Updated May 2017
With Spring and Summer objectives on the horizon, we updated this review to bring you the latest info on the altimeter market. Garmin recently released the latest version of the Fenix watch, a powerhouse of a watch with a high price tag. We detail the differences between the older and newer versions of this model in the individual review. We also reformatted this article with charts, tables, and pros and cons to help you quickly compare key aspects of these products.
Best Overall Altimeter Watch
Suunto Ambit3 Peak
High-quality & easy to use
Multiple great features, like GPS and a rechargeable battery
Limited battery life
For our 2017 adventures, the Suunto Ambit3 Peak
remains our favorite model. The high-quality display adds to the user-friendly interface of this feature-riddled model. For complex features, it's also simple to transfer, view, and manage data on a computer as necessary. We like its ergonomic fit, along with the fact that our wrists didn't sweat much under the breathable design. The Ambit3 Peak
's altimeter is also one of the most accurate tested. Similar to GPS watches, this model doesn't boast a long battery life, although it is rechargeable. It's also more affordable than most GPS options and is frequently offered at a discount at online retailers. This beast is great for tracking altitude, but also includes tons of extra features we love, such as navigation, fitness tracking, and more.
Read full review: Suunto Ambit3 Peak
Best Bang for the Buck
Suunto Core Alu
Great battery life
Durable aluminum finish
Easy to use interface
Sub-par ltitude & barometric graphs
Screen settings not adjustable
The Suunto Core Alu
is by far the most accurate model we tested, and our Best Buy Award winner. Not filled with as many features as our Top Pick for Features, this classic altimeter watch is designed to track total ascent and descent. It comes fully featured with both barometer and altimeter graphs, a compass, and a reliable long-lasting battery. Don't be afraid to take this on a multi-day or multi-month mission. What's more, is the price is all right. For $420 you can get the Suunto Core Aluminum style, or if you're looking for something a little more affordable, opt for the traditional Core — that's about $100 less. It comes in many fun colors that are both durable and attractive.
Read full review: Suunto Core Alu
Best Model for a Shoestring Budget
Simple & lightweight
Lacks features and comfort
Lacks a compass
Poor quality display
The Casio SGW300-HB
is a bare bones model that didn't score nearly as high in the metrics as other contenders but is the cheapest tested. It features a dual-sensor that can track barometric pressure and altitude. It also has the basic time-telling function. If you're an outdoor recreationist who is just in the market for a timepiece, but you'd like to know the barometric pressure and altitude every now and then (but don't rely on it for 100 percent accuracy), this $65 option is the best out there. Unlike other watches, this one is not as reliable because the altitude is read in 20-foot increments, but we were surprised to see that it was still fairly accurate and provided a decent estimate of the altitude when calibrated regularly. So, if you're just looking for a cheap watch that's light, easy to use, with a long battery life, this Best Buy winner may be your best option!
Read full review: Casio SGW300-HB
Top Pick for Features
Garmin Fenix 5
Longest GPS battery life
Simple interface makes it easy to use
Colorful and easily legible font
Poor battery life compared to models without GPS
The Garmin Fenix 5
is the most powerful GPS watch here. It has so many features to track fitness data that many of our users were actually intimidated by it. Definitely designed as a watch to track fitness, it truly does come with it all: altimeter, barometer, temperature, daily activity tracking, navigational capabilities, compass, personal virtual pacer, metronome, activity-specific data faces, pool capabilities, and more. Not only that but it has a variety of compatible sensors that it can be used with heart rate, bike, and foot pods. Similar to the Suunto Ambit3 Peak, the major downside of this watch is its high price at $600 and poor battery life (in comparison to non-GPS watches). For a GPS watch, it has proven to last a little longer than others but seems to be less accurate when in areas of poor GPS reception (i.e. canyons, near cliffs, heavily forested areas, etc.) That set aside, we still enjoyed the array of fun, fancy features it offers. Therefore, it earned a place among our winners as our Top Pick for Features.
Read full review: Garmin Fenix 5
Analysis and Test Results
Over several months, we put each altimeter watch to the test. We took them around the western hemisphere — from Peru to Canada. To learn about each one, we tinkered endlessly and read the 15 to 70-some page user manuals. We looked online to learn about any issues that needed to be tested and read about each watch from other independent reviewers. In addition, we tested each watch side-by-side in a wide range of environments and activities. The chart below summarizes the comparative overall performance scores of each model.
