WHY I SWITCHED TO THE WAHOO ELEMNT BOLT
I bought the Wahoo ELEMNT BOLT to add to my collection of head units that help me compare power meters side by side. Little did I know then that the BOLT would become the one I keep on my bike when testing time is over. It has replaced the Garmin Edge 520 as my preferred bike computer.
True, the 520 is better than other Garmins in the Edge line and far better than the non-Garmins in my collection – a Joule GPS, Wahoo RFLKT+ and Suunto Movestick for my laptop. But there are things Garmin can do better with the 520. Plenty of them.
Wahoo may be better known for their trainers but the BOLT isn’t Wahoo’s first rodeo in head units. Their previous RFLKT, RFLK+ and ELEMNT head units were very innovative and well priced but couldn’t quite compete with Garmin in the end for a variety of reasons.
With the Wahoo ELEMNT BOLT, Wahoo has exploited the Edge 520’s shortcomings and matching many of the features where Garmin Edge units excel. For me, and I would expect most road cycling enthusiasts, the BOLT is a clear winner over the 520 in almost every way that matters.
[Note: Wahoo calls the BOLT by its full name, the Wahoo ELEMNT BOLT. The company also makes the Wahoo ELEMNT, an almost smartphone-sized predecessor to the Wahoo ELEMNT BOLT. The two units operate the same way and that is probably why Wahoo uses the ELEMNT in both names.
But, I find the two Wahoo model names confusing. Garmin is clearer. Their Edge units have different model numbers after each use of the Edge name (Edge 520, Edge 820, Edge 1000).
To avoid confusion among the Wahooligans, I’m calling the Wahoo ELEMNT BOLT just the BOLT going forward.]
Among the things I believe matter most in choosing a head unit, here are the ways the BOLT and 520 differ and where the BOLT almost always comes out on top.
While the two units have the same physical and screen size, the BOLT’s screen is sharper and brighter than the 520. For a middle-aged, far-sighted fart like me who needs 1.50+ magnification glasses for computer and reading distances, I find the BOLT’s screen far easier to read and a difference maker between the two units.
The BOLT’s sharper and brighter screen is notable when the font size of the numbers is the same. But, even better, you can change the font size on the BOLT merely by toggling the up/down buttons on the right to decrease or increase the number of fields you have on the screen.
Even better still, the top field number is always larger than the others as you go up and down from 3 to 7 fields on the screen. And as you go from more to few fields, all the numbers get larger. With the 520, it always seems like there is a lot of white space and wasted real-estate on the display.
If you like to focus on one number to guide you as you ride – perhaps your speed or cadence or, in my case, my average 3-second power – this larger top number stands out that much more while the other numbers that matter to you are clear and just below it.
You can change the font size and number of fields on the 520 but you have to set up a different page to do that. With the BOLT, you change the number and size of the fields within the page you already have set up. In both units, you have a limited number of pages. With the BOLT however, you don’t need to add pages or change between them nearly as often as you do in the 520 to get the same info.
Finally, I find the BOLT screen sharp and bright enough that I don’t need to use any backlight riding outside during the day and with the lights turned on while on a trainer. I usually have the 520 set to at least 80% brightness with a 15-second timeout and often find myself toggling between pages just to turn the backlight on. BOLT’s advantage here obviously saves battery when you do toggle within or between pages. It also saves you the need to toggle as often and keeps both hands on the bars when riding outside.
The buttons on the BOLT make a lot more sense and I find are far more intuitive than on the 520.
The on/off button on both head units is on the upper left. That makes sense as that location is the least natural spot to put a button for the right-hand dominated world on a ride (sorry lefties). You’ll use it once or twice before you set off on your ride (on, then off or only on if you leave it alone and let it turn off by itself) unless you want to change settings mid-ride which I don’t suggest you do while underway.
What makes less sense is that the 520 has the up/down buttons many will use frequently to switch pages during a ride on the lower left side of the unit as well.
Not only do you need to use your left hand to do this, you need to take that same hand away from the area of the left hand STI (aka shifter/brake levers, aka brifter). This is the side where you control the front brake on most bikes, the brake you should use first when slowing your bike.
Further, you are taking your hand off that lever AND probably looking at your head unit to see the results of the page changed you’ve made, truly a bad combination when you should be looking at the road and all that is going on around you. (Sorry Mr. Froome).
