Gear and Gadgets

Ahead of Eurobike 2018: Are Android bike computers finally better navigators than the Garmin Edge?

I've long been thinking that Android in a Garmin-like rugged shell would be the ultimate bike computer. In reality, things are more complex than that.

A year ago, the market for bigger and advanced bike computers was essentially dominated by one company: Garmin. Lots of other companies played around this near-monopoly without much impact on market shares. Wahoo at least shook up the situation and gained a strong position. They are still in a niche, but it’s a biggish one. At the same time, people felt increasingly that their smartphones were at least as capable as their bike computers, minus the ruggedness. Still, they went on to buy Wahoo Elemnt and Garmin Edge devices.

DC Rainmaker argues it’s for the sake of an integrated software solution. I think it’s for a lack of awareness of alternatives and simply for a misconception of how sturdy a smartphone in a protective case is.

Then Hammerhead entered the stage with their Karoo project. The Karoo is an Android-based bike computer. Think of it as a rugged smartphone without phone functions. After several delays, it finally made it to release. Unfortunately, that one wasn’t exactly free of problems. Actually, it’s an interesting case study about how not to manage social media marketing. (Read: don’t be dishonest.)

I explained in December 2017 why I wouldn’t buy it yet. It happens to be the second most-read article on this blog. (The most-read article is the one in which I explained how I used Instagram and Tinder for teaching marketing research.) Put simply: at launch it was a promising product, but also a product that clearly lacked behind in features in comparison with the established players. There simply was no good reason to switch other than disliking the existing brands.

A few months have passed since and particularly in late May/June a lot of new stuff popped up. And there a few products that broadly fall in the same category as the Karoo and the bigger units of Wahoo and Garmin: a bike-computer with advanced mapping functions and smartphone integration. In this post, I’m going to have a look at them.  These are the units I’m going to cover:

  • Hammerhead Karoo (available directly from Hammerhead)
  • Sigma ROX GPS 12.0 (sold via traditional retail channels)
  • Jespr (flying much under the radar and not released yet)
  • Refactor RF-1 (failed to find enough funding on Kickstarter)

There are more Android-powered head units out there. The Acer Xplova X5 Evo, for instance. In the list above, I focused on devices that surfaced and/or launched in 2018. And that I find interesting enough to include in this list.

My personal priorities: insightful mapping and accurate tracking

Before I jump right into details, I want to highlight what constitutes the necessities of a functional bike computer. You may disagree with me on that and therefore come to other conclusions, too. I take my perspective from ten years of riding. For five of these years, I have used my smartphone as a bike computer. Admittedly, not very often in these five years I rode in the rain. I can avoid that usually, and so I do.

[For transparency: lately I have not used the phone for tracking, but only for navigation. I have done and could do long rides with the smartphone if I don’t always have the display on. In 2018, I increasingly often made trips for which I first had to take a train. Smartphone usage during the train ride to or from the destination would reduce my battery life. Since I have it with me anyways, I’m now tracking with my Garmin FR 935 watch.]

Really the first thing I want is a good map. This is not done with effective turn-by-turn notifications for me. In fact, those I put very little emphasis on. I look at the map frequently and I notice when I have to start to pay attention. I want a map that allows me to understand the situation at the crossing before I reach it. I also want to be able to easily move around on the map to find other bits of information: (1) alternative routes with some understanding of traffic density, (2) some relevant points of interest (e.g. water sources), (3) some idea of the upcoming incline and where a climb ends. I also want offline maps that are easy to download for specific regions. While I don’t have a power meter yet, this will happen; so I want dual ANT+/Bluetooth connectivity with external devices.

Ideally, my phone could do all that, because then I’d also have a decent camera and messaging/calls for emergency situations or private arrangements for later in the day during a gelato break. In fact, like I said: it can do that. It just can’t deliver screen-on day-long battery life.

Can these new devices do the same? After all, they are all Android-based. Hence, the potential is there. There is always an app for that, right? However, manufacturers tend to cover the native Android experiences with their proprietary software solutions. Users can’t install any Android app themselves. So there might be a gap between the potential and the reality of Android-powered bike computers.

