Which is better to record bike rides – a smart phone or a bike computer? Many people just love bike computers, including me. However, it is fair to question whether anyone really needs a bike computer any more, considering that most of us walk around with phones that are smart enough to record bike rides, with the right apps. Why spend more money on a bike computer, when you already have an expensive, multi-talented phone in your pocket? This is a good question, and in this post I am going to compare using your smart phone vs. using a bike computer to record your rides.
Spoiler alert: I am not going to say that one is better than the other. I really believe the choice depends on your own needs, and of course, also on your budget. With that in mind, I am going to compare the pros and cons of both approaches, so you can decide for yourself.
A Choice of Apps for Recording Bike Rides
There are many apps that you can use to record bike rides, and some are excellent, such as Strava, MapMyRide or Wahoo Fitness. I personally use Strava often. If for example you don’t have a bike computer with you, all you have to do is open the app, choose your sport, hit record, and your ride is recorded. At the end, just hit save. If you have set it up, it will then automatically upload it to your account, which you can access online at strava.com. I have a post about recording bike rides with Strava here.
The Strava dashboard is excellent, and allows you to review your overall ride history, and dig down deeper into data for each ride. If you are trying to remember that ride you did last summer, you can scroll through and find it, or search for it if you gave it a memorable name. Then you can review the map that Strava made for you last year! Also, friends can follow your activities and give you kudos, while you do the same for them. You can also create challenges for yourself or with others. All this for just a few dollars for the basic version. Or, you can pay an annual fee and enjoy premium features, which include heart rate recording and other more advanced features. Of course, to record your heart rate, you do need to have a heart rate monitor. But then, you also need a heart rate monitor if you are using a bike computer.
Advantages of Using an App on Your Smart Phone to Record a Ride
First of all, the price. Most people already have a smart phone, and the apps are either cheap or free. You may however need to spend some money on a mount so you can carry your phone on your handlebars, and of course, a good case to protect it if you have a crash. I have a post about an affordable and very reliable mount for a smart phone here.
There is one other option here: you can buy a product like Wahoo Fitness’ RFLKT. This is a screen that you can mount on your handlebars. It will receive Bluetooth data from your phone, which you can keep safely stored in your pannier.
Second, convenience. Most people don’t leave home without their smart phones, so you always have it with you. On the other hand, if you have a small, cheap bike computer, you can probably leave it on your bike all the time without fear of it being stolen, so it may be even more convenient.
Disadvantages of Using an App on Your Smart Phone to Record a Ride
First of all, battery drain. If you are doing a long ride, your phone is going to be working overtime. Although most smart phones can last all day, that changes dramatically once it is using GPS continuously. Bike computers are designed specifically to use GPS all the time, while smart phones are not.
I have had many experiences of having a smart phone run out of battery power while recording a ride, especially when I have been simultaneously using the phone to navigate with Google Maps, or to monitor my Go Pro.
Bear in mind that having a dead smart phone can be a major inconvenience or even worse if you are traveling and lost (which has happened to me), while a bike computer that runs out of power is really not a major problem. At most, you will fail to record one bike ride.
All of this points to the likelihood that if you frequently do bike rides longer than two hours, you will most likely be better off with a bike computer of some kind. Even a cheap one will last for many hours, while your phone’s battery life is preserved, so you can use it in case of any kind of problem or emergency. When I do bike rides alone on lonely trails, it is always comforting to know that if I fall and hurt myself, I can use my phone to call for help.
In that regard, it is worth mentioning that many of the higher-end bike computers have built-in accident detection, and can be set up to send an alert to your significant other.
One way around the battery problem is to pack along a battery charger. One of the best things I bought this past year was a portable phone charger, which is about the same size and weight as a smart phone. This will recharge my phone several times over, and is really invaluable when traveling, or on a long bike ride. But of course, you have to pay to buy one of these for about 40 dollars. And carry it with you too.
Limitations of Apps that Record Bike Rides, versus Bike Computers
Second, an app on your smart phone has its limitations compared to high-end bike computers. One way to think of a high-end bike computer is to think of it as the brain controlling a number of different sensory organs. With the sensory organs being not eyes or ears, but other data collection instruments, such as a power meter to record how much power you are putting into your pedaling, a heart rate monitor to record how your heart is preforming, and a cadence meter to record the speed of your pedal (how many times you pedal per minute). The last mentioned is important for protecting your knees – a speed of around 80 revolutions per minute is recommended.
A high-end bike computer with additional sensors is of course going to give you much, much more information than an app on a smart phone. So if you really want or need all that data, then a bike computer is the better choice. However, not everyone needs all that data, and also, some apps can be paired with one of the most important sensors, that is, a heart rate monitor.
