Belfast Telegraph

Garmin review: GPS giant puts wheels in motions to dominate cycling tech world

People around the world have been gripped by tight-fitting lycra and thrown their leg over a bike, Jonny Bell takes a spin with some of the latest tech.

Golf, according to those in the know, is losing players across the world. Cited by experts following the announcement that Nike was to ditch the sticks, it was claimed that millions around the world were doing the same and the market was not as lucrative as it once was.

So where are they going?

Well - again according to those in the know - they are squeezing into the lycra and throwing a leg over a fancy-dan carbon fibre two-wheeler weighing less than their last meal and spending early Sunday mornings puffing up a hill.

Cycling has become increasingly popular. Once the preserve of the few (yes after everyone used one to get everywhere before the car) it has become a sport for all shapes and sizes. Just take a drive along the Ards peninsula on a weekend - and get frustrated behind the hordes out on two wheels.

And, like the golf, manufacturers are in a race to produce the next must-have bit of kit to separate riders from their cash and to keep them peddling.

Once the wheels are bought, a decent starting road bike should set you back between £700 to £1,000 or if you are keen you can spend a Bradley Wiggins' £20k, then it is the essentials.

The lycra, shoes, helmet and waterproofs could all set you back pennies or thousands depending on your level of keen-ness.

But of course it doesn't end there as each and every bike has plenty of real estate to adorn all the latest gadgets.

Garmin, having cemented themselves as the Titleist of the sport with the lead sponsorship of a team have a plethora of light emitting gadgets to 'assist' cyclists.

Although never forget no matter how light that bike, tight the jersey, or how aerodynamic those shaved pins may be - you still got to get up those hills.

Garmin Varia Vision

Think Google Glass. Essentially one long arm which reaches over your eye with a tiny screen providing every conceivable statistic of your ride.  Power, heart rate, speed stats right there in the corner of your eye. Pair it with the Garmin Edge sat nav and rearview bike radar and you get directions and warnings of vehicles approaching from behind.

And of course life is never complete unless you can pair it with your phone.

Out of the box it appeared chunky compared to what I had imagined. It comes with a stack of small rubber bands to attach to any type of glasses. The legs of my bike glasses are triangular and I had thought this might cause a difficulty, but it fitted on nice and snug and I had no fear the device would possibly come off during a ride.

My initial thoughts of it being too big proved wrong. At almost 30g in weight, says Garmin, it's barely noticeable once you get used to it, although you are aware of it at first. The screen is easily accessible and in no way dominates your view. It is possible to set it so that it is almost entirely out of your field of vision until you look at it.

The arm moves only fractionally which meant constant little nudges to get it right but once sorted it was fine. It comes with a lot of different-sized elastic bands in order to make it as flexible as possible for whichever eye you want it over.

You can set the display to rotate across each different data field or the side panel of the device can be swiped to change manually. And yes it is glove friendly.

Garmin claims an eight-hour battery life, which despite my extended test, I never got to test. The longest ride was four hours and it worked throughout - probably harder than me at times.

At first I considered all the necessary data field too much information. I enjoy a bike ride and pushing myself, but I am not fitness fanatic and thought I had no need to know all the ins and outs of the cycle. But after a week or two I was hooked. Could I get the numbers down - or up. It almost became an obsession.

And the training partner mode was something I became obsessed with. It splits your planned route into segments and compares your time with others. It can be paired with the Strava app meaning you can see how you compare with the competition. So the Castlereagh hills, Divis Mountain routes are all there and you can set about conquering them.

And when you record a personal best - or even an outright best - you get a little congratulatory alert to let you've done well.

And you do want to collect them. There were times when I was left disappointed that I just didn't improve or get the best time and thought about going back and trying again and there were times I did just that.

Looks wise it does stand out a bit and people do look. Although those in the cycling community are very keen to learn all about it, as with any device.

One thing though it that it's not standalone. You will need another Garmin device or two to pair it with and with a price tag of around £300 there could be a hefty outlay to consider.

Garmin Edge 1000

For my testing I also had the Garmin Edge 1000. A slim line sat nav for the handlebars. Traditionally I have little time for sat nav as I never find the user interface user friendly. Our car device for some reason is incredibly difficult when you need to change the country although I was able to change the car icon to a red F1 car with ease. But the Garmin Edge has one of the more better of the interfaces out there. They are the experts at it after all. Handily you can plot out an entire ride on the computer at home and then send to the device which was effortless and smooth.

Bluetooth and wifi make everything that little bit better.

It comes packed with features including pre-planned routes as well as sensors to inform you of every aspect of the ride. Naturally it's compatible with cadence and power sensors and even Shimano's electronic shifting.

But it is not without its niggles. On its own I found that directions could have been clearer at times but paired with the Vision this was not a problem and trying to stop and reprogramme a navigation mid-ride could have been easier. That said with touchscreen, and two buttons it is very easy to use.

