In a few short years cycling GPS computers have opened up a huge range of possibilities in the ways we plan, record and compare our rides. Let’s take a look at what they can do for you and which ones perform best.
Using the various satellite navigation systems, cycling GPS computers determine your position and speed, and so record and calculate a huge amount of useful information about your rides
Cycling GPS computers with large screens and mapping functions make it easy to explore new areas and ride new routes
Most GPS cycling computers also work with heart rate and power sensors to provide even deeper fitness data
Decent cycling GPS computers start around £50 and run up to about £500
GPS specialist Garmin dominates the sector, but plenty of other manufacturers are breathing down their neck
GPS stands for Global Positioning System, which if we’re being pedantic refers to the USA’s network of 24 satellites that originally became operational in 1995. This is just one of several positioning systems in which a receiver uses satellite signals to determine its location on the earth’s surface. However, like hoover and aspirin, it’s become the generic term for its category.
GPS satellites broadcast very high-precision time signals, generated by the atomic clocks they have on board, along with information about their orbits. From the data in the signals from at least four satellites a GPS receiver can calculate its position and determine your latitude, longitude and altitude.
That piece of raw data opens up a huge range of possibilities. A GPS unit can calculate your speed without needing to measure how fast your wheels are turning; it can measure the distance you’ve travelled, and record a series of location points so you can review your route on a map after the ride or in real time if the unit has a map display.
Given a map with the right additional data such as road and junction layouts, a GPS receiver can also help you navigate, and this is the function that’s really driven the proliferation of GPS devices. I can’t imagine trying to drive without one. The ancient AA road atlas that’s in the car ‘just in case’ is really there to roll up and fend off anyone who tries to take my car GPS away from me.
Early GPS receivers were slow to get a positional fix and struggled to pick up the signals from satellites if there was anything in the way, like tree cover or buildings. Advances in electronics have improved performance dramatically. Modern GPS units can get a fix indoors, and some use the Russian GLONASS system as well as the American satellites, improving speed and accuracy.
And where GPS receivers were once wallet-clenchingly expensive, you can now get a non-mapping unit for under £90, thanks to Moore’s Law and economies of scale.
If you have multiple bikes, a big advantage of GPS computers is that you can swap them from one to another without faffing around changing set-up.
Bryton has a range that covers all bases, from the simple, non-mapping Rider 10 and Rider One to the full-featured Aero 60. Variations in the included accessories mean the complete range is extensive. Many of Bryton's units feature long battery life — in some cases up to 35 hours.
Cycling accessories maker Cateye has long included computers in its range, and has three models with GPS capability — sort of. Cateye's GPS computers use the GPS receiver in your iPhone or Android phone to determine your location.
Garmin dominates the cycling GPS scene by dint of having got in early with the Edge 205 and 305 in 2005. The US/Taiwanese company has refined and improved its range and now offers lots of options, from the simple, non-mapping Edge 130 which you can find for as little as £113 to its latest, the all-singing, all-dancing Edge 1030 Plus which starts from about £494.
Known for lights and other accessories, Lezyne jumped into the GPS arena in 2016 and now has with a range of seven units, the Macro Easy GPS, Mini GPS, Macro Plus GPS, Micro Color GPS, Super Pro GPS, Mega C GPS and Mega XL GPS . They'll all work with Bluetooth Smart sensors and the more expensive models work with ANT+ too.
All Lezyne's GPS units connect to the Lezyne GPS Ally smartphone app app which allows for on-the-fly email, text and phone call notifications, and they provide live tracking that displays your current location and metrics to specified email recipients.
The Macro Easy, Macro Plus and Super Pro are the most recent additions to Lezyne's range. The Super Pro includes preloaded maps and can be rotated to a landscape orientation if you prefer your screen that way. The Macro Plus offers a 28-hour runtime (long battery life is something of a feature of Lezyne's black-and-white GPS units) and can pair with your phone to relay messages.
Finally, the Macro Easy is Lezyne's budget ride-recording offering, typically retailing for about £70.
You might know Taiwanese electronics maker Mio better as the manufacturer of Navman satnav systems for cars. Mio is another brand of parent corporation Mitac.
