Technology comes in handy in many aspects of our lives, and cycling is no exception. Nowadays, you can use your smart device to help you navigate and track almost every different aspect of your ride.
The only question is, what device should you use? You can always use an app on your smartphone, but there’s also a range of specialized bike computers that are available on the market. Read below for our take on the advantages and disadvantages of each, as well as our product recommendations for whichever you decide on.
Advantages of Using a Smartphone as a Bike Computer
The main advantage of using your smartphone is clear; since you already own one, there’s no need to go out and purchase an extra device. This automatically saves you on money and time, not to mention the fact that you’re already familiar with your smartphone and probably know your way around it pretty well.
Your smartphone, whether it’s an iPhone or Android, likely already has a GPS function that’s on par with high-end bike computers, meaning that your location tracking will be fairly fast and accurate. Smartphones also have quality displays which are much larger than the average bike computer’s, allowing you to view your route and other stats while riding easily.
In addition, popular apps like Apple Maps and Google Maps are top-tier of navigational software, with features and layouts designed to make finding your way as easy as possible.
Disadvantages of Using a Smartphone as a Bike Computer
Despite your smartphone’s stellar GPS performance, it might have some disadvantages when used for cycling as well.
One possible disadvantage is that your smartphone, even while acting as a bike computer, doesn’t stop being a smartphone. This means that if you need to answer a call or a message, you’ll have to navigate away from your route, potentially interrupting your ride. Also, if you get any notifications, they can easily turn into an annoying or even dangerous distraction.
Another thing to consider is the fact that using your GPS results in a significant drain on your smartphone’s battery, so if you go for long rides, your risk running out of power. This could be remedied with the help of a portable charger, but this is another device that you’d have to worry about storing on your bike.
Another major element to take into consideration is the fact that smartphones aren’t designed to work in conditions such as those you encounter while cycling. Not all smartphones are water resistant, and the touchscreen often doesn’t work if your hands are moist, which is bad news for cycling in the rain or if you work out so hard your hands got sweaty.
Smartphones are also more likely to break if you happen to get into a crash, especially if you mount your phone on your handlebars. A dedicated bike computer, on the other hand, is more robust and will probably survive a crash, replacing it is much cheaper than buying another smartphone.
Third Option: a Smartwatch
If you already have a smartwatch from Apple, Garmin, or something else, they can usually track your rides pretty well too. Smartwatches have the best of both worlds in terms of battery life and durability. However, with a smartwatch, you don’t have any form of navigation and you will need to rise your wrist every time you want to look at the ride data.
How to Track Your Ride With a Smartphone
If you do decide that using your smartphone while cycling is worth a try, you’ll still need some bike-specific accessories.
Here are our top picks for cycling apps to track your workout with. You need only to install one of them but give all three a try.
- Strava: One of the riding apps that top most cyclists’ lists, Strava is a social network and ride tracker rolled into one. You can upload data to the app such as heart rate, route distance, and speed. Ideal if you want to connect with other cyclists, Strava makes socializing while biking easy; you can post pictures, share routes, follow friends, and participate in group challenges. Strava works for both iPhone and Android devices, as well as some bike computers.
- Wahoo: Wahoo is another option for tracking your rides, but doesn’t offer social features. Instead, it’s compatible with cadence sensors and heart rate monitors, unlike Strava’s own app. You can upload your rides to Strava from the Wahoo app, so you’re not missing out on the social aspect.
- Cyclemeter: Similar to Wahoo, Cyclemeter allows you to track stats and record and navigate your rides. It’s compatible with many types of sensors, but Cyclemeter is iPhone only.
You’ll also need a way to mount your phone on the handlebars. Here are some of our recommendations for the best bike mounts out there:
QuadLock mount is designed for maximum security and durability. With a patented dual-stage lock, you get the best of both worlds with a strong mounting connection as well as easy twist-and-lock attachment and removal.
The mount position is designed to be low-profile, can hold your phone vertically or horizontally, and comes in a variety of attachment options. QuadLock also comes with an impact-absorbing, closed-port phone case that’s slim enough to leave on for everyday use.
The full set including the case is not cheap, but it does feel really secure and stable. In our opinion, QuadLockis the best bike mount for smartphones.
Peak Design Out Front Bike Mount and case featuring a similar mount that’s slightly less heavy-duty, Peak Design offers a variable mounting system that stays secure with magnets and even allows you to flip your phone up and film your ride. The matching case is durable and aesthetic but doesn’t feature full-screen coverage and camera protection the way QuadLock’s does.
Spigen Gearlock is another smartphone mount option with a lower cost, but it doesn’t come with a case. You will need to buy a separate protective case with a flat back and stick the mount on the back of the case. It’s a great option for occasional, low-intensity rides, but may not perform the best under long-term wear and tear.
Topeak Ridecase is a one-loop mount that can attach to various spots on your bike and features full-angle adjustment. The accompanying case is scratch-resistant, with rubber bumpers for shock absorption and an integrated flip stand to make viewing off your bike simple as well.
