Types of Bike Computers Available
There are a number of different types of bike computers on the market and having an idea of which is right for you will help you decide which is the one you should purchase. These range from basic models with no connectivity to those with GPS and ANT+ capabilities, amazing battery life, and everything in between.
For the most part, analog bike computers are no longer used among avid cycler. There are several reasons why this is the case. For one thing, they are relatively expensive. They’re also much less functional than a digital computer. On top of that, these are bulky and not as aesthetically appealing, and generally don’t have great battery life. A typical analog bike computer will offer only distance, speed, elevation gain, and elapsed time data. In a world that thrives on technology, these are not the best choice for most cyclists in today’s world. Of course, analog models do not offer any type of navigation tracking. For those who need this information for distance tracking, or for safety, upgrading to a mid-tier digital model will offer navigation capabilities.
Basic Bicycle Computers
If you want something basic and inexpensive, there are numerous versions with no GPS that simply record your time, speed, and distance. These are the three basic data points that are common in inexpensive models. Rather than using GPS to get this information, the devices get the information from a speed sensor. This is a device that is attached to the front fork of the bike. It records the number of wheel rotations that occur by passing a magnet that is attached to your front wheel’s spoke. First, it has to determine the circumference of your tire and wheel. Once it has that information, it is able to generate distance and speed information by paying attention to the frequency in which the magnet passed by the sensor. Some of these use a wireless sensor while others use a wired one. In many cases, these do not offer navigation capabilities.
You can expect these bike computers to be lower priced, with the least expensive using a wired sensor and the higher priced offering a sensor that is wireless. You typically cannot transfer the data from the computer to a tracking service or another device. In fact, most of them do not store the details of each ride you take. However, most have an odometer similar to the one in your vehicle, but the data can be lost if the battery needs to be changed out. As for the battery life and type, most of them use disposable batteries, such as the coin cell batteries available, which offer moderately good battery life. However, remember that actual battery life will vary depending on your usage.
Using a Smartphone Device
Some people choose to use their iPhone or Android device to track data using the Strava companion app or ones similar to it. This requires a smartphone that has GPS navigation enabled. There are also ANT+ receives that can be used for your smartphone is able to communicate with sensors. The largest disadvantage of using a phone as a bike computer is that there is limited battery life. You will also need to invest in a mount or case to hold your phone, so you can view the screen while cycling. Sometimes, these items can be nearly as expensive as a bike computer itself. There’s also a constant worry of the device malfunctioning or breaking if you get in an accident while the phone is attached to your handlebars.
Beyond that, while your phone has GPS navigation, that isn’t the same as being a dedicated GPS navigation device. Both GPS signals and cell triangulation are used to determine a location. This is faster than using pure GPS, but it can also have a downside. If you do not have Wi-Fi or cell service, you are likely to have a much less populated map that isn’t helpful. One option is to purchase navigation maps that can be downloaded onto the phone. However, this is yet another expense that would not be needed by buying even a mid-level dedicated bike computer.
You will also find that using a smartphone means that many of the popular accessories are not compatible with your phone. This includes most speed, cadence, and heart rate sensors that make use of the ANT+ protocol. While Bluetooth accessories are becoming more commonplace, there is still a gap in the marketplace. As such, it is recommended that you choose a stand-alone option rather than using your smartphone.
ANT+ and GPS Enabled Bike Computers
In higher-end cycling computers, you will often benefit from GPS navigation receivers and ANT+ capabilities, such as with the ELEMNT BOLT. The ANT+ sensors that are available provide you with data like cadence, power, heart rate, and speed. In addition, these devices will track your navigation/location by use of GPS. This lets you see a map of your entire completed ride which can be transferred to a smartphone, computer, or companion app. This means you can compare times from various rides using a service like Strava.
