Suunto Traverse Alpha vs Garmin Fenix 3 HR

My story goes back couple years ago when I realized that having a GPS watch on my hand, capable of pointing right direction, having barometer and altimeter built-in and recording my tracks would be absolutely awesome addition. Nothing really that important, since I have always been happy with the navigation I had in my smartphone. However, since I wear a watch anyway, why not replace it with something more “modern” and save some precious battery life while hiking?

It took a while until anything interesting enough appeared on the market. In April this year I eventually made the move and decided to find a wrist-watch having all the functionality I would ever need, that is: GPS/GLONASS, sunrise, sunset and storm alarms, trackback, routes, ABC and wireless connectivity with my phone to add new routes and POIs more easily. Also, it had to be durable, waterproof and dust-proof. Not many watches had these features. Actually, there are only two companies that had products meeting my requirements: Garmin and Suunto.

Not sure about you, but for me Suunto always meant high quality. Not that Garmin offers products of lesser quality in general, but at least, personally, I have never considered Garmin a company that is able to build a good watch. It’s just not their territory, so to speak. So when I bumped into Suunto Traverse Alpha, the stealth version, I fell in love immediately and decided to get one of these. A month later and a few thousand kilometers north, I finally had it in my hands.

Hell, what a feeling was that! I felt like a complete geek, having more fun with this little device than with any phone I have ever had. And when I started really using it, things started to look a bit different.

Suunto Traverse Alpha Stealth

The build of this watch is excellent, solid as a rock. The menus seemed awkward at first, but at that time I thought it can’t be done better, considering the size of the device and number of options. The problem I had in particular was the “back” button which was not always the way to leave the current context and the whole interaction was not exactly intuitive. Once again, it is not an easy task to design the user interface for a device like that one and I was pretty much convinced that future updates will fix these little nuisances. I felt somehow disappointed with the display resolution, but on the other hand it didn’t have to be pretty, it had to get the job done and use as little energy as possible.

The first real issue I experienced was the problem with saving current location. Quite often I had to make sure I was able to come back to the place where I found something interesting (complete reindeer skeletons in a block of ice, to name one) or some broken (most often smashed to the ground by polar bears) scientific instruments which should be fixed but I didn’t know the owners. Randomly the watch would not allow me to save POIs, trying to establish connection with GPS without any success. I tried searching for similar issues, reading discussion groups, with no luck. So I checked the manual just in case. The thing is: manuals usually don’t describe that sort of problems. Not in this case however. The Suunto Traverse Alpha manual says: “In case the GPS unit cannot find a signal, you can reset GPS data in the service menu”. Whaaaat?! Seriously? So instead of just programming a timeout, let’s say for 30 seconds, the watch forces user to know when the GPS unit just got stuck and needs a manual reset? This one seemed a weird issue which started undermining my trust in this device.

However, the real hell started after I returned from the Arctic. One day Suunto released an update or somehow managed to corrupt my online data, what caused crashing the Moveslink application and filling up whole memory with garbage, making the watch virtually useless.

Suunto watch with messed up POIs data.

Suunto watch with messed up POIs data.

Worse than that, I had no means of getting in touch with their customer support. I’ve sent dozens of crash reports, contacted reseller, tried sending messages through the contact forms on the Web (none of which worked, by the way). Nothing. Eventually, the reseller decided to send my watch to Finland to get it fixed, although it was completely obvious to me it was not a hardware issue. What I thought initially was right, it was just a way for Suunto to buy some more time. I got a brand new watch, with slightly improved buttons, I plugged it in into my Mac and… Same again. I had to wait a month to prove my point! And as it turns out, a few other customers world-wide had the same problem, for months. It was only after I sent them a screenshot of broken contact forms, when I got a tweet, saying:

Finally, someone talked to me… But it was too late already. I decided to return the watch and the reseller (absolutely awesome people, watches in good prices – in Polish: Fabrykazegarkow.pl) offered a replacement. Being already a little bit skeptical about the whole “smartwatch movement”, I didn’t really like the idea of getting another one. But my risk-driven nature forced me to try yet another time. I went for Garmin Fenix 3 HR. And you know what? It looks like it can be done better. Sorry Suunto guys, I admire your hard work, but it clearly shows there is some room for improvement.

