Garmin have fired the latest salvo in the compact GPS cycle computer wars with a major update of the highly capable Garmin 520 with the new Garmin Edge 520 Plus that adds in a host of features and full navigation/mapping capability for a mere $50 impost (RRP $449). And at the same time they have released an update of the Varia Radar/Rear Light combo unit, the RTL510 for $299 (RRP) to use with a range of existing Garmin head units, or as a bundle with a separate head unit for $449.
Read on to find out the key updates of each unit and see whether they are worthwhile for you. We will start with the Edge 520 Plus GPS cycle computer and the follow with the Varia bike radar which can be paired and used with the Edge 520 Plus.
Garmin Edge 520 Plus – Full Colour Mapping & Navigation in Compact format
Looking at the unit, the only real change that you would notice readily is the casing colour is now all black, and it looks better for it too. Aside from that, the real changes are all on the inside, as even the bundle contents are unchanged.
But first you need to that the Edge 520 Plus is not a small scale Edge 1030, nor is it a direct replacement for the ageing Edge 820 from what I was able to experience and use. But it is a big upgrade from the standard 520 unit. The key changes are:
· Routing/mapping capability (with multiple settings for map detail level) although with limited navigation functionality as it can’t route to a specific address like the Edge 1030. (While you can set a location when you are at a point and navigate back to that point, you can’t type in and navigate to a specific address).
· Navigation capability to guide you including re-routing if you go off course
· Trendline polarity routing (as seen on the Edge 1030)
There are other changes which I would classify as minor like the rider-to-rider messaging (not the most useful feature), updated Strava Segments capabilities, extra default apps preloaded (such as Strava Routes to import directly from Strava) and the ability to take screen shots (like the Edge 1030 – nifty, but not ground breaking). It still retains the ‘physical button only’ operation so no touchscreen which is good and bad and I’ll touch on this later. Some of the features that it doesn’t include and would require an upgrade to the Edge 1030 are Wi-Fi connectivity, Point of Interest database and ability to connect to a secondary battery pack.
But overall, the additional functionality you get for the extra $50 over the vanilla Edge 520 makes the Edge 520 Plus a much better GPS computer for cycling.
Getting started with the 520 Plus
Riders familiar with the Edge 520, will notice few obvious differences with the Plus version. The Garmin Connect app is familiar and the screen settings; modes and display configuration are performed through buttons on the unit and stepping through (some may say tripping over) the various menus. The function and placement of the buttons on the 520 and 520 Plus are identical. There are some minor changes included to set up the various screen options such as provision for two options for most screen data arrangements. This allows slightly more flexibility to decide how the screen data is displayed.
I encountered no issues in setting up the 520 Plus but as a previous owner of a Garmin 305, 500 and 520 unit, I am fairly familiar with the Garmin family of GPS cycle computers. All external devices were detected without issue – Heart Rate, Power meter (FSA Powerbox) and the Varia Radar. All of my accounts (Strava and TrainingPeaks) connected without a hitch.
However I initially encountered an issue linking the Strava Routes app that was pre-loaded from the Connect IQ store, it kept bombing out at the final stage. I saw in the online cycling forums that other users were having issues as well and this was subsequently resolved about 4 weeks later by Garmin, and worked fine after that.
Time to explore!
While I already had some routes in my Strava account, because of the initial hiccup with the Strava IQ app, I had to resort to creating routes separately. I used RidewithGPS and exported the route as a .gpx file. Then I dumped it directly into the ‘New Files’ folder once the Edge 520 Plus was connected to the laptop. I also created a route using Garmin Connect (app) and then uploaded via Garmin Express. Both procedures worked but in this day and age, the missing Wi-Fi connectivity for file transfers is a bit behind the times. Importing routes from my Strava account worked fine once Garmin resolved the issues. To do this you need to open the Connect App on the smart phone and this syncs to the Garmin 520 Plus and uses mobile data.
During the testing of the mapping capabilities, route directions and re-routing when going off course was a mirror of the Edge 1030 functionality, but just in a smaller package. Even though I need glasses for reading, I had no issue with the on-screen visuals and directions, even at night. The colours and contrast used provided excellent visibility, even on overcast days. However the screen contrast/backlighting is not brilliant at dawn/dusk this is always a tough time for cycle computers so for the best chance, enable the backlight.
I took several wrong turns during my test rides following several routes, and each time, the Edge 520 Plus picked it quickly. With only a small delay, it prompted me back on track with clear directions. Roundabouts are displayed, as on the Edge 1030 as a ‘Y junction’ graphic rather than a ‘roundabout’, but it’s a non-issue when you have seen it a few times.
