Communicating in Color: The Wahoo Elemnt Roam

Communicating in Color: The Wahoo Elemnt Roam

I’ve been a bicycle computer enthusiast since the days of the Cateye Micro and Avocet 30. If you are fortunate enough not to have encountered them, they are to GPS what a paper maps is … to GPS. Forget for a moment the whole life without Strava thing (Iknowright?!); I just remember being excited that I’d be able to find out what my maximum speed was on a ride. What can I say? I was easily satisfied.

I’d like to think that I’m enamored of technology and that I’m apt to dig new ideas. That said, in the pre-smartphone era, when I had a choice between getting a black-and-white flip phone from LG and getting the color one, I chose to save $100 and get the black-and-white one because I didn’t think that the mere presence of color was going to improve my use of said flip phone.

My reaction to the addition of color to most GPS units has been roughly the same. Color? What’s it going to do that it doesn’t already do? I don’t mean to sound suspicious or cynical, but if someone is going to add a feature to a piece of technology, that new feature ought to actually do something.

Which is to say that up until now, I’ve been perfectly happy with my black-and-white Wahoo Elemnt. Compared to the other GPS units I’ve used from Garmin, Lezyne, Pioneer, Sigma, et al, I keep returning to the Elemnt, utterly content with it. Compared to my iPhone, six buttons is a lot to contend with, but learning what they do wasn’t hard and the layout of said buttons is intelligent enough that I can navigate it without looking at the screen. Handy thing when my eyes really need to be focused on what’s in front of my front wheel.

Just recently, while out on a ride where I planned to mix dirt and pavement and decided to take the standard Elemnt instead of the freshly arrived Elemnt Roam, I looked down at the map screen as I neared an intersection, just why I’m not even sure, but when I looked at the map, which was zoomed out somewhat, I thought, “That looks like a circuit board, not a map.”

Zoomed in, of course, I could discern roads and bike path, but at a lesser resolution I couldn’t have told you what city I was in, other than maybe one of the locations in Tron.

Honestly, when I see color on a GPS unit, up until now, I’ve just seen a feature that will look pretty but reduce battery life. I associate color with power usage because the only pixels being powered in a black-and-white unit are the black ones; the others are just left off, whereas with color, all the pixels have to be illuminated to have color.

Along comes the Roam and from the first moment I looked at it, while standing in a shipping container at the Sea Otter Classic this spring, I couldn’t help but concede that Wahoo had accomplished the one thing everyone else has missed so far: only using color when it will increase the amount of information you have. And that’s the key: If color doesn’t enhance your understanding of the information on the screen, there’s not much point.

For the most part, the Elemnt Roam is still just a black-and-white GPS unit. Srsly. No change. Putting your heart rate in red, or your elapsed time in blue doesn’t really tell you anything that you wouldn’t know were not those numbers in black. But when you flip to the map page, you get color, and it helps.

The Elemnt Roam fills in major thoroughfares in yellow. Smaller streets, as in residential ones not really intended for point A to point B travel are left uncolored. Bodies of water, wait for it—appear in blue. Handy thing for helping you anticipate a bridge crossing if you live in a place with lots of one-lane bridges. And trails? Dashed lines just like … a map.

Interestingly, the map on the Roam does not offer the same degree of detail that the Elemnt does at the same level of resolution. That sounds like a ding, right? It’s not. The Elemnt map contains a stunning level of detail on driveways and parking lots, which isn’t usually all that useful to someone riding a bike. The Roam strips much of that away, leaving a map that isn’t so cluttered.

I find that the color is useful when I load a route to follow because it shows me which roads are likely to have more traffic. And if I’m following a track that isn’t a race course, it could help me identify a parallel road to get me off a main thoroughfare, though in practice, I haven’t actually done that yet, but I know from experience how useful that can be when you’re in a strange place.

In other respects, the Roam is essentially just an Elemnt. The screen size is the same (2.7 inches), even if the case is shaped a bit differently. The buttons are also shaped a little differently, but again, it’s all the same—same layout, same functions. Both offer one of the longest charges available in GPS units: 17 hours. The real advantage to offering such long battery life isn’t that your GPS won’t die during a 14-hour ride; when was the last time you did anything that long? No, the real advantage is that for most of us we can get three, maybe four rides in before needing to recharge the unit. With just six hours of battery life (which I’ve dealt with), it’s necessary to recharge the unit after essentially every ride, and sooner or later, I’m going to forget.

