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Originally from Outside Online
I get asked a lot of questions when people find out that I write about outdoor gear for a living. Do I have any free gear I can give them? (Sure). Have I heard of overlanding? (Once or twice). Why don’t outdoor companies make ski pants and mountain bike shorts that actually fit women well? (I don’t know.) But the number one question I get from friends and strangers alike? Which GPS watches do I like better, Garmin or Suunto?
It’s a difficult question to answer, and the truth is that both Suunto and Garmin make really, really good smart watches with GPS capabilities. Both companies make models that outperform the Apple Watch for outdoor use, in my opinion. I stress “opinion” here, because which watch is better comes down to the person wearing it and what they want to do with it.
But to leave it at that—a matter of opinion—would be a cop out. So I got top-of-the-line models from each company, Garmin’s Fenix 7X Sapphire Solar ($999) and Suunto’s 9 Peak Pro ($549) in an effort to determine, once and for all, which brand makes a better adventure watch.
How I Tested
I wore the Garmin Fenix for three months straight, using it daily to train for a big gravel cycling race. Then I switched to the Suunto for a couple of months, using it daily in the gym, on runs, biking trips, and a backcountry ski trip in Colorado. Each watch accompanied me on various explorations of national parks and forests. I’ve worn them day and night, tracking my sleep, activities, calories burned, steps—everything. Still unable to pick a favorite, I wore both watches at the same time for the past three weeks in an attempt to objectively determine which watch is the most accurate, comfortable, and feature rich. Needless to say, I’ve gotten some weird looks on group rides.
Both the Garmin Fenix 7x Sapphire Solar and Suunto 9 Peak Pro are solid smart watches that sync seamlessly with my iPhone, delivering messages and allowing me to control music and podcasts from my wrist. They each offer real-time and accurate GPS capabilities, plus fitness tracking, from heart rate monitoring to calories burned. They also have sleep tracking and ridiculously long battery life, even in full-on GPS mode. Both touchscreens are responsive and feature locking screens when you’re in exercise mode, so you have to use the buttons (Garmin has five, Suunto three) to scroll through screens and features when you’re working out. (After using an Apple Watch, I find the locking screen and actual buttons really helpful, because I sweat a lot and wet fingers and touch screens don’t mix.) Both watches are waterproof up to 100 meters.
The Garmin Fenix 7X Sapphire Solar is huge, with a 55 millimeter face. It’s so big that people comment on its size. (There are 42 and 47-millimeter options available for those that want less of a behemoth). It also looks like an adventure piece, something akin to a diver’s watch. By comparison, the Suunto 9 Peak Pro is downright demure, with a “normal” size watch face (43 millimeters) and understated black band and bezel, though you can choose different casings and bands, like the flashier titanium casing with a tan band ($699). The Garmin weighs 89 grams; the Suunto weighs 64 grams.
Charging a watch every night means it’s useless if you want to wear it on a multi-day adventure, not to mention that it makes it difficult to track sleep metrics. Suunto claims the Peak Pro 9 has a 21-day battery life in regular smart watch mode and can run for 40 hours in continuous GPS mode. Garmin claims the Fenix 7x Sapphire Solar can run for 28 days in regular mode and 89 hours in GPS mode. In the field, I never felt limited by the battery life of either watch. In fact, when I wore both at the same time for nine days, the Suunto kept up with the much larger Garmin. After all that off-and-on GPS use, including a couple of multi-hour gravel bike rides, the Suunto had 29 percent battery life left while the Garmin had 37 percent left. Honestly, both battery life claims might be slightly inflated, but neither watch fell short of my needs. And both watches charge very quickly: Suunto from empty to full in an hour, while the Garmin charges completely in two hours.
The Fenix 7x Sapphire Solar features solar charging glass that Garmin claims extends the battery life of the watch by 33 hours under optimal conditions. For three days during the two-watch trial, I was riding bikes in the very sunny desert, which likely accounts for the extra battery savings. But is that solar capability necessary? I live in the tree-covered Southern Appalachians where direct sun is hard to come by, so I wouldn’t get much out of the Fenix’s solar capabilities in the long run. A good question to ask yourself would be: What are you doing that you need to add a few hours of juice to the already impressive battery life of the Suunto or less expensive non-solar Garmin?
Advantage: Garmin, but not by much—and you’ll pay for it
GPS and Navigation
This is one category where there really is noticeable separation between the two watches. The GPS capabilities are similar, as both use multiple global navigation satellite systems (GNSS) to track your location. Each watch is a hell of a lot more accurate than, say, tracking a ride on Strava on your phone. When I wore both at the same time, the total distance and elevation gains of my rides and runs were nearly identical. You can also upload routes to both devices, and your watch will give you turn-by-turn directions.
But the navigation features are far superior on the Garmin Fenix 7x, which features preloaded TopoActive maps, so you can follow your track through a detailed, colored topographic map—and the 55-millimeter version is large enough that you can actually navigate using the watch. The 9 Peak Pro has a map screen that shows your track, but there’s no elevation detail so you don’t know where you are in relation to the landscape. And the topo maps on the Fenix 7X came in handy multiple times while in the backcountry. I actually used the map during an off-trail hike in Joshua Tree National Park to make sure I wasn’t going too far off course while trying to find a cave. I never found the cave, but I found my way back to the car largely thanks to my watch.
