Sunday, November 28, 2010

Garmin 800: First Look

In a standard display of Murphy's Law, shortly after I bought my Edge 705 last year Garmin announced the newer Edge 800 to replace it. The 705 is an incredibly powerful unit, but the concept was ahead of the technology available in 2007 so it was showing its age. This update brought to bear the advancements made since then, replacing the cumbersome joystick interface with a touch screen, adding a more modern and responsive user interface and a host of new features that have trickled into lower-end units over the last few years. It also addressed some of the primary concerns that I had with the 705, including the addition of a third telemetry screen.

After the announcement I was resigned to the fact that it wouldn't be worth the trouble and cost to make the upgrade. Fortunately, however, a friend that I ride with regularly was impressed by the 705 and offered to buy it. That opened the door to making the upgrade relatively easily with the added benefit of being able to help out a friend at the same time. As such, I picked one up as soon as it became available in this market (we Canadians always have to wait a bit longer than our neighbours to the south). The upside to this approach is that I will have both units for a short while, so I'll be able to compare them directly.

Overall Design

As I already had the sensors and maps from my 705, I elected to buy the basic unbundled package. Unlike the 705, the 800 isn't offered in a bundle containing the sensors but not the maps. Had such a mid-range option been offered I'd likely have grabbed it, as the fellow buying my old unit doesn't have the Cadence sensor yet and I wouldn't have minded switching to the new premium heart rate strap. With the maps included in the $650CDN bundle, however, it was cheaper to just buy those bits separately.

Fortunately, while the Canadian prices were substantially higher than the American prices for the Edge 705, the Edge 800 is a lot more competitive. The price is also a lot more uniform from retailer to retailer - while I usually don't mind paying a premium from my LBS, with the 705 there was a nearly $300 difference over the radio shop I ended up buying it from. With the 800 though, prices are all within about $50 of one another ($450-500CDN) so I'm guessing that Garmin is doing a better job of leaning on their distributors to not rip off the little guys.

Inside the box is the unit itself, mounting kit, combined power brick/USB cable and a handful of basic documents. Rather than a CD like the 705, the user manual and software are actually stored on the flash memory of the unit itself. As I never really bothered using the CD with the previous unit (easier to download a newer version from their website) that makes a lot of sense. While it does use up some space, it means that you'll never have to look for the box when you need to look something up (and if you don't want it you can always just delete the files).

The one thing that I was a bit disappointed with was the new power brick and USB cable. The 705 came with two separate cables (left side of following image), both relatively heavy gauge and about 1.5 feet long. With the Edge 800, however, they used a combination set (ie the power brick has a USB connection rather than an integral cable - see right side of image) with a cheap six inch cable. It certainly works reasonably well, and is a bit more compact, but the quality is not up to what its predecessor offered.

On the upside, they were quite generous with the mounting hardware including two full mounts and 14 attachment bands (7 large and 7 small). The 705 came with two mounts as well, but one was for a stem mount and one for a handlebar mount so it didn't offer as much flexibility. While I was a bit concerned about the elastic band design of the mount, having actually seen them in person they're much heavier duty that I imagined and I don't see it being a problem. Time will have to tell how well they compare to zip ties, but so far so good.

Getting back to the unit itself, the use of a touch screen rather than mechanical switches like its predecessor means it is a much sleeker overall design. In contrast with the 705's seven buttons and a joystick, the 800 sports only three physical buttons - a power switch on the side, and a pair at the bottom of the front face (lap/reset and start/stop). The rest of the functionality is handled by menus on the touch screen, but those simple buttons cover most of the actions that will be needed while underway.

The buttons themselves are made out of a hard plastic rather than the soft rubber that their predecessor used. They do appear to be better built and will likely be more robust over the long term, but the increased force required to actuate them and their smaller physical size makes them a bit more difficult to use while moving. That's likely a trade-off for making the unit as small and light as it is, but I likely would have preferred a slightly larger/heavier unit to get the easier to use buttons.

The flaps covering the microSD and USB ports on the back of the unit have also been improved significantly. The USB port cover on the 705 (top left corner in the following photo) was pretty flimsy and it was hard to be sure that you had a good seal. The microSD card slot was placed below a simple plastic cover (bottom centre just below the FCC logo), which while plenty secure had no o-ring to seal it in. On the 800 both ports have been moved to the very bottom of the unit (where they'll see less moisture to start with) and have much more substantial seals around the ports (see below). Further, the rubber gasket covering the ports is now connected by two exposed screws so if it ever breaks (mine never did, but I've seen lots of reports of it happening), it should be easy enough for the user to replace it.

One of the biggest improvements that the Edge 800 offers over the 705 is the new mounting mechanism. The 705's slide and lock mount (bottom of the image below) was pretty flimsy and, considering the value of the unit, always left me a bit concerned. Aside from the cheap feel of the plastic used in the mounting harness, the latching tab was a bit finicky so one had to be very careful that it actually engaged when mounting the unit. Further, getting the 705 off was a bit annoying as I had to reach under the aerobar extensions to flip the release lever. It got the job done, but it didn't exactly instill confidence.