Mio makes three ranges of GPS units, all with map displays: the wifi-enabled Cyclo 6xx series; the Cyclo 4xx series, which are virtually identical but without wi-fi; and the large-screen but reasonably-priced Cyclo 2xx units.
Polar is best known as a pioneer of heart rate monitors, and has developed probably the most extensive and advanced range of training features in that category. Its two cycling GPS units, the M460 and V650 have a wide range of training-orientated features including fitness tests and assessments of training effect and training load.
The M460 is a non-mapping device while the V650 can download and display 450x450km segments from Open Street Map to guide you on your way.
Fitness electronics maker Wahoo Fitness started out with sensors that transmit cycling data to your phone, and hass since expanded to four models of GPS-enabled computers in its Elemnt range. The top of the range Element Roam ha a colour screen, maps and a full range of navigation functions, as well as ANT+ and Bluetooth compatibility. The black and white Elemnt Bolt is claimed to be the most aerodynamic cycling GPS and has a range of training-focused functions, as does the Elemnt. The Elemnt Mini, as the name suggests, is Wahoo's entry in the compact-and-minimal GPS stakes.
Other brands pop up from time to time. For example, you’ll find GPS units on Amazon from Holux, Canmore, i-gotU, Memory Map and others, and cycle computer maker Sigma Sport has four GPS unit in its range, but the ones listed above are brands you’re most likely to find in bike outlets.
There are two main types of GPS: mapping and non-mapping. The larger, usually colour display needed for a mapping GPS requires a larger battery, and that all increases the cost. For the extra money you get navigation and routing functions that can be extremely useful when riding in unfamiliar areas.
Many riders don’t need a map. If you just want to record data like your route, heart rate and power output (if you have a power meter), a non-mapping unit is all you need.
In between are routing GPS units. These show a route as a line on the screen but without the extra detail of a full map. This is useful for following a predetermined route, but you don't get the "I wander what's down there" discoverability of a full mapping unit.
The massive array of functions offered by even relatively basic GPS units can be daunting, but manufacturers have generally done a good job of designing user interfaces that make it easy to find your way around them.
Let’s take a look at some of the functions you’ll find.
Standard computer functions. Like any conventional non-GPS computer, a GPS unit will tell you your current speed, distance, ride distance, average speed, maximum speed and so on.
Since there’s a fairly powerful little processor sitting in most GPS units, designers tend to include just about every speed/distance/time function you can think of.
For example, some of Garmin’s GPS units have a feature called ‘virtual training partner’ which pits you against an electronic competitor who’s doing a set average speed, or against yourself the last time you rode a course.
Heart rate functions. Many GPS units come with a heart rate strap, or will work with one, usually using the ANT+ protocol (see below).
Power functions. If you have a power meter, many GPS units will work with it to record your power data along with your ride and heart rate data, and display a range of measurements and averages so you can confirm that the reason you feel like you’re working your arse off is that you’re working your arse off.
Training functions. With a programmed workout sequence, many GPS units can do the brain work of counting intervals or timing efforts for you, feeing you up to concentrate on the effort itself. Some also have in-built fitness tests or can monitor your training effort and load so you don’t overdo it.
Geographical functions. These include both navigation and route recording, functions that are unique to GPS units. If you simply want to get somewhere, almost all mapping GPS units let you put in a destination as a postcode, name of a village or point of interest and will then give you directions to it, usually with turn-by-turn warnings as you approach junctions. However, even when you use a setting like ‘avoid major roads’ GPS map data often doesn’t differentiate between a quiet minor road and a dual carriageway A road, which can lead to some interesting route choices.
A better idea is to plan your route in advance using either the GPS maker’s own tools, such as Garmin Connect, or one of the many route-planning websites out there. Transfer the route to your GPS and you can then follow it exactly.
Recording a route lets you follow it exactly on a future ride — handy if you’re being guided — and has opened the door to competing against friends and strangers online through Strava.
If you’re following a planned route, then the unit can tell you how far it is to your destination or to the next landmark. It can usually also work out how long you’ll take to get there based on your speed so far.
If you’re happy to really roll the dice on where your ride takes you, some GPS units can generate a random route of a specified length, an entertaining gimmick that can be useful for exploring new areas.
Routing GPS units will still give you turn-by-turn directions so you can follow a pre-loaded route. The display in these situations is usually a line showing you the upcoming turn.
