and efficient backcountry navigation.
*‘Satellite used for positioning’ = The GPS unit has received enough information from a satellite to use the satellite (in conjunction with other satellites) to calculate a GPS position. ‘Visible satellite’ = The GPS has received some information from a satellite but may or may not have received enough information to use the satellite for calculating a GPS position. The GPS unit continues to listen to visible satellites not used for positioning and may eventually receive enough information to use some or all visible satellites for GPS positioning.
The main performance differences between the X9 and a handheld GPS are:
When compared to the Geko 301, a lightweight handheld GPS with comparable functions:
Size comparison of the Suunto X9 and the Garmin Gekko 301: Although the X9 is only 0.7 ounces lighter than the Geko 301 there is a significant size and volume difference between the two GPS units.
All this is not to say that the X9 doesn’t work. It does. In skilled hands, with careful operation, reasonable sky view and some patience to wait for it to acquire a GPS fix, the X9 will handle the navigation for a week-long trip into the backcountry. In keeping with the philosophy of using the lightest equipment that will do the job, the Suunto X9 may be a good choice for some backcountry trips. We consider it a significant feat of engineering that Suunto managed to get a functional GPS with this level of performance and battery life into a wrist mounted unit. We know of more than a few minimalist trekkers who rushed out to buy an X9 as soon as it went on the market.
|Weight||2.7 oz (75.6 g) - weighed on a Backpacking Light scale|
|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 1-sec updates (4.4 hour tested), 12 hour 1-min updates (10.0 hour tested), up to 400 hours (2 weeks) with manual GPS fixes, up to 2 months using time and altimeter/barometer only|
|Battery Type||Lithium Ion, non-replaceable, rechargeable|
|Electronic Compass||Yes, tri-axial, can operate at up to 30° angle|
|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 & white LCD|
|Auto Locate GPS Fix*||Not available|
|Cold GPS Fix*||3 min 6 sec - average from Backpacking Light field tests|
|Warm GPS Fix*||31 sec - average from Backpacking Light field tests|
|Waypoint/Route Memory||500 waypoints/50 routes up to 50 waypoints each|
|Trackpoints||8,000 (25 tracks)|
|Additional Memory Type||N/A|
|Computer Interface||Yes, Windows PC (limited mapping software available)|
|Water Resistance||330 ft (100 m)|
|Celestial Info||Yes, sunrise and sunset only|
|Included equipment||GPS cradle with charger, computer interface cable (serial), Trek Manager Software, extension wrist strap which enables you to wear the X9 with a heavy jacket.|
|Optional equipment||USB computer adapter, 12 V cigarette lighter charger|
* Auto Locate Fix = GPS movement over 500 miles since last fix and/or more than 30 days since last fix. Cold Fix = More than four hours since last GPS fix and/or significant movement since last fix (you’d need to use a car or something faster to get far enough). Warm Fix = Less than four hours since last fix without significant movement (you can’t walk or run far enough in four hours to screw up a warm fix).
Navigating to a waypoint with the X9: Top number ‘2.14.6/11:31’ is the waypoint being navigated to, the single solid bar below the ‘2.1’ means the GPS has an adequate but not great fix (more bars = a better fix). The waypoint is 1.08 miles away at a compass bearing of 183° from the present position. The solid dot above the ‘mi’ indicates that you need to walk right of your present direction to be on course to the waypoint. When the black dot is between the two vertical lines at the top of the screen (just above the ‘6/’) you are walking directly on course to the waypoint. The hollow diamond below the ‘1.08’ means that you are navigating to a single waypoint and not a route. The solid right pointing triangle means that you have an Activity Log running. The small bar on the left shows that you are running in a high battery drain mode (in the red zone), in this case Navigation mode. The small bar on the right is the battery indicator. It shows that the batteries are very low. When the battery is critically low the bar in the red zone will start to flash.
With good sky view and good satellite configuration, the X9’s GPS receiver was as accurate in locating GPS position as larger and heavier handheld units. The X9 will accurately navigate a route or to a waypoint.
