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17-01-2023 | Frank Jansen

A phone as a bike computer, why should you (not) do it?

During the Christmas break, I stayed with my family and friends on Lanzarote for a well-deserved vacation. Of course, there was some cycling involved. To write a review, I was traveling with a new type of bike computer. Unfortunately, this review loaner stopped working after one ride for no apparent reason. My trusty Wahoo was still at home. So I decided to use my phone as a bike computer for the rest of the week. How did I like that?

Photo: such an iPhone 14 is quite a beast on your handlebars. By the way, the horizontal lines are not there in reality, this is a side effect of taking a picture of an OLED screen.

Recording a ride with Strava

Luckily I'm not alone in Lanzarote, and the second ride, fortunately the two of us once again go out together. Navigating we do via my companion's bike computer, I record my ride with my phone in my back pocket using the app Strava. It's fine. The extra battery consumption is nil and also the elevation are neatly registered thanks to the barometric altimeter of the iPhone 14 Pro. But I do clearly miss the data to look at. Also, you can link a heart rate monitor in Strava, but not a power meter. And because navigating with the phone in the back pocket isn't exactly convenient either, I bought a handlebar mount the next day at a phone store for 15 euros. This holder is certainly not the best looking one, but for those few days I can get over that.

The search for a suitable app

The next challenge is the search for a suitable app. If you search on 'cycling computer' in the App store you will find dozens of them, but there are few that can do everything. And by 'everything' I mean:

  • Record (log) the ride
  • Automatically upload the ride to Strava
  • Navigation (based on a GPX)
  • Bike computer functions
  • Connection with heart rate and power meter

After some searching, I did find one that met my requirements: Cycle Meter. The app costs a tenner a year, but you can try it for seven days for nothing. Setting up data pages is a snap, and so is linking to sensors. Loading a GPX can be done simply by downloading the GPX with your phone and opening it with the app.

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What are the experiences?

  • To make everything work smoothly, you first have to adjust some settings on the phone. The screen should not automatically dim and/or lock.
  • The large screen is, of course, nice. There is more than enough room for the navigation line and six (or more) data fields. The fact that you can swipe and pinch with your fingers is brilliant. Especially since this screen is much more responsive than any cycling computer. The colors are also beautiful, of course.
  • Navigating with this app is pretty rudimentary: you follow the line and that's all it is. So no off course warnings and no guidance. No problem for me, but if your route crosses itself you should check these points carefully before you set off.
  • In Cycle Meter you have the choice of Google Maps or Apple Maps. A major disadvantage of both is that they distinguish poorly between paved and unpaved roads. In both cases, you also need an Internet connection to download the map material. Fortunately, if you have no coverage, you can still see the route line. I would rather use the OSM maps, preferably stored on the phone.
  • The battery consumption was the biggest question mark for me beforehand: especially because the screen is on continuously. You cannot use the battery save mode and airplane mode, after all, then the screen and GPS respectively do not work. In full sunlight, you definitely have to set the backlight to 50-75% to make sure you can read the screen properly. And that, of course, uses the necessary energy. Still, it wasn't too bad for me: about 8% per hour. I should add that my iPhone 14 Pro is only a few months old and has a low-power OLED screen. On older phones, it probably goes much faster. For my rides (which were never longer than 4 hours), I never ran into a problem.
  • On the Cycle Meter app I only have a few minor areas of improvement. Something I really missed was a climbing screen. Strangely enough you do see a profile when loading the GPX, but on the way you can't view this graph anymore. Power and heart rate were shown without problems. Uploading to Strava also went smoothly. Calibrating the power meter could not be done through the app, but fortunately that was also fine through the app of my power meter itself.
  • The app uses a pretty high threshold for the elevation, so I had as little as 20% less than my companion. However, Strava fortunately uses its own algorithm and once uploaded the difference is gone.
  • What I found irritating is that it proved inconvenient to use the phone as a camera: taking it out of the holder every time is a lot of work and you certainly don't do it while cycling. This point could probably be solved with another holder (such as a Quadlock).
  • A final point is vulnerability. The chance of your phone being damaged in a fall is considerable. Especially since it was in the holder without a case.
  • Specially for this review, I put on some music through the speaker during a climb. That worked surprisingly well. In high winds, however, it is of no use. In Spain, this is quite a godsend, because cycling with music in your ears is not allowed.
  • The fact that you no longer have backup gave my a restless feeling. Of course, this did not play out when, as is usually the case, there were two of us on the road.

What is my final conclusion?

I have always said that there is a good reason cycling computers exist and I stand by that. A bike computer is made specifically for cycling and you notice that in everything. Except perhaps for the quality of the screen, a bike computer is superior to a phone in every way.

Is a phone a workable alternative? Definitely. With a holder like a Quadlock it could probably be a permanent solution as well, but not for me. The biggest drawback for me is still the vulnerability and being dependent on one device. Moreover, I wonder how the battery life will be as the phone ages. If you still want it, invest in a good, sturdy holder that allows you to mount and detach the phone quickly. Then you can also take a picture on the go, which is especially nice on vacation.

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