Bicycle computers & navigation systems

Contents


News


Introduction

Issues of interest in bicycle computers:

  1. How easily can it be reset?
  2. If it is wireless, does it work when using a (3W or more) LED lamp? LED lamps have high frequency control/power circuitry that interferes with the function of most wireless bicycle computers. What helps against this is a nearly completely metal housing of the LED lamp, or the LED should be positioned away from the bicycle computer; How far away depends on the lamp and the bicycle computer, it can be from 5 to 20 cm.
  3. If it is wireless, is there an option to use the bicycle computer with a wired connection? I don't know any bicycle computer that has this possibility when I first made this page (december 2008), but there are more people who have suggested this as I have (btw, in December 2008 I sent a message to Cateye about this and other issues with suggestions to improve their bicycle computers, perhaps I should send it to others such as VDO, Sigma; Addition for February 2010: Sigma now has the option of a wire for at least one of its wireless computers...).
  4. How well can the screen be read? In both standard situations of say a somewhat cloudy day, and in full sunlight.
  5. Is the screen such that text/numbers near the edge don't 'disappear' in the shadow when he sun shines? This can happen if the actual LCD display is a lot deeper than the transparant part of the housing above it, and when that transparent part does not extend much beyond the LCD display size. The result can be a shadow from the non-translucent part of the housing, onto the LCD screen.
  6. Does the (LCD) screen have background lichting?
  7. Do the measurements get updated quickly on screen, or can there be a long time between updates?
  8. How accurate are the measurements? For example, how long does it take before the computer stops when you stopped cycling, and do impossible peak speed values occur?
  9. How accurate are the calculations using measurements? E.g. the average speed calculation, is that done accurately or not?
  10. Which type of batteries are used? The use of CR-2032s is quite handy, as this sort of battery gets used a lot in various equipment, it means just having to have 1 type of battery as spares and you don't need to watch out that you get the right type when you don't have any left (you can also, in case you don't have any to spare, temporarily cannibalize one from another piece of equipment that you don't use at the moment...). Less common formats such as CR-1620 (used in the Cateye Strada for example) are therefore not handy.

    Some wireless bike computers use an annoyingly hard to find and expensive 12V battery (CR123A), so beware...

What I'd like to see in bicycle computers:

What I don't want to see is superflous functions. I have never used the following functions and they just cost me time to switch past them, or to work around them:

I've not seen any bicycle computer that I really liked. For that happen it must have: a good screen with plenty of information on the screen, good buttons, no useless functions, reliable, background lighting, nice design, not too many buttons, not having to press too many times to show certain functions.


The future of bicycle computers

2011-10-1: I've had this view for a long time, and I wanted to share it: There has been very little real progress in bicycle computers since the early 1990s. More functions have been added, heart rate monitors are included in many of them, but compared to other digital equipment the features are not impressive for the price you pay. What's even worse is the abysmal mounting methods that are used, the abysmal user interface and the abysmal button quality. The use of applications on mobile phones as a bike computer and route planner could make bicycle computers obsolete within one's own country (this is generally dependant on internet use, which is expensive unless you have flat rate, and it's always expensive outside of one's own country). Bike navigation systems through GPS are the way forward but there's always a use for simple bike computers with just speed/time/distance/average speed/cadence. So what will happen is a division into 2 classes of bike computers: simple bike computers and navigation systems. Simple bike computers should cost very little but be fully reliable. The navigation systems can be 100 euro or more. As I said, I don't really like any bike computer I used, they are to be honest all pathetic. I don't see a future for bike computers of 80 euro or more that do not have navigation...


Overview of features of bicycle computers by manufacturer

Design:

Cateye: Design through the years varies from ugly to nice. In the current line up (2010) this varies in the same way, so it's not a fashion phenomenon where an old device appears dated.

Sigma: These all look modern and good, the variations in nice/not so nice over the years is more a question of 'fashion' (so what you liked then, you may like less so today, not because the design itself is ugly but because it's from another time).

VDO: These cycle computers, now and in the past, almost all look ugly (exception: VDO Z1/Z2/Z3). What's up with the VDO designers?

Ciclosport: ?

Trelock: Round bicycle computers don't appeal to me. I don't see the point of that shape either...

Usefulness:

Cateye: These bike computers usually have the required functions and hardly pointless ones. Controls are straightforward.

