How to Choose a Bike Computer

Buying Advice
By ⋅ Review Editor, OutdoorGearLab - Wednesday September 25, 2013

When deciding what bike computer is best for your needs, there are several factors you want to consider before buying (all of which we tested!). The type of riding you plan to do, and what bike you will be using will be the major factors in your decision-making process. From there, the features you are looking for narrow down your search even further. After that, factors like ease of use, battery life, and water resistance will help you land on the right computer for you.We detailed each category below to help you decide. Be sure to check out our detailed reviews for each computer.

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A view of Sugarloaf while on a test ride.
Credit: David Mackey

Riding Type
What type of riding will you be doing? How you use your bike will determine what kind of bike computer you want to purchase. The following considerations will help you to narrow your search.

Is your bike your main mode of transportation between library, school, and work, where popping the computer off each time you lock your bike is a necessity? If so, you may simply want to use the STRAVA app on your phone, which can stay in your pocket even while riding, or you may want a basic computer like the Cateye CC-RD300W Strada Wireless Bike Computer that pops off easily and is small and unobtrusive in your pocket while running errands. Things like extended battery life and cadence aren't necessary features for this kind of use. Instead, the focus should be on display, ease of use, and water resistance.

Do you usually bike on a paved trail or cruise the beach to enjoy being outside with a little exercise but want to know how far you have gone? An inexpensive and basic computer like the Bell F12 Bike Computer will suffice. In this case, being the lightest computer or having a hundred features doesn't benefit you at all. You probably just stay in if the weather takes a turn, and a feature like GPS will give you more information (and a higher price tag) than you want.

Do you train several times a week, attend weekly group rides, and race on the weekends? If so, a more advanced computer that is GPS-enabled and can sync with a heart rate monitor, power meter, and cadence sensor is what you are going for. The Garmin Edge 810 is a powerful training tool that makes it easy to analyze data and record your progress. When you invest a significant part of your time and energy into cycling, having a bike computer that can keep up is important.

Bike Fit

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The mounting system for the Sigma 1609.
Credit: David Mackey

There are so many different types of bikes and making sure a computer will fit is very important. Wireless computers like the Cateye Strada, Sigma BC1009, and Planet Bike Protégé 9.0 require a close proximity between the spoke magnet and sensor, and the sensor and the computer. A wireless computer that fits a road bike might not work on your beach cruiser or mountain bike. The computers that are connected by wires such as the Sigma BC1609 and Bell F12 take a little longer to install, but fit a wider variety of bikes. The GPS computers do not need any attachments, so as long as your bike has handlebars, you are good to go.

Features
Similar to Riding Type, you should buy a computer that fits the kind of data you want to record. The computers we tested ranged from recording the most basic information such as speed, distance, and time, to very complex data on heart rate, power output, elevation, and more. The simplest and least featured computer was the Bell F12. This computer covers the very basics and works for joy rides around the neighborhood. The most advanced computer tested was the Garmin Edge 810, which has lap options, navigation, and access to maps on the go. The Edge 810 also has a micro SD card slot for detailed City Navigator maps of your area. Typically, the more features included on a computer, the more expensive it becomes. If you have no need for advanced features, an inexpensive and simple computer will serve your needs. Check out the Cateye Strada, our Best Buy Award winner. If you like to track metrics like cadence, power, and heart rate, then the more complex computers are worth the investment.

GPS

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A screen shot of a Live Track session. In the top right corner, the Time and Distance stats are correct, but Average Speed (1.73 mph??) clearly had some issues.
Credit: David Mackey

The Garmin Edge 810, Edge 500, and STRAVA application all are GPS-enabled computers. One benefit of using a GPS computer is being able to revisit information on individual rides. You have access to an accurate map of your route, including the elevation profile highlighting total ascent and descent. You also see the basic totals of average speed, max speed, time, and distance. However, you can view those metrics at specific points in your ride. For instance, you can see where you were going 7mph up a certain hill and then 30mph on the descent.

