WHY I SWITCHED TO THE WAHOO ELEMNT BOLT
The Wahoo ELEMNT BOLT outperforms the Garmin Edge 530 from my comparative review in most of the important ways I evaluate and use a road cycling GPS computer. It’s also 20% to 30% less expensive at US$230/£184/€214 (available from stores I recommend for their pricing and customer satisfaction ratings here for US and Canadian residents and here and here for those living in the UK or EU countries).
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 was over. It replaced the Garmin Edge 520 as my preferred bike computer and I’d buy it again over the new Garmin Edge 530 which I’ve compared it to in this latest update.
True, the Edge 530 is the best yet of the 500 series and far better than other non-Garmins I’ve used in the past. But there are things Garmin can do better with the Edge 530 to compare favorably with the Wahoo ELEMNT BOLT. Plenty of them.
Wahoo may be better known for its trainers but the BOLT isn’t Wahoo’s first rodeo in head units. Their previous RFLKT, RFLK+, and full-size 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 exploited the Edge 520’s shortcomings and matched many of the features where Garmin Edge units excel. For me, and I would expect most road cycling enthusiasts, the BOLT was a clear winner over the 520 and remains so over 530 in almost every way that matters. The Edge units offer some navigational and other features the BOLT doesn’t but I don’t feel those are significant enough for the ways most enthusiasts use their head units to overcome their comparative disadvantages in most of the other areas that do matter.
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 and the Wahoo ELEMNT ROAM a newer unit that’s almost as large as the ELEMNT. All three units operate the same way and that is probably why Wahoo uses the ELEMNT name in all of them.
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 530, Edge 830, Edge 1030, etc.).
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 Edge 530 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 530. 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 fewer fields, all the numbers get larger. With the 530, 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 530 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 530 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 room lights turned on while on a trainer. I used to run my 520 at 80% brightness with a 15-second timeout and often found 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.
Yes, the BOLT’s screen is black and white while the 530 is color. While it may be more appealing, Garmin doesn’t use color to provide any functional gains whereas the sharper, brighter, font and map zoom screen capabilities the BOLT brings provide many.
The BOLT’s advantage here is clear (pun intended)!
The buttons on the BOLT make a lot more sense and I find are far more intuitive than on the 530.
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 530 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 530 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 handlebar which makes it hard to get to them.
I do find the 530’s physical buttons to be better than the touchscreen ones on $100 more expense Edge 830 but they still aren’t ergonomically well positioned for me. The BOLT buttons, however, are more natural and more logically placed.
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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 530 isn’t hard, 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 530 is old school or the BOLT is dope and the 530 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 530 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 530 triggers a reminder on your screen to 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 the 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 the outside temperature at the beginning of each ride. That was your reminder.
The 530 also tells you what power zone you are in with 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.
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, the structured workouts you have created or scheduled on Training Peaks, Trainer Road, and Today’s Plan can be loaded into both the BOLT and the 530.
There are all sorts of other features, bells and whistles, boops, and bops that the BOLT and 530 have, some of which may appeal to you or not. The 530 and the Garmin ecosystem have many more of these than the BOLT. Live Segments, Climb Pro metrics, nutrition and hydration alerts, and mountain bike metrics are just some that come on the 530 that the BOLT lack.
Many of these are features or metrics you use during a ride. Personally, I prefer to enjoy my ride and focus on the key metric (e.g. power, cadence, speed, gradient) that guides my performance. I’m not the kind of rider that chases Strava segment PRs or KOMs. If you are, you may find some of the features on the 530 attractive nice-to-haves. I don’t think any are need-to-haves, game-changers or decision-makers nor do I think they would be for most road cycling enthusiasts.
In a long ride, navigation required use mode, the BOLT battery lasts longer than the Edge 530’s. What’s “long ride, navigation required” use? For me, it’s GPS navigation on and three ANT+ sensors or devices connected (power meter, heart rate monitor, iPhone). With the 530, I also have the screen backlit at 80% to give me as close to the same screen visibility as the BOLT provides with no backlight. I also set the 530 display to a 15-second timeout and to avoid draining its battery prematurely.
If you want to get text or phone notifications or some of the other features like Live Strava Segments on your 530, you also need to have Garmin Connect turned on which further drains the battery of the Edge (and your phone). The notification is merely a setting in your BOLT that connects to your phone so you don’t need an extra app open on your phone and communicating to your Wahoo.
Garmin claims 20 hours for the 530, 5 hours longer than for the 520, but that’s not with the GPS navigation or Garmin Connect on. The BOLT also claims 15 hours. Using them side by side in the use case I’ve described above, the BOLT lasts about 10 hours and the 530 about 6.5 hours. Other reviewers have noted as much as a 2X to 3X longer battery life for the BOLT over the 530. Still others report more or less the same life.
I’ve not seen anyone report the 530 lasts longer than the BOLT. Depending on how you use it, for example, with some combination of the GPS or Garmin Connect turned off and backlight set to a lower level, I could envision them lasting about the same.
Garmin touts the 530’s “battery saver mode” which they claim doubles the battery life but turns off the screen. Seems like having the display turned off is a rather extreme mode. They also sell an auxiliary battery that snaps into the bottom of a Garmin out-front mount if you really want to extend the 530’s life. It sells for another $130. Uh, no thank you.
In most of my riding, battery life isn’t an issue. Half of my rides are on routes I know so I don’t need to turn the navigation. I also have developed a habit of plugging in my lights and head unit every Sunday. They usually have enough charge to last through a regular week of 6-10 hours of riding with the limited amount of navigation I use.
I do a half-dozen 100 mile, 6-hour or longer rides each year where I use the GPS to help me navigate the course as it is usually one I don’t know. When I used to run the Edge 520, I learned to turn the display brightness down. To conserve battery, I’ll also shut off the navigation when I didn’t need it or traded turns with other Garmin users so we all weren’t navigating and draining our batteries at the same time.
