— Reviewed by Craig Griffin —
We’ve come a long way in the quest for perfect cycling data. Historically, cycling computers, GPS units, power meters and heart rate monitors all used proprietary communication systems. If you wanted a certain kind of data, you could buy the necessary hardware and the included head unit would capture the device’s information. Often, but not always, you could then download and analyze the data on your home computer.
Wires were the culprit here. A silo of information would travel through the often quite fragile wiring harness, and if there was something else you wanted to know, you needed yet another device. There were power meters that combined heart rate, but if you wanted altitude or gps, you had to add another computer.
Enter ANT+, a low power, small area wireless network protocol. Think Bluetooth for your bike. The technology has been developed over a decade and has found its way into a number of training devices, including many applications for cyclists. With a common network ‘language’ and wireless transmission, the wired head unit gave way to wireless setups and the ability for advanced computers to collect data from any number of devices.
This article takes a look at one of the cutting edge products in this category: the brand new Garmin Edge 800. Designed to be device agnostic – so long as your powermeter sends information in ANT+, then this computer will pick up the signal to record and display the data. We paired this head unit with the PowerTap SL+ hub based powermeter and Cyclops heart rate strap for a complete test of functionality.
The Garmin Edge 800 comes into the market from a different angle. Garmin’s heritage, of course, is GPS, and the Edge 800 is designed to take advantage of every bit of satellite tracking technology. The evolution of Garmin’s product line shows the company’s dedication to the cycling market. Garmin’s initial offerings years ago were boxy, rather expensive and didn’t offer much beyond what a decent cycling computer would do. But the Garmin team continuously improved the product line, and was absolutely spot on when product managers conceived of the Edge 800 as a data collection device rather than a navigation computer.
The Edge 800 is designed from the ground up to capture data from a satellite in Earth’s orbit, your heart rate strap, or your wireless (ANT+ enabled) power meter. The Edge 800 listens for these signals and records them for display and download. The beauty of this approach is that little or nothing is bolted to your bike. The satellite computes your speed, altitude, location, climbing rate, and a myriad of other details. The transmissions from the power meter and heart rate strap are wireless, so no extra brackets or wiring there.
The touch screen alone sets this unit apart from anything else on the market. We found the screen to be sharp and easy to read even on sunny days. There is some glare if the sun is at a very specific angle, but that is unusual. The other smart thing about the touch screen is that it works perfectly with gloves. Even using thick fleece winter gloves, the screen responded impressively. That is the kind of detail that a non-cycling specific product would overlook. And using a touch screen is easy and intuitive.
Out of the Box
The Garmin comes packaged with the head unit, a USB cable, and a quick start guide. Garmin packages the 800 either alone or with cadence and heart rate accessories. The unit itself holds the detailed product manual, but the quick start guide will get you going for the basic setup.
Mounting is made easy with a variety of rubber bands that come with the unit.
And setup couldn’t be simpler. There is a simple bracket that can mount to stem or handlebar that is held on with elastic bands of various thicknesses. This mount is much improved over the one used on previous Garmin models and even stood up to some punishing wash-boarded gravel road bashing without ejecting the head unit into the bushes.
Powering on the Garmin 800 for the first time takes you step by step through the setup process to create a rider profile. One important difference compared to most computers is that no calibration is required for the bike or the ANT+ devices. The 800 will figure all that out on its own later on. Nice.
As I am the type to spend time to configure things just the way I want them, I was curious to see what could be changed with the data screens. Garmin gives the user nearly total control over what is displayed, or whether the screen is shown at all. There are 6 total screens:
● 3 customizable data screens with up to 10 data points available
● 1 Map screen
● 1 altitude graph
● 1 graphic ‘pacer’ screen (chase the guy on the screen who is riding a specific pace you set)
Working from the bottom up, I found the ‘pacer’ screen not super useful except if I was time trialing, and then it is nearly indispensable, much like having the team’s coach shouting in your earpiece. I ended up turning this off for day to day use.
The altitude graph is again a nice to have but not super useful. The screen is too small to read feet climbed and you can get that numeric information on one of your data screens. It’s fun to watch the bumps of your elevation, but that lends itself more to detailed analysis at home. You probably already know you are climbing a hill without the graph telling you.
In spite of all that data collection, the 800 keeps a low profile on the bike.
The map screen shows your location on a street map. Much has been said by Garmin about the turn by turn navigation of the GPS feature. The touch screen does a great job at showing routes and indicating turns. However, the Garmin 800 does not come with any useful maps – only major roads and highways, which generally you wouldn’t be caught dead riding on. The map set required for North America is an additional $79.99, which can be downloaded from Garmin or purchased on a micro SD card and inserted into the slot on back of the Edge 800. If turn by turn navigation is important to you, budget in an extra $80 in your purchase decision. The test unit I used did not have the map kit, so I turned this screen off, as it only showed a pinpoint on a blank screen for most rides in the countryside.
This leaves the 3 data screens, which are completely configurable. Yay. For training purposes, I setup a screen as a ‘dashboard’ of important data points (power, time elapsed, cadence, distance, HR), a second screen of detailed power metrics, and the 3rd as ‘fun to know’ – things like temp, time of day, cumulative feet climbed, elevation, etc. Some tweaking of these settings over a few weeks got it to where it was just right for me. You can do the same.
