HomeNews & FeaturesWhich bike computer is the right one for you?

Which bike computer is the right one for you?

Although the bike community gets excited by the new bike tech, the latest bike computers may be packed to the brim with a mountain of features and functions you won’t ever need. The brands will tell you that you need these features, and sure, the technology is quite fantastic. However what you actually need may be a much cheaper and far more practical cycle computer than that top of the line whiz bang device offers.

Don’t let this stop you dreaming or rewarding yourself when you deserve a ‘cherry on top’. But you can make a smarter choice with this quick overview into the world of cycling computers. To make it easy, we are going to separate bike computers into three categories; Low Tech, High Tech and Smart Phones. These are not the categories used by the brands, it helps provide some orientation on the features and price ranges.

Low Tech Bike Computers

Low Tech bike computers can be defined as simple computers intended to share basic ride details but with only limited or no possibility to record a ride. In this category there is no GPS functionality and navigation options and may also be called ‘analogue’ despite the LCD display.

sigma cateye cycle computers

Sigma and Cateye both have a wide range of entry-level bike computers

The most basic bike computers ($20 – $40) are comparable to a stop-watch where you can view current speed, average speed, maximum speed, duration and time of day.

Though a rides usually can’t be recorded (like more advanced bike computers) an odometer may tally the total distances over multiple rides. The cheapest bike computers are ‘wired’ and have a cable to connect to the (supplied) speed sensor. They require very little power and usually have a thumb-batteries and a decent battery life to let it run for months or years. Navigation and customisation options may be non-existent or very limited.

In this Low Tech category, you can go a step above the basics with bike computers that have ANT+ and/or BLE (Bluetooth) capabilities which allow a wireless connection to ‘pair’ with external sensors such as heart rate monitors, speed sensors, cadence sensors, power meters and more. Some may also allow a connection to a smart phone and the ability to record, save and transfer ride details. More advanced features can be included or calculated such as environmental temperature, altitude and zones to guide cyclists who are training.

Regardless of price, you should expect that all cycle computers are waterproof and come with a mount, even if it just a cable-tie type mount In this category, the units are fairly compact and have monochrome displays and basic navigation. Depending in features and accessories, a low tech cycle computer will range from $20 – $150. The upper end of the price scale overlaps with the next category of GPS enabled computers. For bike riders who race competitively, an ANT+ / BLE enabled cycle computer is usually a minimum requirement however the next category of cycle computers is better still.

High Tech Bike Computers

At this level the bike computers are GPS enabled with mapping capabilities and the option to save rides, share or transfer ride data. Mapping and navigation may be rudimentary in basic models though wireless ANT+ and BLE connectivity is standard and various external sensors can be paired. Keep in mind that some or all of the sensors may need to be purchased separately.

Brands like Garmin and Wahoo have dedicated smart phone apps that are convenient for setting up and customising the bike computer. When sync’ed to a smart phone, some bike computers can display messages / content from the smart phone and even notifications when you encounter other riders who you have marked as a contact/friend.

lezyne bryton gps bike computer

The Lezyne Mini GPS and Bryton Ride 530 are entry-level GPS Cycle Computers.

The higher the price, the more extensive the features and possible customisation, for example creating and loading training programs, riding tours or displaying advanced metrics and alerts. However between brands there can be differences in usability and how well features (in particular navigation) work. The advanced features, larger screens and GPS functionality mean that these bike computers tend to be bulkier and their heavy power usage requires frequent recharging from mains power before each ride. Features such as large screens, colour screens and touch screens increase the price further and for GPS enabled bike computers the prices can range between $200 to $1000.

