Garmin: The Little Device That Doesn't

Apr 5 2013


(not verbatim, contains typos, and sometimes I go off-book)

Yo, check out this new gadget I got, it’s called a Blackberry.  It’s great for taking care of stuff on the go, like a mobile computer, except that I can’t look at photos or videos or fling cartoon birds at abstractly rendered pigs or really do anything but send emails…but I think it’s pretty nifty because what else out there is better? Yeah, my Blackberry’s almost as cool as this thing I got for my bike—it’s called a Garmin.

Of course, in many ways the Blackberry comparison isn’t really apt. Because the Blackberry, as dull, graceless, and monolithic as it was, actually turned out to be pretty damn good at the one pedantic task it was designed to accomplish. The Garmin, eeeeh not so much.

There’s an old saying—or maybe there isn’t and I just made it up, and if so there should be an old saying—that the best bike part is the one you notice least. For all drool and fingerprints displays cases have caught in their name over the years, Chris King headsets or Phil Wood hubs don’t exactly make themselves known on bike. Unless you’ve been riding something worse—and recently—you’re not going to notice your bike coasts longer or steers more smoothly

But that Garmin—whoof—you better believe I’m noticing it. I’m noticing it when it sits there for three-to-five buzz-killing minutes before each ride, showing me a basically full progress bar, just trying to detect that one last satellite whose absence somehow the other twenty it’s talking to useless. I’m pretty sure, since the damn thing has a tendency to pronounce me 20 feet below sea even in the best of conditions, that that twenty-first satellite really isn’t really the difference between precise tracking and might-as-well-write-a-map-on-the-back-of-your-hand.

I’ve also noticed my Gamrin while forcing my  wrist through the cringe inducing contortions required to access it’s awkward side buttons on a ride. Like seriously—who designed this? The buttons are about two millimeters off the top of my handlebar, another two to the left of my stem bolt, and they’re coated in a relatively stiff rubber material offer nothing in the way of tactile feedback. Trying to operate them on a cold day or through a long fingered glove is like trying to work a typewriter through a the bottom of a trampoline

Of course, I could just move the Garmin from my bars to my stem, but then I’d be staring even further into my own belly-button every time I wanted to see some data from the the thing. You know about potholes, Garmin? Road debris? Curbs? Dead animals? I don’t know if you guys have ever ridden a bike, but gazing into at a glare-mottled, low-contrast screen that’s near perpendicular to my direction of travel ain’t exactly the best way to go about doing it.

Actually, I do know that you guys ride bikes because you have a part that solves this problem—a tiny piece of injected molded plastic that juts forward from the handlebar and lets you keep an eye on your data and the wheel in front of you simultaneously.  You probably should have shipped to every owner of a Garmin cycling unit with an apology card as soon as you got the first crate over from China. But no, you didn’t want to do that. Instead, you’ve decided to sell it to your long-suffering customers, as an add-on, despite the fact that cheaper and faster-to-market versions from other companies already exist.

And you know the worst part is—it’s that all that stuff I just mentioned, it isn’t the worst part. Actually, I guess that’s the SECOND worst part because the worst part is your GPS device isn’t reliable at being a GPS device. I’m not talking about drifting off course a little, or mysteriously shutting down mid-ride as sometimes happens. I’m talking about the days where you turn it on, you start it, you ride with it, it functions normally, you come home, you go through the stop/reset/off dance routine that somehow passes as “save to disk”, plug your device into your computer and suddenly the previous two, or three, or seven hours of your life are mysteriously gone.

I mean, maybe you’re so used to high-centering motorists on railroad tracks, or leading them down logging roads that no longer exist, that you think your customer base is just willing to   accept some range of error. But I don’t think you understand what these rides mean to the people using your devices to record them.  

Cyclists sweat it out in grungy basements all and cobweb-ridden attacks all winter long to for to shave two or three seconds of their favorite climb, or sustain an extra watt or two. Even people who aren’t competitive and who don’t care about the numbers still like to see where they’ve gone, and to share and compare routes with their other weird cyclist friends.

