GPS Watch vs Bike Computer: What’s the Difference?

gps watch vs bike computer differences

As a cycling enthusiast, having a good GPS watch or bike computer to record your ride statistics can improve your ride experience. GPS watches and bike computers are two of the most popular options people rely on to measure and improve their riding statistics. But how exactly does a GPS watch differ from a bike computer, and which one should you get?

A GPS watch is a versatile tool that uses a satellite connection to record your cycling data. It can be useful in scenarios outside of cycling too. A bike computer is attached to your bicycle and relies mostly on its movements to measure the data. Some bike computers come with their own GPS systems.

In this article, we will analyze the differences between a GPS watch and a bike computer in great detail. This should help you decide between the two if you’re in the market for a data monitoring tool. We will also look at some of the best GPS watches and bike computers in the market right now.  

GPS Watch vs Bike Computer

Purpose

Let us start with the basics. What exactly is the purpose of a GPS Watch? And what about a bike computer?

A GPS watch is basically a smartwatch with built-in GPS tracking capabilities. Their GPS chips help these watches get linked up with anyone or multiple global navigation satellite systems (GPS, GLONASS, Galileo, etc.). 

And once connected, they can help you in many different ways. It could help you navigate through challenging environments, or it could help you keep track of the distance you cover when you walk, run, swim, bike, etc.

A bike computer is also known as a cyclometer, a device that you attach to the front of your bicycle, which can then help you keep track of all the information regarding the trip. You can think of a bike computer as a mounted dashboard, like the one you have in your car, where you can keep track of all the ongoing and recent information regarding the ride.

Key Difference

If we had to point out one key difference between a GPS watch and a bike computer, it would be that GPS watches have multiple uses, whereas bike computers are pretty much limited to bikes. A good GPS watch could be used in hiking, running, swimming, hunting, or even biking. Furthermore, most decent GPS watches come with a range of training apps for different sports.

But the difference doesn’t just end there. If it did, bike computers would pretty much be obsolete. There are five key factors to consider when choosing between a bike computer and a GPS watch.

Accuracy

Accuracy is the first factor you need to consider when choosing between a GPS watch and a bike computer. This is mostly determined by the GPS chip’s sophistication inside the watch and the bike computer hardware.

GPS watches can be pretty accurate if the chip in your watch is powerful enough, and if it is able to maintain a good connection with the satellite system, it is meant to connect. 

High-end GPS watches have multiple options when it comes to the satellite systems they can connect to. This means the measurements done by these watches are much more accurate than that measured by a low-end GPS watch.

The data collected by bike computers, on the other hand, are pretty much consistent. This is because they rely on the hardware itself rather than a reliable connection to a satellite system in order to measure your cycling data. Some high-end bike computers have built-in GPS systems as well. So they combine the two features to give you pretty accurate measurements.

Another measurement where you can notice some differences is in the altitude measurement. Bike computers usually use a barometric altimeter to measure the altitude. That is, they figure out your current altitude by measuring the atmospheric pressure. This means that changes in the atmospheric pressure resulting from changes in weather or other factors can affect the correct measurement of the altitude.

This is seldom a problem with GPS watches. They usually derive their altitude measurements from a recorded dataset that has the accurate altitudes for each geolocation on earth.

Battery Life

Battery life is a tricky subject. It is nonetheless one of the most important factors to consider when choosing between a GPS watch and a bike computer. On the one hand, most smartwatches/GPS watches offer a much longer battery life (often lasting multiple weeks in the smartphone mode) compared to bike computers that often last up to 20 hours at most.

But the thing is, the battery life in every smartwatch is greatly diminished once the GPS mode is turned on. An average GPS watch will have about 12 hours of battery life in the full GPS mode. And since this is the only mode where a GPS watch can compare with a bike computer, bike computers are the clear winners in this respect.

If you’re the kind that goes on long bike rides, you will want a dedicated bike computer that can last the entire trip. But if you seldom go on bike rides that are 10 hours long or longer, a GPS smartwatch could be a better investment in terms of versatility.     

