Wednesday, May 24, 2017

First Impressions: Wahoo Elemnt Bolt

I've been very happy, and continue to be very happy with my Garmin Edge 800. For a complete set of features it's unparalleled, and if I were touring the Alps this year I wouldn't even consider buying a new bike computer. However, the plan this year is to tour England with my 5 year old son. What Arturo and I discovered last year in our final leg of the tour through Germany was that in flatter areas with dense road networks, the penalty of stopping at every intersection to check maps is very high. While you can pre-plan routes with ridewithgps and load them to the Garmin Edge ahead of time, you can't easily do that "on the fly."

The best thing about cycle touring is the ability to change plans "on a dime", according to weather and wind, as well as how you feel from day to day. Because of this, the ability to navigate a preferred course while touring can make a break a tour, especially one where a 5 year old in the back seat of the tandem will frequently ask: "How long until we get there?"

Pamela Blalock navigated through Ireland last year on a solo tour using the previous version of the Wahoo Elemnt Bolt, the Wahoo Elemnt. By all accounts, the difference between the two units is basically $70 and the smaller screen on the Bolt, with a 15 hour battery vs a 18 hour battery life. There's no way Bowen's going to stay on a bike for even 10 hours a day, so 15 hours was more than good enough.

Now if you search the web for Wahoo vs Garmin, you'll see a lot of rave reviews about the Wahoo and how it's a Garmin killer. After several rides of experience, I'll say that while the Wahoo is competitive, it's by no means a Garmin killer. There are many places where the Wahoo unit is inferior in many ways, so let me get all those out of the way.

Mounting: Garmin's industrial strength rubber bands are the best bar none as far as mounting solutions are concerned. Wahoo copies them, but made several decisions that make them inferior. First of all, instead of using rubber bands they chose to use zip ties. I've had many more zip tie failures than Garmin rubber band failures. They're less reliable, and of course, every time you need to move the mount from bike to bike you pretty much have to cut the zip tie. The Bolt comes with 2 mounts (like the Garmin did), and one of the mounts is an off-the-front mount. This mount interferes big time with my handlebar bag. I'd buy more mounts but Wahoo wants $15 per mount, which is ridiculous. By contrast, Garmin will sell you 2 for $10. Winner - Garmin.

Boot Speed: Since I have both the Garmin 800 and the Bolt on the tandem (the 800 on Bowen's position), I get to compare their start up time. The 800 wins handily, and that's a 6 year old unit! This goes doubly when you do a "warm start." The typical scenario for touring is that you ride up to a supermarket (or playground or museum or side trip area) and turn off your bike computer while you eat lunch (no sense wasting battery). After you're done, you startup the units again. To its credit, the Bolt "resumes" the ride correctly (the Garmin 820 and 810, both inferior units to the 800 don't always do so). But it takes a very long time to boot. I'd already be riding for half a minute before it wakes up. Winner - Garmin.

Settings: The Bolt can only be setup by a smartphone app. That's OK. But what's frustrating is that the Bolt does not appear to "listen" to the smartphone app. Try as I might, I can't turn off Live Tracking on the Bolt. I also can't get the Bolt to display e-mail notifications. It's would be very frustrating if not for the fact that I have a Vivoactive HR which handles it just fine. Now, the 800 obviously can't do any of that, but whatever settings I want to change, I can change it directly on the computer. Winner - Tie.

Battery Life: Because the Bolt turns on Live Tracking (which I can't seem to turn off, no matter what!), the battery life is reduced. About 6 hours of riding depletes the battery by about 50%, so the actual battery life appears to be 12 hours instead of 15. The Garmin 800 when new had about 15 hours of battery, and now appears to have about the same battery life as the Bolt. Winner - Tie.

Bike Profiles: Like the later Garmins, the Bolt does not do per bike statistics collection. By contrast, my Garmin 800 has a separate odometer per bike, and I can tell it which bike I'm riding. It even knows how much each bike weighs so its calorie estimates are correct. By contrast, the Bolt thinks I'm riding a lightweight carbon fiber wonder, so its calorie estimates are ridiculously low. I turned off calorie expended from my screens on the Bolt because it was so far off as to be useless. Winner - Garmin.

Mapping and Navigation: The Bolt cannot do off-line navigation and rerouting. At all. All it can do is to follow a track you gave it from the Smartphone App. That it can do so wirelessly is a great feature! I tried it multiple times during dry runs, and it's amazing to tap out a route on ridewithgps and have it download immediately to the Bolt and then be riding the route with navigation entries. But if you're stuck without a cell signal or your smartphone battery is dead, you're so screwed if all you have is the Bolt. The Garmin 800 can do smart navigation even when off-line without a smartphone. The penalty is that you have to pay Garmin for maps or go through the 3-5 day procedure to load maps to your Garmin, while OSM base maps for the entire world is included in the Bolt. It's a wash in the Alps when road networks are not dense, but when you're touring a country with dense road networks the Garmin will frequently get confused or take a long time to recompute a route if you miss a turn. This is a toughie. Winner: Bolt (by a bit). Garmin really should give up on trying to make money off map sets.

Screen: The Bolt has a black and white screen which is very high contrast. This is nice, but the UI display is not done intelligently. When you have an upcoming turn on the Garmin, it doesn't matter what screen you're on as you approach the turn: the Edge will flip to the map screen and zoom into the intersection and show you how to navigate the turn. The Bolt won't do that! Instead, it'll flash a "left turn" or "right turn" arrow and the name of the street. So if you're following a route you must keep the display on the mapping/navigation screen. Even so, you might find yourself frantically pushing the zoom in or out button when approaching a complex intersection or traffic circle. This is an idiotic way of doing things and it's clear that Garmin's background in car based navigation units has transferred over to their bike units. Wahoo's PMs clearly have not thought through how people use navigation systems. By the way, the LEDs on the Wahoo are pretty much unusable in bright sunlight. I turn them off as a waste of battery. Winner: Garmin.

Looking at the above, I can see how you might love the Bolt if you owned a later model Garmin (810 and later). Those later models are not fully debugged and are missing features that the older Edge has. But if you have the Edge 800, the Bolt's a much less obvious upgrade. Now when it comes to current model Garmins vs the Bolt, it's still a tough call. Obviously, if you're a tourist on unfamiliar roads in places with dense road networks you want the Bolt. My experience, however, is that most cyclists don't do what I do. They do organized rides with arrow markings on the ground or follow the leader in group rides or rides in places that they know. In those cases, the Garmin units are probably way better.

I'm keeping my Bolt, but my guess is that in the long run when I'm not touring it will play second fiddle to the Garmin Edge 800. My solution for my upcoming tour is to bring both units. If I get into trouble with the Bolt, I'll grab the Garmin off my son's handlebars for navigating.
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