The world's most in-depth and scientific reviews of outdoor gear

How to Choose the a Bike Computer for Road and MTB

Out testing with the Edge 520.
Thursday April 4, 2019

We tested the Garmin Edge 820 in all conditions and on a wide range of bikes.
We tested the Garmin Edge 820 in all conditions and on a wide range of bikes.

Which is the best bike computer for your needs and budget? After months of testing eleven of the best cycling computers on the market, we've got the answers you're looking for. Let us help you navigate through this somewhat complicated marketplace. We'll break 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 use 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're doing the right type of training at the right intensity at the right time to maximize your performance on the bike. Other people like to use them for their maps and navigation features. GPS tracking combined with smartphone integration allows you to interact with social outlets such as Strava, to analyze, compare, and share your rides with friends and other 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.

Types of Bike Computers



Basic: No GPS, No Data Transfer


The Cateye Strada Slim is a wireless cycling computer that does not use GPS or ANT+
The Cateye Strada Slim is a wireless cycling computer that does not use GPS or ANT+

On the most basic and simple end of the product range, non-GPS enabled cycling computers record the basic data of distance, speed, and time. Lower priced computers stick to just those three data points and get the information from a speed sensor attached to the front fork that records wheel rotations by passing a magnet attached to a spoke on the front wheel. Once the computer knows the circumference of the wheel and tire, it can generate speed and distance information based on the frequency that the magnet passes the sensor. These types of computers either use a wired sensor like the Cateye Velo 7, or a wireless sensor like the Cateye Strada Slim. Either way, the principal method of obtaining the data is the same.

These basic computers are generally lower priced, and some units will use a wired sensor while slightly 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 one in a car, except the data may be lost when the battery is changed. Which brings us to battery type; with these computers you will be using disposable batteries, with small inexpensive coin cell batteries being the most common.

One interesting model in our test is the Wahoo Fitness ELEMNT MINI which serves double duty as a basic cycling computer when used with the included speed sensor, or can be used for GPS tracking when paired with your smartphone through a Bluetooth connection and the ELEMNT app. The only drawback to this system is that it doesn't work for GPS tracking without the phone in Bluetooth range, but since we all usually ride with our phones anyway this isn't too much of a problem.

Smartphones and iPhones


Using an iPhone or smartphone with the Strava application tracks data in a similar fashion to GPS enabled 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 case or mount to hold your phone while riding if you want to view the screen, and these can cost as much or more than a dedicated cycling computer. You also run the risk of destroying a costly device should you crash with a phone attached to your handlebars.

Why Not Just Use My iPhone?


Pairing the Garmin Edge 820 with an iPhone.
Pairing the Garmin Edge 820 with an iPhone.

It's likely you've seen cyclists with iPhones or other smartphones attached to their handlebars. Several free applications 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, in our opinion, that's about the only reason to consider this as an option. First of all, to use your phone, you will need to purchase some case and mount to put it in a proper position on your handlebars. These cases can be expensive. Of course, you can use your smartphone for ride tracking through an app without attaching it to your handlebars if you don't feel the need to see the screen at all times during your trip, it all just depends on how important having that information on the display is to you.

Second, although your iPhone has GPS capabilities, it isn't 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 a 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 accurate maps are typically 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 roughly the same as a Garmin GPS with maps, such as the Garmin Edge 820 or Edge 520 Plus. 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've 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'll be hammering out century rides with your local club, and your phone will be dead long before the end of your journey. We like to know that we have a charged phone in case of an emergency.

Accessory compatibility is also an issue you are likely to run into as well. Most phones aren't 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 smartphones (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.

That said, 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 or pack for communication purposes in case of an emergency. A dedicated computer sits on the handlebars within easy reach and view for the duration of our rides.

GPS and ANT+ Enabled


Whether for tracking  training  or navigation  GPS enabled computers are the way to go. Plus  they are all compatible with sensors for those of you who are obsessive about training data.
Whether for tracking, training, or navigation, GPS enabled computers are the way to go. Plus, they are all compatible with sensors for those of you who are obsessive about training data.

On the upper end of the cycling computer spectrums 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 1030, Garmin Edge 520, Wahoo Fitness ELEMNT BOLT, Lezyne Micro C GPS, Lezyne Super GPS, and Lezyne Mega XL GPS. These computers can receive data from ANT+ sensors, including power, speed, heart rate, and cadence. Also, they track your position using GPS and provide you with data including distance, elevation, time as well as a map of your ride once transferred to a companion app, smartphone, or computer 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 section.