The Edge 800, on the other hand, uses the excellent quarter turn mounting mechanism shared with the Edge 500 and the Forerunner 310xt's quick release kit. As such, in addition to being substantially more secure than the 705's mount (and offering a very positive click when it locks), it also means that you can share a single mount with those other units if so desired. I've been tempted by the 310xt for a while so that I could use the same HR strap for both cycling and running during actual races, so the ability to share a mount is a pretty significant plus. Further, as it is compatible with the 310's quick release wrist band, it is possible (although still kludgy) to use the 800 while running.

The only downside to this mount design is that the unit needs a good amount of clearance on both sides. As unlatching it requires the Edge to be rotated a full 90 degrees, any obstructions near the mount can make it impossible to attach/remove the device. On a pure road bike this isn't a big problem, but as I've got clip-on aerobar extensions flanking my stem this design meant that the Edge 800 couldn't be mounted where my 705 used to be. It's not a huge deal as I just grabbed a computer mount for my aerobars and stuck it a bit further ahead, but it was nonetheless a bit of an annoyance as the stem was a better position for me.

On the topic of the mount, I should quickly mention that the speaker opening is now placed in the centre of the mounting latch (presumably to better protect it from the elements). While the overall volume level of the 800 is actually a little higher than that of the 705, the new design appears to be a lot more focused. As such, the warning chirps generated by the device aren't quite as audible as the mount ends up muffling the sound a lot when on the bike. At low speeds that's not much of an issue, but when the wind is blowing by one's ears it is a lot easier to miss the tones than it was with the 705.

Touch Screen

One of the most central components to the design of this model is the replacement of physical control buttons with a touch screen display. As such, the performance of this core component is absolutely critical to the usability of the entire device. Touch screens open a lot of doors to designing unique user interfaces, but when implemented poorly they can make using a system a painful process. When done right, however, they can be an absolute joy to use.

Garmin appears to have used a resistive touch screen display rather than the capacitive displays that have become so popular on modern electronics. This means no multi-touch gestures like pinch-to-zoom or two finger rotation, but in return for those sacrifices it is capable of detecting any object that produces pressure on the screen surface. As such, gloved fingers and sweaty hands won't cause any problems with this device, and given the hostile conditions we often ride in that's a pretty critical feature.

The display does offer pretty robust swipe gestures (rare for resistive displays), facilitating quick navigation of the device's interface without having to pick off tiny buttons. The various workout displays can be navigated through by a quick swipe left or right, allowing a moving rider to quickly pull up additional information without having to look closely at the screen. Further, complex menus can be intuitively scrolled through by swiping up and down, which is a lot faster than pecking at the small up/down buttons offered.

With the joystick interface of the 705, tasks like entering an address into the navigation interface were extremely time consuming as you had to manually move the cursor from letter to letter. In these circumstances, the Edge 800's on screen keyboard is a major step forward as you can quickly type in long strings of letters. Using a qwerty order rather than alphabetic sequencing would have made it even faster, but either way it's light years ahead of its predecessor.

With all of that said, where the touch screen really shines is manipulating the map displays (see above) in the unit. On the 705, panning was handled by a five-way joystick (ie no diagonal motion) and zooming handled by buttons on the top-right edge of the unit. Combined with its slow processor, examining the maps was often a painful process - panning up a bit, waiting for the screen to redraw, panning up more, waiting, panning to the left, etc. With the 800, however, the process is downright pleasant. Panning is done by simply placing your finger on the map and dragging it, and redraws are done in pretty much real time so there is no waiting. Zooming is handled by the plus and minus buttons on the top right and left of the screen which, while not as convenient as the pinching mechanism of multi-touch devices, works quite well.

The only issue that I've had with the touch interface is that it seems to be a bit less responsive when it gets cold out. It hasn't missed a beat for me on warm days or indoors, but the last few days have been below freezing and it has required a couple of attempts before responding to a command on a number of occasions. With that said, I haven't used it for long enough at this point to be sure that it's actually the display and not just my numb fingers causing the problems.

Despite the overall unit being smaller than its predecessor, the display is actually slightly larger than the one on the 705 (2.6" vs. 2.2"). Additionally, looking at the units side-by-side the 800's screen appears to offer improved contrast and brightness (when the backlight is set to full). Whites are also noticeably more pure and colours are significantly more saturated making the map screens much easier to read. It does, however, have a glossier finish that may be an issue when dealing with harsh sunlight (unfortunately around these parts sun is pretty rare this time of year, so I haven't had a chance to test that as of yet).

As seen in the image above, one major change that they have made in this unit is the use of anti-aliasing on the text used throughout the interface. Doing this gives these displays a crisper look and often makes small type more legible compared to the bitmapped text of the 705, however it also makes letters and numbers a bit bolder and can make things appear softer. I personally prefer this design to the old-school look of the 705, however a number of people have expressed concern that it makes the display harder to read. I can't say that I concur with that at this point, but if your vision isn't 100% it might be worth checking it out in person to be safe.

The one thing that I was a bit disappointed with is that Garmin hasn't increased the resolution of the screen. The punchier colours and anti-aliasing mean that the readability of the maps is significantly improved over the 705, and for turn-by-turn navigation it offers more than enough detail (reading street names is likely not wise when rolling). Unfortunately, when stopped and manually browsing the maps (eg figuring out a detour) the 240x160 display doesn't provide a lot of real estate to work with. Getting street names often means zooming right into the local area, which in turn translates into a lot of fiddling to get the information that you're looking for (zoom out, pan, zoom in, repeat...). Naturally, the touch screen makes this a lot more pleasant than it was with the 705's joystick, but not having to do it in the first place would be a big improvement.