Aerodynamics

The device’s aerodynamic properties are also an important consideration when choosing between a GPS watch and a bike computer. While most bike computers are built with all the aerodynamic issues in consideration, they are a no match for a smartwatch that goes around your arm.

Aerodynamics is the study of how the air interacts with any moving body (in this case, the bicycle). Most moving bodies and vehicles (bicycles included) are designed with this factor in consideration. You will want to design a surface that offers the least air resistance and allows the body to penetrate through the air easily.

While not the biggest aerodynamic hurdle, a bike computer will definitely offer more wind resistance compared to a smartwatch that simply goes around your arm. However, the difference is not significantly large, and one ought to think about one another factor.

Keeping track of the real-time ride statistics and other data is a lot more convenient with a bike computer than with a smartwatch. Not only will you have to keep raising your arm to look at the data when you’re using a smartwatch, but the smaller screen will also mean that the data will not be as clear as displayed on a bike computer.

Data Collection

We live in an era of data collection and analysis. So this is definitely one of the factors that deserve consideration. Simply put, the more types of data you collect, and the more of each you collect, the more information you can derive from a dataset.

Both bike computers and GPS watches collect some amount of data when the user is out cycling. These data can be analyzed to derive all sorts of information, which can, in turn, be used to optimize or improve the rider’s performance. After all, improvement is one of the main reasons anyone would want to keep track of any of their exercise/sports regimes.

The high-end GPS watches in the market can collect way more information than a bike computer. This has mostly got to do with their proximity to the rider, compared to a bike Computer. 

Smartwatches are capable of recording and studying the pulses and the veins in the wearer’s wrist in order to measure factors like heart rate, oxygen level, etc. When combined with the overall biking data (distance, altitude, etc.), you can get a pretty expansive report.

Bike computers, on the other hand, are often focused on the bicycle and the outer environment itself. So the information recorded is often limited to the speed, distance, and elevation. These data, however, are often sufficient to derive plenty of useful information.      

Price

The fifth and final factor worth considering when choosing between a GPS watch and a bike computer is their price. And bike computers are the clear winners in terms of affordability.

Most bike computers are available for under $50. There are some high-end options available in the market that can cost several hundred dollars. But you can expect to get some pretty good ones for under a hundred.

GPS watches are generally expensive. A decent starting range of GPS watches will easily cost over a hundred dollars. You can get some pretty high-end smartwatches if you’re willing to go higher.

If you compare a high-end bike computer and a high-end GPS watch, the latter is capable of collecting a lot more information while the former is generally more efficient in terms of battery life and the accuracy of the measurement.

 

GPS Watches – Top Picks

We’ve looked at the major differences between a GPS watch and a bike computer. Should you choose to go with a GPS watch, here are the five best GPS watches in the market right now:

 

Polar Grit X

The Polar Grit X features an elegant yet sturdy (MIL-STD-810G certified) design. This watch can handle the worst environments and is also water-resistant up to 100 meters.

This watch’s GPS system is pretty accurate, and it also features a heart rate monitor that measures your heart rate using the pulse on your wrist. The Polar Grit X stands out due to its 40-hour battery life in training (GPS) mode. It also comes with plenty of other useful tools like a carb/fluid usage monitor, weather forecast, and a tool that calculates the uphill/downhill movement.   

 

Coros Vertix

The Coros Vertix is also another smartwatch great for cycling. It features a long battery life (60 hours in training/GPS mode). The design is beautiful and sturdy, and the display is very easy to navigate, thanks to the zoom in and out feature.

Navigation wise, the GPS of this watch is accurate. In addition to GPS tracking, it also features a heart rate monitor and a blood oxygen monitoring system. The latter lets you monitor your acclimation to a new altitude.

 

Suunto Traverse Alpha

The Suunto Traverse Alpha is one of the best smartwatches for outdoor navigation in the market. It has a MIL-STD 819G standard build, capable of withstanding the harshest environments. It also features a flashlight and can be made compatible with night vision goggles.

The Suunto Traverse Alpha connects both to the American GPS satellite and the Russian GLONASS satellite to ensure accurate tracking in all locations. In addition to all the other standard tools like heart rate monitoring, it also features interesting tools like Hunting and Fishing assist. This watch, however, can be a tad bit too heavy for professional cyclists.

