In a few short years cycling GPS units 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.
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 seems to have recently slimmed down its range to six models from the simple, non-mapping Rider 10 and Rider One to the full-featured Rider 530. Variations in the included accessories mean the complete range is still extensive. There's no UK importer for Bryton at the moment, so if one of their units catches your eye your best bet is to get it from Amazon.
Cycling accessories maker Cateye has long included computers in its range, and has several models with GPS capability.
Cateye’s Stealth models have built-in GPS, but most of its GPS computers use the GPS receiver in your iPhone or Android phone to determine your location. That makes the £50 Strada Smart one of the cheapest ways of displaying GPS data on your handlebars
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 25 which you can find for as little as £77 to its latest, the all-singing, all-dancing Edge 1030 which starts from about £500.
Garmin recently added two new models, the Edge 130 and Edge 520 Plus. The £170 Edge 130 is clearly aimed to fend off competition in the middle of the market, with more data displays than previous sub-£200 Garmin units, basic navigation, alerts from your phone and lots, lots more. The Edge 520 Plus, on the other hand, brings the 520 up to date with mapping and turn-by-turn navigation, among other things.
Known for lights and other accessories, Lezyne jumped into the GPS arena in 2016 and now has with a range of six units, the Micro GPS, Micro C GPS, Mini GPS, Macro GPS, Super GPS and Super GPS Special Edition. All five are non-mapping devices for riders who just want their ride data. They'll all work with Bluetooth Smart sensors and the Micro, Micro C and Super 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.
Lezyne recently announced two new mapping GPS units with super-long battery lives. The monochrome Mega XL has a claimed battery life of a whopping 48 hours, and the colour-screened Mega C will burn for 32 hours before the lights go out.
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 50x series; the Cyclo 31x series, which are virtually identical but without wi-fi; and the large-screen but reasonably-priced Cyclo 20x 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, then expanded with two models of GPS-enabled computers. The Elemnt is a full-featured mapping GPS unit, while the Rflkt uses the GPS receiver in your Apple or Android smartphone to determine your location.
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 one GPS unit in its range, but the ones listed above are brands you’re most likely to find in bike outlets.
GPS types and functions
There are two main types of GPS: mapping and non-mapping. The larger 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.
Eleven of the best GPS units
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.
We haven't tested it, but Amazon buyers are almost universally happy with this budget unit, so we're going to stick our necks out and suggest that a data-only GPS for just £50 is worth a look. It'll talk to your phone via Bluetooth and display call and message alerts, can be tweaked and configured with a smartphone app, and will work with a Bluetooth heart rate monitor strap.
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.
The Edge 25 is Garmin's smallest ever GPS computer, and along with its diminutive size, Garmin has nailed the user interface, which is a dream to use.
If you don't need route mapping and navigation and just want to track all the important metrics like speed, distance and elevation, the Edge 25 does everything you need.
It's light, just 25g, and takes up very little space on the stem using the supplied quarter-turn mount that Garmin has been using for years. The 128x160 pixel display is small and grayscale, but it's pin sharp and the new lighter font makes it easy to see at a glance how fast you're riding.
The Edge 25 is available without a heart rate strap for £95, so it's substantially cheaper to buy that and a separate heart rate strap like Decathlon's £30 Geonaute Bluetooth/ANT+ unit.
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.
Peculiarly, the V650 doesn't work with the cheapest power meter we're aware of, the £380 4iii Precision, as but its kid brother, the M460 does. That means the cost of entry of training with power is now under £550.
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.
A mapping, touchscreen-equipped GPS for about the same price as Garmin’s non-mapping 520, the Cyclo 315 is well-liked by people who own one. We haven’t tested it, but we’ve liked other Mio units we’ve used.
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.
Garmin brought its Edge rage into the Strava Age with the 520, which automatically updates its internal database of segments in your area and warns you as you approach them.
It’s one very impressive piece of kit. It works smoothly, with a nicely redesigned control interface and display, and is bang up to date with all the features (barring full mapping) you could want from a cutting edge performance monitoring tool. The Strava Live Segments work well during 'non-course' rides, and provide that little bit of optional motivation should you want it (subject to subscribing to Strava Premium).
The recent launch of the Edge 520 Plus means the Edge 520, originally £350, is now available at much more sensible prices.
You can get the Edge 520 on its own for £175. If you can live without the speed and cadence sensors, then adding Decathlon's £30 Geonaute Bluetooth/ANT+ heart rate strap makes for a cheaper fitness-measuring combo.
The Garmin Edge 820 is a features-packed, compact and neat cycle computer that is a decent update to the popular 810. Perhaps the screen could be a little more responsive and the GroupTrack could be more accessible, but overall it's an impressive piece of kit.
All in, it is probably the best performance and navigation computer I have used and that Garmin has been able to pack it all into such a small unit is astounding.
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.
The latest version of Garmin's big-screen flagship GPS boasts a number of extra features over 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.
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Our official grumpy Northerner, John has been riding bikes for over 30 years since discovering as an uncoordinated teen that a sport could be fun if it didn't require you to catch a ball or get in the way of a hulking prop forward.
Road touring was followed by mountain biking and a career racing in the mud that was as brief as it was unsuccessful.
Somewhere along the line came the discovery that he could string a few words together, followed by the even more remarkable discovery that people were mug enough to pay for this rather than expecting him to do an honest day's work. He's pretty certain he's worked for even more bike publications than Mat Brett.
The inevitable 30-something MAMIL transition saw him shift to skinny tyres and these days he lives in Cambridge where the lack of hills is more than made up for by the headwinds.