Comparing the Garmin ForeRunner 310XT and Edge 500

In July, 2009 I started using a Garmin Forerunner 310XT
T to keep track of my workouts. At first I just used the running features of the device, but shortly after I started using it for my cycling workouts as well. Previously I had been using a Polar system for cycling data capture, and soon I found the ForeRunner 310XT to be a better solution by far than the Polar one (see my previous review of the ForeRunner 310XT for more details).

Garmin Edge 500, Garmin ForeRunner 310XT and CycleOps PowerTap CPU
Garmin Edge 500, Garmin ForeRunner 310XT and CycleOps PowerTap CPU

Starting in February, 2010, I added a power meter to my cycling gadget list, and the ForeRunner proved a great partner to cycling with power, especially when compared to the PowerTap CPU unit that came with the power meter. I found the ForeRunner easy to use, accurate, and the integration with both Garmin Connect and the software solutions from TrainingPeaks more useful and easier to use than the other options.

In June, 2010, I rode the wonderful Ride the Rockies event in Colorado and used the ForeRunner 310XT to track the entire week of riding. One problem I discovered in an event like this is that the ForeRunner did not have enough onboard memory to store the entire week’s worth of riding. I discovered this before the trip and so I lugged a small netbook around with my camping gear just so I could download data after the rides. Not quite the best way to unplug on a holiday.

When Garmin announced the Garmin Edge 500 Cycling GPS
it looked like a great solution for use on my bike. Since it was cycling specific, it had a few more features designed for cycling, whereas the ForeRunner 310XT was definitely intended to be used for multi-sport activities. Since I’m always in need of a new gadget to play with, I went ahead and bought one and started using it for cycling in August, 2010.

I’ve found it to be as good as promised, but there still are times when the ForeRunner 310XT is a better choice. In the rest of this post, I’ll show you the various differences between the two devices and how one might be better than the other depending upon your circumstances.


Memory Capacity

As the memory limitation of the ForeRunner 310XT was the first thing that made me interested in the Edge 500, it’s good to start here. In my use, I’ve found the ForeRunner only has enough onboard memory to store between 24 and 36 hours of workouts – certainly not enough for a week long cycling tour. Garmin doesn’t provide specifications on how much actually memory is installed on this device, so it is a bit of a mystery to the actual capacity.

Meanwhile, the Edge 500 has 56.4 MB of flash based storage, at least according to my Mac’s view of it. I’ve got every cycling workout since I started using the Edge still stored on it – about 50 hours worth so far – and the device still has 48.7 MB of storage free! This is an amazing amount of usable storage and means even the most active cyclists will find they have room for months of data without issue. No need to take a laptop with you on holiday!

Advantage: Edge 500, handily.


Data Transfer

The data transfer mechanism is very different in the two devices. The ForeRunner 310XT uses a wireless ANT+ based data transfer mechanism, while the Edge 500 appears as a simple USB flash drive to your computer.

To exchange data between your computer and your ForeRunner 310XT you have to use a ANT+ dongle provided by Garmin that connects to your computer’s USB port along with a software application that provides drivers for the dongle. It works, and depending upon your computer configuration it is easily a setup-once-and-forget operation. You don’t need to plug in any more wires, and you just bring your ForeRunner 310XT within a few feet of the dongle and you are good to go.

In practice, though, this approach was not perfect. I found during my cycling holiday that a cheap netbook did not have enough CPU performance to reliably handle the data transfer job if it was not plugged into A/C power. That was a surprise and made downloading data from the ForeRunner a hassle during my trip, since I did not frequently have access to A/C power while camping out.

By comparison, the Edge 500 requires you to use a USB cable to physically plug the Edge 500 unit directly to a USB port on your computer. The Edge then shows up as USB flash disk, so once you are done you have to eject the device to prevent your computer from complaining.

Because the Edge 500 uses a direct USB connection, it is much more reliable and faster to do any data transfer than the ForeRunner 310XT. The USB cable is not really any more or less hassle than the ANT+ dongle, so you aren’t gaining a lot of advantage by having a wireless based data transfer mechanism.

Advantage: Edge 500, but just so.


Charging

Directly related to the data transfer mechanism is how the devices are charged. Both devices can be charged via a USB connection to a computer, or using a USB to A/C adaptor, which Garmin provides.

The primary difference here is that the ForeRunner 310XT requires a large binder-like clip that grabs onto the unit and touches two electrical connectors on the rear of the unit. Meanwhile, the Edge 500 simply uses the same USB connection for data transfer. This means a lot less bulk when traveling.

Garmin provides an excellent A/C adaptor system that includes several international wall-plug adaptors as part of their standard kit for both devices, so you’re set for all kinds of power scenarios.

Advantage: Edge 500.


Battery Life

How about battery life? Garmin says the ForeRunner 310XT’s battery life is up to 20 hours, and the Edge 500’s is up to 18 hours. In my experience these estimates are spot on. Both units battery life means you can get a few days worth of use before you need to recharge, but if you are traveling you should plan on bringing a charging solution with you.

The Edge 500 clearly consumes more power than the ForeRunner 310XT, and given that, Garmin provided more software features to help. The Edge 500 is very quick to auto power-off if it is not receiving any data, and this helps avoid unnecessary battery consumption if you’ve stopped to take a long break or after finishing a ride.

Advantage: ForeRunner 310XT, but just so.


Display

The display on each device is similar, but there are numerous small differences.

The ForeRunner’s display is covered in glass – which I dropped and broke once, resulting in an expensive repair bill – while the Edge’s display feels like a type of plastic, but I’m not 100% positive on that.