In all situations, the X9 was slower to get a GPS fix than the Geko 301. From our field testing, the X9’s loop antenna does not appear to be as sensitive as the patch antennas used in handheld units like the Geko 301.
|Geko 301||Geko 301||Suunto X9||Suunto X9|
|Cold start||Warm start**||Cold start*||Warm start*|
|average||0 min 40 sec||0 min 14 sec||3 min 39 sec||0 min 31 sec|
|maximum||1 min 39 sec||0 min 40 sec||7 min 42 sec||2 min 0 sec|
|minimum||0 min 12 sec||0 min 08 sec||0 min 42 sec||0 min 13 sec|
*The longest cold start fix for the X9 was a ‘failed to acquire’ after 7minutes in limited sky view. The Geko 301 acquired in 1 minute 7 seconds with an accuracy of 15 meters in the same location. The ‘failed to acquire’ value was not included in the Cold Start average for the X9.
**As distance and time increased from the previous fix, the X9 fix times increased proportionally more than the Geko 301’s fix times.
The X9’s slower GPS fix acquisition was the least pronounced with 1) good sky view, 2) good satellite configuration, 3) a position change of less than 3.1 miles (5 km), and 4) a GPS fix within the last hour. It was most pronounced with 1) limited sky view, 2) poor satellite configuration, 3) a position change as little as 3.7 miles (6 km), or 4) over an hour since the last GPS fix.
In extreme cases with limited sky view, the Geko 301 acquired a fix with 15 meter accuracy in 67 seconds while the X9 failed to acquire a GPS fix after 7 minutes. (The X9 started losing visible satellites so we ended the test.)
In another field condition, this time with poor satellite configuration (but with reasonably clear sky view), the Geko 301 acquired a 5 satellite 3D fix in 32 seconds while the X9 acquired only a 3 satellite fix in 7 minutes 42 seconds. The X9 was also the first unit to lose a GPS fix when entering a limited sky view area and the last to regain a GPS fix when coming back into an open area. In heavily forested areas, tight canyons and other limited sky view areas, the Geko 301 had a clear performance advantage.
The X9 tended to find fewer satellites for positioning than the Geko 301. For example, when the Geko 301 had 6 satellites visible and could use 5 of those for position calculations, the X9 had 5 satellites visible and could only use 3 of those for position calculations.
The X9 erroneously reports your position 0.14 miles (220 m) too far north for almost all USGS topographic maps when you use UTM coordinates. If you are willing to use a degree based coordinate system, the X9 will honor your NAD 27 datum selection and accurately report your position. The Geko 301 accurately reported both UTM and degree based positions for USGS topographic maps.
Why is this? Almost all USGS topographic maps use a North American Datum 27 (NAD 27). For some inexplicable reason the X9 is designed to ignore your datum selection when you select UTM coordinates. In this case the X9 ignores your ‘Datum 99’ selection (the X9 datum that most closely corresponds to NAD 27) and reverts to another datum, WGS 84. The difference between the NAD 27 and WGS 84 is the 220 meters northing error.
Suunto claims that the X9’s loop antenna is less directionally sensitive than patch antennas (which are designed to be pointing up) and therefore it is suited to wrist mounting. From our testing, the added sensitivity of the Geko 301’s patch antenna seems to outperform the X9’s loop antenna even when the Geko 301 was operated upside down. The Geko 301 acquired more satellites and got a position fix sooner, 48 seconds, than the X9, 1 minute 30 seconds, when both were operated upside down. (Measurements were made just a few minutes after acquiring a good position fix with both units upright.) The Geko 301’s patch antenna had no performance degradation pointing to the side and at a large wall (90 degrees from vertical) and acquired a fix in 8 seconds while the X9 required 38 seconds when held in the same position.
