Two High End Cycling Computers

I’ve been using two high-powered bicycle computers lately and (finally?) now have time to express my thoughts. These words will no doubt reveal the reasons that I am not employed as a professional device comparer. I’m not going to waste a lot of space writing about features and specs; those are easy to find. Instead, I’m going to concentrate on my thoughts when I used the devices.

Our contestants are the wildly popular Garmin Edge 500 and the much more new on the market CycleOps Joule. I purchased these computers because they’re both ANT+ receivers. In case you haven’t heard of it, ANT+ is the bluetooth of fitness. Many heart rate monitors, watches, cycling computers and power meters use ANT+ to communicate with one another. Though it’s owned by Garmin, ANT+ is an open standard and devices from many manufacturers work and play very well with each other. Many a geek is thrilled with ANT+.

Summary: these are both very nice in different ways. The Joule is, in my opinion, a better device if your goal is to train with power. The Garmin does more things, displays more data and is a better all-around computer.

Let’s take a look:

Cateye double wireless on top with Joule on the left and Edge 500 on the right.

I threw a Cateye Double Wireless into the picture to give these things a bit of perspective. Yes, the Edge and Joule are larger than the Cateye. However, they’re not that large — smaller than a phone or deck of cards — and they display a ton of data. Both have four buttons. The Garmin has two on each side while the Joule has ’em sprayed all over the place: two on the right side, one on the left and one just below the display. Both computers are pretty intuitive once you get oriented and/or until you hit a tough spot, at which point intuition is worthless and you’d better dig out the manual.

At this point, it’s probably best to take a deeper dive into each device.

Garmin Edge 500

Edge 500 setup isn’t bad. The menu system is very detailed and easy to navigate. I got my data entered, screens configured and devices paired pretty quickly. The computer can display up to five screens of data with up to eight data fields on each screen. Forty metrics! Who can keep up with that? Regardless, it wouldn’t hurt to think about the information you want to see before you’re in the middle of setup. Note that the data screens and fields are consistent between all bikes you use with the computer.

The Garmin has an internal, rechargeable battery and is delivered with a nice power plug-in and a USB cable. Each time you turn it on, it spends a bit of time locating GPS satellites. If you’re training indoors, you can turn off the GPS function, but you must perform that operation each time you turn on the computer. (Aside: I once met a Garmin rep and gave him a pretty good number of potential enhancements. The only one he wrote down had to do with a setting that would bypass all GPS functions until the user changed said setting. So I might be onto something.)

From one ride to the next, the user must reset the ride data. Otherwise, it’s all one long ride. When the Garmin detects movement it’ll tell you that you might want to hit the start button. The Edge does have an auto-start/stop function, but it’s *really* sensitive (perhaps I have a hard time standing still), so I opted for manual mode.

In my time with the Edge 500, I’ve trained indoors and out. I’ve used it on two bikes with two different power meters. I’ve ridden in torrential rain. I’ve banged it around in my backpack. I’ve downloaded piles of data and have performed at least one firmware upgrade. It’s pretty tough. The bad news: I’m on my second device. The first had a dud button that ultimately rendered it useless. Garmin support was good and sent me a new one, under warranty, within a decent amount of time. It might be worth noting that I dealt with Garmin as a customer, not a retailer. Your experience, if required, should mirror mine.

The Edge 500 goes through its charge pretty rapidly, wireless communication and GPS being pretty power intensive. It’s easy to charge, so it does pay to keep an eye on the level of juice after each ride. After almost a year, this would seem a difficult task for me; I ended up with a dead computer mid-ride a few times. My adaptability is ostensibly low.

If you’re really going to maximize your experience with one of these fancy computers, you’ll probably plug it into your computer and the plumb the data you’ve recorded. The Garmin software, Garmin Training Center, is easy to locate on the internet, install and use. Assuming you record with GPS turned on, it’ll give you a nice little map of your ride. You can also upload your ride data to the internet and share it with the whole, wide world.

In summary, this is the benchmark for fancy bicycle computers. Garmin’s long experience with professional and consumer grade devices shows through. It’s very configurable. It’s tough. The device and accompanying software are easy to use and feature-rich. If you’re looking for a powerful, do-it-all computer, this is a dandy.