We took the Suunto Ambit3 Peak to the high mountain range of the Peruvian Andes. We ran, hiked, and backpacked over 150 miles with over 19,000 feet of vertical gain. Pictured here is Jared running out a downhill after summiting a 16,000 ft pass.
After talking with many mountain guides, ultra runners, hikers, and backpackers, we identified six key metrics to consider with testing; the number of features, battery life, ease of use and interface, altimeter accuracy, display quality, and comfort. For each, we designed specific and objective tests and recorded our results below. We hope you enjoy this thorough, in-depth, and awesome comparison of the top altimeter watches.
A look at all the watches tested. From left to right: Garmin Fenix 3 (Top Pick for Features), Suunto Core Alu (Best Buy), Casio PRW6000Y, Suunto Traverse, Casio SGW300HB, Suunto Ambit3 Peak.
Every altimeter watch has a few basic functions. This includes an altimeter, barometer, and a timekeeper. Most also come with a compass function. There are many watches out there, and with the onset of more GPS watches entering the market, there are a plethora of features that are being packed into these tiny devices. In this metric, we looked at the features of each watch.
We enumerated the features to determine which scored the highest in this metric. We also looked at the quality of the features, whether or not graphs were generated for specific functions (like altitude and barometric pressure), and how helpful the data was on the trail. In the end, we learned that the Garmin Fenix 5
was undoubtedly the best in this category featuring all the basic altimeter functions and a slew of others. The Suunto Ambit3 Peak was a close second while the most basic Casio SGW300HB scored the lowest in this category.
Of all the watches tested, we really liked the GPS watches' features when it came to altimeter readings. In general, we looked at the type of altitude profiles generated (i.e ascent and descent over time) and the number of logs each watch could handle.
: The graphs produced from each watch varied (based on the manufacturer). We really like the Garmin Fenix 5's use of different colors and the clarity of the graph. The Suunto Ambit 3 Peak and Suunto Traverse
produced the same kind of graph that was good, but not as nice as the Fenix 5. The Core also produced a graph but we found it small and harder to read in comparison to the others. The Casio PRW-6000Y also produces a graph, but quite frankly, it only shows the most basic information, and it's hard to see and use. The Casio SGW300HB, on the other hand, does not produce any graphs, one of the many reasons it scored lowest in this category.
A comparison of all the altitude logs for each watch. The Casio PRW-6000Y is not included. From top left to right: Suunto Core Alu, Garmin Fenix 3. From bottom left to right: Suunto Ambit3 Peak, Suunto Traverse.
: All the GPS watches win out again for the type of data taken and the logs created. All watches produced data logs that showed an altitude graph, total ascent, total descent, and altitude change. And in some cases, others had fancier features to better analyze the data collected. In general, the GPS watches won out in this category, because it didn't matter how many logs it could handle.
A look at the data produced with the Suunto Ambit3 Peak in the logbook. Surprisingly, there is no summary altitude map like we saw with the Suunto Traverse.
All we had to do was simply sync our logs up to the app, which would clear the cache in the watch, allowing you to take as many data points as you wanted. That said, the Suunto Core can hold up to 16 logs, while the Casio PRW-6000Y
can hold up to 30. The Casio SGW300HB does not hold any logs.
A look at some of the logbook features with the Garmin Fenix 3. It provides a summary of the trip and also enables you to TracBack if you wish. We really liked the interactive map that you could zoom in and out.
: All watches tested featured a barometer and captured barometric trends in some way shape or form. For this feature, we looked at the quality of the barometric graph and whether or not the watch allows you to manually change the sea level pressure. We did this by taking the watches to the same location, calibrating them to the same barometric pressure, and looking at the graphs produced as a result.
A look at some of the fun features of the Garmin Fenix 3 (and this just scratches the surface). From top left to right: step count, compass, altimeter graph. From bottom left to right: Barometric pressure graph, temperature graph, and time.
Overall, we learned the Garmin Fenix 5 once again shines for its barometric trend graph. It allows a plot option of either 6, 12, 24, or 48-hour, which allowed the most effective pressure trend capture of all the watches tested. The Suunto Ambit 3 Peak
and Traverse feature a similar graph, but it doesn't allow different plot intervals, nor does the graph look as nice. The Suunto Core has a decent graph that shows a trend over a seven-day period.