Menus are fully customisable and after a week or two I had the entire thing set up to my exacting specifications. No doubt Garmin produce a lengthly manual, but I didn't consult it and was up and running with it in no time. Plus those little surprises when you realise it does something, like the racing partner challenge or when it tells you its going to rain, are always nice.

Again Garmin don't scrip on how to attach it to the bike. It's slim and well put together, and a tether is supplied for added security.

But be in no doubt, this is one serious piece of kit - and it needs to be with prices starting upwards of the £300 mark - but strap it on to your bike and it will transform it in the Starship Enterprise.

Garmin Varia Rearview Radar

One device that became an essential for every ride, be it the commute or a casual leisure cycle was the Garmin Varia Rearview Radar.

That's right, radar for the bike.

In the box comes two small gadgets one that sits on the front of the bike and the other a red flashing light that sits on the rear. It warns you - either through the partner device or the Vision - of cars approaching from up to a distance of 140 metres while also flashing brighter to vehicles the closer they get. It works on its own or with the Vision and the Edge and is improved by them as you get audible alerts.

My first ride with it was out out along the Ards peninsula and back and my first impression was a poor one.

Given it was a bright sunny clear day I heard the cars long before the device detected them. But after much use, it became an essential, particularly for my commuting cycle. Those days it was wet and miserable it wasn't such a shock when the cars approached seemingly in silence. On one occasion I got the shock of my life when a car passed me very closely at a traffic island - and there was no warning. But this was due to my not realising the battery had died. It does seem endless at times.

On its own it can be frustrating without audible alerts, but with the Edge 1000 audio and visual reminder it comes into its own. Also the the rear light is not the most aesthetically pleasing, which we all know is vital in the carbon fibre world of two wheels.

That being said it is over £200 it is quite pricey for what is essentially a warning system, albeit it a very clever one that can be no replacement for the look over the shoulder, but I found this to be very useful.

Garmin Vivo Smart HR

And where would we be with all this fitness without being able to monitor our own vital statistics? I dare anyone to put on a Garmin Vivo Smart HR activity tracker and try to take it off. 

A smart watch which tracks your movements, heart rate, stairs climbed, intensity minutes. It also connects to your phone for calls, texts and social media updates. And then all the data it collects goes back to the phone to give you a nice graphic representation of all your activity. But sure they all do that? You may ask.

But the thing for me that set this one apart was the smart challenges. It learns your activities and then sets personal goals each day. Have an intense day, it gets gradually tougher. Have a lazy day and the challenges are not so difficult the following day to ease you back in. When you break a record or a goal, you get a big congratulations.

It got to the point I was up and down our old Royal Avenue stairs several times a day just to get to the goal. And if you ever tried those stairs they were never easy.

Virb XE

This is Garmin's venture into the world of action cameras - dominated by the GoPro, a device which I own. And after much testing the Garmin came out on top.

While bigger than my GoPro Hero3, the case and camera are one. So there is no trying to prize the camera out of the case. And also the connection lead plug nifty-ly latch on to the camera. The one downside is though that as it does not use a micro USB like what you get on the GoPro so it does mean if you don't have the lead you are stuck. That being said the battery life is good.

The device is bulkier and attached to the lid it was more noticeable than my GoPro counterpart.

But - and where it won it for me - was the user interface. The is no big button on the top to record. And while there is not the myriad of options you can negotiate with on the GoPro, it is basically point and shoot and for my lack of interest in divesting time in getting it set up right - that's a big bonus.

The picture quality was fantastic and as the camera is not in a case, the sound much clear as well. No doubt future versions will be slimmed down - and it does need it - but this is an impressive and tough to beat rival for the market-dominating GoPro.

For £250 there isn't much price difference to the GoPro. If you want something lighter with many, many options on how to shoot a film, go to the GoPro. For something bulkier, but with a much simpler design on both the gadget and on its apps - go for the Garmin.

You have reached your destination

When the big package arrived from Garmin there was obviously a lot of charging to be done all at once. And it all comes with USB cables and no plugs. So every USB plug in my house was used to charge each device. The radar has two devices! If you are forking out for a £300 sat nav one would say there should be a plug thrown in.

It's that time of year - some would say the most wonderful time.

Either the winter bike is reaching the end of its use and you are ready to dust of the summer special - or you are watching the mornings light up and warm up to dust down that bike that's been hanging on the wall for the past few months.

For some it will be new bike consideration time. For others it will be what possible new addition could I put on my bike?

The addiction is strong once you get back on the bike. The cycle never endless.

And Garmin are intent on tapping that vein.

While you may think a sat nav an extravagance, a radar excessive, a camera pointless or mid-ride stats unnecessary a new bit of tech is always a must.

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