My Joule is one of the very first off the line, as I’d backordered a few as soon as I learned of their existence.

Like the Garmin, the Joule comes with a thin little quick start manual. The big, highly-detailed manual is available online. Fortunately, the thin documentation was enough to get me started with the Joule in a matter of moments. I paired it to a Powertap wheel and took off riding. Piece of cake.

Immediately after, I lent the Joule and a Quarq to a friend of mine who had a rhymes-with-stich of a time getting things to work appropriately. Seems that the computer wants to know that you are actively engaged in your workout. With the Powertap, it knew this from the speed/cadence sensor in the hub. The Quarq doesn’t have this function, so my friend had to pair the computer to a heart rate strap. This makes sense on one level, but seems like a monstrous PITA on most others. Since this computer lacks GPS, I think it’s safe to say that your normal person would employ some brand of ANT+ speed/cadence sensor on her bike. Aside from the setup issues, my friend did like the Joule. And the Quarq.

Like the Garmin, the Joule allows the user to customize the display. However, the Joule offers neither the quantity of data fields nor the display flexibility of the Edge 500. I generally did not feel limited by the view options on the Joule, though there was one data field on the Garmin that I came to love. I’m honestly not sure that I’ve read the Joule documentation thoroughly enough to say categorically that it’s not possible to show that data, so maybe I don’t care that much after all. One word about the Joule display: some of the customization can only be performed in PowerAgent, CycleOps’s companion software. The Garmin, on the other hand, allows the user to control everything from the device. Is one better than the other? If you want to play with your new Joule without a computer+internet nearby, the Garmin approach seems better.

Which brings us to PowerAgent. Many things can be done with PowerAgent. Firmware can be updated. Joules can be configured. Data can be downloaded. Versions are available for both Mac and PC. Frankly, PowerAgent is not as polished as Garmin Training Center. I’m a Mac guy, and I found PowerAgent a little on the dodgy side. I installed it on a PC at the shop and found the experience quite a bit more satisfying, especially with regard to firmware updates and overall device connectivity. That said, the Mac version of PowerAgent now does what I want. It was just a bigger hassle than I experienced with Garmin Training Center.

Back to usage: when you take off on a ride, the Joule asks if you’d like to append this data to the previous ride, or start anew. I think this is pretty fantastic. Using it with a speed/cadence sensor, the Joule records when the bike is moving and stops when the bike stops. Perfect! After a period of inactivity, the Joule shuts itself down. Also nice.

As a guy who uses a bike computer to primarily display power data, I really like the Joule. It shows me the two or three things I want and generally stays out of the way. The documentation would have me believe that I’ll get 300 hours of computer usage from a battery. Sounds good to me! I haven’t killed the included battery, but I haven’t been keeping track of usage, either.

Big Finish

Let’s say that you’ve been using a wired PowerTap for a number of years. Let’s further state that you got rid of all that wired stuff and got ANT+ equipment as a replacement. In that situation, the Joule is a perfect upgrade from the Cervo (or Little Yellow Computer) that has served many PowerTap users for many years. The Joule is great, but it’s primarily nice as a training partner. At $165 MSRP, it’s a fantastic partner to your ANT+ training equipment.

The Edge 500, on the other hand, is just a terrific bicycle computer. It is extremely customizable. It has sturdy software support. It is, as stated earlier, the benchmark for cycling computers. It’s also not cheap. $250 will get you the basic GPS unit. $350 will get you the unit and a speed/cadence sensor and a heart rate monitor (both ANT+, natch). We have a good number of customers who use the Edge 500, and I can’t think of anyone who doesn’t like it.

So: if you’re mad about metrics, I’d recommend the Edge 500. If you’re looking for a display for your ANT+ power meter, I’d talk with you about the Joule. Regardless, your opportunity for happiness is very high.

But wait, a Footnote

My wonderful daughter proofreads my writing. Once I digested her suggestions to this piece, I asked, “Well, which one do you want?” Her response: “Neither. I don’t really care about much beyond speed and distance.” A worthwhile comment. If all you care about is speed and distance, these guys are serious overkill.