The benchmark: Velomap OSM on a Garmin Edge

Usually I propagate the combination of OpenAndroMaps (as a source of maps) and OruxMaps (as an app for the phone). However, I set out to ask whether Android-based bike computers can deliver mapping that is equivalent to Garmin devices. Precisely: the Garmin Edge. It’s a bit difficult to establish a standard here. For beginners, the Garmin comes with a base map with limited functionality. Advanced users can customize the appearance of their maps with alternative map sources. Commonly, those rely on OpenStreetMaps (OSM) data. One very popular OSM design for the Garmin Edge series is the Velomap, which comes in different versions. Below is a screenshot made by Matthias Schwindt (gpsradler.de). It shows three different zoom levels of the same location.

velomapscreenshotgpsradler.PNG

Conincidentally, it happens to be rather close to where I just moved. Oh, and for the sake of it: here’s three screenshots of the same location in more or less equivalent zoom levels from OruxMaps/OpenAndroMaps on my Samsung Galaxy S7. I personally think they are better, as I find the coloring easier to grasp. They are definitely more crisp. They contain more information (points of interest) but other map sources deliver that for the Garmin Edge as well. So really just take it as the alternative mapping benchmark those new devices are up against.

oruxmapsscreenshots.png

Hammerhead Karoo – $399

In my post from December 2017, I came to the following conclusion:

The Karoo might offer me superior GPS accuracy, if they manage to deliver what they showed in their own preview blog. It’s mapping is advanced for a dedicated bike computer, but it prioritizes beauty over usability. My smartphone gives me the best map experience that I have yet seen on any dedicated bike navigation device. (That says a lot. Consider that OruxMaps is a one-man project.) It can’t process GPS information with as much accuracy. So, personally, I face a very simple trade-off: correctly entering every Strava segment that I encounter (for 399 USD) or better finding my way in unknown territory (for free). Carrying two devices or carrying one.

Never say never. But at this point, it’s still the phone for me.

Since then, Hammerhead has released a big number of updates. Originally weekly updates are now biweekly. Integration with Strava by now works seamless for most users. This includes route import. Strava’s route planning tool appears to be popular. I personally prefer other solutions, but I think it’s decent. Updates have also brought more data fields, i.e. data fields related to elevation and cycling power. On the other hand, publicity is plagued with a sizable minority of users who experiences breaking mounts and water ingress.

More importantly, while route planning on Hammerhead’s own platform has improved, it’s also not flawless yet. Here’s a fantastic and extensive YouTube video by dthempel that shows the situation in May 2018. There haven’t been major navigation-related updates since. dthempel states that you should be careful if you’re not familiar with the road; hints might be ambiguous. He actually makes a case that turn-by-turn navigation without a map view will lead to errors. Sure. That’s the case even with Google Maps.

So that’s not the main problem for me. In fact, it’s Karoo’s best implemented feature. But other than that, the map is void of information. No points of interest, no traffic density information for many streets. At least, since very recent, the Karoo features an elevation profile.

Maps look beautiful, but they don’t do the job beyond a basic level. On the other hand, they are not terrible either. Below in grey is the completed part of a track, and red-dotted is the remaining part of the track to do. The way-point marks the end of the track. The green-dashed road is some bigger road with an official cycling route on it. (It’s the New York State Route 9.) In the upper left corner is a dedicated (paved) bike trail. The thin yellow lines around the green portion are walking paths and unpaved bike lanes – unfortunately you can’t distinguish these two. You also don’t see that shorter road to the way-point is a one-way road. There are no points of interest. However, there’s hill-shading. That’s cool.

karoomap

These are good maps for when you kinda know the terrain or don’t expect that you will deviate from your route. They are great to get you from A to B. They are not so good when you have to start looking for alternatives. (Ever had to cut a ride short? Found a street block? Had a flat tire and needed a bike shop?)

Map downloads are still cumbersome. Only rather small areas are possible and they have to be squares. On longer multi-day trips from place A to Q , this will very quickly lead into limitations. As any other automatic route planning, there are hazardous and/or annoying mapping mistakes. Think of one way streets and streets that are not actually free-to-use or usable for cyclists.

Put short: I still would not change my opinion on the device. As ever, I do see the potential that I might if they beef up their hardware, their quality control, and the functionality and layout complexity of their map. The latter can be a point of personal customization.

Sigma Rox 12.0 – $475/399 EUR

Sigma is a German company that has not had much impact outside of their home turf. This June, Sigma launched their new flagship bike computer. It being German and entirely new, there are not many independent sources of information out there. DC Rainmaker wrote an in-depth review, as did mtb-news.de (a magazin-slash-community-board for mountainbikers) and bike-components.de (a German retailer with a stronghold in the country’s MTB community).

It features a 3″ display with a 240x400p resolution and heavy bezels. That’s less size than the 3.5″ of the Hammerhead Karoo, much less than the 4.6″ of the Sony Xperia Z3 Compact which I had used between 2015 and 2017, and a bit less than the Sony Xperia Ray which I used from 2012 to 2015. It’s absolutely less resolution, but that might not impose much problems on a device that is not supposed to display photos.

