Cycle Computer / GPS Selection

In getting back into cycling — particularly mountain biking — I decided to look into new cycle computers.  My Bianchi has a sweet retro wired in computer complete with gear display — unfortunately it only works with Campagnolo components so it won’t work on the bruiser.  My thoughts on what to use ranged from an old iPhone 3gs, my current Android phone, a Garmin 510/810 series cycle computer, or a handheld Garmine Oregon unit with a stem mount.

Using Cellphones for Bike Computers

Dual GPS Receiver

Using a cellphone for a bike computer has its pluses.  Not only do I already have two of them, but I have a sweet Dual Bluetooth GPS receiver that has the ability to log points at around 10 Hz.  The GPS receiver is no longer needed as my flying setup is now upgraded so I have a really capable package already available.  In fact, with the Dual added, I probably exceed the sensitivity of many commercial handhelds and cycle computers — but I have not tested it with the multipath/line of sight issues in canyons or with dense cover.  The Bluetooth GPS takes all the battery hogging GPS calculations off of the phone — so your phone’s battery life increases significantly.  Using this setup in a car net me just over 7  hours of battery life on the GPS — with plenty left on the phone.  The downside is that the batteries are only rechargeable, not replaceable and in the end, I am using my phone for all functions.  My iPhone would support ANT+ with a dongle, my Android phone does not support ANT+ (though some Sony models and one HTC model do)  I like to ride in the rain and snow — in fact I’d prefer that weather to cold weather any day!   Plus I know I am probably going to fall so having my phone tucked safely away is nice as well as saving all my phone batteries for checking in and calling in an emergency on multi-day trips.

Garmin Edge 810/510 Cycle Computers

Garmin 810

These devices are purpose built for what I have in mind — sort of.  They are built to be used on bicycles.  They work really well, they even can connect to my cellphones to provide live tracking for friends and family.  What better way for my wife to know that I am alive than to be able to check on my heart rate?  They work with ANT+, Strava, Garmin Connect, and just about everything.  They are light weight and come with snazzy mounts.  Their only downside is that the battery is not replaceable, and the only way to extend the batteries is with a corded battery back — which removes all the sexiness of having a small bike computer.  I would pony up for the 810 because I like to be able to see real maps as I ride but I think I will look for something a bit more unique.

Garmin Oregon Handheld

Since 2006, I have supplemented my cycle computers with a Garmin Etrex that I kept either on me or zip tied to the bike.  It recorded track logs and let me find home when wandering.  My issues with my Etrex were the clicky button interface, slow speed, no wireless connectivity to sensors or phones, and the small, low resolution screen.  I thought the Montana series might be the answer — but they are pretty huge and heavy.   Then I looked at the Oregon series 450 and 550 — the letdown was the touchscreen was nothing like a phone touchscreen, it was more like an old touchscreen car nav.  Then Garmin announced the 600 series.

I was really interested in the 600 series — it updated the touchscreen to be more phonelike,  provided ANT+ and Bluetooth 4.0 connectivity, GPS and Glonass constellation support, and even the option of a camera.  Like the rest of Garmin’s handheld GPS receivers, they can run for a claimed 16 hours on AA batteries which means a quick battery swap and you are on your way without anything dangling off the bars.  The downsides are that it does weight a little more, the fitness features aren’t fully fledged yet (it has all the hardware for garmin connect updates via phone — but it is not supported by Garmin at this time).

Currently there are four flavors of the Garmin 600 series:

  1. Base (600)
  2. Base + Camera (650) +$80
  3. Base + 100k Topo Maps (600t) +$80
  4. Base + Camera + 100k Topo Maps (650t) + $150

I would vote for the 650 with the Camera.  Not only do you get the camera, but you get 3.5GB of storage vs 300mb on the 600 and you also get a battery pack which can be recharged within the unit.  The 6xxt models with the topo maps are not worth it to me.  First the 100k map is not routable, lacks detail, and for $80 you can buy the DVD with 100k coverage and have money left over or my choice: get the 24k topo coverage on DVD for your area.  The DVDs work without the device connected and can be installed on other Garmin GPS receivers.  There are also excellent free maps available that have just as much detail — but they lack the digital elevation data of the Garmin Maps.  I would avoid getting the SD card with maps preinstalled or downloading the digital versions of the maps from garmin — this locks you into having that device connected to use basecamp with the maps.

The 650 was delayed due to some alleged manufacturing details — but it is now shipping.  I placed an order for mine during REI annual sale and received it today — so I should be able to put it through its paces by this weekend and maybe post a mini review of it.  If the weather is good I will also take tracks with the Dual, a cellphone by itself, and my Etrex for comparison.

-SM

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