Issue 00: Garmin Edge 810: GPS Computer Wins Battle-Loses War

By David Schloss

At this point though it feels as if two things are happening within Garmin. The first is that there are fewer features to add to a bike computer that hasn’t been included already.

It was not the fault of the Garmin Edge 810 that I rode my bike into the back of a parked car, launching myself over the handlebars, bruising my ribs and earning myself a visit to the local Emergency Room—stupidity and a lack of attention to road conditions caused my accident.

It is, however, such a perfectly fitting metaphor for the experience of using the newest Garmin GPS-based bicycle computer that I feel the two cannot be separated.

Mere milliseconds before I looked up and saw the (large) brown SUV in front of my wheel I had been silently cursing at the device, wondering how many times I was going to have to forcibly push a button with my gloved hand and have it fail to respond before I might see the screen on which I had set the display for total elevation and the road’s percent grade.

Moments before that I was wondering why the “Training Partner” (the Atari 2600-esque avatar that theoretically provides motivation by showing you how far ahead or behind a non-moving icon you’ve become) displayed a number of miles I had fallen behind a little-pixelated stick figure, but not how fast I was actually going that very moment. When I’m racing someone, I want to know how fast I’m going.

These interface issues weren’t the only I’d experienced in the month I’ve been testing the Edge 810 since its release. I’ve watched the device tell me—while riding—that I had stopped moving (and so had “auto paused” even though I had a complete satellite lock and connection to the cadence and speed sensor on the bike).

I’ve had to force erase all the workouts on the Edge in order to get it to turn on without freezing at the “Loading Maps” boot screen. I’ve watched it double-count my speed while on a trainer so that it thought I was riding at about 24 mph when I was actually coasting at around 12 mph. I’ve tried to go for a ride only to find out that the auto-power-down feature failed and that the device’s battery is dead. And I’ve scratched my head at the map page, wondering why it was showing me the entire eastern seaboard as opposed to a scale that might be more appropriate for someone on a bicycle rather than someone aboard the International Space Station.

I’m not hoping to merely bash the Garmin Edge 810. It isn’t that the device is flawed or that it is a bad piece of technology. Rather, I think that Garmin has been struck with Feature Creep—the point at which hardware or software becomes so loaded with features that the performance breaks down, either because the tool isn’t powerful enough to perform all the features or because the user experience and user interface can’t keep up.

What I hope to do is suggest a path for Garmin (and for other makers of technology in the sports arena) to create devices that complement the lives of the athlete, not complicate them.

But before I delve more into this review, let me offer a summary and a bit of background. For more than twenty years I’ve been a technology writer and editor. I say this to avoid being written off a someone who is just not good with gear. I have made my living by writing about electronic devices and in most of the fields in which I write I start my reviews by pickup up the gadget at hand and using it without reading the manual. I think that’s a good way to judge the design of a product. Of course I always and go back and read a manual after my first pass, but my point here is that I don’t require a full briefing on a technology to embrace it.

I’ve also been a staunch advocate of Garmin’s bike computers since way before they made bike computers. I’ve had Garmin devices on my bikes as far back as 2000 when the eTrax was introduced. They’ve saved my ass in the states as well as in Europe, Mexico, and Asia. I can count at least a dozen occasions during which a GPS-based computer enabled me to get back home on a road bike ride around an obstacle or sudden road hazard, or enabled me to find an exit point while mountain biking that kept me from having to sleep overnight in the woods without shelter.

When the first Edge came out, I was thrilled because it meant that Garmin was focusing on the needs of some key users and refining the tools. With Garmin’s heart rate monitor, cadence/speed sensor and the computer it was possible to get sophisticated data recording out of one box that previous had required several devices. (I actually rode in the pre-Edge era to train sometimes with an eTrax on my handlebars and a Polar monitor strapped to my chest sending signals to the Polar watch I was wearing.

For many iterations of the Edge, Garmin would create a device that came tantalizingly close to being perfect, albeit with one or more features not-yet-developed. (This was also the development cycle on the other product lines as well.) A model might offer climbing data but be missing a barometric altimeter to make the data more accurate. Or there would be mapping but no digital compass so it would point in odd directions when not moving.

