In short yes. You can adequately use your phone as a bike computer.
Below, we run through all the pros and cons of using a phone vs a bike computer.
Size and weight: Phones are larger, heavier and bulkier than bike computers, which may not leave you with much hand room when placed on a mount on the handlebars. A phone stem mount would be the better option but can still cramp you for room. Bike computers and their mounts are much more compact, lightweight, visually look better and do not impact hand room or positioning.
Aerodynamics: As a result of the size and bulkiness of a phone and mount combination compared to the compact nature and even aero design of a bike computer and mount combination, phones are less aerodynamic. However to the average cyclist, these aero gains may not amount to anything noticeable.
Price: Basically everyone has a smartphone which can be used as a GPS bike computer. The only extra cost would be for a case and mount, or if you have to replace your phone in the event of an unexpected crash. Some wireless and GPS bike computers can cost a small fortune, which may make a few people question whether it’s worth spending more money to have a dedicated bike computer. However there are many low cost bike computers available if you are the average everyday commuter or amateur cyclist, and are only interested in basic measurements such as speed and distance.
Features: A smartphone has the capability to be a good GPS bike computer, with apps capable of displaying and recording plenty of data such as speed, distance, maps, estimated altitude and mapping/navigation. Basic non-GPS wired and wireless bike computers will generally have a lot less features than a phone, usually basic speed, distance, time and possibly heart rate or cadence data if paired to a sensor. GPS bike computers generally have more features than a smartphone, with loads of available and very accurate data, easier sensor connectivity and depending on the unit, it may have navigation and more connectivity options (ANT+ without needing an adaptor). Some GPS bike computers can also receive emails, texts and alert notifications when paired with a compatible smartphone, to reduce the need of having a phone in front of you.
Durability and crash resistance: Bike computers are compact, weather proof units usually housed in tough cases, making them durable in all conditions including in the case of a crash. Phones on the other hand can be susceptible to water and mud damage, not to mention that a phone screen never fairs well after being dropped. Even if a phone is stored in your back pocket it can still get easily damaged during a fall, however the risk of damage is far greater when on the front handlebars. If your phone is stored in a bike bag or your back pocket, then it will be a greater likelihood that the phone will be available for use to take photos and call for medical or general assistance.
Battery Life: The battery life of dedicated bike computers is far greater than a smartphone. For example the Wahoo Elemnt Bolt bike computer has a claimed battery life of up to 15 hours compared to a phone which may last up to a few hours depending on the settings. You will have to make sure that your phone is fully charged prior to riding and you will have to constantly monitor your phone’s battery life to make sure that it survives the ride. If you ride short distances then a phone may be suitable. However there would be nothing worse than being stranded without a useable phone. Having a phone as a back up bike computer and emergency device is always best.
User interface and screen properties – buttons vs touch screen: Bike computers tend to have buttons and/or a touch screen to control the interface. The majority of cyclists tend to prefer buttons as the displayed information can be simply and quickly changed with one button press. All the relevant data on a bike computer can be customized and displayed the way that you prefer, so you can see it all with a simple glance. Some phone apps also allow for the information displayed to be customized. Buttons are easier to use, especially in bad/wet weather conditions or whilst wearing long or thick gloves. Phone apps and touch screens can be difficult to operate whilst riding. Touch screens aren’t very sensitive to any type of glove which means that you may need to wear half fingered gloves at the very most. They are difficult to use if the screen or your hands are wet and require more concentration to use, which should really be redirected to the road ahead. Phones will generally have clearer and larger screens with more pixels and a greater array of screen brightness/glare options. However, phone screens are susceptible to damage from heat and the sun. The phone body and screen materials can quickly overheat and expand, which can cause the screen to pixelate, crack and even become unresponsive to touch over time. The internal components can be permanently damaged through circuit board flex and warping, and the battery can get damaged and become inefficient from overheating.
Data accuracy: In short, GPS bike computers are more accurate, especially when paired with dedicated sensors. The exact difference is unknown due to a long list of variables. Phones are generally less accurate especially when they are not connected to sensors, as they rely on an app connected to the internet and GPS signals to calculate the data. Some phone GPS sensors are not very accurate in general. Phone GPS signals are also known to drop in and out occasionally, which occurs much more frequently on a phone compared to a GPS bike computer. The other main point of difference is that a bike computer usually has an internal barometric altimeter to accurately measure gradient. The best case scenario with a phone app is that it estimates the gradient.
In summary, you can effectively use your smartphone as a bike computer. However, dedicated bike computers have a greater battery life, a more customizable display, greater durability, provide more accurate data and have more features than a phone. We would always recommend having a dedicated bike computer and carrying a phone with you in a safe location, so that you can use it in the case of an emergency, as well as a back up to your dedicated bike computer. There are many excellent bike computers out there that can record all the relevant data that you need and are relative inexpensive as well.
Looking to buy a new bike computer? We have compiled a list of the most highly rated and popular bike computers that are available to buy.
To learn more about bike computers, check out the Bike Computer Gear Guide.