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Garmin Edge vs Smartphone: Which One Is Right For You?

garmin edge vs smartphone

The question is no longer, “should I get a GPS device?” The question is, which one?

When it comes down to it, the debate is between purchasing a Garmin Edge 500 for $200 or using your smartphone and a GPS app. If you already have a smartphone anyway, and you add the free Strava app, it’s like getting a free GPS unit.

Except, it’s not truly a GPS unit. At least not in the sense that a Garmin Edge is a GPS unit. And if you don’t already have one, it could cost you $300 or more (not to mention the data plan charges to use it.) With that much money on the line, I wouldn’t want to risk breaking my iPhone by carrying it on my handlebar!

Which choice is best? Let’s compare!

Here’s the judging criteria:

  • Durability
  • Mounting Options
  • Versatility
  • Accuracy
  • Signal
  • Navigation
  • Battery Life
  • Price

Check the sections below where I go into a detailed comparison:

Durability

The big question here is, “how well does it handle the elements?”

Something you’re carrying on a bike ride should be waterproof and weatherproof. It will likely be subjected to extreme heat and cold, wind and rain, dirt, dust, mud, blood, sweat, tears, shock, vibration, and who knows what else.

Another similar concern is, “could this survive a crash?”

Your GPS isn’t your top priority in a major crash, but in small crashes where you and your bike suffer little bumps and bruises, having to replace electronics just adds insult to injury!

The Garmin Edge is the obvious winner here. One of my philosophies is to use outdoor gadgets for the outdoors, and this device was designed with outdoor use in mind. My Edge 305 has seen a number of rainstorms and plenty of mud flying at it during the past six years of use, and it’s still fully functional!

Smartphones break all the time just from the rigors of daily life. Why shorten their lifespan even more?

Sure, you could get a LifeProof case to make your phone more resistant to dirt and water, but it will cost you an extra $80 (money which could be put towards a Garmin Edge 500.)

Mounting Options

A good GPS device will be mounted on your bike, somewhere in your field of vision. You don’t want to have to fumble around for it when you need it.

The Garmin Edge comes with a sweet handlebar mount which allows you to easily mount the device on your stem or handlebar. The mount is simple to use, totally secure, and keeps the Edge where you can view it easily while riding. On top of that, the mount is included in the $200 price tag!

Your smartphone will either stay in your jersey pocket (when I do carry my phone on a ride, it always goes in a JerseyBin,) or you will have to buy a handlebar mount of some type.

There’s a really cool mount from NiteIze called the HandleBand, so if you do want to stick your smartphone on the handlebar, this is a good way to do it. Of course, it costs another $20.

Versatility

What I mean is, can the device be used for multiple disciplines, such as hiking, biking, and running. (I am NOT looking for a GPS device which also posts status updates to Facebook!)

A Garmin Edge 500 is great for on-bike use, and perfectly usable for running and XC skiing, or even kayaking. Yes, a Forerunner 220 is going to be better for runners, and an eTrex 20 will be better for hikers and explorers, but the Edge works surprisingly well most of the time.

If you want a device that will beep when you get an email (so your riding buddies know how important you are,) post updates to Facebook and Twitter (to show your other friends how in-shape and active you are,) or play your MP3 collection (to drown out the sounds of nature,) the smartphone is going to be your top choice. It does all that, and since it can generally be stuffed in a pocket or strapped to your arm, it will be right by your side for biking, running, and other sports.

But if you want a GPS device that can track your speed, distance traveled, heart rate, cadence, power output, and elevation, not to mention your location and workout course, the Garmin Edge is made for that.

Plus, it shows you all this data in real time while you ride!

There’s one slight advantage to running the Strava app on your smartphone, and that is that the Strava app will automatically upload/sync your ride data to the Strava website with the push of a single button. With the Edge, you do have to get home, hook the device to your computer, download your workout, and open it in TrainingPeaks or upload to Strava, before your analysis begins.

Accuracy

Getting accurate data on location and elevation is pretty important. It’s not critical, but if you seek out Strava KOMs where the leaders are within seconds of each other, you need a device that knows definitely where you are.

There’s not much to say here. With a Garmin Edge, your elevation data is calculated using a barometric altimeter. That’s much more accurate than a smartphone, which will base your elevation on the measurements from a topographic map.

Cell Signal, Satellites, and Data Plans

With a Garmin Edge, there’s hardly ever a problem picking up satellite signal. I’ve personally never ridden anywhere where the device couldn’t communicate with the satellites.

What about cell phone signal? Well, with the Edge, I don’t have to worry about that at all! There is no carrier or data plan required!

If you’re using a smartphone and an app, and you’re in an area with poor signal (which is commonly where the best riding is found,) or you don’t have a data plan, your device just became very limited!

Technically, you can still record a ride on a smartphone without a data plan, but that’s all you can do. You won’t see a map or get a live view of any data. Once the ride is recorded, and you’re home or at the coffee shop, you can connect to the Strava site via WiFi and upload the data.

Another win for the Garmin Edge!

Navigation

If you’re looking for navigation, well, the smartphone is going to be quite a different tool than the Garmin Edge.

With an Android smartphone, you could use the Google Maps app as a great navigation tool. It rocks! The iPhone has some neat options, too. Waze, for example, works well and is free.

The Garmin Edge 500 does things completely differently, though. The navigation capabilities are designed for a cyclist following a specific course. It’s not meant for you to type in an address and have it tell you how to get there.

