Buyer's guide to GPS devices

What to look for in a modern cycle computer

GPS technology has found its way into many things over the past few years and is now commonplace in cars, phones, cameras and, yes, bike computers. Where GPS computers of the past were overly expensive and offered poor battery life, the current generation are far more affordable, reliable and offer a host of features previously only dreamed of in traditional cycle computers.

In the past, cycling GPS devices were primarily for riders who wanted navigation and trail guidance. Their usage has changed greatly however, and these devices now combine heart rate monitors, bike computers and navigation into one unit. The GPS is now just as much a dedicated training tool and ride tracker as it once was a navigation unit.

Furthermore, the technology is now hitting price points that rival basic bike computers. Using GPS technology to provide speed and distance information means it's no longer necessary to use wheel-mounted magnets and sensors. Switching the computer between bikes has never been easier.

The cycling GPS market is dominated by similar brands to the automotive GPS industry – Garmin is the key player and Magellan (Mio in Europe, owned by Navman) as a fast-growing option. Brands such as Polar, Bryton, Suunto, CycleOps, Pioneer and CatEye also offer GPS options.

And while this buyer’s guide is for dedicated GPS units, the use of smartphones is quickly becoming a viable alternative. There are many speed, cadence, heart rate and power accessories available to work with popular smartphones and purpose-designed apps.

Despite the numerous handlebar mounts and cases available, while smartphones continue to get larger and more expensive, the use of a dedicated device on your handlebars during riding is still the preferred method for most cyclists. That said, if you’re not seeking live data such as speed, heart rate or your cadence, then keeping the phone in your pocket or pack remains an option for data collection. 

Buying a GPS device – what to consider

Looking forwards or backwards?

Perhaps the biggest question when deciding on a GPS unit is if you want the data to look forwards and guide you on a ride, or if you want it to track your ride and give you the data to look back upon after your ride.

Generally speaking, forward-seeking GPS units will cost more because they must feature built-in maps, additional storage, navigation software and often a larger screen to make use of it all.

Far more backward-looking GPS units are sold these days, as they give all the live data that many cyclists want, along with the option of a detailed analysis after the ride. However, they don’t offer detailed navigational information.

Devices that offer mapping and directional guidance have come a long way. GPS accuracy has greatly improved, guiding you to within one or two meters of a desired location. Many destination trail networks offer downloadable ride information to help you get out there and safely explore.

Phone connectivity

Mobile phone connectivity is becoming more desirable. The likes of the Garmin Edge 1000 and Magellan Cyclo505 (Mio in the UK) offer Bluetooth 4.0 to connect and share information with compatible phones. Features such as music control, spoken directional mapping, in-coming call and text alerts and even ride data uploading (to the cloud) are available.

Other devices, such as Wahoo’s RFLKT (pronounced reflect), use your phone to receive and handle information, then simply relay it onto the computer screen.

Mounting options

A key factor, but one that's easily overlooked, is how the device attaches (or doesn’t) to the bike. Most GPS units attach to either the handlebar or the stem of the bike. Others, such as those designed for multisport, may be worn as a wrist watch, but this isn’t an ideal viewing position for cycling. 

Garmin's quarter-turn style of mounting is becoming a common choice among other brands too

Generally speaking, the more common the brand, the more mounting options it will offer. Garmin is no doubt the leader in this area, with scores of aftermarket mount options allowing you to decide how and where the device sits on your handlebar or stem.

Screen size and display type

The larger the screen size, the easier the information will be to read. You’ll also be able to show more information on the screen without having to scroll to another page. The downside is of course the size and weight of the device. You'll need to find a balance that best suits your needs.

For performance and general riding, the Garmin Edge 500’s 1.77in (4.5 cm) screen (measured diagonally) has become a compact benchmark. Most newer devices are this size or larger.

Devices without mapping and navigation are usually quite compact

Screen size and resolution is a bigger concern if you want a navigational GPS. Here, being able to see waypoints and your desired route are crucial and so a screen size of 2.5in (6.35 cm) or larger is common. For this type of GPS, color displays are becoming the norm, for good, and obvious, reason.

Touchscreens are quickly becoming a standard on newer devices. They help simplify toggling menus and selecting desired data.

What features are most suitable for me and the riding I do?

Performance riders

In order to get important training information, performance riders would previously have to have used a heart rate monitor (watch), a cycle computer and if really serious, a power measuring device. Now, GPS units offer a receiver and display for all of this information and more in a compact device.

While there are performance-based GPS devices that also offer navigation, the most commonly sold models will not offer mapping. Instead, the GPS is used to record distance, speed, altitude and auto-lap counting. Some even allow you to race a familiar route against a previous time.

ANT+ is the industry standard for wireless accessories, including power meters, cadence and heart rate sensors

Heart rate, cadence, distance, speed and power meter compatibility is quite common, with many devices using the ANT+ protocol. Most popular GPS units will be offered as the device alone, or in a value bundle with the heart rate strap and cadence/speed sensor.

Once at a computer (or synced to your phone on certain models), these devices enable detailed analysis of your route and ride, including drilling down to specific climbs and other ride sections. Brand-specific applications such as Garmin Connect are popular options for uploading rides and logging ride information.