This smart pre-obsolescence made many Garmin users hanker for a trade-up before they’d even opened up the packing on their model. Between my wife and I, we have owned every iteration of the Edge and each one has been great, with the potential for the next model being greater. (And thanks to eBay each new unit has been purchased in part thanks to the great resale value of the devices.)

At this point though it feels as if two things are happing within Garmin. The first is that there are fewer features to add to a bike computer that hasn’t been included already. The buttons on the Edge 800 were small and sometimes hard to actuate so the Garmin Edge 810 has removed all the buttons except for the power button, the start button, and the return button and has replaced them with a touch screen.

That wouldn’t be such an issue if the touch screen functioned better. While the world is used to capacitive touch screens (the kind found on the iPhone and every other smartphone available) that sense the slightest electrical changes on the glass, the Edge 810 employs a resistive system that’s harder to use. A capacitive system wouldn’t work on the Edge, since cold weather necessitates gloves and anyone who has used an iPhone in the winter knows that gloves don’t work.

The feeling of using a resistive touch screen is like that of jumping back into the past. Even without gloves I found myself mashing the screen in order for it to sense input. To “swipe” between screens took effort and to vertically scroll usually ended up with the Garmin reading it as if I had pressed a button.

This brings us up to the second issue Garmin is facing—poor user interface. While the Edge keeps picking up new abilities, the user interface hasn’t changed much since 2000, although many of the items now seem buried under increasingly deep levels. As a result, much time is spent trying to “tap” selections (though “mash” would be a better term here)

For example, Garmin puts the scenes displayed while riding under Training Pages. You can have one for racing, one for casual riding, one for rollers—the idea is that each type of riding could have its own preset pages of data to display. This is now found under the type of activity being performed (and what I was searching for when I went ass-over-tea kettle into a car) instead of according to bike.

The problem here is that I (and I suspect any people like me) are more likely to tailor our data to our bikes. For a bike, without a power meter, I have no need to display my Watts. But the bike profile only controls the weight of the bike and the “image” to represent that bike. If I want to make a page that doesn’t display Watts, I have to do that under the activity I’m performing. (Racing vs. Training, for example.)

The nice thing about having a bike-based setting is that I can have each bike register its own speed sensor or power meter. I don’t have to recalibrate or re-initialize when I switch bikes. The downside is that there are two separate places to configure related data. (And that Garmin only gives me a few icons to represent my different bike profiles—I’m not sure anyone with an Edge really owns a penny farthing, but you can select that, but you can’t select anything realistic looking. Or, for that matter, a photo. With Bluetooth built in, I should be able to simply take a photo of my bike with my phone and have a photo of the actual bike represent the actual bike.)

The process of adding a new data field to an activity field goes something like this: Tap to setup, tap Activity Profiles, Tap the one to Edit, Tap + or – to change the number of fields, tap OK, tap the field to change, scroll through list, tap category, scroll through list, tap data type, tap the back button, tap the next field, repeat, repeat, repeat.

And woe be to the person with more than one activity type because you’ll find yourself performing the same setup steps over and over for each activity. “Duplicate” is not something that’s come to the Garmin universe.

One could argue that there isn’t a vastly better system on a small device to perform these types of customizations, but this brings me to the next issue. The Garmin Edge 810 has a Bluetooth connection and a USB connection and the Garmin configuration and data logging tools look as if they were made in the era of floppy drives.

With the amount of connectivity in these devices, it should be a piece of cake to write an app that allows me to drag and drop data fields quickly and to make multiple iterations for different profiles with just a few clicks.

Instead, Garmin’s Connect tool is nearly useless (and it becomes instantly clear why things like Strava have become so popular). When my Edge 810 was in an infinite reboot cycle I tried to download new firmware. This required connecting my Edge while the browser was open, installing an extension so that the browser could see the device, restarting the browser, digging back to the page on Garmin’s site, having it tell me no device was connected, powering the device off and on again, and then finally being told that no firmware updates were available.

(This brings me to a tangent–why should I have to provide a serial number to download a firmware upgrade? I mean, what am I going to do with a firmware update for a device I don’t have? Sell it?)

