For the past few months, I have had the opportunity to use the Suunto T6C Red Arrow. Along with the unit itself, the folks at Suunto were kind enough to let me try their “triathlon pack“, which includes:

Suunto Foot POD
Suunto Road Bike POD
Suunto Cadence POD
Suunto Memory Belt
Suunto Dual Comfort Belt (included with unit)

The T6C

The first thing that I noticed about the T6C is it’s size. In the past, I’ve had a Garmin FR 305 as well as currently using a Garmin FR 405. The T6C is roughly the same size as the FR 405, but whereas the 405 feels to me like a computer in it’s rigidity, the T6C feels like a sports watch. The band is the same flexible yet durable rubber I’ve become used to on my Timex Ironman (which, as fate would have it, bailed out just before I got the T6C).

The face of the T6C is large enough to not have to (if you’re me) bring it within 2 inches of your fading eyesight. The display has three main lines or fields of display; top, middle and bottom. The middle display field is the primary and largest of the three. The top and bottom lines are significantly smaller, though still plenty visible. There are three buttons on the right side (lap, mode and light) and two on the left (start/stop and view back).

Unlike other units, the T6C’s battery is extremely easy to remove, not that I’ve had to remove it though since the battery has yet to die. It is very lightweight and equipped with ANT+ wireless technology. However, while it is capable of using ANT+ to sync to your computer, there is also an available USB method which, since I do not have their “Movestick“, is my preferred method of syncing. On a side note, I think Garmin really dropped the ball when they went to an ANT+ only sync. There have been several times with my FR 405 where I had trouble syncing with ANT+ and would have given anything for USB capability (see: Garmin FR 305).

Suunto Dual Comfort Belt

I have used four heart rate belts in my time (did I just sound like an old man?) and this belt is by far the most comfortable. Traditionally, HR belts have a flexible plastic front and are about a foot wide until the attach to a soft, elastic strap. This belt is entirely soft and elastic with the exception of the plastic circle right at the front, which is hardly noticeable (note: Garmin has since come out with their own soft style HR belt).

Suunto Foot Pod

In the past the only kind of foot pod-esque thing I’ve used is the Nike+ system. Since I stopped using that, I’ve used the GPS function on my Garmin FR 305 to tell me distance, pace and such. One of the issues I have with foot pods is calibration. First, I have a quick foot cadence that has the potential to throw things off a bit. Second, mine and everyone else’s foot cadence varies depending on the type of run and the length of a run (i.e. the more tired you get, your stride might become shorter or may stretch out).

The Suunto foot pod is very light and attaches fairly quickly. Calibration was and remains a slight issue, and at some point it actually seems to have gotten whacked out of calibration and had to be redone. The way I figure it, there is up to about a 1-2% margin of error over the course of a ten mile run.

Suunto Road Bike Pod

The Suunto Road Bike Pod has probably the coolest method of attachment of any cycling speed I have seen. The front skewer IS the speed sensor! All you have to do is remove your own skewer, replace it with the Suunto Road Bike Pod skewer, attach the included magnet to your spoke in the proper place, enter your wheel size and go. That may seem like a few too many steps to be called “simple”, but it truly is and all totaled takes maybe five minutes at the most. Calibration is no issue and with the exception of having to replace the battery once, this has worked flawlessly (after pairing which I will address later).

Since first seeing this, I have discovered that Mavic has an almost identical product to this. If that works as well as this, I imagine it’s also a great idea.

Suunto Cadence Pod

The cadence pod is one of those things that, until you train a ton on the bike and realize that watching your speed is NOT the way to go, you may not see the value in. This cadence pod it meant to attach via zip-ties to the seat tube of your bike, just above the bottom bracket (how far above your BB is of course dependent upon the length of your crankset, mine is 175mm). The huge problem that I ran into is that my frame is “aero” and as a bladed seat tube. This presents two problems; first, the included zip-ties were barely long enough to fit around the right place on my frame. Second, since the back side of the seat tube of my bike is essentially cut to the exact size of my wheel, there is simply NO room, even for the thin zip-ties. After riding for only once, I discovered that dirt and such was building up between my tire and frame and the zip-ties were scraping my tire. Not good.

How did I get around this? Well, since I still had/have my Garmin bikepod (which incidentally contains both the speed and cadence sensor) attached to the non-drive side chainstay, that option was out. the only other option that I could see was to attach it to the underside of my drive side chainstay, essentially putting inside of the chain’s circuit. This worked out fine, though I’m certainly glad I never had my chain come off and either get tangled in the sensor or break the cadence pod itself.

Suunto Memory Belt

The Memory Belt is probably one of the coolest toys in this bundle. The belt itself is similar to traditional HR belts with a flexible plastic front and elastic strap. What makes the memory belt so cool is that it’s a completely contained unit when it comes to recording data. In other words, let’s say you want to go for a ride or run without your T6C or other compatible unit, the Memory Belt itself will record all of your data for downloading later. According to the Suunto website, it can record for up to 24 hours without stopping. On top of that, the belt can give you real time feedback through the Suunto Monitor, part of the Suunto Training software.