There are several websites available that use the GPS files from these computers to track and analyze rides. Garmin Connect is the site affiliated with the Garmin Edge 810 and Edge 200 computers. Garmin does a very good job in providing the tools you need to analyze a ride and track progress with this site. STRAVA is the website associated with the STRAVA smart phone app to analyze this data. It is similar to the Garmin Connect site, but offers more of a social aspect to your riding and training. You have access to the activities of friends with the ability to analyze their data. You can also compete on 'segments', which are sections of rides that you try to have the fastest time on. You can upload activities to STRAVA straight from your Garmin device, but not from your STRAVA app to Garmin Connect.

Another perk of a GPS computer is that it is the most accurate way to track distance and speed. The computers that use a spoke magnet and sensor must know your wheel size and can become less accurate as tires deflate or the weight of the rider changes. Using a GPS with a strong signal is the most accurate way of tracking speed and distance.

If GPS is more than you are looking for, most other bike computers keep track of overall distance ridden with an odometer, and let you reset the metrics for each ride. GPS usually comes with a higher price tag.

Ease of Use

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Climbing statistics are a swipe of the screen away.
Credit: David Mackey

How involved are you looking to get? Some computers require a significant initial time investment before you even get started. This includes reading manuals, installing sensors, and familiarizing yourself with the settings. Other computers simply clip on and are ready to ride. The STRAVA app only took a quick download and sign-in via Facebook to be ready to ride. The Garmin computers were quick to attached to the bike, but required a little more time in the manual before we felt like we knew what we were looking at. The Cateye Strada was a quick set-up as well, being very intuitive and simple in its functions. The Planet Bike Protégé 9.0 ranked lowest in ease of set-up due to needing tools to install on the bike, not having labels for its buttons, and the need to consult the manual multiple times.

Something to consider is whether you need to access information while actually riding, or if you are fine with seeing the details after you ride. The Garmin 810 was easiest to use while in the saddle with its large screen size, touch screen, and ability to display 6 metrics at a time. The Garmin Edge 200 was notable in ease of use as well. Although the buttons took some getting used to, the interface and menu were very intuitive, making it easy to find the information we wanted while on the bike as well as after finishing a ride.
In contrast, the STRAVA application was easy to use off of the bike, but the very large size (comparably) and limited metrics displayed while recording made it more difficult to use while on the bike.

Garmin Connect and STRAVA are the two websites used to analyze rides after the fact. Both sites ranked very well in ease of use. The layout varies between the two, but all of the information is very clearly laid out on one page – map, summary, details, and graphs.

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Wires protruding from the speed sensor of the Sigma 1609 on the front fork.
Credit: David Mackey

Battery Life
The battery life varies from computer to computer. Generally, the GPS-enabled computers have the shortest battery life and require charging on a very regular basis. Depending on accessories, this can be after every third ride or so. The Garmin Edge 810 held for about 15 hours, the Garmin Edge 200 for about 14 hours. The STRAVA app uses the battery of your phone, and lasted about 8 hours. For the less-featured computers, the battery life is very extended, lasting more than a year with regular riding in most cases.

Weather
Another consideration is whether your computer needs to hold up to different types of weather. Most people stay indoors or opt for other modes of transportation when the rain rolls in, however those on a training plan usually clip in during the worst of it. The STRAVA app on the smart phone is the least weather resistant speed tracker we tested, making a cycling specific computer more functional when riding in the rain. However, there are several third-party case manufacturers for the iPhone that claim to be completely waterproof. The Garmin computers were the most waterproof, rated IPX7 and able to take a full (accidental) submersion in 1m of water for up to 30 minutes.
David Mackey
About the Author
David mastered his camping, canoeing, hiking, and fishing skills while growing up near Cincinnati, OH. In college, he began climbing on day trips to the Red River Gorge and experienced the thrill of multi-pitch routes in Red Rocks, Devil's Tower, and Seneca. During this time he took his occasional running, biking, and swimming to the next level by competing in his first triathlon. Since then, he has raced marathons, triathlons, and trail races in Nevada, Ohio, Maryland, and North Carolina. David recently completed his first 50-mile trail running race in Virginia, and is training for the Diabolical Double, a hilly, 125-mile bike ride in western Maryland. David currently resides just outside of Washington D.C.

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