The Cheapo Bike Computer

After the recent demise of my Cateye V2C cyclocomputer, I had a decision to make. I have its predecessor, a Cateye Strada Cadence, and I could put that back on — or, I could go a different route completely.

I got out the Strada, but whatever I did to get it on the bike the first time around wasn’t working this time. I couldn’t make the wiring fit. There’s a lot more wire than I need to cover the distance from the chainstay up the downtube to the bars. Not being a very patient person, I tried a few times to get it mounted, and then gave up.

The different route I decided to take involved buying a new computer, but not a high-end one. I had read of some cyclists’ experiences with the cheapo beginner computers, and in most cases, they were satisfied. I rolled over to Wal-Mart and found one.

Showing the distance for today's ride: 38.403 miles (!).

It’s a Schwinn 12-function computer. The 12 functions are inflated, I think, because several of them aren’t of much use. However, it does provide the main numbers you expect: current speed, distance traveled, average speed, maximum speed, time of ride. A “scan” mode displays each of these items for five seconds, then advances to the next one. It also shows you whether you’re traveling above or below your average, and what your “trend” is — whether you’re speeding up or slowing down. An odometer keeps track of your total mileage.

Mounting it on the bike was relatively easy. The magnet goes on the front wheel, and the sensor unit on the fork. A wire snakes up the fork and a brake cable to the handlebar mount. Click the computer into the mount, and you’re ready to use it. As you might guess, all attachments are via zip ties.

I must say, I’ve been pleasantly surprised by its performance in the several weeks I’ve been using it. One of the big advantages over the Cateye is that it starts immediately once the wheel turns. The Cateye would go into a sleep mode after several minutes, and you had click a button to get it working again. Many times, I would leave a rest stop — or even the beginning of the ride — only to realize ┬áthat I’d forgotten to start it and I’d miss as much as two miles worth of data. Another advantage is that it runs on triple-A batteries, which you’re more likely to have around the house than the disc batteries used in other computers.

Early on, I took the bike out to the Veloway where I know the distance around the track. One lap is 3.1 miles. I had punched in the correct wheel circumference earlier, and sure enough, it registered 3.1 miles per lap for three laps. Good enough for me.

Are there any disadvantages? For a $12 unit, of course there are. It’s a two-button computer, with the left side for odo, distance, max speed, avg. speed, and trip time. Click the right button, and you get only the current speed and current time. Not a problem, until it’s time to zero the computer for a new ride. Theoretically, pressing the left button for two seconds will zero distance, avg. speed, and trip time. However, you have to make sure you’re out of scan mode, and off the clock time setting. I’ve learned to set it to distance, then zero it from there. It took me several days to get the hang of that, and I inadvertently zeroed the odo two or three times until I figured it out.

One quirk is that it measures distance in thousandths of a mile. Why, I have no idea. It’s not useful information. I think anything over a tenth of a mile is unnecessary, and it can be a little confusing to glance down during a ride and see the thousandths tick off faster than the wheel rotates.

It also doesn’t have cadence. I’ve gotten accustomed to seeing cadence during my rides, but frankly, I’ve never done much with that information. Sometimes I’ll do a Veloway lap where I keep the cadence at 90 rpm or above, or I’ll do hill repeats and try to maintain the same cadence for each repeat. But that’s about it. Since I’m not training for any kind of speed event, cadence is something I can easily live without.

So I’m pretty happy with my cheapo computer. It does what it’s supposed to do, and does it dependably, so far. We’ll see if I feel the same way in a year or so. But for now, what more do I need?


  1. says

    Agree on some of the cheap computers working great. I’ve got a specialized computer that I’ve had for at least 10 years. Just the basic functions (not even cadence) and it works like a champ. I’ve replaced the battery once and have only had a problem with it once when it rained during a group ride and water interfered with the connection.

    I’d love to get one with a heart rate function but getting a decent one is at least a $100. GPS enabled isn’t even an option due to cost.

  2. Jeff says

    I have an old Avocet 31 on my old bike, and thinking of moving it to my new bike. It’s simply, reliable, and foolproof. The battery lasts at least a year. And the display is big enough I can still read it without my glasses. Avocet still has a website, but I don’t know of anywhere one can buy them.

    Simple is better!

  3. says

    I had an old Avocet, and I replaced it with a… $15 Bell unit. One bike has a Bell F12 and another has an F20. They’re essentially the same as your Schwinn, from the small feature set to the tendency to reset the entire unit by accident. I set each one by measuring a wheel revolution in my garage, and for what I need, they are just fine.

    But I’m not worried about cadence, just the mileage, average speed and time. Yes, I have several apps for my Android phone that track it, but after a few hours, the battery gets pretty low. Maybe one day I can justify getting a sports-specific GPS unit, but I completely agree with what you did.

  4. says

    K.I.S.S. method does work in this case. Although I would love to be the owner of a Garmin 500, I cannot bring myself to order one yet. I am perfectly content with my Cateye Strada Dbl Wireless. I do use my cadence setting to help me identify when I am falling off in a certain gear.

    I intentionally leave the computer at home about once a month – when I am heading out on a known route – and just enjoy riding without data and statistical feedback. Those are some of my more enjoyable rides; riding by feel.

  5. Tom Williams says

    i-phone solves all of those issues, and its not a uni-tasker. GPS got sure and a multitude of biking apps. A blue tooth chest strap is about $30 dollars on Amazon and intergrates well. As for accuarcy, its seems to be better than the strada I have now.

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