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Best all-in-one GPS unit for mountain biking (MTB)

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During last 10 years I have used many different GPS units for hiking & mountain biking (MTB), Magellan SporTrak Color & eXplorist 600, Garmin Vista HCx, Oregon 550 & eTrex 30. HAC5 from Ciclosport was my first and last training computer. For my regular MTB rides and outdoor trainings I decided to use all in one unit and HAC5 is still installed on my room trainer.

For hiking it's much more easy to find the suitable GPS model. Due to visibility of the screen, weight & size, performance in muddy conditions, sport functions and fast navigation it's hard to find suitable GPS unit for  mountain biking (MTB).

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Navigation & training functions all in a single unit. Why not? Unfortunately none GPS model has all of them. Some models are designed to give better performance in navigation functions, some are designed to give more real time training parameters. Of course the ideal GPS for MTB should include both of them. During my regular MTB virgin rides good navigation functions and basic heart rate & cadence monitoring is enough. In addition to basic heart rate monitoring and cadence during my MTB training or some race I would like to use more training parameters in the real time.

 

Below is the list of characteristics I would like to see available in my ideal outdoor MTB GPS unit:

  • Large, color, non touch screen, resolution at least 240x320, diagonal at least 7 cm.
  • The buttons of most used commands should be easy accessible.
  • In addition to heart rate and cadence, ambient temperature monitoring should be available. Recording and analyzing of ambient temperature is an important factor of each training.
  • Real time sport functions and calculation. Heart zones, heart alarm function, calories etc.
  • Customizable data info screens (different profiles). For instance I would like to design my own screens for MTB training and for regular MTB recreational rides. The last one should include at least the map, elevation, heart rate, cadence, battery status and GPS signal strength.
  • Removable standard AA or AAA batteries and at least 15 hours autonomy with the single battery pack.
  • Navigation unit should be opened for the installation of custom designed & georeferenced raster maps.
  • Fast zoom in/out & scrolling of vector & raster maps.
  • Good bike holder, robust to vibration and easy to mount.


Unfortunately none all-in-one GPS unit has all of above functions, so 2 options are available:

Option 1

     

Option 2

Separate units for navigation and sport functions

     

All-in-one unit with some limited functions

Examples:

Outdoor GPS navigation units: Garmin units (Vista HCx, Legend HCx, 60Csx), Magellan new eXplorist series, Delorme Earthmate series, some smart phone with dust and water protection like Motorola Defy.

The units for sport functions (training) with altimeter, heart rate and cadence monitoring: Polar, Sigma, VDO, Cateye, Ciclosport and many others. Be sure only few of them records the ambient temperature during the training.

Benefit:

  • Many functions are available in each unit and you can easy cover all you needs for training and navigation.

Drawbacks:

  • Separate files and separate software for navigation and training.
  • Separate batteries for the main units. You have to monitor the condition of each battery. Heart rate belt, cadence sensor and speed sensor of the training unit are equipped with separate batteries too.
  • Most of the main units for training functions are equipped with low capacity batteries and during the night the backlight cannot be turned on all the time. If you have head lamp no problem.
     

Examples:

Garmin models: Oregon 450/550, Dakota 20, Edge 800, Edge 705, eTrex 30

Xplova models: Xplova G5, Xplova G3

Benefits:

  • Single type of the battery for the main unit only. In most cases rechargeable batteries are used for the main unit so you will less pollute the environment and save your money. The heart rate belt and cadence sensor are equipped with separate batteries.
  • During night the backlight can be turned on all the time.
  • Single file for navigation and training functions.

Drawbacks:

  • The lack of some functions in navigation and/or training mode.
  • In some cases such units are equiped with custom designed or not replacable batteries. At least after 3-4 years you will have to replace the battery. Should you go to the service?
  • In most cases all in one units are more expensive than the combination of the units in option 1.

 


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Touch screen or not?