The Suunto has presets for 95 different sports, so chances are, whatever activity you’re trying to record, you can find it and track it on the 9 Peak Pro. There’s even paragliding and something called “mermaiding.” I don’t know what that is, but I’d love to know how many calories a mermaid burns in an hour.
The Garmin isn’t as user-friendly for gym-based or city-based athletes because it has limited pre-loaded sports modes, leaning heavily on adventure sports like kayaking and backcountry skiing, but not basic sports like cycling or running. You can add just about any activity you want (breathwork is an option; so is horseback riding), but they don’t come preloaded—I had to go into the settings to add “running” and “cycling.”
After a typical gym workout, the Garmin gives me a summary of the effort with my max heart rate, average heart rate, and calories burned. Then it shows me how much time I spent in each heart rate zone, gives me my training status, and tells me how many hours before I should work out again depending on that training status. After a typical gym workout, the Suunto tells me how long I worked out, my average heart rate, then shows me the max heart rate, calories burned and recovery time. Both watches work seamlessly with Strava, with activities uploading automatically (you have to connect the watches to Strava first).
The data you see on each watch during a workout or GPS-based activity is highly customizable on both units. I had to consult the user’s manual to figure it out for both watches, but you can dial each watch in to prioritize the metrics you’re most interested in viewing while you’re in the midst of a workout. For instance, you can see your heart rate, distance, speed, and duration of the exercise on the main screen of the Garmin, then use the buttons to scroll through the screens to access other data like lap distance, top speed, and time of day. In this respect, both watches are similar, but because the Garmin’s watch face is so large, it’s easier to read those numbers on the fly compared to the Suunto. This fact has eliminated my need for a bike computer when I’m wearing the Garmin.
In my opinion, the most important data of it all is the heart rate info, because that’s the number that tells me how hard I worked during the effort. Chest-based heart rate monitors are still considered the most accurate way to measure your beats per minute, but wrist-based tech keeps getting better. A 2021 study in Research Quarterly for Exercise and Sport showed Garmin Fenix’s heart rate monitor and blood oxygen monitor to be accurate and “a viable method to monitor blood ox and heart rate under most ambient environmental conditions.” Suunto claims its heart rate monitor is accurate within five percent of the chest-based monitors roughly 90 percent of the time. I use heart rate data to gauge how much effort I put into each workout, so I don’t need it to be super accurate. I’m not worried about heart murmurs or an underlying medical condition; I just want to know if I earned an IPA or not. While wearing both watches at the same time, I noticed that the heart rates were usually within 5 to 10 beats of each other. They were both consistent without any weird spikes or super long delays in the readings.
Advantage: Suunto—it’s well-suited for both gym- and outdoor-based activities largely thanks to a wider array of preloaded options
Some people think it’s weird to wear a watch while you sleep, but I like to know why I’m so tired in the morning using actual biometric data. Suunto’s sleep tracking tells you how much deep sleep you get, your average heart rate, how often you were awake, and gives you an overall sleep quality score. It also tells you the average amount of sleep you’ve gotten in the last seven days.
Garmin goes a little deeper into the data, giving you all of the same metrics as the Suunto, but includes a bar graph that charts the time of your deep sleep, light sleep, and awake periods throughout the night—you know exactly when you’re getting your best sleep. Like the Suunto, it charts your sleep for a seven-day period, giving you an overall sleep score, and shows you which night you got the best sleep. In theory, you can use that info to recreate optimal sleep routines.
Comfort and Ease of Use
As much as I like the look of the Garmin, the large size does cause some problems. It’s constantly getting caught in the sleeves of shirts and jackets, and I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve bumped it on doorways, tables, and chairs. (Both watches are built to take a beating though, each using Sapphire glass, which is a chemically-engineered crystal that’s really hard to scratch. I’ve experienced no dents or dings on either.) You can, of course, get a smaller size with the same performance, though you will lose some battery life; the 47 millimeter Fenix 7 Sapphire Solar claims 57 hours in GPS mode without factoring in the solar bonus. In contrast, the Suunto is lighter and feels less obtrusive to wear.
I also find the three-button system of the Suunto more intuitive than Garmin’s five-button system. Sometimes, I find myself randomly pushing buttons on the Garmin trying to get it to do the thing I want.
Winner: Garmin Fenix 7X Sapphire Solar
A couple of Garmin’s features take it over the edge for me, personally, and I’m not talking about the solar-charging capabilities. The solar boost probably doesn’t help me out enough to justify the extra cost. But the larger face of Garmin’s Fenix 7x makes it much easier to read the data on the fly, and I found the pre-loaded maps incredibly useful in multiple situations. Put it all together, and I think it’s a more useful watch for tracking adventures. If you want a capable, rugged GPS watch that can do all of the things, this is the watch for you. One other random thing I love about the Garmin Fenix 7x Sapphire Solar: there’s a built-in LED flashlight on the casing of the watch. It’s bright enough to light your way out of your tent for a midnight bathroom break, or to help you find your dawn patrol socks without waking your partner. It’s also worth noting that the Fenix 7X is available without solar capabilities for $300 less.
That said, the Suunto 9 Peak Pro is a badass watch. It’s super capable and is probably more than enough watch for most people’s daily lives and weekend adventures. If you just want a fitness tracker with solid GPS capabilities and aren’t worried about having every little extra feature, the Suunto 9 Peak Pro might be the smarter choice based on $450 price difference alone.