Buy a bike computer or use your smartphone?

Buy a bike computer or use your smartphone?
Should you buy a bike computer or just use your smartphone to track your cycling activity?

Some practical reasons you should take into consideration before deciding. Ultimately, we think bike computer is the way to go.

If you have started or been cycling awhile and feel the need to start tracking what you are doing in a little more detail, then this article is for you.

Bike computer vs Smart phone

First thing to think about is do you need maps? This is key. If not, then getting something like the Garmin Edge 25 or even just using your GPS watch (Garmin Fenix 3 has cycling prodiles) with a bicycle mount is a great start. Garmin do a bicycle mount here for $15 US. Have never seen this in a bike shop so your only option is to order online. I have used this, they are solid, work well and on a mountain bike I believe are better than the normal Garmin mount as there is no chance your watch is going anywhere and also has less chance of damage than on your arm, especially if you are a little slow to get your feet out their clips as some of us are from time to time. I have cycled for awhile with a Fenix 3 on my handle bars and it works a treat. Time to upgrade?

Key options when it comes to cycling include the following:

Key options

  1. Use a sports/ GPS watch mounted on handle bars (or arm)
  2. Use a simple bike computer
  3. Using your smartphone
  4. Use a high end bike computer

Most of my kit is Garmin. Just to be clear, this is not a paid review and all the gear mentioned in this post has been purchased in full from retail stores in Sydney. More on this later.

1. Using a GPS watch (Fenix 3 or similar)

GPS Watch PRO's

  • Cheapest option, if you already have the watch ofcourse
  • Low risk of losing it especially on a mountain bike
  • Low risk of damage due to positioning on handlebars
  • Good battery life
  • Screen can be viewed in most light conditions
  • My Fenix 3 watch connects to the ANT+ sensors on my bike and my heart rate monitor
  • Fenix 3 also uploads automatically to Garmin Connect for full analysis (Note Fenix 3 has altitude and temperature capability)
  • Most watches are waterproof and the Fenix 3 can auto pause when stopped

Watch CON's

  • Smaller screen, but many are configurable
  • No Maps, some like the fenix can use DW Maps (More on this below)
  • Watch is on handle bars which depending on your size might mean glancing down = taking your eyes off the road
  • I would advise not using this option if the watch is on your arm. Too dangerous in my view anyway.
  • Given screen size, only a few data fields can be viewed at the same time
  • If you are using DW Maps, no data fields visible without manually changing screens

2. Using a simple bike computer

I reviewed the Garmin Edge 25 but there are a number of bike computers around, many much cheaper than the Edge 25. Most bike shops have them and they will give you the basics. The Edge 25 has a number of other useful features however mentioned below.

Simple bike computer PRO's

  • Price (versus new watch or high end bike computer)
  • Screen and data fields made for cyclists
  • Most do come with their own mount. Garmins extends out forward so keeps your eyes on the road
  • Similar to the watch pro's above, especially the Garmin gear

Simple Bike Computer CON's

  • Similar to watch cons
  • Check if the model you are looking at is waterproof
  • Another unit to charge
  • Poor handlebar mounts = lost computers

3. Using your Phone

This might seem like a good idea and is initially what I had in mind but read the below carefully first.

Using your phone PRO's

  • Cost, you just need to buy the mount. See Quadlock link below.
  • There are a number of Apps like Strava etc to do this with. Most are free

Using your phone CON's

  • Most phones are not waterproof. Mounts like the Quadlock come with covers
  • Covers wear, and can be a mission to take on and off for each ride and the risk of leakage remains
  • Screen viewability in certain light conditions
  • Battery power with the phone always on
  • Data usage
  • Phone locking or going to sleep
  • In the case of of an iPhone you have a $1,000+ item on your handlebars

4. Use a high end bike computer

High end bike computer PRO's

  • The Garmin Edge 1000 for example can integrate to head lights, HUD, rear radar, ANT+ sensors and heart rate monitors
  • Garmin Edge 1000 also had built in light sensors, temperature and more to manage some of the above
  • Maps and navigation
  • Large and usually color screen
  • Waterproof, light and made for cycling
  • Battery power
  • Screen is made for cycling and will adjust for light conditions

High end Bike computer CON's

  • Cost
  • Risk of loss
  • Your have to work out how to work it. For som,e this might be a PRO
  • Another unit to charge

Which is best

As always only you can decide. I mountain bike mainly at Manly dam which is reasonably technical and I also do some road cycling. I have used the Garmin Fenix 3 with DW Maps installed and this works great. Also pretty solid on the handle bars. The ultimate is the Garmin Edge 1000 combined with rear radar and Vario headlights, also taking into account bike ANT+ sensors as well as heart rate monitor. Almost like a "smart" bike. Now Garmin can provide a HUD (Heads up display) for your sunnies which will sync with the Edge 1000.

In my view:

Hardcore mountain biking - Fenix 3 or similar handle bar mounted. Generally off road so DW Maps will work.

Mountain biking on fire trails - Edge bike computer on Garmin mount

Road Cycling - Edge 1000, mainly because I am not familiar with many of the cycling routes and was spending ages taking out my phone and getting lost. The rear radar and integrated headlight work a treat.

DW Maps

This is great if you can add it as an APP to your device. Allows you to plot a map and then upload it to your device. While you dont see the roads, it is pretty obvious where the turns are to follow the navigation. Great little APP and highly recommended if you have a lower end Garmin bike computer of Fenix 3 watch. You can find DW Maps here.

Where to buy

Again, this is not a paid ad, but my personal experience. I looked at the regular bike shops who sell branded bikes. They tend to stick with RRP. If you go online, Wiggle has discounts of around 20%. If you want to pick one up I got the best deal with 99 Bikes, the same for my Fenix 3. Join their club and their prices are often pretty much in line or better than Wiggle, in my experience anyway.