On this blogger’s second century ride of the season, I noticed the groan-inducing "low battery" icon on my near-antique Polar S710 cyclecomputer/HRM–I now have to send it to Polar for a battery and chest strap replacement. The Polar product has always been a bit of a disappointment to me. It has an unintuitive interface, is prone to interference, and is infamously inaccurate. Since the S710 is eight years old already, I thought I’d take a look at what else is available, and see if the time was right for an upgrade.
I had already considered going without a cycle computer in favor of using the B.iCycle or iMapMyRide apps for the iPhone. When the 3.0 SDK came out I had visions of mounting my iPhone to my handlebar and purchasing external speed, cadence and HRM units that would communicate via bluetooth with one of these apps. Unfortunately, the apps haven’t attained that level of maturity yet, though developers of B.iCycle have assured me that they are "eager to improve it with the support for external hardware." On the Long Island Harbors Century this summer, I tested B.iCycle, and it sapped my iPhone 3GS battery completely by mile 56. There were also accuracy problems, since speed is calculated by GPS. And forget about cadence or heart rate. So, I decided to look elsewhere.
A few of my cyclebuddies have Garmin Edge units. Their 605 and 705 products even offer turn-by-turn directions, which is pretty cool, except for the fact that the units are 2" wide by 4.3" tall and weigh 3.7 ounces, which isn’t terribly heavy in principle, but is still about twice as large and heavy as anything else out there, and is kind of horsey (and not aero, if you care about that) when mounted on your stem or bar. Garmin Slipstream star Christian Van De Velde had the same complaint, and Garmin worked with him and the rest of the team to develop the new Edge 500.
The Edge 500 (with HRM bundle) shares many of the top-of-the-line 705’s features, such as GPS, wireless HRM cadence and speed, Garmin Training Center software (which unlike the Polar offering, IS Mac-compatible, though there are some hiccups with SL that will hopefully be resolved soon), and ANT+ power meter compatibility. The Edge 500 also adds heart rate based calorie computation, which the 705 doesn’t have, and has an extra 3 hours of battery life (up to 18 hours). But the Edge 500 has no maps, turn-by-turn directions, routes or waypoints, and no microSD slot, which brings the unit down in size to 1.9" x 2.7" and 2 oz in weight. There has also been some sniping on cycling forums about the mysterious omission of some 705 features that have nothing to do with mapping, like training against a virtual partner, custom workouts, pace alerts, interval training, and unit-to-unit data transfer. Perhaps some of these will roll out in future firmware updates, along with SL bug fixes in the Garmin software.
On balance, I think the Garmin Edge has the mix of form and features to make it the best cyclecomputer on the market when it comes out in December. The sacrifice of mapping and directions for size is actually a good call for many cyclists who train and race on established routes. They are still able to analyze their route and performance post-ride on Garmin Connect, the online community of Edge users. Touring cyclists will probably want the mapping features of the 605 and 705, and probably don’t mind the additional bulk on their bikes. Per Van De Velde’s advice, the Edge 500 is a more durable unit and has a sturdier mount than the 605 and 705, which will be welcome news for mountain bikers and anyone who has lost their $550 Edge 705 in a crash…
…which brings us to price. Garmin’s own press release boasts that "the Edge 500 streamlines your cycling statistics for a fraction of the cost of comparable head units" and lists the MSRP as $249.99 for the base unit and $349.99 when bundled with HRM and cadence sensors. However, if you click over to Garmin’s Edge 500 product page, you’ll find an MSRP of $274.99/$399.99.
I called Garmin Product Support to ask about the disparity, and a very friendly representative named Vern informed me that the MSRP was subject to change between now and the product release. I can only imagine the controversy that such pre-launch MSRP fluctuations would foment in an Apple gadget, but so far, there has been very little noise about this in the cycle forums. Amazon’s Edge 500 page features the unit with the HRM and cadence, and their list is $367.48, but you can pre-order now for just $342.99 with free shipping, which is $7 off the original MSRP from the press release.