The Wahoo ELEMNT is a device that soared to the top of my most interesting list as soon as it was announced. I’m a huge fan of Wahoo in general, and the RFLKT is a device I almost always recommend to new or more casual cyclists. I love the way that Wahoo leverages the smartphone, and I’m happy to see them filling an obvious hole in their lineup with the ELEMNT.
If you’ve used other cycling computers, the ELEMNT will feel familiar in some ways, but as with other Wahoo products, they have taken their own unique path. While Garmin and Magellan have gone with colour touchscreens, Wahoo has put a black and white screen with no touchscreen functionality, on the ELEMNT. This is by and large a positive decision, but it’s also a missed opportunity in my mind. On the positive side of things, you’ll never be frustrated with the touchscreen.
When I reviewed the Magellan Cyclo 505, I had good things to say about its touchscreen. For the most part, it worked well, but it was also a point of frustration from time to time. By choosing to use buttons only, Wahoo has eliminated a point of friction. A good touchscreen can still be annoying from time to time, but buttons work all the time.
It would be worth the tradeoff if there was a solid user benefit to a touchscreen, but in the case of a cycling computer, I haven’t seen that yet. The other big benefit of the screen that Wahoo has put on the ELEMNT is contrast. When you look down at the ELEMNT, it’s wonderfully easy to read. Again, a colour screen is generally nice, but I fail to see a solid user benefit. Colour should be used to add contrast and help with information hierarchy, but Wahoo has found a far better solution with the crisp black and white display they’ve chosen.
But I do feel like the display is a missed opportunity when it comes to battery life. I’d expect a black and white display that rarely ever uses a backlight to allow for greatly extended battery life. That is definitely not the case with the ELEMNT. Wahoo claims sixteen hours of battery life and while it has gotten better, through software updates, I find it hard to believe there is any possibility of getting sixteen hours. Based on my experience, I’d expect something in the eight to nine hour range. That’s decent but not longer than the Magellan which has a colour touchscreen and a backlight.
The other aspects of the physical design are a pleasure to interact with. The buttons are solid and their shape makes them easy to find. As with other reviews I’ve seen, I do find them a bit tough to physically press, but it has not been a real problem. The other standout physical feature, aside from the screen, on the ELEMNT are the two rows of LED lights that run horizontally across the top and vertically on the left side of the unit.
This is a feature I absolutely love. The top row is the device’s place to communicate with the user. It will turn red when it wants you to pay attention. It may be alerting you to your workout pausing or resuming, a notification being received, or an alert that you have gone off route. The column on the left can be used for average power, heart rate zones, or speed, and I’ve currently got it set as an average speed display.
There are seven lights. The bottom three are yellow and the top three are blue, with the centre being white. If you are three mph or more below your average, then you will have three yellow lights illuminated plus the white centre. As you speed up, two mph below average will show two yellow lights and the white. One mph below will show one yellow and the white. Only the centre white will be lit when you are travelling at the same speed as your average. As you move above your average, it will have the same behaviour except for using blue lights instead of yellow.
This is brilliant for overall ride average speeds and time trials because I can keep my average speed off the screen and have my instant power be the big metric, but at the same time, I can instantly tell if I’m where I want to be, in terms of speed, for the ride. For example, if I’m doing a TT race, I will primarily watch my power number and make sure I’m giving it everything I have. I can then use the lights to see where I am in terms of my average speed without having to think about it. Sure, I could just have my average speed displayed on the screen, but the lights allow me a less brain intensive way to know if I’m dragging my average up, or down, or just maintaining. That kind of riding, where I’m just barely below the point of not being able to continue, doesn’t leave much energy for trying to interpret numbers on a display and as such, the easier the better.
The physical design of the ELEMNT isn’t the headline feature, though. The big news when talking about the ELEMNT is the UI design and the integration with the phone. While you can leave your phone at home if you want to, the ELEMNT has GPS built-in and doesn’t require a phone to be used, it’s clearly designed with the expectation that you’ll have your phone with you, and it does require a smartphone to change settings on the display.
Setting up the Magellan was a headache inducing experience and one of the big points of pain with that unit. In stark contrast, the ELEMNT has you scan a barcode to pair your phone and within minutes you’ll be up and running with everything set up exactly the way you want it. Once your phone is paired, switching the display around is a matter of moments. Just open up the app, go to the screen you want to adjust, and drag whatever metric you want displayed up or down depending on where you want it to show up.
You can have up to ten data fields on a single screen, and on the actual unit, the way it works is equally well designed. The physical buttons on the right either zoom in and show you less data fields, larger, or zoom out and show you more data, smaller. I rarely use this feature, of zooming in and out to show more or less data fields, but I recognise that it’s useful, and it’s a really nice piece of design.
I chose to set up different screens with different data fields, and I tend to leave it zoomed all the way out to show everything I have on a particular screen. However you end up using it, the reality is that setting up a unit from scratch is probably not something you’ll have to contend with often, but making it easier is greatly appreciated. What you are likely to do on a more regular basis is change screens around, and this is an area where the ELEMNT really shines. It’s just incredibly easy.