All the watches tested in this review (with the exception of the Casio SGW300HB) featured some kind of compass function. Most of the compasses in this review have tilt-compensation technology (meaning you don't have to keep your wrist horizontal to get an accurate watch reading) except for the Casio PRW-6000Y. A little archaic in comparison, you must keep your wrist level and horizontal to get an appropriate reading. However, if you're into the old-school devices, this watch might be right up your alley. In general, we found the compasses useful for determining direction and to get a general point of reference, but we found it wasn't nearly as reliable as just using a regular compass. If you're planning a cross-country mission, make sure to bring the old map and compass — don't just rely on your watch.
The digital compass provides a directional reading in degrees.
In addition to the compass function, many of the GPS watches can actually navigate to and from different points. You can also mark waypoints and navigate back to them, should you get lost or your forget your route. Learn more about these in the GPS section!
Time Keeper and Alarm
All the watches tested featured some sort of digital timekeeper device in addition to a stopwatch, countdown timer, and alarm. The Casio brand watches like the Casio SGW300HB
and the Casio PRW-6000Y stood out for having five alarms as opposed to just one (found in all models). In addition, both watches feature a world clock with different time zones. The SGW300HB showcase 31 time zones while the PRW-6000Y has 29 time zones.
This Casio was the only one that had an analog time teller with a smaller digital window.
In general, we like the GPS watches better for time simply because the GPS automatically changed when entering a different time zone. The Suunto Core, on the other hand, has a dual time option where you can enter the current time of your current location in one place, and keep your home time in another. All watches except the Casio PRW-6000Y had a long alarm length and volume. We would have liked to see a longer beeping time with the Casio as it wasn't long enough to wake us up during some deep sleeps.
Here we see the time and altitude displayed while the watch is logging data. Below you can see the battery life. This watch was completely charged at 8 am, and shows quite a loss of battery life on this short trip.
To test GPS, we ran three different routes with varying GPS accuracy. The first was an open road, the second, a treed-out trail, and the last was a canyon. We did these tests numerous times, in a variety of weather to see which truly performed the best. In the end, we learned that none of the GPS watches were 100 percent accurate all the time, but some watches were a little more reliable with their readings than others. In this case, the Suunto Ambit3 Peak proved to have the best GPS accuracy — most of the time.
In our testing, we went canyon hiking and wore each GPS watch. In this test (among others) we were able to determine which GPS proved to be a little more accurate than the rest.
Through these tests, we learned that GPS function isn't always 100 percent accurate. Some days, one watch will be more accurate than another, even with similar weather and conditions, day-to-day. We imagine this has to do with the satellite positions of the watches during different days of the year. However, of all the watches tested, the Suunto watches proved to be the most accurate, most of the time.
The Garmin Fenix 5, when running through a canyon, was the first to lose signal, and grossly overestimated our actual distance. This happened again in areas of spotty satellite reception (i.e. near cliffs, heavily treed sections, etc). The Suunto watches also sporadically lost reception in some cases, but never overestimated the distance by 2-3 miles on a five-mile hike (like the Garmin Fenix 5). The Suunto Traverse proved to be a little less accurate than the Ambit Peak3 but was still better than the Fenix. That said, if you're looking for the watch with the most reliable GPS readings, the Suunto Ambit Peak3 is your best bet.
Here we tested the GPS accuracy while hiking. First we started with wide open terrain, then moved into a canyon. We finally emerged from the canyon to discover the Garmin Fenix 3 (bottom left) seriously overestimated our actual distance travelled, while the Suunto Ambit3 Peak was the most accurate (actual distance = 5.2 miles one way).
Battery life is of utmost importance when heading out on any multi-day mission. Since lots of mountaineers, guides, backpackers, and even hikers require a watch that lasts more than just a day, battery life is rated highly in this review. In a lot of ways, the more battery life a watch has, the more reliable it is. In this metric, we tested the battery life of all watches. For the GPS-watches, we set the watch to low power mode to see how long each lasted (comparatively) while leaving the GPS function on. We also looked at the type of battery for the regular watch batteries and whether or not the watch is self-charging. In these tests, the Casio PRW-6000Y
scored the highest. GPS watches did not do well in this metric, while regular watch batteries proved to be much more reliable.
The watch scoring this highest in this metric is the Casio PRW-6000Y. It is a solar-powered watch that takes about six min/day to completely charge in full sun. This is a great plus for any long-term adventurer that needs a reliable compadre. Unlike the PRW6000Y, the Casio SGW300HB features a simple watch battery (not a built-in solar panel) that is rated to last three years. The Suunto Core Alu also features a regular watch battery but is only rated to last 12 months. All other watches are GPS based and feature a rechargeable lithium ion battery that is simply plugged in.