Viccux Phone Mount is one of your more basic, but still solid, mounting options. It doesn’t require a matching case but instead features an adjustable, four-corner gripping system that fits around your phone. It can adapt to many different sizes and keeps a secure lock on your phone while still allowing it to rotate.
Our recommendation is to start with something basic and cheap like the Viccux and upgrade to QuadLock or another more expensive option later if you’ve decided that a smartphone is good enough as a bike computer.
Alternatively, if you don’t particularly care about looking at your ride data while riding and don’t require visible navigation directions, you won’t even need a mount. In that case, your smartphone would have a clear advantage, as you could simply slip it into your jersey’s back pocket and head off.
Why Consider a Bike Computer?
Does the idea of using your smartphone still not seem like the best option for you? Or perhaps you’ve tried using your smartphone to help you when cycling, but were dissatisfied with the results.
If so, it may be time to try out a cycling computer.
There are a few major advantages to using a bike computer, depending on your priorities when cycling.
For one thing, you may find that your smartphone and cycling apps are less accurate than you’d like them to be in tracking your rides. Since bike computers are specifically designed with cycling in mind, they often have devices that are made for maximum compatibility and precision.
If you place a high priority on tracking your cycling routes and other stats with accuracy, a bike computer will likely win you over.
In addition, if you often ride for long stretches, i.e., more than two hours at a time, a bike computer is definitely worth trying out. Maintaining battery life while navigating is where bike computers have a clear edge over smartphones, with the battery life of different models ranging from around 8 hours to an impressive 45 hours between charges.
Using a bike computer also ensures that you can bring your phone along as well and keep it fully charged in the case of an emergency; this is always a good backup to have in the case of long rides that take you far away from home.
If you often ride in tough conditions such as those involving a lot of rain or dust, you may also want to look into bike computers designed to suit your climate. Some bike computers are more water resistant than others, but most will hold up perfectly well under a steady downpour. There are also bike computers designed to work specifically for altitude cycling, high heat, and city biking.
Ultimately, bike computers are probably a good option if you’re quite a committed cyclist, and don’t mind investing in extra equipment that’s especially for your bike – especially if it’s for the sake of getting the best out of your ride.
The Best Bike Computers for the Money
If you are interested in trying out a bike computer, you may want to start with one of our experience-backed recommendations.
In this section, we have listed the cheapest bike computers that are totally worth the money. Ranging from the basic and down-to-earth Velo Wireless to the fully-loaded Edge 530, you’ll definitely find one that fits your must-haves and your price point.
- Cateye Velo Wireless: If you prefer a more private ride and don’t want to upload your data to an app like Strava, the Cateye Velo will store it for you. Tracking stats such as current and average speeds, total distance, trip distance, times, and calorie consumption, the Velo packs a lot of a punch with a simple and easy-to-use design. The Velo Wireless can be found online for $44.95.
- Bryton Rider 420: The Bryton Rider is a perfect no-fuss navigation computer. With turn-by-turn directions, 35 hours of battery life, and day-to-night viewing capabilities, it’s ideal for the rider who wants maximum functionality but doesn’t need a host of unique features. It comes in at the reasonable price of $159.95, and also has the option of a compatible Bryton sensor package, which includes cadence and heart rate devices for only $70 more.
- Wahoo Elemnt Bolt: Sleek and intuitive, the Elemnt Bolt has an LED display that adjusts to ambient light, customizable screens so you can easily access the features you use most, and 16GB of memory to store your maps and route data. With full GPS capabilities and a long list of compatible apps and devices, the Bolt definitely has you covered. The price for this computer is $299.99 on Wahoo’s website.
- Garmin Edge 530: The Edge 530 is one of the most comprehensive bike computers out there, offering GPS navigation, progress tracking and ride analysis, detailed performance metrics, and a variety of modes suited for everything from city to mountain biking. It also comes loaded with safety features such as a bike alarm and emergency incident detection. You can also sync the device with your smartphone using the Garmin app. The price for the unit alone is $299.99, and you can add a sensor bundle for another $100, or special mountain bike equipment for another $169.
Our top recommendation is the Wahoo Elemnt Bolt. Wahoo’s software is simpler but more intuitive than the competition. Garmin offers more features, and the ecosystem is nice, but the software can be too convoluted for beginners.
Avoid bundled sensors. It might seem cheaper than buying the sensors separately, but you might not even need them in the first place. The most important sensor is a heart rate monitor, but you can buy it from a cheaper brand rather than using Garmin’s or Wahoo’s bundled sensors. It also breaks quite easily, making it pointless to purchase an expensive HRM.
The speed sensor is not needed since your bike computer has a GPS that can track speed too with good-enough accuracy. Lastly, the cadence sensor might be useful for beginners, but people will find their preferred cadence naturally on their own.