Words Jamie Darlow
Recording your riding via GPS is a great way to get more out of our beloved sport: you can improve your fitness and train in the right zones, accurately measure things like speed or distance without the need for loads of clumsy wires or sensors, map where you’ve been for later perusal, or just measure the miles you’re clocking up. You can even ‘virtually’ race your mates via a clever little app called Strava, which works out how fast you’ve covered a designated ‘segment’ of road or trail, and ranks your performance.
The most versatile of GPS units, perhaps the most useful, is the GPS watch: you can wear it for road riding (some even come with bar-mounts), for mountain biking, swimming, running and myriad other sports and activities that we all get up to. Start wearing one and you’ll wonder how you ever did without it, especially when it comes to recording your commutes and making your journey to work more fun. One word of warning, though — unlike a dedicated bar-mounted GPS, like the Garmin Edge 800, nothing here will show you an OS-style map of where you are while you’re on the ride. If that’s what you want, the big players like Bryton and Garmin have models that cater.
On test, then, we have six GPS watches and one ringer — a mini bar-mounted GPS. The latter deserves its place here because it’s simply the cheapest way you can record your rides, making it a real alternative to a watch if you’re just planning to ride, rather than run or swim. The six watches range from ultra-high-end devices that are designed to maximise your training, letting you measure calories and heart rate, to units that simply record where you’ve been and how fast you got there. We’ve also looked at Motorola’s latest GPS watch that doubles as an MP3 player, and Suunto’s high-spec navigation watch, ideal if you’re keen on mountain biking or fell walking too. There’s loads of choice, so make sure you really think about exactly what you want from your GPS watch before diving in; see the ‘What to look for’ section, below.
What to look for
All our watches use some kind of proprietary software to let you upload and analyse your rides. It’s worth looking to see if it has the functionality you need, and if you get on with the mapping software they use.
A watch gives you plenty of scope for other sports. Check to see if it can be handlebar-mounted, worn on an armband, or if it’s waterproof… or if the battery will last for that 12-hour race you have planned. If you only need simple functionality, less can be more.
Some watches hook up to the computer for data-transfer wirelessly, some use a USB cable. Some recharge their batteries from your computer, some draw power straight from a wall socket, and some do both — choose carefully.
Even some basic training regimes require you to measure and record your heart rate. If you plan to use your watch as a personal trainer, buy the upgrade strap if available, and check it has all the functionality you need. Knowing which zone you’re in means you’ll train smarter.
Bryton Cardio 30 £139.99 (£179.99 with HRM)
The Cardio 30 aims high — it’s the lightest, smallest GPS watch out there, and for £180 you also get more functions for your money than any other watch here — it’ll even let you work in multiple heart-rate zones and intervals for training. It’s not as tactile to use as Garmin’s Forerunner 110, though, which is priced the same: the strap’s not as comfy and the buttons are harder to press, while Bryton’s software has all the same capability as Garmin’s, but it just isn’t quite as fun or intuitive to use. At least a software update does now mean it hooks up and synchs much more reliably and quickly. A solid performer, this one.
BEST ON A BUDGET
Bryton Rider 20 £99.99 (£139.99 with HRM)
At £100, the Rider 20 is the cheapest way to record your rides by GPS, unless you’re using your phone (see our sister magazine MBR’s how-to guide: http://bit.ly/AAv0qX). It sits neatly on your bars, measuring the same data streams too — variations on speed, distance, heart rate and cadence (you need the optional extras for the latter two). The screen is easy to read, with big lettering, and the unit has tactile buttons, simple to operate, while battery life and GPS accuracy are first-rate. It has two bike profile modes, handy for switching between a road bike and a mountain bike. It’s a great piece of kit, easy to use, functional and cheap and has effectively replaced the need for a non-GPS cycle computer.
Suunto X10 £410
Suunto’s X10 is a great navigation watch. It’s a doddle to follow a route you’ve already drawn via Suunto’s online software. The X10 then guides you through a series of waypoints (500 max), using a digital bezel to point you in the right direction. Best of all, though, press a button and you get a simple grid reference, which you can cross-reference with a humble paper OS map. That’s all well and good, but a GPS device lives and dies by its accuracy. And the X10 falls short, struggling to get regular GPS fixes, particularly under dense foliage.
Garmin Forerunner 110 £139.99 (£169.99 with HRM)
An impressive watch right from the off, the 110 uses Garmin’s Hot Fix technology to learn where you ride from and help get a faster satellite fix when you first turn it on. Indeed, it finds a fix before you’ve even pulled your gloves on. It’s easy to use, displaying basic functions like speed and distance in a user-friendly format. It’s our choice for simple route-recording, although if you’re looking for a serious training watch, there are better options. The biggest compliment we can pay the 110 is that it’s the product we’d choose to ride (but not train) with. To top it all, Garmin’s software is exemplary.
Motorola MotoActv £249.99 (£289.98 with HRM)
The MotoActv is a really neat product, combining an accurate GPS fitness device with an MP3 player, and customisable for 40 activities. The touchscreen is great to use and incredibly intuitive for riding — two screen-taps and you’re recording, but it does scratch up easily. It’s too big and bulky to really be practical on the bike, and the battery life is poor, needing a recharge after every ride, which is nowhere near as good as its rivals. It’s also an expensive piece of kit — a good MP3 player and an OK fitness watch, but it’s perhaps a case of jack of all trades, master of none.
Polar RCX5 £359.50 (HRM included)
Polar’s new RCX5 is a match for Garmin’s 910XT, with an incredible level of analysis and also squarely aimed at serious athletes. It’s less bulky than the Garmin, lying flat to your wrist. The RCX5 doesn’t have an internal GPS unit, instead a dongle that you put in your saddlepack. Polar says the watch lasts eight-11 months without a battery change, while the GPS receiver runs about 20 hours. The latter seems accurate; the former we don’t know yet. Finally, the Polar software is easy to use, letting you design your own training package, but it’s not quite as easy as Garmin’s.
Garmin Forerunner 910XT £359.99 (£389.99 with HRM)
Designed for cyclists, runners and triathletes, the 910XT has an incredible level of analysis to tune your training. The watch supports all ANT+ devices, including HR monitor, cadence sensor, wireless data transfer to your computer and Garmin Connect, and to Garmin’s new powermeter pedal, the Vector. It’s brilliant to use, switching between sports in one button press, while the screen is easy to read — it’s also as accurate as Garmin’s Edge 800 GPS. The real joy of the 910XT is it’s incredibly complex, but not at all complicated to use.
If all you need is a simple GPS device to track your rides, the Garmin Forerunner 110 is our test winner. Garmin is the Apple of the GPS world — instantly easy to use, with great functionality. Another plus-point is that it’s relatively cheap, tactile and great-looking.
Of the all-singing, all-dancing fitness watches, the Polar RCX5 and the Garmin Forerunner 910XT are tough to split. Both have great training functionality and are brilliantly accurate in terms of recording your ride. On the bike, the RCX5 is much better, as it fits closer to your wrist, while the 910XT has the edge when you’re back home, thanks to the superb Garmin Connect website. Pay your money and take your pick.