Bike computers are devices that help us track our rides, connect additional sensors, or navigate through places we don’t know.
However, the differences between bike computers are sometimes tricky to spot, and it can be complicated for newcomers to orient themselves in the wide product offer.
That’s why I wrote this guide on choosing a bike computer where I explain the most important features to help you spend your money wisely.
Let’s dive in.
NOTE: Bike (cycling) computers are also called head units.
Do You Even Need a Bike Computer?
One of the first things you should consider before buying a bike computer is if you even need it. A basic speedometer may be sufficient for your use case.
Bike computers are suitable for riders who want to:
- Keep track of their rides and upload them to 3rd party apps like Strava.
- Use additional sensors like HR monitors, power meters, or gadgets like Garmin Varia radar.
- Use map and navigation.
Basic speedometers usually don’t offer the features mentioned above. However, they can measure your speed and cadence and show the time of the day, temperature, etc. They are suitable for casual riders who don’t take cycling too seriously.
Before You Buy a Bike Computer
Alright, you decided that a cycling computer is more suitable for you than a speedometer. Great. Now, I recommend asking yourself the following questions.
- Do you prefer a smaller (more compact form factor) or a larger screen (better for navigation)?
- Do you prefer a touchscreen display or buttons?
- Do you need full on-device navigation (e.g., the computer can recalculate your route if you deviate from the route)?
- Do you prefer setting it up directly or via a mobile phone app?
- Don’t you mind charging it more often?
And, of course, there is also the money aspect. The more sophisticated bike computers are more expensive but often offer features you will never use.
Let me now guide you through the most important features of bike computers.
How to Choose a Bike Computer?
Bike computer features to consider before purchase are:
- Battery life
- Other features
I explain them in-depth below.
NOTE: All bike computers on the market measure basic metrics like speedometers (speed, distance, time of the day, temperature, etc.).
The screen is one of the most important features of a bike computer. Consider its size, resolution, type, colors, and readability. Basically similar features to a smartphone.
Screen Size & Resolution
Bike computer screen size varies from around 1.8″ to 3.5″, and the higher the resolution, the sharper the displayed data.
The following picture shows multiple bike computers compared to the iPhone 6s (4.7″ display).
Larger screens are more suitable for navigating purposes and maps and allow you to display more data fields at once.
However, with a larger screen comes a larger form factor, higher weight, and less compactness.
The screen type means if the cycling computer uses a touchscreen or not. Most bike computers have a touchscreen display or buttons. But there are also bike computers that combine these two.
Touchscreen displays are great if they are done right. If not, using them with sweaty hands, gloves, or in wet conditions is a pain.
Screen Colors & Readability
Lower-end bike computers have monochromatic screens. These computers are more affordable and provide good readability but can’t show as much information as colored screens (for example, when using maps).
Mid-range and higher-end cycling computers have colored displays. Depending on the manufacturer, they can, for example, illustrate gradients using colors. They are also better for reading maps.
The readability in direct sunlight is also important. In the end, you want to see your ride data or the map, don’t you?
So, always double-check pictures and videos from real reviews where you can see the display in direct sunlight.
The battery life is important if you plan to make full-day trips or don’t want to recharge the computer often.
Aim for battery life of at least 10, but rather around 15 hours. Remember, the more sensors are connected and the more features turned on, the faster the battery drain.
Most bike computers allow you to adjust the brightness to save battery. Some of them can do it automatically thanks to an ambient sensor.
Bike computers offer:
- Limited navigation
- Full on-device navigation
- No navigation (mostly valid for basic speedometers)
Bike computers with limited navigation can’t recalculate your route if you deviate from it. They also won’t be able to take you to a selected point on a map. On the other hand, these units tend to be more affordable.
Full on-device navigation bike computers can recalculate your route or take you to a selected point on a map. They can be further divided into the following two groups:
- Bike computers that require your smartphone to be connected.
- Bike computers that don’t require your smartphone to be connected.
Basic speedometers don’t offer any navigation features.
I recommend buying a cycling computer with full on-device navigation if you plan to use it on vacation or in places you don’t know. Otherwise, you will have to stick to the preplanned route.
Some bike computers come with pre-loaded basic maps. However, they are usually not as detailed as dedicated maps for a given region.
Depending on how detailed maps you need, check out what maps the manufacturer offers. For example, Garmin Edge computers are considered the best for mapping thanks to their detailed maps. However, you have to buy* and download them separately.
*With premium devices like Garmin Edge 1030 Plus, you get these maps for free.
Wahoo or Hammerhead are not too far behind with maps. You can download only selected countries and regions.
Today’s bike computers feature ANT+, Bluetooth, and Wi-Fi.
The ANT+ is a communication protocol between the bike computer and additional sensors like power meters, cadence and speed sensors, HR monitors, etc. Bike computers also use it to ‘communicate’ with smart trainers.
Bluetooth allows your bike computer to sync your ride data (or settings) with your phone or receive notifications.
And Wi-Fi is usually used for downloading firmware updates.