Those buttons on the side don’t just serve to zoom on data screens. They also zoom when the map is showing for navigation. The navigation is something I was a little worried about because the Magellan unit is so good, and it’s something I use often. Every week or two, I’ll spend time on ridewithgps.com, and I’ll create a route taking me somewhere I’ve never been. I can take my time figuring out the distance and climbing profile then put it on my cycling computer and follow the route. I’m no longer limited to keeping things simple enough to remember the route. I make it as complex as it needs to be to get me where I want to go, and the ELEMNT makes this incredibly easy.
If you create a route on ridewithgps.com, or Strava, all you’ve got to do is sync your account, wirelessly via wifi, and the routes will show up on the device. It’s one of my favourite features. But I will admit it’s not perfect. In the spring, I did some travelling, and while I borrowed a bike, I brought the ELEMNT, my heart rate strap, and my power pedals with me. A few weeks earlier, I had created a couple of routes on ridewithgps.com and did a sync so they were on the ELEMNT, in case I didn’t have wifi available. In the interim, the place I was staying changed, and so I adjusted the routes to start and stop at the new place. What I forgot to do was resync the ELEMNT. When I was riding, I couldn’t figure why I was off route, as I thought I was following the route I remembered.
When I finally figured it out, I was unable to do anything about it. The updated route was on ridewithgps.com, and I was riding with my phone connected to the ELEMNT with great service. I should have been able to download the updated route via my phone’s connection, but Wahoo hasn’t enabled that kind of functionality. The only way you can sync routes is via wifi on the ELEMNT itself. This is definitely a missed opportunity and a point of frustration. On the other hand, as long as you’ve got the routes on the unit, and up to date, the navigation is at least as good as the Magellan, and the Magellan promotes its navigation as one of the primary features. All the maps you need are already on the unit and following a route is easy with the display being so crisp.
The Wahoo ELEMNT has a ton of great features. I feel like I could just keep listing features — my wife getting an automatic email with a link to track me when I start riding; the ease of adding either bluetooth or ANT sensors; the automatic uploading to multiple services when you end a ride — I’ve used and enjoyed. I’ve also talked about a few points of pain, and missed opportunities, but when it comes to recommending the ELEMNT, the thing I’ve really struggled with is placing it within its competition.
There is no doubt in my mind that it’s better than the Magellan unit I reviewed, but the elephant in the room is the Garmin 520. The Garmin 520 is about the same price, and in comparison to the ELEMNT, it offers many similar features. There are little things that the ELEMNT does better, dual bluetooth and ANT are examples and so is the ease of setup, but there are also some things that the 520 does which the ELEMNT does not do, such as live Strava segments.
The reality is the two units will likely be very similar in daily use, and if you are shopping purely on price, you are far more likely to find a deal on a 520 at a local shop vs the Wahoo, which I’ve never seen at a local shop. It’s also far more likely that the people you ride with will have Garmin units vs Wahoo units.
Here we are, though, at the bottom line, do I recommend you get yourself a Wahoo ELEMNT? I’m going to say yes, get a Wahoo ELEMNT over the Garmin and here is why. Look in any forum where Gamin units are discussed, and you’ll primarily find people complaining about long overdue updates and lackluster customer service. Look for comments about Wahoo, and you’ll find exactly the opposite. Since I’ve had the ELEMNT, it has gotten a series of updates to the app and to the firmware, and each time, it has addressed exactly the issue I’ve been really annoyed with.
When I had the RFLKT, and it stopped working because of an error introduced when the new year rolled around, they had an update within a day that fixed it. Wahoo is a company that is constantly updating their products, so they get better over time. I can’t say with certainty that route syncing or battery life will be addressed in upcoming software updates, but I wouldn’t be the least bit surprised if they were.
Beyond that, I find the strength of the ELEMNT is its focus on getting out of the way. Everything feels unfussy and focused on riding. If you feel like only looking at a couple of pieces of data, there is no need to dig through endless menus to adjust things, just zoom in a bit. There are going to be some scenarios where the Garmin makes more sense, though. If you have Garmin Vector pedals and want to see more data than just your power number, then you’ll want an Edge unit. You might also want the Garmin if you decide that live Strava segments is a big deal to you.
Overall, it’s going to come down to which companies ecosystem you are more comfortable being a part of, and for me, I’m a fan of Wahoo. I like the choices they’ve made in this product as well as with their other products. What I can say, without a doubt, is that the hardware is really good.
UPDATE: In the time between finishing the article and when it was ready to be published, Wahoo pushed a big update. It’s not completely unprecedented that this kind of thing would happen, but in this case, I felt like it illustrates the point I made in my bottom line. Instead of rewriting the article to include the new info, I’m tacking it on the end.
The big news of the update is true turn by turn directions. When following a route that you’ve previously created, on ridewithgps or Strava, as you approach a turn, a pop-up will appear on the screen which shows the street name and which direction to turn. The top LED lights will also move light up in a pattern that moves in the direction of the turn. The functionality of the LED lights isn’t something I find all that useful. They are a bit hard to see in bright light, but the pop-up means that you no longer have to keep the display on the map screen. Previously, if you were trying to follow a route, you really needed to keep the map on the display, so that you could see the upcoming turns. Now I can keep it on one of the performance metric screens and still follow a route. It is well done and really shows the reason you might want to consider the ELEMNT. Wahoo continues to add additional functionality and useability long after the initial product release.
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