How do you choose the bike computer that will meet your needs? After months of testing 8 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. With GPS technology, cycling computers also allow you to interact with social outlets such as Strava, and Garmin Connect to compare and share your rides with friends and other Strava or Garmin Connect 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, and with these computers you will be using disposable batteries, with the CR2032 being the most common power source.
ANT+ enabled, no GPS
This is a limited category, primarily because not very many computers fall into it. The SRM Power Control 7 falls into this category.
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 810, winner of our Editors' Choice Award, as well as the Edge 510 and Edge 500. 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 810, 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. 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 810 and Edge 510 are also Bluetooth 2.0 enabled, which allows them to communicate with a Smartphone when using the Garmin Connect 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.
Garmin Edge 200 is a GPS only device. It tracks speed and distance using GPS. It is not compatible with ANT+ accessories or any other sensors, so the available data field is limited. The advantage to a GPS only device is primarily lower cost, as compared to a computer with both GPS and ANT+ capabilities.
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.
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+ 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 810, 510, 500, or 200. 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 810 should be on your short list. Other GPS cycling computers like the Garmin Edge 510 allow you to see a map of your completed ride once you transfer the data to Strava or Garmin Connect, but are not capable of routable 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 810 for turn-by-turn directions, no need to worry about getting lost. 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 510, 500, or 200 are a good choices.
We tested two cycling computers that are Bluetooth enabled. The Garmin Edge 810 and Garmin Edge 510. Both are Bluetooth 2.0 enabled so they can communicate with a Smartphone or iPhone using the Garmin Connect 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. Neither the Edge 810 nor 510 will communicate via Bluetooth with your PC.
The Garmin Edge 510 and 810 both utilize 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. However, we would recommend that you let other features such as mapping and GPS and Bluetooth interface guide your decision-making. You will get used to whatever interface your computer has with everyday use.
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 Garmin Edge 500 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. The one exception is the SRM Powercontrol 7, which uses a very nice out-front mount that places the computer inline and in front of the stem. 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. So if an out-front mount interests you, here are a few to consider.
Barfly 2.0: Affordable composite mounts, that offer a secure connection with options for Garmin and Cateye.
K-Edge: Slightly more expensive than Barfly, but they are aluminum and come in a range of anodized colors. K- Edge offers options for Garmin and Cateye computers.
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+ enabled 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
Two varieties are available from Garmin.
Power meters are the gold standard in terms of measuring effort and tracking both acute and long term training load.
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.