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I do a lot of road biking. I have a basic Catseye onboard computer for my speed and odometer. But I also use my iPhone to track and record my biking. I've tried a variety of iPhone apps, the best ones being iMapMyRide and Cyclemeter.

As I get more serious with biking though, I'm looking around at the dedicated biking computers like the Garmin Edge. I'm trying to figure out if they are worth buying or not. Rewind the clock back about 5 years and I'd say definitely yes. But these days, with really awesome GPS-capable smartphone apps, I'm not so sure...

Take for example iMapMyRide. You can buy a cheap ANT+ adapter for your iPhone and then use any ANT+ device with the software. Speedometer, cadence, heartbeat sensor, etc...

Also with these apps it does optional Live Tracking so that when you are out on your ride, your spouse (or anyone you want) can look at a webpage and see your progress on a map. You can do this with the Garmin Edge apparently but I think Garmin charges $25 a year or something for that service.

So if I already have an iPhone/Android and I already take it on rides anyways (for emergencies), then is it worth it at all to get a dedicated biking computer? Just about the only advantage I can think of is that the biking computers are smaller (less weight).

Are there any outstanding advantages to dedicated computers that I'm unaware of?

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It seems like you have already answered your own question. If you are already carrying your iPhone/Android and it can do everything that a dedicated unit can (and more), then why also carry a dedicated unit? –  kmm Sep 8 '11 at 16:50
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I have two iPhones, an Android, and 3 Nokia smart phones in my desk at work and scattered around on my home desk. What I carry with me is an old LG flip phone. On my bike is a relatively basic bike "computer". The only time I've needed a smart phone on a tour was when I had to find the words for a song the group wanted to sing, and then I borrowed a phone from someone else. –  Daniel R Hicks Sep 9 '11 at 0:11
    
And I don't think it's been emphasized that unless you have a separately-purchased Ant pickup, the phone will not provide accurate speed and distance. A basic $10 bike computer will. –  Daniel R Hicks Jul 23 '13 at 11:32

11 Answers 11

up vote 27 down vote accepted

I recently thought that my smartphone would replace my bike computer, but have come to the conclusion that the bike computer is better.

Here are the reasons.

  • One is that the phone is much larger.
  • Second is mounting. (Whether a suitable mount is available depends on the phone model.)
  • Third, and this is important... is that smartphones are not designed to sit out exposed to hot sun, extreme temps, and rain; all of which commonly occur in serious cycling.
  • Fourth is ease of use. My bike computer was specifically designed to sit on the handlebars with easy access to most all functions and in typical cycling conditions. The smartphone is not.
  • Fifth, my smartphone is important to my professional life. So, having it destroyed in a bike crash would not be good at all.
  • Sixth, definitely battery life; although I suppose this depends on the particular phone. (On a recent century+, my riding partner brought along 3 extra batteries and used them all, for his HTC Evo...and my bike computer was still humming along at the end of the day)

A few months back, I bought a smartphone handlebar mount and case which all looked fine in the comfort of my basement. Anyway, once on the bike and in real conditions, it was unusable. The worst thing was that in the glare of sun, I couldn't even see the screen. Also, changing functions was a pain because of the case. Anyway, I rapidly went back to my bike computer.

BTW...I do carry my phone with me and use Endomondo. However, the phone stays in my jersey pocket; but for typical ride data I use the bike specific computer.

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+1, Although I do think that at least one smart phone out there is trying to make a dent as a viable bike computer. See DC Rainmaker's obsessively comprehensive review of the "Sony Ericsson experia active": bit.ly/pgs7yv I expect that there will be more smart phones targeted for this space soon. –  Angelo Sep 12 '11 at 17:34
    
@Angelo -- Hmmm, I'll take a look at the Experia Active when my current phone contract runs out... –  user313 Sep 15 '11 at 17:17
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I've finally come to the same conclusion. Bike computers like a Garmin Edge 500 also have more accurate GPS I've found because they contain a built-in altimeter. Apparently with GPS, if one of the three parameters (long, lat, elevation) is already known (in this case, the elevation is known due to the altimeter) then the GPS is able to determine the long and lat very very quickly compared to a phone that has to determine the long, lat and elevation. So faster GPS lookups = more accurate GPS. –  Jakobud Apr 8 '12 at 22:17
    
@Jakobud - Good point about the altimeter. I didn't think of that when I wrote the answer. –  user313 Apr 9 '12 at 3:14
    