Suunto Traverse Alpha vs Garmin Fenix 3 HR

Here is a short summary of differences that in my opinion make Garmin watch a better choice (while being in the same price range):

  • The user interface is much more intuitive.
  • Color display and drastically higher resolution, draining less battery at the same time.
  • Routes planned in Garmin online tools allow snapping to roads.
  • Garmin offers a real SDK which enables developers to create really custom applications, while in Suunto one has only a handful sensor data to play with.
  • Garmin platform allows Internet tethering, so your device can have live data feed if needed.
  • And, as a bonus, it has a heart rate sensor.

The only feature I miss is the flashlight mode. But that’s not an issue, really, I’ll write that small app myself…

Go shopping!

If you like any of the products mentioned above and trust my opinion, please consider purchasing through Amazon:

Garmin Fenix 3 HR

Garmin Fenix 3 HR
8.75

Toughness

9/10

    Ergonomics

    9/10

      Features

      8/10

        Reliability

        9/10

          Pros

          • Intuitive and predictable user interface
          • Great potential in custom applications
          • High resolution and color display

          Cons

          • None so far
          • Rodrigo Garza

            Thanks for this review! I’ve been trying for months to decide between the two and was getting nowhere. I’m a relative novice at hiking/exploring – but, wanted to be fully prepared when setting off on adventures in Honduras where I currently live and that offers great opportunities. Best of luck!

            • I’m happy to hear I could help! And as a small update, since it’s been a while: I’m still happy with Garmin Fenix 3, works just great.

          • ianleader

            Robert, one specific feature that attracted me to the Traverse is the ability to show a real-time GPS track on the watch as you are recording, not just as a track back. Is this also available on the Fenix 3? Thanks for the review! Ian

          • Marcin Ramotowski

            Robert, did you try Garmin Epix as well? I am curious about comparison between Fenix and this one.

            • Unfortunately, I haven’t tried Epix, but seriously considered. I think it could be even a better match for a hiker like myself (due to having custom maps nicely displayed), however: the battery life is half of Fenix 3 (and a quarter of Fenix 5) and the build doesn’t seem to be that rugged (but that’s my opinion after holding it in my hands for a few minutes).

          • Answering Kelly’s question sent over mail:

            “Like you I’m a Suunto fan. My Suunto Vector just won’t die. I too am comparing both watches. How do you find the battery life of the Fenix 3? There are times when I may be out for a week-long hike with no access to power.”

            The battery life (in my humble opinion) is slightly better than the one I had in Suunto Traverse Alpha. I think if you don’t use GPS all the time and turn off the watch when you don’t need it (a nice feature by the way) the battery should last for at least a week. But again, it’s totally personal thing, up to the way you use your gear. I would suggest anyway to get a solar-powered external battery. It’s not that heavy, not that expensive, has multiple applications and most importantly: gives you a peace of mind.

          • By the way, speaking of the flashlight mode that I missed from Suunto: someone made it, available for free!

          • On behalf of George Jeffery who shared his precious experience with both Garmin and Suunto products:

            “Excellent review. We run a Garmin Fenix 3, and a Suunto Traverse Alpha side by side. The Suunto appears well made, and has so far, none of the leakage and strap problems experienced with the Core. Downside is that Suunto User Support is truly dreadful – if you get any, it appears ignorant and arrogant. For me, the damming disability of the Suunto is the inability to download data as a gpx file. Suunto insist users use their Cloud Application “Movescount”, which of course requires an internet connection, and does not permit easy sharing of waypoints with other devices. May be OK for a track athlete, but difficult when camping, or offshore in a boat! I find Movescount particularly clunky.

            For some (military/geology etc) applications, dependency on a web application may be unacceptable.

            The Suunto Traverse has a good barometer, although fused altitude referencing is problematic. For me, the Traverse does little more than replace the Suunto Core. Battery life, without GPS, depletes by about 8 per cent daily. Battery recharges quickly from a battery pack. I currently use Goal Zero.

            The Fenix 1 and the Suunto Core had water leak problems, but after a year of use, the Fenix 3 remains unfogged. Garmin provided excellent user support. With Suunto, you depend entirely on the retailer – choice of retailer is crucial.

            Advice must be to go with the Garmin Fenix.”