Wahoo: Navigation Nailed or Failed?

If you use a GPS device for navigation, you might find a lot of mainstream reviews don’t really cover this aspect in much detail. There’s a lot of coverage of the fitness aspects, but there are those of us who have no interest in cadence, heart rate and so on, and who simply want to follow a route.

I say “simply”, but it’s far from simple. There are lots of subtleties to this, especially once your idea of a route extends beyond two or three hours of chasing Strava segments and starts running through the day and across large areas. So here’s a review of the relatively new kid on the navigation block, the Wahoo Elemnt Bolt (which is, to all intents and purposes, the same as it larger sibling, the original Elemnt).

If you’re in the market for a navigation device then there’s a good chance you’ve been using one of the numerous Garmin units up until now, so this review makes heavy reference to those: specifically the Edge 800 (which I’ve been using for the past three years) and the Edge Touring (shown here), but many of their qualities—or idiosyncrasies—are common to several Garmins.

Elemnt Bolt vs Edge Touring Plus: which is the better navigation tool?

Right, then. Let’s go.

Configuring the device

In order to get anywhere with the Elemnt, you’ll need an iOS or Android device onto which you install the Elemnt app. The pairing process is slick, although I did find the iOS app threw a tantrum when I aborted the first setup (you need to be on your wifi network when you do it, and I wasn’t) and it needed to be reinstalled. Curiously, I also found that the iOS app was essentially unusable, taking up to 20 seconds to respond to any interaction, but I suspect I somehow got unlucky. Of course, it’s a nasty bug if you do happen to suffer it. The Android app has worked well, however.

The app lets you configure what data fields are displayed on the screens, and a few other options, such whether the row of LEDs above the screen are used for anything. For example, they can be used to tell you whether you’re currently above or below your average speed, and to what extent. None of the choices are really useful for navigation, and unless you’re hitting the extremities of the range the LEDs are hard to see in sunlight anyway, so I turned mine off. (They still get used for alerts; including off-course alerts, turns, and so on.)

The Wahoo wins easily against the Garmin in the configuration stakes—it’s much quicker and slicker—but in practice it’s not terribly important: configuring things is largely something you only need to do once.

Loading routes

I come at this review having used RideWithGPS as my route planning tool for several years. For my needs, it’s the best I’ve found by some margin. So I appreciate the Elemnt’s ability to sync with my RideWithGPS account via the phone app (it also integrates with certain other services such as Komoot). You can send GPX files from other sources, too. If you can get the file onto your phone, you can send it to the Elemnt.

Starting a route is simply a matter of selecting it on your phone, upon which it’s sent to the device and off you go. No connecting to a PC and copying files across as is necessary with the older Garmins; no need to connect to Garmin Connect as with the newer ones.

The Wahoo definitely wins here, and by some margin if like me you use RideWithGPS or one of the other partner sites.

Basic navigation

Once you start riding, and relying on the device for navigation, the competition gets serious: this is where the really important differences start to become evident.

One of the most immediately noticeable differences is in the visual clarity of the screens. Garmin have always opted for visually rich mapping, but Wahoo take a very different approach, cutting right back on visual richness and making core information much more prominent. Neither approach is right or wrong; each has their advantages, as we shall see.

One thing is for sure, though: once you’re out in daylight, the Garmin’s screen is little short of an embarrassment next to the Wahoo’s.

Garmin’s screens have poor contrast in daylight.
The Elemnt’s screen is untroubled by even the brightest of days.

There’s simply no contest here. The Wahoo is sufficiently clear in even the brightest of sunshine, while the Garmin—with its colour matrix sheltering underneath a resistive touchscreen—is unreadable. Sure, you could run the Garmin’s backlight at full power all the time, but you’d be paying a heavy price in battery life, and even then it’s not as clear as the Wahoo with the backlight off.

The monochrome screen (and the absence of a touch interface, which isn’t an entirely successful feature on this type of device anyway) certainly allows Wahoo to make their display readable in all conditions, but it does restrict their ability to convey information. The mapping is necessarily simplistic: there’s no labelling and there’s little differentiation between road types: they’re either outlines or thin lines (note that the thick black line in the image below is coastline). Your route is overlaid as a series of bold chevrons, and it’s easy to spot, which is great.

Wahoo’s approach is “less is more” and it gives great clarity. Not such great richness, but broadly speaking you can’t have both.

Wahoo’s display is minimalistic, but clear and quick to decipher.