And When riders take a Garmin on their bike vacation to the Rockies or Europe or some other, even further removed locale, they’ve probably spend hours pouring over Google Terrain maps to plot that one, perfect route—because in a lot of cases, it’s a once in a lifetime visit. For us, the data we collect while riding is as integral a part of the trip as the pictures we take or the unpronounceable beers we drink. To my mind, you thinking the current failure rate is acceptably doesn’t just make you a bad company—it makes you guys [expletive].

But hey, maybe I’m being too harsh. You did step up to sponsor one of the most ostensibly progressive cycling teams in recent memory, and even five years after one of the more notable retailers in the Industry began refusing to speak your name, you’re still at it.

And to be fair, I have technically only experienced legacy devices–abeit legacy devices you still sell for the princely fee. I burnt through three(!) Edge 305s before getting bumped up to to the 500 I currently use. So maybe the new devices are better…but I doubt it. from what I’ve read, you do have front facing buttons, but reports of laggy, low-contrast screens, a janky user-interface, and a general recommendation not to upgrade if you’ve got a 500 and make me think that not much has changed. And the alleged killer feature—real-time location tracking that requires a smartphone—doesn’t make any sense . There’s already a bevy of smartphone apps that offer this feature in a cleaner, more sharable format, for free—and that don’t require a batter

-burning requiring a bluetooth connection to get the job done.

And maybe this is kinda the root of the problem. I don’t think you have to reinvent the wheel, or think outside the box or ask “What Would Steve Jobs Do?”. Honestly, I’d be willing to suffer  through all the other crap—bad buttons, ugly screen, whatever—if you could promise me a device where riders who’d ever experienced data loss were the exception rather than the rule. And I don’t think that’s too much to ask—because if you guys can’t come up with it, you can sure as hell bet that someone else will.

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22 Responses to “Garmin: The Little Device That Doesn't”

  1. resultsboy 5 April 2013 at 9:29 am #

    Oh shit it’s so true.

  2. Karl 5 April 2013 at 9:45 am #

    Its all true, but whats the alternative? A Polar? An SRM? Don’t tell me to use my phone because that monster looks ridiculous strapped to my handlebars.

  3. livinstone 5 April 2013 at 9:50 am #

    After dealing with a Cateye gps camera, the Garmin is a gem!

  4. Joakim 5 April 2013 at 10:12 am #

    I had a dataloss problem with my Edge 500 only once, three years ago. So rather an exception than the rule in my case. And I always shut it down before plugging to the computer since then. My device has gone through heavy rain, snow and cold as well as bright sunshine, sand and dust. I wouldn’t have put my smartphone on the stem in these everyday conditions. About 200 hours a year on road and mountainbike, still works like a charm.

  5. Chris 5 April 2013 at 10:12 am #

    Competitive Cyclist using G*rmin has nothing to do with the device and everything to do with the team and Quirk thinking he got burned by the team in some manner.

    He also called AF Inferno a bunch of pasty dough boys and now he’s the title sponsor of the same. He’s not exactly the North Star.

  6. Ancker 5 April 2013 at 10:42 am #

    I’m not going to refute some of your claims. Most of them are correct from what I’ve heard. I’ve used my Edge 500 with zero issues for the past 2 years. The only thing I think is an issue across the board is temperature and elevation. But I just ignore temperature and use the Garmin Connect elevation adjustment setting. I’ve also not had any issues with the GPS progress bar. If I fire it up outside, it’ll take 60 seconds, max. If I turn it on indoors it’ll take longer. But why do you need GPS indoors? When I ride on the rollers/trainer it’s muscle memory to get to the menu setting that disables GPS for that ride. And why make it sound like Garmin is the only Cyclo-computer in the world that is strapped to the stem or bars? Other than a SRM, I can’t think of a single other computer that gives you even the option of mounting ahead of the bars. Sure Garmin didn’t think of the ‘out-front’ idea first. But the fact that they don’t exist for any other brand means that there isn’t a desire. Why is Garmin the bad guy here?

