- 3.5 / 5 Bee's Knees -
For as long as I can remember, Cateye has been the king of cyclometers. Compact, simple, reliable, everything a cyclist needed. Enter GPS…the market changed. We went from 11 functions to dozens upon dozens. Somewhat new to the game of cycling GPS computers, Cateye has taken a different approach to designing the GPS unit we know it. Although Cateye has made standalone GPS computers including the Stealth, their new approach appears to strive for their same original values. But what's so different?
Starting with the basics, the Smart series GPS units are not truly GPS units but rather mirroring devices, displays you might call them. Slaving hard earned data from your smart phone, these models sip power without doing any heavy lifting. That’s the concept of the Padrone Smart, Padrone Smart Plus (being reviewed) and the Strada Smart models. Two primary advantages to this design include reduced cost and a greatly extended battery life over typical GPS’s. An estimated battery life of 4 months is a huge improvement over the more common rechargeable models which seem to achieve closer to 10-15hrs of runtime depending on numerous factors. Disadvantages are mostly subjective but mainly include the necessity of carrying and running a smart phone, less direct control of the unit and less fidelity of special features.
Specifically speaking for the Padrone Smart Plus, out-of-the-box setup and use is not intuitive. Case and point, the PDF manual is 154 pages…it’s well laid out with clear illustrations but you get the point, it’s a couple pages short of enacting a new law. This isn’t to say that operating the device is difficult, but syncing and setup requires more than just a hasty Christmas unwrapping. More on the operation, things are simple, very simple. Two top mounted buttons function to trigger lap, start/stop, display pages (called layouts) and operating modes (sensor direct or mirror). Mirror mode exclusively collects data from your smartphone requiring you to sync any desired sensors to your phone. Sensor direct mode eliminates the need for a smartphone by connecting directly to available sensors. This limits the unit to display data produced by sensors, aka in this mode you will not record a GPS track. Because most riders will use this device to its fullest potential (mirror mode), we will focus on this mode.
While the head unit is deliberately simple, the app required to manage the Smart Plus is masterfully organized and generously basted with features. Not even the ultra-popular training app Strava matches the instinctual and user friendly layout of the Cateye Cycling App. Statistical data is laid out in a manor that resembles a GPS computer. A familiar swiping action scrolls through various pages of data or a live map. Subtle differences in color divide the key elements into a highly organized, immediately learnable format. A menu tab isolates the connection function to prevent accidental disconnect and the menu contents are logically organized by a hierarchy of use frequency. Sub menus are organized…it’s amazing how intuitive this app is compared to the head unit which seems like more of a necessary afterthought. Making setting changes to the head unit are almost entirely accomplished through the app. Adjusting your device within the app allows for the absolute easiest and fastest customization of layouts/pages as well as changes to settings like night-mode, GPS ping frequency and basic trip guidance. With confidence I’ll say this app, in terms of layout, organization and functions, is flawless. Honestly, if I were still running Strava without the use of a GPS head unit, I would prefer to record my rides with the Cateye app, it’s that good.
Down to use, my biggest complaint from the start…where’s the start? I had the utmost difficultly simply starting rides from the head unit. From your phone you can simply tap start, but on the device you must hold the SS/Lap button for about 2-3 seconds which never seemed to work until recently. Additionally, you may only pause a ride at the head unit, not “finish” or trigger an upload of your ride from the head unit. This is disappointment but not a deal-breaker. Once a ride is started, functionality expands. You can pause, lap and change data pages just like any ordinary GPS. In addition, the Smart Plus model adds SMS/SNS message, phone call and email notifications to the feature set. An audible tone and visual icons informs the rider of new messages. Some riders will scoff at the distraction of these aids but I’ve come to value them. Though I value my uninterrupted rides, I often find myself awaiting evening plans while enroute. The combination of audible and visual alerts has never failed to grab my attention and alert me to either details I’m expecting or links to cat videos which I can ignore. This feature is more basic than a full text readout like you’ll find on the Garmin 520 and others, but I still appreciate it regardless.
Other helpful features include a phone charge status readout, night time mode for backlighting, directional compass, sensor and GPS status indicators and my personal favorite, automatic social uploads. After completing a ride on the Cateye app, the user is given the option to upload their data to Strava, Training Peaks and Cateye’s Atlas. Each of these logins is saved within the app so a user can select which site to upload it to without logging into those sites after each and every ride. This uploading feature is a true high point for the Smart Plus. A final feature to mention is the basic navigation function. By programing in an address or dropping a pin (on the app), the directional compass becomes a destination arrow giving you “as the crow flies” guidance. This gives you the flexibility to find your own path while staying on course to your destination.
During use, few issues arose. The range of issues came down to the occasional loss of Bluetooth connection or fussy initial syncing/ride starts. If data was displaying, it was accurate and within very close tolerances to other GPS’s being tested simultaneously. Top button placement made for easy screen changes but was rarely used. As always, the Cateye flextight mount provided a secure fit to the stem (or bar) but oddly there was a slight amount of play between the computer and the mount which yielded a noticeable rattle. Somehow I didn’t notice this until testing well beyond 100 miles so it must not have bothered me too much. Display resolution is average and contrast is slightly above average making for an easy read. Overall the display is a little small for packing in the maximum 8 data fields but offers a pretty comfortable read at 5. Syncing sensors was limited for me because the majority of mine are ANT+ while this GPS and my phone is strictly Bluetooth.
After putting a couple hundred miles on this GPS alongside many others I came to a solid conclusion. Cateye’s Padrone Smart Plus computer is a different animal and as such needs to be treated differently. Again, out of the box this device was not intuitive like its common GPS counterparts and first impressions weren’t too pleasant as such. Once I spent some dedicated one-on-one time with the Padrone, I started to understand the product as something completely different. As soon as you abandon the idea of changing setting at the head unit, you’ll embrace how fantastically easy setting changes can be made through the phone app. While riding, the Padrone offers all the same basic data that any other GPS would offer only the Padrone isn’t gathering it itself. Therefore, I’ve deduced the following. Riders who are tethered to their phones may find no burden of connecting this device to their phone or may even prefer the device over others due to advantages like the fluid setup within the Cateye App. Other riders that like a straight forward start and go will likely find this system to be cumbersome or annoying. The greatest hurdle this computer has to overcome is impatient users who don't take the time to learn how to operate this device...and I'll fully admit, I'm describing myself to a point. For me, I still find myself gravitating more towards my Garmin and even my Bryton GPS because I feel more directly in control of the device without worrying about the complications of syncing, even though with limited use I find it rather simple after learning the process. For certain, any user would be crazy to think that the Cateye app is anything but superb (having tested on iOS), it absolutely amazes me to think of the diligence that went into designing this. If only the head unit looked as appealing as the app, a 5 bees knees rating might be in order.