The Power Within

All of this seeming Garmin-bashing is to get to a point, and that point is that instead of providing a set of tools with an increasingly sophisticated-yet-refined user interface, the company has simply piled more and more features into the device and an increasingly vexing arrangement.

We live in the iPhone era. The bike GPS should do amazing things. As I’ve written before, I want a bike computer that doesn’t just give me turn-by-turn navigation but allows me to pick and fulfill goals. For example, I’d like to tell it that I want to go from point-A to point-B, a route that normally takes me 4 miles but I want the computer to find me a way to get between the two points that takes me 20 miles.

Or, I want to be able to specify a destination and tell the computer that I want to do 5,000 feet of climbing before I arrive. Or find me a way to get to work that I haven’t biked in the last month. Or find the ride that my friends have posted to Facebook and let me race that.

And forget about racing a virtual partner. I want to start a race with several of my friends and compare my times—regardless of whether they’re with me or not. This sort of time-shifting racing is part of several video games and I want it on my bike. As I pass through an area where a friend (or stranger) set a new KOM, I want the computer to ask me if I’d like to compete against them and then pace me. Or I’d like to throw down a climbing challenge to my friends and have their computers race them against me, regardless of when they happen to hit my route.

Let’s face it, the GPS-based cycle computer isn’t just a more powerful version of a wired Cateye. It’s a small, impressive computer that’s able to do things that would have been impossible a decade ago for any amount of money. Yet the basic functionality hasn’t changed to keep pace with the new possibilities of the world around us. Let’s see a bike computer that’s less eTrex and more Xbox.

In my local bike shop the other day I saw a flyer that was being sent around to help the shop owner explain to the customer why they wanted a fully dedicated bike computer instead of just using the GPS in their phone. The primary reasons on the sheet were the battery life of the device vs. that of the phone, the danger of putting a non-weather-sealed device up on the handlebars and the danger of hurting an expensive phone in the case of a fall.

But at the same time, the Garmin Edge has got built-in connectivity that allows it to talk to the iPhone. It can download weather forecasts from the phone. Garmin is essentially offloading computing power to the iPhone from the Edge while at the same time telling customers they don’t need an iPhone.

I’ll soon be looking at devices like the Wahoo RFLKT here at Bike Hugger as an alternative to using a dedicated bike computer. My guess is that the functionality of ANT+ and the lack of integrated ANT+ receiver in the iPhone will allow the Edge to hold onto a good amount of market share, at least until the point at which the devices switch to Bluetooth Smart and the standards work themselves out.

At some point in the very near future though Bluetooth 4 and the low-power Bluetooth Smart standard will start to dominate because the Phones will already have the chipset to communicate with them.

That’s when the lead of Garmin has the potential to vanish, just as has happened in the in-car navigation market. A few years ago the only truly reliable car navigation systems came in dedicated units from the manufacturers.

Despite my pessimistic description of the new Garmin Edge 810, I actually hope Garmin is working on the next generation of cycling specific technologies and that they are astounding and well executed. If there is any company that can keep abreast of the changing technological space for the athlete it can, and should be Garmin. The company brought GPS-based computing to cycling, running, hiking, flying, fishing and geocaching and they’ve likely saved countless lives with their affordable and accessible technology. Their continued success and decades of new, innovative products would benefit anyone with an active lifestyle.

An era with greater collaboration between a head-unit and an iOS or Android device is coming and that era could provide significant new features and significantly better interfaces. A system where multiple pieces work together to a standard that allows for easy sharing of information between bikes and between users.

This technological change could enable devices like the bike computer to seamlessly talk to nearby devices like a GoPro, allowing for group rides that sampled photos and videos from the cameras of the participants. Playlists could be shared between riders. It could enable cyclists to collaboratively work with coaches and teams from around the world without having to stop to upload data. It could allow the family ride to pause at a picnic spot and turn into an impromptu geocaching trip.

Or it could just stay functional but run transparently in the background—neither interfering nor interrupting, simply recording data.

A way to pick personal goals and have the computer help reach those goals doesn’t seem too much to ask.

And, if nothing else, how about we get a bike computer that beeps when we’re about to smash into a parked car?

Ed. note: After a good run of 42 issues, our magazine app is no longer available, but we’ve archived the content here on our blog. 

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