If you are a Strava fan, ensure the head unit features Strava live segments. It will show you how far behind or ahead you are behind KOM, end time, nearby segments, and more. But remember, you have to pay for the Strava premium.
Recently, gadgets like Garmin Varia radar are becoming more popular. However, not every bike computer is compatible with them, so I recommend double-checking it.
And last but not least, compatible bike computers can show you your gears and battery level of an electronic shifting like Shimano Di2 or SRAM eTap.
The bicycle computer world is dominated by two brands: Garmin and Wahoo. However, there are other, smaller players like Lezyne, Bryton, Sigma, and Hammerhead.
Garmin is known for its wide bicycle computers offer (except for many other product categories like smartwatches) packed with features and customizable thanks to the 3rd party apps.
Wahoo bike computers stand out thanks to the ease of use, easy-to-read displays, user-friendliness, and customizability via a smartphone app.
|Garmin Edge 130 Plus||Wahoo ELEMNT BOLT v2|
|Garmin Edge 530|
|Garmin Edge 830||Wahoo ELEMNT ROAM|
|Garmin Edge 1030 Plus|
|Garmin Edge 1040 (Solar)|
Lezyne, Bryton, and Sigma bike computers are more affordable alternatives to the two brands above while offering similar features.
And Hammerhead stirred the waters with their smartphone-like approach that changes the interaction between the rider and the bike computer.
If you don’t need fancy features, Cateye makes simple speedometers.
Other Features to Consider
Here are a few other features to consider when buying a bike computer:
- Water resistance is especially important if you live in a rainy area or are unlucky and get wet. Today, most bike computers have an IPX7 water resistance rating (protection against immersion for 30 minutes to a depth of 1 meter).
- The weight of bike computers varies from around 60 to 130g. It may be important for weight weenies.
- Crash detection
- Larger internal storage lets you download more maps and routes to your device and store more activities.
- MTB metrics like grit and flow are unique to Garmin bike computers.
- Recommended recovery, suggested workouts, and dozens more.
Bike Computer Alternatives
The main bike computer alternatives include smartwatches, smartphones, and speedometers. Let’s take a look at their advantages and disadvantages.
Smartwatches are more compact and versatile than bike computers. You can use them not only for cycling but also for running, swimming, and other (non)fitness activities.
You can wear your smartwatch on your wrist or wrapped around your handlebars when cycling. The first method allows you to track your HR, but you will have to twist your hand to see your ride data (which can be dangerous).
The second method lets you see your ride data just like a bike computer (but on a smaller screen). However, you won’t have the HR data unless you pair your watches with an HR strap or other HR source.
A smartphone attached to a phone mount is a good bike computer alternative. However, if you use a low-quality mount, your phone may fall and break.
Another way is to keep your phone in a jersey pocket. But you won’t see your ride data as on a bike computer.
There is another downside. Smartphones drain their battery quicker than bike computers. So you will need to recharge it often, and if you plan to do long rides, they may not even last the entire ride.
Speedometers can measure basic metrics like your speed, average speed, ascent, descent, temperature, time, etc. Moreover, they are affordable (costs a few dozen of bucks) and easy to use.
When I started cycling, I used a speedometer with this basic info to know what distance I rode, my average speed, etc.
However, once I got engulfed by Strava and training, I wanted more and bought a bike computer to pair it with my HR monitor, eventually a power meter.
Speedometers are suitable for beginners and casual riders who want a basic overview of their ride. To get more info about your ride (e.g., a comparison with other riders), you can use a Strava phone app.
Bike Computers FAQ
What Bike Computer Do Pro Cyclists Use?
Pro cyclists use mainly Garmin and Wahoo bike computers in the 2022 season. However, there are a few other bike computer brands that some teams use.
|Team||Bike Computer Brand|
|AG2R Citroën Team||Wahoo|
|Astana Qazaqstan Team||Garmin|
|Bahrain – Victorious||Garmin|
|BORA – hansgrohe||Wahoo|
|Groupama – FDJ||Garmin|
|Intermarché - Wanty - Gobert Matériaux||Bryton|
|Israel - Premier Tech||Hammerhead|
|Quick-Step Alpha Vinyl Team||Garmin|
|Team BikeExchange - Jayco||Giant/Stages|
|Trek – Segafredo||Wahoo|
Teams sponsored by Garmin use Edge 530, Edge 830, and Edge 1030 Plus.
Teams sponsored by Wahoo use ELEMNT BOLT v2 and ROAM.
Teams sponsored by Hammerhead use Karoo 2.
Teams sponsored by Bryton use Rider 750.
Teams sponsored by SRM use PC8.
When choosing a bike computer, consider mainly its screen (size, type, readability), navigation features (limited or full on-device navigation with re-routing features), and price.
Among other features worth considering belong battery life, user-friendliness, customizability, and Strava live segments.
It boils down to your preference and how you intend to use it.
Feel free to comment or contact me if you have any comments or tips regarding bike computers.