The above screen shots provide a good example of this issue. There is plenty of physical space to fit names on those roads, but the low resolution of the display means that it doesn't have enough pixels to render them legibly so it leaves them out. Moving to the 200-300ppi displays commonly used on smart phones (vs the 800's 109ppi) would easily remedy this, allowing more detail to be provided on the maps and making the utility of this feature immensely more significant. Given that the mapping functionality is the main justification for this model costing 50% more than the Edge 500, adding a high density screen to make that feature more useful would make the leap a lot easier to justify. Note that the above maps are shown with detail set to the maximum level and font sizes set to their minimum.

Exercise Displays

As with the rest of the products in Garmin's Edge line, the main interface element that will be used are the telemetry displays that provide the readouts during a ride. As sophisticated as the 800 is, these very basic displays form the core of any cyclocomputer and are what the user is likely to be looking at most of the time. Like its predecessor, all of the pages presented by the device are fully customizable - allowing the selection of not only which fields to display, but also how many of them (up to 10 with the Edge 800, up from 8 in the 705). Further, if desired these fields can also be added to the map display so that a basic dashboard view is still available when navigation is necessary.

As noted earlier, one of the complaints that I had with the Edge 705 was that it only offered two customizable pages of telemetry data. Having come from a Polar device offering six pages, I was used to setting each of them up for filling a specific role - providing just the bits of information that I needed for the task at hand (eg cruising, climbing, speedwork, cadence drills, etc.). The 705 allowed for up to eight fields per page, so it could provide a lot of information on those two pages, but the clutter of all that data at once made it much harder to parse at a glance. As such, I was basically forced to set up one page for the basic information that I'd need when riding (speed, cadence, heart rate, distance and time) and another for examining totals and averages when I came to a stop (using all eight fields).

With the addition of a third screen on the Edge 800, however, I was able to set up a second page for use in other contexts. Further, as the larger screen now allows two additional data fields I was able to pack more information on the summary page that I set up (when stopped, the clutter isn't much of a problem). Either way, I'd still like to see more pages made available as it's purely an artificial limit and adding them really has no downside (the 800 allows you to hide any unused pages). With that said, the addition of the third page and the two additional slots certainly are a major improvement.

Like its predecessor, all of those data fields can be customized by the user from a plethora of options. Setting up the 705 was a bit of a pain, as all of the fields were in one big list and paging through them one-by-one to find what you wanted was a slow process. Thankfully, with with Edge 800 Garmin has grouped the settings so that you can drill down to what you want without having to go through the entire list. The following is a list of all of the fields available on the 2.0 firmware release (what the unit came with):
  • Cadence - Instantaneous readout of crankset revolutions per minute.
  • Cadence Average - Average cadence over the entire ride.
  • Cadence Lap - Average cadence during the current lap.
  • Calories - Estimated amount of energy (in kilocalories) consumed during this ride.
  • Calories (Fat) - Estimated amount of energy drawn from fat stores during this ride.
  • Course Point Distance - When riding a pre-programmed course, the distance from the current location to the next course point (generally the next turn instruction).
  • Distance to Destination - Distance from the current location to the end of the current course.
  • Distance to Next - When using the navigation subsystem, the distance to the next instruction.
  • ETA at Destination - Estimated time that you will arrive at your programmed destination.
  • ETA at Next Waypoint - Estimated time that you will arrive at the next waypoint in a pre-programmed route.
  • Heading - Written compass bearing of your current motion (eg N, NE, etc.).
  • Time to Destination - Approximate amount of time before reaching your programmed destination.
  • Time to Next - Approximate amount of time before reaching the next instruction on a navigated path.
  • Distance - The total distance covered during this ride.
  • Distance (Lap) - The total distance covered on the current lap.
  • Distance (Last Lap) - The total distance covered on the previous lap.
  • Odometer - The total distance covered by the selected bike profile.
  • Elevation - The current elevation above (or below) sea level.
  • Grade - The percentage grade of the road that the bike is currently traveling on (only reported when moving).
  • Total Ascent - The cumulative number of feet/meters climbed during this ride.
  • Total Descent - The cumulative number of feet/meters descended during this ride.
  • Vertical Speed - Instantaneous readout of climbing rate (feet or meters per hour).
  • Vertical Speed (30sec) - Thirty second rolling average of climbing rate.
  • Battery Level - Graphic indication of battery level (unfortunately no percentage readout).
  • GPS Accuracy - Current margin of error in position information calculated by the GPS chipset.
  • GPS Signal Strength - Strength of the GPS signals that the unit is currently receiving.
  • Sunrise - Estimated time when the sun will rise given the current location of the device.
  • Sunset - Estimated time when the sun will set given the current location of the device.
  • Temperature - Current temperature reading of the sensor integrated into the altimeter.
  • Time of Day - The current time of day in the specified format.
  • Heart Rate (bpm, %HRR or %Max) - Instantaneous heart rate reported in either beats per minute, percentage of heart rate reserve or percentage of maximum heart rate.
  • Heart Rate Average - Average heart rate over the entire ride.
  • Heart Rate Lap (bpm, %HRR or %Max) - The average heart rate over the duration of the current lap.
  • Heart Rate to Go - When using a heart rate target, this field will display how far the wearer is above or below the specified range.
  • Heart Rate Zone - Reports the current heart rate zone being reported by the HRM (eg 3.2).
  • Power (watts, %FTP) - Instantaneous power readings reported in either watts or percentage of functional threshold power.
  • Power 30sec Avg - 30 second rolling average of power readings.
  • Power 3sec Avg - 3 second rolling average of power readings.
  • Power Average - Average power output over the entire ride.
  • Energy (kJ) - The total amount of energy output by the rider over the entire ride.
  • Power Lap - Average power output over the current lap.
  • Power Maximum - Maximum power output reported over the entire ride.
  • Power (Watts/kg) - Instantaneous watts per kilogram being output by the rider.
  • Power Zone - Current instantaneous power zone being reported.
  • Speed - Instantaneous speed being reported by either the GSC10 or GPS.
  • Speed Average - Average speed over the entire ride.
  • Speed Lap - Average speed over the current lap.
  • Speed Last Lap - Average speed over the previous lap.
  • Speed Maximum - Maximum reported speed over the entire ride.
  • Speed Zone - The current speed zone being reported.
  • Number of Laps - The total number of laps currently recorded during this ride.
  • Time - The quantity of time that the timer has been actively running.
  • Time of Average Lap - The average time taken per lap.
  • Elapsed Time - The total amount of time since the Start button was first pressed (ie includes any breaks).
  • Time of Current Lap - The amount of time consumed during the current lap.
  • Time of Last Lap - The amount of time consumed during the previous lap.
  • Calories to Go - When a caloric target is set, the number of Calories remaining until it is met.
  • Distance to Go - When a distance target is set, the remaining mileage left to be covered.
  • Reps to Go - Number of repetitions remaining in a pre-programmed workout.
  • Time to Go - When a time target is set, the quantity of time remaining.
With that said, the one thing that I'd like to see added to this list are a few visual tiles rather than simply offering numeric readouts. Being able to work some real-time plots of key parameters (eg heart rate or power) alongside the numeric readouts would be quite handy to give an idea of trends. When climbing, for instance, I generally don't have much time to be looking down at the display - but when I hit the top it would be nice to have a quick at-a-glance look at how hard I worked.