Garmin’s “more is more” approach results in a whole pile of clutter, making the screen hard to read at a glance. Unnecessary text sprawls across everything, unnecessary green patches litter the background, even your route can blend into the underlying mapping, and it’s generally a battle for your attention. Its strengths lie in different areas, as we’ll see.

Now let’s focus in on the finer detail of junctions and turns.

As far as notifying you to navigating through turns goes, the Elemnt relies on cues being cooked into the route. It has a full set of OpenStreetMap maps, but it can’t actually do any routing: they exist solely to display the map. Most online routing tools will allow you either to use default cues (often from Google) when you use a “follow roads” type of routing, or to provide your own manually. The latter is undoubtedly more effort, but the former can give you an excessive number of cues. (That said, Garmin’s turn notification is also excessive: both Google and Garmin will give you cues at various points where you’re simply staying on the same road.)

In either case, about 100m or so before the cue point the Element gives you an audible notification and displays the cue type (left, right, etc) and message on the screen, and also flashes the line of LEDs above the screen to indicate the turn type. Once you pass the cue, it briefly shows the next one and the distance to it. (Note that an imminent cue is displayed on a black background and the next one is shown on a light background, which helps avoid confusion if you glance down at the wrong time.)

You can get a cue sheet on the Wahoo, but when you select it, it shows you the first cue rather than the next cue. Which makes it pretty useless, to be honest.

Now I have to scroll down and somehow work out which one relates to where I am. That’s not really a usable feature.

By the way, if you prefer to add your cue points manually, my advice to Wahoo users is to place them either on a junction or (better) just a few metres before. Don’t place them well in advance of the turn: the Element will handle the early alert for you.

When you approach a turn with the Wahoo, all you get is the turn type and a short message. You don’t even get a map unless you already happened to be looking at it. This is a long way short of Garmin’s junction display, which—no matter what screen you were looking at before—gives you a zoomed-in map view of the junction with your route through it clearly marked with a huge white arrow. If you don’t want that, one tap dismisses it, but it’s one of the things that Garmin have got firmly right: it’s the information you want, when you want it, in a clearly visible form. Wahoo could do some work here.

There’s one other aspect of basic navigation, which not everyone will feel the same way about, but which for me is the single biggest failing of the Wahoo.

You may notice from the images above that the Garmin’s map is oriented with north up. Like almost every single map you’ve ever looked at. Like the map you were looking at when you planned this route. When you looked at the relative positions of all the map features—towns, roads rivers and so on—they were all “north up”. Every time you’ve seen this route, you’ve seen it “north up”. If you’re like me, you’ve spent a while planning this route and the shape of it is to some extent burned into your brain. So when you see a small section of that route and a small section of the map on the Garmin, you can immediately relate it to all of those mental references. You can recognise where you are in the loop, where you’re heading, what’s nearby.

Whereas the Wahoo forcibly spins the map round to your direction of travel. All the visual association with your mental map is gone. You lose the context of where you are.

(The Wahoo gives you the option to choose between “north up” and “ahead up” when you’re not navigating a route, but if you’ve got a route on the go then it dictates “ahead up”.)

It’s a map, Jim, but not as we know it.

When all is fine, this isn’t really an issue. You’re just following the wiggly line. So, within the category of “all-is-well” navigation, the Wahoo remains the clear winner.

But, as we shall see, you’re not always just trucking along from one waypoint to the next.

Going off-course

At some point, when you’re following a route you’ve planned online, there’s a decent chance you’re going to part company with your planned route.

Actually, there’s also a decent chance that your device will think you’ve parted company with your route when you haven’t. The Garmin devices and the Wahoo all suffer from this. It’s an annoyance, but generally not a huge one. It just seems like something that both should have fixed in testing, because when it happens the position arrow on the screen is still firmly on-course, so it’s not as if the device has suddenly imagined that you’ve jumped a hundred yards to the side.

But, anyway, back to actually leaving your route. There are, broadly speaking, two different reasons for this.

One is that you’ve carelessly sailed on past a turn. If this happens, both devices will reliably chirp their off-course warnings, and the Elemnt supplements this with flashing red LEDs. Simply make a U-turn and you’re back on track. No biggie.

The other reason to leave your course is that you have to. Whether it’s due to something unforeseen, such as a temporary road closure, or to a planning hiccup, such as a road turning out to be a rocky track or a private road, you need a detour on the fly. That means checking the map and getting yourself to a point further downstream on your original route.

And this is where the Wahoo starts to come unstuck.

It’s not really due to Wahoo’s decision to strip away many of the nuances of road types from the map: that would be fine, had they not made a number of other decisions about the map display.

Firstly, if you zoom out past the 500m scale you’ll see a dramatic loss of detail. At 1km scale you lose most roads; at 2km there are practically none. So you’ve no chance of spotting a route to get you back on track.

When I went out with the Garmin and the Wahoo together, I had to do exactly that. My normal view on the Wahoo is the 500m scale. But it doesn’t take much of a detour before your route is off-screen.

At 500m scale you get good detail, but not enough range to get back on track.

Zooming out a bit loses detail (in this case fortunately not too much) but still my route’s off-screen.

At 1km scale you lose a lot of detail (this isn’t the worst example: in some areas the screen can be practically empty).

Zooming out again and it looks like I still can’t see my route, just a road.

At 2km scale I just get one line, which looks like a road…

No, wait. That’s my route. You see, the Elemnt only renders a small part of your route with the nice bold chevrons. And if you’ve taken a diversion, it’ll be the section back where you parted company. For some reason it renders the rest of the route almost indistinguishably from a road. It’s an interesting design decision, and by interesting I mean rubbish.

In the following image, I’m situated just a few yards from my planned route, but it still looks like I’m simply near a road.

Remember that thing with the big chevrons? Well, now it’s a thing that looks like a road.

An additional curious detail is that when you do rejoin the route, the Elemnt pipes up with an off-course warning; it’s only once you’ve followed the route for maybe 100 yards that it sorts itself out and understands what’s been going on. Curious, and possibly a little irrtating, but not a significant problem.

But anyway: back to the business of trying to get back on track in the first place. I’ve zoomed out to see the route, but where are the roads? How do I actually get to my route? Should I take the next left or does that waste a load of time doubling back? Should I carry straight on or does that end up bearing right and not meeting my route for miles? The Elemnt can’t help me out: I can see the route or the roads but not both, and I can’t pan the view either.

Now, I’ve no doubt that Wahoo’s answer here is that I should get my phone out and use the bigger, better screen for this less simplistic task.

But that has implications. I need to pull over and stop. I need to retrieve my phone from wherever it is. If I’m wearing gloves, I need to take one of them off to use the screen. I need a data connection in order to view maps. And once I’ve eyeballed my route I need to memorise my entire diversion. It’s not a great solution, to put it mildly. And if it’s hammering down with rain, it’s a complete non-starter.

With the Garmin, I can simply zoom out and see a way back on track. Easy. And I can keep it visible while I’m following my diversion. This is where the Edge comes into its own.

On the Garmin, I can see that I can just head southeast for a bit, take a left, and I’m back on course.

This is fixable for Wahoo. With a tweak to the map view detail, a change to the route rendering, and the ability to use the “north up” view while navigating (not just because it retains familiarity with the map but because the pointer is central and thus you have visibility in all directions) the process of taking short diversions would be vastly improved.

With those changes, it would be as easy to cope with a diversion as it is on the Garmin. But as it stands, this particular use case is not served at all well by the Wahoo.

Unfortunately it’s a use case that crops up a lot. (Four times in my last three rides, for what it’s worth.) Google Maps isn’t good at making unsurfaced trails evident, and when I experimented with the route calculation feature in the Elemnt app, the second turn it tried to send me down was this.

The sign makes it clear; the mapping data doesn’t.

Now, I’m not going to give Wahoo a hard time for that because frankly I’ve yet to come across any routing engine that produces good quality routes. But the point is that diversions are part and parcel of navigating a planned route. A device needs to cope with that scenario, and the Elemnt simply doesn’t.

So, when it comes to straying from the route, there is a clear winner, and this time it’s the Garmin.

Going further

Those of us who are more interested in navigation than fitness metrics are perhaps more inclined to also be interested in big rides. If I do a ride that’s so big it goes from one day into the next then I’m willing to accept that this isn’t a normal expectation and I’ll bring along an external power source without feeling hard done by. But I do value a GPS that can go all day on a single charge, and all day means up to about 15 hours, enough to cover roughly 300km.

Garmin and Wahoo make similar claims for their devices: the Edge 800 and Touring are advertised with battery lives of 15 and 17 hours respectively, and the Elemnt Bolt claims 15 hours.