While routes (alone) are usually recorded in the .gpx file format, a complete ride with all of the metrics are usually recorded in the FIT filer format which can usually be shared and loaded into training applications (such as today’s plan, TrainingPeaks or the OpenSource GoldenCheetah application). The application offer more advances insights and planning and tracking training and performance.

wahoo roam garmin edge gps bike computers

The current top-of-the-line Wahoo Elemnt Roam and Garmin Edge 1030

This market of higher-price bike computers also includes brands such as Polar, SRM, Stages, Pioneer, Magellan, Hammerhead, Trimm and some of the brands who are dominate the cheaper end such as Bryton, Sigma and Lezyne. Features, reliability and customer support however can very substantially and Wahoo and Garmin have become the most popular among bike riders.

Smart Phones can be Bike Computers

Although you can use your smart phone as a bike computer, there are a few caveats. You may have heard of Strava which is the most popular App for recording rides and with just the inbuilt mobile capabilities it can deliver your speed, distance and basic details while with a paid-version, there are more metrics and capabilities available.

strava bike navigation

The popularity of Strava has been driven by the ability to easily record and share rides and see other peoples rides. Gamification has increased the interest, riders set specific riding segments and compete against their own best-time and against others for awards and ‘likes’. There are also other apps with different strengths such as kamoot for route-finding and bike citizens for navigation in cities. Smart phones also offer basic navigation like maps on the iphone which is pure way-finding and without metrics.

kamoot maps bike navigation

Most apps also offer premium features and subscriptions so you need to weigh up the value of a subscription with monthly costs compared to buying a dedicated bike computer.

As many riders own a smart phone, the notion of getting the benefits without paying extra is appealing, but smart phones however have few other limitations if you are after a bike computer. To view live data while riding, a smart phone needs a case and mount, there are plenty available including the popular (Australian) QuadLock. Unlike bike computers however, most smart phones have limited waterproofing capabilities so you have to consider a waterproof cover if it gets wet.

Quadloack Kickstartre bicycle handlebar iPhone

Smart phone are not built for the bike so this introduces a few further issues. When the phone screen is on permanently this depletes the phone battery fairly quickly whereas cycle computers are purpose built and can offer a longer run-time. Bike computers also tend to be more robust than the fragile smart phones and have a better chance of survival in an accident or if they are dropped. A big challenge for riders seeking features is that it standard sensors often simply can’t be paired. Strava only accommodates BLE (bluetooth) heart rate monitors but no cadence sensors or power meters or any ANT+ devices.

However smart phones usually have superior touch screens and provide the benefits of multiple apps so it if fairly common for cyclists to use a GPS bike computers which is sync’ed to their smart phone which sits in their jersey pocket.

It is time to pick your Bike Computer… but first.

If you are completely new to bike computers, an easy option is to first start with Strava. Sign-up for a few account, press record before each ride and leave it in your pocket. Although you won’t have live information while you ride, it can help you understand if mapping capabilities are of interest and which metrics are the most interesting. As a tip, look into the privacy settings as Strava is a public platform where rides are usually uploaded and can be viewed by others.

If you are now ready to purchase a bike computer, set a budget and list your requirements then visit the brand websites to see which bike computers best match. Entry-level computers can have a very specific list of functions and you want to make sure that the metrics which are important to you are included. However you will also find a lot of cross-over and particularly for lower cost computers – the difference in quality and performance can be negligible.

However take the time to look closely at any accessories you may need, some of the sensors may not be included or there may be bundles available that are more cost-effective. The good news on external sensors is that they can be purchased and connected at a later tim. For the main brands (of bike computer and sensors) compatibility is usually quite good so you can usually mix and match sensors.

As a tip for more expensive bike computers, if you can tether them (safety cord) then it is worth this small inconvenience as computers can accidentally fall off the mount, the tether can save you from damage or a complete loss.

As a closing not, riding data can be fun, but don’t forget to look up and enjoy the ride as well!

If you have questions about bike computers, the Australian Cycling Forums is a good place to ask and lean on the experience and recommendation of other bike riders.

Christopher Jones
Christopher Joneshttps://www.bicycles.net.au
Christopher Jones is a recreational cyclist and runs a design agency, Signale. As the driving force behind Bicycles.net.au he has one of each 'types' of bicycles.
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