Ah, the perennial question (for a sub-set of road cyclists with a penchant for data and a secret desire to be a pro rider): which bike GPS to invest in?
Garmin ‘owned the space’ for many years. In recent years, competing up-starts have parked their tanks on Garmin’s lawn (with great accuracy, if they use GPS). Leading amongst these is Wahoo with its ELEMNT series of devices.
In this post I compare the Garmin Edge 520 and the Wahoo ELEMNT BOLT, both of which I bought (last year I think) and have used extensively.
Bike GPS devices these days have lots of features. The differences across models and between manufacturers are many. I will endeavour to restrict this highly analytical report (opinion piece based on little hard evidence) to the key differences that I think are relevant to enthusiast road cyclists (such as your good self).
(And if you want to cut straight to the chase, click here to zip straight to my final recommendation.)
What Are The Edge 520 And ELEMNT BOLT?
The Edge 520 and ELEMNT BOLT are both GPS bike computers. There doesn’t seem to be a more elegant term than that… I don’t know: GPS device?… “info box of misery”?
As such, they sit on (or close to) your bike handlebars, recording where you’re going (to tell those good people at Strava), and displaying on their screen various interesting ride facts:
- Your current and average speed;
- Distance travelled
- Time spent riding
- Level of ‘stoke’ being achieved.
That sort of thing.
Both devices can also provide you with an element of navigation help, particularly if you’ve uploaded a route to follow. They’ll alert you about upcoming turns in order to stay on track, show your route on a (not very detailed) map, tell you how much of the climb is left to go.
Where Do They Sit In The Range?
I’m sure both Garmin and Wahoo have an official way of describing where the 520 and BOLT, respectively, sit in their model ranges. For the less technologically savvy (or branding savvy), both devices sit in the middle. Middling in terms of price, features and size.
Interestingly though, the fact that they’re not top of the range doesn’t preclude pro riders from choosing them over their high-specced brethren. You definitely see pros riding for Garmin-sponsored teams selecting the Edge 520 over the 820 or 1030.
For the Wahooligans (yes – that’s a thing), actually you don’t see many riders with the larger Wahoo ELEMNT. Pros use BOLTs.
And that ‘larger’ bit is the point.
Both the Edge 520 and the ELEMNT BOLT are sufficiently ‘fully-featured’ for pro riders (and, one assumes, for me and thee as well), but they don’t necessarily want the larger form factor of the higher end models (heavier, potentially more wind resistance).
Big Picture Message
Both the Edge 520 and the BOLT are excellent bike computers. I’d be happy to own either (as it happens, I own both).
As I’ve said, professional cyclists use both, so they must meet a certain standard, even taking into account sponsorship aspects (ie. if Garmin sponsors the team’s bike computers, then the rider has to use a Garmin).
The purpose of this post is to pick out the differences where I think (subjectively) one works better than the other.
But if you’re a Garmin guy, get a Garmin. A Wahoo wazzock, whiffle a Wahoo…
So What Are These Differences?
I promised you differences. Have some differences in your eyeholes.
I’m sure there must be loads of little differences between the Edge 520 and the ELEMNT BOLT. To save you from absolute boredom (but keeping you in mild boredom), I’ll focus on the key differences that I’ve found notable and may actually have a bearing on your buying decision.
(For The Love Of) Buttons
I’ve found the BOLT easier to navigate around in pure physical terms (i.e. in terms of pressing the buttons), particularly when riding the bike.
All of the 520 buttons are on the edge (yes…. the EDGE!) of the device. Actually, the edges (plural).
There are two buttons each on the left, right and bottom edges of the unit. They’re all quite small and fiddly. It sometimes takes a couple of goes to press a button and actually have something happen.
The Wahoo has some small buttons on the side as well but, importantly, also has three large buttons on the front of the unit (i.e. located below the screen, facing up at you).
