Monday, September 23, 2013

2014 S-Works Tarmac SL4 Contador Edition

I named this bike ACE. A is for Alberto, C is for Contador (C could also stand for Clenbuterol, something nobody had ever heard of until he tested positive for it), and E is for the fifth letter of the alphabet, which is appropriate since this is my fifth S-Works Tarmac. Shortly I will post an article that discusses the differences between the bikes.

 It's not like I am a big Contador fan, but I just love the color scheme, and the fact that this bike has fewer Specialized logos than any of the bikes I've owned.

Friday, September 6, 2013

Faceoff: Garmin Edge 510 vs. Garmin Edge 500 review

People who ride with me say that I have a GPS inside my head. I’ve ridden just about every road one would care to ride not only in the Seattle area, but in the entire state of Washington, as well as a fair amount in Oregon and California. My “GPS” has been pretty effective, at least in King County. So I wasn’t looking for GPS help in the form of maps or courses.I started using a Garmin Edge 500 a little over a year ago, almost entirely so that I could try Strava. I quickly realized that I really didn’t know much about either GPS devices or Strava. Strava is an interesting subject unto itself, and I intend to voice my many opinions about Strava, both good and bad, in a future article.

I was hoping that my Edge 500 and Strava could help me by simplifying personal data collecting and record keeping for me. For over ten years, I have timed myself on various local area climbs. My goal has always been to compare today’s me against yesterday’s younger me, and tomorrow’s older me. This is a great way to monitor both fitness level and/or the effects of ageing, and I encourage my coaching clients to do this. With Strava, I figured that I could construct segments on these climbs, and then I would no longer have to do manual split times. There would be no more trying to remember if I stopped timing at the mailbox on the right, or the speed limit sign near the top of the climb. Even better, I learned that if I wanted to, I could make these segments private and catalog only my results, so I would have a quick at-a-glance reference data base. But for this to work, I would need reliable and consistent GPS data.

If you only use your Edge for road riding, go ahead and skip this whole next section on GPS accuracy, because it is most applicable to mountain biking in dense cover.

In the 90’s, what is called “Selective Availability” was used for national security purposes to intentionally degrade GPS signals that consumer devices received. This practice ended in May of 2000. I remember reading that consumer GPS in theory would be just as accurate as military GPS. The official jargon was that “Users in the U.S. and the rest of the world would now be experiencing the same basic GPS accuracy of 10-20 meters or better.” That’s great, but not good enough for what I wanted to do, and quite frankly, not good enough for Strava in general.

I read on and learned that “The actual accuracy users attain depends on factors outside the government's control, including atmospheric effects and receiver quality. Real-world data collected by the FAA show that some high-quality GPS SPS receivers currently provide better than 3 meter horizontal accuracy.” Now we are talking! Of course, the military still has the good stuff: “Higher accuracy is available today by using GPS in combination with augmentation systems. These enable real-time positioning to within a few centimeters, and post-mission measurements at the millimeter level.” OK, I don’t even want to know how much that costs taxpayers.

In a nutshell, my 500 worked pretty well on the road, but not good enough to eliminate my manual split times, and not good enough for totally reliable Strava data. In defense of Strava, Strava can only be as accurate as the data that it uses to do its comparison calculations. It is on the mountain bike that the 500 let me down big time, with so much GPS tracking error that my device was transmitting very erroneous information at times when I downloaded files to Strava. Who knows what kind of results people using phone GPS are getting, although based on files I have viewed, I suspect it is in line with my Edge 500.

Early this year, Garmin released the 510 and 810 devices with touchscreens. My initial reaction was that I would be so distracted by a touchscreen that I would end up in a bad accident. After all, I don’t even carry a “smart” phone. After talking with Garmin in June about my accuracy issues with the Edge 500, I realized that I had to give the 510 a try. In addition to the US GPS system, Garmin has given the 510 the ability to use GLONASS, which is the Russian satellite system. GLONASS has the same global coverage and precision as the US system:

Using both GPS and GLONASS enables the 510 to “see” twice as many satellites as the 500 at any given time. When I asked Garmin about increased accuracy, I was told, “Well, you basically have twice as many satellites and twice as good of a chance of getting reliable data.” In reality, the 510 has been more like ten times as good in terms of accuracy, especially when riding my mountain bike. I would have considered a Garmin 810, but for some reason Garmin chose not to incorporate GLONASS into the more expensive 810 that features full color mapping. I have a feeling I know why, but more on that later. While I don’t use maps or courses on the road, the 810 could be really helpful while hiking or mountain biking…if it had GLONASS to enable it to be accurate enough for courses and maps to work well under heavy tree cover.