The Rox 12.0 is an Android device, but there’s no app market. Apparently, some hackers might change that, but out of the box, you get Sigma’s proprietary solutions. Training functions, Strava integration, route import etc. is all there and it works neatly and with visual appeal. No complimentary phone is needed. Maps stay ready for download for specific regions. (Read: countries in Europe, states in the United States, etc.) No square tiles, generous space. Points of interests can be displayed or not.

One of the coolest features is a very innovative way of creating a route on-the-go. Draw my route does literally what it says. Sigma has not invented it. There’s another device on the German market which includes the same functionality. (The Teasy One3 Extend is a low-cost head unit from a sister company of Blaupunkt, the famous car radio producer.) Basically, you move with your finger over the screen and then the Sigma translates this into a route. If your clunky fingers deviate from a street, the Sigma will smooth the route. Unfortunately, it appears you have to draw the entire route without interruption. Long routes will force you on big zoom levels and big zoom levels will render drawing inaccurate.

Turn-by-turn navigation works mostly fine, but bugs occur. (Missing notifications. Wrong notifications. Extra notifications.) Same as with most units. And here’s the best idea you can get of the appearance of the maps. It’s a pretty standard OSM layout.

sigmarox12map.jpg

Time will tell how well the market will receive the Sigma. There’s much good with the Rox 12.0 and little wrong, but there’s also little excitement and much price. In Germany, it might strongly contest the Garmin Edge, as Sigma can leverage their existing distribution channels and brand recognition. Yes, the Sigma shows that Android can be the basis of a credible bike computer.

Jespr – 440 EUR on pre-order

I keep it short on this one. The Jespr surfaced in Spring 2018, but there’s little to no information. Originally, Jespr announced a release for end of May. No release took place till July 2018. Supposedly running on Android 5.1 with a 4″ screen and an open app market, it’s basically an entry-level phone from 2014-2015. It’s much heavier than the main competitors, but can go online independently by means of inserting a SIM card. Oddly, it does not include a barometric altitude meter. Maps are OSM and appear to include at least some points of interest. Pre-orders were originally taken until May 21st and in January 2018 Jespr negotiated a partnership with Swiss Cycling. Their marketing guy previously worked at DT Swiss.

jesproverview.PNG

That said, the last activity on social media dates back to May 15th (on Instagram) and May 21st (on Facebook). No one ever announced to have a functional prototype in their hands. (On their own account, they have two test riders.) Based on Jespr’s website, this unit does not look like it requires or features very advanced technology. It’s a credible bit of development. And yet it feels like the company might have run out of money with an underwhelming amount of pre-orders.

R-Factor RF 1 – was $389 on Kickstarter (funding closed)

Of all the above units, the R-Factor RF-1 is arguably the most ambitious unit. It came with the most complex set of features for the lowest price in the bunch ($289 for the Super Early Bird) – not untypical for the kind of marketing promises of a Kickstarter project. That should raise red flags for any potential backer, but usually it’s also a safe bet to get a big number of backers. At their funding goal of 250,000 units, they would have needed to get about 650 backers. They came in short of that: 68 people supported the project.

So, what’s the point of writing about a product that eventually which might never see the daylight? Well, for starters, the R-Factor was the original reason I thought about writing up this post. And maybe it’s hint on which concept went too far.

The R-Factor’s main intention was to clean up the handlebar clutter. No more, bike computer, camera, and lights… all of this should merge into one device only. And without compromising too much on the specs of any device: 3″ screen, Android 7.1 (according to their website), 1080p/30fps camera, more than 12 hours of battery life (not more than 9 hours with the lights on), 100 lumen lights (the same as a $10/10 EUR bike light from your local bike shop). But then read carefully some of their feature descriptions:

dual efficient LED lights provide as much light with as long battery life possible

This says all and nothing.

rf1factorfeatures

Video looks like a cool addition, but it’s maybe also the biggest caveat. 1080p/30fps is a camera output from 2014. Inexpensive modern action cameras operate at up to 4K/60fps. The discussion has moved on to low-light performance and image stabilization. The R-Factor campaign fails to mention that. Eventually, the RF-1’s camera might work well as a dashcam. (If you get the angle right – which is not very standardized on bike handlebars.) But dashcams are a niche. Bike computers are a niche. The overlap is not the size of two niches.

As for the cloud syncing (which appears twice in the feature list with different labels), it’s not clear whether you will need a phone or not. It’s rather more likely that either you will need a WiFi connection or you will need to pair the device with your phone, as it does not include a SIM card.

Running on Android 7.0, the underlying basis of the RF-1 is the most recent among the four devices I discussed. Like all of its competitors, there’s no actual opportunity to install their own apps. A big problem, since the RF-1 seems not to include many training-focused features (support of interval training, heart rate zones, training analytics… the campaign says nothing about any of that). The creators say that in a future release users could download other Android apps. This phrasing is alike to the one that Hammerhead used with their Karoo. It says nothing about the timeline, and it very likely does not imply that any app would be compatible with the device.