The X9 has a long initial setup period when first entering the backcountry. It can take 15 minutes or longer until the X9’s GPS receiver is ready to reliably operate. The Geko 301 was generally ready to operate in 3 to 5 minutes and had little trouble quickly acquiring subsequent GPS fixes.
We missed having a ‘satellite view’ screen on the X9. Knowing the position of the satellites in the sky, which satellites are visible to the GPS, and which it can use for positioning (available on the Geko 301) allows one to maximize satellite reception in difficult locations such as Utah canyons or a forest clearing. We’ve used this information to intelligently reposition the GPS unit for best reception with good success - e.g. upgrading a couple of visible satellites to positioning status. With the X9, you are left to guess where to relocate to improve satellite reception.
The X9 does not use WAAS (Wide Area Augmentation System). We do not consider WAAS accuracy necessary or even desirable for backcountry use. WAAS drains more power from GPS units, and its increased accuracy does virtually nothing to improve backcountry navigation. We always turn WAAS off for backcountry trips.
For multi-day trips, the trick to operating the X9 is to use it in Manual Fix mode as much as possible. This conserves battery power while still acquiring good GPS information when needed. At times, this is complicated by the X9 timing out in Manual Fix mode before acquiring a GPS position.
We would add one more step: Immediately set GPS Fix to Manual mode to preserve battery power.
Suunto recommends you set up the X9’s GPS in a specific way when entering the backcountry. This is so important that Suunto stuffs in each X9 box a separate 8 x 11 inch sheet of paper titled, "Attention Critical Reading Before You Start," which explains this procedure. This setup will always take over 12 minutes and can easily take longer than 15 minutes. The X9’s initial setup does not work while the unit is in motion. If you want to move around during this period, you’ll need to put the X9 on a rock, log or fencepost during the setup.
A nice shortcut for Manual GPS Fix: In most screens, you can update your position manually by holding down the Stop-Back button for 2 seconds. The X9 will acquire and mark your position in the ‘hidden’ track log and then turn GPS reception off to conserve battery life. Unfortunately, these manually updated positions become part of a track log which can only be viewed via a computer (although the individual positions can be viewed in the position screen until you get another GPS fix). If you want to edit or navigate to this position in the field, or view it after taking another manual fix in the field, you’ll need to menu down further and use the Mark Waypoint function.
To quickly get a screen viewable GPS location: We found the X9’s Position screen one of the most useful screens when used in conjunction with the Manual Fix mode. In the Position screen, we used the Stop-Back button to activate the GPS so that at anytime we could acquire (into the 'hidden' track log) and view a GPS position. This strategy of using the Stop-Back button to acquire a position worked equally well in the Route or Waypoint Navigation screens. Again, you can only view your GPS position in the Position screen until the next time you get a GPS fix. You’ll need to menu down further and use the Mark Waypoint function to name and save this position in a field retrievable format.
An alternative to manual fix mode (if you think you have enough battery life) is to put the GPS fix in 1 minute mode. The X9 will automatically update your position and store it every minute.
While the X9 has all the standard functions of a small GPS receiver, the functions often have fewer options and are more difficult to use than similar functions in handheld units. The X9’s small display forces information to be displayed in small chunks on many screens. Because of this, essential functions are sometimes deeply nested down in the X9’s menus. If you thought it was difficult to master your Suunto Vector or X6, this is a whole other league of complexity. The X9’s hard to push buttons make this information all the more difficult to retrieve. The interface is far from intuitive. You won’t hack your way into the X9. Instead, you’ll spend a long time with your nose in the X9’s 97-page manual.
We found it time consuming to perform many basic GPS functions. Marking a waypoint on the X9 is difficult and deeply nested in menus compared to the ease of marking a waypoint with the Geko 301. With the Geko 301, it takes two button presses to mark a waypoint from any screen. On the X9 marking the same waypoint takes you five menu levels down and takes a minimum of 19 button presses. The mark waypoint function can only be accessed from the Navigation screen.