I put the Edge 520 Plus to the test by venturing off-road and onto the trails. One ride was a popular Mt Lofty route in Adelaide taking single track & fire trails through the Adelaide Hills. Orientation worked surprisingly well; it identified the track names and clearly displayed the track I was on as well as distance to next course point, end of course, and showing upcoming turns. Just like cycling on roads, it picked up wrong-turns on the trails and the Garmin 520 Plus easily re-routed me back onto the right path.
Not all brilliant though…
Whilst the Edge 520 Plus is a more than competent unit, there are some issues that are frustrating for their presence, even though some riders may find these fairly minor.
Whilst the Garmin Connect App on the smart phone works well, the capability to control of the Edge unit is long overdue. This deficit becomes even more obvious when other competitors have the capability to setup/modify their bike computer unit via an App whilst the Garmin units (except the Edge 1030) still rely on the complicated nested menu system with button control.
An example to demonstrate the room for improvement is when I wanted to change one data screen from 6 to 7 fields and modify two fields. 63, yes, it took sixty-three button presses (there would have been more had I also counted the errors that I made) and one sore finger before this was finally completed. Stopping the route navigation prompts takes 13 button presses, and you do this via a completely different sub menu than if you want to start a route.
The screen contrast without the backlight is fine in normal daylight conditions, but at dawn/dusk, it requires either the backlight set ‘on’. If the backlight isn’t only, press the buttons a few times (up / down arrows) and the screen will light up.
If you are using navigation or the Varia Radar, notifications can be set to trigger the backlight along with a duration such as 15 seconds, which helps you reduce the battery drain.
Battery life without navigation or while connected to Varia radar in normal conditions easily gave me 12 hours runtime. But while using the Varia Radar around suburbia, a 90-minute ride (with backlight set to 15sec) saw the battery charge reduce from 100% to 83%.
A screen-capture capability (also available on the Garmin Edge 1030) is built into the Edge 520 Plus and can come in handy. But there are no new buttons on the 520 Plus, so the ‘Lap’ button is used to trigger this function. The drawback is that for every screen capture, a new lap is created. What is given with one hand is taken with the other!
Great package, but with some minor quirks
Adding in navigation capability to the already neat and very functional package makes the Edge 520 Plus one of the more practical and versatile units on the market, particularly as a small format GPS bike computer. I personally find the Edge 1030 too big and I wasn’t a fan of the touch screen because it was not at the same level as a modern smart phone. So whilst I complained about the button fandango to get things changed on the Edge 520 Plus, I like the buttons and being able to scroll up & down the page menu easily. In normal conditions, the battery life is pretty good and connectivity with ANT+ accessories is stable and accurate.
At $50 extra, the walk-up value of the Edge 520 Plus over the regular 520, for the mapping alone, represents a much better deal in my eyes and makes the Garmin Edge 520 Plus more enticing. If you can get past the baffling nested menus, missing Wi-Fi and awkward Connect App, you’ll be a very happy customer.
Varia RTL510 – Eyes in the back of your helmet!
The Varia RTL510 Radar can be purchased as a standalone unit for $299 that you would pair with a compatible Garmin ‘head unit’ (full list here). Alternatively you can purchase a bundle that includes the radar unit and a matching display unit for the Varia for $449 RRP. This means a Garmin cycle computer is not necessary if you choose the bundle… but at $150, the display unit has a fairly hefty surcharge.
The new Varia RTL510 Radar replaces the larger sized Garmin Varia that was first released in 2015. The compact radar unit packs a bright 65 Lumen light with three modes, one steady and two flashing. These provide good visibility day and night and together with the radar are housed efficiently in a sleekly designed unit. The micro USB port is well protected by a half-moon flap that is easily accessible for charging.
The display unit was not tested in this review although operates as we have covered in past review where it provides an indication of the distance and relative speed of vehicles. Even then, it was suggested that pairing the Garmin Varia radar with an exciting cycle computer would simply be more efficient.
As you get a fully-fledged bike light combined with the radar unit, it becomes useful and convenient for everyday cycling so is not merely a novelty.
What do you get for your $299?
On top of the RTL510 radar/light unit, you also receive a charge cable (as expected), a quarter turn seat mount and a couple of ‘O-rings’ to fasten the mount to the seatpost. Two further attachments that come in the box are almost as neat as the radar itself – they are rubber grommets that slot into the Varia Radar unit to either position the unit securely onto a round or aero seatpost with surprising effectiveness. It is the best ‘versatile’ seat mount design I’ve seen yet.
Surprisingly effective and reliable!
I am one of the many cyclists out there that have always considered additional warning devices for traffic approaching from behind to be somewhat superfluous. I mean, I’m pretty careful, I try and choose suitable roads at suitable times and don’t wear earphones when riding. So what would I need a rear facing radar for? But even so, I was also extremely curious where it was useful, let alone accurate.
It turns out that I misjudged not only the usefulness, but also the capability and accuracy of the unit.
What exactly does it do?