In addition to seeing your own time on a segment and being able to compare it with other Strava users, you can also see what your rank is on any section. Some of these bicycle computers will also provide you with turn-by-turn navigation directions for the course you are on while showing where you are on the course using a map on your tracker’s screen. A few of the models have other navigation functions and can use a smartphone to push the instructions to the device. This type of bike computer is customizable and powerful with tools that can be used with all sorts of sensors. The data can even be passed between multiple bikes for those who like to switch things up a little.
Bluetooth Enabled Bike Computers
Some of the previously mentioned high-quality bicycle computers also connect to Bluetooth. This means that they are able to communicate with a smartphone or tablet using a companion app like the ELEMNT BOLT, Garmin Connect, or Lezyne Ally. Having a connection to a smartphone also offers additional features like streaming your ride and navigation to your friends or cycling partners, but may reduce battery life. This includes data like your speed and location. You can also use the files from your rides to load into other apps for analysis. In addition, for those who use Strava, you can transfer to it without even needing a cable.
The Inner Workings of a Bike Computer
The way your bike computer works will depend on which type is used. There are many different components and data transmission options which work in distinct ways. We’ll go over the basics below to give you an idea of the inner workings of your current or future computer.
If you have a magnetic sensor, the magnet will be attached to a spoke on your wheel, typically the front one. The magnet rotates by a sensor which is attached to the front fork of your bike. If the sensor is for cadence, the magnet will instead to attached to the crankarm while the sensor is placed on a rear stay. There are positives to this type of sensor, namely that it has significant battery life and is inexpensive. You will rarely be required to recharge it and can instead focus on your cycling. However, it does not feature GPS functionality which can be a disadvantage for serious riders.
A GPS sensor is a bit different in that a satellite receiver is used which can take GPS signals and convert them into ride data. While these sensors are more expensive and require more regular recharging, they also have a number of perks. For one, you can swap the sensors between bikes with easy, which isn’t possible with magnetic sensors. You also have a massive number of data options, and you can take the data and transfer it onto a tracker. However, this is a heavier option, and it will cost more. It may also affect battery life in comparison to other options.
Data Transmission Types
With wired data transmission, you use magnetic sensors, but there is a visual wire that transmits your signal to the actual computer unit’s display. A wired setup is less expensive, lighter, and tends to be simpler to operate, while offering slightly better battery life. However, these sensors are typically not able to swap between different bikes. In addition, sometimes the transmission wire can get caught somewhere which will cause it to be ripped out. This is especially common with mountain bikes, but the risk is still there with a regular road bike.
The other option is a wireless sensor. With this type of transmission, there are no wires that can get caught on anything. This also leads to a cleaner and more pristine look. These sensors are also easier to install than wired magnetic sensors in most cases. The problem is that the device itself is heavier than wired sensors. These sensors are also significantly more expensive than the alternative. All in all, the wireless model is convenient and has better features, but wired sensors are cheaper and better for someone who is on a strict budget. As an aside, all GPS sensors are going to be wireless as there is no need for a wire.
Other Features to Consider
- Additional Mounts – If you choose a bicycle computer that allows use on multiple bikes, there are mounts on the market which allow you to position the unit to be in front of your handlebar. Those who prefer a bit of distance to better focus on the data will find this is a major benefit. It’s also a perk in that you don’t have to take your eyes off of the trail, track, or road to quickly glance at the screen to glean information.
- Backlight – If you are someone who often rides at night or in other dark environments, a backlight is nearly mandatory. This provides a light behind the screen information that makes it more readable. While a helmet light can do the job in a pinch without a backlight, it isn’t the best option in most cases.
- Battery Life – If you choose a bike computer that includes GPS, you can expect it to come with a rechargeable system that may have a battery life of 20 hours. Some bikes offer larger options to increase the battery life. If you use a smartphone along with apps, the battery life is anywhere from five to eight hour. A magnetic unit that uses a small coin-battery may offer a battery life of several years.
- Bluetooth Capability – If your unit has Bluetooth, like the ELEMNT BOLT does, you can communicate with smartphones and other devices using certain applications. This can give you the ability to keep track of people you are riding with if one of you gets off track. However, this is only a useful function if you are in an area with reasonable cell phone reception. Note that Bluetooth will have an impact on battery life.
