By Ben Ellison
The M9 watch, or “wrist-top computer” as Suunto would justifiably have it, is a technological tour de force that would make Capt. Cook’s tricorner hat spin. Its designers not only managed to squeeze a GPS, electronic compass, thermometer, barometer, and PC interface all into a chic (and comfortable) 2.8-ounce package, but also built an operating system that integrates the resulting data to the max, even though there are only five control buttons.
Some of its functions are specifically tailored to sailboat racing, but there’s plenty here for any boater. For instance, you can use the included Sail Manager software to plan on British Admiralty ARCS raster charts (not included) and upload routes to the M9, which can then deliver the sort of bearing, distance, and ETA information common to handheld GPSs. The M9 can also use the satellites to synch its chronometer to atomic accuracy and to correct its hand-bearing compass readings to True North. My personal favorite is the seven-day graphic barometer; it’s not only the personal equivalent of the traditional paper recording machine, but it can sound a handy alarm during rapid pressure change (indicating an impending weather change).
I could go on and on about features but must note some issues. Learning to use the M9, especially its advanced features, is not trivial. Those five buttons, two of which are simply up/down screen and field controls, are all you’ve got to negotiate a labyrinth of menus and acronyms on its 84x78-pixel screen. The printed manual runs to 40 pages, and that’s just the “quick” guide; there’s a longer version on the CD, along with the PC software which you also need to learn. (It strikes me that ease of use and value could be rapidly improved by opening the M9 interface to the charting software and digital charts many of us already own and know how to use, but Suunto is not keen on sharing its protocols.) Besides trying to mash complex software into a limited interface, it also appears that the $649 M9 is pushing the limits of current GPS feasibility. I tested it on two continents and sometimes had trouble establishing and holding onto satellite fixes even under quite open skies, and I’ve heard similar complaints from others.
Bottom line: Don’t expect regular GPS performance from the M9, but you can wow yourself and others with its compact technology.
Suunto USA Phone: (800) 543-9124. www.suuntousa.com.
This article originally appeared in the July 2003 issue of Power & Motoryacht magazine.