Garmin is smart in that the font size scales upwards if you have fewer data points. The size of the numbers does get small if you have all 10 slots filled on a screen, and I would say they are too small for a very intense ride, a race, or for mountain biking. If I was to do any of those activities, I would want to set up a screen with just a few key data points that are large and easy to read.
One note that on our version of the owner’s manual, the instructions for where to access the data setup screen was incorrect. Follow the selections: MENU>SETTINGS>BIKE SETTINGS>TRAINING PAGES>TIMERPAGES to get to data setup. That is 2 layers of menu selections below what the manual says. If you want to swap out a single field on the fly, from the display you can press and hold a cell on the screen and a popup will come up with data choices.
Using the Garmin Edge 800 on the bike
After getting the data screens the way I liked them, it was time for a ride. As mentioned before, I was using a Powertap Pro+ powermeter and the Cyclops ANT+ chest strap. I turned on the Garmin 800, gave the back wheel a spin… and… it just worked. Amazing. The 800 picked up the signals from the hub and my chest strap, told me about them, and prompted me to start the timer. Over the past couple of months, there has not been a problem with the sync – no fiddling, no dropped signals, absolutely spot on.
Speaking of starting the timer, that is one minor complaint with all Garmins. You need to remember to manually start and stop the timer. It does beep and prompt you to do these tasks, but forgetting means the beginning of the ride isn’t recorded, or in my case, some interstate driving miles are added to your ride file while your bike is transported in the back of the car. This really isn’t Garmin’s fault, since the GPS can’t distinguish from bike motion and car motion (as it is not picking up wheel rotation). Hence, the rider starting and stopping the timer is required.
I found the touchscreen to be responsive and easy to use. The sharpness of the display allowed me to see numbers clearly on sunny days. I found that flipping through screens really took your eyes off the road. It was ok if you were riding along and no traffic, but no way you can do that in a group ride or on a sketchy road without serious endangerment.
Having lots of data is a beautiful thing, however. One of my favorite, but more obscure, metrics is vertical speed, which is basically your climbing rate in feet (or meters if you choose.) On longer climbs, this allows you to track you level of effort with a universal yardstick that can be compared from climb to climb and ride to ride.
The Edge 800 has the ability to set up workouts, with a set of intervals that you enter and then ‘play back’ while you ride. The workout can be intervals of time with alerts if your speed, heart rate or power drops below a certain level. Again, the coach screaming in your ear, digital style. If you are like me, doing intervals is not the most fun and tends to fade a bit if I don’t have some motivation. The Edge 800 will do that for you.
Once your ride is done (and you don’t forget to stop the timer!), you can then connect the Edge 800 to your computer and download the data. Or I should say upload, as there is no desktop software that comes with the Edge 800. All analysis chores are handled online by Garmin Connect. This is both good and bad. Good that rides can be accessed from everywhere and shared. Bad in that Garmin Connect doesn’t have all the hardcore analysis tools that you might want (as in Training Peaks’ WKO+ or PowerTap’s PowerAgent). Happily, the Garmin’s files are readable by both those programs, so for those who enjoy looking at the data for durations similar to the ride itself, your options are not limited. In our experience WKO+ is quite adept at downloading files straight off the Garmin.
Lined up next between the CycleOps Joule nad Garmin’s 705, the Edge 800 is sized right.
The Garmin does a fine job of accurately collecting power, speed, heart rate, and cadence data, as do a number of other head units. The design of the Garmin is sexier than most – think iPhone with a pseudo carbon fiber case – while the others look more like industrial equipment. Battery life is excellent, and displays a lot more data and does so on a much sharper, full color screen. Though I didn’t have the pleasure of experience with the Garmin in a crash, I suspect the glass touch screen to be more fragile than the plastic case of other head units.
Of course, if GPS is a must have for you, either for sharing routes or general navigation, then the Garmin Edge 800 is your choice. Navigation of the data screens is also easy while riding with the Garmin, although it can require quite a bit of distraction while riding. Data overload can be a problem as we get more and more information while on the road. Set up your screens with the essentials – the head units record everything whether it is displayed or not, so you can comb through details later.
In the software department, Garmin Connect is decent, but doesn’t get into the power details for a serious rider. On the other hand, if you are interested in sharing your routes or trying new rides (if you travel with your bike, for example) then Garmin Connect is great.
Overall, the Garmin Edge 800 is an excellent product in the burgeoning market of data capture devices for cycling. With some luck, the ANT+ standard will allow riders to get away from proprietary, wired systems and towards interoperable training devices.
• Price: $449.00 for basic unit, add ons are extra
About the Author: Craig Griffin is a 15 year bike racer who loves
training with power and has extensive experience with many different
power meters and cyclometers. WiredBike.com sells a large variety of
electronic training devices for cyclists, including bike computers,
power meters and electronic trainers.
Where To Buy It
WiredBike.com knows, uses, and sells all kinds of powermeters, cycling computers and trainers for cycling. See their website at WiredBike.com