Review of Altimeter Watches
By John Walter
years the only people that used altimeters were mountaineers,
airplane pilots and skydiversactivities where a miscalculation
in altitude could produce grave circumstances. For outdoor
enthusiasts altimeters were just not practical. They were bulky,
heavy, easily damaged and not very user friendly. Altimeters
remained low on the gear priority list.
However, with the advent of altimeter watches, nearly every group
in the backcountry these days has at least one altimeter. Backpackers,
hikers, rock climbers, mountaineers, backcountry skiers, mountain
bikers, canyoneersyou name itall would benefit from the use of an
altimeter. Plus, seeing how altimeter watches have all those
multi-function enhancements like cumulative elevation gain, lifetime
elevation maximum, elevation gain/loss per hour or minute, I don't
know any outdoor enthusiast who doesn't have an altimeter watch on
their Christmas list.
So we reviewed four different altimeter watches. All of the watches
that we reviewed have a pressure altimeteran altimeter that determines
the altitude based on a measurement of the barometric pressure. While
this isn't the most accurate of altimeters, it benefits the outdoor
enthusiast in several ways, most notably being the ability to track
weather changes. However, most of the watches we reviewed are very
accurate if you calibrate them regularly, and most of the watches
have tools that allow you to do this. All the watches have functions
that you would find on other wristwatches like alarms, dates, and
Avocet Vertech II Alpin
AZX Sensor Master
considers their watches so powerful that they are marketed as
"Wristop Computers" instead of watches. But I must add that the
Vector from Suunto is pretty powerful. Along with all of the
features listed above it has a digital compass, advanced barometric
pressure functions, and an advanced altitude logbook for those all
important bragging rights.
The first thing that you notice about this watch is it's sizethe
thing is huge! The Vector got caught up on every backpack strap
that I put on, as well as giving me problems with jackets. However,
the size isn't entirely bad. The main line on each of the screens
is double the height of the other watches, making it very easy to
read. The large size also gives it plenty of room to display other
features as well.
Suunto has effectively raised the bar when it comes to altimeter
watches. The altimeter on the Vector is very accurate, displaying
measurements in increments of ten feet. The Vector has more altimeter
functions than I ever found need of using. It is easy to set up
preferences for logbook entries, and tracking ascent/descent information.
One of the nicer features of the Vector is Barometric Trend
Indicator, a box in the upper left of every screen. It is 2 lines that
form an arrow, each line representing a 3-hour period. With a quick
glance it is easy to see what the barometric trend has been over the
last six hours.
The Vector also has a digital compass complete with a bubble in the
upper right portion of the face to level it. With the push of a button
you can take quick compass readings from any screen and lock in on the
reading for use with a map. The compass has automatic compensation for
declination. The compass is able to take readings within plus or minus 3 degrees.
Sounds pretty good, but over a distance of miles being 3 degrees off,
especially in cases when you can't take many reference points, can be
disastrous. Call me old fashioned, but I still prefer to use the old
school magnetic compass.
The Vector sports alarm functions for a daily alarm and an altitude
alarm. I found that even in the backcountry it was easy for me to
sleep through the alarm unless I had it right by my head, as the
volume on the alarm isn't very loud.
Overall the Vector was the most well liked altimeter watch that we
tested. The ease of use, large print on the screens and loads of
options make it the frontrunner in the review. At $199 it is also
the most expensive watch in the review. Suunto also offers the Altimax
for $160, which is basically the Vector without the compass.
Suunto USA can be contacted at 800-543-9124 or on the internet at
Avocet Vertech II Alpin
Avocet was one of the pioneers in the altimeter watches. They first
version of the Vertech Alpin was more accurate than the competition,
being designed first as an altimeter then a watch. However, there were
concerns with Vertech as well and it became unavailable for a few years
while Avocet made enhancements to it. This year marks the return of Avocet
to the altimeter market with the Vertech II Alpin.
The new Vertech II is smaller and lighter than the original (listed at
1.3 oz). The watch has a streamlined profile and the large Function and
Options buttons make it easy to operate, even with gloves on. Calibrating
the altitude is easy, as long as you know your current altitude. The
Vertech II is one of the more accurate altimeter watches on the market,
displaying altitude in 5 feet increments. Avocet advertises that the
altimeter has aircraft precision accuracy. One of the nicer features
of the Vertech II is the capability to measure altitude gain/loss per
hour, while other watches measure altitude gain/loss per minutenot very
useful unless you are skydiving.