In reality, the results are rather different.

I’ve used the Edge 800 extensively for three years and my experience was that it would run for about 11 hours on a data screen and about 9 hours on the map screen. The Edge Touring Plus looks to perform similarly (in fact a little worse, but since this unit is secondhand I’ll give it the benefit of the doubt).

The Bolt, on the other hand, looks as if it will easily meet its claimed life. I’ve done three rides with it now, each running the Bolt for around 4 hours or so, and although I’ve yet to run it to exhaustion, if its battery decline is linear and it powers off at 0% then every ride I’ve done so far suggests it should be good for 16 hours.

What’s more, the Wahoo’s screen is readable all of that time (in daylight) whereas on bright days the Garmin’s isn’t: to read it you’d need to switch the backlight on, which chips away further at the battery life.

I ran the Bolt and the Touring side by side on the same route, and when I got home after about four and a half hours the Bolt still had 72% charge while the Touring had just 41% left. This means the Bolt should keep going over twice as long as the Touring; a huge difference.

If you really do need to keep going, both the Bolt and the 800/Touring have USB ports (Garmin use mini, Wahoo use micro) which are accessible while mounted on the bike, so you can charge from an external battery while riding. Dynamo users should be aware that Garmins tend to misbehave in strange ways after a while of being fed a fluctuating power source (turning it off and on again cures it), but I’ve not tested the Wahoo.

Anyway, battery life is no contest: the Bolt should be good for a 300km all-dayer but the Garmins certainly aren’t. Wahoo is the runaway winner here.

Overall

So, have Wahoo come up with the best navigation device on the market at their first attempt? No. To be fair, that wasn’t their initial focus, and I suspect in terms of a fitness tool they have come up with the best. But this won’t meet everyone’s needs for navigation.

The intriguing thing, though, is that the Elemnt’s failings can all be fixed in firmware, and Wahoo—unlike Garmin—seem to have a good reputation for actually delivering firmware enhancements. Four fixes would transform the Elemnt’s navigation performance:

  • the option to use the “north up” mode while navigating,
  • more roads remaining visible at larger map scales,
  • chevrons rendered along the entire route, and
  • the option of an automatic switch to the map screen (ideally also zooming in) when approaching a cue point.

With these enhancements, Wahoo would be giving Garmin a run for their navigation money as well as already blowing them out of the water on ease of use, screen clarity and battery life.

Wahoo’s hardware has nailed the fitness market. Let’s hope their firmware can nail the navigation market, too.

But, for now, I think I might still need the Garmin for those diversions.

Addendum 1: Phone battery consumption

One of the areas which is causing me significant concern is phone battery consumption on both iOS and Android platforms.

On my first ride with the Wahoo, I left with my iPhone 5S at 100% charge and returned less than five hours later with it at 26%. The main consumer was the Elemnt app, which I’d used a couple of times to calculate routes and which was responsible for 43% of the consumption. I was inclined to ascribe this to the bug which rendered the app unresponsive, thinking that it was simply churning CPU cycles when active.

However, since then, I’ve seen the app account for around 8% of all consumption on both platforms. And that’s without me turning the Bolt on, or even opening the app.

That’s a pretty hefty burden considering the app has no need to do anything. It bothers me that the price to pay for longer battery life of your GPS unit should be shorter battery life of your phone (you never know when you’re going to need that emergency call, after all) so I’ll raise a ticket with Wahoo support for this.

Addendum 2: Edge Touring vs 800

Although not directly pertinent to a review of the Wahoo, it’s worth mentioning some differences between the Garmin Edge Touring and 800, which are based on the same hardware.

Firstly the things I prefer about the Touring:

  • Easier to read text
  • Simpler navigation and clearer menus

And the advantages (other than fitness sensor support) of the 800:

  • The ability to customise menu detail, making it possible to declutter the maps without compiling your own Garmin map
  • The ability to display a course on the map without entering turn-by-turn navigation mode, in a choice of colours
  • The ability to display multiple courses on the map, allowing planned optional shortcuts and diversions to be followed without having to disturb the overall navigation

Overall I still think the 800 with City Navigator maps (yes, the one I sold) is probably the best of these options in terms of navigating. Its key flaws are the poor battery life and the poor screen readability (plus also arguably the need to manually copy files), but other than that mine served me well.

I do expect Wahoo to catch up reasonably rapidly, though.