The BOLT has those up/down buttons on the right-hand side. That favors right handed riders and takes you away from your secondary, rear brake. The BOLT’s up/down buttons only change how many fields see on the screen when you are in a page. Theoretically, then, you would use those buttons less often.
The buttons that change the page you are on, start/pause/resume a ride, start a new lap and confirm certain actions (yes or no) are on the top of the BOLT just below the screen. They also have labels just above them on the screen though are in a font size a bit too small for somewhat visually challenged, middle aged riders like me to see.
The placement of these BOLT buttons is a superior design to the 520 where the start/pause/resume and lap buttons are on the lower edge of the unit, 90 degrees to the bottom the screen. With some out-front mounts including a couple I’ve used, there’s not a lot of room for your thumb between the buttons and the handle bar.
I do find the 520s physical buttons to be an improvement over the touch screen ones on other Edge units but they still aren’t ergonomically well positioned for me. The BOLT buttons, however, are more natural and more logically placed.
BOLT takes advantage of the touchscreen on your smartphone to make finding your sensors and customizing pages easy peasy. You can drag-and-drop the fields you want to the pages you want. You can reorganize the order of the fields within a page, in the same way, dragging and dropping them on your phone. You can find, save or delete sensors in the same drag-and-drop way. The changes show up almost immediately on your BOLT screen.
You can also add and save sensors on the BOLT itself but doing it on the phone is that much easier.
The first time I did hill repeats with the BOLT, I stopped at the top of the first repeat, pulled out my phone and added and reordered the fields on my lap page. Took me about a minute. (I wish it had taken longer. I needed an excuse to catch my breath.)
Setting up the 520 isn’t hard (setting up a Joule GPS is way harder), but it’s a series of button pushes back and forth. One could get some serious callouses doing that.
In the touch screen phone world we live in, BOLT is hip and the 520 is old school or the BOLT is dope and the 520 is whack or whatever words hipper enthusiasts than me actually use.
All of this assumes you are an iPhone or Android smartphone user. You need to use the Wahoo ELEMNT app to set up your phone even though you don’t need to ride with it to make it work.
I haven’t done a side by side comparison but both the BOLT and 520 have tons of fields to choose from. There weren’t any fields I wanted that I couldn’t find on either
In Garmin’s favor, the 520 triggers a reminder on your screen you zero-offset your power meter when you wake it up. With the BOLT, you don’t get a reminder. You have to open the menu (push on-off button once), highlight the power meter in your sensor list (scroll to it with the down button) and push the calibrate button (left button on the front of your screen.) You should zero-offset once your bike is at outside temperature at the beginning of each ride. That was your reminder.
The 520 also tells you what power zone you are in to 1 decimal place while the BOLT only gives you the integer number. Being in Zone 3.2 is a whole lot different than being in 3.8. Being in Zone 3 doesn’t tell me enough. I hope BOLT improves on this.
BOLT does have a set of colored LEDs across the top that can give you a quick glimpse of your instantaneous power zone. I find this complements the smoothed average power and zone info I use. Those same LEDs can be set to show you what heart rate zone you are in and whether you are going faster, slower or near your average speed. These are helpful if not revolutionary innovations.
You can also connect the BOLT with sensors using ANT+ and Bluetooth while Garmin only connects with ANT+. That’s a partial advantage for the BOLT; I find ANT+ is a more robust protocol and I connect power meters and other sensors using ANT+ when I can.
While I’m not a smart trainer user, I’m also told the BOLT does a superior job of communicating with and controlling your trainer. (Makes sense. Wahoo also makes trainers.) It avoids the need to use 3rd party software to run between the head unit and trainer to control the resistance. If that is important to you, there’s another check for the BOLT.
While not the case when the BOLT first came out, structured workouts you have created on Training Peaks and Today’s Plan can be loaded into both the BOLT and the 520.
There are all sorts of other features, bells and whistles, boops and bops that the BOLT and 520 have, some of which may appeal to you or not. None are game changers or decision makers for me or do I think they would be for most road cycling enthusiasts.
Quite simply, the BOLT battery lasts much longer than the 520. Using them side by side on a recent century ride with the GPS maps on in both units, the BOLT had about 1/3rd of its battery left while the 520 was nearly tapped out. Other reviewers have noted as much as a 2X to 3X longer battery life for the BOLT over the 520.