Time functions. As well as the obvious — time of day, ride time, stopwatch and so on — GPS units often have extra time functions that depend on satellite data. These include sunset and sunrise times and automatic lap time functions based on detecting the spot where you started.
Altitude functions. GPS units can work out your altitude from satellite data, but this doesn’t tend to be very accurate. Altitude data usually comes from a barometric altimeter, which uses atmospheric pressure to determine your height above sea level.
Barometric altimeters are susceptible to errors caused by changes in the weather, but if you upload your ride data to a ride-sharing site you will often be able to correct the elevation readings.
Having an altimeter lets you see extra information like how fast you’re climbing and the gradient so you can confirm that killer hill really is insanely steep. Or that you're just hideously unfit.
Wireless communication functions. It’s common for GPS units to have the ability to communicate wirelessly with other devices or sensors, using low-power wireless communication protocols such as Bluetooth and ANT+. This is usually how GPS units communicate with cadence sensors, heart rate monitor straps, power meters, phones and even other GPS units. Some GPS units are able to use your home wi-fi to upload your ride, and will do so automatically for you.
The advent of Bluetooth Smart means many units are in constant contact with your phone, and can display text and call alerts.
There’s probably no more controversial product category in cycling than GPS units. They all have flaws, but their feature sets are often so large a flaw that’s a deal-breaker for one rider may go unnoticed by another, or at least be tolerable weighed against other features. Here's a selection of our favourites.
The Garmin Edge 1030 Plus offers a silly number of data fields on a device that is very easy easy to use on a daily basis. The battery life is brilliant and ClimbPro is one of the most useful apps you'll ever use. But the price is staggering and it's annoying that such a pricey head unit still features massive bezels.
The Edge 1030 Plus is incredibly easy to use. The size makes it easy to see the screen; the touchscreen is far better than Garmins of old, the battery life is great, ClimbPro is genuinely useful, setup is easy and, as ever, there is a crazy number of metrics to train to. But the price is also very high, customisation could surely be streamlined with a phone app and a lot of screen space is given over to not being screen space.
First up is battery life. What should be an oh-so-boring feature has genuinely been an exceptional improvement. We barely needed to charge the unit, with the Edge 1030 Plus easily lasting a whole week of general riding with the backlight always on, a range of sensors connected including Di2, power and heart rate as a minimum, phone providing notifications, and maps running in the background.
The next best thing is ClimbPro. Tester Liam likes going uphill, the sick puppy, and so found himself using this app a lot. It has all the data that you need to pace climbs really well and it is displayed in a way that makes it simple to use.
The colour-coded profile of the climb is incredibly useful. At 196bpm when there is sweat in your eyes and your lungs are burning, being able to see easily that the gradient eases from red (steep) to green (not so steep) soon is just the kind of information that you need. The specific percentage gradient isn't important, but for the times when your heart isn't trying to escape your chest, that data is there too.
The top left corner of the screen displays the distance to the summit which Liam found to be very useful for judging when to open the taps, increasing the pace to 'finale effort'. It can be a bit depressing if you're suffering on a long climb, but for pacing those final few kilometres, it's very useful.
LiveTrack has been given some updates that will benefit your loved ones more than you, but the functionality now makes it very good to use. Those tracking your ride from home will have your location as before, but they also get your route on the screen. The update is coming to the 530, 830 and original 1030 too.
One thing that is still badly needed is the ability to customise data screens from the smartphone app. The competition has it, and the fact that Garmin still doesn't feels like a massive oversight.
The final change comes at the screen. Garmin has used the screen tech from the 830 and made it bigger. This results in fabulous performance in the rain as well as consistency when wearing gloves. It's far better than previous Garmin touchscreens in terms of ease of use.
That said, why, when the smartphone market has moved away from the giant forehead, chin and edges design to bezel-less screens, does the cycling computer market still give over a huge proportion of the screen to nothing?
The Garmin Edge 130 Plus is an updated 130 with a load of new features and connectivity. Good for road, gravel and mountain biking with metrics that measure how far you jump, the Edge 130 Plus is a tiny package that's straightforward to use – it's suited to pretty much every regular rider.
new features include incident detection, smart trainer compatibility, Climb Pro (to help you meter out climbing effort), navigation (of sorts), more storage space for routes, and an accelerometer.