On my road bike, my 500 would normally display accuracy of 20-40’, which worked well about 75% of the time. I would sometimes have odd GPS track results, and friends I ride with shared similar experiences. On the mountain bike, the typical accuracy value for the 500 was 50-80’, which yielded decent results at times. At other times, however, the 500 would get “confused”, displaying accuracy numbers north of 200’. My resulting GPS tracks on days like this might have well have had me riding in the next zip code. I showed up on bizarre Strava segments, and more importantly, many segments I actually rode were not even picked up.

My 510 displays accuracy of 10’ or less a high percentage of the time when road riding. I can’t say how much less, since the value is set with 10’ as a minimum, but it’s pegged on 10’ a lot of the time. I can’t recall a single disappointing road GPS track since I have been using the 510. While I still will do my manual splits for my most important climbs, I am finding that I am getting Strava data accurate enough for me to make valid comparisons. It is on the mountain bike, however, where the difference in accuracy between the 500 and 510 is quite dramatic. Typical 510 accuracy values are 15-20’, no matter what kind of cloud or tree cover I am under. I don’t believe I have ever seen a higher number than 30’, and I have been obtaining outstanding GPS data as a result.

What this boils down to is that if you use your Garmin on a mountain bike and want consistently reliable data, the 510 is the only way to go. If you only ride on the road, the increased accuracy is nice, but individual results can vary, and I know plenty of people who are happy with their 500. If it were me, knowing I was getting much more reliable and a higher level of GPS accuracy alone would justify a 510 for road only use. But what if we forget about GPS accuracy and mountain biking, how strongly would I recommend the 510 over the 500? Very, very strongly is my answer.

First, the negatives from my perspective:

  • I had read complaints of poor user interface, false alerts, and touchscreen inconsistency. I have not experienced any of the functionality issues early adopters initially complained about, so I have to assume that they have been corrected with firmware updates.
  • The 510 is slightly bigger than the 500 and weighs 23g more than the 500 (80g vs. 57g). I actually prefer the larger size, as it gives me more flexibility in terms of number of display lines, and text size. I don’t think I will notice the 23gJ
  • Even though the 510 has a claimed 20 hour battery life vs. 18 hours for the 500, the “effective” life of the 510 may be quite a bit lower, depending on how the device is used. I don’t know if the color touchscreen sucks a lot of power, but using two satellite systems at once (GLONASS can be switched off, but why would I do that) and the back light full time (see below) does. This is why I think Garmin didn’t design GLONASS into the 810. I have to figure that color maps would be too much of an additional power drain.  Here are the battery life numbers: GPS use only: 20 hours, GPS and GLONASS: 15 hours, and worst case scenario of using GPS and GLONASS, with the backlight on full time at the brightest level: 6 hours. Not a problem right? Well, it could be…
The big negative and the one that could turn off potential buyers is that the 510 is not as easy to read in certain light conditions as the 500. I think battery life must have limited the type of display they could incorporate with all of the new power consuming features of the 510. While I have never experienced any problem even while using the backlight full time, reduced battery life could be an issue if you are a winter commuter who frequently rides six hours or more at night, uses the backlight full time, and uses GLONASS as well as GPS. I can’t imagine many riders fit that profile.

I leave the screen on full time while mountain biking, but I don’t do six hour plus MTB rides. Other users have reported issues in bright sunlight, but I have no problem at all seeing the screen in bright light without the backlight, so I don’t normally use it. In certain light conditions for short road rides, I sometimes leave the backlight on, which works well. At other times, I set the backlight to remain on for 15 or 30 seconds any time I touch the screen. In any case, shorter battery life or a more difficult to read screen has never been a problem for me at any time.  I actually find the 510 easier to read overall, since the larger screen results in a larger font size compared to the 500 when using the same number of data lines. Of course, I have not yet used my 510 on drab lighted middle of the winter road rides, but since the light works perfectly for me in the darkest of woods, I don’t foresee a problem. If you are a heavy screen watcher, you will want to make sure to take the 510 outside and try it with and without the backlight before you buy it.

