How do you choose the bike computer that will meet your needs? After months of testing eight of the best cycling computers available, we have the answers you are looking for. Let us help you navigate through the complicated marketplace. We will distill it all down, from data transmission protocols to GPS and everything in between, to help you make the best purchase for your needs and budget.
Why Get a Cycling Computer?
The main reason to get a cycling computer is to record data from your rides. Some people track their speed and distance out of curiosity, or as a means of motivation. If you are serious about improving your cycling performance, then tracking your data is a means of ensuring that you are doing the right type of training at the right intensity at the right time to maximize performance on the bike. GPS tracking combined with smartphone integration allow you to interact with social outlets such as Strava, to compare and share your rides with friends and other Strava users. As you can see, the reasons to use a cycling computer are as varied as the types of people who enjoy riding a bike.
Wondering about using your iPhone or other smartphone as a cycling computer? See our Best Bike Computer Review for our analysis.
Types of Bike Computers
Basic: no GPS, no data transfer
Cateye Velo 7, or a wireless sensor like the Cateye Strada Slim. Either way, the principle method of obtaining the data is the same.
Lower priced units will generally use a wired sensor while higher priced units employ a wireless sensor. These computers do not allow you to transfer your ride data to a computer or tracking service, and most will not store individual ride details. In general, they do keep a running odometer that works like the one in a car, except that the data is often lost when the battery is changed. Which brings us to battery type; with these computers you will be using disposable batteries, with the CR2032 being the most common power source.
Smartphones and iPhones
Using an iPhone or smartphone with the Strava application tracks data in a similar fashion to GPS only devices. There are aftermarket ANT+ receivers for smartphones and iPhones that allow them to communicate with sensors. The main drawback to using your phone is limited battery life. Beyond that, you will also need to purchase some type of case or mount to hold your phone while riding, and these can cost as much or more than a dedicated cycling computer. You also run the risk of destroying a very expensive device should you crash with a phone attached to your handlebars.
Why Not Just Use My iPhone?
So you have likely seen cyclists with iPhones or other Smartphone's attached to their handlebars. There are many free applications that allow you to use your iPhone or Smartphone as a cycling computer, including Strava and Wahoo Fitness. The main reason to use your Smartphone is simple: you already have one! Unfortunately that is, in our opinion, about the only reason to consider this as an option. First of all, in order to use your phone you will need to purchase some sort of case and mount to put it in a usable position on your handlebars. These cases can be expensive.
Second, though your iPhone has GPS capabilities, is not a dedicated GPS device. Cell phones typically use what is called A-GPS, which stands for Assisted GPS. They use both cell triangulation and GPS signals to pinpoint location. In general, they can be faster at pinpointing than a GPS alone, such as a Garmin, because they use both systems. However, if you have no cell service or Wi-Fi, while your phone will still use GPS to track position, you may not have a detailed map, because detailed maps are not stored on phones.
Phones use cellular data or Wi-Fi data to populate the information on the map. You can purchase maps that are downloadable to your phone, and then it would function essentially the same as a Garmin GPS with maps, such as the Garmin Edge 820 or Garmin Edge 520. However, after purchasing a mount, a case, and downloadable maps, you probably would save money by just buying a separate bike computer.
Another issue (and the biggest one in our view) is battery life. We have drained the battery on an iPhone 5s on a two-hour ride using the Strava application. If you are just starting out as a cyclist and think that two hours seems like a long time, just wait. Before you know it, you will be hammering out century rides with your local club, and your phone will be dead long before the end of your ride. We like knowing that we have a charged phone in case of an emergency.
Accessory compatibility is also an issue you will likely run into as well. Most phones are not compatible with ANT+ sensors. Most of the heart rate, cadence, and speed sensors on the market use the ANT+ protocol and will not work with the majority of smart phones (unless you purchase an ANT+ receiver for your phone.) More manufacturers are getting in the game with Bluetooth 4.0 accessories, but ANT+ is still the gorilla in the room when it comes to third party sensor standards.
We recommend you purchase a stand-alone cycling computer for tracking your data. Yes, we ride with our cell phones, but they stay in the jersey pocket for communication purposes in case of an emergency. A dedicated computer sits on the handlebars within easy reach and view throughout the entirety of our rides.