- Data Transfer – This is a personal option depending on what features are most important to you. If you want to be able to transfer your ride data to a website, social fitness site, or training program, you will want to go with a device that includes GPS. A smartphone is one of the options available here. Data transfer capabilities will also affect battery life.
- Multiple Data Screens – Some bike computers come with a single screen, while others allow you to scroll between numerous screens with unique data on each. You also have the option of choosing a screen that is fixed and unalterable or one that you can customize to best fit your specific needs. More advanced screens and display technology will have an impact on battery life and usability.
- Multiple Bicycle Use – If you swap between different bikes on a regular basis, there are some units that provide that option. Typically, the data for every bike will be saved in a distinct file. You’re most likely to find this option on the higher-end models that offer GPS connectivity.
- Readability – If you go with a magnetic unit, you’re probably going to have little to no options for choosing the font size you want. Some GPS models do allow you to change the size, which can be important for those who have a visual You should also keep in mind that even a font that is normally easy to read can be blurred when you are on a road with lots of vibration so additional font sizes can be useful.
- Power Meters – Power meters are necessary for displaying – you guessed it – power. They rely on strain gauges for this capability, but you won’t find power meters on all bike computers out there.
- Touchscreen Functionality – Some of the more full-featured computers offer a touchscreen as opposed to buttons you press outside of the screen. These are easy to use and can be an improvement over a single button model. If you favor convenience and easy operation, this may be something you want to explore. It is especially useful with a unit that has multiple pages and numerous options.
Related: Best Bike Trainer
The Cost of a Modern Bike Computer
The reality is that bike computers come at all sorts of price points. Before you make an estimate of how much you will need to spend, there are a few things you should consider. The first thing to take into account is why you need a bike computer and what sort of cycling you tend to do. We’ll go over the basic groups below.
Commuter or Casual Cyclist
For the person who mainly cycles to get to work or school and might take occasional rides for pleasure, you may not need to go farther than acquiring a basic bike computer. These computers can be as inexpensive as about $50 but may cost more if you want cadence sensors or robust navigation capabilities. If you go with this sort of bike computer, you’ll have access to data like time, speed, and distance. This should be enough data for your commuting and casual biking needs. In most cases, casual riders will not need access to power meters or other advanced metrics.
Those of you are touring on your bike or using it for fitness reasons will likely need a few more functions than the commuter would. Having a bike computer that includes an odometer will let you know the entire distance you have ever ridden your bike. It will also show you extensive data like your maximum speed, average speed, and calories burned. Power meters are also helpful for experienced cyclists, and navigation capabilities are usually preferred. However, to get these features and functionality, you can expect to pay $100 or more, depending on your preferences.
If you are constantly on your bike and looking to compete or push your fitness goals to the extreme, you are going to need a full-featured bicycle computer. Unfortunately, the base price for a high-quality bike computer can be $200 or even more. However, this will provide you with both ANT+ compatibility and GPS location technology. You’ll also get all of the data options that were mentioned above, along with additional data on heart rate, elevation gain, and power data. Plus, you will get the perk of connective to Bluetooth and can use nearly any companion app or riding software you would like to. Competitive cyclists will also prefer to have access to the information provided through power meters so you can fine-tune your performance.
Installing a Bike Computer
Most of the time, installing a bike computer is straightforward and simple. There aren’t a lot of components to worry about, regardless of whether the unit is wired or wireless. That said, a wireless computer is easier to install since there is no need to stress about working with any cable. Here are the steps to installing most options to your bike:
The first task you will have is to mount your sensor onto the fork of your bike. If your bicycle has disc brakes, you will want to make sure the sensor is mounted on the other side of the fork. The sensor can be placed on any part of the fork, but it needs to be turned inside where it faces toward the wheel. Pick whatever spot is the most convenient for you. The wire for the sensor will be run across the back of the fork, so it doesn’t bump into any branches or other things in the way.
