Garmin 500 GPS bike computer has a lot to like

Garmin 500 uses GPS to record your ride with amazing accuracy.

Garmin 500 uses GPS to record your ride with amazing accuracy.


I’ve been avoiding writing about the Garmin GPS 500 bike computer because there’s so much ground to cover and so many features to learn.

After seven months of regular use, it’s time to weigh in on GPS bike computers. It’s hard not to be impressed with the technology, but don’t feel bad if it seems a little overwhelming.

Military madness
GPS stands for Global Positioning System and we have the Cold War to thank for its existence. The U.S. military has invested billions of dollars in GPS all for the sake of accuracy — ballistic missile accuracy.

Our government made it available for the world over in the 1990s, with few restrictions. The military, I imagine, has ways to shut it down should we become involved in a confrontation.

Your Garmin relies on 32 satellites circling the Earth in such a way that anywhere on the planet your GPS receiver can lock in on four satellites to obtain a fix accurate to within about 12 feet. Your results will vary depending on location.

If you’re at the bottom of a deep canyon in the Santa Cruz Mountains obscured by trees on a cloudy day, your signal may be degraded.

I’ve lost a signal that way once and I’ve had a couple of other unexplainable glitches that caused a signal loss. I imagine some are due to software errors and not the GPS itself.

But enough with the technology: is a GPS computer worth the price (at least $120, and about $180 for the Edge 500)?

Yes, if you’re willing to learn how to use it and put up with its quirks. GPS computers need a fair amount of care and feeding. It’s like owning a highly tuned musical instrument. Sounds great with constant tuning.

Pros and cons
For starters, the battery only lasts about 18 hours in use. So you’re good for about 8 or 9 two-hour rides before recharging, which takes at least an hour.

You don’t mind software upgrades and occasional problems uploading your data. Let’s face it, the reason most people own a GPS computer is to upload their rides for analysis. You can spend hours reviewing the ride — speed, altitude, temperature, cadence, etc., from the convenience of your computer.

It took months before my Garmin 500 synced well with Garmin Express, the software you’ll need to upload your data. I went to Garmin forums to learn what was up with issues I had using Windows 7. You get the picture.

Those problems appear to have been sorted out and now I can sync reliably. It still takes way too long to sync, in my opinion, but at least it works.

Programming the Garmin 500 is straightforward. The challenge is sorting through all the features to figure out what you want. There’s so much to go over that it would take an hour just to cover everything.

Helpful advice
A few pointers will have to do:

1) Take your Garmin outside when locking onto the satellite signal. It may lock on indoors but accuracy is reduced.

2) Many settings can be made visible on a single screen, but I found that five is about the most you can have and still maintain legibility.

3) You can auto-cycle through all your data pages. Turn off the pages you don’t need, especially if you don’t have cadence.

4) Be sure to apply privacy settings to your uploads on sites like Garmin Connect, Strava, and others, if you don’t want people to see where you live. There are settings that cut off your route within a half-mile of your start point. You can upload a Garmin file to Strava with no issues.

5) Altitude is determined by a built-in barometer, not map. Set the gauge to your home altitude for better accuracy.

6) As with all bike computer thermometers, the Garmin 500 reads high when in direct sun.

7) If your Garmin loses the signal, you will probably only lose distance until it’s re-established. I found that it now reconnects, which was not my experience earlier. Other electronic devices within an inch or so of the unit may disrupt the satellite signal.

8) The Garmin 500 does not store maps for navigation. It can record a route, but it’s pretty lame if you’re trying to use it for guidance. Not recommended if it’s your only means of following a route.

9) Mounting is a breeze. You can even carry it in your back pocket and capture a signal.

10) Comes with a standard Type-B USB cable, and compatible with Windows or Apple OS (Garmin does not support Linux, officially).

11) Remember to turn it off when done with your ride. If it detects movement, it will keep working when, for example, you’re driving home from a ride.

So which is better, a non GPS or GPS bike computer? That depends on what you want in life. If you’re into recording your route and capturing the data, GPS is the way to go. If you don’t want the accompanying hassles, use a non-GPS bike computer.

Of course, neither is necessary to enjoy a bike ride.

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