GPS and ANT+ Enabled
On the upper end of the cycling computer spectrum are units that are both ANT+ enabled and have a built-in GPS receiver. Examples include the Garmin Edge 820, winner of our Editors' Choice Award, as well as the Garmin Edge 520 and the Lezyne Super GPS. These computers can receive data from ANT+ sensors, including power, speed, heart rate, and cadence. In addition, they track your position using GPS, allowing you to not only see a map of your ride once transferred to a PC, but also to compare your time on established segments using a service such as Strava.
You can see your time on a given climb or segment, as well as all the times of Strava users, and your current rank on that segment. In the case of the Garmin Edge 820, the GPS can also be used to provide turn-by-turn directions on a ride, as well as show you your current position on a map. The Lezyne Super GPS also has a navigation function, but uses the Ally application and a smartphone to push navigation instructions to the Super GPS. These computers are powerful, customizable tools that can be used with any combination of sensors, or none at all, and be transferred between multiple bikes.
The Garmin Edge 820, Garmin Edge 520, and the Lezyne Super GPS are also Bluetooth enabled, which allows them to communicate with a smartphone when using the Garmin Connect application or Lezyne Ally application. Smartphone connection allows features such as Live Track to stream your ride data to anyone you choose to invite, and includes your current location, speed, and other data metrics. Ride files can also be instantly loaded to Garmin Connect for analysis, and transfer to Strava without the need for a cable transfer. The Lezyne Super GPS and the Magellan Cyclo 505 both support both ANT+ and Bluetooth Smart sensors.
Selecting a Cycling Computer
ANT+ vs. Wired or Proprietary Wireless
The first thing to consider is whether you want to invest in an ANT+ device. If you plan to track your data with Strava, Training Peaks, or you are working with a coach, you will want to choose a device that is ANT+, and or Bluetooth sensor enabled. All of the ANT+ enabled cycling computers we tested are capable of saving and transferring ride data either with a cable or via Bluetooth. In contrast, most non-ANT+ enabled computers such as the Cateye Strada Slim cannot save or transfer individual ride data.
Additional ANT+ sensors can be purchased over time as your needs evolve, but having the option to add more sensors helps to future-proof your purchase. If you become interested in competitive cycling, for example, then you may want to use a power meter in the future. Having an ANT+ enabled cycling computer allows you to add sensors as you go, and intermix brands to get the best product for your needs. If you do not envision needing heart rate, power, or cadence sensors, then a basic computer such as the Cateye Strada Slim is a good option. Just keep in mind that you will not be able to add on more sensors in the future.
GPS vs. No GPS
If you have interest in using Strava then you need a GPS enabled cycling computer such as the Garmin Edge 820 or Garmin Edge 520. The Lezyne Super GPS and the Magellan Cyclo are both GPS enabled as well. A cycling computer with a GPS sensor allows you to upload your ride data to Strava, and compete for segment times and KOMs. It also makes it possible for you or others on Strava to view a map and statistics of your ride. Beyond the social aspect of Strava, chasing KOM records or personal records can be a great way to stay motivated.
Maps vs. No Maps
If you travel frequently with your bike, or like to explore, then a cycling computer with routable maps such as the Garmin Edge 820, should be on your short list. The Garmin Edge 520 also has the ability to download detailed maps for small areas, but it does not offer turn-by-turn directions. Other GPS cycling computers like the Lezyne Super GPS provide navigation, but no maps. Yes, it will cost you more money, but being able to see where you are and get directions can be priceless.
You can also create routes prior to your ride and upload them to the Edge 820 and Edge 520. Lezyne is working on a route builder program that should be available soon. If you do not need routable maps, but still want to download your data to Strava or other third party services, then the Garmin Edge 520 and the Lezyne Super GPS are a good choices.
The Garmin Edge 820, Garmin Edge 520, and Lezyne Super GPS are Bluetooth enabled so they can communicate with a smartphone or iPhone using the Garmin Connect application or Lezyne Ally application. If giving your friends and family the ability to track you while riding is appealing to you, then you should consider one of these two models. You should be aware that the live tracking feature only works when you have cell phone reception, so if you frequently ride in areas with poor cell coverage, it will not work.
The other reason to consider a Bluetooth enabled device is the ability to perform wireless data downloads. In order to use this feature, you must be connected to your Smartphone or iPhone. The Edge 820 is also Wi-Fi enabled for data transfers. The Lezyne Super GPS the Garmin Edge 520 and Garmin Edge 820 can both receive text, email, and call alerts from your phone using Bluetooth.