The buttons are large, convex and easy to use with a pair of gloves. Here we see the left side of the watch with two buttons and the sensor. The right side of the watch has three buttons. This watch features just a simple watch battery.
Of all the watches tested, the Garmin Fenix 5 lasted 32 hours in UltraTrac mode with the GPS on. Without the GPS on, this watch lasts approximately six weeks (depending on the features you use). The Suunto Ambit Peak3 proved to last about 22 hours with the GPS mode on (and with power save options engaged). Without the GPS, this watch lasts roughly one month in regular watch mode. The Suunto Traverse was the absolute worst for battery life. In GPS mode, it only lasted eight hours, making this a good for day hikes, but not multi-day missions. Without the GPS, it lasts roughly two weeks before needing a recharge.
A comparison of both altitude, and battery life. Both watches started fully charged. The Suunto Traverse shows almost 50 percent less battery life than the Suunto Ambit3 Peak on this hike.
Ease of Use and Interface
The ease of use and interface is how easy it is to go through the functions of the altimeter watch. For this metric, we gave each watch to a set of novices and had them try to calibrate the altitude. We also asked each to set the basic time function for each watch. Each tester then rated each watch based on how easy it was to calibrate and set the time function. We also considered how easy the watch was to use out of the box, without consulting the user manual. In addition to looking at the ease-of-use of the features, we also looked at the button size and how functional each was with a set of gloves (to mimic cold weather conditions).
After our testing, we learned that the Casio SGW300HB was by far the easiest to use, while the Garmin Fenix 5 was the easiest to set up. The Suunto brand watches were a close second, while the complex Casio PRW-6000Y was by far the hardest to figure out. We also thought the GPS-based watches (Fenix 5, Suunto Traverse, and Suunto Ambit3 Peak) in addition to the Suunto Core Alu, were the easiest to use with gloves. Both Casio's were very difficult to use with thick gloves as the buttons on the face are small.
A look at the different buttons on each watch. Top left to right: Garmin Fenix 3, Suunto Traverse, Suunto Core. Bottom left to right: Casio PRW-6000Y, Casio SGW300HB.
When we looked at altimeter accuracy we considered a few things. First, we looked at the altimeter interval that the watches uses. Second, we looked at how accurate the altimeter reading was based on a calibration, followed by a hike to known altitude, then comparing each altimeter reading. Additionally, we hiked back to the trailhead to see if the elevation change showed zero, or if the reading was off by a few (hundred) feet. Lastly, we looked at the how well the watch was able to keep a stable altimeter reading while sitting in the same place for a few days (even with weather changes).
One thing that every user needs to understand is that all altimeter watches run off barometric pressure readings. In addition to a set standard sea level pressure reading, these readings are subject to change with changes in weather patterns. While some provided a more stable reading than others, all the watches tested never had the absolute correct elevation reading without daily (sometimes two to three times a day) calibrations.
At this point in our hike, the actual altitude is 11,740 feet. The Suunto Ambit3 Peak (right) is the closet while the Casio SGW300HB is the furthest off.
Of the all the watches tested, the Suunto Core Alu scored the highest in altimeter accuracy. This watch showed the most accurate readings on hikes, required fewer calibrations than the rest, and proved to have an accurate gain and loss profile. Other GPS watches like the Suunto Ambit3 Peak and Suunto Traverse
has the option to use a FusedAlti function that uses both GPS and barometric readings to determine altimeter accuracy. Both watches proved to be fairly accurate, with the Peak3 providing a more accurate reading than the Traverse.
The Garmin Fenix 5 also provided decent altimeter readings, but proved to be a little off more often than not. The Casio PRW-6000Y comes next, providing accurate readings, but a larger altitude interval. While the rest of the watches (when looking at altitude in feet) show an altitude interval of three feet, this watch uses a five-foot interval. That said, they all have an interval of one meter (if you prefer the metric system). The Casio SGW300HB was surprisingly accurate for its no-frills design. However, it scored the lowest in this category because the altimeter interval is 5m/20ft which provides a more inaccurate reading than the rest. Overall, all watches provided decent accuracy with daily calibrations. Most watches were off for altimeter readings by 50 - 500 feet based on the day of testing.