The timeline of the campaign does, however, indicate their current status. At the time of launching the Kickstarter campaign, they arguably do have a prototype. Some things work. It’s very likely not a full prototype, however, as they only ever promised to deliver a complete beta software by September 2018. Two months later, they wanted to ship out for delivery. It didn’t take a genius to understand that they would fall behind schedule with near certainty.

Which now, without sufficient funding, they did anyways.

The Bike-droid no one has made yet

I said earlier that manufacturers tend to cover the native Android experiences with their proprietary software solutions. They follow the paradigm that also DC Rainmaker believes in: that people don’t want to search for all the separate apps themselves.

The challenge is (and honestly, has been for almost a decade every time this comes up), that nobody makes a single cohesive app that does what bike computers do.

While there is certainly truth in it, I find it ironic. After all, this possibility was exactly the reason that the iPhone (and then Android) took off and Blackberry and Nokia disappeared.

Here’s another quote from DC Rainmaker of his Karoo review:

Speaking of 3rd party connectivity – you may be wondering about apps.  In fact, you may be wondering why I’ve only used the word ‘Android’ once in this entire review.  The reason is simple: While the unit is Android, that has no practical meaning here.  They aren’t opening up the doors for you to download YouTube (or Strava) on it.  It’s totally locked down – even more so than your average Android phone.  Instead, they hope to entice developers to work with them via their own app store for Karoo.  That’s going to be a tough sell until they can get volume such that a 3rd party believes it’s in their interest to invest in Karoo over apps on Garmin or a direct integration with Wahoo. A really tough sell.

Hence, I do stay a bit perplexed. Building solid hardware is not that difficult. Developing functional and user-friendly software is the big barrier. With so many off-the-shelf components in modern bike computers, it’s also the software that takes the bulk of development cost. If I am not wrong, the most budget advanced bike computer takes a three-year old smartphone and beefs it up with a bigger memory and some settings for the screen to work well in rain. Then it pre-loads free or freemium third-party applications that are already working well together. In cooperation with the makers of these apps, it produces a set of neat marketing materials that highlights the functionality. And it sells the unit for a highly competitive price that will make people think twice.

On top of that, I think that video is the wrong camera to bring to a bike computer. Photo is still a powerful format. I often find myself picking my phone from its handlebar mount (it takes just a twist) and taking a shot without stopping my ride. If I can do that with the bike computer, I might feel happy to store my phone away. I might not leave the phone at home, though.

Why it’s so hard to enter the category

I used to be surprised that no start-up has ever gone that way. I used to be confident that there is a market for that. However, things are changing. As phones have become bigger and bigger, it’s not as obvious anymore that a phone could just replace your bike computer. (Even though it could.) Look, these big phones are way over-powered for the needs of a bike computer, which could be much smaller. But in the perception of users, the similarity in features has somewhat vanished.

Phones have not even killed the dedicated car navigation device, which we all predicted.

Garmin has been really successful in defining the category, so that people look for a bike computer like a Garmin, but better than a Garmin. Wahoo has delivered that in comparison with Garmin’s smaller Edge devices.Sigma has delivered a unit that safely achieves like a Garmin for most and better than a Garmin for some. So, Android is there, yes. But this is not enough to turn the tables and really eat into Garmin’s dominance.

Remember Microsoft’s marketing line when they started selling the Microsoft Surface series? For the Surface Pro 3, they went out and said that it’s a tablet that can also be a laptop. I’m a Surface Pro 3 owner and I insist that it’s the wrong way to label it and not the way how most people use it. It’s rather a laptop that can also be a tablet. Yet Microsoft understood that people who did not own the device saw it as most similar to a tablet, and that those most likely to buy it were those considering buying a tablet.

The same goes for bike computers. The one device to successfully merge your phone with your bike computer was the bike computer that could also be a phone.

Now maybe all of this is not necessary anymore, because specific devices are what one big part of the market wants, and phones are good enough already anyways for the rest. And then take me again: For the time being, I’ve found my mode. I have one device to track all my sports activities (the Garmin FR 935) and one device to navigate and take pictures (my phone). Both co-exist on my handlebar with little weight penalty over a device that would integrate either.

So, yes, Android bike computers (and phones) can now be at least as good navigators as Garmin devices. Though not all are. And still that’s not enough: Would I really chip out 400-500 EUR for a third device and then switch my SIM card all the time to the bike computer that could also be a phone? Probably not. I might do it for a device around 150 EUR. And that would very likely be too low a price for a startup; I’m not surprised anymore no one tried that.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: