Saturday, April 9, 2016

Wahoo RFLKT+: Great concept, poor execution

For the past two years or so I've ridden without a bike computer. This was very much not out of some sense that have a real time display of how fast and far you go somehow ruins the cycling experience. Rather, the bike computer ran out of battery, and I somehow never got around to replacing it. In addition, I had finally replaced my smartphone to one that was able to run Strava, and I've been logging pretty much every ride with that. Strava is great for logging miles and analyzing rides after the fact. But unless you mount your phone on the handlebars—something increasingly difficult given the size of current smartphones—you don't have access to real-time data. And real-time data can be nice, for instance, for following a cue sheet or to avoid speed creep when riding in a group.

So when I read about the Wahoo RFLKT series, the basic concept seemed great. It is basically an external screen for your smartphone fitness tracker, similar to a smartwatch. It also has a few additional sensors embedded (see below), and the buttons on the unit allow you control certain functions of your phone. This makes a lot of sense: Many of us already own smartphones, and those are incredibly powerful computers and have good-quality GPS receivers. What they lack is robustness and a display that can easily be read outdoors without quickly draining the battery. Fancy bike computers with integrated GPS, such as the Garmin Edge series or the Sigma Rox 10, address those downsides, but a) they lack some of the functionality that a smartphone-based app offers (e.g., automatic upload after a ride) and b) have to duplicate a lot of what your smartphone already can do and therefore end up as expensive or even more expensive than a smartphone. The RFLKT concept is a middle way that in theory nicely fills a gap.

So with my birthday near and REI having their annual 20%-off member sale, I decided to give this middle way a try. In my usual modus operandi, I spent a lot of time reading reviews and figuring out what exactly I wanted. First, RFLKT or RFLKT+? The RFLKT is the original version and about 20 dollars cheaper than the Plus-version. Other than that, the two main differences are: 1) In addition to Bluetooth, the Plus also supports the ANT+ protocol (meaning that it can interface with a wide range of other sensors such as heart rate monitors). 2) The Plus also comes with a barometric altimeter and a temperature sensor. I didn't care much about the temperature sensor, but the altimeter is useful because elevation data based solely on GPS is notoriously inaccurate. In addition to choosing between models, there are a number of additional accessories one can buy, most importantly a crank-mounted wireless speed and cadence sensor. The speed sensor is important primarily for logging workouts when your bike is on the trainer—GPS obviously doesn't work in that case. The cadence sensor did appeal to me, but between me never riding indoors and the additional cost, I opted for the RLFKT+ but against the sensor.

With that decision made, I read specs and reviews to ensure that everything would work with my setup: LG G3 Android phone, interface with Strava (even though some limitations were mentioned), no other devices to connect to. Pretty standard. Reviews on Amazon and were middling, with the major complaint being connection problems between RFLKT and smartphone. Pretty much all of those seemed to stem from the distance between the two devices: Bluetooth LE signals aren't particularly strong, and the human body absorbs them well. So when you have the phone in your rear jersey pocket and the device on the handlebars, connection problems aren't that surprising. In my particular case I figured this wouldn't be an issue: My phone lives in the handlebar bag, less than 20 centimeters from where I planned mounting the RFLKT. So I went ahead and ordered.

Regret came quickly once the device arrived. Yes, it looks slick, and it's actually smaller than I had expected: Much smaller than my old Garmin Etrex Vista (but with the same screen size) and not that much bigger than my even older Sigma BC1606.

From left to right: LG G3, Garmin Etrex Vista HCx, Wahoo RFLKT+, Sigma BC1606L
But from here on it was all downhill. Because it was late and my phone low on battery, I first read up on how to connect the RFLKT+ to Strava. Well, you don't. Unless you use an iPhone. The Android version of the Strava app does not support the RFLKT+, and from the support forums it looks like Strava has no intention of changing that anytime soon. Given the ubiquitous advertising/cross-marketing for Wahoo on the Strava website, this came as quite a surprise. Well, I figured this wouldn't be a dealbreaker, as apparently using the native Wahoo app has some advantages anyway and allows to sync your rides with Strava after the fact.

The serious problems began when I tried connecting the RFLKT to my phone. For initial setup, you download the Wahoo Fitness app to your smartphone, go to the devices page and then hit a button on the RFLKT+ to start the pairing process. For a few seconds everything looked fine: The device indeed showed up on the smartphone. But after a few seconds, the RFLKT turned itself off and the pairing process stalled. I tried it a couple of times, but the problem persisted. Reading the Wahoo documentation and support forums, I now learned of more limitations: Yes, the there are some Android smartphones that work with the RFLKT, but the list of explicitly supported models is pretty short. My LG G3 was not on the list; it's predecessor, the G2, however, was. Alas, pairing also didn't work on my SO's G2.

So what's going on? Explanation 1 is that the device is simply defective. The packaging that the RFLKT came in looked like it may have been opened before, and so maybe I got a returned item that didn't work for the previous owner either. Explanation 2 is that the Android versions on my and the SO's phones are incompatible with the RFLKT. We both run custom ROMs, and looking at the short list of compatible phones, I can well imagine that the RFLKT has very specific requirements as to what operating system is running on the paired smartphone. At any rate, at this point I've already had enough. Given all the limitations, I wasn't interested in doing an exchange for another device. Back to the store it goes.

In summary, while the concept of the RFLKT is a great idea, the execution is very much lacking. The dependency on very specific hard- and software makes this a solution way more finicky than it should be. In my mind, the use of standard protocols such as Bluetooth or ANT+ would make seamless integration easy, but apparently that assumption was naive. I can imagine that for iPhone users the situation is better as it takes some of the variables out of the equation. But Wahoo explicitly advertises the RFLKT as an “iPhone and Android bike computer,” and I think they should be a bit more straightforward about the limitations of the Android part of that.

Personally, for now I will probably just got back to my jumble of old devices: LG G3 smartphone with Strava in my bag, the old Sigma for real-time speed and distance; and the Garmin for when I need a map display or more accurate recording. To be revisited later.


  1. Have you found using Strava on a phone reliable? I use the app for runs/walks, but that's <1hr so I'm not worried about battery life for that. I'm still using my good old Garmin eTrex (had a Legend C, now using a 20) for rides of any length. It would be nice to have a smaller unit, but I love having the maps and data in front of me, which is something my phone wouldn't work well for unless I brought a huge battery pack.

    1. Strava on the phone is reliable enough for me, i.e. it records distance and speed with acceptable accuracy. The elevation data is basically worthless, but I don't care too much about that. Battery life is also surprisingly good when you don't turn on the screen. These days I usually ride by cue sheet, but if I do want maps, I bring the old Garmin (and also carry a paper map in my handlebar bag).