My hopes were up when I saw a 'HR Graph' field in a table from another review, but as that was with a pre-production device I'm guessing that it was pulled before release (the groupings appear to have been changed since then as well). Doing so would certainly use more processing horsepower than the simple numeric tiles, but it would need nothing remotely close to what the moving map requires. Given the gorgeous colour display offered in this model, this is the type of unique feature that could really help to set it apart from competitive products.

It would also be extremely handy if the numeric displays could generate colour coded backgrounds when targets are set for the specified parameter. That is, if a heart rate target is set - change the background to red when one is above the target and blue when below it. It's a little thing, but such a visual cue would allow the rider to passively glance down after hearing an alarm and determine exactly what they need to do.

Garmin also worked a number of small touches into the new unit that offer welcome additions to its functionality. For instance, granular control of the units used by the device allows it to be better configured to meet the needs of the user. With the 705, it was an all-or-nothing choice between metric and imperial measures - if you wanted distances and speeds in kilometers, you had no choice but to have everything else in metric as well. While Canada theoretically only uses the metric system, there are certain measures (eg altitude, body weight, height, etc.) that for one reason or the other are almost exclusively stated in imperial units. While not a huge thing, it's a very nice touch that allows individuals to select the measures that they are most comfortable with.

Another nice touch is the addition of an auto scroll feature that has been offered in lesser models in the past, but is new to this particular market segment. When enabled, the display on the head unit will automatically flip between the various pages so that the user can see all of the data available without having to fiddle with buttons. For my requirements I don't really see myself using this a whole lot, but I can certainly see situations where it may be helpful so the option is a welcome one.

Originally added in the Edge 500, another significant addition is the optional Start Notice feature. When enabled, the device will generate a warning whenever it detects motion but the timer is stopped. I've certainly restarted my ride after a break without remembering to hit my 705's start button on a number of occasions, resulting in a big gap in my exercise data for that session. In those circumstances this feature would have caught that immediately, and I would likely have all that data that I failed to record.

Data Recording

As important as the real-time displays are, the ability of these devices to record all of that telemetry for later analysis is even more critical. The Edge 800 can capture a huge amount of data during a ride, and the ability to pull it up on a computer after the fact in order to analyze performance is one of its biggest assets. For the most part, the new unit works in a manner very similar to its predecessor, but there are a few important changes.

The most obvious of these modifications is a switch from using the XML-based .TCX format to the binary .FIT format. The downside is that support for the older format is more widespread in third-party software, but thankfully that is becoming less and less of an issue as its use in the Edge 500 and Forerunner 310xt means that it is being added to most packages going forward. The upside is that this new format is substantially more efficient and produces much smaller file sizes (~20X) - making managing logbooks and uploading files to online services easier.

Along with this switch, Garmin reduced the amount of on-board flash memory from 512MB to 105MB. Fortunately, the reduced size of the activity files more than offsets that difference as the effective recording time is still about 1,500 hours. If, for some reason, that isn't enough the Edge 800 also adds the capacity to store activity files directly on the memory card (the 705 could only use it for maps). With a 16GB card, for instance, you'd still have about 30 years of uninterrupted recording time available. With that said, the one downside to this reduction is that it basically means you have no choice but to buy a microSD card if you want maps (which haven't gotten any smaller).