ANT+ and Bluetooth Connectivity
It used to be that all bike computers used a technology called ANT+ to wirelessly link to the other recording devices, while all smart phones used Bluetooth to wirelessly connect. This was partly because ANT+ was more power-efficient. This would mean that if you happened to own a cadence sensor, a heart rate monitor and a power meter, you could not connect them to your smart phone, only to a bike computer.
However, very recently this has started to change quite quickly, with the invention of Bluetooth Smart, which rivals ANT+ for power-efficiency. Thanks to Bluetooth Smart, more sensors area becoming “bilingual” and are able to connect using either Bluetooth or ANT+. For example, Wahoo’s popular Tickr heart rate monitor can connect with either technology. The same goes for most Polar recording devices. And these days, most high-end bike computers can receive data via either Bluetooth or ANT+.
If you do find yourself in a situation where you have ANT+ devices and a phone that will only take Bluetooth inputs, you can purchase an ANT+ key that you can plug into your phone. For example, the Wahoo ANT+ Key.
There are some devices that absolutely require a specific bike computer to control them. For example, Garmin makes two excellent safety products, Garmin Varia lights and Garmin Varia Vision, which have to be controlled (of course) by a Garmin Edge bike computer. Again, these products are very nice-to-have, but they are high-end luxuries that the vast majority of cyclists get along just fine without. I have a review of those products here.
Despite such advances, high-end bike computers are designed specifically to be the brain connecting these devices, while smart phones are designed specifically to be … well, phones. I sometimes forget that, given how much smart phones do these days. In that regard, I find this comedy sketch by Michael McIntyre very funny.
Bottom line is that there are simply no apps for a smart phone that can do everything that a high-end bike computer can do. So, if you are a more elite level cyclist, you are probably going to want more data than a smart phone app can provide.
What About Basic Bike Computers?
Of course, this disadvantage does not apply when comparing a smart phone to a lower-end bike computer, which typically just measures speed (including current, average, and maximum) and distance (and sometimes altitude). In this case, it is hard to see much difference between a bike computer and an app, and it pretty much comes down to what you find more convenient. In this case too, the price is hardly a deciding factor, as you can get a cheap bike computer for less than thirty dollars, especially if you don’t mind having a wired device. If you want to go that way, our top choice is the Cateye Velo (see also the comparative chart at the end of this post).
Quick Solution for Recording Bike Rides
Many people want to know their heart rate while cycling, as it is the single most important indication of health and fitness. It is also incredibly satisfying to be able to monitor improvements in your heart’s response as you get fitter. But usually, you need to wear a heart rate monitor to record this, in addition to packing a phone or a bike computer.
A handy all-in-one solution is a smart watch/fitness tracker combo such as the Garmin Vivoactive 3 watch that I have, which has an optical heart rate monitor built in. At the moment, this is my go-to device for recording hikes and bike rides, simply because I am really busy right now and don’t always have time to remember to bring along a bike computer. I have a post here about how easy it is to record rides with this watch. However, it is very limited in terms of recording any kinds of cycling metrics – it simply tells you how far and fast you rode, and what your heart rate was.
But actually this is fine, because I upload these rides automatically to Strava. As I happen to have Strava Summit (which used to be called Premium), I actually get a huge amount of data out of these easy-to-do recordings, because Strava uses its database and its algorithms to figure out all kinds of things, including estimated power (I don’t have a power meter). This is good enough for me as an average cyclist who does not aspire to race, ever.
Comparative Aerodynamics of a Smart Phone vs. a Bike Computer
I frequently cycle with my smart phone out front in my Taotronics phone holder (which by the way I 100% recommend – it keeps my phone safe in the bumpiest cycling conditions). In this position, I can use it to monitor what my Go Pro is recording, and sometimes I use it in that position to navigate. However, I am well aware that my cell phone in this position is not remotely aerodynamic. That’s just fine with me, because I am not remotely a competitive cyclist, so I really don’t care if this makes me five seconds slower (if I cared, I would start by losing some weight, not by losing the phone!).
However, if you do care about such things because you are a fast and efficient cyclist trying to be even faster, you might well care. In that case, bike computers such as the Wahoo Elemnt are designed to be aerodynamic and not to detract from your speed. Aerodynamics was top of the list for Wahoo designers, and they claim that their aerodynamic bike computer used with their aerodynamic out-front mount can save 12.6 seconds on a 40 km (25 mile) time trial, when compared with a leading competitor (most likely Garmin). When compared with a smart phone, it probably saves a lot more time than that, as a Garmin bike computer is more aerodynamic than a clunky smart phone. I still don’t care, but there are many people who legitimately do care about those seconds. A few seconds saved can be life-changing in a time trial, for example.