The Garmin Edge 820 utilizes a touch screen interface, as compared to the external button interface of the other computers we tested. The touch screens are nice, and are an improvement on the stand-alone external button interface. The more features the computer has, the greater the value of a touch screen. Touch screens make scrolling through pages and options much easier and faster.
Still trying to decide?
If we could only give one piece of advice, it would be to strongly consider an ANT+ enabled device. It will give you the option to expand the capability of the device in the future by adding sensors. Most of the ANT+ devices also have GPS, which makes them highly versatile because you can use them on any bike with no sensors and still get basic data. If cost is holding you back, the Lezyne Super GPS is the winner of our Best Buy Award, for good reason. If you are certain you do not need ANT+ sensors and just want basic speed, time, and distance, then take a look at the Cateye Strada Slim, winner of our Best Buy Award for the Casual Cyclist.
We tested the ANT+ enabled cycling computers with a range of accessories and sensors. Check out our guide below, starting with the basics and moving toward the more advanced sensors, to help you pick the accessories to optimize your new cycling computer purchase.
All of the computers we tested came with some sort of mounting system. The stock mounting systems in general allow you to attach your computer to either the handlebars or stem of a bike. We prefer our computer in the out-front position because it improves visibility of the screen and prevents you from having to look down and divert your eyes from the road. Garmin and Lezyne both offer out-front mounts for their computers, and they are now standard equipment with the Edge 520 and 820.
Heart Rate Sensors
Basing training on heart rate is an effective way to maximize your training time. Working in targeted heart rate zones generates specific physiological adaptations. ANT+ and Bluetooth heart rate monitor straps allow you to constantly monitor your heart rate while training. There is a range of options available.
Garmin: Garmin offers a Soft Strap $69.99, and a Standard Heart Rate Monitor $60. We have used both. The Soft Strap is more comfortable but less durable than the Standard model. Both are accurate.
Wahoo: Wahoo makes ANT+ compatible heart rate straps that are also Bluetooth 4.0 compatible know as the TICKR.
Mio: Wristband heart rate monitor, called the Velo, that is ANT+ and Bluetooth 4.0 enabled.
Speed and Cadence Sensors
Speed sensors give an accurate rate of speed, and tend to be more sensitive to rapid accelerations and deceleration than GPS. Cadence measurement is the number of rotations per minute of the crank arms. Cadence is an excellent training tool and can be used to maintain an efficient effort when the athlete knows their optimal cadence in relation to power output. We tested using Garmin ANT+ speed and cadence sensors.
The new sensor combo from Garmin utilizes a small accelerometer pod that is mounted on the crank arm using industrial rubber bands, and another accelerometer pod that attaches to the rear hub using a combination rubber strap and housing. Garmin calls it the "Speed and Cadence" and it retails for $69. The two sensors can be used as stand-alone sensors, or both at the same time. They are easy to attach, remove, and swap between bikes. Each sensor uses a 2032 battery for power. We prefer this option to the older "Speed/Cadence" sensor that uses magnets.
The Garmin Speed/Cadence sensor mounts to the non-drive side chain stay and measures speed via a spoke mounted magnet, and cadence via a crank arm mounted magnet. The sensor itself comes with two different shaped rubber bases to accommodate differing chain stay shapes and is attached to the chain stay using zip ties. Attachment is more difficult than the magnet-less sensor from Garmin.
Once the sensor is set up correctly, it is functional, but the sensor is prone to getting bumped by the rider's foot, which can move it out of alignment with the magnets. The new magnet-less "Speed and Cadence" sensors are much more user-friendly and compatible with any bike. Magellan also makes a speed/cadence sensor, but it is more difficult to set up and attach than the Garmin model. It does however provide accurate data when properly installed, and also communicates with the ANT+ protocol.
Power meters are the gold standard in terms of measuring effort and tracking both acute and long term training load.
Power meters have come down in price drastically over the last few years, enticing more and more athletes to use them during training and racing. Power is measured either at the crank, rear hub, or pedal. There are many manufacturers of power meters; our testing was done using a Quarq Riken unit. We have listed links to a few manufacturers below.
Quarq: Makes a range of power meter cranks for Shimano and Sram drive trains in both GXP and BB30 bottom bracket standards.
SRM: Makes a range of power meter cranks for Shimano and Sram drive trains.
Power Tap: Well known for producing power meter hubs, they now make a crank set, as well as power meter pedals.