Many GPS enabled computers also feature preloaded maps and you can see your position on a map on the device and use it for navigation. All of the Garmin Edge computers, the Wahoo Fitness ELEMNT BOLT, and the Lezyne Mega XL have detailed maps and advanced navigation features. The Lezyne Super GPS and Micro C GPS also have navigation functions but use the Lezyne Ally V2 application and a smartphone to push navigation instructions to them. 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.

GPS Units with Bluetooth


All of the GPS enabled units in our review are also Bluetooth enabled, which allows them to communicate with a smartphone when using the Garmin Connect, Lezyne Ally V2, or ELEMNT applications respectively. 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 the companion apps for analysis, and transfer to Strava without the need for a cable transfer. The Garmin Edge 1030, all of the Lezyne models, and the Wahoo Fitness ELEMNT BOLT all support both ANT+ and Bluetooth Smart sensors.

Selecting a Cycling Computer


GPS vs. No GPS


If you have any interest in tracking your rides, using Strava, or navigating with your computer then you need a GPS enabled model such as the Garmin Edge 1030, Edge 820, Edge 520 Plus, Wahoo Fitness ELEMNT BOLT, Lezyne Super GPS, Lezyne Micro C GPS, or the Lezyne Mega XL. Cycling computers with GPS sensors track your location throughout the course of your ride and allow 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 KOMs or personal records can be a great way to stay motivated or enhance your training.

Sensor Compatibility


Another thing to consider is whether you want to invest in an ANT+ device. If you plan to use your device for training and track quantifiable fitness 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 Smart sensor enabled. All of the GPS enabled cycling computers we tested are compatible with sensors, so these days you can typically be sure that a cycling computer can pair with your sensors. That said, computers that don't have GPS function, such as the Cateye Strada Slim, don't pair with sensors and cannot save or transfer individual ride data.

Sensors are typically used by riders involved in serious training and can be purchased over time as your needs evolve. These typically include heart rate monitors, speed and cadence sensors, and power meters. Modern electronic drivetrains like Shimano Di2 and SRAM Red eTap work in a similar way and can often be paired to your computer as well. All of the Lezyne models, the Wahoo Fitness models, and the Garmin Edge 1030 work with both types of sensors. The Garmin Edge 820 and the Edge 520 Plus are only compatible with ANT+ sensors.

Maps vs. No Maps


If you frequently travel with your bike or like to explore, then cycling computers with routable maps such as the Garmin Edge 1030, Edge 820, and Edge 520 Plus should be on your short list, as should the Wahoo Fitness ELEMNT BOLT. The Lezyne Mega XL also comes preloaded with maps and can download maps for specific areas for offline viewing and navigation. Other GPS cycling computers like the Lezyne Super GPS and Micro C GPS provide navigation, but without maps. Yes, they cost more money, but being able to see where you are and get directions can be priceless.

All of the GPS enabled computers in our review have the ability to create routes and push them to your device for navigation. Each companion app is capable of creating or importing routes. The Garmin Edge computers have vibrant color screens for viewing their preloaded maps and they have the most robust navigation features. The Wahoo Fitness ELEMNT Bolt and the Lezyne Mega XL aren't far behind.

The Garmin Edge 820 can create routes based on user input.  Here is 1 of 3 options the unit created for a 20-25 mile loop.
The Garmin Edge 820 can create routes based on user input. Here is 1 of 3 options the unit created for a 20-25 mile loop.

Bluetooth


The Garmin Edge models, Lezyne, and Wahoo Fitness models are Bluetooth enabled so they can communicate with a smartphone or iPhone using the Garmin Connect, Lezyne Ally V2, or ELEMNT applications. A Bluetooth connection will provide you with text and call notifications and other features like live tracking. If giving your friends and family the ability to track you while riding is appealing to you, then you should consider one of these 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. To use this feature, you must be connected to your Smartphone or iPhone. TheGarmin Edge 1030, Edge 820, and ELEMNT BOLT are also Wi-Fi enabled for data transfers. Both the Garmin Edge 1030, Edge 820, and Edge 520 Plus also have an Incident Detection feature that notifies contacts in the event of a crash with your location.