In reviewing all the specs for the Elemnt and Elemnt Roam, there are only a handful of notable difference aside from color. One of the interesting ones that I anticipate using is called “Get Me Started.” Say you have uploaded a route to your Roam; Get Me Started will navigate you to the start point of that ride. “Back On Track” will reroute you if you screw up and blow through a turn, but without the affectless voice announcing, “Make a U-turn here.” Supposing you do a loop ride that doesn’t quite get you back to the start; “Route To Start” will create a route using the shortest distance to get you back to the start. I can recall doing some group rides when out of town before the age of smartphones; this would have saved me some grief. The other notable feature I see is the use of the non-glare Gorilla© Glass Lens in the Roam, which should help prevent the scratches that are possible with the plastic lens of the Elemnt.

Color alone probably wouldn’t justify spending the extra $80 upcharge ($379.99 vs. $299.99), but with the additional navigation features and the glare-free Gorilla© Glass, the extra expense is justifiable, especially for anyone who really is a power user of the map functions. The Wahoo Elemnt companion app is as intuitive a GPS app as I’ve encountered. It seamlessly uploads my rides to Strava; the only time I need to open it is when I need to upload a route to the Elemnt.

Final thought: All it lacks is a hand to hold.

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  1. Neil Winkelmann

    Just moved from a Bolt to the Roam. Very happy with it. Small learning point was that “Route to Start” routed me back to the start and somehow cancelled the rest of the route when I went slightly off a planned route early in the ride. This wasn’t what I wanted at all. I need to figure out the switch to stop that happening.

  2. scott g.

    Is there a way to see street names ?
    Using a Bolt, arrived to turn onto non existing road.
    Had to pull my phone with OSMaps to figure the road names,
    and get back on route.

    1. Neil Winkelmann

      Go to “DCRainmaker” site where he reviews the Roam, and talks at length about the way the mapping is different to the Bolt. It might answer your question.

    2. Author

      The short answer is that street names don’t appear, though I’ve noticed some highway names. And that lack of street names could definitely be an issue at times.

  3. Jeff vdD

    I’ve got the Garmin Edge 820 (having moved over last year from the 810). Setting aside many of the ease-of-use differences (Garmin is like PC, Wahoo is like Apple … if you know one, the other is foreign),

    Capturing data for later use is great. And in some cases, having access to data during a ride is great: time of day, distance to go, heart rate. What I benefit the most from, though, is mapping.

    One, I can follow a route I don’t know MUCH more safetly than using a cue sheet. Two, when descending, I can get a sense of the shape of the road ahead: am I approach a gentle bend or a hairpin? Are there intersecting roads/trails or do I not have to worry about cross traffic.

    The Garmin 820 mapping is pretty good, perhaps even on par with the Roam. To Patrick’s point, I don’t think Garmin has nailed the “right amount of information to show” equation. The 820 lets you choose map detail (Settings > Activity Profile > [profile] > Navigation > Map > Map Detail. (I know, I know, having to go 6 levels down a menu is unconscionable!) There are five levels of detail: Most, More, Normal, Less, and Least.

    To accommodate eyes that aren’t what they once were, I’d prefer less rather than more detail. For instance, I don’t need to see features that make a swamp look different than a pond. Basically, I’d like to see, with high contrast, three things: the route I’m following, things I might ride on (other roads/trails), and things that I can’t ride on (water). For me, the “Less” setting is what I’ve settled on, but it’s not quite perfect.

    One observation about Garmin v. Wahoo. Caveat: this *may* have been perception rather than actuality. But after riding Garmin since 2013, I spent several months last fall riding Wahoo. It seemed to me like there was more GPS lag with Wahoo than Garmin, especially in the woods. That is, with Wahoo, I’d go past a turn because my position on the map was farther back on the trail than where I actually was. HAS ANYONE ELSE DETECTED BETTER OR WORSE WITH EITHER SYSTEM IN THIS REGARD?

    I hope that the presence of Garmin, Wahoo, and several other options keeps the pressure on all of them to keep getting better,

  4. scott g

    On the Bolt, i noticed the speed would be all over the place under heavy
    tree cover, the map did show the correct location.
    Add the speed sensor, fixed the speed issue.
    New Bolt issue is sometimes only part of the map appears, the bread crumb
    track stays on, but it like the Bolt won’t always load a map tile. Zooming
    gets the Bolt to refresh the map. Reset Bolt to factory and reloaded maps,
    still get partial maps sometimes.

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