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Bike GPS Review
How to Choose a Bike GPS
A bike GPS uses satellite navigation technology to track your speed and distance during rides. You then upload that data to a program that displays your route, speed, elevation and other details. Many bike GPS units also include sensors that monitor your pedal cadence, heart rate and pedal power. As you track this info, you can mark your progress as you seek to improve your fitness. We’ll help you choose the best bike GPS to help you achieve your goals.
Bike GPS or Smartphone?
First, do you even need a bike GPS? Can’t you just use your smartphone? The short answer is yes, you can. However, there are multiple downsides to using your smartphone as your cycling GPS.
The weight of the device is important to consider, especially if you’re a serious cyclist wanting to reduce weight and improve your aerodynamics. Sure, you can buy a dedicated smartphone mount for your handlebars and put a rugged case on your phone, but that combination will weigh several times what a bike GPS does. This could add seconds onto your race times, and whether you’re competitive or not, it’s ultimately more weight to move around.
Another important aspect to consider is battery life. Your smartphone likely does not have the same excellent battery life capacity of a bike computer, meaning your phone could run out of battery on an all-day ride and be unavailable in case of an emergency. Running the GPS on your smartphone tanks the battery quickly, even on the latest and greatest smartphones. Cycling mobile apps drain your battery life even quicker since they require the display to be on while you ride, and likely on a high brightness level for optimal visibility. These apps also burn through mobile data fast.
Weather also creates problems for smartphones. Having the phone out in direct sunlight for a few hours causes it to get hot, especially if you’re using data and GPS. This can potentially damage your phone’s interior parts. Cycling computers have smaller screens than the latest smartphones, and they’re designed for rigorous outside use, making it less of an issue.
The newest high-end smartphones actually compare well in water resistance. All of the GPS devices in our comparison are water resistant to IPX7 ratings, meaning that the unit can be immersed in 1 meter of water for 30 minutes before possibly taking on damage. Most modern smartphones are just as water resistant. Smartphones are also tested against dust penetration, whereas these GPS units are not.
While smartphone apps are capable of tracking many of the same statistics as a cycling computer – such as distance, altitude, weather, speed and others – some are not as thorough and may lack comparable GPS performance. In addition, mobile apps typically require in-app purchases in order to access certain features and functions, despite being advertised as free. Both options offer social options and sensor device compatibility, however.
As a bonus, some cycle computers can pair with your smartphone via Bluetooth. This function allows you to play music, read text messages and interact with other phone alerts. Bluetooth compatibility allows you to stay connected while riding without depleting your mobile phone’s battery.
Bike GPS: What We Tested, What We Found
In our tests, we approached the devices in two ways: as novice cyclists and as competitive professionals. We spent roughly 30 hours performing a variety of tests with the computers, from seeing how intuitive the software was to riding around with them across a variety of terrain to see the accuracy of their GPS and other capacities. We also looked into how easy they are to set up and install.
All of the units in our comparison have features like IPX7 water resistance, included mounts, time displays and compatibility with external heart rate, pedal power and pedal cadence sensors. The real distinctions in the products appear when considering aspects like navigation options, history storage capacity, online informational resources, interface ease of use, and design.
We found that the best bike GPS devices had the following features: a sleek, simple build; an efficient and easy-to-use interface; and an unhindered ability to track, record and display all of your most important cycling stats, from the altitude you most recently trained at to a graph of your heart rate during the big race.
The best units utilize an aerodynamic design and don’t weigh a ton. They either have a touchscreen or have all their buttons located in easy-to-reach places. Our top picks also have software that any user could jump in and start using, without the steep learning curve. Good bike GPS units are easy to use even when you’re exhausted from a long ride.
Other Features to Consider
Functionality: You Pay More for More Features
After evaluating most of the bike GPS units on the market, we learned several important things about the state of the industry. We found that the overwhelming majority of bike GPS devices can calculate your speed, distance traveled and altitude in real time.
Whether you’re looking at top-of-the-line units or less expensive models, they are all compatible with ANT+ sensors that can track your heart rate, pedal power and pedal cadence. ANT+ is an ultra-low-power wireless transmission protocol, similar to Bluetooth. You can buy ANT+ sensors that communicate wirelessly with your bike GPS and display their data on the screen. The most common ANT+ sensor is a heart-rate strap that you wear across your chest. Many cyclists like to train by keeping their heart rates in a certain range, and the sensor enables you to do that with precision.
Design: Battery Life Is Important
Long-lasting batteries give you optimal usage time for intense rides. This enables you to go on all-day bike rides without having to worry about recharging your device. Since cycle GPS units don’t have removable batteries, you can’t simply swap in a fresh battery, so you should look for a unit with at least 12 hours of battery life. The longest-lasting bike GPS we reviewed has a battery life of 24 hours.
Bike GPS units vary wildly in design. Some of the best (and priciest, at upward of $400) models have color screens and touch interfaces, but the majority have monochrome screens and buttons. Additionally, consider the average intensity of your cycling adventures in choosing a device. If you’re a mountain biker, choose a unit with a higher design score, as our tests determined them to have higher-quality construction than those with a lower score.
Some of the higher-end units we tested have touchscreen functionality. These are best suited for amateur users, or at least those who prefer an interface like their smartphone. Touchscreen devices typically only have one or two buttons, allowing you to do most of the menu navigation on-screen. But most of the devices in our lineup have a handful of dedicated physical buttons for a more tactile user experience.
Additional Features: More Navigation Niceties
Beyond the basics, the highest-quality cycling computers add a host of other features you won’t find on budget units. Live GPS tracking is the most important of these. Only the absolute best cycle computers have live GPS tracking, which allows your friends and loved ones to actually track your location as you ride. You’ll appear as a small dot on a map, just like in the movies. This feature works through Bluetooth integration with your smartphone. The GPS gets its location from the satellites and sends that location information to a server, which updates your location on the map.
Turn-by-turn navigation is another premium feature, although we found that it has few real-world applications. Few people train in areas they are unfamiliar with, and since the point of a bike GPS is to train, it may not be worth the extra $100 or so to have turn-by-turn navigation.
Bike GPS: Our Verdict & Recommendations
The best bike GPS units cost at least $300. If this price point is too high for your budget, we supply an economy choice further down in our ranking. The Garmin Edge 1000 is the Top Ten Reviews Gold Award winner because it has everything you need and a user-friendly interface. It has full ANT+ compatibility and live GPS tracking. It also has a lightweight design and a large touchscreen.
The Garmin Edge 820 is the Top Ten Reviews Silver Award winner. It has outstanding functionality, plus sensor compatibility and an easy-to-use interface. However, it’s expensive and has a mediocre battery life of 15 hours.
The Garmin Edge 520 is our Top Ten Reviews Bronze Award winner. It’s loaded with features such as sensor compatibility, turn-by-turn navigation and live GPS tracking. It has everything you’ll need in a cycle computer, plus a lot more. Its biggest downside is that it has a smaller internal storage capacity than other devices.
If you just need a basic bike GPS, the best value currently on the market is the CatEye Stealth Evo+. It has all the basic functionality, plus compatibility with ANT+ sensors to track your heart rate, pedal speed and pedal power. Its biggest weakness, however, is a poor battery life of just 10 hours. If you plan to go on bike rides longer than eight hours, you may need to consider investing in one that can keep up with your marathon rides.