What Is A Bike Computer?

 Have you been searching for ways to improve your bike riding experience and are now considering a bike computer?

Well, it’s something we’ve all debated buying a cycling computer at some point. They’re nifty little tools and definitely improve riding for users of all skill levels.

They track essential cycling data such as average speed, distance, time, and other useful metrics.

But what exactly are bike computers and where do you begin when looking for one that works for you and your bike?

All of your questions will be answered in this article as we go in-depth as to what basic functions all bike computers should meet as well as what kind of battery life and screen size is best for you.

Now, if you want some suggestions for the cheapest bike computers then check out our guide on the best budget bike computer.

So, let’s begin and answer all of your burning questions about cycling computers.

 

Is A Bike Computer Necessary?

The answer to this one isn’t o clear-cut. If you’re serious about your training then a bike computer will surely add a new level of accuracy when it comes to measuring how efficient you are by offering all the data needed to track your progress. 

There are alternatives such as watches, power meters, and even a smartphone app but overall, the bike computer is the easiest to use and will give you training data that these other options usually don’t. From everything to your maximum speed all the way down to muscle oxygen sensor integration.

Bike computers are a vital piece of kit for competitive cyclists and some of the more advanced models have dozens of features and functions that you never think you’ll need but come in pretty handy when you’re training for that triathlon or charity bike ride.

 

Features Of A Bike Computer

GPS Unit – Most bike computers will be GPS enabled so if you find one that isn’t then it’s going to be very basic and probably not worth the money. GPS cycling computers allow for a range of data, including distance, speed, elevation, and navigation functions so it’s arguably one of the most important features for a bike computer to have. The best GPS cycling computers will connect to multiple GPS satellite systems for fast and more precise tracking.

Wireless Connectivity – In the past “wired vs. wireless” was a key distinction, but almost all bike computers now communicate wirelessly and it’s become an industry standard. Most work with many communication protocols, including Bluetooth accessories. One thing to consider in this department though is whether the bike computer has decent battery life. Long battery life means you can train longer without having to charge your GPS bike computer which just makes life easier.

Cycling functions – Most units offer baseline data and record speed, distance, etc. While more advanced units track things like elevation, cadence, and power. Adding special sensors to monitor key data improves accuracy so look out for bundles that come with additions such as a cadence sensor.

Display quality – This one is down to personal preference mostly and what you feel is necessary. Many bike computers have black-and-white displays, whereas the higher-end models have advanced touch-screen color displays. Most brand’s bike computer apps allow you to customize the display, including what data is shown and how that data appears. For example, the Garmin Edge bike computer and its Garmin connect app.

Heart rate monitor – These provide cardio and training data. To take full advantage of this feature you’ll need to connect the achest strap or a fitness tracker with a wrist-based sensor to feed heart rate data to your bike computer.

Navigation – More affordable units provide basic tracking and alert you when you’re off course. The best models offer similar functionality to car navigation systems, where you can enter a destination and get a turn-by-turn navigation.

Mountain biking functions – The biggest benefit of this feature is connectivity with Trailforks, a leading app that provides trail information and navigational data. Mountain-biking metrics include things like jumps, air time, and flow which are all things an avid mountain biker will want to know. As a side note- if you’re thinking of getting a mountain bike then check out our guide on the best mountain bikes under $500.

Benefits Of Cycling Computers

Accuracy and precision

A bike computer that just counts how many times your wheel rotates can’t lose a GPS satellite or accidentally cut corners because it took too long to update your position which is something you’d likely experience when using a smartphone. As long as you calibrate your computer correctly, the computer knows exactly how fast and far you’ve been riding.

Price and utility

Professional cyclists have been known to say that they only pay attention to how fast they’re riding, how far they have ridden, how long they have been riding for, and how hard they are riding. Other than power, even the cheapest bike computers will get you all of that information, and more so the extra features are down to whether you want them as opposed to necessity.

Durability

A cycling computer is purpose-built to withstand water, dust, and wrecks. Their screens and frames are strong because the manufacturers know that they will be dropped, banged up, shaken, and scuffed around on rough bike rides.

Battery Life

They frequently have low energy displays and easily rechargeable or replaceable batteries so their battery life has an edge over other devices like smartphones. That means you don’t end up with a dead battery halfway through your ride and many GPS computers can last years before the batteries need replacing, especially those with black and white displays.

Metrics On A Cycling Computer

  • Current speed – the speed you’re traveling at
  • Maximum speed – the highest rate of speed you can attain
  • Average speed – the average speed at which you travel
  • Elapsed time – the actual time taken
  • Trip distance – the distance from one point to another
  • Odometer – the distance you have traveled
  • Clock – shows the time and how long you’ve been cycling for
  • Wireless compatible – doesn’t require wires
  • Backlight – increases the screen brightness, useful for night rides
  • Calorie counter – keeps track of calories burned
  • GPS maps – gives detailed maps of your location
  • Turn-by-turn directions – Directions that are displayed continuously
  • Customizable data fields – allows you to record your own data
  • Weather information – gives updates on current and future weather
  • Colour display – a UI that appears in color as opposed to B&W
  • Barometric altimeter – shows the altitude you’re currently at
  • Heart rate – usually sold separately with a heart rate sensor
  • Touchscreen – allows you to control the computer by touch
  • Smartphone compatible – can connect to your cellphone and receive notifications

Frequently Asked Questions

Do I need cadence on my bike computer?

As said it’s good to train yourself into getting a good cadence on the bike as it’s easy for even experienced cyclists to think that pushing a harder gear at a lower RPM is going to be faster because it feels harder so it may be a useful feature for you. If you want to measure cadence then look at cadence sensors.

How do cycle computers work?

The way a cycle computer works is simple. Each time a magnet on the wheel passes a sensor on the fork a signal is generated. The bike computer measures the time between those signals and works out how fast you’re going, based on the wheel dimension you gave it on the initial device setup.

How long does a bike computer’s battery life last?

Most cycling computers will last up to 18-20 hours albeit when used conservatively. The type of display you have will also affect this as black and white displays will have better battery life than color ones.

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