Sigma: Feature creep (increasing number of functions since the early 1990s that you rarely need/use). The reset is always the same moronic method of pressing a button for about 3 seconds to reset the shown value, then keeping it pressed for another 3 seconds to reset the trip (all values except total distance). What do you need to reset a single value for? (such as distance, time, average speed) I never felt the need for that in all the years I used various bike computers. Then there are silly things such as not being able to switch the display to show 'total distance' while riding, at least on the ones I tried such as the BC1600 and BC 2006MHR. This is an interface inconsistency and this is (psychologically) bad as you will try the various buttons and then think 'I can't find total distance! Why?' until you realise at home reading the manual that this function is hidden while riding. This is not intuitive). I can go on about such things. In conclusion: Sigma bike computers have an incredibly badly designed way to control and select their functions.

VDO: ??

Quality:

Cateye: good.

Sigma: Good.

VDO: ??

Ciclosport: ??

Trelock: ??


1 Examples of old bicycle computers (no longer available)

1.0 IKU cyclotronic (bicycle computer that was released in the late 1980s)

This uses a magnet ring for both determining the speed and to charge an internal battery. I had to open it once a few years ago as it seemed stuck, but after that it still works perfectly. Never a new battery required even after 25 years...

1.1 Catey Mity 2 (CC-MT200) (bicycle computer that was released in 1992 and sold for many years)

Specifications:

Functions: Time, speed, ride distance, ride time, ride average speed, total distance.
Battery: CR1620 of CR1616 (they both fit). A not very handy format (beacuse it's not very common).
Price: You can't get one new any more, but at the time (1992) it was ca. fl. 80,- (€35, not counting inflation).

My old one didn't work properly any more after 15 years of service (1992 to 2007), but in 2010 I bought a second hand one again as shown in the above pictures, and it was a relief to use this computer after the awful Sigma's and others. The simple reset is fantastic although for long trips where you don't want to risk restting the computer inadvertently, a different type of reset might be useful in a bike computer.

Rating: 6


2 Examples of fairly recent bicycle computers (usually still available)

2.1 Aldi (Ascot)

Specifications:

Functions:
Batteries: 2x CR2032
Price: ca. €10, in 2008, so very cheap but mostly does what's needed.

I lost the bike computer on a ride, so no pictures...

Rating: 4

2.2 Sigma BC2006-MHR

Specifications:

Functions:
Batteries: 2x CR2032
Price: ca. €70 to 100 (ca. 2007)

Tested since: 2007

Rating: 4

2.3 Cateye Strada (wired)

Specifications:

Functions:
Battery: Early versions used the CR1620. This is uncommon and hard to find. A CR2032 would be much better. Update: I saw on Cateye's wesbite that later versions were listed with CR2032 and a reader confirmed this...
Price: ca. €30 (ca. 2009)

Tested since: 2009

Rating: Old version with CR2016 battery: 6 2

2.4 Sigma BC1600 (wired)

Specifications:

Functions:
Battery: CR2032.
Price: ca. €30 (ca. 2006)

Tested since: 2006

Rating: 5

2.5 O-synce Mini-save cad (wired, cadence)

Specifications:

Functions:
Battery: CR2032.
Price: ca. €30 (2011)

Tested since: May 2011

Rating: 0

2.6 Sigma BC1609 (wired)

Specifications:

Functions:
Battery: CR2032.
Price: ca. €30 (ca. 2011)

Tested since: 8 Dec. 2011

I really didn't want to test any more Sigma bicycle computers, but it seems there are no non-crappy low end bicycle computers. In any event, I needed a replacement for the awful O-synce mini save cad, and my Mity 2 was broken in a fall on an icy road, end of 2010.

So, I said the chrome layer would wear off quickly, well, after just 9 days, I took the BC1609 off the bike, wanted to wipe off water and noticed some ripples on the side (see pictures above). Optical distortion from water droplets? Well, wiping the water off then made the chrome layer come off! It's still on the buttons, but elsewhere it's mostly gone. What an unbelievably stupid design by Sigma! I knew the chrome would come off, but I didn't expect it this quickly, Sigma should know this as well. Do they test their own products? Oh yes, and the bits of chrome keep sticking to the BC1609 in lots of places (see the picture above), which is really annoying.

Another thing is the fogging up of the screen from the inside. I left this computer on a bike that I leave outside for testing purposes so gets plenty of rain, well, it's not watertight enough....

Rating reduced to 3...

Rating: 4 3

2.7 Cateye Commuter (CC-COM10W) (wireless)

Specifications:

Functions:
Battery: CR2032 x 2.
Price: ca. €60 (2012)


Tested since: 21 May 2012

I had this on my list of bicycle computers I wanted to test for a long time. The recommended retail price of about €80,- was a bit high compared to e.g. the Sigma BC2006MHR, BC2009MHR, and others such as now the Polar CS100. But I've seen it sold for about €40-€60 and then it's an option for those who do not need an altitude meter, cadence, nor heartrate functions.