Another example is selecting waypoints. On the Geko 301, you can quickly find waypoints by listing those nearest to your current location (five per screen with direction and distance) or listing them grouped in alphanumeric order (eight entries per screen with locator tabs). On the X9, you are limited to scrolling through waypoints one at a time with only three visible on the screen at any time. There is no information other than the waypoint name which is limited to a format of number, date and time or using one of 19 preset names like "hill," "coast," "forest," and "rock." It’s difficult to associate these 'names' with a specific place in the field. The Geko 301 allows you to choose names for waypoints (via the computer or in the field) that have personal relevance to their position, like "jc-mcr," which you’ll at least have some chance of recognizing as the junction to Miller Creek. The X9’s field created waypoints, "3.24.6/16:40" or "hill," don’t provide enough information to remind you of the specific place. You can add your own 19 preset waypoint names to the X9 via the computer. But there is no way to change them or add custom alphanumeric names to waypoints once you’re in the field. Many times we’ve added waypoints from scaled map positions at night for the next day’s hiking. The X9’s limited waypoint creation and naming are considerably less useful than the Geko 301’s.
Managing waypoints: The Suunto X9 (left) is limited to three waypoint names on the screen and the waypoint names are not all that illuminating. There are no tools to help retrieve waypoints. The Geko 301 allows you to view more waypoints and more information per screen along with two very useful search modes. The “List All” screen (middle) shows waypoints grouped in alphanumeric order, eight entries per screen, with locator tabs. The “Locate Nearest” screen lists the nearest waypoints, five per screen with direction and distance like HARD-T, Southeast 1.4 miles. We sorely missed a ‘locate nearest waypoint’ function on the X9
Some important functions in the X9 are interconnected to other functions and won’t operate unless those functions are set properly. For instance, you can’t run/start an Activity Log until you activate the GPS unit and get an accurate position fix (even if you aren’t planning on using the GPS functions). This can be irritating if you’re late to the trail head and have to wait 15 or more minutes there for the X9 to get a GPS fix. In addition there are X9 functions like Mark Memory Point that won’t operate without an Activity Log running.
In summary, be prepared for a steep learning curve before you can reliably and efficiently operate the X9. Even then, the X9 will have more limited functions and take longer to operate than a handheld unit such as the Geko 301. However, with some patience and ingenuity one can manage most backcountry navigational chores.
The X9 has remarkable battery life given its size and weight. We estimate that the Suunto X9 can handle about a week in the backcountry navigating primarily with the GPS in Manual Fix mode. With sparing use of Manual only GPS fixes, a skilled navigator who needs minimal GPS updates might extend this up to two weeks. We do not think that the X9 will achieve its 500 waypoint acquisition in a two week period.
|Suunto X9||Geko 301|
|Normal Mode||04 hr 23 min||10 hr 48 min|
|Battery save mode*||10 hr 01 min||25 hr 48 min|
*Geko 301 = GPS in Battery Save mode (5-sec fix) and compass turned off.
For multi-day trips in the backcountry, the X9’s short battery life and non-field replaceable batteries are a serious challenge to the navigator. The X9’s slower fix times and complicated time consuming operation increase GPS use over a handheld GPS. In addition, the complexity of operations increases the likelihood that you’ll unintentionally leave the GPS on without realizing it. We did this on more than one occasion.
We are confused as to why the X9, with its limited battery life, has no capacity for installing new batteries in the field. If you make a power management mistake with a handheld unit and it goes dead, you have the option of putting fresh batteries in it and completing your trip with a GPS. With the X9, if you unintentionally leave the GPS on or just use it more than you planned, you risk having no GPS in the backcountry. To complicate this, the X9’s battery level indicator does not accurately report battery life. It can jump 50% up or down in just a few minutes. Fortunately, when the X9’s batteries get critically low it automatically shuts off the GPS receiver to reserve enough power to operate time, altimeter/barometer, and compass functions. The X9 won’t let you reactivate the GPS again until the battery is charged so you will be without a GPS for the duration of the trip.