Another big improvement in the Edge 800 is its use of a new heart rate based caloric computation algorithm that was first made available in the 405CX. The Edge 705's caloric estimates were pretty much useless as they were always laughably higher than they should be. Garmin's older algorithms were hamstrung by patents governing Calorie calculation based on heart rate data, so they relied soully on speed and distance data for their computations. Fortunately Garmin recently elected to drop this method and license a more robust algorithm from Firstbeat for their units going forward. That decision appears to have been a good one, as the Edge 800 now generates numbers in the same basic ballpark as my Polar unit provides (whose values I relied on when I was working on my weight, so I know they're pretty much bang on for my physiology).

The recording of altitude information also seems to be significantly improved on the Edge 800. The barometric altimeters used in the Edge series are much more accurate instruments than the GPS-based mechanism used in their Forerunner line, but the values are sensitive to drift caused by changes in barometric pressure triggered by passing storm systems. As such, Garmin has long used GPS altitude data to detect and work out those errors. With the 705, that system would often cause more trouble than it would fix, but fortunately from my experience with the 800 so far it is producing much better results. Adding to this, Garmin has also incorporated the long requested option to manually seed the starting elevation if so desired.

Unfortunately, along with these steps forward Garmin made one major step back by removing the option to disable their 'smart recording' feature. When enabled, this system records samples as it deems necessary rather than at a fixed one second interval. This helps to make file sizes smaller, but given the minuscule size of the new .FIT files there is little need for that (especially given the ability to store them on multi-gigabyte microSD cards). The downside is a more course recording of telemetry that flattens out a lot of fine details captured by devices using a more conventional recording technique (which has been clearly evident on the sessions I've done with both the 705 and 800 on my person).

With the 705, smart recording was the default but there was a menu item that allowed the user to force the device to record at fixed intervals. Unfortunately, Garmin removed this in the Edge 500 and that mistake has been carried forward with the Edge 800. Smart recording is thankfully disabled when a power meter is fitted, but for any user (such as myself) who doesn't currently have one we're stuck with it on.


Like its predecessor, the Edge 800 acts as a USB mass storage class device and thus doesn't require any drivers. That is, when connected to a computer it simply appears as a new drive (or two if a microSD card is installed) and is immediately ready to use. As such, if desired both devices can be used without installing a single piece of Garmin software on your computer. All of the telemetry can be accessed by grabbing the .fit files from the Garmin/Activities/ folder, and other files (courses, workouts, etc.) can be loaded by simply copying them to their respective locations. Naturally, Garmin's software does make the process simpler (it handles all the file management for you), but if you don't have access to your own computer and need to upload some exercise files it's nice to be able to quickly plug it into any available computer and get the job done.

The Edge 800 does offer a few differences compared to its predecessor, however. Unlike the 705, the 800 can't natively use the older .TCX and .GPX files - instead relying on .FIT for all of the functions they used to provide. Thankfully, however, Garmin added a handy 'NewFiles' folder that users can just drop the files into and it will sort it all out once the Edge is disconnected from the computer. If any files in these older formats are placed there, the 800 will automatically convert them to .FIT files and move them to the appropriate location. As such, the unit does a great job of taking care of the dirty work and saves a lot of storage space in the process. While this isn't a huge thing, attention to details like this can make a big difference in the day to day usability of a device like this.

Additionally, if the user does elect to make use of Garmin's ecosystem, the device includes scripts that will offer to automatically direct them to the Garmin Connect website whenever the Edge 800 is plugged in. That site will then walk them through the process of creating an account and getting the latest versions of the software installed on their computer. As such, the process of getting the computer set up the first time is actually quite elegant and should be relatively intuitive for even the least computer literate users out there.

Unfortunately, just like the 705 the performance of the file transfer mechanism in the Edge 800 is not particularly stunning. Transferring .fit and .tcx files are fine thanks to their small size, but trying to load a multi-gigabyte map file onto the SD card is brutally slow. Thankfully, it's easy enough to simply remove the card from the Edge and load these big files via a conventional card reader before re-installing it. I haven't had a chance to play around with things to see if it is the USB or SD controller in the unit, but it is something that I really would have liked to see them address - especially with the Birdseye Satellite Image feature that this model offers (maps are pretty much load and forget, but the subscription nature of this service likely means frequent changes). As such, I would strongly recommend making sure that whatever microSD card one elects to buy comes with a sled to use it in an SD card reader.


The main feature differentiating the Edge 800 from pretty much every other device on the market is its navigation and mapping capabilities. Automotive navigation products have become ubiquitous, so pretty much everyone knows the benefits of this technology. Applying it to a bicycle, however, poses a variety of unique challenges that Garmin had to face when designing the Edge 705 and now the 800. Getting this right is key to the value proposition of this device, as it is substantially more expensive than the otherwise similar Edge 500.

With that said, I'm going to leave this section brief as getting the unit this late in the season means that I haven't had a lot of chances to fully test out this feature set as of yet. As I'll likely be forced onto the trainer for the winter pretty soon, I'll likely have to make up another post in the spring when I get a chance to fully try out the new functionality. In the meantime, I'll provide some brief thoughts based on my experience with the 705 and what I've seen in my limited time with the Edge 800.