If your sensor is a hub sensor, the process is slightly different. What you will want to do is take the speed sensor and attach it to the front or rear wheel using a rubber band. When your wheel turns, the sensor is going to record the rotation and use that to calculate what speed you are going at. With a cadence sensor, the process is largely the same. You will attach it to your crank, and it will do what it is supposed to do.
The next step involves attaching the unit itself. You will want the display to be on the handlebar in a location that makes it visible at all times while you ride. Depending on the unit you use, the way you attach it will vary. It can be a bit easier or harder depending on how thick your handlebar is. You’ll need to read the instructions for the right method to attach it. After you have done the attachment, the unit can be slid in, and you can adjust the angle to make it easily viewable.
Next up, with a magnetic sensor, you are going to need to attach the magnet to a spoke located on the front wheel. This is one of the most precise parts of the installation of your bike computer. Where you position it will have a huge impact on how well it works when cycling. What you want to do is make absolutely certain that the magnet passes less than 5 mm from the sensor. This will ensure that the sensor is aware of every wheel rotation, which will result in you having the most accurate data possible.
Those who have cadence and hub sensors will not need to attach any sorts of magnets to the frame or the wheel. These types of sensors look at rotations to determine your speed, which makes installation a lot more straightforward and less time-consuming.
The last part of the installation process involves calibrating your bike computer. For those who have a brand-new cycling computer, it will come with an instruction manual which will give you the steps needs to set up and calibrate everything properly.
One of the things you must input for the correct data is the diameter of your bicycle’s tires. This ensures that your device knows the exact calculation to use for displaying your speed and distance. If you aren’t sure what the diameter of the tire is, it is printed on the side of the tire right next to the information about the recommended air pressure to maintain.
If you own a Garmin cadence or speed sensor (or both), the sensors are able to calibrate automatically. They take into account the GPS information and number of rotations that are provided from the bike computer. This is another perk of picking up a high-quality bike computer. You can install the unit in minutes and get back on the road and off on your next adventure.
When you buy a bike computer, you’re making an investment, especially if you choose one of the premium models. If that unit is never calibrated appropriately, the data you get is going to be useful. The most important aspect of calibration relates to the diameter measurement of your tire. Here are some additional tips for ensuring you use the right numbers.
When you use the tire size that is written on the side of your tire, that can usually provide a reasonable calibration for popular computers and standard tires. However, for those who use non-standard tires, this may require extra information. First, you should know that bike computers fall into one of six groups as far as the number that is needed for calibration. These include:
- Circumference in millimeters
- Circumference in inches
- Circumference in centimeters
- Radius in millimeters
- Circumference in inches multiplied by 2.727
- Circumference in millimeters divided by 1.609344
While looking at tire size and estimating the circumference often is reasonable, it may not always be entirely accurate. There are a few reasons for this to be true. For one thing, the tread thickness can affect the circumference. The same is true for tire pressure. In order to get the best measurements, you may want to try a roll-out test.
A roll-out test is done to measure the exact circumference of your bike’s tire. Before you start, you will want to pump up the tire to the appropriate pressure. You should also sit on the bike while the test is being done.
What you want to do is position your wheel so that the valve on the tire is at a 90-degree angle and close to the ground. Then you want to make that spot on the ground using a pen or other tool. After that, roll your tire forward until it has made one complete rotation and the valve is back where it started. You’ll want to mark this spot on the ground, too. Once you have done this, all you have to do is measure the distance between those two marks. This gives you the exact circumference taking into account tire pressure and tread thickness.
At this point, you should understand the type of bike computer that appeals to you, what information you want available, how much you are willing to spend, , whether you want navigation or not, and if there are any special functions that are a must-have. Everyone is different, but thankfully, there are tons of bike computers out there, and one is sure to fit your style and needs, from functionality to battery life. By selecting one of the above computers, you can have peace of mind that no matter where you ride and no matter how hard, your trusty device will keep up with you.