It is an unfortunate truism that multisport consumers often pay attention to minor or meaningless features when deciding which equipment to purchase. I'm not talking about cosmetics, which everyone agrees makes no functional difference, yet people consider a product's looks anyway. I mean features that are purported to matter, or that one assumes via intuition to matter, but which don't in fact matter. Worse, there are some features that appear to speed up a product, yet actually slow it down.
Wetsuits are as good a category as any to use as an example of this. The truth is, almost every wetsuit feature has a corresponding detriment, and certain features have only the detriment, and no corresponding asset. You must decide what features matter to you.
As with any product, let us look at function first, and then consider features that aid these functions. What must a triathlon wetsuit do?
It keeps you warm, but not too warm. The theoretical idea of a wetsuit is to let in a bit of water, and that layer between your skin and the rubber heats up and insulates you. However, the fact is that more water means less thermal protection, and the degree to which you can keep the water out is proportional to the amount of heat you'll retain. This can work for or against you, depending on whether you're racing in 55-degree water of 75-degree water.
The suit has got to fit right. This is not easy, because you have several fit parameters to contend with. First, there are circumferences. Is the wetsuit going to fit you properly around your thighs, your chest, your shoulders, your arms, and your neck? But there is also the issue of length. Are the legs and arms too long or short? More importantly, is the torso length correct? Any one-piece suit is going to have a given length between the crotch and the neck, and it's not subject to very much stretch because zippers don't stretch, and the zipper runs almost the entire longitude of the torso. Therefore, wetsuit makers all have a specific body type for which their suits are designed, and you must match that type. If you don't, you'll have a roll of rubber around your midsection, or the rubber will be "on stretch" as you pull the suit on, causing you to have a bit of shoulder and neck pressure. This is the downside of any one-piece suit, but it's only a downside if you can't find a well-made suit that fits you properly.
There are workarounds. Certain kinds of rubber are more flexible than others, for example. It is generally accepted that Yamamoto's #39 rubber, laminated with its SCS smoothskin surface, does the best job of mixing flexibility with durability. Another way of increasing shoulder mobility is to remove seams from the area, and replace these with thinner, flexible rubber. That's the theory behind the Orca P-flex, and it appears to me to work nicely, in part because I've always found Orca's larger-sized suits to be a bit short in the torso and needing some extra shoulder mobility.
A third tactic is to separate the top from the bottom of a wetsuit, as is the case with De Soto's T1 wetsuit. I'm prejudiced in favor of this approach. But then I also believe in the increased utility of Apple's operating system for desktop workstations, and only about 7 percent of the world appears to agree with me. That said, there were years when I sold two out of every three triathlon wetsuits in the United States, and half of all triathlon wetsuits worldwide, and that experience has taught me that, in my opinion, two of every three wetsuits sold today ought to be of the two-piece variety (but my opinion, plus $1, will buy you a roll of rim tape).
A good wetsuit ought to keep the water from ever entering the suit. This means a neck structure that impedes water entry without choking or chafing you. It also means a lack of zippers whenever possible. Two-piece wetsuits have no zippers, and so allow the least amount of water in of any suit. Zippers are water permeable, and the more zippers you have, the more water you're letting in the suit (meaning the more water you're carrying around with you while you're swimming). Certain wetsuits have lots of zippers, and/or full-length zippers, to help you exit the suit quickly. This is one of those features that comes with a cost. Such zippers will make the suit stiffer and less warm. Let's say you're an ITU athlete, where transitions are extremely important. Let's say you're a very good swimmer, yet your strategy is to simply swim and ride in the pack, and you're generally not in danger of getting dropped in the swim. This describes a lot of ITU racers, and I don't see why wetsuits like those made by Piel are not more popular in races like these. This is the perfect use for a wetsuit that will save you 4 to 8 seconds in transition. At the same time, if warmth, mobility, speed in the water, are all more important than these few seconds in transition, then a heavily-zippered wetsuit ought to be rethought. In general, water allowed in is bad, water kept out is good.
Akin to the point above, you don't want your wetsuit to collect and "pool" water. You'll know if you have a wetsuit like this. First, you'll feel the water in the arms and shoulders during each stroke. If this describes your wetsuit, you're carrying water in the very worst place, as you are not only dragging a pail of water with you, you're lifting that pail every time you take a stroke. Also, if quarts of water spill out of your suit as you exit the water, you've either got the wrong suit for your body, the wrong body for you suit, or you're just in the wrong size.
A finer point, but have you wondered why wetsuits are made of smoothskin rubber? One element is hydrodynamics, that is, the suit's ability to slide through the water with a minimum of friction. However, it is also true that the fabric laminated to rubber, called "jersey," holds water. Here again is a plus/minus thing. Ironman Wetsuits had stretch panels on its suit for years and, yes, these panels were stretchier than those on other suits. Why? Because there was fabric on both sides of the rubber, i.e., on the outside of its suits as well. There are certain "superstretch" or "ultrastretch" fabrics that are more flexible than any smoothskin surface, and would therefore yield a more flexible rubber. However, you'd also carry a slight bit more water around with you with fabric on the outside of the suit. Now there are suitsmost notably Aquaman's Metal Cellthat feature rubber with almost no fabric at all exposed to the water, either inside or outside of the suit. Whether the Metal Cell actually makes for less water carried inside the suit I don't know, however two certain elements of this suit are that it's very warm, and easy to clean. Plus, it's undeniably fast, as many of the world's best ITU racers choose this suit, including reigning World Champ Sheila Taormina.
The suit must be comfortable, and must not chafe. The hardest thing is to make a neck that resists water entry and yet doesn't chafe. There are good necks and bad necks out there. Don't get a suit with a badly made neck. Figure out in a hurry whether your new suit has an uncomfortable neck, and return it if it does. There's a suit with a well-made neck out there for you, whomever you are, don't settle for less.
The suit ought to make you fast. Mobility, water resistence, hydrodynamics, flotation in the proper areas, all conspire to make you fast in the water. The hard part is in realizing that you probably can't tell this in a 200-yard test. The real trick is in how a suit performs in the last 500 yards of a 1000-yard test, after water has had a chance to permeate the suit. Your chosen wetsuit should be just about as fast at the end of the swim as in the beginnng, and if your choice of suit is a good one your stroke rate won't erode much during the swim. In other words, let's say you're taking 80 strokes per minute in the frantic beginning of the race (and I'm using this just as an example, not as an indicator of what your stroke rate should be). Two-thirds of the way through the swim you still want to be at perhaps 75 strokes per minute. If you've fallen way off, to 70 strokes or below, well, your suit is impeding your stroke, even though the degredation has been so minor that you don't notice it.
A well-conceived suit ought to be reasonably quick to get off. Realize that this is not at the top of my list, and if it's at the top of yours you're falling prey to an understandable misconception. When, as a spectator, you view people exiting the water and notice that some suits are subject to an easy exit, while others take a second or two longer, realize you haven't been privy to what's gone on during the previous 20, or 40, or 60 minutes. A suit that allows you a comfortable swim, and in which you've gone a minute or two faster than you'd have otherwise gone, is certainly worth its salt if the flip-side is an extra second or two in transition. That said, why not have it all? All other things equal, it's nice to have a suit that comes off in a hurry.
I must mention two-piece suits in this context, as the rap on these suits is that they can be more difficult to exit. It depends on you, on the suit, and it depends on what you mean by "difficult." I choose a zipperless top when I race, and if you watch me exit the suit it'll look as if it's a bit of a struggle. That's just the nature of peeling off a zipperless T1 Pullover. That's what it looks like. My actual exit time, however, is about the same as exiting a one-piece. I choose a zipperless Pullover because its quicker and more comfortable in the water. That said, if you think a two-piece is in your future, I wouldn't settle for a suit you can't exit relatively quickly. I've been getting out of triathlon wetsuits for upwards of 20-years, and it's a bit of an acquired skill. Don't choose a zipperless top unless you can get out of it in a hurry. If need be, buy one Bibjohn (the bottom part) and by both zippered and zipperless tops, returning for a refund that which doesn't work for you.
There are certain features that just have no utility. Most wetsuit companies, incuding those that advertise here on Slowtwitch, have some sort of "pulling surface." Frankly, they don't work. At best, they do nothing. At worst, they trap air during the catch, and one hallmark of a good stroke is your ability to shed air during the catch. Ribbed, dimpled, serrated, textured "contact patches" on wetsuits are like ribbed, dimpled, serrated, textured "contact patches" on bicycle tires. They do not one bit of good in any context, in any weather, for any athlete.
You don't want a wetsuit that will come apart at the seams. How do you know whether your wetsuit will? See if it's already starting on the wetsuit you're considering buying. Look it over entirely. Choose another if a seam is starting to split anywhere on the suit. Also, choose another if the stitching has penetrated the outside of the suit, and this will be most apparent in the arms, as this is where the rubber is the thinnest. The most flexible arms you'll find in any suit are on those made by Quintana Roo (my old company) as this U.S.-based factory has the only work force in the world that can glue and blindstitch 1.5mm smoothsking rubber.
You don't want a suit that will rip or break. Who does? If I were you, in this day and age when so many wetsuits are available, I'd lean toward one made with Yamamoto's SCS coating on the outside of the suit. This is a very durable coating, and will protect against ripping and fingernail tears. That said, there other things you'll want to look for. One company makes just about everybody's zippers, and that's YKK. Every now and then YKK makes a bad batch of tracks or sliders. When they do, bummer. Several hundred suits will eventually come back for repair. Usually you find this out when zipping up your suit the morning of the race, just before your wave leaves. You can't do anything about the tracks, but I'm sold on metal sliders. All other things equal, choose these over suits with plastic sliders. And, look on the inside of your suit, at the base of the zipper, to make sure there's durable, still stuck-on, zipper base tape. Most suits eventually fail here, at the base of the zipper, because it's the area of the suit subject to its highest stress.
Finally, look for value. Bang for buck. Are you looking for a suit for under $200? There are several longjohns (sleeveless suits) selling for around $170. You can get a good suit for that. Likewise, you shouldn't have to pay more than $230 for a good fullsuit. And, while on the subject, fullsuits are always faster, and by about a third. That is, if a sleeveless suit will get you six extra seconds per hundred hards on the water, a well-made, well-fitting fullsuit will get you eight. That is irrespective of whether you're a good swimmer or bad, what style you have, man or woman, black or white, tall or short, Republican or Democrat. Anyone who tries to tell you differently simply isn't informed. This isn't to say you ought to be wearing a fullsuit in every condition, just as you don't want to necessarily choose a rear disc for every sort of weather and wind condition. That said, about 15 years ago I chose a longjohn for a race. I've never done that since. No, I don't want to overheat in hot conditions. Therefore, when it's hot, I don't put on my Pullover until a few minutes before I enter the water.
There is one way to ensure that you've got the right suit. One of the reasons I owned the sort of market share I did, when I was a manufacturer of wetsuits, is that I believed in my product. I also leveraged that belief toward my prospective customers, in the way of a guarantee. I would offer a customer his or her money back within 14 days of purchase if, for any reason, such a refund was requested. "Surely any wetsuit maker standing behind his wetsuit feels the same," I said, and recommended that the customer buy both mine and the other wetsuit under consideration, returning the one for a refund that didn't make the starting lineup.
I still feel that way. If it's between an Orca and an Ironman, or a QR and a T1, buy both and return the one you like the least. Any company not willing to honor a guarantee like that has told you everything you need to know about its product.
Finally, find out what's going to happen if the wetsuit fails. Where will it be fixed? How quickly? What happens if you don't get your wetsuit back in a reasonable period of time? What's the length of the guarantee? Frankly, if the suit is made oversees and the maker has no U.S.-based warranty center (or similar center in whatever country you're in), steer clear unless their policy is to replace straightaway your suit with a new one. If the guarantee isn't at least a year in length, steer clear.