When I first got it I thought: 'It's big!', and, 'oh no, it's got chrome on the bottom of the sides :('

I didn't like the flextight bracket of the Strada, it was like putting a nut with badly cut threads onto a bolt with differently badly cut threads. I gave the Strada to my sister and the cable broke after not a long time. Not sure if the cable is weak or that she treated it badly, but I had to take it off the bike and getting the bracket off was a nuisance and I cut the thread off mostly as it was going too slowly. Here it's different, it works. But I still prefer a standard bolt as Cateye used in the 1990s.

2013-7-23: Forgot to note that the sensor is mounted with stupid tie-wraps. Thus the sensor often gets rotated or shifted when something like front pannier touch it, or even when the bike falls due to wind. This sucks! Give us back the proper mounting methods with a bolt instead of this rubbish!

I like the screen, though it glares a bit in the sun, perhaps a curved surface as on the Sigma 1609 would be better...

It shows a lot at once, it's very well readable, and it shows what I want it to show: Time (as I never wear a watch), temperature, speed and another function you can select (time, distance, average speed, maximum speed, ETA). The whole bike computer acts as a switch, just as with the Strada. There are a few more buttons on the back, for resetting, light. The initial procedure to set date/circumference etc. is not comfortable due to the buttons being on the back and small. The light switch at the back is ok, still need to test it while riding, with gloves this will be impossible to activate I suspect. Reset is simple: Keep the computer pressed for 2 seconds. 5 button presses gets you to all functions: average speed, maximum speed, distance, ride time, ETA (estimated time of arrival). So a reasonable number of keypresses, a big plus. I think 5 presses to get back to the originally displayed function is the maximum to keep the interface comfortable; I felt 7 as in the Strada is too many. So for more functions you need another button. The Commuter has an extra button, but a very small one on the back...

2013-7-23: Values on screen are updated quickly, except for the average speed which is updated once every 5 seconds. That's too slow!

At the moment I'm still evaluating it, but this is the first bike computer since the Cateye Mity 2 that I like... Let's see if it stays that way :)

I tested to see if the lighting can be activated with gloves and that, suprisingly, works very well. Just keep the top right corner of the bicycle computer between your thumb and your index finger and squeeze... De background lighting is (just) good enough for the top 2 lines, but the time and temperature are quite small and it takes some effort to read using the background lighting. Perhaps that would be easier with stronger background lighting.

Keeping the light button pressed for about 4 seconds makes the bike computer go into night mode, so that each keypress lights up the display. I think the way Sigma does it makes more sense: Light on means night mode, which then goes off only when the bike computer goes into sleep from no-activity for a long time, or when you press the light button again.

Distance in km is shown in 2 decimal places. This is good though in metres (3 decimal places) would be nicer.

Total distance (and total time) is only shown using the button on the back. I don't mind it's not quickly accessible (esp. total time doesn't interest me in the least) but the small rear button is a nuisance, also for setting up the computer, so the Commuter should have had a reasonably sized button at the rear and not a miniscule button on the bottom. Or it should have had 2 buttons on the bottom, both activated by pushing on the bike computer, one by pushing on the bottom and the other by pushing on the top (similar to some bike computers by Polar with which you press on the left- or right hand side to activate buttons on the bottom left/right.

2013-7-23: Finally an update on my experiencs with the ETA function: It works, but the ETA time is not very useful. Let's face it, if you are late and need to catch a train, or be at an appointment, then the ETA function is not going to help. There's no way you can make up any good time by cycling faster on relatively short distances, and on long distances wind is such a big factor, that riding faster than normal is only an option if you have a tailwind. So what's the point of the ETA function? It's a gimmick and one that wastes your time on a simple bike computer. Total distance was the function that should have been directly accesssible in its place. More complex functions are for use with more complex systems, esp. navigation systems (dedicated or on a phone/tablet).


Navigation systems

Expensive bicycle computers never seemed useful to me and too limited, also in how you must wade through all the functions with a few buttons. With the rise of good navigation for smart phones I also don't see the use of bicycle navigation computers. They are too limited and not as versatile as a mobile phone. Or even tablet, though tablets are a bit big and mounting on the bike is an issue. More on this to come.

So, what I have felt for years and what I wrote in 2011 as being the future of bicycle computers (see above the section dated 2011-10-1), I feel even stronger now (2012). It seems to me that the future is as I thought: Only simple bike computers (which must be cheap), or navigation systems. But dedicated bike navigation is becoming obsolete by the time they are finally getting to a point where they are good enough and reasonably cheap, by way of mobile phones. The only issue is phones/tablets not being waterproof which I think will change in future models, or a mount with cover should be used, possibly with bluetooth button device outside it. 2014-5-2: I saw that O-synce produced something along those lines to use (control) a phone with bluetooth connection, apparantly introduced in 2013. It also sends back data to this device with LCD screen to save the battery on the phone (the screen is the biggest energy hog on phones).

