Suunto is well known for its fitness technology, and its products span a seriously impressive range of activities from mountaineering and diving to hiking, skiing and sailing. The company has a strong range of personal fitness products and we reported just a couple of weeks ago that a new range had been launched in the UK, the M series of sports watches with heart rate monitor.

The M series of sports watches can set you weekly fitness goals and give you daily reminders that exercise is due in order to keep you on the straight and narrow towards the goals you have set. An M series watch will also issue motivational guidance after exercises are completed.

Suunto sent FitTechnica.com one of the very first of the M series units to hit the UK and I’ve been working with it for a couple of weeks. So, what is it like? And how far along the road to full fitness will it take you?

What’s in the box

You don’t get very much at all in the Suunto M4 box. There is the watch itself (in either black and pink, black and blue or black and silver), a heart rate monitor, a card with customer support details on it and a very basic quick start guide.

There is a fuller manual for download from the Suunto web site, and I’d suggest you get that straight away. It will help you understand the capabilities of the M4 and just as importantly help you get the initial settings right when you first unbox your new gadget.

Like many Suunto products you can wirelessly transfer data from the M4 to the online training management tools at www.movescount.com. But for that you need a USB stick, which is an optional extra that does not come with the M4 by default. Suunto didn’t send a USB stick, so I’ll have to look at the Suunto’s online data analysis services at a later date.

Set up and configuration

The M series of heart rate monitor watches comprises several models, the M1, M2, M4 and M5. As you go up the pecking order you get more features in the watch. Check the post about the launch of the M series to see the details. Suunto sent me the M4 which sits almost at the top of the tree.

The M4 can be worn as an everyday watch, and in fact it is quite light and comfy in this respect. It shows the time in a nice, large, clear style, and you can set an alarm too. It isn’t the most fashionable of watches, but if your daily attire is pretty casual it shouldn’t look too out of place.

Setup could not be easier and should take less than five minutes in all. After setting the time and date you tell the M4 how you like your distances measured – miles or kilometres – and then feed in personal data in the form of your height, weight and sex. That’s all standard stuff and you can take a punt at the height and weight if you aren’t certain at the outset as you can update it with accurate information later on. The watch estimates your resting heart rate settings from this data.

Now comes the slightly harder part. You need to pick a fitness level. The choices are: excellent, very good, good, fair, below average and poor. Without a guide to help you work out where you sit, choosing the right level for your current standard might prove tricky.

Help is at hand, but to get it you’ll have to have access to the full manual (which, as I noted earlier, you have to download from the Suunto web site). This explains what the levels mean. You can class yourself as ‘fair’ if you run less than one mile a week or spend less than 30 minutes a week on comparable physical activity. You are ‘below average’ if you exercise regularly for ten to 60 minutes a week in recreation or work on modest activities like ‘golf, horseback riding, callisthenics, gymnastics, table tennis, bowling, weight lifting or yard work’ (Suunto’s words, not mine). You are ‘excellent’ if you run more than ten miles (16k) a week or spend over three hours a week in comparable physical activity.

Having chosen your current fitness level the next step is to set exercise targets. You can choose between fitness, weight loss or free – that latter means the watch monitors what you are doing but does not set any particular goals. You can flit between different goals from day to day, so nothing is set in stone no matter what you choose at the beginning.

In terms of ease of use it doesn’t take long to breeze through these settings and get to the point where you are ready to start working with the Suunto M4. There are just three side buttons, all on the right edge of the casing. They perform multiple functions both in setup and when it comes to reviewing your performance, but they are quite intuitive and easy to get to grips with.

In use

The initial fitness test is extremely simple. You just need to go for a one mile brisk walk. That allows the watch to measure your heart rate, which it uses as a benchmark for setting max heart rates during exercise. My test walk was actually a bit too laid back, I think, so that during the first few exercise the Suunto M4 was constantly telling me slow down in order to reduce my heart rate.

Fortunately you can repeat the fitness test whenever you like, and if your maximum heart rate exceeds what the watch thinks it should, it’ll ask if you want the max heart rate to be updated to the new high. You can set the maximum heart rate manually if you have an accurate measurement you can use.

There is another problem with this mile walk. The Suunto M4 does not measure distance travelled. You’ll need to find a measured mile on a road (and I only know of one of these in the UK – in Ilkley, though there may well be more), use a running track, or perhaps use Google Maps or similar to work out a mile long walking route. If you are a member of a local gym, the easiest option is probably to jump on a treadmill and set yourself a one mile goal.

Once that initial fitness test is completed you can start to do regular runs as directed by the watch. When you wake up in the morning the watch will tell you if it is an exercise day, and you can check out what the planned exercise is. Then you can do it at any point during the day, whenever suits you. If you simply don’t have time to train that day, the exercise just carries over to the next day.

