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Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Long Term Review: Wahoo Elemnt Bolt

On the cycling trip I used the Wahoo Elemnt Bolt exclusively for navigation. For Live Tracks (which was actually useful for AirBnB hosts who wanted to know how long it would take us to cycle to their place), I would continue to use the Garmin Vivoactive HR.

I used the Wahoo with RidewithGPS, Komoot, and the built-in Google navigation. None were perfect, and none would substitute for using your brain and ignoring the navigation cues on the display in front of you when appropriate. Unfortunately, it took me a few days to figure it out.

Ride with GPS was surprisingly good --- on a big screen. By default, it uses Google's bike route data's layer to help “snap” to a bike route while you're plotting the route. The problem is that the information is not sufficiently detailed: for instance, you can't tell whether the bike route you're on is a legitimate paved bike path, or whether it's a singletrack mountain bike trail requiring dismounts if you have panniers. The bigger issue is that the Android RideWithGPS app doesn't work at all for plotting routes, and if you plan to use it on a regular basis you need a bigger tablet in addition to just your phone.

Nevertheless, when plotting a route from Hindhead to Staines-Upon-Thames, it found the Basingstoke Canal trail, which none of the other options discovered. So the extra weight and charging hassle of a larger tablet might be worth it.

Komoots was what I used much of the time to do trip planning. The problem is that like Google Maps, it lacks common sense. A day after a rain, it routed us through muddy singletrack, including a flooded tunnel, and then later on in the day a sandy hiking trail through an area marked with “possible unexploded live ordnance, do not touch anything you see on the ground!” signs. We had to ask an equestrian how to extract ourselves from that nasty situation. Despite my being able to download all of the UK onto my phone, the app still refused to navigate or plot new routes without an internet connection.

The ELEMNT's app integration with Google Maps is suitable for short, city routing. It’s convenient and relatively good for within-city routing because of Google's somewhat comprehensive knowledge of local bike routes. But when given long distances, Google Maps would give you multiple routing options while the ELEMNT app's Google integration would only give you one option. Usually, Google's multiple-options usually mean that the slower choice is more scenic, less direct, and less traffic’d, so by not providing the multiple options the ELEMNT really limits the usefulness.

Once a route's on the Bolt, it's somewhat reasonable. In fact, it even displays the impending elevation change on the climbing screen, which is awesome for anticipating how long you have to pace yourself for on the next segment. The navigation is kinda crazy: sometimes it'll tell you to turn only after you've made the turn, so I kept it on the map screen whenever I needed the navigation.

The biggest issue with the ELEMNT Bolt is that it won't reroute if you go off course. When I first got the unit, I thought it was no big deal, but having lived with it, I think it's a major missing feature. There are many circumstances in which it'll be dangerous or difficult to stop and do a reroute, and of course, if your network connection is spotty, you're pretty much screwed. I think I'd be hard-pressed to recommend the ELEMNT for anyone who has to be off-network during part of the tour. I'd rather put up with a little worse navigation on the Garmin Edge type units.

It also has a weird bug in that when you fly between time zones, it doesn't auto-correct the time, unlike the Garmin units. You're forced to repair the device with the phone to fix the time. I didn't notice this when I flew to England, because the unit somehow failed to pair with my phone and I was forced to re-pair, but when I came back that didn't happen, and I lived with incorrect time on my Bolt until I sent a support e-mail and got back the answer. The reason this is bat-shit insane is that the GPS knows the correct time zone: it has to, since it knows where you are. That's why Garmin never needs you to set the time on your Edge units!

By the way, the Bolt randomly pairs or doesn't pair with your phone depending on the phase of the moon. There's no rhyme or reason to it. This would have been OK if like the Garmin it was capable of routing independent of the phone, but since it isn't, it causes an unacceptable startup time issue whenever we were raring to go on tour and I had to "oops, let me re pair the phone to the GPS unit." Again, no big deal for people who're just doing day-rides with bike clubs or century rides with well-marked roads, but a major pain for those of us who tour, and have impatient 5-year-olds in the back seat.

One thing that I found unacceptable was that the Wahoo Element Bolt  would occasionally refuse to upload to Strava or any of the other connected services. You can still upload manually by copying the files from the unit to Strava on the PC, but by Vivoactive HR has never refused to sync correctly. This appears to happen randomly as a result of say, not being pair'd with the phone whenever the device is turned off, but in reality even when I make a point of pairing the phone correctly each time, it will still occasionally happen. As a backup device for the Garmin Vivoactive HR this is somewhat acceptable (I usually turn off sync'ing to Strava anyway). As a primary device, I'd probably be selling it on eBay the first time it happened!

All in all, I'm somewhat satisfied with the ELEMNT Bolt. My biggest complaint is that the map screen is devoid of road names, which would be very useful when I'm actively ignoring the GPS directions. There's also no way to pan the map while riding. If Garmin does better integration with RidewithGPS or Komoots I'd give up the ELEMNT in a heartbeat, but until Garmin does that I think Wahoo has the edge for cycle touring in countries with dense road networks.

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