Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Garmin Edge 500 product review

Although I am no longer a great fan of gadgets, someone gave me a Garmin Edge 500 a while back and now that I have accumulated some experience with this marvel, I want to share my knowledge with you, the readers of my blog.

The Garmin 500 is a GPS unit, but not the kind that will help you find your way home when you get lost. Rather it is a unit that tells you how fast you are going and how far you have gone. For ultra-athletes it can remind them of the time of day, which comes in handy on day 4 of the RAAM when that mind fog takes hold. The unit also has an alarm function that can wake you up when are about to fall asleep and become part of the scenery.

The Edge NIB

The beauty of a GPS unit is that you can just carry put it on your bike, or carry it in your pocket, or put it anywhere in a moving vehicle and it will work. You can even use it in your car to double check your speedometer.

A GPS is totally standalone and it was that capacity that intrigued me years ago and led me to buy a Garmin 205 for my triathlon bike. Although the 205 worked very well for the intended goal (ironman Arizona) I quickly discovered many nasty side-effects that eventually caused me to abandon the gadget. I gave it to my son and he too got tired of it pretty soon. It is now sitting idle somewhere on a shelf.

The 500 has some distinct improvements over the 205 that address some of these issues. Unfortunately, it also leaves many others untouched.

The key improvements are:

-Battery life. The 500 has an expected 18 hours of battery life. Finally enough to finish an ironman within the time limit- although I do not recommend swimming with it. The 205 had barely enough juice for an average bike leg (5.5 hours in my case). To be honest I have never gone that long so I can't vouch for it, but I do know it will go for over 8 hours.

-Mount. This may sound basic and it is, but the 205 had a poor mounting system. So poor in fact that at one point, I lost the unit in a turn and then found it pancake flat on the road minutes later. A car had driven over it. Fortunately, Garmin agreed to replace it. This will no longer be necessary as the new 500 has a much better mounting system that is also much more adaptable. It uses a mount fixed with rubber bands -much like most lighting systems do- and requires a  90 turn to engage the unit.
Safe and secure

-Size. The smaller the better and this unit is quite a bit smaller and lighter than the 205. Smaller makes it easier to install, especially on the stem, which is the preferred location for most people. Smaller also means you can run with it.

-Robust. The unit is weather and sweat resistant and its new mount is very dependable.

The so-so

-ANT+. The Edge unit uses the ANT+ API which means it can talk to other devices like the newer heart rate monitors, power meters, and any future gadgets people will dream up. Unfortunately, Garmin, in true Microsoft style bought up the developer of ANT, so there goes your universal standard. Also, to use your data effectively you are tied to Garmin's website -the PC software is very primitive and you need their file converter in any case- with all its quirks. Being tied to Garmin's website was one reason I dumped the 205.

The not-so-good

-Hard to read. The screen is hard to read in sunlight, a rather common feature in these parts.

-The USB cover is hard to seat. This was a problem with the 205, but now the USB port is on the back, making it that much harder. No way to download data without removing the unit.

-Needs a clear view of the sky. Although better -read more sensitive- the Garmin 500 still has trouble with deep wooded canyons that are common around here. In practice it means the Garmin is not that useful for most of my riding (in the Berkeley and Oakland hills). It works spectacularly well in the Arizona desert, but around here it is pretty useless.

I noticed that Garmin's software does better in tracking the road (the earliest versions of their software put me in the scenery most of the time) but I suspect these are post-hoc corrections.

-Altitudes go wild all the time. I suspect this happens when the unit switches to barometric. There is no easy way to adjust the barometer and since pressure is temperature dependent and the temperatures vary widely in the canyons the readings are nothing but wild guesses. This time of year it can be 68F/20C at the top of Redwood road and near freezing at the bottom.

-Data overload. There are too many screens with too many displays. Feature overload is a problem for all devices and all software and I really wish someone would do something about it. Three pages worth of displays is total overkill and it makes it that much harder to work with.

Displays are deceptive too. The unit measures only a few parameters. Most of what it displays is computed or derived from look-up tables.  While there is nothing a priori wrong with that, I suspect many people believe otherwise and follow those beliefs to value the unit.

If you pay attention to all that you'll end up in the hospital sooner or later

-Trivial information. I ride the same rides all the time and I know the distances by heart. I suspect that is true for most people. Speed is not difficult to judge either and I pretty much know what 25 mph feels like. As mentioned before you can easily learn to guess your heart rate and your power output too.

The Cateye MITY3 Speedometer on my tandem displays much the same information (speed, distance, average speed, time of day, time elapsed) that the Garmin does. It is much more accurate however, using a simple magnetic pickup element and a wire. It has been there for over 10 years and I only had to replace the battery twice.

Sweet and accurate

Granted, it doesn't have 50 MB of storage, a USB connection, or an alarm to wake me up in the morning. It also can't display my intrepid exploits on Google maps, or let me race with a ghost image of rides past. Nor did it cost  $250. I guess I picked it up for a mere $20 in a sale.

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