The overall plan for the watch is to take you from your current fitness level to the Excellent fitness level, so the weekly exercise plans are graded to achieve this goal. Once you get to the Excellent level, the watch just keeps on churning out plans that keep you at this level.

One thing I really like about the Suunto M4 is how quick and easy it is to get going on a run. The watch picks up the heart rate monitor’s signal really quickly, and never lost it once during a session.

The HRM, too, is very pleasing. It is a bit on the clunky side but that is the only negative point, and to be fair, I didn’t notice its size at all once I was on a run. The elastic strap is comfortable to wear, and everything stays in place no matter how long or hard you run.

There are two clasps on the strap making it easy for both left and right handed people, and it can be unclipped one handed so that taking it off after a run is very easy and doesn’t require you to lift up your shirt – very useful if you are finishing a run in a public place and are of a modest disposition.

During a run you can push the middle button on the watch to change the information display so you can see for example, the elapsed time, average heart rate, calories burned and heart rate zone. You simply cycle through until you get the info display you want.

I like the way the watch tells you that your heart rate is either too high or too low. A heart icon shows that the watch is gathering data from the heart rate monitor. You get a descending musical trill if you need ease up a little and lower your heart rate, and a raising trill if you need to work a bit harder. This is accompanied by arrows pointing either up or down on screen.

I also like that the watch has a series of arrows that successively fill the left hand half the outer part of the watch screen as you move towards completing the allotted time of your exercise. You can see at a glance how much more work you have to do in order to finish an exercise session. You get an aural alert when a session is 50% complete too. I’d actually have liked additional alerts at 25% and 75%, just to give that little bit more information without the need to look at the watch.

When an exercise session is completed you can either stop the watch or allow it to run on in which case the arrows continue counting time elapsed into the right hand half of the watch face, your heart rate continues to be monitored and the watch continues to work out calories burned. The manual isn’t clear on this, but I don’t think work that you do over and above an allocated exercise session counts towards achieving your goals. Though of course, in reality it could mean you get fitter faster. Or more tired more quickly!

Post run information is limited. The watch will report a full log only for the last completed run, including calories burned, average and peak heart rates. There is some cumulative information stored about past sessions but it is far from complete. You can view exercise duration and calories burned during the last four weeks as cumulative totals, percentage completed on weekly and monthly targets and reports of up to seven fitness tests.

However if you want to go back further in time and see the detail for older exercise sessions you have to upload data at regular intervals to www.movescount.com and as already mentioned that facility is not included in the box with the Suunto M4.

Conclusion

I came away from the Suunto M4 with quite mixed feelings. It is certainly very easy to set up and you can get out on any run with a minimum of fuss. In that regard it is great for technophobes and those who just like to put on their running shoes and go.

But whether you’ll be happy with what you get out of it rather depends on the goals you set and how you juggle fitness training with the rest of your life.

The Excellent fitness rating isn’t really all that advanced, but if you are starting from doing no exercise at all you may find the M4 is great at getting you up to that level. You can then decide if you are at a level you want to maintain, or if you want to go further, and if you decide on the latter you’ll need to upgrade to more advanced kit.

I’m not particularly inspired by the ‘good workout!’ text that appears on screen after an exercise session. I just don’t find that very motivating, to be honest. And that’s all the motivational messaging you get.

More than any of this, though, I’m not happy about the fact that you can’t chop and change the order of the exercises that are suggested.

Like most people my time is limited and some days I have time for a 60 minute plus run, while on other days it has to be 20 minutes of training, which means a fast threshold run or some speed-work. The M4 isn’t flexible enough to accommodate that kind of ‘lifestyle’ requirement.

There is good and bad here. If you fail to do a scheduled exercise it is simply pushed on to the next day. Now, you can choose to do a ‘free’ session if you don’t have time for the longer run that is scheduled for a particular day, but you can’t swap the long run for a shorter one that is actually part of your planned schedule. In the end I think that is just a bit too rigid. I am happy to do four runs a week, and want them all to fit into a programme. If I have to do some that are ‘free’ and outside the programme simply because the equipment I have won’t let me move runs around to suit my schedule, then I think the equipment is at fault.

Looking at the price of the Suunto M4 which I found online for around £100, and comparing it to the Adidas miCoach which comes in at about £120, I think the miCoach is a much better buy.

Yes, it is a lot more time consuming to set up. But spend the extra £20 and invest a bit more startup time and you’ll get kit that has the potential to see you from zero running to your first marathon and then on to your second and third. I don’t think the Suunto M4 can promise as much.

Pros:

  • Very easy to set up
  • Straightforward to use
  • Good aural prompts to speed up and slow down
  • Excellent, very comfy heart rate monitor

Cons:

  • Inflexible training schedules
  • Does not store a huge amount of data
  • Link to Suunto Movescount.com Web site is optional extra
  • Will get you to a reasonable fitness level but you may need to upgrade to get further

Manufacturer: Suunto

SRP: £100.00