A Basic Guide to Bike Computers

If you are thinking about buying a bike computer, here are some things to help you decide how to choose one that will meet your needs.

Why Should I Get a Bike Computer?

The main reason to get a bike computer is so you can view data from your bike rides. By tracking your speed, distance, cadence, heart rate, etc, you can improve your riding performance and bring yourself to the next level of fitness. Or you may just want to know how far you have ridden or how fast you are going. Once you figure out why you want a bike computer, it will help with the selection process. Start by asking yourself:

  • What kind of data/information do you want?
  • How will you use this information?
  • How much are you willing to spend?
  • What other functionality is important to you?

15-10 Moxie Road.  Asheton Brown.  Arden Steely. Photo by Weldon Weaver

Bike Computer Types 

The most basic bike computer will offer you simple information such as distance, speed and time. There is no GPS or method to transfer data to your computer or to share with communities such as Strava or Garmin Connect. But you can view your basic information while riding.

The computer get the information from a speed sensor that is attached to the front fork that records as the magnet that is attached to a spoke on the front wheel passes each other. The circumference of the wheel and tire is entered into the computer so it can generate speed and distance information based on how often the magnet passes the sensor.

ANT + enabled, no GPS
These bike computers get data from wireless sensors that use the ANT + which is an open standardized protocol used by hundreds of fitness brands. Not only can you record your speed, distance and time, but also your heart rate, cadence and power measurements and more. You can then transfer your information for analysis.

GPS only
GPS computers use a satellite receiver to convert GPS signals into ride data. A GPS only device will allow you to track speed and distance using GPS. The data is limited in that is not compatible with ANT + However, the cost is usually lower as compared to a computer with both GPS and ANT+ capabilities.

Smartphones and iPhones
Using a Smartphone or iPhone with the Strava application tracks data similar to GPS only devices. Major con to using your phone is the battery life plus the possibility of destroying your expensive phone in the case of a crash. In addition, you will need to purchase a case or mount to hold your phone.

GPS and ANT+ Enabled
These computers can receive data from ANT+ sensors, including power, speed, heart rate, and cadence. Plus they track your position using GPS which allows you to not only see a map of your route once transferred to your computer, but you can also compare your time on certain segments—such a climb—when you use a service such as Strava. These bike computers fall on the upper end of the bike computer spectrum.

Some devices are also Bluetooth enabled, which allows them to communicate with a Smartphone or iPhone when using certain apps. If you want your friends and family to track you while riding, you might want to consider this option. Keep in mind, a live tracking feature only works when you have cell phone reception, so if you frequently ride in areas with poor cell coverage, it will not work. The other reason to consider a Bluetooth enabled device is the ability to perform wireless data downloads.


I hope this helps you understand some of the basics of bike computers!

PrintKim is a Moxie Ambassador and blog contributor. Check out her bio here!

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