The rationale behind GPS watches like the new-ish Suunto Traverse is that they give you most of the functionality of a conventional GPS unit, but leave your hands free to do useful stuff like holding trekking poles or clinging onto climbing holds or via ferrata rungs.
We like that as a concept. The downside is that they tend to be bulkier than a conventional watch, which can make them problematic used with some clothing and gloves. The Traverse, Suunto's first outdoor-specific watch, feels solidly engineered - it meets military standards - and despite being a fair old chunk of technology, sat pretty comfortably on the slimmer than average editorial wrist.
Some of that is apparently because the antenna for the GPS/GLONASS receiver has been incorporated into the bezel of the watch, but all you really need to know is that it is surprisingly wearable in an unobtrusive way and it does leave your hands free.
Easy To Use?
Once you've worked out how to switch the thing on, the Traverse has a reasonably straightforward user interface which uses five buttons to select various functions and screen options. We'd hesitate to call it 'intuitive', but with experience, it's not too bad.
At a really basic level, choosing to record a track - which is what a lot of GPS watches are actually used for in the real world - is easy enough with just two button presses. More advanced stuff entails cycling through various menus, but it's not insanely difficult.
What does it do? Lots. You can record tracks, follow compass bearings or use Suunto's online Movescount site or smartphone apps to plan and upload GPS routes which you can then follow on the ground using a combination of arrow and sighting lines, which point to the next waypoint on your route.
It works well, but as with Garmin's Fenix models, the functionality of the breadcrumb-type maps is quite limited and not a patch on any sort of full-on GPS unit with topographical mapping installed. It means it's quite easy to simply bumble along without any real reference to the terrain you're in unless you're prepared to use a paper map at the same time.
If you do want to do that, you can select BNG - British National Grid - as the base system, which gives you a grid reference for your position, but it's an expensive way of doing that if that's all you want the watch for.
That's just scratching the surface though. You can also use the watch with a heart rate monitor if thats your thing, you can look at elevation charts, use the watch as a stopwatch or count-down timer, or to tell the time even.
And then there's the barometric altimeter which not only tells you your current elevation, but also allow a graphical weather outlook. Entertainingly this includes a potentially useful 'Storm Warning' function, where the watch beeps manically when pressure drops suddenly - it happened three times to us, and each time, some 30 minutes later, the skies opened.
You can can also tweak the settings for all these, change the GPS sampling rates, which extends the more than adequate battery life, choose to use a combination of barometric and GPS altitude readings and so on.
The easiest way to do all this - and check for software updates and so on - is to connect to Suunto's Movescount website. The name gives the clue that it was conceived, we think, as an activity tracker type thing, but you can also use it to download and view your activities, export GPS files to different apps like, for example, Strava and even to plan new routes using a reasonably straightforward online map-based planner. You can import external GPX files too.
Mechanically, it's just a question of plugging in a USB cable with a clamp that located on four contacts on the back of the watch, which is also how you charge it up - in the field you can use a back-up power pack or solar charger if necessary.
None of it is quite as easy as just dragging and dropping files onto an icon, but it's not as irksome as some online interfaces we've encountered and the mapping and diagrams are nice enough to look at.
GPS units are, in some ways, a little like advanced word processing programmes, you can use them at a very basic level or delve into the advanced functionality and get it to do even more. The nice thing about the Traverse is that it functions at both levels.
You can use it as quite a simple track recording-device and to establish your position as you go, or you can push things further and take advantage of more advanced navigational options, route following, elevation fixes and the like.
At its most basic you can find your grid position and altitude quickly and easily and if it's about to storm down on you, the watch'll beep like a mad thing. Or you can go geek and delve into its deeper functionality.
What we can say is that the Suunto seems to be robustly put together - we had no issues, for example, with misting up - and comfortable enough to wear unobtrusively despite its relative size. It's also fairly straightforward to use after a little practice and the associated software works well enough in our experience.
What it won't quite do is replace a full-on GPS unit with built-in mapping, but on the plus side it's far quicker to access and leaves your hands free - that said, we wouldn't be wearing it on a sustained rock climb due to its bulk on the wrist.
Postscript: after testing the Traverse, we went back and used a first generation Fenix again. I thin its fair to say that the Suunto is all-round more intuitive and easier to use.
Quality engineering, relatively straightforward user interface, reasonable online interface, decent battery life, comprehensive functionality, comfortable to wear
Slightly bulky, slightly complicated.
GPS and GLONASS receiver, Real time breadcrumb view, Up to 100 hours runtime in GPS mode, Tracking for speed, distance and altitude, Route planning in Suunto's Movescount.com with topographic maps, Route preview and route altitude profile on the watch, 100 m/330 ft water resistant, Altitude (FusedAlti™), Weather trend and storm alarm, Sunrise-sunset times, Compass, Backlight in flashlight mode, GPS time update, Vibration alarm, Daily, weekly, monthly and yearly activity tracking of steps and calories, Mobile notifications, Compatible with Suunto Movescount App (iOS and Android)
More info: www.suunto.com/en-GB/Product-search.