Bike computer vs smartphone app: Do you need a dedicated cycle computer?

Bike computer vs app
(Image credit: Strava)

The best bike computer can change the way you ride and, ultimately, make you a better cyclist. That said, the best smartphones now cram in so much tech you might find that you don't need to shell out for a dedicated cycle computer to have the best ride. It all comes down to what you need. This guide will help you decide if a cycle computer will benefit you or if your smartphone can get the job done just fine.

While you likely already own a smartphone, whereas you'll have to pay out to get a dedicated cycle computer. Of course, if you want mapping on your handlebars then you may have to pay for a smartphone case and mount too. So either way it's going to cost you, it just depends how much you want to spend. 

There are lots of factors to think about. Do you need turn-by-turn navigation? Do you want to connect ANT+ sensors? Are you riding more than a few hours regularly and will battery life be an issue? How accurate do you need your data to be?

More confused than ever? Don't worry, we've laid out everything you need to know below.

Does your ride need navigation?

This is the first big question as it determines, largely, which way to go from the start. Forgive the pun. If you do need navigation then your phone's Google Maps may do the job for you just fine, with the back-up of a nice case and mount to make sure the phone is alright in the rain. Or, you could have headphones and just listen to turn-by-turn navigation with the phone tucked away – although this isn't ideal. 

The downside to using a phone for navigation is that it will drain the battery fast, meaning any ride over a few hours will require you to carry a battery pack too. Or risk running out of battery, lost, and without a phone to contact anyone. This is why a bike computer can be helpful, as your phone stays charged so if you do get into any trouble you can call for help or use it as a back-up navigation device. 

Most phone screens are now larger than a lot of dedicated bike computers, they're also color and touchscreen. While that's great for visibility, they're usually not as bright without turning brightness to full which, once again, drains battery silly fast. Also, the touchscreen has small controls and won't work with gloves.

A dedicated bike computer will offer touchscreen, at the higher end, with ride specific sized icons that are easy to press while riding. Many cycle computers use button controls which are designed to be easily used – they're big, grippy and satisfyingly clicky in many cases. That makes gloves and a wet screen less of an issue.

If you don't need navigation then tracking metrics of your ride can be done on many smartphone apps. These can be set to record, popped away in a pocket or bag, and you don't need to look at it again until your finished. 

Do you need to connect sensors?

This could be the make or break for you. While there are now power, speed, cadence and heart rate sensors that work with Bluetooth and smartphones, if you've already invested in ANT+, a phone won't support that. Yes, you can buy a third-party dongle to plug into your phone and get the data. But you're limited, as platforms like Strava have already removed third-party support meaning you won't have any of that data to use there. That said, Wahoo Fitness works with a Wahoo Key plugin for your phone.

If you're not too bothered about ANT+ and can go for Bluetooth then that could work for your sensors. You will need to find the right app that can both display that data while riding and allow you to export it to analyze it after. Or, if the app does that then you could do the whole ride and analysis in one place. Wahoo Fitness does this well and even lets you upload to other sites like Strava, MapMyFitness, TrainingPeaks and MyFitnessPal as a good work around.

So, while a phone can be used with sensors, it's not as easy as with a dedicated bike computer as that will auto connect instantly, display the data on multiple screens that can be easily navigated and won't destroy your battery life while doing it. But, we come back to that idea that if you're only out for a few hours and don't mind a bit more setup time then a phone could do the job.

Is a bike computer more accurate than a phone?

Bike computer vs app

(Image credit: Strava)

Accuracy is a big difference between the bike computer and the smartphone. While both have GPS for positioning, a lot of the apps that work on a phone will analyze the data after it's uploaded to work out positioning and timing. The bike computer will simply work using the GPS, GLONASS and anything else it has. This is where another sensor comes into play: the barometric altimeter.

By having an altimeter, which most bike computers do and phones don't, you're able to accurately track your climbs. For anyone who trains with hills regularly this will be very important for accuracy. While phones do calculate climbs, using other people's ride data in the case of Strava, it's always going to be guesswork.

Is battery life a problem?

Battery life is only a problem if you're riding for more than a few hours. This, a phone can handle – although it may be near dead afterwards if you're using sensors and navigation too. If you want to ride for longer, don't want the stress of worrying about battery life, don't want to carry a spare battery charger and aren't a fan of charging your device after every ride, then a phone won't do.

Most bike computers give a good 15 hours of use even with navigation and sensors turned on. Some go as far as 48 hours on a charge and a few of the newer Garmin Edge computers have optional battery pack mounts that can get up to 80 hours in power saving mode. So if you're a tourer and want something that lasts - a bike computer is your best option. That or you strap a small battery charger to your handlebars and link your phone to that, if you don't mind the extra weight and faff.

Do you need training plans?

If you ride to race and want to improve your performance then you likely use training plans. While these are plentiful on bike computers, especially Garmin with its IQ Connect apps, there are now a lot for phones too. 

Many people use Training Peaks with professionally crafted training plans available to work with for a monthly $10 subscription fee. This works on smartphones but can also work on some cycle computers like Garmin Edge devices, many of which come with it pre-installed. 

While app based training is good, you will need to see the screen to get the most out of your data. If you have a Wahoo Elemnt bike computer you can setup the LED lights to show you when you're in and out of training zones, using colors, which is a great way to stay focused without having to search a screen to see what you need. Red light is bad, green is good – just the kind of simplicity you need when ploughing through pain.

Do you need a bike computer over a smartphone?

The bottom line is that a dedicated bike computer will give you better battery life, ANT+ connectivity, a more tough and aerodynamic build, superb accuracy especially for climbs, dedicated screens with easy controls and, in some cases, quick glance LED alerts for navigation and training zones. The downside is cost.

A smartphone will save you money, offer a large display, make uploading data instant, works with Bluetooth sensors and gives you a wealth of apps to pick from. The downside is limited connectivity for sensors, no ANT+, poor battery performance, lack of accuracy on climbs, the need to buy a case and mount for navigation and the faff of setup for each ride.

So if you can afford to run a dedicated bike computer then it will likely earn its price. Otherwise there are plenty of app based ways to get a pretty comprehensive ride done with your phone alone. 

Luke Edwards

Luke is a veteran tech journalist with decades of experience covering everything from TVs, power tools, science and health tech to VPNs, space, gaming and cars. You may recognize him from appearances on plenty of news channels or have read his words which have been published in most tech titles over the years. In his spare time (of which he has little as a father of two) Luke likes yoga, surfing, meditation, DIY and consuming all the books, comics and movies he can find.