Bike Computer vs. Smartphone: Objective Pros & Cons Explained

Bike computer vs. smartphone: Garmin Edge 1030 Plus vs. iPhone 6s in the grass

This article helps you decide whether to use your smartphone or invest in a bike computer for your cycling activities.

I have experience using both devices when cycling, and I tested them side by side. So, I explain their objective advantages and disadvantages and my experience.

The main difference between a bike computer and a smartphone is that a bike computer is designed for cycling. Bike computers are compatible with ANT+ and Bluetooth devices like cadence and speed sensors, power meters, HR monitors, etc. Thanks to smaller screens with lower resolution and brightness, they also have longer battery life. 

Continue reading to learn more about their navigation capabilities, ease of use, accuracy, etc.

Pros & Cons of a Bike Computer vs. Smartphone

In the following table, I summarized the pros and cons of using a bike computer vs. a smartphone to make your decision easier.

 Bike ComputersSmartphones
Pros• Have an easy-to-read screen in direct sunlight
• Have longer battery life
• Are more compact and lighter
• Are compatible with additional sensors (ANT+ and Bluetooth)
• Are more durable
• Have more accurate GPS
• Provide better turn-by-turn instructions
• Are easy to control when wet or with full finger gloves
• Have larger screens
• Are more versatile
• A large number of 3rd party apps are available
• Are easier to use when typing and browsing map
• Don't require additional investment (because most of us already have one)
Cons• Bring additional costs if you already have a smartphone
• Have a smaller screen
• Are less versatile
• Are tricky for browsing a map or typing
• Are compatible with only selected 3rd party apps
• Have shorter battery life
• Have worse readability due to glossy displays
• Often lack ANT+ support
• Are less durable
• Are hard to control when wet or with full finger gloves
This table shows the pros and cons of bike computers vs. smartphones when used for cycling.

Let’s now break down the individual features in detail.

Features Breakdown

Below, I summarize the most important areas to consider before you decide to use your smartphone or invest in a bike computer.

Cost

Most of us already have a smartphone. Some bike computers are more expensive than low-end smartphones. But most people already have a smartphone, so they can save money on this aspect.

However, suppose you’re looking at getting a bike computer because it has specialized features that your phone doesn’t have. In that case, investing in a dedicated cycling computer will be worth it.

Winner: Smartphones

Screen

Smartphones’ larger and more responsive touchscreens make it easier to type (for example, your final destination location), check a map, or display more information at once.

On the other hand, it becomes hard to control if it gets wet while you’re riding (or even just sitting in your pocket) or if you use full finger gloves incompatible with touchscreen devices. 

For these reasons, some riders also prefer button-based devices because of their reliability.

The readability is worse on smartphones in direct sunlight than on bike computers because of the glossy screens.

Winner: It’s a draw

Battery Life

Battery life is another big difference between bike computers and smartphones.

Bike computers have a longer battery life than smartphones. It varies between 10 to 50 hours. This is enough for a bike trip starting in the morning and ending in the evening.

Battery life of the best bike computers
Battery life of the best bike computers

Smartphone batteries have to power larger and brighter screens. Navigation and tracking apps also tend to drain the battery quickly. As a result, an average smartphone doesn’t last as long as an average bike computer.

A possible solution to this is using an additional battery pack (or a power bank). However, it requires an additional investment.

Winner: Bike computers

Size and Weight

Smartphones are larger and heavier than most bike computers. 

Bike computers screen sizes from the left Wahoo ELEMNT BOLT v1, Garmin Edge 520, Wahoo ELEMNT ROAM, Garmin Edge 1030 Plus, iPhone 6s
Bike computers screen sizes from the left are Wahoo ELEMNT BOLT v1, Garmin Edge 520, Wahoo ELEMNT ROAM, Garmin Edge 1030 Plus, iPhone 6s

You may belong among the riders who don’t mind riding with a few extra grams. 

Honestly, I don’t notice a 50g weight difference on my road bike. But smartphones (eventually, large bike computers like Garmin Edge 1030 Plus or Edge 1040) are less practical for day-to-day riding or training. 

So, think about your preferences and use case.

Winner: Bike computers

Compatibility with Sensors and Other Devices

Most bike computers offer ANT+, Bluetooth, and Wi-Fi connectivity.

This doesn’t apply to smartphones. They often lack the ANT+ connectivity that allows you to pair them with ANT+ devices.