For navigating a particular pre-defined route, like most recreational cyclists and racers do, the Edge has the edge!

If you want directions, go with a smartphone and the Google Maps app. With the constantly updating maps and free traffic data, it saves you from buying a car GPS unit like a Garmin Nuvi.

For riding in an unfamiliar location, also consider the MapMyRide app, where you might be able to piggyback on someone else’s course.

Battery Life

With smartphones getting so fancy these days, battery life is dropping considerably. Try to run an intensive app that records your location every second and your battery is going to die quickly!

Plus, say you want the screen on the whole time, so you can keep an eye on your speed. You’re draining the battery like crazy! (And you can’t plug it in via a car charger!)

Depending on the phone, you can probably record a four hour ride. So it’s certainly not unusable. It’s just not comparable to the Garmin Edge.

The Edge can go for multiple days and record multiple rides (with the display on) before needing charged. If you’re doing a long ride, or riding multiple days without time or facilities to recharge, the Edge will do the job. Your phone… won’t.

When I’m working, I’m on a smartphone a bunch for a variety of purposes. They’re neat. But when I’m out on a ride or hiking in the woods, my phone is for dialing 911 in emergencies. That’s it. I’m not going to risk draining the battery for something as frivolous as seeing how many feet of elevation I gained that afternoon.

Price

When it comes to totally optional equipment, price is a huge factor for me.

The Garmin Edge 500, which is their #1 tried and true device, embraced by cyclists everywhere, costs $199.99. The Garmin Edge 810, their fancy, new, top of the line model, costs $499.99. You might like some of the bells and whistles on it, but we’re going to focus on the Edge 500 for now.

So, $200 for an Edge isn’t exactly cheap, but I don’t think there’s a smartphone you can purchase new for under $200.

The iPhone 5 looks to be around $500-600, the Samsung Galaxy S4 around $400-500, and the Google Nexus 5, though a great value, is still $349-399.

So the Garmin Edge 500 is half the price of the best value smartphone! You could buy a Garmin Edge and a Garmin Nuvi for less than the Google Nexus 5!

The Best Choice Is…

garmin edge 500

As a happy (and possibly biased) Garmin Edge owner, I have to say the Edge is a much better GPS unit than a smartphone. It does so much more at a lower price.

Even if you already have a smartphone, you need to make it bike-friendly. Well, between the handlebar mount and the case, you’ve just spent $100 towards accessories to make your phone into a Garmin Edge substitute. Why not just spend the $200 and get the Edge in the first place. Then you have a great GPS for your workouts, and you don’t have to put your smartphone at risk!

 

Garmin Edge? Smartphone? Some other type of GPS unit? What do you think?

 

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9 Comments
  1. Did you consider the Quad Lock Mounting system for attaching your smartphone to a bike?

  2. @Chris

    Hadn’t seen that one! Looks a lot like the mount on the newer Garmins (which is a very nice system.)

  3. Garmins are way to expensive. 200USD for Edge 500…300 for etrex :O

    I’ve chosen smartphone and topeak bag

  4. @Sok

    Those Garmins are more expensive than an iPhone 4 but less than an iPhone 6! 🙂

  5. barometric altimeter is not perfect and depends on weather changes. So it can be even less accurate than GPS (or map) based measurements.
    Regarding data plans, battery, etc.: you can take you old phone or buy older model sim-free. It can be cheaper than Edge 500. Don’t even put a SIM into it – sync and update with wifi and work offline when cycling with downloaded maps and/or apps. Without cell and data connected, you’ll get a great battery life (usually better than Garmin). And you get a great choice of apps. You can sync the device when you reach wifi or connect a cellular network after riding.

  6. This article gets a lot wrong. You can run GPS enabled apps on an old phone without a data plan…even in airplane mode and get great battery life even while tracking your ride. And newer phones have great battery life even with cellular connected. Most people ride with a phone anyway, so why use both?

  7. I have been using the PowerTap App (Available on the Apple App store), side by side with my Garmin 520.. Pretty much now look at my Garmin 520 as dead weight on the bike.. I am also using the QuadLock form y iPhone 6 Perfect… ! The App still needs a bit of work, but it work great for capturing Data and displaying it on screen, There is just no showing Power Zones and HR Zone.. Map tracking might be a problem two for those interested in that stuff

  8. While the Garmins seem to have been stuck in the past (even the 1000 model), modern smartphones in 2016 have far better utility and versatility. A new Motorola G2 or G4plus sets you back at $120-140, with a high-resolution display and a full day battery life for a long bike ride. There are endless apps like bike computer, komoot, OruxMaps, OSMand, locus, Strava that have far more functionality than a basic Garmin. I use a Topeak Outdoor Bike Case, which is 100% waterproof and has a bar holder. Bluetooth Smart 4.0 connects to my pulse meter and cadence sensor. Audio navigation tells me the direction without using the LCD screen.
    And a modern smartphone out of contract can be had at some $40-50 on ebay, since they are build in millions and updated all the time.
    My Garmin 520 simply became a deadweight, because I carry my smartphone with me all the time. For long bike tours a small portable powerpack with 10000mA can recharge the phone during a coffee break and give another 8h. These things are dirtcheap now.

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coach levi
Hi, I'm Coach Levi. I'm a USA Cycling Certified Level 3 Coach as well as Level 1 Certified with Precision Nutrition. Want to feel better, ride faster, and look great? Let's work together!

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