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Suunto T1 training watch with heart rate monitor 

I've tried several heart-rate monitoring watches with varying (but low!) levels of success in the past. This time it's the turn of Suunto with their T1 watch.

In common with other similar devices the Suunto gives you two elements - the watch itself and a separate heart rate monitor that straps around your chest for when you train. The monitored heart rate is wirelessly communicated with the watch, which provides the user interface.

The basics

The watch comes with an 'interesting' strap arrangement. This has a metal clasp attached to the plastic strap. The strap itself is big enough to fit a huge wrist - and in my case I could slide it all the way to my armpit. The only way to adjust the strap is to remove the metal clasp and physically cut off segments until it is the right size. Be careful - once cut you can't replace a segment! The whole process is very fiddly because you need to re-attach the clasp after each segment to check for size.

Coming onto the watch itself, there are five buttons to control a myriad of features. On first use you are asked to provide information about yourself including your age and 'activity class' (how fit you are). This information is used to calculate your maximum heart rate.

Once you're past the initial set-up the watch has two main modes : Time and Training (set-up being a separate third mode). In training mode the watch gathers information from the heart rate monitor and helps you to get fit. In Time mode as well as giving you the time you can also review your progress so far.

The instruction manual provides 32 pages in English covering all the watch functions and also provides some basic background on why some of the features are useful. Although everything is covered I did find the manual lacked structure, and trying to find out how to do something often entailed re-reading the entire manual.

Like most training watches the user interface is hampered by the lack of buttons. There are five in total - that's not enough but where would you put more? I personally found the watch very difficult to use beyond just looking at the basic figures. It does do everything but unless you use them frequently you'll probably need to keep the manual close to hand!

In use

I've used the Suunto for about a month now as a running companion. In that time my sessions have varied between shorter 60 minute 'hard' sessions where I've pushed myself to a more leisurely 120 minute 'just try to get to the end' runs. I timed the longest run for late afternoon - starting in good light, running through dusk and on into full dark/street light conditions.

First of all the good news! This is the only heart rate monitor that has almost flawlessly measured my heart rate. Only on one occasion did it report an impossibly high rate of 220 beats per minute, and that was as I walked round the house! Just about every other watch I've tried regularly recorded erratic results producing worthless results.

While running the Suunto provides a big central display of your heart rate. Above that is your stop-watch time and then around the edge is a nifty little circle of dots showing your minimum and maximum heart rates and on the other a display of calculated calories used.

Unfortunately I found the display almost useless in most conditions :

  • During good light outdoors the dark background/white digits highly reflective face meant I could hardly see the display
  • The only digits big enough to see clearly while running without having to stop is the heart rate (and I do have perfect vision!)
  • As soon as the light started to fade the dark display became unreadable. The back light in these conditions wasn't bright enough to sufficiently illuminate the display
  • The small 'min/max heart rate' and calorie display were virtually invisible - and certainly unreadable unless you stop and move the watch close to your face

For comparison I wore my trusty Casio on my other arm and the LCD display could be clearly read through the whole of the session - no back light necessary until almost dark, visible under street light and when the light was necessary - it clearly showed the information I needed.

Looking at the range available - the T1 comes in an option that has the more traditional black digits on a light background. If you decide to buy this watch and you intend to train outside then I'd strongly recommend going for that option.

One nice feature is the ability to set alarms when your pulse rate drops below or goes above certain thresholds. For interval training this can be very useful, and even for a long distance run I often find my mind drifting and my pace slowing. It's good to then get a reminder to concentrate and pick up the pace!

After training you can always go back and see the results of your last session. In the timer mode you can access some aggregate figures. These provide totals for this week, last week, this month and last month. The manual was particularly unclear on how to access and interpret the results leading to somewhat random button presses.

Summary

I've not come across a watch that has completely solved the user interface challenges faced by cramming a huge amount of functionality into such a small space. The Suunto doesn't do the best job I've come across, but neither is it the worst.

The heart rate monitor works accurately without obviously erroneous readings.

The white character display on black background doesn't work outdoors or in challenging lighting conditions - but a more traditional black on white option is available in the range.

Detailed specifications are available on the Suunto web site :

http://www.suunto.com/suunto/main/product_short.jsp?CONTENT%3C%3Ecnt_id=10134198673968604&FOLDER%3C%3Efolder_id=9852723697223384

At around £50 on Amazon the Suunto T1 gives good performance at very a good price if you're interested in heart-rate monitoring during training.

http://www.amazon.co.uk/gp/search?keywords=Suunto%20T1&index=sports

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