This is reasonably-priced GPS for any road rider, gravel rider, commuter or mountain biker. It gives all the statistics and sensor integration you need in a reliable package that operates well, and without the use of unreliable touch screens.
The Hammerhead Karoo is a work in progress, but even with its current functionality it's the best bar-mounted GPS unit I've used, says tester Dave Atkinson. It's powerful, intuitive to use, has a fantastic screen and decent battery life. For a day on the roads or trails, it's hard to beat.
The Karoo has the best screen of any bike computer I've ever tried, bar none. The resolution – 640x480, at 229 pixels per inch – is a class above anything else bike-specific that's out there. The Gorilla Glass top layer of the screen has a semi-matt coating that does a really good job of reducing reflections from the sky and things passing overhead so the information is more visible for more of the time.
Note: the link above goes to the Karoo 2 as the original Karoo has been discontinued. We have a Karoo 2 on test and early impressions are that it's a worthy successor.
The Garmin Edge 520 Plus is packed with useful features and very good mapping without the temperamental touchscreen of the models above it in Garmin's range.
Garmin was the dominant GPS brand until companies like Wahoo stepped into the market and really threatened its monopoly. Garmin has had some issues with bugs in its firmware and touchscreens that worked intermittently, but with the launch of this 520 Plus, it feels like the company has got back to its best.
Garmin's Edge 130 offers a lot of performance in a small package, with ANT+ and Bluetooth sensor and smartphone connectivity, decent battery life, an easy-to-use button-controlled layout and, perhaps best of all, an absolutely pin-sharp display. You don't get fully fledged navigation like the pricier Garmin models but the basic setup is usable if that's not your top priority.
Garmin's GPS computers have been getting bigger and more feature-packed over the years, but the Edge 130 harks back to the iconic 500. It's not only compact, but the stripped-back features focus on offering the core functions and fewer superfluous ones that have arguably been bloating some of the bigger and pricier Garmins at the expense of solid reliability.
Garmin recently announced an incremental upgrade to the Edge 130, dubbed Edge 130 Plus, which is why the current model is available for cheap. The Garmin Edge 130 Plus head unit is £169.90 and adds the ClimbPro feature to help you meter out your efforts on long climbs. For £219.90 you can get it with a heart rate monitor and there's a mountain bike bundle that includes speed sensor, handlebar remote and a protective case for £237.99.
The Lezyne Mega XL might be just the ticket for you if you're into long rides and you want to follow a route from your handlebar. You'll not find a GPS computer with mapping that gives you a better run-time than this one, and overall the routing works pretty well. There are some usability issues along the way, and it's not the most attractive unit out there, but it's a well-specced computer for audax and distance riding.
Despite its very modest price, this new base model from Bryton picks up signals from just about every constellation of navigation satellites up there: GPS, Galileo, GLONASS, BDS and QZSS. It has a built-in barometric altimeter and works with Bluetooth LE sensors for speed, cadence and heart rate.
The Lezyne Mini GPS computer is an easy-to-use option that gives you basic ride information on your handlebar along with the ability to upload, store and analyse your rides on Lezyne's GPS Root website.
If you're a bit of a technophobe or you just aren't interested in masses of ride measurements, the Lezyne Mini GPS might be a good choice for you because it's very simple to use.
The 2017 version adds turn-by-turn directions and some mapping functions, making it a routing GPS rather than just a data collector.
Polar’s V650 is extremely reasonably priced for a mapping GPS with a heart rate monitor strap included in the box. It’s an easy-to-use GPS bike computer with some neat features, including a large colour touchscreen and a small white front LED for visibility if you get caught out after dark.
In keeping with Polar’s fitness orientation, there are several fitness tests and training load functions here that you’d need training software to replicate with other GPS units.
However, the V650 can use only Bluetooth Smart to communicate with sensors, not ANT+, so the range of accessories you can use with it is limited, and the only power meters that will work with the V650 are those made by Look, PowerTap, Stages and the Wahoo Kickr.
