Do You Need a Bike Computer?

Published on 05/13/2023 · 7 min readCycling Expert Gunnar O. explains the pros and cons of using a bike computer along with detailing a few alternatives to traditional computers.
Gunnar O, Cycling Expert
By Cycling Expert Gunnar O

Another fun day exploring with my bike computer! All photos courtesy of Gunnar O.

Bike computers offer tons of insight into our rides. They help us monitor our speed, cadence, heart rate, and even power output. They are useful for navigation, route planning, elevation insights, and location sharing. Some newer models are even solar-charged and offer personalized coaching insights based on your data!

But the price of some of these fancy computers can be a bit shocking to newer cyclists. Some cycling computers even cost more than the smartphones that we rely on every day. Due to the domination of these expensive and feature-rich options in the cycling market, I commonly hear the question, “I already have a smartphone/smartwatch. Do I need a bike computer?” In this article, I hope to answer that question and shine some insight into alternative options using gear you may already have.

Is Data Collection Worth It?

So do you need a bike computer? The answer to this question is pretty simple. No, you don’t. All you really need to ride a bike is, well, a bike. Sometimes, the simplicity of riding a bike without the aid of any sort of technology is the best feeling you can get; some of my favorite memories have been following a whim into an unknown place without a smartphone or computer to guide me home. But this isn’t how I usually ride my bike, and it isn’t as conducive to training and progress!

Computers can provide incredible data that allows us to harness fully and finely tune our cycling experience. The technology that is available at our fingertips today is pretty amazing, and how cycling computer companies have utilized this is rather impressive. But isn’t all of this power and more already in your smartphone? Do you really need to spend this extra money on a bike computer if your phone already has it?

Smartphones as Bike Computers

Using my mountable phone case and bar mount to hold my smartphone for navigation

Most riders considering a bike computer are mainly interested in navigation features. If you are riding in an area with plenty of service and staying on main routes, you probably don’t need a dedicated cycling computer. Although the navigation features on bike computers have incredible insights like upcoming elevation and better maps for bike paths and trails, you likely don't need one for simple rides around town if you already have a smartphone.

Using a smartphone while riding a bike is just as dangerous as using one while operating a car. I definitely don’t suggest holding your phone and glancing down for turn-by-turn navigation. For this reason, I suggest using a bar-mounted phone holder when using your smartphone to navigate. I personally like the Mous case because the mounting system is secure and well-positioned but also allows me to use my MagSafe mounts and chargers with the case.

Other bar-mounted options for users who don’t use MagSafe are Quad Lock, LifeProof, or Peak Design. There is also a myriad of other more generic mounts that work just as well. Smartphones do have some limitations compared to dedicated bike computers. However, with apps like Strava, Trailforks, Kamoot, and Google Maps with cycling routes enabled, our smartphones are constantly getting better at being dedicated bike computers.

For more serious riders, there are shortcomings to using a smartphone instead of a dedicated bike computer, including no heart rate monitor integration, no on-bike speed or cadence sensor integration, and limited battery life. And, of course, there is the worry that your mounted smartphone is just waiting to be rattled loose or stolen.

Personally, I found the battery life to be the biggest deterrent on rides because once the battery is dead, you are without a map or means of communication if something goes awry. Of course, this isn’t as much of a problem for shorter in-town rides, but it can be quite the issue for longer fitness rides.

Smartwatches as Bike Computers

My solution to using my smartwatch as a cycling computer

Smartwatches fill the gap where our smartphones fall short. They can give us heart rate information, track our GPS routes with accuracy and without bugs, and give us quick insights into our ride stats without navigating through our home screen. Many smartwatches even let you sync your data to your favorite apps once you’ve finished your ride for a more thorough analysis.

Using a smartwatch as a standalone device is a great alternative to a bike computer because it allows you to get more precise data about your ride. But the caveat is that the data is only accessible by looking at your wrist. I have tried to solve this problem by mounting my smartwatch to my bars. I loved how easy it was to visualize my data, and the watch stayed in place relatively okay, but I was no longer collecting the health stats I also like, such as heart rate. These features only work when wearing the watch.

However, you can easily overcome this by wearing a chest mount heart rate monitor that allows you to sync with your watch. I use the Garmin Instinct Solar 2 watch, so the heart rate monitor I got was Garmin branded and was very easy to connect. Of course, other smartwatch brands also have their own innovative solutions, but I really like that I could also sync my watch with the Garmin Speed and Cadence sensors. This gave me a more accurate picture of my cycling data rather than relying strictly on the GPS.

Of course, after connecting all of these additional sensors, I realized that my watch wasn’t designed for this use. Although I thought tightening the band around my handlebars was pretty ingenious, my watch would still rattle itself out of place on occasion. I have since seen accessory holders that give you a better surface for mounting your watch to your bars, but I have not tried these because I found the watch to be a less-than-perfect solution.

Although I picked my specific watch for the battery life, I noticed that while running the GPS and these other sensors, the battery life depleted rapidly. I rely on my watch for much more than logging my rides, so I found the amount of charging I had to do with this method quite inconvenient. This was when I decided that I should get a real bike computer.

When a Bike Computer Makes Sense

Using my Garmin Edge 530 for more insights to my ride!

Bike computers are purpose-built for cycling, often incorporating aerodynamics into their design. The mounts are well thought out and placed for easy visualization. Some are well-priced yet still feature-rich. Many are waterproof, which helps with sweat and when riding in the rain. Some are also shockproof, which helps in the event of a crash and keeps them running smoothly despite numerous bumps and vibrations in the road that are constantly rattling their hardware.

They also have incredibly long battery life despite running a constant GPS signal to track your ride. Many newer models also have intelligent features, such as automatically showing you the upcoming elevation change in your ride or using your stats to help you understand your altitude or weather acclimation. For mountain bikes, some computers can log your time and distance in the air or understand how smoothly you were able to complete a track. All of these features are pretty convenient and really come in handy for the data-savvy user.

So when does a bike computer make sense? I think cyclists who ride two to three hours on average and get a few rides in each week would benefit from a bike computer. A dedicated computer keeps you from being strapped to a charger with your other devices and can give you tons of helpful data to help you improve. They also have many handy features that are a bit clunkier and less refined than other non-purpose-built devices.

Should You Get a Bike Computer?

Disconnecting from all of my technology and connecting to the world around me

Do you need a bike computer? Not necessarily. You really don’t need much other than a bike to ride. But bike computers are convenient devices that give you access to tons of data and navigation features that are nonexistent or not as functional in your other devices. They offer so many insights into our rides that are truly useful to helping our training. For example, today’s ride with my computer told me about my updated aerobic and anaerobic capacities and how they have changed with my training. It also gave me insight into my acclimation to the current heat wave.

I think that a bike computer can revolutionize how we evaluate ourselves as cyclists and how we ride. So, should you get a bike computer? Yes, you would probably benefit from getting one. But, I still recommend leaving it at home along with your other smart devices once in a while and riding your bike into the unknown—as that can usually offer even more insights into how you ride.

To explore more Cycling articles as you pursue your journey in the sport, check out the Expert Journal here on Curated.

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