Posted by: Ian | January 15, 2011

The Garmin Edge 800 in real life

All the reviews of the Edge 800 give it a top rating but I haven’t yet seen one written by someone who shows any sign of having used it. Now that I’ve done getting on for 500 miles with mine I can confirm that it does fully deserve its plaudits but there are things you might want to know…

On the positive side, it has all of the advertised features – see for example the road.cc review here. All the functions available on the 500 carry over, plus there’s mapping and a bigger, brighter screen. When you’ve done your rides you can upload them to and view them on the fantastic Garmin Connect website for fancy integrated analysis and charting. As I wrote last time, there isn’t a designed way to export the data for use in Excel (or R) but you can copy rows off the Activities tab and, if you’re careful, paste them into a worksheet. I’ve discovered that this works better when copying from Firefox rather than Safari, and I also figured out that the cadence figures I was initially typing in can be configured onto the Activities page too. By and large the functions all work extremely well and the screen really is reasonably easy to scroll around with winter cycling gloves on.

There are a couple of nice features that I think may have been added since the initial round of magazine reviews were written. For example, by default when it’s dark the data displays switch from black on white to white on black, which is highly effective. Also using the virtual partner, which enables you to track your progress against either a set speed or a prior circuit of the same route, your current relative time and distance appear in green if you’re ahead and red if you’re behind, which is a nice touch. On one of my first outings with the 800 the lanes around Crickleaze were covered in ice and snow and it took me an age to get onto roads where I could see the tarmac. 15 minutes into my ride I was already 15 minutes behind the virtual rider proceeding at 15 mph. Then, though, I had a long run down into Taunton ahead of me and the sight of the virtual partner provided a real incentive to gun down the hills rather than coast, and I pulled the distance back and passed the virtual rider as I made it into town – only to fall behind again on the drag back out up Corfe Hill.

Possibly the main advantage of the 800 for me compared to the 500 is its total superiority at getting and holding a signal in central London. Partly this is probably due to it caching its location at shutdown so that when you fire it up it knows where to expect to find satellites. On the move it’s incomparably better too. I lost countless ride miles in 2010 because the 500 kept losing track of where it was, or never getting a fix to begin with. I haven’t had this at all with the 800 and I’m riding the same routes. This means that the data on the device is correct and so the Garmin Connect Reports are correct too. I still want the supplementary info that I derive in Excel/R but it gives me the basics right there.

As well as the good stuff there are quirks and bugs. Here’s the ones that I’ve found so far:

1. BaseCamp is useless.

BaseCamp is the add-on website/software that Garmin promote for generating courses that you can load onto your device. In fact, it’s so completely and totally useless, at least for the 800, that I think it must be down to my user error. This isn’t a problem because it’s so easy to create courses in ways that are super-easy. For a start, you can download GPX or TCX files, which are available for many/most organised events. I prefer to load them into the Garmin Training Center desktop application and sync them from there but you can instead load them directly to the device if you choose. Also, you can create a course from any ride you’ve done already and logged on the device. And I’ve also been using BikeRouteToaster (where previously I’ve used BikeHike) to create routes, again transferring a TCX file to Training Center and syncing it to the 800.

2. Scrolling is flaky (1)

There are numerous pages that you want to see as you ride – probably a couple of data pages, a map, an elevation profile, your virtual partner, course info – and to make this simple you can (as on the 500) choose to set the device to scroll automatically between them at a pace of your choice. Unfortunately it tends to get stuck on the map page, freezing the navigation as it does so, so that you can’t then even manually page away from it. Emily has had exactly the same problem and we’ve both turned scrolling off until they issue a firmware patch.

3. The heart rate figures have quirks

The first time I used mine it didn’t display a heart rate for a couple of miles. Then it had me somewhere north of 200 bpm. Then it settled down and has been generally good since. However, very occasionally, typically towards the start of a ride and on a fast downhill section, it will show me having a spike over 200 bpm. The 500 did the same. If it was on an uphill section or during times when I was exerting myself I’d be worried. Emily has the opposite problem – she’s sometimes cruising along briskly but with a reported heart rate in the 40’s.

4. The maps are hard to use

The maps are actually okay to use when you know where you are. However, maps are there for when you’re lost and when I’ve been lost (see issue 7 below) I’ve been unable to get any useful read from the maps, despite trying desperately. I have the package with the 1:50,000 GB OS maps, which are intrinsically superb. In fact, what I’ve ended up doing is looking at the same OS maps on my iPhone, where I’ve acquired them separately. This works extremely well but I shouldn’t need it.

5. Scrolling is flaky (2)

Given that the maps aren’t super-helpful I sometimes want to turn them off. This doesn’t work. You can try to turn them off but it will scroll through the map anyway.

6. The On/Off button

Not very usable when wearing gloves. Not a big deal, and not as bad as it turning off when you don’t want it to, but can be a nuisance.

7. The Big One

This isn’t necessarily a bug but until I figured it out – and I’m not entirely certain that I have – it’s caused me the most problems. As I now understand it, there are three concepts on the 800 that you need to disentangle: Activities, Courses and Routes. An Activity is simply a ride – either one you did before or the one you’re on – and its associated data, including your speed, power, heart rate and so forth. A Course is a set of directions that you specify to the device in one of the three ways given under point 1 above. A Route is determined by the device to get you where you say you want to go. For example, using BikeRouteToaster I plotted a 50 mile circuit from Langport to Glastonbury and back that I wanted to follow. I saved this as a TCX and imported it as a Course to the 800. I drove to the start and began my ride. The difference between the Activity and the Course is easy to see. First, if I had cycled to the start then my entire ride (the Activity) would have been considerably longer than the Course. Even if I had tried to follow the Course exactly but got lost there would be a difference. Also I could ride one Course several times creating several Activities.