In most of my riding, battery life isn’t an issue. I make a habit of plugging in my lights and any head units I’ve been using during the week every Sunday. They usually have enough charge to last through a regular week of 6-8 hours of riding.
If I’m going on a 100 mile or longer ride with the 520 where I want to use the GPS to help me navigate the course, I’ve learned to turn the display brightness down. I’ll also shut off the navigation when I don’t need it to conserve battery. One of my friends brings one of the lipstick sized batteries along, plugs it into the 520 and tapes it to his bars.
With the BOLT, I no longer need to worry about any of that.
I ride a lot of regular routes I know where I don’t need or use the GPS navigation feature. When I head out on a group ride or do a smaller event ride though, I do use navigation because it’s often a route I haven’t ridden. I like the confidence of knowing where I need to make the next turn especially if (when?) I fall off the back.
The Garmin Edge 520 comes only with maps of major roads that give you a trail of breadcrumbs to follow and without turn by turn notification. It’s useless. That said, you can easily download 3rd party maps from Openstreet to cover a good swath of the region you ride in more detail and enable turn notification.
The BOLT comes with detailed maps through the ELEMNT smartphone app and enables turn notification out of the box. After you download Openstreet maps to the 520, the BOLT and 520’s navigation ability essentially start at the same place.
From there, there is a bit of divergence in their navigation approach.
To start a route on the 520, you need to push buttons on either edge of the unit through four menus (Menu>Training>Courses>Course Option) including some up-down scrolling to get to your course. Try remembering that sequence when you are hustling to get to the start of a ride.
With the BOLT, you hit the page button at the bottom of the screen until the map page comes up (usually one push the workout page the BOLT initially powers to). Then you push the route button also at the bottom of the screen on that page and scroll down and enter your route. Intuitive. Done. Worry about other things.
BOLT also puts the most recently entered route at the top of your list. The 520 puts them in alpha numeric and alphabetical order. If you are doing Wicked Right for the first time (shame) and just loaded it, the route will be at the top of your BOLT list. On the 520, you might need to scroll through 15 other rides to get to it. (Pro Tip: Scroll up to get to the bottom of your list on the 520).
The 520 has a color screen, uses a distinct color to show what road you should ride on and a distinct arrow to show where you should make the upcoming turns. The BOLT’s screen is black and white and an arrow to show you the route and turns. PotAto – PotAHto.
When underway, the BOLT also creates a cascade of arrows I find is superior to the colored line on the 520. I wasn’t able to take a picture while underway (no Go Pro) so here’s a screen grab from the Wahoo site of what you’ll see while riding.
Using the up/down button on the BOLT, you can zoom in and zoom out the map to get a higher level or more granular view of where you are in relationship to the roads around you and your upcoming turn. I find this feature in combination with the cascading arrows especially helpful when trying to decide which turn to take at more complicated intersections where you might have two or three roads leading in and out of it.
Another plus for the BOLT is how its turn navigation interacts with the ride data. If you have a page up on the 520 with your regular array of performance fields and come to a turn, the turn notification street name and arrow will overlay the data fields on the bottom third or so of the screen. So, for example, if you have heart rate and speed as the bottom two fields of the six on your screen, you won’t be able to see that for the quarter mile or so period from when the notification turns on until it goes off after exiting the turn.
The BOLT merely adds the turn notification to the bottom as if it was two additional fields while shifting the other performance fields up the screen and keeping them fully visible. This is like going from 5 to 7 fields. The 5 fields you were looking at before shift up and get a bit smaller and the turn information shows up at the bottom. Once you exit the turn, the performance fields shift down again.
When you get a phone or text notification, the field shifting versus field covering works the same way on the BOLT versus the 520.
Seems like a small thing but I always hated the way the 520 covered up a couple of my fields and immediately noticed and smiled with satisfaction when I realized they were still there on the BOLT.
Anecdotally, the BOLT does somehow seem to notify you of turns earlier than the 520. I’ve done a fair amount of comparison riding with the BOLT and 520 and alongside others in my club who have a Garmin and noticed this to be the case fairly consistently. We wondered how this could be since we figured there are likely only one or two navigation chipsets out there and expect they would act the same way when responding to the same GPS satellite. Software differences? Black box stuff?
