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.