Suunto Altimeters: Good, Bad, and (Today) Mostly Ugly

For nearly a decade (roughly 1997-2006), Suunto produced the best altimeter watch on the market: the Vector (right). And then they replaced it with their Core series. Now they no longer make the best altimeter watch. In fact, they've done a good job at seriously damaging their reputation due to some consistent quality control problems with the Core line.

I bought a Vector in 1998 and it still functions perfectly after thousands of miles of trail use and abuse. In fact, it's one of my favorite pieces of gear. It helps me identify my location. It helps me pace myself on long uphill climbs. Its electronic compass provides me with a general bearing. And it allows me to record my cumulative elevation gain and loss for a designated period of time. That same watch has provided all of the elevation data for all the hiking guidebooks I've written! (If you've never used an altimeter, I strongly endorse them as my number-one, go-to gadget.)

Given how well my Vector has performed, I was initially excited by the new Core series. It has a few more features, a nice display, and a classier look. But soon I discovered that the Core series is stricken with consistent quality control issues. Some customers report that it abruptly shorts out on them. That it locks up and fails to respond to button pushes. That it abruptly resets itself. That it develops permanent gray lines in the screen. And most commonly, customers complain about issues they've had with short battery life (6 weeks or less), with no advance warning from the battery indicator symbol (average battery life on the Vector: 18-24 months). You can read some of the many complaints in the online forum of www.suuntowatches.com (a retailer of Suunto watches).

Just like the Vector series had several variations within the product line (the Altimax and Observer, both excellent and reliable as well), the Core series has a smaller off-shoot designed for women known as the Lumi. Just as the Lumi features the same "guts" as the Core, it has many of the same problems as well.

Quality control aside, I have one other significant quibble with the Core. The most common thing that you do with an altimeter watch is recalibrate the elevation, which fluctuates based on minor changes in barometric pressure due to weather. (A tenth of an inch of mercury correlates to 100 feet of elevation change. Thus if the barometric pressure drops from 30.00" to 29.90" your altimeter will be 100 feet off.) Consequently, any time you're at a known elevation, it's worth comparing it with your altimeter watch and resetting the elevation as necessary.

With the Vector, changing your elevation requires you to hold down one button for a few seconds, and then adjust the elevation up or down. With the Core series, however, a minimum of three button strokes are required before you can change the elevation. Multiply those extra button strokes by the dozens or hundreds of times you'll do so and you get the picture—an annoying pain in the butt.

So what's the upshot? If you're looking for an altimeter watch, avoid the Core and Lumi (retail cost: $249-$599). The brands I've been recommending lately are High Gear and their Axio line (left) of altimeters ($125-$150) and Casio's line of Pathfinder watches ($179-$329), some of which have serious bonus features, including solar powered battery, 24 time zones, and syncing with transmitted atomic time. But ultimately, I still love my Vector watch. Though Suunto no longer makes them, you can still find them online at www.suuntowatches.com and other sites. When mine dies (if it ever does), I'll replace it with another one.

Equipped” is an AMC Outdoors blog, written by Matt Heid.

Labels: