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by Dave Rome
December 17, 2018
Photography by David Rome
Seeking direction on which GPS cycling computer to get? This instalment of CT Recommends should press the right buttons. Here, tech writer Dave Rome asks the CyclingTips team what brand and model of bike computer they use to record their rides, navigate with and keep their power in check. Then the big question is asked: what would you buy today?
Want to skip straight to our recommendations? Click the links below:
– Wahoo ELEMNT Bolt
– Garmin Edge (various)
– Lezyne Mega
– No Rules
Cycling computers have come a long way from the days when the pinnacle was a wired CatEye Velo that offered speed, distance and if you had the premium Strada version, cadence. Then, from the ’90s through to the mid-2000s, the heart rate monitor became the go-to for performance-minded cyclists, and Polar led the way with integrating pulse checking and cycling stats.
However, it was Garmin’s first Edge cycling-specific computers in the late 2000s that redefined what a cycling computer should be. With the addition of GPS technology, routes could be followed and rides tracked. All the features of a traditional cycling computer and the newer heart rate monitors were integrated into the device too. Nowadays, mobile phones and power meters have led the next generation of GPS cycling computers – and the latest crop of computers offer mapping and detailed data collection with a compact screen that isn’t intrusive to the ride.
In my mind, a cycling computer should work without the need for a phone. In many cases, the latest computers are enhanced by a smartphone and offer a number of specific features (such as call alerts), but if your phone’s battery dies, the computer should keep doing its thing.
There is a large size difference depending on your budget and desired functionality. The Garmin Edge 1030 (left) offers class-leading navigation and is nearing the size of a smartphone, while the Wahoo ELEMNT Bolt (right) is an example of the mid-sized GPS computer that is most popular. In the middle, the Omata One is a stylish alternative, although it doesn’t feature in this article.
At the other end, the cheapest GPS cycling computers are minuscule with small screens and often with limited wireless connectivity, so syncing up your phone or a powermeter may not be an option. If all you want to do is record where you’ve been and how fast you went, then these will do the trick. For those wanting mapping and/or more advanced training metrics, you’ll likely need to spend into the US$200 + range.
For most enthusiast riders, the US$200-$300 range will get you the most important features in a compact unit. As you’ll read below, nearly everyone in our team chooses a medium-sized computer from within this price bracket.
Having only been in the cycling GPS game for three years, Wahoo has been impressively quick to steal market share from the dominant Garmin.
Despite gaining major ground in recent years, Wahoo Fitness’s range of cycling computers still only consists of three models. From left to right is the ELEMNT Mini, the ELEMNT Bolt, and the original ELEMNT – but only the latter two are proper GPS models, with the Mini relying on a paired smartphone for full functionality.
Our global tech editor James Huang likens Wahoo’s success to one of Mac Vs Windows. Wahoo’s simple user experience makes the products a cinch to use. Part of this is related to the way a connected mobile phone does the heavy lifting in setup and customisation; rather than scrolling through deep menus and pressing specific buttons, you can set up the computer to your liking with a few swipes of a phone screen.
“I was first turned on to Wahoo’s computers a couple of years ago, with the introduction of the original ELEMNT,” explains James. “While I wasn’t entirely sold on the oversized form factor, the ease-of-use and reliability of the software were huge plusses to me, especially after bricking three Garmins over the years (and losing lots of rides). After the (smaller) ELEMNT Bolt was introduced, I haven’t looked back — and haven’t had any issues, either.”
Our roving reporter Dave “Shoddy” Everett is another convert having only recently bought a ELEMNT Bolt. Shoddy had stopped using computers for a while but recently got back to using his Garmin 1000 in an effort to get fit. Unfortunately, a faulty USB connection had him looking at an expensive repair bill. Enter the Bolt. “Loving it so far: easy to set up, easy to use on the bike. Damn it’s good,” remarked Shoddy.
The Wahoo ELEMNT Bolt offers a unique button layout, while LED indicators above the screen signal turn-by-turn directions.
Wade Wallace, CyclingTips’ founder and a tech product engineer in a former life, is yet another now on the Wahoo train. “I’m a Wahoo ELEMNT Bolt fan now. Such an easy user interface on the phone for display and features set up, and putting routes onto the unit through various programs (Strava, ridewithgps, etc) is extremely easy. Battery life is good (easily 12hrs) and I’ve never had a problem with anything. It’s plug and play.”
And while we’re on that bandwagon, I too have been really impressed with the Wahoo ELEMNT Bolt. As long as you don’t want detailed route guidance or the very minuscule and hyper-specific training data (Garmin is better here), then in my eyes, it’s the benchmark.
Garmin effectively created the cycling GPS space and remain the industry giant. So ubiquitous is the Garmin name in cycling computers, it’s almost a proprietary eponym (where a trademarked brand becomes a generic term).
Our entire team have used various Garmin products somewhere along the line, and unsurprisingly, a majority still do. Where Wahoo only has its name to a limited range of new products, Garmin has over a decade of various product lines spanning multiple price points. There are none more successful than the Garmin Edge 500, a computer that Matt de Neef (and hundreds of thousands of other cyclists…) still uses today.
The Garmin Edge (top left) remains a computer used by many.
“I’m still on the Garmin Edge 500 train. The bottom of the screen is cracked and it takes forever to boot up and find satellites, but I can still find no reason to spend several hundred dollars getting a replacement. It does everything I need a GPS to do. And I’m not fussed about mapping – even when using newer units I tend to use my phone for routing,” says Matt. “I’ve reviewed a bunch of newer Edge units in recent years and enjoyed most of them, but every time the review period ends I send the unit back and return to the trusty blue Edge 500.”
CyclingTips’ Veloclub community manager, Andy van Bergen, was a long-time user of the Garmin Edge 500. “It didn’t have all the technical features of other computers, but I was really only ever interested in three things. Time – how much longer does my leave pass have? Distance – assuming I had an idea of how far I was going in the first place. And lastly, elevation – handy for knowing how much descent you’re still owed on a loop ride!”
Andy explains that eventually the Edge 500 got old: “it lost one important ride too many and I ditched it. I’m now riding with a 510. Randomly I find the map crumbs harder to follow than the 500, but really relying on crumbs is pretty useless on anything but quiet roads with few options, and maps aren’t why I use a cycling computer.”
As the founder of Everesting, Andy explains that for elevation attempts, the two wishes for any unit are battery life and elevation reliability. “Pretty much any unit on the market will need a mid-ride charge with a portable battery pack to go the distance (Ed. not Lezyne! See below) and there is actually so much elevation variation between units – even on the same computer brand and model – that the Everesting rules have changed. The unit records the proof of laps, but the elevation gain is calculated of the known segment elevation times by the hill repetitions.”
Overseeing the CyclingTips Emporium, Mitch Wells has followed the same path as Andy, moving from an old Garmin Edge 500 to the 510. In Mitch’s case, it was for the Bluetooth uploading capability, whereas the old 500 requires you to plug the device into a computer for ride uploading. However, issues with the Bluetooth and more recently, data loss have Mitch itching for a new unit.
The Garmin Edge 130 (middle) is likely to be a popular upgrade for those loyal to the Edge 500 (left); the new Edge 520 (right) is there for those that want more advanced mapping functionality in a compact device.
Where so much loyalty sits with the old Edge 500, James offers a beam of hope. “The new Garmin Edge 130 is still really interesting to me, as it truly does seem to be the spiritual successor to the Garmin Edge 500, a long-discontinued unit that seems to have far better long-term reliability than the company’s more feature-packed models. It’s relatively inexpensive, simple to use, and includes all the features most riders actually need, and given the less complicated software, my hope is that it indeed will remain stable over time.”
Matt de Neef may be loyal to his Edge 500 for now, but admits it won’t last forever. “I keep hearing great things about the Wahoo Element Bolt and I think that when my Edge 500 finally shuffles off to the great stem mount in the sky, I’ll give that a shot. Or maybe the Garmin Edge 130. But for now, I won’t be changing anything.”
Mitch shares the same sentiment for his Edge 510 and suggests that if it wasn’t for the price of buying a new unit, he’d be on a Wahoo by now. Instead, “I’ll wait till this thing dies.”
As James explains, even Garmin’s more expensive and feature-packed units offer something others don’t. “Riders who aren’t afraid to really dig into the intricacies of GPS cycling computers will probably still gravitate toward Garmin’s latest, and most advanced, options. They’re more feature-packed than anything else out there, the full-color touchscreens will undoubtedly find a lot of appeal, and the ecosystem of compatible apps means they can be highly customized. But at least for me, I don’t have that kind of patience or time, so the more reliable option is what works best for me.”