Addendum 3: Final verdict

In the end, I’ve gone back to the Edge (and I’ve also started creating custom-styled maps to assist with screen clarity). Much as I like the Wahoo’s screen clarity, battery life and ease of getting routes onto the device, two key problems remained.

First of these was the inability to cope well enough with deviating from the exact planned route. It’s something that crops up on most rides, and the Wahoo simply isn’t any help in this scenario.

The second was its appetite for my phone battery. To Wahoo’s credit, they responded to my support ticket and attempted to fix the problem, but it didn’t work. There doesn’t seem to me to be much merit in no longer needing an external battery for my GPS if I have to carry one for my phone instead, so the battery life benefits of the Wahoo are somewhat diluted to say the least.

It’s a great shame, because Wahoo have got a lot of things right, including many that Garmin have got wrong, and which Garmin have never shown any intention of improving.

But navigation, it seems—at least as a primary function rather than a secondary one—remains a thorny challenge.

8 thoughts on “Wahoo: Navigation Nailed or Failed?

  1. I’ve been asked many times whether I’d recommend the Elemnt compared to my old Garmin 1000 and the answer’s yes.

    I’m doing The Transcontinental so it’s been vital to test out many of the features ahead of the race. I can confirm the Wahoo Elemnt works wonderfully with a dynamo, which was one of my main reasons for getting one.

    Agree with you on diversions though. Thankfully I’ll be downloading some offline maps for the race so should eliminate the need for data if I have to divert.

    Great review though and I’ll be sharing this when my friends next ask me!

  2. Thanks for this review – I’ve been waiting for someone to do this comparison for a while.

    Interesting point on “North Up” – I’ve always just run my GPS’s as route up.

    My navigation is often off road so the ‘vague patches of green’ are actually helpful when it comes to following a trail down the edge of some woods or similar (the OSM maps are better than the full Ord Survey maps that really do have too much data for the size of the screen). I’m guessing the Wahoo would be fairly hopeless off road? Just the course you’re following and no other data?

    – the function I still miss from my really early, mapless, Garmins were the data fields for ‘direction to nearest point on route’ and ‘distance off course’ (effectively becoming a ‘beeline’).

    1. I don’t tend to need off-road navigation often, but I suspect the Wahoo would be competent enough. The mapping shows tracks as dashed lines and the relatively simplistic navigation works fine off-road for me, but I don’t know if everyone would feel similarly.

  3. I’ve been using a Wahoo ELEMNT for over a year now and I agree with your view on the good and bad points of the device.

    I’d also suggest submitting a request from the Wahoo website and point them towards your blog post. They do have a track record of regular software releases addressing issues that people have raised.

    However, there is already a setting to change map orientation between North Up and direction of travel (personally, I prefer direction of travel).

    I don’t have my ELEMNT with me at the moment to point out exactly where the setting is but have a search through the app menus and you should be able to find it.

    I agree with the point about showing the chevrons when trying to get back on route.

    Showing the map screen at a cue point would be a nice feature but I’ve been OK without it.

    I have a few things I’d like… none of them show-stoppers however.
    – support of RideWithGPS Points of Interest on the map. When planning a route, I like to note pubs and cafes. These may not be on the route but I’d like to see if they are nearby then decide to take a detour or not at the time.
    – better creation of routes on the app. At the moment, the app bases the route on the start and end point and you can’t force it to use a particular road by, for example, dragging the route or routing from cuepoint to cuepoint. I’m ok with route planning using phone + app because I have such a poor opinion of how Garmin does route creation on the device itself..

    – a handlebar remote, similar to Garmin. I find the ELEMNT bottom buttons positive to use but the side buttons more difficult. Maybe the BOLT is better.

    I certainly don’t have any plans to go back to Garmin as the legibility of the ELEMNT screen overcomes all the niggles from my perspective. As I’ve got older and my eyesight gets worse, I find it difficult to read lower contrast items such as a Garmin colour screen in bright sunlight when wearing sunglasses.

    1. There’s no option to choose north up while following a route. You can choose the orientation type that’s used when you’re not following a route, but sadly not when you are.

  4. Good review, every one I ask praises the Wahoo’s but they are all of the ride for metrics types, rather than navigation. Yours is the first review that highlights navigation shortcomings, especially for off route, thanks for that.
    Nowhere can I find any mention of waypoints (POI) which I use a lot, I’m guessing there is just no support for this or anything similar in the wahoo’s.

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