GPS units have become increasingly pervasive in the past five years. Predominantly in Europe but also emerging as a major consumer product in the states, GPS technology has invaded palm pilots, automobile dashboards, and more recently, wristwatches. But when I came across the first GPS wristwatch at a local sporting outlet, the Garmin Forerunner, I was appalled by the bulk of the product. I for one, was not interested in running with that brick strapped to my wrist. But I still needed a good all-around device for hiking and mountian biking, just minus the massive size of the Forerunner. So when the Suunto X9i came to my attention, I was immediately interested. From the photos I saw, the unit looked about the size of a normal wristwatch, wearable both during sports and casually. And the feature set was unparalleled. Naturally I was excited when I recieved the review unit from Suunto.
The first thing I noticed when I opened the package was the size of the X9i: much smaller than the Forerunner but still larger than I had expected. I could by no means add the X9i to my casual watch collection, but at least I felt comfortable that wearing it around the city after a midday workout; it happily lacked the dreaded geek factor, as would be the case with other wrist-GPS units (the Pathfinder comes to mind). Additionally, Suunto implemented the GPS antenna inside the watch, so there are no awkward extensions or peripherals needed when it comes to locking on to a satellite signal.
As for the watch band, hard rubber is the order of the day with metal links in between, testaments to the Suunto's efforts and both durability and comfort. The sides of the watch casing are made of similar material, with the buttons protected by rubber to insure optimal operation even in moist environments (or up to 330 ft. underwater). The actual watch glass protecting the screen is made of mineral crystal, an extremely hard and scratch-resistant material. All of these features were obviously designed so that the X9i could be taken into the most demanding of environments and still be fully functional.
The watch package also includes a USB charger and PC connector (or in Suunto terminology: a "data snake"), the use of which we will cover later. Also in the box is a multilingual instruction manual and software for Suunto's treck program that logs and analyzes recorded X9i data. In terms of accessories, everything to get the X9i up and running is included; there are no essential parts that "must be purchased seperately," like when printers don't come with the cable (I hate it when that happens). But again, at a $500 price point, that's pretty much expected.
I was eager to test out the GPS capabilities of the X9i, so the first thing I did after giving the unit a full charge was set up the GPS reciever. This proved to be a little bit more difficult than I hoped. Usually, I'm not one for reading product manuals, but for a device as intricate as the X9i, I sat down and gave the little white book a going-over. With the intructions I gleaned from the reading, and a little bit of trial and error, I got the GPS up and running. At least I thought I did; turns out, I had done everything correctly, but I just wasn't getting any signal.
I'm not sure whether the problem was the slightly wooded area where I was located or the fact that signals and things just don't feel like coming to an obscure suburb like Carmel, Indiana, but the instructions said to let the watch sit outside for 15 minutes; I set it outside for 20, and when i checked on it, it had just barely locked on to a signal. I picked it up, and the signal went away. Perhaps it was a combination of location, terrain, and the less-than-robust antenna (some sacrifices in fuction must be made for the sake of form). In any event, I wasn't prepared to accept failure; I was heading to northern Indiana for the next few weeks, and I brought the X9i along.
During the trip, I did quite a bit of mountain biking, one afternoon of which I spent in Portage at a park called "Imagination Glen." Putting on the X9i before I took to the trails, I activated the GPS and waited. About five minutes later, the watch locked on to a satellite signal. It worked.
One of the major appeals of a GPS unit for outdoorsmen is its ability to remember where you came and to direct you there when you are coming back; the X9i does this superbly. Before setting off, I marked the parking lot as home; a few hours later when I wanted to take the shortest route back, I just told the watch to show me where the home marker was. Immediately it directed me in the direction of where I had set out from. Now, I should conceed that this directional function works by pointing linearly to a location where you mark; it's not quite so advanced that it can calculate the shortest route and tell you to turn left here or right there.
However, even though the watch cannot calculate routes itself, the X9i has the ability to remember user-programmed waypoints. You enter these coordinates before the start of a trip, or you can upload them to the watch via Suunto's Trek software. Simply tell the watch a position on the route you wish to mark and the X9i will save it. When you are backtracking, the devise will remember the order of your waypoints and point you in the right direction. Additionally, you can mark landmarks like a particularly distinct rock for even more reference on a hike.
Beside its GPS functionality, the X9i is loaded with useful tools. Among the features I found most useful were the thermometer, altimeter, compass and barometer. Each of these tools can be programmed to display information in units of your choice (i.e. km or mi per hour). I also found the vertical speed display and the barometric pressure graph very handy for quick reference as to changing weather conditions.
Unfortunately, the battery life of the watch is decidedly poor. Well, more specifically, the battery life with the GPS activated is decidedly poor. When the GPS reciever is not activated, the watch can last weeks on a charge. But with the reciever on, it can only go about a day and a half before the unit dies. This is something that is especially bothersome if you intend on using the watch to go on extended hikes through the wilderness or in the mountains; even camping for a few days where there is no electrical outlet proves problematic when you realize that you can only rely on its GPS abilites for 18 hours the entire trip.
The full capabilities of this package are also hindered by Suunto's often-baffling software. As was the case with the software bundled with the X6HRT, the X9i software once again does not live up to the watch's standards. Not only does it not work with typical GPS maps (as of this writing, only select National Geographic maps work with the unit), but the process of uploading and downloading is tiresome and often frustrating with the tortured user interface. Plotting points and the entire "SuuntoSports" concept is also undeveloped and unintuitive in practice. Even the aesthetics of the interface look lackluster and hastily compiled; it seems more like an alpha testing program than the final release of a software. Suunto should really look to hiring a competent team of software designers, or just contract another company to design their software for them.
Suunto has once again proved to be at the forefront of wristwatch technology and design with the X9i. An excellent balance of form and functionality coupled with a slew of useful reference tools make the X9i an indespensible tool for the discerning outdoorsman. If only Suunto had fully developed the watch's complimentary software and utilized a more powerful battery the X9i could be the only device a mountain biker, hiker, climber, or camper would ever need.
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