Friday, April 6, 2012

Choosing a GPS Device for Strava: Mobile Phone or GPS?

I'm going to assume you know what Strava is - the website that times and maps your rides (or runs) and then compares them with others who have done the same ride or part of ride. You record the ride using a GPS device, and when finished, upload it to the Strava site and can then see how fast you were compared to others.
A screen capture of the Strava interface

I have been using Strva now for about nine months, starting with an iPhone. I always carry my phone with me on rides in case I get injured badly enough that I need to call for help or for other emergencies, so this is convenient.

With a mobile device (iOS or Android) you must download the Strava app, and then start it when you begin your ride. When you finish, click "end ride" and the data automatically upload to the Strava site. This is alwasy very easy for me, except about 2-3 times when the app has failed to record my rides. Strava has since rewritten the app and I don't think these bugs exist any more.

In November I bought a Garmin GPS from a neighbor who rides and who recently bought a newer Garmin. It came with the heart rate monitor and cadence sensor. I installed the cadence sensor on my road bike, and use the heart rate monitor on both road and off-road rides.

To use the Garmin is a bit more complex - first you have to ensure you have recieved a satellite signal, which I find can be difficult if you are moving or if the sky is very cloudy. (The iPhone gets a signal immediately via its 3G connection). Then, you have to press "Start/Stop" when you begin the ride and when you end.

The next step is to connect the Garmin to your computer with the USB cable (which also doubles as a charger). Now forget about the Garmin Connect site. Go to, download some applet or driver from the site (which I had trouble doing in Chrome on a PC but no issues with in Chrome on a Mac), and the site will detect your Garmin.

Finally, you need to click on "Upload Activity" and subsequently select the events (rides) it finds in your Garmin using checkboxes, and hit "Upload". You can then name the ride, crop it, specify which bike you were on, and add comments or notes about it ("Saw pink pangolin" "Kristan made me sniff his gloves").

It will include any heart rate and cadence data that your mobile phone can't record.

So which is better? Originally I thought the Garmin would be superior for Strava, but eventually I realized the iPhone has its distinct advantages. Here are the pros and cons I see in each:

  • No need to buy a new device if you already have an iPhone or Android
  • Upload happens instantly after the ride - no need to connect to your computer. Great when you ride fast in the morning and then rush off to work and don't have time to upload it manually.
  • Can record speed, distance, and location even underground, in carparks, under heavy clouds or other places a GPS-only device cannot. This is due to its 3G connection. This is a major bonus for me.
  • The app interface lets you see your speeds, history, records, and more - it even synchs with rides you did on your Garmin meaning it'll show your full Strava history
  • Doesn't show real-time data - meaning during a ride distance or speed at any given moment will be wrong. Major drawback
  • Doesn't record heart rate or cadence
  • The elevation it records is amusingly innacurate - sometimes speeds are too - but the mapping and distance are accurate
  • Drains your battery but has never killed mine - can easily handle 5-6 hours of recording so not an issue unless you'll be riding longer than that
GPS (Garmin)
  • Real-time monitoring - this is invaluable to me, especially when I'm racing
  • Has many other awesome features that could help you be a faster or more efficeint rider like averages (speed, cadence, heart rate), total distance traveled, sunrise and sunset, tons of data
  • Specific to Strava, the heart rate and cadence are important in calculating the Strava Sufferscore, an estimation of how much pain you endured which considers heart rate level, distance, time, and more.
  • Depending on the model you have you can see where you are on a map. Even some of the older Garmins that don't support maps can still help in navigation by at least showing your compass heading and a trail of where you have been.
  • Water, mud, and crashproff to some degree
  • They're kind of expensive once you buy the heart rate monitor and cadence sensor
  • If you leave it plugged into your computer to charge it, then shut off your computer, its battery may simply run down without you knowing it - a big bummer when your ride starts (that's when you use the iPhone as backup)
  • Spotty satellite reception at times, and slow to pick it up (up to 5 minutes)
If I had to choose one I'd still go for the Garmin, only for the invaluable race and training data I get from the heart rate monitor and cadence sensor.


Old Man said...

Big fan of the Garmins. I'm on my second in the last 3 years.

Andrew Patterson said...

Yep I'm about to get a new one too, as the older one I have is showing signs of wear.

Are you on Strava? If so, have you ever used a phone to record a ride on Strava?

Marco said...

I use my Iphone with the Strava app to record all my rides. I was googling to see if i could get a heart rate monitor that would work with the app.
Hopefully Strava will come out with an app update that will allow for this.
Great write up! Enjoy your rides!

Marco said...

...actually, seems like as of May 24th, the new strava app now supports ANT+ and Bluetooth LE sensors, including heart rate monitors!!

Kristan Rivers said...


Please note that the iPhone itself doesn't support ANT+ directly, so you would need an adaptor anyway. Here's one:

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