Downside of Garmin etc is that they take a lot longer to get a location lock, especially in built up areas. –  Mac Jul 23 '13 at 6:47

I'm using currently using Quad Lock mount with an iPhone5. I'm having no issues with it and the GPS is very accurate. Battery life is still a concern, but turning off LTE, Bluetooth and Wireless, while turning on Do Not Disturb; I'm seeing less then 10% battery usage per hour. I don't have any hardware for it yet, but looking at the new low-power bluetooth Heart Rate monitor (probably Polar H7) and a Wahoo cadence sensor

What I'm looking at using next is the Wahoo RFLKT. This lets me using all the features of Cyclemeter, but allows me to protect my phone in my jersey pocket, or in my gear bag. The rain cover is nice, but the jarring of some of the trails, the heat, and me dripping sweet on it has me a bit worried.

I will say, the GPS though seems to be extremely accurate, even when comparing it to my buddies Garmin Edge 500. I'll have to import both into Google Maps (Strava and Cyclemeter will adjust the gpx to fit on roads and trails) to see how they compare.

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Having used an iPhone app for over 3 months now, I can definitely say that it has been very helpful. Just make sure the phone is fully charged before the ride so that there's enough charge left, in case you need to use the phone on your way back home.

Some more pointers on who might find a phone app useful

  • Someone who is primarily interested in shorter rides (around 1-2 hours or lesser)

  • Does not need see the screen while riding (voice feedback though not as helpful, has been decent enough for me)

  • Is not really concerned about riding during rain. So waterproofing your device should not be high on your list. You do get phone cases, but at the core, the device is not built to be waterproof

  • Don't want to spend a whole lot right away. A $5 app is definitely an awesome way to get a good idea about your cycling style.

  • Is primarily interested in cycling for recreational or fitness purposes.

  • Phone Apps as well as dedicated computers, allow you to do post-ride reviews. But phone apps seem to be better at integrating with a variety of web services which keep improving over time and allow for better visualizations & summaries as compared to a locked down report by a dedicated computer manufacturer (I'm referring to DailyMile integration by most iPhone apps).

  • But the phone apps keep getting updates and bug fixes, which in some unsubstantial way could be considered to be a positive.

I've not yet used a dedicated computer, so can't speak for that. However, people who seem to be training for centuries and more serious/pro cycling, seem to prefer a dedicated computer (or power meters which I believe a phone cannot substitute without additional hardware attachments).

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Besides what has been said in other answers, one of the main reasons I'm using a dedicated cycling computer is that I can load in tracks and follow them while riding. Being able to download MTB GPS tracks and ride along was what motivated me getting one.

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I too contemplated using a smartphone as a bike computer and eventually bought a Garmin Edge 800, which I've been very happy with. Here are the advantages it has:

  • GPS is better. Compare these two GPS traces from a ride my friend and I did yesterday evening (taken from Strava). This is a 2.5km climb, part wooded and part exposed. The first is my Edge 800 and the second is my friend's Nexus S:

If you like to use Strava (as I do), this can affect whether or not Strava detects that you've ridden over a segment. That all-out effort to beat your PB might not be recorded.

  • Touch screen works with gloves on. Very handy in winter!
  • The screen is readable in bright sunlight.
  • It weighs less.
  • It's waterproof. When the rain is so heavy that you need 100% concentration on handling the bike on slippery roads, and you can't even see your bike computer because your glasses are misted up (or your eyes are stinging), at least you know your ride is still being recorded!
  • If you're stranded and your bike computer battery has ran out, you can still use your phone to be rescued :)
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Very nice comparison, thanks! –  Angelo Sep 16 '11 at 11:43
    
One thing to mention is that quality of GPS varies greatly between phones. I had and HTC snap that was all but useless for GPS even when walking. My new Nokia however works great for tracking my rides. I imagine that a dedicated GPS would work even better, but haven't gotten to the point where I want to spend so much on a bike GPS. It probably comes down to antenna size. Phones have so many other things they have to cram into such a small space, they have to leave something out. And a dedicated GPS has no option but to have good GPS reception, otherwise, it's completely useless. –  Kibbee Sep 16 '11 at 15:41
    
The reason a bike computer has sharper, more accurate GPS is because they usually contain an altimeter. If the elevation is already known then the GPS system only has to determine the long and lat. So it's much quicker and ends up being more accurate. –  Jakobud Apr 8 '12 at 22:18

My simple bike computer (heartrate, wireless speed), is almost as expensive as my smartphone (android, with GPS). A dedicated GPS unit is much more expensive.