You can use a cigarette lighter adapter or put a 9-volt battery in the charging cradle to charge the X9 just prior to going into the field. This at least gives you the maximum charge before venturing forth. You might even want to top off the battery after completing its initial setup at the trail head.
Finally, if you absolutely need to leave a bread crumb trail to track back on, or if there is a possibility of whiteout, night navigation, or similar difficult situation where you may need to navigate with your unit continually on, the X9 may not be a good choice for your trip.
No surprises here. Suunto has been producing top quality wrist mounted compass and altimeter units for years. They are standard issue equipment for adventure racers. The X9 improves on this level of performance with a new tri-axial compass. You calibrate the compass in two planes, horizontal and vertical. When done, the tri-axial compass will operate at up to a 30° angle, eliminating the task of holding older wrist mounted units exactly level to get an accurate compass reading.
Stand-alone data manipulation on the X9 is time consuming and difficult. Most data manipulation of the unit is best done via computer. For the time being, data transfer to and from the X9 is limited to Suunto’s proprietary Trek Manager Software. The Trek Manager Software will allow you to download and view field data (altitude, time, distance, etc.) stored in the X9 and therefore would be a good training aid to adventure racers or others who want detailed outdoor performance data for a day’s outing.
In our estimation, Suunto’s Trek Manager is not a serious piece of backcountry mapping software. The Trek Manager Software does not have good North American maps, or any sort of easily loaded maps for that matter. The only way you can import maps is as a scanned file (e.g. Bit Map, JPEG, or GIF files) that you manually calibrate. This is a time consuming pain. To date, major mapping software like National Geographic’s Topo! does not support data exchange with the X9. According to Suunto, the only solution is to create routes and waypoints in third party mapping software (e.g. Topo!), export this as an intermediate text file, and import the text file into Sunnto’s Trek Manager software before finally downloading route and waypoint data to the X9. We called National Geographic and they estimate a beta Topo! to X9 data interface sometime late summer to early fall 2004.
The X9 has a black and white, 74 x 84 pixel, LCD display. The pixel based display is much more flexible for presenting varied types of information, large characters, small characters and even graphics, than the fixed bar displays used on most watches and wrist navigation units like the Suunto Vector. The X9 displays much of its information in large, easily read characters. We found the contrast and viewing angles were reasonable to read the display from full daylight to dusk. The backlight is very bright and can be viewed even in the shade.
The X9’s LCD has more contrast and is sharper than Suunto Vector’s bar character display. This and the large characters make the X9’s display more pleasant to view and easier to read than the Vector’s. Compared to the Vector, the X9’s pixel based display presents more information in a more easily read format. As mentioned before, the X9’s display is smaller than handheld GPS units and shows less information per screen.
The whole X9 setup: Includes clockwise, the X9, a cradle that doubles as a charger and computer interface, computer cable (serial), Trek Manager Software, charger, and an extension wrist strap for wearing the X9 over a jacket.
The X9 can hardly be considered a bargain. It is an elite piece of gear for the committed minimalist who is an expert navigator and can spare $700 dollars for a GPS. The X9 is lighter than handhelds, and being wrist mounted it provides continuously readable navigation information. The X9 lists for $523 more than Garmin’s Geko 301 which is easier to use, has more functionality, and weights only 0.7 oz (20 g) more. One could even argue that if you want many of your features wrist mounted, the combination of a Geko 201 along with a wrist mounted navigation unit like a Suunto Vector provides more functionality for a lot less money. This combination while a bit heavier provides more function, battery life, and usability.
We think the X9 is a remarkable step forward in outdoor navigation. It took some superb engineering to get a functional GPS down to this size. Nonetheless, we’d like to see some improvements.
"Suunto X9 Review," by Alan Dixon. BackpackingLight.com (ISSN 1537-0364).
http://backpackinglight.com/cgi-bin/backpackinglight/x9_suunto_review.html, 2004-07-21 03:00:00-06.