Use your phone as bike computer – why your smartphone is the best e-bike display

With the right apps, your smartphone becomes the gateway to your e-bike. So why use a bike computer? In this article, we will take an in-depth look at the trend of using your smartphone as a bike computer. We look at the advantages and potential disadvantages of the smartphone compared to an e-bike display, how the connection between smartphone and e-bike is established and why bike computers for e-bikes are gradually phasing out.

Das Smartphone als Fahrradcomputer

Mobile phone apps can be used not only for navigation or for planning routes for conventional bikes and e-bikes. They can also be used to check the current speed thanks to speed sensor, adjust the motor assistance or control the lights. In this way, they turn your smart phone into an e-bike control centre.

In our previous article “How to find the best e-bike app for your needs”, we looked at the most important features of e-bike apps. In this article, we will look at the benefits of using your smartphone as a display or bike computer.

What are the advantages and disadvantages of using an app instead of a bike computer, what solutions are currently available and where will the trend go in the future? Answers to these and many other questions can be found below.

PowUnity App Routenaufzeichnung Routentagebuch

If you use one or more of the many useful cycling apps when you’re on the road with your e-bike, it makes sense to use your smartphone as a bike computer right away.

Why smartphones are ideal for use as e-bike displays

At first glance, a bike computer resembles a smartphone. Both devices have a screen and receive, process and display data. You can communicate with your bike via both devices.

The main difference is that the computing power and functionality of smartphones is much greater than that of bike computers.

To illustrate: The fastest supercomputer of 1985, a 2.5 tonne colossus, had roughly the computing power of the iPhone 4, which was released in 2010 and weighed 137 grams.

Therefore, it sounds like a good idea to use the “supercomputer”, which you have with you all the time anyway, for your bike as well and do without an additional device.

This is how the interaction between bike and smartphone works

For a mobile phone (e.g. android phone) to be useful as an e-bike display, it must communicate with your bike.

The communication is possible in two ways:

  • Bluetooth: Most modern e-bikes have a Bluetooth interface. A smart phone can be connected to the bike via this interface.
  • Data logger: A data logger is an extended GPS tracker. It sends gps data (i.e. gps signals) to the cloud. The gps data is then sent from the cloud to the smart phone.

Apart from the connection, you need one or more suitable apps. Then you can benefit from services such as:

  • displaying the current and average speed,
  • displaying the current battery charge level, i.e. battery life,
  • setting the motor assistance levels,
  • switching on/off the lights,
  • displaying the e-bike error codes and immediate solution suggestions as well as suggestions for remote maintenance by the e-bike manufacturer, motor manufacturer or specialist dealer.

Excursus: It all depends on the latency

Whether Bluetooth or a data logger is better suited for data exchange with the e-bike depends primarily on the latency (response time) – which is lower with Bluetooth.

Therefore, the following applies:

  • For applications where response time is crucial, Bluetooth is the best choice. This applies to the speedometer, for example.
  • Values such as kilometres driven do not have to be transmitted in real time. They can also be transmitted to the smart phone via data loggers and the cloud (where they can be processed even better).

Advantages and disadvantages of smartphones as bike computers

One thing is clear: with the right bike computer app, you can use your mobile phone as a display replacement for your e-bike.

But should you do that or stick with the display? To answer this question, we take a closer look at the advantages and disadvantages of smartphones as e-bike displays.

Advantages of smartphones as e-bike displays

  • Large, high-resolution display: “Small is beautiful” was yesterday. The display of a modern smartphone is significantly larger than the screen of a dedicated bike computer. It also has high-resolution and can display data in colour. In turn, this makes it easier to read ride data and allows displaying different cycling data side by side. If you want, you can keep an eye on the average speed, phone’s battery life and live tracking at the same time during your bike ride.
  • Individual settings: You can adjust the motor assistance both with a cycle computer and a suitable app. With a cycling computer, however, you are limited to predefined levels – such as Eco, Normal and Sport. Is that too little for you? Then an app is a good option, with which you can define the optimal support and adapt it to your needs.