But the bike computer has a good mount, and is waterproof. My smartphone is not waterproof, and would need a mount with a plastic screen, making the screen even less readable.

So I end up with taking two devices with me. But the total price is still less as a dedicated bike computer with GPS (and maps) would cost me.

The bike computer mounted on my steer, giving me my current speed etc, but no directions.

And my smartphone stored in a waterproof compartment in my camelbak. With the GPS tracking enabled for later analysis and emergency situations. The screen can be turned off, giving me more battery life.

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I would probably choose a "best of both worlds" option: Get a simple bike computer to monitor speed/distance/time while riding and have a smartphone with some app running in a waterproof pocket on me to have a GPS track to look at for after the ride (and when I'm lost).

Bike computers are much better than a smartphone for during rides:

  • More accurate because of the sensor on your wheel.
  • Weather proof.
  • Readable in sunlight.
  • Light.
  • cheap enough to leave on your bike in most places.

If you are considering a GPS-enabled bike computer then I agree with what wdy.. says but if you already have a smartphone then it depends on your budget.

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Battery life and water resistance are the two key ones for me.

The other one that hasn't been mentioned is price. If you leave a smart phone in your handlebars while popping into a shop it will get stolen. A typical bike computer won't.

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Good points. But most bike computers attach to a bracket that is mounted onto the handlebars. Usually all you have to do is twist or pop the computers off the bracket to take it with you. It's made to be easy to remove so that when you do go into a shop you can easily take it with you. If you forget though, then it's just as easy for a knowledgeable thief to take. –  Jakobud Sep 15 '11 at 19:01
    
Agreed. This is more an 'if you forget' scenario –  Rory Alsop Sep 15 '11 at 20:18
    
I leave my (low end) cyclometer on my bike all the time now. Managed to lose a couple taking them with me so figure I'm better off just leaving it on. –  freiheit Sep 16 '11 at 4:26

The three main advantages of a dedicated bike computer is battery life, reliability, and visibility.

Only a handful of smartphones I've used can consistently run for 5+ hours with the GPS on. It would really suck to be 30 miles from home with a dead battery. Cycling computers can often run 10+ hours with a GPS.

Some smartphone/app combos have questionable reliability. App crashes or flakey background functionality can leave you with big gaps in your data logs. Not critical, but it's really annoying when you're you use the data as part of your training.

Most cycling computers are easier to read in direct sunlight. Of course, most of them are also B&W screens so this is easier for them to solve. But regardless, when travelling at high speed, I want to be able to read my screen with only a momentary glance.

If you are on shorter rides, commutes, etc where your ride time is shorter, then a cycling computer is probably a waste of money.

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As a plus for Smart-Phone apps, they are likely to progress quicker, add features faster, fix bugs faster, and provide more frequent version updates than GPS units.

Another plus for smart-phones is that I'll take my cell phone on a long road ride anyway in case of emergency. Carrying 1 device is easier than 2.

A plus for a GPS unit is that it is probably easier to read the display in outdoors sunlight, since it is designed for that purpose. And easier to clamp to the handlebars and monitor other things.

If I had to pick 1, I'd go for the phone.

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I do think that an iPhone and ANT+ makes for a pretty compelling combination. One thing that the dedicated bike GPS hardware has all over a smartphone is battery life.

While you can get better battery life out of a smartphone when logging a ride than most people imagine, it's still not close to the battery life you can get out of dedicated GPS hardware. You can cheat that some with backup batteries or other more exotic measures, but it's still an issue.

If you're going to be riding way out in the sticks, the GPS hardware can also use built-in maps, so you're not dependent on a cellular signal to download map tiles (which is part of the reason the phone has poorer battery life as well). There may be some smartphone apps for cyclists that come with their own built-in maps, but I'm not aware of them.

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Battery life is a good point. But one thing to note is that these Apps typically don't download map tiles on the fly unless you have it open. I usually just start the app and keep it in my back pocket the entire trip. The only thing the app is doing at that point is recording GPS coordinates and uploading them to a central server. –  Jakobud Sep 8 '11 at 18:47
    
Agreed. And for that matter, most apps do not upload trackpoints continuously, only at the end of a ride or at a user-specified interval. –  Adam Rice Sep 8 '11 at 19:58

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