Touch Screen


The Garmin Edge 1030 and Edge 820 feature a unique touchscreen interface, as compared to the tactile button interface of the other computers we tested. The touchscreens are easy to use and are an improvement on the stand-alone external button interface. The more features the computer has, the greater the value of a touchscreen. Touchscreens make scrolling through pages and options much easier and faster.

Accessory Guide


We tested the ANT+ enabled cycling computers with a range of accessories and sensors. Check out our guide below. Start with the basics and move toward the more advanced sensors to help you pick the accessories to optimize your new cycling computer purchase.

Mounts


All of the computers we tested come with some sort of mounting system. Most stock mounting systems 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 the visibility of the screen and prevents you from having to look down and divert your eyes from the road or trail. Garmin, Lezyne, and Wahoo Fitness all offer out-front mounts for their computers, and they are now standard equipment with the Edge 1030, Edge 820, Edge 520 Plus, as well as the ELEMNT BOLT.

Garmin Edge 820 comes with a nice out front mount for optimal viewing and a clean look.
Garmin Edge 820 comes with a nice out front mount for optimal viewing and a clean look.

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 Smart heart rate monitor straps allow you to constantly monitor your heart rate while training. There are a range of options available.

Garmin: Garmin offers a Soft Strap, and a Standard Heart Rate Monitor. We have used both. The Soft Strap is more comfortable but less durable than the Standard model. Both are accurate.

Wahoo Fitness: Wahoo makes ANT+ compatible heart rate straps that are also Bluetooth 4.0 compatible, know as the TICKR.

Lezyne: Lezyne makes a Heart Rate Flow sensor that is Bluetooth Smart compatible.

Speed and Cadence Sensors


The new magnet less Garmin Speed and Cadence sensor combo  with three crank bands to accommodate  different crank arms.
The new magnet less Garmin Speed and Cadence sensor combo, with three crank bands to accommodate different crank arms.
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 about power output. During testing we used Garmin ANT+ speed and cadence sensors.

Magnet-less:
The new Garmin magnet less speed sensor attaches to the hub with a tough rubber case strap combo.
The new Garmin magnet less speed sensor attaches to the hub with a tough rubber case strap combo.
The new Garmin Cadence Sensor.
The new Garmin Cadence Sensor.

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 coin cell battery for power. We prefer this option to the older "Speed/Cadence" sensors that use magnets. Wahoo Fitness also makes magnetless sensors. Their RPM Speed, and RPM Cadence are sold separately and both pair with ANT+ and Bluetooth Smart sensors, retailing for $39.99.

Magnet type:
The older Garmin Speed/Cadence sensor combo uses spoke and crank arm magnets.
The older Garmin Speed/Cadence sensor combo uses spoke and crank arm 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 chainstay shapes and is attached to the chainstay using zip ties. Attachment is more difficult than the magnet-less sensor described above.

Lezyne also makes a magnetic speed and cadence sensor which they call the Cadence Speed Flow that is Bluetooth Smart compatible. As does Wahoo Fitness who makes a magnet type combined speed and cadence sensor that is both ANT+ and Bluetooth Smart compatible. It is called the Blue SC and retails for $59.99. 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 correctly installed, and also communicates with the ANT+ protocol.

Power Meters


Power meters are the gold standard regarding measuring effort and tracking both acute and long-term training load.
The Garmin Speed/ Cadence sensor  with the spoke magnet.
The Garmin Speed/ Cadence sensor, with the spoke magnet.
Essentially, a power meter measures the exact power output a rider is putting out in the form of watts. Power output is a better gauge of effort than heart rate or speed because it is not influenced by external factors such as wind or rider fatigue. A rider may have very different heart rate measurements at the same power output from day-to-day due to fatigue. Explaining the nuances of power measurement and training with power are beyond the scope of this review; there are full-length books on the subject. What we can say is that training with a power meter can transform the way you train, and eliminate inefficient use of time.

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 Riken power meter used during testing.
Quarq Riken power meter used during testing.

Quarq: Makes a range of power meter cranks for Shimano and Sram drivetrains in both GXP and BB30 bottom bracket standards.

SRM: Makes a range of power meter cranks for Shimano and Sram drivetrains.

Power Tap: Well known for producing power meter hubs, they now make a crankset, as well as power meter pedals.


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