You can see how this works on Specialized bikes and the corresponding Mission Control app in this video:

  • Cost saving: Of course, a high-end smart phone is more expensive than a high-quality bike computer. However, you probably already have the smart phone. If you buy an e-bike with a display, you can use the following rule of thumb:The retail price of each additional bike component is about four times higher than its individual price. Moreover, the different trade levels including margins have to be taken into account.. For you as a buyer this means: If a bike computer alone costs 25 Euros, the selling price of the bike increases by 100 Euros. And you can save these 100 euros if cycling computers are replaced by smartphones and cycling apps.
  • More options: After all, a smart phone is much more powerful and versatile than many bike computers.

To sum it up, if you use your smart phone as a bike display, you benefit from the following advantages:

  • larger display,
  • individual setting options,
  • lower costs,
  • and more functions.

Disadvantages of bike computer apps

Of course, there are also (potential) disadvantages of the smartphone plus app instead of display variant. On closer inspection, however, they are of little relevance.

  • Attachment and removal necessary: Get on the bike and off you go? Well, not if you use an app. Before you set off, you have to attach your smartphone to your bike. However, there are now a whole range of smartphone holders with a practical click system. Then attaching and detaching your phone is “a flick of the wrist”.You should also remove expensive e-bike displays such as the Intuvia display from Bosch as soon as you park your bike somewhere. Otherwise, you run the risk of it being stolen.
  • Risk of crashing: Smartphones are expensive. That’s why many e-bike owners are afraid to use their device as a display replacement.How great this danger really is depends again on the mobile phone holder. Systems such as those from SP Connect and Quadlock are extremely secure, even when you are “riding over hill and dale”. In the event of a fall or accident, it doesn’t make much difference whether you have your smartphone on the handlebars or in your pocket. In some cases, the damage might be even greater if the device falls out of your bag.
  • Rain hazard: Rain can actually cause water to get in and damage some mobile phone models. However, most high-quality modern devices are waterproof. Depending on the model, they can withstand even heavier downpours.You have an older mobile phone or want to be on the safe side? Then it’s best to opt for a mobile phone holder with a rain cover.

Mini display as a complement to the smartphone

You might be asking yourself: Do I always have to choose between a specific bike computer and a smart phone?

You don’t have to – but it depends on your e-bike.

Innovative e-bike manufacturers are now attaching a “mini-display” to the e-bike. However, the word “display” is misleading, because it usually only consists of the following components:

  • a switch for switching on,
  • a +/- switch for selecting between support levels, and
  • a small LED display that shows the support level and the battery life of the e-bike.

On a Specialized Turbo Levo bike, it looks like this:

Specialized Mini Display
Specialized Mini Display

Convenient: On the Specialized Turbo Levo bike, you can adjust the support levels on the handlebars and the battery charge level of your e-bike is displayed on the e-bike frame.

The advantage of this option is that you have a choice:

  • If you are going for a short bike riding or have forgotten your smart phone, you can use the mini display.
  • For longer tours and if you want to use all the advantages of good cycling apps, you can attach your smart phone to the appropriate holder.

Why most e-bikes still have their own display

Smart phone and app are much more than a “makeshift replacement” for a bike computer. Nevertheless, the most current e-bikes on the market are equipped with a display.

There are several reasons for this:

  • The bicycle industry is known for sticking to the “tried and tested”. Therefore, it often takes longer for innovations to take place in this industry.
  • Unfortunately, many smartphone apps are not fully developed. That means that they don’t deliver what they promise. That’s why some disappointed users turn away from them and switch back to an e-bike display.
  • There are still a few standard elements and interfaces for the combination of smart phone and e-bike. This complicates things for app development companies, which are manufacturer-independent.

Outlook into the future

We are certain:

In the near future, the smart phone will become the standard e-bike display. And the traditional e-bike display will gradually phase out.