The Vertech II also has a thermometer that displays on virtually every
screen. Like thermometers on other watches, it is only accurate as long
as it has been off your wrist for about 15 minutes. Avocet also has a ton
of accessories for the Vertech II like an elastic band, bike handlebar
mounting system, and several different lanyards.
While Avocet has made enhancements to the Vertech II, I still have some
concerns. My biggest issue with the first version of the Vertech was that
there was no light, a feature that I would consider essential. Also, the
Vertech II isn't very water resistant, only to 10 feet. Another big issue
is that Avocet "recommends" that the battery be replaced by Avocet certified
service centers, making it a long and potentially painful process just to
get a new battery.
The Vertech II operates in temperatures ranging from 0-122 degrees F and
altitudes from -4000 feet to over 30,000 feet.
Overall though, the Vertech was well liked by the Field Test Crew.
Retailing for $160.00, the Vertech II is a good buy.
Avocet can be contacted at 650-321-8501 or on the internet at
AZX Sensor Master
While being an extremely nice timepiece, the Sensor Master from AZX isn't
much of an altimeter. I was entirely frustrated with the Sensor Master as
an altimeter. The Sensor Master operates from -2309 feet to 18345 feet,
which is actually higher than most people will attain. However, that isn't
the source of my frustration. In altimeter mode, the Sensor Master is
capable only of displaying the height difference between two points. So
instead of giving you an accurate altimeter reading, you are given an
elevation gain or loss, depending on the initial altitude. The watch
tries to give you the correct altitude, but the reading was never very
accurate, being about 100 feet off at the closest to close to a 500 feet
off at the worst. Calibrating the altimeter doesn't make it any less
frustrating, and the instruction manual isn't much help either.
The main button in the middle of the face is a little misleading. If
there was ever a button that says "PUSH ME", this one
is it. Upon first glance I thought the button was for displaying the
altimeter reading. It turns out this button is for engaging the watch
illumination. Since you are pushing straight down on the button, there
really is no way to increase your leverage and the button is pretty
difficult too completely compress. Initially I thought the light didn't
work, but it turns out I wasn't pushing hard enough. I don't think I
ever got the light to come on before the second or third attempt.
However, like I said before, the Sensor Master is a very nice timepiece.
It sports two daily alarms, stopwatch and countdown functions. It also
has the only real usable alarm of all the watches. At $125 it is the
cheapest watch in the review, but not one that I would recommend.
AZX Sport Watches can be contacted at 905-332-8944 or on the internet at
Freestyle Altimeter (Sports Instruments Alta)
The most accurate watch in the review, the Altimeter from Freestyle has
several features that sets it apart from the other watches in the review.
The most notable is the accuracy of the altimeter readings. Displaying
altitude measurements in 3-foot increments up to +30,246 feet, the Altimeter
is the most accurate of the watches in the review.
The Altimeter also has a couple of other features not found on the other
watches. When no buttons are pressed or when there is no change in altitude
for 10 minutes, the Altimeter switches to Sleep mode, drastically reducing
the amount of battery consumption. There is also an on screen programming
function, or online help screen, to aid the user in changing the settings.
The light on the Altimeter is also different. Instead of lighting the face
of the watch, the Altimeter actually uses their patented Night Vision
illumination, a backlight so only the letters/numbers on the face are
Calibrating the Altimeter is different as well. Instead of adjusting the
current altitude reading, you adjust the altitude of two waypoints, or
reference settings. Then when calibrating the altimeter, you reset the
altitude to your current waypoint altitude.
Rounding out the differences is the watchband. While every other watch
in the review has a plastic band, the Altimeter has a padded nylon band.
It also comes with a band extension to allow the watch to be worn over
gloves or a coat sleeve.
The Freestyle Altimeter was the only watch in the review without a
thermometer reading and sells for $160.00.
Freestyle USA can be contacted at (805) 388-1001 or on the internet at
Summary: While traipsing through the basins and passes of the
Uinta mountains the Vertech and the Vector tracked exactly with each
other, with the Vector edging out the Vertech with a few more features.
The Freestyle Altimeter was as accurate if not more, and exhibits a bit
of a non-conformist attitude by doing things their own way. The AZX
Sensor Master was rather a disappointment as an altimeter.
John Walter is a Contributing
Editor at GearReview.com.