Checking the altimeter with the actual altitude. San Antonio pass in the Cordillera Huayhuash has a recorded altitude of 16,371 feet.
When looking at display quality, we simply evaluated each screen, its size, and how easy it is to see during both the day and night. We also looked to see if the background color settings could be changed, and how easy it was to see the watch in all conditions. In the end, a large watch face with a mineralized glass composition, with different font colors scored higher than those without.
Hands down - the Garmin Fenix 5
was the top pick for this category. We liked the large font size, the clear and durable mineral glass cover, and its colorful fonts. This watch truly stood out from the rest. The Casio PRW-6000Y
also proved to have a crisp, non-reflective display. However, we weren't too happy about the tiny digital window that made some of the data hard to see. The Suunto Ambit3 Peak also has a great display that proved to be a touch more crisp than the Suunto Traverse. The font and colors of the watch face for both GPS Suuntos are the same, but the mineral glass is a little bit different. The Suunto Core also provides a nice, easy-to-see display
, but the watch face background is not interchangeable like all the other watches mentioned above, and the font is harder to see in bright and low light. In addition, the nighttime light is a little weak in comparison to the rest.
A comparative look at all the displays tested. In this case, we liked the Garmin Fenix 3 the best (top left) because it was the largest and most crisp. We also liked the snazzy, sleek design it offers.
The Casio SGW300HB comes in last with its much smaller watch face and less durable watch face. The old-school font on the watch face is easy to see, but not nearly as nice as the other options out there.
A comparison of the nightlights of each watch. From top left: Casio PRW-6000Y, Suunto Traverse, Garmin Fenix 3. From bottom left to right: Casio SGW300HB, Suunto Core Alu, Suunto Ambit3 Ambit.
Comfort and Fit
When evaluating comfort and fit, we looked at which watches felt the most comfortable on the wrist. We gave these watches to a slew of friends and family to test both inside and out. We looked at the band material, the breathability of the band, its weight, whether or not the watch would fit well over and under clothing, and whether or not the band had an ergonomic fit. In the end, we learned that watches with a more ergonomic fit, a more breathable band, and slimmer profile scored higher than those without.
The winner here is once again our Editors' Choice, the Suunto Ambit3 Peak
. The band on this watches features an insert that wraps around the wrist and doesn't feel heavy. In addition, the band features many holes that allow good breathability on hot days. The Suunto Core Alu
also features this ergonomic fit but doesn't have nearly as many holes for breathability. That said, in comparison to the Suunto Ambit3 Peak, the profile is a little thinner and feels lighter.
A look at the profiles of two Suunto watches. The lower watch is the Core while the watch above is the Suunto Ambit3 Peak.
The Casio PRW-6000Y
is the only watch that features a carbon fiber insert in its lightweight construct, making it one of the most durable bands tested. We also like its ergonomic fit and lighter and thinner profile. All of these watches scored a solid 9 out of 10 in this category, for different reasons. The Suunto Traverse also features a lightweight design, but many of our testers did not like the non-breathable band. The band is also attached directly to the watch face, making it less ergonomic than the aforementioned.
Shown here is an insert around the watch face that provides a more ergonomic fit. The Suunto Ambit3 Peak, Suunto Core Alu, and Casio PRW-6000Y all feature this design. All of our testers agreed these watches were more comfortable than those without the insert.
The Garmin Fenix 5 is BIG. Even though many of our testers liked the large display for checking stats, this watch scored as one of the lowest in this category. Many felt that the watch face was large and bulky, and often hard to fit underneath clothing. Finally, the Casio SGW300HB scored lowest in this category. Despite it being the most lightweight watch, many of our testers thought the tiny, scratchy, cloth-based band was not very comfortable to wear. It also proved to be less breathable, and hard to fit over layers.
A look at all the different watch bands and construction.
Whether you're hiking, backpacking, or just going out for a day of fun, an altimeter watch is a great tool to have. Before buying, make sure you're looking at the watch with the best value and one that best suits your needs in the great outdoors.
The watches that we tested in this category feature important functions that hikers, backpackers, and climbers want most. In addition to telling the time, these features include altimeters, barometers, and digital compasses. We tested the performance of each of these attributes all while rating the ease of use and the product's interface to help you narrow down the selection and find the best product to purchase. We know that selecting just one watch out of the competition can be difficult but hope that this review has proven to be helpful when making your decision.