The BOLT buttons are concave rather than convex (if that makes sense). This sort of guides your finger into the right place to apply pressure and makes them easier to press and know you’ve pressed them.
The buttons also act as handy holders of rainwater on particularly wet rides. Presumably this isn’t exactly what the designers intended, but so far this hasn’t caused any no real adverse effects (and a useful extra source of drinking water for the little pet dormouse I take riding with me).
UX / UI / UWhat?
And what do buttons make?
They make the cycling GPS device do things.
The other advantage of the location of the three BOLT buttons beneath the screen is that they can become multi-functional, depending on what you’re doing at that point (looking at a ride data screen, on the navigation screen, in the setup menus).
The BOLT displays a label above each button to guide the user as to what it does on that page or in that menu area.
All of which points to, for me, that the ELEMNT BOLT is easier and more intuitive to use for most of the things I need to do.
This is really important when you’re on the bike, where you need to retain some awareness of the road, plus you might be giving it some beans through the pedals and therefore not fully compost men toes.
In my (not comprehensive, sample size of 1) study, I’ve found it more likely that I end up pressing buttons on the Edge 520 that either don’t do what I was hoping for, or switch to a wrong setting, or take me back to the top menu.
The BOLT either does what I expect when I press a button, or I can quickly go back a step and try something else.
A Slightly Different Approach
I think the main difference between the Garmin device and the Wahoo is one of philosophy. Which sounds poncy.
Wahoo is a bit of a cheeky startup whilst Garmin has been around for ages. I’m guessing that Wahoo comes at the problem (you know, the problem of cycling computers) from a ‘smartphone first’ angle.
Indeed their first device was essentially a handlebar-mounted display that linked to the rider’s smartphone, which provided all the muscle in terms of GPS tracking.
Whilst the ELEMNT BOLT (and its big brother, the ELEMNT) have all the tech inside them, the idea is that you use the smartphone app (whether on iPhone or Android) to do most of the complicated bits, including setting up the device, what data fields display on each screen, importing routes to follow.
Whilst there is an element (hah!) of this with the Garmin, really the Garmin Connect app came after the device ecosystem that’s been around for yonks.
Or in other words you change most things on the Edge 520 by messing around in the menus on the device itself, which isn’t always that intuitive.
Another area where I can state a definitive preference is in how each unit deals with mapping and routes.
I just find the BOLT better.
Starting with routes. Without being overly techy (because I don’t understand it and I might be wrong) the key to having the turn directions appear correctly (in sufficient time to turn; with street names) isn’t down to the device. It’s the quality and content of the route file.
I like using Ride With GPS to create routes. It is dead easy to get a RWG route off my computer (I prefer dragging and clicking with a mouse).
Once the route is saved on RWG, it will sync automatically with the Wahoo. Then I can either pull up the route on the Wahoo app and ‘send’ it to the BOLT to ride, or I can find it in the BOLT’s route list on the device.
Getting a gpx (or any other navigation file type) onto the Garmin is a right palaver.
If you want to upload one that you’ve created with Ride With GPS (you can make routes on Garmin Connect but they are very little light on turn directions), you have to save it down on a computer.
Then you have to connect the Edge 520 to the computer via a USB cable (what…?!?) and manually transfer the file to a specific folder on the Garmin. The next time you turn on the Edge, it will process the file and add it to the list of routes you can select from the device.
Whilst pleasingly old skool for those that still enjoy Windows 3.1, this is not a process that really fits with the modern age of apps, syncing and wireless.
Neither the BOLT nor the Edge 520 is intended to display fully detailed maps out of the box (you can upload maps with more detail to the 520 though).
They also both use ‘cookie crumb’ navigation. They don’t ‘know’ where you are on the road system; they just know whether you’re on the track with a series of predetermined GPS waypoints.
This is all fine for me. I’m generally good with knowing if I’m on or off course. And how far I am from the finish.
For some reason though, and this comes back to buttons and the user interface, I can’t work out how to zoom in and out easily on the map/route data screen on the Edge 520 (the screen you look at to see where you are when riding).