Here are the positives:

  • Significantly increased accuracy give a rider peace of mind that his lung bursting effort will indeed be picked up by Strava and the segment rendered correctly. As I mentioned, I don’t use courses, but if I did, I would think the 510’s higher accuracy would be valuable. Related to this, the 510 has the ability to zoom in on a course, and according to friends that is a nice feature.
  • Much faster initial satellite acquisition thanks to GLONASS, normally a few seconds instead of up to a few minutes with the 500. 
  • Now this next one is a surprise to me. I far prefer the touchscreen (which works with gloves) to the four small buttons on the sides of the 500. It is much easier to swipe the screen without taking my eye off of the road (or trail!) with either hand than to feel for those small buttons. The 510 does have three buttons (including the power button), but the two most important ones (lap split and timer) are located on the top of the unit, where they are much easier for me to access. With the 510, you can swipe to move from a screen in either direction, as opposed to using a button to move in only one direction with the 500. This means that if you are using three screens, you can access any of them with only one swipe. In my opinion, the touchscreen alone makes the 510 a very worthwhile upgrade. The color screen and night and day screens are nice, but not a hugely important feature for me.
  • A rider can have ten different bike profiles, but here is a biggie for me: the 510 can store five different “Activity Profiles,” and you can customize data pages and lines, auto-pause, auto-lap, heart or power training zones, page color, alerts, etc, for each profile. For example, I use road, road with heart rate, mountain bike, mountain bike with heart rate, and hiking profiles. I love this! No more rearranging data fields when I decide to ride my mountain bike instead of my road bike, or use my heart rate monitor. This is a great feature. I also think I would get a 510 for this feature alone.
  • Many new programmable data fields have been introduced with the 510. An example of two that I particularly like is the ability to display your last lap time, last lap heart rate or power, last lap distance, etc. With the 500, I would get done with a hard climb, set a lap split, and then try and read a tiny number that displayed for 10 seconds. That was a problem if I happened to be approaching an intersection, or jamming down a trail. Now the info remains on the screen in a font size I select, and I can look at it any time I want to until I set a new lap split. For someone who frequently uses the lap timer, this is a huge safety feature. There are some new course related data fields as well.
  • Not a factor at all for me, but for some it will be: both the 510 and 810 can be connected via Bluetooth to a smart phone. You can invite people to view your GPS ride track real time on Garmin Connect, and after you are done riding, they will know you are finished, and you can have them over to watch paint dry. Seriously, I do understand the potential safety benefits of this, especially on the MTB. Just how long would my “dot” have to remain in one place before someone called out the posse? You also can automatically post an update to your favorite social media site to announce that you have left your garage and are on your way. You can get weather updates on your 510, and it will automatically send your file to Garmin Connect (but not Strava). You can also download courses from Garmin Connect via the Bluetooth connection. I can’t imagine that the connectivity feature would be reason enough to buy a 510, but if you are already carrying a smart phone when you ride, the safety feature by itself might be really important to you.
  • Included with the 510 is a lanyard that you can install to connect the device to your stem, or wrist if you are running or hiking. While I never had to look in the weeds for my 500, I know people who have had to after they fell off of their mountain bike. Besides, I will be a lot less likely to drop the 510 onto my driveway when I remove it from my stem. This provides a little peace of mind, and peace of mind is important.
  •  I no longer use a power meter, but if I did I would appreciate the 510’s much improved and more numerous (22!) available power data fields including real time TSS/ IF, and right-left leg balance
  • If you are into this type of thing, the grade and vertical speed number accuracy has improved, no doubt due to the increased GPS sensitivity with GLONASS.
  • The 510 is fully compatible with standard Garmin mounts, the GSC-10 speed and cadence sensor and heart rate belt; as well as the nifty K-Edge out front mount. Garmin will sell you the 510 head unit individually.
  • The workout and training plan features have been improved.
  • There is a largely worthless “Personal Records” display. Perhaps this will be improved with a firmware change down the road.
What’s the bottom line? Whether you ride road and/or mountain bikes, the Edge 510 is a very well thought out device. If you don’t already own an Edge, the only reason to even consider a 500 is if you find it more readable in the light conditions you usually ride in. If you already own a 500 and ride exclusively on the road, I’ve given you several reasons to consider a 510. If you ride both road and mountain bikes like I do, in my opinion upgrading to the 510 is a no-brainer.