Navigation on Android tablets/phones

I've got a Samsung Tab2 10 and a Tab2 7 3G. I used the Tab2 10 on a trip to Ukraine which was very useful as entertainment in the hotel (movies) and for web browsing, booking hotel rooms etc. Almost all hotels and restaurants in Ukraine have WiFi, even low budget hotels, cool :) It's very useful to book hotels on the way, get airplane tickets etc. For navigation even within the city an offline navigation is really needed due to cost of mobile network use. So I've been experimenting a bit with navigation systems. I tried Copilot live and this didn't appeal to me, unintuitive and ugly interface on my Tab2 10. It should look better on smaller screens. Another program I tried recently is Osmand and it's quite useful, so much so that it seems to me any specialised bike navigation system is already superflous. Just get an Android phone and install it with some maps. A recent phone with a lot of internal storage (or ability to add micro sd card) will give a system that's more versatile than bike navigation systems.
Osmand horizontal mode Osmand vertical mode
What can other navigation systems offer that's really worth getting a dedicated bike navigation for?

For the Netherlands there's an interesting program called 'Bikenode' which shows bike nodes, i.e. points which show where to go which allow you to make your own routes. Just select your points and follow the directions to the points you want.
Bikenode
This system came originally from Belgium and in the south of NL this system was introduced before it was introduced in western NL, where I live.

I even used this system simply to get to a destination, instead of to make a bike trip just for fun, in 2006. I made a trip of about 120 km one day and about halfway, when I saw this system on a summary point (near Gorinchem), instead of using a map and selecting roads and choosing which cities/villages to go through, I wrote down all the points to get to close to my destination and I didn't need to do much looking on the map to check for the right roads etc. However, now with navigation systems on mobile phones these bike nodes may become obsolete quite soon. What do you think?

User feedback

A reader gave an answer to my question, of why you would want to buy a specific bike navigation system. Well, they are better than a mobile phone (or tablet), for the following reasons, which are valid though I have some comments about some of them:

This reader's view is that: his Garmin eTrex Vista HCx although it has a poor screen resolution and horrible UI, it works better as a GPS device than his iphone, and the price is reasonable by not using the Garmin maps but OSM instead.

But I still have doubts about navigation systems. I think they are doomed as mobile phones will get waterproof (it's absolutely ridiculous that they are not waterproof, since you want to able to use them anywhere and any time!) and readability in sunlight depends a lot on the type of screen used. Standard LCD or paperwhite screens as in ebook readers are indeed much better than the screens used in high end mobile phones at the moment. The power consumption of the screens is a factor in the battery life which is absolutely dreadful in many high end phones, but as I said, when using a USB charger via dynamohub this is barely an issue.

I've used a Galaxy S2 and Galaxy Y for bike navigation quite a bit since August 2013, and the Galaxy Y is good because of lower power consumption, otherwise the S2 is superior in speed, stability (osmand crashes from time to time on the Y, not enough memory I suppose), voice directions don't work on the Galaxy Y, and I have to put osmand on the internal phone memory otherwise from time to time it just disappears from the applications on the phone... Here's a picture:


Design flaws: What the hell are these people thinking?

The old method with which bicycle computers were fastened (plastic mount with a bolt and rubber inserts, see for example the Cateye Mity 2) worked perfectly. Why do we have these crap mounting methods with tie wraps and rubber bands? For sensor mounting a rubber band works reasonably well, but not for bicycle computers themselves. I didn't like Cateye's flextight bracket in the Strada, but in the Commuter it's better due to better threads, and this is a reasonable alternative to the old method.

As with bicycle lighting I often wonder whether manufacturers do any real testing! Surely the people at Sigma know that chrome (it's not really chrome, but you know what I mean) layers are gone quickly!? And then why make products with it? Surely they must feel the wish/need to move a bike computer? E.g. for viewing angle, or when using a new handlebar, or when putting something else on the handlebar for which the bike computer must be moved. What then with that double sided sticky tape? (You can get the sticky tape loose with methylic spirit, or better yet lighter fuel which is similar to the Dutch 'wasbenzine'. In German: Wasbenzin, French: Essence de nettoyer. 'Wasbenzine' does not seem to be used much or known in UK/USA; 'Wasbenzine' is a great degreaser and loosens sticky tape etc. without affecting the materials that methylic spirit/alcohol eats at , but it takes work to keep the sticky tape intact) Also, in lots of rain the glue layer can lose its stickiness which happened to the BC1609 once, it just revolved around the handlebar when I wanted to press a button.


Possibly to be tested

Which I will not test

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