Firstly, the Garmin Varia senses traffic approaching you from the rear at a distance of ca. 100m. At this point, the rear flash mode begins increasing the rate of flashing until the ‘vehicle’ has passed (or is no long approaching). In other words, as drivers approach you from behind, the light flashes faster and faster so you are more noticeable.
Secondly, the Varia can connect to a compatible Garmin head unit and display changes in traffic that is approaching from behind. On the Garmin Edge 520 Plus the visual display showed:
- Green bars and no ‘dots’ on the right hand side of display indicate traffic has passed (all clear). After a few seconds, these sidebars then disappear.
- Orange bars indicate that traffic is approaching and in addition there is an audible beep and the number of vehicles are represented as dots along with their relative position. You also judge how quickly they are approaching from the speed the dots move. The screen below shows a single vehicle approaching.
- Sometimes the sidebars will be Red to indicate that the approaching speed is high. In my experience, this occurred occasionally on 60km/h roads but it was not perfectly clear what defines a ‘high speed approach’. The screen below shows you (red dot) and a single vehicle about 10m behind with a further two vehicles about 30m back).
The ‘Wi-Fi like’ symbol in the top right hand corner of the display indicates when the unit is paired and operating. If for some reason the unit unpairs or goes flat, you’ll get a text warning and the Wi-Fi symbol with turn red.
The aspect that surprised me with the radar is what it identified as a vehicle – on various rides it picked up cars, motorbikes, scooters, and even a lone cyclist! It does need a direct line of sight so it will ‘lose’ vehicles if it cannot ‘see it’ round a corner (if you are riding up switchbacks, vehicles will float in and out of sight).
In order to ‘see’ a vehicle approaching, there also needs to be speed differential that seemed to be about 10 km/hr. If the vehicle is travelling at the same speed as you are, for example a car slows down and matches your speed to wait for a safe passing opportunity (oh when does that happen…), the dot can disappear, but will reappear once the speed differential is again triggered.
It had an impressive angle of capability to detect vehicles approaching. Riding up alongside the South Eastern Freeway in Adelaide, there is a veloway that is a good 10m away from the nearest vehicle lane but the Varia was still able to trigger an alert on the head unit for vehicles in the farthest lane of the 3-lane freeway. This confirms the previous BNA tests and reviews of the Varia and the original ‘Backtracker’… it works better than expected.
But does it make a difference?
I’d seen various online discussions about the merits of these bike radar units but was never really bothered to look further, except to notice that some owners did sing the praises of this investment. Following my own experience, I’m not a true convert because the connection between knowing a vehicle is approaching and performing some type of defensive reaction as a bike rider is undetermined… I liked knowing that a car was approaching but does it mean I should do anything differently when I am already cycling safely and assume that the driver is not going to hit me.
But there are some scenarios where I appreciated the Garmin Varia bike radar, for example when I wanted to cross over several lanes, rather than constantly looking, the Varia gave me a clearer idea when the road was clear and I could do a safety check (and look) before moving over. Another scenario is on a quite road while I am concentrating and admiring natures beauty, the Varia could alert me to a vehicle so I can at least be more aware. It’s surprising that some modern vehicles can be very quiet and are easily noticed when there is wind noise or other distractions.
In suburbia, the Garmin Varia can be a riding distraction, it beeps more often than smoke alarm in a match testing factory with a side effect of draining the battery on the head unit pretty quickly. But the battery life on the radar unit is actually quite impressive and the first charge exceeded 12 hours. Considering it is radar on your bike, it is also a good runtime.
Regarding the light, for me, the variable blinking patterns are best and the way that Varia flash pattern changes with the approaching and passing of vehicles just takes it up to another level. I can’t claim to have noticed any specific change in driver behaviour with the variable flashing pattern but still found this to be the best feature of the Varia unit.
Would I buy one?
I ultimately found it to be effect and useful, plus it utilised one of the best mounting systems I’ve encountered. Though for the majority of the riding that I do, I’ll will be honest and say no, this would not be on my shopping list. There are two main reasons for this.
As well as it integrates with a wide variety of Garmin head units, if you don’t use a Garmin product to track your cycling activities, it’s reduces back down to being a smart light… an expensive one at that. It doesn’t interface with any other competitors units, so it’s a one-brand product.
The other reason is that because it is so good at detecting traffic and giving me quantity, distance and velocity, it ends up being distracting. This is extra information that I need to process and despite the advantages, a persistent state of alarm is a contrast to my ultimate goals in cycling.
But even three years since Garmin first launched the Varia (following the acquisition of the Backtracker radar which launched in 2014), this is still high-tech could still be a bike safety accessory that some cyclists have been waiting for. In practice you may not rely on it all of the time but there are situations where it can lend you peace of mind.
Info: Garmin Edge 520 Plus GPS Bike Computer
Info: Garmin Varia RTL510 Bike Radar