Additionally, the smartphone app has to support these sensors (a good example is the Cadence app which supports Varia radars, for example).

Me holding iPhone 6s with Cadence app with Varia RTL515 in the background on the table
Varia RTL515 radar pairing with the Cadence app
Cadence app Varia RTL515 paired
Varia RTL515 radar paired with the Cadence app

In short, you may not get the required data into your phone if the sensor doesn’t offer Bluetooth connectivity.

Winner: Bike computers

Durability

One of the main advantages of a bike computer over smartphones is durability.

While they’re not nearly as fragile as they once were, smartphones are still more susceptible to damage than their bike-centric counterparts. 

The constant vibrations on a bike (mainly in terrain) are also not smartphone-friendly. They can damage camera stabilization and other components.

Another risk I want to mention is the screen damage that can occur when you ride with a phone for hours in direct sunlight.

Bike computers are designed with ruggedness in mind since they’re meant to withstand harsh weather and rough handling conditions that could easily wreck a smartphone. 

They also have water resistance (mostly IPX7), so you won’t need to worry about riding with one when it’s raining out.

Wet Garmin Edge 1030 Plus control
Using Garmin Edge 1030 Plus when wet

Not all smartphones provide water resistance. So, double-check if your smartphone has this protection before you decide to use it when cycling. You never know when rain can surprise you.

Winner: Bike computers

Ease of Use

The ease of use is highly subjective. Some people prefer button-based bike computers because they can feel the buttons. Some prefer smartphones because of their responsive screens. 

It mainly depends on how you use them. If you want a dedicated cycling tool, go with a bike computer. If you want more versatility, choose a smartphone.

Wahoo ELEMNT BOLT v2 zoomed data fields
Wahoo ELEMNT BOLT v2

The good news is that both options are mostly user-friendly and intuitive. 

However, bike computers make it easier to view all your ride data. You can set up multiple screens, for example, for climbing, structured workouts, etc. 

Winner: Bike computers

Navigation Capabilities

In the navigation department, things are pretty equal. However, it also depends on what bike computer you buy and how you plan to use the selected device.

Some bike computers offer full-on-device navigation features. For example, they can recalculate your route if you go off-course, provide turn-by-turn directions, navigate you to points of interest, etc.

Garmin Edge 1030 Plus - All POIs
Garmin Edge 1030 Plus POIs
Garmin Edge 1030 Plus navigation
Garmin Edge 1030 Plus navigation

Smartphones are often dependent on 3rd party apps and an internet connection. But you can also download the maps to the phone if you don’t want to waste your mobile data.

Winner: It’s a draw

GPS Accuracy

Although smartphone GPS accuracy has improved, bike computers are still more accurate, especially in areas with a bad GPS signal.

This applies not only to the measured distance, speed, etc. but also to navigation features.

For example, Garmin Edge bike computers feature multiple systems (GNSS, Glonass, Galileo), which give them access to more satellites than standard GPS systems, resulting in better accuracy.

But how accurate are they?

I decided to do a simple test. I started recording the ride at the same time from the same place on three devices (links lead to the activities on Strava) and stopped them at the same time:

See the following pictures of my ride summaries:

The following pictures show the ridden route. As expected, the one recorded on the phone is the least accurate, while Edge 1040 is the most accurate. However, the iPhone 6s is pretty old. Newer smartphones could be more accurate.

Further, more sophisticated testing would need to be done. But I think this illustration is enough for a rough idea about the GPS accuracy of smartphones vs. bike computers.

Winner: Bike computers

Total score: Bike computers (6) | Smartphones (1) | It’s a draw (2)

Bike Computers vs. Smartphones FAQ

Summary

I recommend investing in a bike computer if you are serious about cycling. Bike computers last longer, are more durable, and are compatible with additional (ANT+) sensors.

If you plan to explore new places and undertake adventures, you can buy a bike computer with full on-device navigation.

Using a smartphone attached to your handlebars risks damaging the camera’s stabilization, display due to sunlight, or a fall.

Another, and probably the best option, is to use both devices. A bike computer for turn-by-turn navigation and checking your ride stats, and a smartphone (stored in a jersey pocket or a bag) for finding places, routes, and fast browsing on the go.

What are your experiences? Do you prefer using a phone or a bike computer on a bike? Let me know in the comments.

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