The level of zoom on the maps page seems to be something you decide as part of the device settings and then just leave. You have to go into a menu to set the level of zoom and then come back to the map page to see if you’re happy with it.
And do it all again if you’re not.
I like to be able to zoom in (to see where my next turn is) and zoom out (to see my general direction of travel) whilst riding. This is dead easy on the Wahoo. You press the relevant buttons when on the map page and it just zooms in or out.
It beats me why Garmin doesn’t adopt this approach as well. I don’t think Wahoo invented it…
Differences That Are Not Really Differences
Okay they are differences. They are just not factors that would sway my buying decision between the two devices.
The Edge 520 has a colour screen where the BOLT is monochrome (black and white, grey scale, whatever…). Not once have I wished that the BOLT had a colour screen.
The main thing (for both devices) is that the screen display is sufficiently sharp and contrasty (technical term) to be able to see it in a variety of lighting conditions.
The Wahoo probably shades it for me on this one (ease of screen viewability) but it’s a marginal difference (and my eyes may differ from yours…) so not a major factor in the buying decision.
The Edge 520 only connects with ANT+ sensors (speed/cadence, power meters, heart rate straps) whereas the BOLT can communicate via both ANT+ and Bluetooth. I guess this is a major issue if you have a load of existing Bluetooth-only accessories. But most people, if they have some existing sensors on their bike or body, are likely to have ANT+ ones.
If you have a pathological fear of ANT+ then this points towards the Wahoo, otherwise you’re decisionally unencumbered.
To be clear, when it comes to communicating with smartphones via Bluetooth (a different, er, type of Bluetooth), both the Edge 520 and BOLT can do that no problem.
An Extra Screw
The Wahoo BOLT comes with an extra screw (strictly speaking it’s a screw hole) versus the Edge 520. This might be important to you. But I’m guessing not.
Interesting fact. The screw hole is there (as well as the screw itself) so that the device can be considered part of the bike for ‘weigh in’ purposes under the UCI rules. With many pro bikes under the UCI limit and therefore have ballast added in order to be race legal, the BOLT can count towards this instead of being added after the bike is legal (and therefore adding further weight).
I told you this wasn’t important for you.
Key things that both devices do well
I’ll keep this brief. Both devices are excellent bike computers. They do the key things well.
With both it is easy to record a ride and then have it set to upload automatically to a ride tracking/training app of your choice.
Whether it’s the BOLT or Edge 520, I select the relevant ‘Save ride’ option on the device and the next thing I know, an alert is on my iPhone screen telling me the ride has been uploaded to Strava.
Both devices are, for me and for many pros, the right size. I don’t need a smartphone-sized device attached to my handlebars. Or indeed a smartphone.
I just need a compact and clever bike computer, that I don’t have to think too hard about to use, that records my ride data and shows relevant information on the ride itself.
Both the Edge 520 and the BOLT do that.
Recommendation: Which Should You Buy?
For me the Wahoo BOLT shades it.
The navigation works better. It’s a lot easier to create a route (admittedly I do this on a 3rd party site) and have it sync both with the smartphone app and the BOLT device itself.
Shifting between screens, zooming in and out (both on the mapping and data field screens) is easier, the user interface is more intuitive.
If you’re firmly wedded to the Garmin ecosystem, I certainly wouldn’t stop you getting the Edge 520. You’ll be very happy with it.
But if you’re in any way a floating voter, I’d recommend giving the BOLT and the world of Wahoo a try.
Buy A Bike GPS (And Support This Site)
If you want to purchase a bike GPS and support the Sportive Cyclist blog, please click one of the affiliate links below. You pay the same price but I get paid a small commission, which keeps me motivated to write all these words:
- Click here for more details and to purchase the Wahoo ELEMNT BOLT
- Click here for more details and to purchase the Garmin Edge 520
Thank you in advance 😘