 

Amazfit T-Rex

The Amazfit T-Rex is another great watch that features a beautiful yet sturdy design. In addition to cycling, it features professional exercise modes for 13 other sports and activities. The battery life in GPS mode is a bit low, though.

Thanks to its Sony GPS chip, the tracking done by this watch is pretty accurate. It uses a dual satellite positioning system to improve tracking. Other features include weather forecasts, smart notifications, and a heartbeat sensor.

 

Garmin Forerunner 235

The Garmin Forerunner 235 is another GPS watch that features a MIL-STD 819G standard build. Features include a 3-axis compass, a barometric altimeter, a heart rate monitor, and an oxygen absorption monitor.

Unlike the other watches on our list, the Garmin Forerunner 235 is capable of connecting with three different satellite navigation systems: the American GPS, the Russian GLONASS, and the European Galileo navigation system. That means you are guaranteed some pretty accurate tracking.

 

Bike Computers – Top Picks

If you’ve chosen to go with a bike computer, here are 4 of the best in the market right now, listed in increasing order of price:

 

Cateye Quick Wireless Cycle Computer

The Cateye Quick Wireless Cycle Computer is a low price bike computer that features an intuitive display that is easy to read and navigate. It is capable of tracking information such as distance, elevation, pace, speed, and time. 

One of the drawbacks of its low price is that it cannot record data externally. But the major advantage is its massive battery life, which will knock any of the other entries on our list out of the park. The Cateye Quick Wireless Cycle Computer is a simple and affordable option for cyclists who aren’t looking for connected features in their bike computers. 

 

Garmin Edge 130

The Garmin Edge 130 is a mid-range bike computer. It is still much more affordable than the best GPS watches in the market, and it features a GPS of its own. It is capable of measuring distance, speed, time, and elevation. In addition, it can also be paired with ANT+ sensors to measure the heart rate and cadence of the cyclist.

While the device can be a bit difficult to navigate around, it is a bang for the buck considering its other features. The display is easy to read, and the device can be connected to a smartphone for further features.

 

Wahoo Elemnt Bolt

The Wahoo Elemnt Bolt is another mid-range bike computer, but unlike the Garmin Edge 130, it lacks a GPS. The design places special emphasis on aerodynamics, and the designers of this bike computer claim that it is capable of reducing air resistance by 50% compared to other bike computers. It is also IPX7 waterproof (meaning it can resist water up to 5 feet).

The Wahoo Elemnt Bolt isn’t a standalone unit like the other bike computers on our list. It has to be paired with a smartphone. But a great feature of this device is that it comes with built-in maps.

 

Garmin Edge 830

The Garmin Edge 830 is a high-end bike computer, and it can be considered an advanced version of the Garmin Edge 130 featured earlier in this list. One of the stand out features is the excellent touch screen that is easy to use. 

Like the Garmin Edge 180, Edge 830 also features a GPS and is capable of tracking distance, speed, elevation, and time. In addition, it can measure heart rate and cadence by pairing with an ANT+ sensor. In addition, it also features cycling safety features such as bike alarm, tracking, rearview radar, and lights. 

The battery life of the Garmin Edge 830 is 20 hours with GPS. This can be extended up to 40 hours using the Garmin Charge power pack.

Closing Thoughts

A good GPS watch or a bike computer can help you optimize and improve your cycling performance. If you’re in the market for one of these, there are a few things you need to consider. Factors like accuracy, battery life, aerodynamics, data analysis capacity, and price need to be considered before making your purchasing decision.

If you choose to go with a GPS Watch, one of their biggest advantages is that they can be useful in scenarios outside cycling as well. Bike computers, however, have a much lower starting price compared with GPS watches. And if you’re a cycling enthusiast, a high-end bike computer can be the better investment choice.

 

Read Next:

Bikepacking The Butte Batholith Route (Southern Montana)

15 Incredible Bikepacking Routes In The U.S.

Best GPS Watch for Trail Runners and Racers

CalTopo – Introduction To Backcountry Mapping and Navigation

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