Suunto Training Manager Software and Movescount.com

This is my biggest issue with this product. Suunto’s Training Manager (and included Suunto Monitor) software is ONLY PC compatible and I am a Mac guy. According to Suunto’s forums they are “working on” a Mac version, but the software has not, from what I can tell, been updated since October of 2008. Of course, I did get the always present answer of , “you can run Parallels or something”, when trying to find a solution. So, I did run it with Windows via VMware Fusion, but I felt that to be more trouble than it was worth.

The best solution that I have found and one that Suunto has worked hard on is Movescount.com. Movescount is a FREE web-based “sports community”, but the upload tool and available data from workouts is hugely substantial. While the data is not as entirely in depth as it is in the Training Manager software, it does go much farther than most people will need. Syncing with Movescount is both Mac and PC based and works easily via the Moveslink software.

Setup and Performance

Out of the box the T6C itself is pretty intuitive in it’s initial setup. I had mine setup with the time, date and personal information (age, height, weight, etc.) inside of ten minutes. The more info you give the T6C, the more useful info it can put out. As with any device like this, it pays to be honest in entering things like fitness level.

Then came the pairing. Pairing, for those of you who may not have ever had to do it is setting up one device to work in conjunction with another. In this case, I had to pair all the pods with my T6C (foot pod, cadence pod, etc.). Pairing all of these things was a seemingly impossible task. Not because of the number of devices, but because they would not pair! I probably spent two hours total getting things to connect to each other. Part of it was a bit of impatience, but part of it was the seemingly unnecessary methods (this pod must be upside down for pairing to occur (??)). All this said, since my initial pairing I have not had any pairing problems even when faced with having to change batteries.

Each of the pods delivered with flying colors in terms of ease of use. As I mentioned above, the foot pod left a bit to be desired in terms of accuracy, as most foot pods/pedometers do. So far as battery life goes, I have only had to change two batteries in the three months (give or take) that I’ve been using the Suunto system. The first was on the Road Bike Pod and the second was on the Memory Belt.

The Memory Belt is quite an amazing tool when it comes to “running naked”, which is to say, training without a constant eye on the clock. With that comes a bit of complexity that can be admittedly frustrating in the middle of a particularly long or difficult workout. The Memory Belt beeps. That is all fine and good as it different beeps denote different status updates. However, on more than one occasion I found myself having to remove the Memory Belt because it would not stop beeping at me. Additionally, different beep and flashing light combinations mean different things. For instance:

  • 2 long, red lights followed by 1 every 4 seconds combined with 2 long beeps = battery is low, still reading heart rate
  • 2 long, red lights combined with 2 long beeps = battery too low to operate, switching to sleep mode
  • 2 long, orange lights followed by 1 every 4 seconds combined with 2 long beeps = memory low, still recording heart rate
  • 2 long, orange lights combined with 2 long beeps = memory full, switching to sleep mode

You can see where keeping all this straight in your head could be challenging. After a while of dealing with beeps on what seemed like every other workout, I reverted to using the sound-less Dual Comfort Belt and am much happier.

The T6C unit itself measures ascent and descent during training. However, there were several times that I noticed my T6C recording my total ascent in the 25,000 foot neighborhood. Granted, I was on a long ride, but the likelihood of me climbing 25,000 feet in one ride is fairly low. Another feature that I don’t quite get is the fact that whenever the clock is stopped and then restarted, a new lap is started as well. For instance, if I pause to take a sip of water and stop the clock and want to keep track of my true lap time I cannot because upon restarting, the lap timer starts anew. This becomes particularly annoying during swim workouts where I stop and start my timer several times during a workout. To be honest, this may be a feature that I can disable and just have not had the time to look into, so if I find that it is simply a setting, I will update this review.

The on-board memory of the T6C leaves something to be desired. I won’t venture a guess as to the exact amount of workout time and the number of workouts/events that the T6C can hold, but suffice it to say that it is not a lot. This is likely for several reasons, not the least of which is the fact that the T6C is a small device for its capabilities. Also is the weight, which comes in at a not-so-whopping 55 grams. As I mentioned earlier, I have taken to wearing my T6C as my every day watch and even though it has indeed been put through its significant paces, I have yet to change the battery.

Price

This is by far the most significant obstacle to buying a T6C. The T6C unit itself currently retails for $282 on Amazon (Suunto T6C Personal Trainer Heart Rate Monitor). The triathlon pack which includes the devices reviewed here as well as the T6C unit comes in at a tough to swallow $709 on Amazon (Suunto T6c Triathlon Pack (T6c Heart Rate Monitor, Foot POD, Road Bike POD, Cadence POD, and Memory Belt)). If you wanted to add to that the GPS pod, you’d be adding another $129 (Suunto GPS POD).

Summary

When I began using the T6C I freely admit that I had a slight learning curve coming from using the Garmin Forerunner series. However, along the way I have really come to enjoy my T6C. It is a solid, feature rich device that gives the wearer the flexibility of an every day watch that doesn’t have to be changed out for something else when workout times comes. There is also something to said for not having to worry before every other workout if you’ve remembered to charge the battery enough to make it for the entire time.

If you can get around the price point, the T6C is a great device that goes the extra mile in giving you real time feedback. I see this in my gadget arsenal for a long time to come.

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