    There is one thing where you’re absolutely wrong. Bluetooth battery life when compared to these free smartphone apps. The number 1 drain of battery in a smartphone is GPS. Sure you can fire up the Strava app on your phone and ride away without a Garmin, but you’ll get a good 2 hours down the road before your phone is toast. Garmin’s solution is great because it lets the purpose built GPS device do that heavy lifting and periodically sends updates to the phone via Bluetooth. This takes very little battery and lets the phone sit mostly idle until a new update comes in. But you wouldn’t know this, because you don’t use one…and apparently you didn’t even read about the feature before you jumped to conclusions.

    Maybe I’m just lucky, but the worst problem I’ve had with my Garmin is me forgetting to hit the Start button. I’m not willing to say the Garmin is the end-all-be-all, but there’s NOTHING on the market today that is even close to comparable. Sure other brands offer similar features, but you get to re-buy all of your sensors to work with their proprietary protocol, which doesn’t work with a Powertap or Quarq.

  7. Larry Miller 5 April 2013 at 11:04 am #

    I always remember where I put my bike so I dont need a GpS!

    You guys are CRAZY!


  8. Anthony Bramante 5 April 2013 at 1:49 pm #

    Ancker, you need to use some recent smartphone apps (especially Strava’s). The advantage of using your phone is that it doesn’t NEED GPS for every moment of the ride. The triangulation off cell towers with supplemental GPS is good enough. I’ve gone on 6-7 hour winter weather rides and my two-year-old iPhone battery isn’t even in the red at the end.

    Throw the phone in a ziploc in a pocket for recording, have a ‘cheap’ ($100+) Garmin watch with impossible-to-use buttons for speed, cadence, and HR during the ride. My kludge to address the crappiness of the bike computer market.

  9. RED 5 April 2013 at 7:22 pm #

    Yeah losing data on the Edge 500 made me HULK SMASH mad!

    Firmware 2.40 seemed to sort most of those issues, along with modifying my behaviour like not touching the buttons during a ride, and turning off any feature that was not truly required. Some of the auto-* stuff, etc. Lame.

    My Edge 305 failed to record one truly epic ride that now only exists as a dim memory… still not really sure which way I went!

  10. Adam Myerson 5 April 2013 at 11:40 pm #

    Joule GPS, duh.

  11. BigPhil 6 April 2013 at 12:39 pm #

    Strava iPhone app + $85 Polar computer.

  12. Skippy 7 April 2013 at 4:01 am #

    Agree with Larry Miller , years ago i would use a bike computer , but took it off when leaving the bike , so no real benefit . Of course being able to show evidence , when ” bragging “, may be necessary for some .

    At the end of each year , i occasionally get asked , how far i have ridden , but whether i have ridden more or less than the profis is of no great concern to me . Only time i worry about computer info , is when i have enjoyed a particularly strenorous long ride with a profi , but that is to gauge their fitness level .

  13. cosmic osmo 7 April 2013 at 3:04 pm #

    just ride the bike! strava and cyclocomputers in general are a huge waste of time and money. unless you are a trained sports scientist most of the data will be wasted on you. i would say outside of a heart rate monitor there is no need for any external training tools. power meters are just glorified HR monitors and although many pros do find small gains with power data, 99% arent going to get anything out of a SRM that we wouldnt get out of a 30 dollar HR monitor. knowing that you are resting properly in between efforts, and then making sure your efforts are consistent and hard is really where the gains are made. power data not needed for that.

    as for cyclo-computers its just all fluff. no one will ever care what speed you were going or how many meters youve climbed. the only thing that matters is crossing the line first, and no amount of data is gonna help you get there until you are already at the professional level.

    stop buying into the consumer cycling culture, and spend that time you would be starring at ANOTHER screen looking out into nature. and then instead of spending an hour at home uploading your “data” and comparing it to other Freds, stretch and do some core work.

    unplug and enjoy one of the few analogue forms of entertainment we have left in the world

  14. John Baillieul 7 April 2013 at 5:03 pm #

    What retailer refuses to carry Garmin due to it’s sponsorship of Slipstream Sports?