The Edge 820 (middle) and Edge 520 Plus (right) are similar in many ways, with the most notable distinction being buttons versus touch screen.
Neal Rogers is one staff member who has been using the more advanced (and newer) Edge 820 and Edge 520 Plus units. Comparing the two, Neal explains, “In many ways, they’re very similar: They’re exactly the same size, they have the same screen resolution, they weigh more or less the same, have the same battery life and the same training data collection.”
“But they’re also different. The 820, which retails for US$350, has a touchscreen display and is WiFi-enabled; the newer 520 Plus, which retails for US$280, uses buttons and uploads data via Bluetooth on your paired smartphone. Beyond the price differential and touchscreen vs buttons, the primary difference between the two comes down to navigation features. The 520 Plus offers routable maps — but not with the same functionality as the 820. The 820 will guide you to any specific street address on the fly, while the 520 Plus requires that the location is either saved to its database or is part of a previously downloaded route; it doesn’t deliver spontaneous turn-by-turn navigation to a newly entered destination. You can have routes on the 520 Plus, you just have to be a planner.”
Forced to make a choice, Neal picks the more expensive Edge 820 based on three factors. “I prefer a touchscreen to buttons. I value spontaneity, and the ability to generate a route whenever you like. It’s nice to upload via WiFi, as Bluetooth connections can be finicky.”
And while his first choice is Wahoo, James says there are other benefits to buying into the biggest brand. “The fact that Garmin is, far and away, the most popular GPS cycling computer brand on the market means there’s a much bigger selection of related accessories like mounts, which many will find appealing.”
Lezyne’s new Mega computers offer a long list of features. There are two models to choose from, the colour screen Mega C (left) and the slightly larger, black-and-white display Mega XL (right).
Having only just hit the market, Lezyne’s new Mega GPS range deserves a notable mention. The feature list is pretty much verbatim for what the Wahoo ELEMNT Bolt and Garmin Edge 520 Plus claim, and yet, Lezyne more than doubles the battery life and pulls it all off for AU$100 less.
I only recently finished testing the new units. There’s a whole lot to like and while they’re not problem free, Lezyne is rapidly working their way through the issues. Since writing my review in October, two software updates have solved a number of my original complaints. I get a real sense that Lezyne don’t want to be seen as a budget offering to Wahoo and Garmin, but rather an equal that happens to offer better value for money.
If I were buying a computer tomorrow and didn’t want to pay for a Wahoo, I’d buy the Lezyne Mega XL. That battery life alone, which should mean most riders would only need to charge the device every month or so, should sell them many units.
With so much talk of specific GPS units, one can’t ignore the smartphone. While Strava keeps the exact data close to its chest, smartphones are the most widely used type of device for tracking rides. And given the phone is the most advanced piece of tech you carry on a ride, it makes sense. If you don’t want metrics like time, speed or power directly in front of you, then simply tracking your ride with a pocketed phone is likely the way to go.
Andy may own a Garmin Edge 510, but he only uses it on long rides where phone battery life is more of a concern than GPS unit battery. For all his shorter rides, and commutes, he simply tracks the ride via Strava with a phone in his pocket.
The Apple iPhone 7 is considered a small phone by current standards, and yet, it’s still much larger than most popular GPS units.
A recent gravel adventure had our route planner using a mixture of an older Garmin 810 and an iPhone for route guidance. The phone offered great street map clarity, and in most situations, was the superior device. However, there were occasions where Google Maps failed us and someone else in the group with Garmin’s top-end Edge 1030 would discover alternative paths that the phone mapping wouldn’t.
For those keen on using their phone as a display while riding, QuadLock (among others) offers proven accessories which won’t drop your phone, but still, the risk of a low hanging branch or worse, a crash, present real issues for your pocket-sized PC. Likewise, battery life and the sheer size remain strong reasons to invest in a dedicated cycling GPS.
That’s exactly what Australian tech editor Matt Wikstrom and our Editor-in-Chief, Caley Fretz said about their favorite computers.
A truly clean bar setup can only be had without additional accessories. Photo: Matt Wikstrom
It’s a sentiment that I myself typically follow when I’m not testing something (or myself), and after years of specific training, it can be quite liberating to simply just ride.