With cycling becoming more of a numbers game, do we really need cycling computers or can our smartphones provide all of the functionalities necessary? Bike computers are purpose-built devices, but there is now a wide range of cycling apps capable of recording and uploading rides.
When bike computers were first made, they provided a way of recording speed and distance, long before we could run apps like that Strava on our smartphones. They’ve developed massively since the first one by CatEye in 1981, now offering us nearly every metric under the sun.
> Check out the best cycling computers 2023
Computers – particularly with GPS built in – are now very popular, with most cyclists owning a bike computer from the likes of Garmin or Wahoo. You’re probably more likely to notice a bike without a bike computer on rather than a bike with one.
All this said, smartphones are becoming smarter. Phones running GPS apps are becoming more popular due to the wide range of cycling apps capable of recording rides, plus the often larger screen to view maps and data.
Type of riding
Let’s start with the type of riding you do, and ultimately why you ride a bike. If you ride your bike for fitness and want to improve, then cycling is becoming more and more of a numbers sport with many of us quick to analyze every metric from the Sunday club run.
However, many of you will ride for pure enjoyment and may feel that the amount of potential data that can now be collected detracts from the joy of riding a bike.
If the focus of your riding is more specific training with goals and targets in mind, access to more data may be of value to you and therefore a bike computer would be the best tool for the job.
Gone are the days of carrying a paper map out on a ride with you, so if you only require a device for navigation, Google maps on a phone screen is easier to follow than a bike computer thanks to a larger screen, and a phone can be easily mounted to your bars.
> GPS cycle route planning made easy – how to plan and follow a bike route
Some of the best touring bike computers struggle to replicate the density of information from a map, and the scope for context is limited due to the size of the screen. You also have to spend quite a lot on a bike computer before the navigation is as clear as it would be on a smartphone.
However, uploading routes to a bike computer and having a breadcrumb trail to follow can be extremely useful and you’re even notified if you’ve taken a wrong turn.
That being said, for casual errands or to make short trips, a phone can be much quicker to use for a bit of navigation. The Quad Lock Out Front Mount Pro mount is one of the best ways to get a large phone out in front of your handlebar.
More often than not, I tend to ride familiar loops, meaning there is no real need for any guidance from a smartphone or bike computer.
This moves us on to battery life, and the type of riding you’re doing is the biggest determinant of how much battery life you’ll need.
A Garmin Edge 1040 has the best battery life available, with a claimed battery life of 35 hours in demanding cases and up to 70 hours in saver mode.
This is significantly more than the Wahoo Elemnt Roam with a claimed battery life of 17 hours.
Although on paper this appears to be the same as the battery life of an iPhone 12 (17 hours), additional factors such as screen brightness and using GPS apps significantly decrease battery life on a phone. Bike computers are designed with this purpose in mind.
As well as this, a bike computer is not needed outside of this job. It is important to have some battery life left on your phone in case of an emergency.
As such, a smartphone is unlikely to be able to record a long ride while preserving a decent level of battery juice, unless you’re carrying an external battery pack. Bike computers are therefore a better choice if you’re heading out for more than a couple of hours.
Mobile phones can now be one of the most expensive things we buy, with the new iPhone 14 pro costing over £1,000.
With mobile phones able to record rides and some apps able to connect to heart rate monitors, you may not want to be spending even more money on a bike computer.
On the other hand, you might not be too keen on attaching your £1,000+ phone to a handlebar mount, so you may prefer to have a separate device.
Cheap bike computers can start as low as £40 for many different models, capable of recording speed and distance, up to models costing over £300 offering structured workouts, and the ability to plan and follow routes.
Again, the type of riding you’re doing will determine how much you need to spend on a bike computer.
Smartphones are able to host a number of fitness apps such as Strava, which can display fitness data such as speed, distance and elevation which we’re used to seeing on cycling computers.
Strava is compatible with a number of GPS devices that record heart rate data such as Garmin, Fitbit, Apple Watch, Wahoo, Polar, and Suunto. If you have a standalone Bluetooth heart rate monitor you can also pair it directly with Strava.
> How to use Strava to make you fitter
With the use of phone apps becoming more popular there are now more devices, like Wahoo’s Tickr heart rate monitor, which uses Bluetooth too. These can be connected directly to your phone.
Like smartphones, bike computers can also host apps such as Strava, allowing you to access and upload routes directly. Komoot is an example app that also enables you to plan a route with its easy route planner which is compatible with GPS cycling computers, smartwatches and the komoot mobile app for Android or iOS.
> Getting started with Komoot
Aside from displaying speed, distance, elevation and heart rate data, bike computers that receive Bluetooth and ANT+ data can link up to external sensors so you can pair them with devices such as cadence sensors, power meters and more. This can help you step your training up a notch.
Measuring your heart rate and power during workouts can help you better understand your fitness over time; but again, if you ride your bike for the pure enjoyment of getting out, bike computers with these functionalities won’t be what you desire or need.
> Check out the best heart rate monitors 2023
Even though many smartphones offer some water resistance and waterproof phone cases that can be purchased, bike computers are created to withstand the demands specific to riding a bike.
I am someone who always seems to manage to smash an iPhone by dropping it, so resilience is a factor too! In the (hopefully) unlikely event of a crash, a bike computer is better designed to deal with this impact than a smartphone.
Apple recently made a statement about potential issues when exposing iPhones to vibrations, warning: “Exposure to vibrations, like those generated by high-powered motorcycle engines, might impact iPhone cameras.”
It only mentions motorbikes and vehicles with motors, but it might be sensible to think about this in terms of cycling, particularly on uneven terrain. While it doesn’t talk about the vibrations of a phone when mounted on your bars on gravel terrain, it does show that smartphones have been designed for a different purpose in mind to bike computers.
So, what do we know?
Bike computers are purpose-built machines for cycling, designed to be weatherproof and crash-resistant. They are also designed to fit onto handlebars.
One of the key purposes is to record GPS data, which a bike computer can cope with much more effectively in terms of battery life compared to a smartphone.
If riding your bike is with a focus on training, bike computers may help take your training to the next level by linking up to external sensors so you can pair them with devices such as cadence sensors, power meters and more.
With most of us already owning a smartphone, you may not want to pay more for a dedicated cycling device.
A large screen and the ability to mount a smartphone to your handlebars may make you question why you would want a second, smaller device for navigation.
There are also many downloadable apps such as Strava that can offer you some insights into your riding, with many heart rate monitors connecting via Bluetooth.
Like everything, there’s no simple yes or no, right or wrong answer.
There aren’t really any disadvantages to a bike computer, and as basic ones are cheap as chips nowadays, it might be a worthy spend to protect your smartphone and also preserve its battery life for emergencies.
If your cycling has moved indoors for the winter, a bike computer can connect to indoor trainers and heart rate and power meter sensors as well.
> Best indoor cycling apps 2023
Smartphones can match the functionality of bike computers by providing data such as speed, distance and sometimes heart rate, but they don’t provide the same number of cycling-specific features.
Anyway, back to where we started… the type of riding you do and why you ride your bike will ultimately determine whether or not a bike computer is for you.