One way around this is to simply carry your phone in your pocket. But then, you will not be able to see your speed, which is something you most likely want to see if you are recording a bike ride. Personally, I like to be able to see my current and average speed, because it can encourage me to put a bit more effort into my pedaling.
Size of a Smart Phone vs. a Bike Computer
A smart phone will usually take up more space on your handlebars, and weigh a bit more, than a bike computer. On the other hand, if you are older, it may be easier to read the screen on a smart phone than on a tiny bike computer.
However, many higher-end bike computers let you customize a screen that shows just what you really care about, such as speed and power. Those kinds of customized data displays are actually easier to view than a smart phone app.
Smart Phone vs. a Bike Computer in Puddles and Crashes
I remember one time I glanced down at my handlebars and noticed my Garmin bike computer simply wasn’t there anymore. I had failed to secure it properly, and it had fallen off. I was sick to my stomach, because it was my first expensive bike computer. I retraced my route and felt even sicker when I found it in a puddle. However, it turned out to be just fine. I know from experience that this would not have been the case if it was my smart phone. (I dropped mine on a rainy sidewalk once, and a kind stranger ensured it was returned to me. However, it was never the same again, due to water damage.) These days I protect my phone with an Otter commuter case, which does a great job in most circumstances, but would most likely fail in a puddle.
Also, if you are unfortunate enough to have a bike crash, your bike computer will definitely do a whole lot better than a smart phone. Bike computers are designed to survive such events, while smart phones are not. Something you might like to think about if you don’t have insurance on your phone.
Navigation with a Smart Phone vs. a Bike Computer
Some of the higher-end bike computers have advanced navigation abilities, including turn-by-turn directions. For this, my absolute favorite is the sleek Garmin Edge 820. However, I have also used Google Maps on a Smart Phone for navigation. There is nothing to stop you from simultaneously using your smart phone to record a bike ride on Strava in the background, while using Google Maps to have a map on your handlebars and directional prompts. This works fairly well, but in my experience, you will burn through your battery at great speed. So this would not work well for longer rides.
There are also apps such as NavFree and RideWithGPS that are designed for navigating on a bicycle. It is well worth experimenting with these to see if they work for you. Note that RideWithGPS has an annual fee.
What if There is No Cellular Service?
The good news here is that your smart phone, bike computer, and fitness trackers can all pick up GPS signals, even when you have no cellular connection. Right now I am staying in a state park that has no cell signal and no internet whatsoever – but I am still able to record rides and hikes on my Garmin Vivoactive 3 watch, and on my bike computer.
Accuracy of a Smart Phone vs. a Bike Computer for Recording a Bike Ride
When recording a bike ride using an app on your phone, the app is using the GPS in your phone in conjunction with satellites in space to record your route. The app then analyzes the information using detected moving time and the total activity distance. On the other hand, bike computers usually have built-in hardware to figure out the average time. And many bike computers use an internal barometric altimeter to measure atmospheric pressure in order to assess altitude. While an app such as Strava uses its constantly growing database to figure out altitude. This database is generated by users, many of whom are riding with bike computers that have barometric altimeters.
As to which is more accurate, most people assume bike computers are more accurate, and this is no doubt correct. Many cyclists attest that GPS recordings on a Garmin bike computer are much more accurate than Strava GPS recordings, for example.
However, there are simply too many variables to precisely evaluate just how much more accurate bike computers are. Variables include how good the hardware in the bike computer or the smart phone is, how good the GPS signal in your phone is, where the satellites are during the ride, and what the weather is like (this will affect atmospheric pressure).
There are so many variables that many cyclists (myself included) do not care too much about 100% accuracy. It is usually enough that your readings are sufficiently consistent that you can track your progress.
Using a Smart Phone vs. a Bike Computer to Record Bike Rides in Cold Conditions
I have a love-hate relationship with my iPhone, and many of the hate moments happen in cold weather. I don’t know how many times I have been recording bike rides on a phone at near freezing point, and my phone just suddenly seems to eat all of its battery and die. This can happen as much as five degrees above freezing. This is a known problem with smart phones, that simply does not happen with bike computers.
One way around this is to carry your phone tucked right inside your clothes, against your skin. This will usually keep it warm enough to function, especially if you are cycling energetically. Of course, that does mean you cannot see it, so you cannot monitor your speed, and just have to hope that it is still recording.