The simplest form of 'navigation' offered is the courses functionality that has been present on Garmin products for a while now. Courses are basically breadcrumb trails following a pre-determined route generated by a mapping website or from a previous activity. As such, all of the routing decisions are made ahead of time by whatever software generated the file and the Edge simply follows those directions. While many lower-end Garmins offer this functionality as well, the 705 and 800's ability to overlay the route over top of a street map is invaluable for situations where you have to go off route because of an obstruction.

Despite this simplicity, the advantage to courses is that you can decide exactly what path to follow. While automated routing engines are great for cars wanting to get from point A to point B as quickly as possible, a lot of additional considerations come into effect when cycling. For instance, the proportion of hilly versus flat terrain depends a lot on what you want to achieve with a specific training session, and the Edge has no way of knowing that. On a bike you are often starting and ending at the same place, so the specifics of the journey is a lot more important than the fastest/shortest route.

One other big advantage of the courses functionality with both the Edge 705 and Edge 800 is that they can provide a forward looking elevation plot as long as you remain on the route. Knowing exactly how long that hill is going to last, and precisely what the terrain looks like beyond the top is an invaluable piece of information to have at your disposal. It allows the rider to make better strategic decisions about how to budget their energy and how hard to attack a specific hill. Without this information, it's all too easy to go all out up a hill and then have nothing left when you realize there is another one right after it!

The 705's implementation of course-based navigation worked quite well the vast majority of the time, although sometimes on out and back legs of the route it could get confused and stop providing directions. The problem appeared to be connected to small drifts in GPS positions making the unit think that the rider was off route. When that happens, the Edge 705 simply waits for you to get back to any point along the route at which point it continues navigation from that point forward. Unfortunately, when both an outgoing and return trip run along the same stretch of road, sometimes it would lock onto the latter instead of the former. In that scenario, the next queued up instruction is in the wrong direction so you won't get any direction until you return to that point. Fortunately, the map display still shows the route line so you can easily navigate on your own when this happens, however it ceases to provide you with explicit guidance.

My experience with the Edge 800 has been flawless with courses so far, however given the rarity of the situation on the 705 I can't say that I've used it enough to know if that is just dumb luck or not. With that said, from the experimentation that I've done so far the handling of off course scenarios appears to be dramatically improved so I'd wager that this type of problem will likely be a lot more rare. On my last ride, for instance, I intentionally took a few short detours to see what it would do and it didn't miss a beat on any of them. I will have to play around a bit more to see how it handles more elaborate variations but so far it is looking like a big improvement.

The other advancement with the Edge 800 is the addition of a Turn Guidance mechanism to the courses sub-system. With the 705, the only instructions that you'd get on a course were the pre-programmed 'course points' prepared by the mapping software or website. These messages were simple text messages that could only be a few characters long, so 'Turn Left' was about as detailed as they got. The Edge 800 supports these as well, but it also generates detailed turn guidance messages on it's own (can be disabled, but is on by default). This means that you get complete instructions including street names, graphic icons overlaid on the map to indicate turns and a countdown display (see above) as you approach the intersection. This is a huge step forward, and makes using courses as easy as the inbuilt navigation routines.

In addition to the courses functionality, the Garmin Edge 705 and 800 both offer the ability to handle navigation tasks on their own as well. Like automotive GPS units, the rider can enter a destination and the Edge will use its maps to plot a route from the current position. Unlike courses, all of the decisions are made on the device itself and incorporate a long list of exclusions that you can specify.

Like the turn guidance in the courses mode, you get detailed lists of instructions, visual indicators overlaid on the maps and countdowns ahead of each turn. If you've ever used one of Garmin's automotive GPS units, the Edge 800 pretty much works in exactly the same way (which is a huge step forward from the Mapquest-style look of the 705). Although the small screen limits its utility, the new model even offers a 3D map perspective if desired (called 'automotive mode' it's disabled by default). About the only thing it doesn't do is give you spoken directions, but that's not really a big deal as wind noise would likely make that useless anyway.

The caveat, however, is that the routing algorithms used in the Edge 800 are basically borrowed from their automotive products and don't always consider bicycle-specific characteristics. They are smart enough to avoid unpaved roads and try to stay away from major streets, so the Edge isn't likely to put you in a dangerous situation, however it doesn't always select the optimal path. For instance, the unit might end up sending you down a hellishly hilly road because the flat one next to it was 100m longer (the city navigator maps don't have elevation data so it would have no way of knowing). It also seems to still use posted speed limits to determine which road will be faster, so it's likely best to configure it to find the shortest distance rather than the fastest (given that most of us can't pedal at 80km/h for very long).

Fortunately, you always have a map that you can look at and the unit will dynamically re-route when you make a wrong turn, so it's easy enough to navigate around problems on your own. While the 705 took ages to do those recalculations, the 800 does them within seconds so it's a lot easier to work with. Thankfully, the birdseye satellite images that can be loaded onto the Edge 800 promise to potentially make this task a lot easier (photos tell you a lot more about the road ahead than any map), but I haven't had a chance to play around with that much as of yet.