My opinion about touch screen (I have the one on Oregon 550):

  • Touch screen is acceptable for cycling in dry conditions. Try to imagine a ride in muddy condition, when mud is on the touch screen and on your glows or fingers. To operate with touch screen in muddy conditions you cannot avoid scratching the surface of the screen. Adding the protecting foil isn't a good solution because most of the foils decreases the visibility of the screen at least after few weeks of operation. Furthermore, try to add precisely the waypoint on the map. Instead to touch the point by finger much more precisely is to move the cursor on desired place and than confirm the point by pressing the button. The same is in the case if you want to enter some additional text comment for instance for your waypoints. To enter any text with the glows is a pain. It's much more easy to do this on the non touch screen units by the buttons.
  • Good visibility of the screen is very important. During MTB ride I prefer to lock my hands on the handlebar and passing quickly on the steep sections from shadows to direct sun there is no way to adjust the backlight of display. This is one of the most important characteristics. Up to now I have not seen a touch screen with a very good visibility during the bright & sunny day conditions. So it seems the units without touch screen have better visibility. I can confirm that the new Oregon 550 units from unknown serial numbers have better and more visible touch screen.

The below review and evaluation table was done according to the specification of the manufacturer available from their official specification or valid user operating manual. To be included on the list a barometric altitude measurement function is a must. If you are in deep canyons & green forest, the altitude calculated from GPS signal isn't precise. In this case the elevation data cannot be the base for precise calculation of total elevation gain and other values related to the aerobic difficulty. Of course if you don't need precise calculation of parameters calculated from elevation than consider some smartphone like Motorola Defy. Defy is waterproof, dust protected and can be supplied with external sensors for heart rate & cadence monitoring too. The navigation functions of Defy together with some Android OS application like OruxMaps is very good and cheap.


All below units have waterproof housing, available cadence & heart rate monitoring options, high sensitive chipset and at least 10 hours of battery life.

 

All-in-one GPS units suitable for MTB, review on paper only, October 2011

Manufacturer Xplova Xplova Garmin Garmin Garmin Garmin Garmin
Model: G3 G5 Edge 705 Edge 800 eTrex 30 Oregon 450 or 550 Dakota 20
Dimensions, WxHxD in cm: 5,7x9,9x2,5 7,5x10,2x1,9 5,1x10,9x2,5 5,1x9,3x2,5 5,4x10,3x3,3 5,8x11,4x3,5 5,5x10x3,3
Weight (with battery) in g: 117 152 105 98 142 193 149
Screen resolution in pixels: 176x220(5) N/A 176 x 220 160 x 240 176 x 220 240 x 400 160 x 240
Screen diagonal in cm: 5,6 8,9 5,6 6,6 5,6 7,6 6,6
The ratio, screen diagonal / total unit diagonal 0,49 0,70 0,46 0,62 0,44 0,59 0,58
Non touch screen Yes No Yes No Yes No No
Type of maps (1) Free OpenStreet Maps Vector from Xplova, no data about other sources Vector from Garmin + other vector compatible maps (see Mapwel tool) Vector from Garmin + other vector compatible maps (see Mapwel tool) + kmz & jnx raster maps + BirdsEye™ Satellite Imagery Vector from Garmin + other vector compatible maps (see Mapwel tool) + kmz & jnx raster maps + BirdsEye™ Satellite Imagery Vector from Garmin + other vector compatible maps (see Mapwel tool) + kmz & jnx raster maps + BirdsEye™ Satellite Imagery Vector from Garmin + other vector compatible maps (see Mapwel tool) + kmz & jnx raster maps + BirdsEye™ Satellite Imagery
Compass Yes, 3 axis No Yes, 3 axis Yes, 3 axis Yes, 3 axis Yes, 3 axis Yes, 3 axis
Cadence Sensor
sold separately sold separately Included in some versions Included sold separately sold separately sold separately
Heart Rate Belt
sold separately sold separately Included in some versions Included sold separately sold separately sold separately
Ambient temperature monitoring (2) Yes No No Yes No No No
Built memory 2GB N/A N/A N/A 1,7GB 850MB 850MB
Accepts external memory Yes, micro SD Yes, micro SD Yes, micro SD Yes, micro SD Yes, micro SD Yes, micro SD Yes, micro SD
Typical battery life in hours(3) 10 10 15 15 25 16(4) 20
User replacable battery of main unit Yes, not standard battery
No No No Yes, standard 2xAA Yes, standard 2xAA Yes, standard 2xAA
USB 2.0 speed support Yes Yes No Yes No Yes No
Sport & training functions in real time Yes Yes Yes Yes No No No