Buttons vs. Touch Screen
With bike computers such as the Garmin Edge 520, you use buttons instead of a touch screen to control functions. Interestingly, the Edge 520 upgrade went back to buttons, after Garmin used a touch screen on the Edge 510. Garmin hasn’t told us, but I suspect this was based on user feedback. Many people (me included), find buttons easier to use than a touch screen, especially in bad weather and when wearing gloves.
Of course, all of the cheap bike computers use buttons rather than touch screens. With most smart phones, you need to use touch screen a lot, and this can be difficult in some conditions.
Bottom Line on Using a Smart Phone vs a Bike Computer for Recording Bike Rides
Bike computers are specifically designed to record cycling metrics in the rain, go on for endless hours, and survive rain and crashes. As such, they are usually going to record bike rides better than a smart phone in most circumstances, and usually they are going to be able to record a whole lot more than an app can record – especially because of their role as the brain connecting multiple sensors.
That said, an app on a smart phone can record a large amount of data – often enough for what an individual cyclist wants. Although I love bike computers, if I was starting from scratch, I would be inclined to start with a free app, and see if that met my needs. If it didn’t, I might progress to an app I had to pay for, such as Strava. And if I still wasn’t happy after a while, I might try a cheap bike computer. And only if that did not turn out to be enough would I progress to an expensive high-end bike computer.
Alternatively, if you are hesitating to spend big bucks but want to keep your phone safe, a good compromise is to have your smart phone in your pocket recording your ride data with an app such as Strava, plus a cheap bike computer on your handlebars so that you can keep an eye on your current and average speed.
With that in mind, my list of the best bike computers below starts off with a cheap bike computer. If you want to read more about these bike computers, I have an in-depth post about them here.
Recommended Bike Computers
|Wired||Current, average, and maximum speed, trip distance, elapsed time, and odometer||$28.95|
|Wireless||Advanced training features and also can give you turn-by-turn directions to help you navigate to Saved Places, and places found on included Yelp app. You can also download routes to it. Plus: current, average, and maximum speed, average speed, trip distance, total distance, elapsed time, time of day, calories burned, GPS tracking of routes, elevation changes, live tracking, smart alerts including weather, new advanced performance and power analysis, including new Time in Zone, FTP (Functional Threshold Power) tracking, cycling-specific VO2 and recovery and cycling dynamics. ANT+ connectivity so you can connect it to other devices, such as a cadence and speed sensor or a heart rate monitor. Can connect via a Shimano wireless transmitter to Garmin Vector 2S Power Meter Pedals, Di2 Dura-Ace 9070, Ultegra 6870 Di2, or Ultegra 6770 electronic gears.||$279.99|
|Wireless||Current, average, and maximum speed, average speed, trip distance, total distance, elapsed time, time of day, calories burned, GPS tracking of routes, elevation changes, climbing data, group tracking, maps. Turn by turn navigation possible with RideWithGPS app. Connect to sensors with ANT+ and ALSO Bluetooth 4.0. Text messages, emails, and phone call notifications on screen.||$323.94|
|Wireless||Current, average, and maximum speed, average speed, trip distance, total distance, elapsed time, time of day, calories burned, GPS tracking of routes, elevation changes, ANT+ connectivity so you can connect it to other devices, such as a cadence and speed sensor or a heart rate monitor||$127.99|
|Wireless||Current, average, and maximum speed, average speed, trip distance, total distance, elapsed time, time of day, calories burned, GPS tracking of routes, elevation changes, turn-by-turn navigation instructions, route mapping, live tracking, smart alerts including weather, new advanced performance and power analysis, including new Time in Zone, FTP (Functional Threshold Power) tracking, cycling-specific VO2 and recovery and cycling dynamics. Has brand new features never before seen in Garmin Edge bike computers, including Group Track, Incident Alert, Battery Save Mode and Stress Score. Has ANT+ connectivity so you can connect it to other devices, such as a cadence and speed sensor or a heart rate monitor. Can connect via a Shimano wireless transmitter to Garmin Vector 2S Power Meter Pedals, Di2 Dura-Ace 9070, Ultegra 6870 Di2, or Ultegra 6770 electronic gears.||$349.99|
|Wireless||Current, average, and maximum speed, trip distance, second-trip distance, total distance, elapsed time, and time of day||$44.96|
|Wireless||Current, average, and maximum speed, average speed, trip distance, total distance; programmable odometer; new stopwatch feature; super large display||$54.95|
I hope that all the information above helps you make up your mind! If you do decide to buy a bike computer, please consider repaying me for my working hours by clicking on one of the product links before buying!
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