The BOLT does lack the ability to route you back on course the way the 520 does. You get all sorts of beeps when you go off course with the BOLT so you have little excuse to turn things around and get going in the right direction. I expect a software upgrade at some point would also bring BOLT on par with the 520 for this capability. Certainly hope so.
To end this section at the start, there is one huge difference between the two head units when it comes to loading a route. It’s called wireless.
With the 520, you need to download the route file to your computer, plug the 520 into your computer, and then upload the route file to a right folder in the Garmin folder list. God forbid you can’t find or lose the Garmin USB to micro USB cord (many generic ones will charge but not communicate with your 520) or upload the route file to the wrong folder. (Choose the folder called New Files rather than any of more than 20 others including those called Courses, Custom Maps, Locations, and Workouts, all of which sound like reasonable places to put your route file).
My riding buddy Davo Mac, a guy with one of the sunniest dispositions I know recently entertained a group of us with a 5-minute rant about the many of these Garmin ways of doing things from the breadcrumb map starting point down through the route file uploading. He topped it off with an expression of his dissatisfaction (I’ll leave it at that) that Garmin, the giant leader in bike, auto, marine and other navigation segments could have so many shortcomings in their system. (Clearly, this was his first Garmin).
An industry giant’s weaknesses often provide opportunities for a newcomer’s innovation.
With this one route file uploading example (let alone the others I’ve gone through above it), BOLT has demonstrated how they innovate to make a better product. Once your route file is up on your RideWithGPS or Strava Routes, you merely turn on your BOLT, push the Route button on your maps page and hit Sync. WiFi moves the file onto your BOLT from there. Magic.
Note that if you load up from Strava routes you don’t get turn notification. But RideWithGPS is so much better in so many ways I wouldn’t use Strava for uploading routes. The BOLT does play very nice with Strava in some of their signature features like Live Segments.
Speaking of which, you may recall Garmin tried to blunt the breakaway popularity of Strava segments and didn’t integrate with their Edge units for some time. Worse, they embarrassed themselves with their own segments offering which has never caught on. Needless to say, Garmin’s Edge units and Strava segments don’t work anywhere near “seamlessly”.
If you are out riding with your phone (and who doesn’t these days), you can also plug an address into the ELEMNT app and have a route automatically created and synced to your BOLT. Nice
Both the BOLT and 520 will upload your results to Strava, TrainingPeaks, Today’s Plan and other apps that capture and analyze your results.
I don’t know about you, but I want to know my results well before I get to those apps. Like, right away.
Here, the BOLT really excels. The completeness, organization, and presentation of the data is so much better on the BOLT than the 520. It’s also better than the results displays you can get on your Strava and TrainingPeaks phone apps. I hardly feel the need to dig into my TrainingPeaks computer program more than once a week.
Here are a couple comparisons of the presentation of results (from different rides) including a couple to the far right with Zone details that are only available with the BOLT
About six months after the BOLT was introduced, Garmin lowered the price on the 520 to meet the BOLT price.
They both sell at about USD$250, £190, €220 retail price depending on the store.
As of November 16, 2017, you can get the best prices on the Wahoo ELEMNT BOLT at stores I’ve found have among the best customer satisfaction ratings by clicking here on Competitive Cyclist and in the UK/EU countries at Chain Reaction Cycles, Wiggle.
If you favor the Garmin Edge 520, you can get the best prices at stores I’ve found have among the best customer satisfaction ratings by clicking here on Competitive Cyclist, Power Meter City, Chain Reaction Cycles, Wiggle, Tredz, ProBikeKit UK.
* * * * *
Thank you for reading. Please let me know what you think of anything I’ve written or ask any questions you might have in the comment section below.
If you’ve gotten some benefit from reading this post or any of the reviews on the site, feel free to support In The Know Cycling and save yourself some money at the same time by buying your gear through the store links in red you see in the reviews and right-hand column. I’ve found those stores offer the best prices and customer satisfaction ratings from the nearly 100 online stores I track around the world. Some also send a small portion of your purchase back that support the creation of new reviews and the gear I buy to do them. You can also support the site by buying anything at eBay Cycling or Amazon or by making a contribution here. Thank you.
And please, let’s stay connected! With the follow buttons in the right-hand column on this page, you can sign up to get an email when new posts come out, get posts sent to your RSS reader or follow In The Know Cycling updates on Twitter and Facebook.
Thanks and enjoy the ride!