The difference between a Course and a Route is evident if I ask the device to tell me how to get somewhere, using it as a sat-nav. Then the directions it gives me is obviously the Route. However, the confusion begins when I stipulate that I want to follow a Course: you would expect that the Route it chooses for me would be identical to the course I specify. Here’s the surprise: you can’t
rely on that! For example, today I set off on my Langport Glastonbury course. The 800 really didn’t want me going through Glastonbury, despite a very unambiguous path charted through the centre of the town. On my way towards Glastonbury it threw up instructions to turn right, off the correct road, four or five different times. My route out of Glastonbury led for a couple of miles along the A39, which it disliked equally, prompting me first to backtrack and then to turn off at almost every possible junction.

Last weekend I tried the same course but deviated fairly significantly because I hadn’t then appreciated that the Route the Garmin was prompting me to take was not the same as the Course I wanted to follow.

To be fair, the Route you’re given is almost always the Course, which had led me to regard them as the same. 30 seconds before any junction you get a screen-filling diagrammatic alert regarding exactly what you need to do, then with 10 seconds to go, with the junction diagram and instruction still in front of you, you get another beepy sound to alert you further. Immediately after you’ve completed the junction you get a much more discreet message telling you what you just did (e.g. “Turn Right”). I’ve now realised that the 30 second and 10 second alerts with the diagrams come from the Route, which is derived from the 800 and its maps. The more discreet message, though, comes from the Course. It’s not that it’s meant to tell you what you just did, it’s just a bit slow. I surmise that these Course directions, which you can see listed at any time, are loaded from the GPX/TCX files and so are derived by your course charting software (BikeRouteToaster in my case) rather than the Garmin. When the Route is different from the Course this is really confusing. Before I figured it out I would sometimes follow the (Route) direction at a junction only to be immediately given the message (from the Course): “Off course” with an angry buzz. The behaviour is fundamentally schizoid. Once you understand this it stops being a huge problem.

On a final positive, all the ANT+ peripherals (apart from the rare quirk with the Heart Rate monitor) work excellently and there is coherence between the data that’s produced. I wrote last time about the ability to forecast the calorific burn on a route from its pre-calculated Difficulty. Clearly this pre-supposes a fairly consistent effort level. Checking back on my recent Tempo rides, I find that I burn far fewer calories than the Difficulty would suggest – but this is right because I ride the Tempo around (flat) London at a much lower heart rate. However, on my park loops ride on my Tempo this week where my average heart rate was 151 (which is lower than usual for this intense workout but comparable to the longer Somerset rides on which my fitting formula was calibrated) the calorie burn matched the prediction precisely (452 cals). Today, the effort I expended (2,057 cals) on my Glastonbury ride was greater than the level implied from the formula (1,762 cals as I recall). I compared this with the energy actually transmitted to the back wheel. My PowerTap gave me an average power through the ride of 202W over 3 hr;5 mins;38 secs. Doing the arithmetic, this equates to 538 cals, meaning that only 26% of my effort was used in moving the Astraeus forward.

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Responses

  1. I have used my Edge 800 over many hundreds of miles and agree with you about the quirks. A thing I have found which may be useful is that when the display locks on the map page a workaround is to press the ON/OFF button as this forces the device to go to the brightness adjustment page. Clicking the CANCEL cross in the bottom left corner on that page takes you back to the map page but the scroll now works again.

    • Very helpful. Thanks!

  2. Hi Ian ,just found your article on the Garmin 800 edge Its very informative .I recently bought the enduro pack ,I want to use mine for off road MTB stuff mainly.
    cant say i’m too impressed with it so far ,everytime I have used it for I have got lost ! I put that down to my lack of knowledge and familiarity with the unit but I do find the screen very hard to read ,it doesnt help that im a bit colour blind and need specs for reading ,but on other threads I have found people with 20/20 vision complaining about the screen .I experienced the same problem with the scrolling freezing after about 10 minutes.On on ride had to reboot 3 times .
    If I’m honest for what it cost I am a bit disappointed at the moment hopefully with use I will grow to love it .(continually comparing the screen with that of an I phone doesnt help)
    Are you finding it better now ?

    • Thanks, Steve. Despite all the issues, I really like the 800. I find the data pages easy to read, especially with the black on white look at night. The maps don’t compare with the same quality OS maps on the iPhone when you’re stuck at the roadside trying to figure out where you are but unlike the iPhone screen you can scroll it while wearing gloves. Also now that I’m aware of its quirks I like using the navigation features. I relied solely on the 800 to guide me round the Olympic route that I just wrote about.

  3. […] create a Garmin 800 Course From a glance at the searches that have landed people onto our Garmin Edge 800 review it’s evident that there’s a lot of uncertainty regarding how to create and load […]

  4. […] and my Garmin 800. Unfortunately, I discovered a new feature of the unit to add to those that I documented previously. As I wrote then, the navigation directions the Edge 800 shows for the course are provided with the […]


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