Note (1): Different maps are available in different countries. None map is perfect so it's a good option to have different maps for the same location. New vector topo maps are available worldwide. Despite many of them includes "topo" name they are not real topo maps. You will be able to see the contours but in most of cases you will never be able to see the kind of surface. You will not be able to get the idea if the terrain is sand, rocky or muddy. Due to this fact any option offering import of georeferenced raster topo maps into the GPS unit is welcome. You have to check which map source is best for your territory.

  • OpenStreetMap is a free upgradable vector map of the whole world.
  • Mapwel software offers the solution to make your own maps and upload them into Garmin units.
  • Garmin custom maps (kmz files) offers the solution to upload georeferenced raster maps into the compatible Garmin GPS unit. The size of kmz map is limited on 100 jpg tiles. In addition to Garmin custom maps (kmz files) in the new Garmin units the new jnx maps can be installed. Jnx maps can cover very large areas with enabled fast scrolling & zooming functions. More details about jnx maps are available here.
  • Garmin BirdsEyeTM option offers uploading of satellite imagery (jnx maps) into the compatible Garmin unit. In my area Google Earth imagery has much more details so I have no benefit from this option. 

Note (2): ambient temperature is an important training parameter. Outdoor training on the same section at different ambient temperatures will give different results. Of course it's important when you compare your outdoor trainings during winter and summer time and to explain additional effort (heart rate) needed at low temperatures.

Note (3): be sure the battery capacity decreases at lower ambient temperature and higher intensity of backlight. For standard AA batteries, use fresh charged NiMh batteries with capacity of 2500mAh or more.

Note (4): according to my experience Oregon 550 battery life is around 16 hours only in the case if the backlight is turned off and the ambient temperature is around room temperature. During winter time at around +5°C the battery life is around 10 hours. I tested the unit with a new set of Sanyo Eneloop XX 2500mAh AA batteries. I measured the current consumption too. With turned off backlight the current consumtion is around 200mA and with maximum intensity of backlight the current consumtion is around 400mA.

Note (5): this data was provided by Xplova web support.




Conclusion: according to above table it seems there is no single all-in-one GPS unit with incorporated all together: standard replaceable batteries, good outdoor visible non touch screen, real time training parameters and opened to load any georeferenced raster map.



Be warned. In above table some very important evaluation data are missing.
You have to check:

  • The visibility of the screen. The best method is to check the visibility in the shop during the sunny day. After that try to check in all light conditions, with and without backlight. Turned on backlight decreases the battery life. The visibility of the screen is the key point for MTB application.
  • Check how fast are zoom in/out and scroll commands for vector and/or raster map. Do this when GPS tracklog recording is turned on. Some GPS units are really slow. Even smartphone like Motorola Defy can beat them easy.
  • Check the bugs in the software and manufacturer support. Before you take the decision check their web, check some forums and usergroups, check the hidden or not known specifications on some user groups.  Depending on the market some manufacturers have responded on the reported bugs better than others.
  • On the paper there are many different navigation functions, sport/training functions, check them all, read the operating manual. Consider what will you need and then check what is available. Most of the manufacturers have very bad operating manuals, so check the available specification, functions and supplied software and how they work. To confirm the data, search some usergroups and forums.

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Last Updated ( Tuesday, 25 October 2011 12:17 )  

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