With all of that said, while I wouldn't use this functionality to plan out an entire ride, it is an extremely valuable asset when you are in unfamiliar territory and need to make a change. The exhaustive list of points of interest is especially valuable, as if you find yourself in need of more water than you originally brought along, being able to pull up a list of all of the nearby convenience stores and immediately plot a route to one of them can come in very handy. It's also quite helpful in scenarios where the weather is unexpectedly changing on you and you need to find the quickest way home.


While the ability to help to direct the user along a specified route is indeed a handy feature to have, to me the biggest benefit to these devices is the fact that I can pull up a map whenever I want. If the weather out is great and you want to add a bit more distance to your ride, it's a cinch to pull up the map display and figure out how to do that. Given training rides can easily cover more than a hundred miles, we often get pretty far away from our base and it's impossible to know each and every road. Further, having this capacity encourages more variety in route selections, as you never have to worry about getting lost.

As mentioned above, one of the major new features offered by the Edge 800 is support for Garmin's Birdseye satellite imagery. Maps do a good job of telling you where the roads go, but satellite photos provide a lot more detail about what those roads look like. Riding under a tree canopy is a lot different than riding past open fields on a windy day, for instance, but maps won't provide you with that kind of information. As such, this feature alone has a lot of potential to make this mapping capacity even more useful.

While many riders have smartphones that can do this sort of thing, when riding out in the country cellular service can sometimes be a bit spotty. While it's rare to completely lose service, trying to download satellite image tiles over a 2G connection can be a painful process. With the Edge 800, however, all of the maps and satellite images are stored locally and will pop up at a moment's notice. Further, as the device is bolted to your handlebars you don't have to try and memorize all the turns that you need to make to get where you want to go.

With that said, the utility of the Birdseye feature is somewhat crippled by the artificial limits on the number of tiles that can be loaded at any given time. I haven't really had a chance to play around with it enough to determine the severity of this issue, but I'm hoping that Garmin lifts those limitations before spring rolls around to unlock the full potential of this feature. With this in place, however, smartphones have a potentially significant advantage here as they don't require strategic selection of which areas to cover. If a more expensive tier of their subscription service is required to facilitate this (at $30USD/year, I can certainly see bandwidth costs being an issue), than so be it - I'd rather pay more than try to work around a crippled feature.

The other handy feature offered by the Edge 800 is Garmin's custom maps capability. This overlays an image file that you generate over the map, so you can easily set the device up to show things like trail maps or race course diagrams (ie where aide stations are, hill classifications, etc.). I haven't had a chance to play around with this much as of yet, however when spring rolls around this is definitely something that I intend to do a lot of experimenting with.


Maybe I'm old fashioned, but when I buy a new piece of equipment the first thing I do after plugging it in to charge is dig out the manual and read it cover to cover. When a product comes with a well written manual, by the end of that process I should be able to pull out the device and know exactly how to make full use of every facet of its design. I should know exactly what it is capable of, and exactly how to access all of those facilities. Unfortunately, that is a very rare thing in this day and age as proper technical writing is becoming a bit of a lost art. Most products nowadays come with a pamphlet that does little more than get you up and running, leaving the user to fiddle around with the device to figure stuff out on their own.

Just like the Edge 705, the 800's user manual is no exception to this rule. The provided documentation barely skims the surface of the deep feature set of this powerful device, leaving the user to fumble around and figure out how things work. It does a decent job of getting you up and running, but even the most advanced users will have to do a lot of playing around to figure out exactly how everything works.

For instance, after my first session with the 800 I wanted to adjust the vertical scale of the elevation chart to get a closer look at my workout before resetting the timer. With the 705, this was done by pressing the joystick up or down but obviously that wasn't a choice on this touchscreen device. I tried swiping up and down to no avail, then looked through the menus to find a way to adjust this. As I had no luck with that, I pulled up the manual but it had absolutely no mentions of this display let alone how to adjust it. After a bit more fiddling I figured out that it was done by taping the scale indicator in the top-left corner of the screen, but a simple single-line mention of this would have saved me a lot of time. Had I not used the 705 before I likely would have tried that sooner, but then again I likely wouldn't have realized that the scale could even be manually adjusted.

After a while this will become less and less of an issue as other people will ultimately run into the same problems and you can search for solutions on their official fora. With a new product, however, such resources haven't matured yet so you are often left to figure it out on your own. Regardless, many buyers of this product don't even know about the existence of that resource and will likely not explore half of the features that this equipment offers simply because they don't know that they are there.


The Garmin Edge 705 was an extremely powerful device and the Edge 800 continues that tradition as the flagship of Garmin's line of fitness products. While the 705 was largely a revolutionary product adding features to the bike computer that no other product even came close to, the 800 is more of an evolutionary step forward along that path. In effect, the Edge 800 is to the 705 as Google Maps is to Mapquest - it performs the same fundamental tasks, but it just does them in an elegant way that makes them much more useful. The technology available in 2007 severely limited what they could do at the time, but thankfully advancements in recent years have allowed them to put together a polished piece of equipment that lives up to the promise that it's predecessor tempted us with.

The difficult question is whether or not it is worth the cost and effort to make the jump from the 705 to the 800. Fundamentally, the decision really relies more on how much the oddities of the 705 get in your way. As noted above, the 705 can pretty much do most of what the 800 can - it might take a bit more patience and effort, but if you are willing to deal with that then sticking with what you've got is likely the best idea. If, however, certain aspects of the 705's design are getting in your way, the 800 does a great job of ironing out all of those quirks and just allowing you to get things done.