On those “long ride, navigation required” use situations, the 530 battery starts running low in the last third of the ride and gets me wondering whether it’s going to die before my legs and lungs do as we ride together toward the finish.
I don’t need that added mental stress. With the BOLT, I can focus on the ride.
Comparing the navigation abilities of the BOLT and 530, I considered several key performance categories which I’ll discuss separately below.
Maps and Uploading
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 new group ride or do an event, however, I do use navigation because it’s often a route I haven’t ridden before or for a while. I like the confidence of knowing where I need to make the next turn especially if (when?) I fall off the back or it’s time to take my turn pulling. My sense of direction has also atrophied since I began using a car GPS years ago and was never very good in the first place.
The Garmin Edge 530 has a robust set of road maps that the 520 didn’t. The 520 Plus did have a much better map set but used the same processor as the 520 and worked through the added maps and current one you were using too slowly. The 530 has the maps and a faster processor which allows you to get all the benefits from them.
Further, the 530 also has added trail and mountain bike maps to support your diversions from road cycling. This is a welcome addition for those of us roadies venturing into gravel riding.
The BOLT comes with detailed maps from around the world that load through the ELEMNT smartphone app when you first set up the BOLT. To save memory for your saved rides or pre-mapped routes, you can also remove the maps and later add them back for world regions and nearby countries or states where you don’t normally ride.
With the 530, Garmin caught up with some of the innovative, important and truly differentiating functionality of the BOLT.
Most notably, with the 530 you can now upload routes from Ride with GPS, Strava and other route mapping apps over WiFi. With the 520, you had to plug it into your computer with a Garmin specific USB to micro-USB cord and upload the route file to the right folders.
Because of the range of on and off-road maps it offers, I give advantage in this part of the navigation comparison to the 530.
Finding and Starting a Route
To find and then start a route on the 530, 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 from 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.
The 530 puts your routes in alphanumeric and alphabetical order. BOLT gives you the option to sort your routes the same way as the 530 but also by length, proximity to your current location, and date that you added it.
I find the date listing really handy. If, for example, you are doing Wicked Right for the first time (shame) and just loaded it from Ride with GPS, the route will be at the top of your BOLT list. On the 530, if you’ve got 50 or more routes saved to your device as I do, you might need to scroll through a long list of routes to get to the one you want to ride.
The 530 has a color screen, uses a distinct color to show what road you are on and a distinct arrow to show where you should make the upcoming turns. The BOLT’s screen is black and white and uses an arrow with a tail to show you from and to where to make your next turn. PotAto – PotAHto.
When underway, the BOLT also creates a cascade of arrows I find is superior to the colored line on the 530. 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 530 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 gradient 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 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 530.
Seems like a small thing but I always hated the way the 520 (and now the 530) covered up a couple of my fields and immediately noticed and smiled with satisfaction when I realized they were still there on the BOLT.
While I favor the way BOLT displays and allows you to zoom the route in and out, I get that some people prefer a color screen. I’m going to call this one a push.
Both the 530 and BOLT provide turn by turn notification which performs equivalently. Some will say one is quicker than the other in notifying, etc. Riding with the two of them, I’ve found occasionally one will notify sooner than another but it’s never consistently one versus the other. The difference in time between notifications is a few seconds at most and usually always with enough time to execute the turn in an unhurried way.
The BOLT cannot route you back on course the way the 530 does. This is a real disadvantage of the BOLT especially if you get lost easily, are navigating in a congested area or if you are just riding along a nice stretch enjoying yourself and oblivious to your head unit.
While this is a real plus for the 530, it isn’t fool-proof. I’ve been on a few group rides where the rerouting took those who got lost back to us in quite an inefficient way. If they had merely turned around and backtracked once they realized their mistake, they would have gotten back to us more quickly. It’s much like the WTF discussion I have with my car’s GPS when I make a wrong turn and it tells me to go a way I know is more round-about than just doing a U-turn.
Depending on how you have it set up, you can get audio beeps or red flashing LEDs to alert you when you go off course with the BOLT. You can also have the row of LEDs on the top of the BOLT signal you right or left as you close in on your turn. Note that the LEDs are less effective on a sunny day.
Both units can re-route you back to the start. 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.
The rerouting feature is a plus for the 530 and gives it the advantage in this navigation category. Along with the wider range of maps provided by the 530, it wins the overall navigation comparison by a nose over the BOLT
Both the BOLT and 530 will upload your results to Strava, TrainingPeaks, Today’s Plan and your other apps that capture and analyze your results. While the 520 required that you plug in the device to your computer using a Garmin-specific micro USB to USB cord, the 530 will now do this over WIFI. The BOLT has always had this capability.
I don’t know about you, but I want to know my results as soon as I push the ride-over button and before I pull out my phone in a WiFi zone and get to those apps.
Here, the BOLT excels. The completeness, organization, and presentation of the data are so much better on the BOLT than the 530. It’s also better than the results displays you can get on your Strava and TrainingPeaks phone apps.
Here are a couple of 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
In the US, the Wahoo ELEMNT BOLT sells for $230 and the 530 for $70 more at $300. In the UK and EU, the Edge 530 sells for £260/€270 and the BOLT is also considerably less at £184/€214.
Both of these devices are “geo-restricted” meaning you can only buy them from stores in the country or region where you live or have it shipped to.
You can find and order the BOLT using these links to my top-ranked store for US/CA residents Competitive Cyclist and to recommended stores Chain Reaction Cycles and Wiggle for UK and European residents.
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First published on July 10, 2017. Date of the most recent major update shown at the top of the post.