However, there are still some fundamental developments to be made before that happens:

  • Bike computer apps must function reliably and connect easily as well as quickly with the respective e-bike.
  • Simple click devices for smartphone covers must become more widely known and accepted as a standard. Moreover, confidence in such mounts and in the robustness of smartphones must grow.
  • More e-bike manufacturers need to realise that the smartphone is the better e-bike display and replace expensive bike computers with mini-displays.
  • Manufacturers of e-bikes and motors must offer open interfaces so that external developers can offer e-bikers high-quality and innovative solutions.
  • Finally, the generational change will accelerate the trend towards the bike computer app. Because currently there are still many cyclists who are older and not very smartphone-savvy.
Real-time tracking and instant alarm on your smartphone in case of unauthorized movement: That's what makes a GPS tracker for e-bikes.

E-bike (motor) manufacturers lack the expertise to develop good e-bike apps. This is where independent developers like PowUnity are needed.

Excursus: The importance of open interfaces

Currently, most manufacturers of e-bikes and e-bike drives are pursuing a strategy familiar from Apple: they develop their own standards for their systems and block external services.

The idea behind this: Because e-bikers are offered their own components and services, they generate higher sales.

However, there is a significant difference between e-bike manufacturers or manufacturers of e-bike motors and Apple: Apple has a high level of expertise in the areas of software and hardware. Accordingly, the brand offers customers very high quality. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said of e-bike brands. Software development does not correspond to their DNA. In other words, anyone who develops a good bicycle or e-bike might be far from being familiar with smartphone apps.

If e-bike and e-bike motor manufacturers were to offer open interfaces to their systems, a competitive situation would arise.

The result would be a win-win situation:

  • Vast majority of e-bike riders would receive better apps and services than today.
  • Manufacturers would benefit from a higher demand because e-bikes would become even more attractive as a car substitute.
By using the BikeTrax GPS tracker for e-bikes and the corresponding PowUnity app, you perfectly secure your e-bike and even have a good chance of getting your e-bike back in case of theft.

PowUnity is a developer of smart theft protection for e-bikes. In combination with the GPS tracker BikeTrax, the PowUnity app gives you the possibility to track your e-bike in real time and to transmit its location directly to the police in the case of theft. In addition, it ensures that you are alerted via smartphone as soon as someone moves your e-bike without permission. And this is how you benefit from the most efficient e-bike theft protection, which is currently available on the market.

In the future, we would like to go one step further: you might be able use the PowUnity app as a display replacement and GPS bike computer – in addition to all other features, of course.

E-bike apps as cycling computer replacements – current examples

Bosch

Bosch offers two bike computer apps:

  • Cobi.Bike App: The COBI.Bike app is aimed specifically at users of Bosch e-bike systems who want to do without a classic display. You can use it to control the drive as well as call up fitness or navigation data and much more. However, all this only works in combination with a special smartphone holder- a smartphone hub, which is quite expensive.
  • eBike Flow app: The eBike Flow App can be linked to various control units of the latest Bosch drives, for example the LED remote display. In this way, you can adjust the predefined riding modes to your needs or update your bike. Overall, many users feel that the range of functions is still somewhat limited, as is the stability of the app.

Specialized Mission Control

The name says it all: The Specialized Mission Control app is primarily used to control and manage central e-bike settings. Tracking is also possible, but this app is primarily a bike computer app and not a navigation system. Unfortunately, the functionality suffers for many riders due to connection problems.

Specialized's Mission Control app is a solid e-bike app with lots of features, but it's not suitable for theft protection.

VanMoof

The user ratings for VanMoof’s own app are also mixed. However, this app offers an interesting feature: you can unlock your e-bike via the app and lend it to friends. But the supposed “theft protection” via Apple’s “Find My” network is not sufficient.

Cowboy, Giant or Haibike also have their own apps. While they differ in terms of functionality, they have one sad thing in common: in practice, they are repeatedly criticised for disconnections and functional errors. This means that they are only suitable to a limited extent as a replacement for a bike computer.

Conclusion – the smartphone is the future

Most of the current bike computer apps might disappoint you. But this is primarily due to the fact that manufacturers of good e-bikes or high-quality e-bike drives are not automatically great app developers. And on the other hand, external app developers are often denied access due to a lack of interfaces.

It may take some time before this changes. But we are convinced that afterwards, the trend of using the smartphone as a GPS bike computer will be unstoppable. After all, mobile phones and apps in combination are much more powerful than any e-bike display.

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