For someone coming to this market segment from simpler units, the main question you need to ask yourself is how useful you see the mapping and navigation features being to your particular set of circumstances. If you ride the same routes in familiar territory all the time, then those features will likely spend most of their time idle. If, on the other hand, you spend a lot of time exploring new ground, those maps can be a major asset. Aside from that, the Edge 500 does most of what the 800 can do, is smaller/lighter and costs about $150 less. Making the determination of whether those features make up for that additional cost is a question that no review can really answer for you.

+ Additional customizable exercise page and the addition of two more fields per page.
+ Elegant and responsive touch-based interface with a larger full-colour screen.
+ Significantly improved bike mount compatible with other Garmin products.
+ MicroSD card slot can now be used to store exercise files.
+ Improved weather sealing over the USB and MicroSD ports.
+ Ability to load satellite image tiles onto the device itself in addition to street level maps.
+ Ability to produce custom map overlays to provide additional information on the map displays.
+ Improved algorithm for correcting altitude information.
+ Support for discrete wheel speed and cadence sensors (the 705 only supported combined sensors like the GSC-10).
+ Much better looking unit in a more compact package.
+ Temperature recording.

- No method to disable smart recording feature without a power meter.
- Artificial limitation on the number of Birdseye tiles that can be loaded on the device.
- Incredibly slow file transfers to memory card makes loading maps unnecessarily painful.
- Reduced on-board flash memory means MicroSD card is necessary if you want any maps.
- No improvement in the resolution of the display.
- Smaller face buttons that require more force to actuate.
- Warning sounds are harder to hear than the Edge 705.
- Combined power adapter a step down from the cables supplied with the 705.

Firmware Wishlist

As noted above, many of my concerns with this device aren't related to the hardware itself and can potentially be addressed by future firmware updates. Garmin fortunately updates the firmware on their devices on a regular basis, so I figure that it's worth putting down a list of things I'd like to see modified on the off chance that something can be done about it. Some of these issues only require trivial changes, and some would require significant changes, so it's unlikely we'll see them all dealt with but it's still worth putting them on the record.
  1. (Trivial) Restore the option to disable the smart recording feature and force a fixed 1Hz recording resolution. Given that the device already does this when a power meter is connected, it is just a matter of flipping a switch somewhere and would be a trivial thing to add. While smaller files are nice, given the massive recording capacity of these devices there really is no downside I can see to offering users the option of more detailed recordings.
  2. (Moderate) Provide the capacity to add more user-configured training pages into the rotation. While three 10-field pages can display pretty much everything that I could need, I'd prefer to have a larger number of specialized pages to curb the information overload. As the device allows pages to be disabled for people who don't need them the option to add more wouldn't really make the device any harder to use. Further, since only one is displayed at any given time it shouldn't use any more resources.
  3. (Moderate to Difficult) Remove the limitation on the number of Birdseye tiles that can be loaded into the device and bound it soully by how much room is available on the memory card. The usefulness of this feature is primarily for figuring out alternative routes when something unexpected comes up along a ride, so by definition we can't really predict which areas we are going to need. Given the massive amount of land area that can be covered on a 100+ mile ride, that's a lot of ground that needs to be covered. Further, expecting us to manually select the area for each and every ride is going to get tired quickly, so to be usable this system ultimately needs to be able to load up images for everywhere that we'd likely end up going (ie at least a 50 mile radius around the user's house). This may require some significant optimization work on the engine and/or file format used to store the tiles (so that it can rapidly find the specific tiles that it needs), but it's not an insurmountable task as only a small window has to be loaded at any given time (240x160 viewport, plus some caching of surrounding areas).
  4. (Difficult) Add the capacity for visual tiles such as real-time heart rate plots to be added to the exercise displays. Additionally, add the capacity to colour code numeric fields when targets have been set (eg red when above target, blue when under, etc.).
  5. (Difficult) Add a display similar to the elevation plot that shows overlaid historical telemetry plots for all major parameters (heart rate, power, speed, cadence and elevation). Given the colour display on this device, the ability to look back on the details of a ride (rather than just looking at splits) would make on-device analysis much more powerful. This can naturally be done on a computer after-the-fact, but it would be nice to be able to pull this up at a mid-ride lunch break to see how things are going so far.
  6. (Trivial to Difficult) Adding advanced metrics like TSS, IF and Normalized Power would make analysis of rides on the device itself a bit more complete. Adding these features would draw a lot of potential customers away from competitive products like the Joule. Naturally the rub here is whether or not these metrics require licencing fees, as if they do adding them via a free firmware update would be unlikely.
Either way, if I could get the first three issues addressed I'd pretty much have everything that I'd want in a device. The last three would be great to have, but they're just icing on the cake. With that said, I'm not really holding my breath and I'd consider myself lucky if they just managed to hit one of them!

Further Reading

- DC Rainmaker's detailed first look review of the Edge 800.
- User manual for the Garmin Edge 800.
- Official product page for the Garmin Edge 800.
- Official Forum for the Garmin Edge 800.

Update (29-11-2010) - After experimenting a little more with the courses functionality of the device on the road, I made a few changes to the navigation section of the review. With what I've seen here, there are some substantial improvements to this area of the system and I hope to play around a bit more with them in the future.

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