  15. BigPhil 7 April 2013 at 10:53 pm #

    cosmic osmo, I like the use of the gadgets. Its nice to be able to go on strava and see how far I was riding per week two months ago compared to this month, my general speed, if I am improving etc. Even though I do go with a simple bike comp + iPhone app set up, I would like to get a garmin and do all the strava stuff plus my heart rate and calories in one place. But then again, I do have a master’s in kinesiology, so maybe I am one of those trained sports scientists.

  16. MrBucket 8 April 2013 at 3:32 am #

    I never used the 500 so I don’t have a baseline to compare to but I haven’t had any problems with the Edge 510. The absolute elevation can be a little off sometimes but the gain and loss are normally spot on. It’s nice to have elevation, speed, cadence, and heart rate all synchronized on one device and the few times I’ve used the live tracking feature it worked pretty well. Many of the routes I like to ride send me places where I have zero cell reception so smartphone apps don’t do me much good for tracking.

    I definitely don’t “need” any of this – and before my 510 I had a Blackburn Delphi 4.0 plus a simple Polar HRM – but I like tracking my routes and combing through the data (I love data) to see where I’m improving. You won’t convince me to try it your way and that’s okay because I don’t care if you try it my way.

  17. channel_zero 8 April 2013 at 5:48 pm #

    To bring the article full circle.

    I STILL use a Blackberry Curve and guess what? GPSLogger is awesome and free. Just export the ride and upload it and get your StravaHard0n all you want.

    Do you have a Blackberry in the drawer? Awesome. Remove the SIM card, power on the device and shut off the mobile phone radio. You get fantastic battery life with the mobile phone and 802.11 radios turned off and GPSLogger just works!

    Some of you cyclists are gluttons for punishment!

  18. Bert Olio Olio Olio 8 April 2013 at 11:37 pm #

    No, stop telling Garmin what they have to do to get it right. If the person I rode with on Sunday had a reliable GPS unit (or a decent phone like mine)I wouldn’t have the eleven Strava KoM’s I earned by flagrantly wheelsucking till I got dropped halfway through every segment we rode together.

  19. amc654 13 April 2013 at 3:34 am #

    Not that anyone asked, but … FWIW, I love my Bryton 40T. Never had any problems with it at all … no GPS drifting, no difficulty finding satellites, no lost data. Works brilliantly, and a good bit cheaper than the Garmin 500. And the (totally customizable) training rides are very, very handy. (No out front mount available yet, though.)

  20. Dr. Ko 14 April 2013 at 3:06 am #

    These days I pre-write the route for the 800 on my computer, because letting the Garmin do the Navigation is a mess:

  21. Pickett 18 April 2013 at 11:28 am #

    Sure, the 500 might have some quirks and necessary design improvements (buttons on the front!), however, a smartphone is NOT a cycling computer. If all you want is GPS tracking, sure, throw it in your pocket. If you want an interface to cadence, power, or heart rate, the Garmin excels.

  22. R 5 May 2013 at 8:38 pm #

    I’ve had a 305, 500 and for the last year, 800. I lost the first ride (am important one) that I ever did with the 800. I think the user interface on the 800 is poor (cartoonish, I regularly go through all menu items to find a setting as they aren’t logical) and the display is too small and poor to be used as a map (I consult my Google maps on my Android phone to solve most issues). I’ve also loaded a course off Garmin Connect and had the 800 alert me 100s of times on a single ride that I was “off course” and that that to correct I should … continue where I was going (going north, “turn north”). To upgrade to their premium device and then to have this experience is incredibly disappointing.

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