Oddly, the V650 doesn't work with the cheapest power meter we're aware of, the £270 4iii Precision, but its cheaper kid brother, the M460 does (£134.44 with a heart rate strap). That means the cost of entry of training with power is now just over £400.
Since we reviewed it back in 2015, Polar has added a load of features to the V650, including Strava Live Segments which was added in April 2018. It's massively to Polar's credit that they've continued upgrading the V650's firmware; I can't think of any other cycling GPS maker that's still adding features to products launched in 2014.
You can get the V650 without a heart rate monitor strap for £189.50.
The Wahoo Elemnt Bolt is a compact and aero GPS bike computer that offers a vast amount of useable information, navigational capability and an excellent battery life at a reasonable price.
Lezyne's Super GPS is a likeable and good value unit with a good battery life and lots of connectivity. The app and web portal let it down a bit, but overall it's a very good package provided you don't want to plan long rides with turn-by-turn routing, or at least are prepared to jump through some hoops in order to do so.
The Xplova X5 Evo is the only full-feature GPS computer with onboard video recording, with a nice big colour screen and 720p video capability. Appropriately enough, given the name, it's an evolution rather than a revolution of the original Xplova X5, with a welcome £70 price cut and evidence of lots of work having been done to improve the user interface.
The big USP is the integration of video recording into a GPS computer, but the Xplova X5 Evo also boasts a large and easily-readable touchscreen, and useful mobile apps that offer a big increase in functionality when you're not by a PC. It's well-priced too. On the downside, the video quality isn't a match for dedicated action cameras, the otherwise excellent route planning in the app doesn't include elevation profile, and while the user interface has been improved since the X5 it's still not the slickest.
Nevertheless, if you like the idea of having the ability to record video of your rides then this may be the neatest way of doing so.
This version of Garmin's big-screen flagship GPS boasts a number of extra features over its predecessor, the Edge 1000. Battery life has been extended to 20 hours and you can now add a battery pack for an extra 24 hours riding time. The interface has been completely revamped and the Edge 1030 works with Bluetooth sensors as well as Garmin's ANT+ protocol.
Garmin says the 3.5in 282 x 470 pixel capacitive touch screen works in the wet or with gloves, and ambient light sensors automatically adjust the screen brightness to suit the riding conditions.
Connectivity has been a focus of the new Edge 1030, with the ability to reply to incoming text messages or phone calls with a prewritten message, as well as sending messages from one Edge 1030 to another Edge 1030. Garmin has also integrated incident detection to automatically share your location with emergency contacts if you have an accident. Grouptrack and LiveTrack, features that let you provide real-time location data to friends and family, are retained from the previous Edge 1000.
Strava fans will be able to make use of the latest version of Strava Live Segments, while Strava Premium users will get further access to real-time races against personal best times. There’s also a new Segment Explore feature that lets you view popular nearby segments. If you want to use the Edge 1030 for serious training, Garmin has developed the new TrainingPeaks Connect IQ app to let you put your daily workouts on the Edge 1030, and it’ll also guide you through the workout in real-time with intensity targets and interval.
Want heart rate, speed and cadence sensors? You want the Edge 1030 with sensor bundle for £549.99.
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John has been writing about bikes and cycling for over 30 years since discovering that people were mug enough to pay him for it rather than expecting him to do an honest day's work.
He was heavily involved in the mountain bike boom of the late 1980s as a racer, team manager and race promoter, and that led to writing for Mountain Biking UK magazine shortly after its inception. He got the gig by phoning up the editor and telling him the magazine was rubbish and he could do better. Rather than telling him to get lost, MBUK editor Tym Manley called John’s bluff and the rest is history.
Since then he has worked on MTB Pro magazine and was editor of Maximum Mountain Bike and Australian Mountain Bike magazines, before switching to the web in 2000 to work for CyclingNews.com. Along with road.cc founder Tony Farelly, John was on the launch team for BikeRadar.com and subsequently became editor in chief of Future Publishing’s group of cycling magazines and websites, including Cycling Plus, MBUK, What Mountain Bike and Procycling.
John has also written for Cyclist magazine, edited the BikeMagic website and was founding editor of TotalWomensCycling.com before handing over to someone far more representative of the site's main audience.
He joined road.cc in 2013. He lives in Cambridge where the lack of hills is more than made up for by the headwinds.