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 ensures 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 platforms like Strava or Komoot, to analyze, compare, and share your rides with friends, the arch-nemesis you awkwardly keep tabs on, and other users in your network. The reasons to use a cycling computer are as varied as the types of people who enjoy riding bikes.
Types of Bike Computers
Basic: No GPS, No Data Transfer
On the most basic end of the product range, non-GPS cycling computers record just the basic data: distance, speed, and time. Lower-priced bike computers stick to just those three data points getting their information from a speed sensor typically 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 head units 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 tend to have their sensors attached by wires and they're usually quite a bit more affordable, while wireless models tend to come with a higher premium. It's rare that these entry-level bike computers allow you to transfer data to a computer, smartphone, or some other third party service. Some don't even allow individual ride details to be stored - a function so taken for granted by many of us longtime riders that we forgot basic computers were so…basic.
In general, basic head units 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 simple computers you will be using disposable coin cell batteries like those used in heart rate monitor. More expensive computers use rechargeable batteries.
Using a smartphone with the Strava app 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?
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. If you want a little more detail on GPS, How Stuff Works provides a really useful explanation of how this stuff works.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 WiFi, 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 WiFi 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 device with GPS maps, such as the Garmin Edge 820 or Edge 530. However, after purchasing a mount, a case, and downloadable maps, you probably would save money by just buying a separate cycling computer, plus you'd be getting a lot of extra training features and spend less time blasting through data and burning phone battery.
Another issue (and the biggest one in our view) is battery life. We've drained the battery on an iPhone 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, but just wait. You'll be hammering out centuries with your new buddies from the local group ride in no time, 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 an issue you are likely to run into as well. Most phones aren't compatible with ANT+ sensors. Most heart rate, cadence, and speed sensors 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 bike computer sits on the handlebars within easy reach and view for the duration of our rides.
GPS, ANT+, and Bluetooth Enabled
The upper echelon of cycling computers are ANT+ and Bluetooth enabled and have a built-in GPS receiver. Examples include the Garmin Edge 830, Garmin Edge 1030, Garmin Edge 530, Wahoo Fitness ELEMNT BOLT, Lezyne Micro C GPS, and Lezyne Mega XL GPS. These computers can receive data from ANT+ and Bluetooth sensors, including power, speed, heart rate, and cadence. Meanwhile, they track your position using GPS and provide you with GPS-derived data like distance, elevation, time, and a map of your ride after it's transferred to a companion app, smartphone, or computer. You can also compare your time against previous rides or on established segments using a service such as Strava. The fun thing about platforms like Strava is that you can see how you stack up against other riders who've rolled over the same segments and track progress (or lost fitness). It also allows you to humble-brag to your friends if you're riding in a destination spot and incidentally posting the GPS data and pictures of the scenery to prove it.
Many GPS-enabled bike 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 bike computers in the Edge line, the Wahoo Fitness ELEMNT BOLT, and the Lezyne Mega XL have detailed maps and advanced navigation features. The Micro C GPS also has navigation functions but uses 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 Bike Computer
GPS vs. No GPS
If you have any interest in tracking your rides, using Strava, or navigating with your bike computer then you need a GPS enabled model such as the Garmin Edge 1030, Edge 830, Edge 530, Wahoo Fitness ELEMNT BOLT, Lezyne Micro C GPS, or the Lezyne Mega XL. Cycling computers with GPS sensors, or radios, 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.
GPS computers usually run off of GPS by default and may or may not pair with other satellite arrays within the larger Global Navigation Satellite System (GNSS), such as GLONASS (Russia), Galileo (EU), or BeiDou (China). There are advantages and disadvantages to each of the systems. Right now, the United States' GPS system tends to have the widest coverage of satellites across the globe and are generally considered accurate within about a meter. Russia's GLONASS network is approaching the accuracy and range of GPS. The network suffered a huge setback with the collapse of the Soviets, so it is working through a legacy of drops and failures, NASA regards it as strong and notes that it's improving and would serve as a fine complement to GPS and other GNSSes.
Both Europe and China continue to build out their networks, but don't plan to complete their full constellations until 2020 or later, meaning that their coverage and accuracy won't be near that of either GPS or GLONASS until that time or later. An interesting note here, however, is that the BeiDou network uses a number of stationary satellites which give increased regional accuracy over the Asia-Pacific, so if you take a trip to APAC and have a device that can select GPS and BeiDou, you might find that your drops decrease and accuracy increases.
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, bike 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 bike computer as well. All of the Lezyne, Wahoo Fitness, Garmin Edge, Bryton, and Hammerhead models work with both types of sensors.
A lot of folks just use their phones for navigation and ride tracking. That's made easier with some phone apps. Strava is among the most popular for tracking, but they upset a lot of riders back in 2019 when they said they were removing support for sensors, citing frequent crashes and background headaches. Finally, they announced recently that they're picking up more sensors. Strava currently supports BLE for heart rate monitors. But even as Strava adds more back to its platform, it makes more sense to have a dedicated head unit that will collect and analyze all the finer pieces of data and doesn't have competing programs running on it, vying for battery, signal, and processing power.
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, Wahoo Fitness, and Hammerhead Karoo 2 should be on your shortlist. The Lezyne Mega XL also comes preloaded with maps and can download maps for specific areas for offline viewing and navigation. These models also have the largest, and easiest-to-read screens that are better for viewing maps.
All of the GPS-enabled bike 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 bike computers in the Edge line have vibrant color screens for viewing their preloaded maps and they have some of the most robust navigation features.
The Garmin bike computers in the Edge series, 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. The Garmin Edge, Wahoo Fitness, and Hammerhead Karoo 2 are also WiFi-enabled for data transfers. The Garmin Edge models also have an Incident Detection feature that notifies contacts in the event of a crash with your location.
The Garmin Edge 1030, Edge 830, and Hammerhead Karoo 2 feature a unique touchscreen interface, as compared to the tactile button interface of the other bike 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.
We tested the ANT+ and Bluetooth-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.
All of the bike 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 bike computers, and they are now standard equipment with the Edge 1030, Edge 830, Edge 530, as well as the Wahoo Fitness models.
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
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.
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 Garmin Speed/Cadence sensor mounts to the non-drive side chainstay 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 Sensor 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 about half a C-note. 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 bike computer. It does, however, provide accurate data when correctly installed, and also communicates with the ANT+ protocol.
Power meters are the gold standard regarding measuring effort and tracking both acute and long-term training load. 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 article; 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; much of our testing was done using a Quarq Riken unit or Garmin Vector 3S pedals.
Quarq: Makes a range of power meter cranks and spiders 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.
Rotor: Makes power meter cranks and spiders.
Stages: Makes crank mounted power meter units that are often sold on popular Shimano and SRAM crank arms and cranksets.
Garmin: Produces the Vector 3 and Vector 3S power meter pedals.Speedplay: Speedplay pedals has recently been revitalized by Wahoo Fitness with plans to introduce a Speedplay power meter pedal in the near future.