Garmin vs. Wahoo - which GPS should you choose?

January 03, 2022

Garmin vs. Wahoo - which GPS should you choose?

Over the past decade racing and training with a handlebar-mounted GPS cyclecomputer has gone from novelty to a "must-have". Going shopping? The two most popular brands, by far, are Garmin and Wahoo. Yes, you have other choices - Hammerhead, Bryton Rider, Stages, Sigma, but 90+ % of what you'll see on the road and trail will be Garmin or Wahoo units, so they must be doing something right.

What Wahoo and Garmin have in common

Let's get this out of the way - in 2022, the basics are all more than covered from both brands. If you just want to track speed and distance, just about anything will do the job! There's no wrong choice here.

Wahoo and Garmin both have companion apps for your mobile phone, both sync to Strava and other fitness services, and both support ANT+ power meters and heart rate monitors. Either are fine if you just want to know how fast and how far you went, measure performance, and keep a "digital training diary." Except for Garmin's budget Edge 130 Plus model, they've all got Wi-Fi as well, so you can sync even when your mobile phone isn't around.

Both ecosystems are also powerful training tools, allowing you to download workouts to your device, track Strava segments in real-time, and other benefits for competitive riders.

But if you're looking for even more, it's worth considering the more advanced features and functionality where the two competitors differ.

Too many choices?

As of this writing (January 2022), Wahoo offers two devices - the Element Bolt and the Element Roam. Garmin, in contrast, has five! Broadly, here's a high-level overview:

  • Wahoo Element Roam - full size, full featured, bigger and heavier with a larger, easier to read screen
  • Wahoo Element Bolt - lightweight, race-oriented, smaller screen
  • Garmin Edge 530 - training oriented device with physical buttons
  • Garmin Edge 1030 Plus - flagship, touchscreen, larger display area, most features and technology  
  • Garmin Edge 130 Plus - entry level, black and white model, "how fast, how far"
  • Garmin Edge 830 - mostly an Edge 530, but with touchscreen instead of physical buttons and a bigger screen
  • Garmin Edge Explore - a touring focused model with additional navigation features at the expense of some of the fitness perks

Do you want a touchscreen?

Wahoo's GPS devices both use physical buttons instead of a touchscreen. Depending on your preferences, that's either a pro, or a con. Garmin has some devices with touchscreens, and some with physical buttons. I prefer physical buttons (I'm currently using a Garmin Edge 530, for the record) to touchscreen devices, finding the buttons easier to locate without looking while riding.

Before buying a touchscreen device, make sure it works with the gloves you plan to use for riding, as some don't. If you can't be sure, a device with physical buttons might be a safer bet.

What other activities do you do? 

Garmin offers a huge range of GPS-enabled devices for every type of activity - running, triathlon, gold, car navigation, aviation and much more. Wahoo, in contrast, is very focused on one thing - cycling

If you're already in the Garmin "ecosystem" and comfortable with their user interfaces, the Garmin Connect mobile app, and so on, that may be a reason to choose another Garmin device.

What about other devices, like watches?

For some riders, a watch can be an alternative to handlebar mounted GPS. If you're considering this option seriously, the Apple Watch is the top option with some great features, but make sure you understand the limitations as well - a major downside is taking your hand off the bar to look at the watch. For this reason, watches may work better for riders who only care about recording metrics, and not monitoring them in real-time while riding.

Watches have some interesting upside for cyclocross riders - if you use multiple bikes for racing, the watch stays with the rider when you change bikes in the pits. A handlebar-mounted GPS does not. For this reason GPS watches are very popular with pro riders while racing (note that they probably train with a bar-mounted GPS, or both a watch and handlebar device.)

Reasons to choose Garmin Edge

  • If low price is a primary factor, look to Garmin. Garmin sells "entry level" devices, Wahoo does not. As of this writing, the Garmin Edge 130 Plus is just $149.99. The full-featured Edge 530 is less expensive than any Wahoo offering as well.
  • If you prefer a touchscreen. Garmin has multiple touch models available, Wahoo does not.
  • You already own other Garmin devices, especially if you use the Garmin Connect app.
  • You want to stay in the Garmin ecosystem with connected headlights or radars from Garmin.
  • You're riding a Shimano Steps-equipped ebike. Garmin has a nifty integration for these ebikes on most of their devices (but note: not the budget Edge 130 Plus model)
  • You want the Cadillac experience - the Edge 1030 Plus is a beautiful piece of tech, crammed with features (and it better be, at a whopping $599.99)

Reasons to choose Wahoo Element

  • You're a racer and weight-conscious. Wahoo's Bolt is pretty much the lightest, sleekest, most aero option out there.
  • You ride off-road, with wet, mud, and bumps. It's easier to operate physical buttons compared with a touchscreen under these conditions.
  • You're riding a Specialized or Giant ebike, or a different ebike model with ANT+ LEV features. Check your model before buying, but Wahoo offers an enhanced integration that can communicate with many of these models.
  • You have a Specialized helmet with an ANGI crash sensor. Wahoo integrates with this safety feature, Garmin does not (it's worth noting that Garmin has a competing technology called Incident Detection, however, it won't work with your Specialized ANGI helmet)
  • You train indoors using a Wahoo KICKR-family trainer; in which cases it makes sense to stay in the ecosystem, as updates and new features might be faster. 

Summary

The Garmin Edge 530 is the market leader for good reason. It's full-featured, value-priced ($249.99 as of this writing) and has physical buttons, which I prefer to a touchscreen. If that's about your budget, that's the device I'd recommend.

When does it make sense to move to a more expensive Element Roam or Bolt? The first reason is to make use of Wahoo's substantial integrations to 3rd-party gadgets like ebikes and connected helmets. A second reason is folks who like to tinker with the fields and displays shown on each screen - on the Wahoo device, these changes can be done in the mobile phone app, while on Garmin, these changes must be done on the device - which is cumbersome and slow.

Whatever you choose, safe and happy riding!



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