Third party apps such as Strava are becoming increasingly popular – they offer these same cloud-based features and the ability to easily compare yourself against other riders in your area.

Everyday riders

Just like performance riders, everyday riders likely don’t need navigation but can benefit from much of the other information offered.

Where performance riders will use features such as auto-lapping, segment racing and detailed power output analysis, everyday riders will need simpler features such as speed, distance, cadence and perhaps heart-rate.

Navigational features on the Magellan Cyclo505 (and Garmin Edge 1000) are proving popular with those who didn't think they wanted such features

 Some everyday riders are finding use in navigational-based devices, with being able to find new routes and rides in their area as a result.

Off-roader or wilderness riders

GPS units have great potential where there is either no obvious path or many possible paths, especially in conditions of poor visibility when you are unable to pick out many landmarks.

You can download route data from online networks, and some popular riding destinations offer downloadable ride data (in GPX file) of the trails available and important waypoints. Some devices even offer information on nearby cafes, bike stores, hospitals and other destinations if you’re riding somewhere new.  

For this kind of riding, even simple units without detailed maps often offer digital compasses. and better units will have detailed topographic maps. Some newer units, such as the Magellan Cyclo505, even have pre-loaded popular off-road rides to choose from (this varies by country).

Another positive use for navigational units is in case of an emergency. Being able to tell emergency services the exact co-ordinates of an injured friend (or yourself) will greatly speed up the rescue.

Long-distance tourers

Touring GPS units have recently popped onto the market, from both Garmin and Magellan. These offer greater mapping and direction capability along with increased battery capacity. Some units will allow for replaceable batteries, however, internal rechargeable lithium-ion batteries are more common because of their lower weight.

Serious touring cyclists will use hub generators or solar technology to keep the batteries of these units topped up. External battery expanders are another option if you’re seeking directions for an overnight journey.

While digital map coverage is often still limited to developed countries, or at most the large urban areas of developing countries – the vast majority of cyclists will find no flaw in the function of these units.  

In any event, in more obscure parts of the world, you may well struggle to get hold of good quality GPS maps just as you would struggle to get hold of good quality paper maps. 

Town riders

Touring-based computers offer a range of features that town riders will also find useful, however, a smartphone may prove just as useful for casual riding.

If you’re after basic speed, distance or even navigation, there are endless mobile phone mount options to put your phone on top of your handlebars.

Multi-sport

Like performance riders, multi-sport riders will likely be after the heart-rate, cadence and even power data, but as you do more than cycling, you may want to be able to use the device for running or perhaps even swimming too.

Units such as the Garmin 920XT, Magellan Switch or Suunto Ambit3 are purpose-designed for those seeking a watch for cycling, running and other activities. These watch-based devices can usually be unclipped from the wrist strap and clipped straight into a bike mount making for a quick transition.

A major downside to these devices is the smaller screen size, so if you’re planning to keep the device on your bike, you’re better off with a cycling-specific unit.

GPS device glossary

  • ANT+: The most common wireless protocol in cycling GPS and electronics. This is used for communication between sensors such as power meters, cadence, speed and heart rate monitors and the head unit device.
  • Barometric altimeter (barometer): Where some devices will use maps to give an estimate of elevation, the better options use a barometer to accurately measure elevation. In some devices, this is also used to provide more accurate co-ordinate tracking.
  • Bearing/heading: Bearing is the compass direction to the next waypoint, heading is the actual direction of travel (which is usually expressed in degrees)
  • Bluetooth: A form of separate wireless receiver/transmitter that is the standard in smart phone technology. Now becoming more popular in GPS units to sync with phones.
  • Geocaching: The GPS equivalent of a treasure hunt, using given co-ordinates to find the location. Arguably this feature has had its day, but is still given in some devices.
  • GPRS Information: Downloadable and up-to-date information on such things as accidents, congestion, road closures and so on.
  • GPX: Also known as GPS Exchange format, this open data format is free to use and is widely accepted as the standard way to share ride, track, waypoint and other GPS based data. 
  • GLONASS: Stands for Global Navigation Satellite System, it provides alternative satellites to GPS (Global Positioning System). Units that offer GLONASS often have more reliable map coverage and recording along with faster start-up.
  • IPX7: This refers to the water resistance rating. IPX7 is a standard benchmark of many electronic devices and means the item will withstand incidental exposure to water of up to one meter for up to 30 minutes. This means that use in the rain will be of no concern
  • Odometer: Measures the distance you've travelled since it was last reset
  • Route: Predetermined points, which are known as waypoints (see below), linked together in the order you intend to travel to them
  • Segments: A term made popular by Strava (see below). Strava uses ‘segments’ of tracks and roads to offer virtual racing on popular climbs, descents and time-trials.
  • Strava: Website and mobile app used to track fitness activities via GPS. It offers a ‘cloud’ to upload your ride data and compare your fitness with riders in the same area.
  • Track: The record the GPS unit makes of your actual course over the ground on any journey that you undertake
  • Waypoints: Specific locations that are stored in the GPS – usually used to navigate to or linked together to form a route. May also be known as Points of Interest (POI), or by the more traditional term, Landmarks.

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