Display Comparison of Edge 500 and ForeRunner 310XT
Display Comparison of Edge 500 and ForeRunner 310XT

Both units provide a high-contrast, easy to read display, with an optional backlight. Both units are exceptionally easy to see in outdoor light, although they are both prone to glare if the sun hits them at just the right angle – just like every other cycling computer I’ve ever used.

Each unit provides multiple pages of data, and multiple data items per page. The ForeRunner limits you to 4 data fields maximum per page, with 4 total pages, plus a workout specific page. Since the ForeRunner 310XT is a multi-sport device, each sport setting has its own independent set of customizable pages and data fields.

The Edge 500’s display is slightly taller than the ForeRunner’s, and as such you can have up to 8 data fields per page. This also means that for those pages with few fields, you can make certain key data items very large and easy to read. The Edge 500 limits you to 3 pages of data, with one additional page for workouts.

Advantage: neither. Both devices are champs with slight benefits to their intended audience.


Workouts

Another software feature that is different between the two units is the Workouts feature. Both units have the ability to program complex workouts with a variety of steps, targets, repeats, etc. Both let you create courses to follow, and set alerts for time, distance, calories, or heart rate; the Edge 500 also adds support for cadence and power alerts.

The ForeRunner 310XT, however, has a great shortcut for creating interval workouts. With a quick, easy-to-use 2-page setting wizard, you can select intervals that are time or distance based, along with recoveries, and then choose the number of repetitions and if you want warm-up and cool-down intervals added. For a lot of workouts, this is all you need.

Programming the more advanced workouts in either device is not very difficult, but it’s enough steps that many people will just avoid doing it altogether. Programming these workouts is easier if you use Garmin Training Center and then download the workout to the device, but this software isn’t the best quality itself and I find myself just programming the workouts directly on the devices.

Advantage: ForeRunner 310XT.


Mounting Options

The ForeRunner 310XT is a sports watch, but there are a few different bike mounting options available as well. I’ve found when doing multi-sport activities it’s better to just leave it on your wrist, but when primarily biking, having it mounted on the bike was a better option.

ForeRunner 310XT Quick Release Kit
ForeRunner 310XT Quick Release Kit

The bike mount option I used for the ForRunner 310XT is the Garmin Quick Release Kit. This kit replaces the watch strap of the ForeRunner with one that includes a mounting bracket that then snaps into place on an adaptor that mounts directly to your bike with twist-ties. The replacement watch strap wasn’t as comfortable as the original strap that came with the ForeRunner, and it increased the width of the device slightly, but overall this is a very good mounting solution.

Garmin also sells a Forerunner Bicycle Mount Kitfor ForeRunner devices that lets strap the device to the mount directly. I haven’t used this option, but it’s a convenient way of solving the mounting problem as well.

Edge 500 with Quarter Turn Mounting Kit
Edge 500 with Quarter Turn Mounting Kit

The mounting solution for the Edge 500 is similar to the Quick Release Kit option for the ForeRunner, but attaches to the bike in a very different way. The mounting bracket itself uses high-quality bands (ethylene propylene diene monomer, a synthetic rubber!) of various sizes to secure the mounting bracket to the bike. The Edge 500 comes with a handful of different size bands and two mounting brackets, so you can easily attach it to multiple bikes. Moving a bracket to a different bike takes just seconds, but you can always buy another quarter turn bike mount kitif two mounts are not enough.

Edge 500 Bike Mount
Edge 500 Bike Mount

The design of this mounting system is simple and elegant. The bands are extremely strong and pliable enough that stretching them to secure the mounting bracket is trivial. The back of the mounting bracket rests on either your bicycle stem or handlebars using a rubber piece that keeps it from moving. Once it’s attached with the bands, the mount just isn’t going to go anywhere.  The Edge 500 slides into the bracket quickly and once its turned, it also isn’t going to fly off, even on the bumpiest of routes.

Edge 500 Bike Mount using the ForeRunner 310XT's Mount
Edge 500 Bike Mount using the ForeRunner 310XT's Mount

One nice surprise is that the quarter-turn mounting bracket design is the same between the ForeRunner 310XT’s Quick Release Kit and the Edge 500’s mounting brackets. On my road bike, I’m actually using the bracket that came with the ForeRunner’s kit instead of the Edge 500’s rubber band brackets – but only because it was already attached. There is a small screw in this mounting bracket that lets you change the orientation of the attached device, and this is one difference between the two different devices. It only takes a couple of seconds to change this, and chances are good you won’t be going back and forth between the two devices if you happen to have both (I only use the ForeRunner 310XT with its original wrist strap after buying the Edge 500).

forerunner 310xt bicycle mount
ForeRunner 310XT Bicycle Mount

The quarter-turn quick release mounting design is a great solution for putting either of these devices on your bike. It allows them to be installed and removed in about a second without having to fuss with any tools. I especially like to take off the devices whenever at a rest stop – a $200+ bike gadget that’s so easily pocketed is going to be tempting for the unscrupulous out there.

Advantage: neither, both have excellent, and compatible, options.


Training with Power

Both devices have great support for receiving data from any ANT+ enabled power meter. Over time, the firmware has been updated on both and support for showing more power data has been added. As of version 3.00 on the ForeRunner 310XT, and 2.40 on the Edge 500, the following power-related data fields are available:

  • Power (current power measurement)
  • Power – % FTP
  • Power – 30s Avg
  • Power – 3s Avg (my personal favorite)
  • Power – Avg
  • Power – kilojoules
  • Power – Lap
  • Power – Max
  • Power Zone (current power measurement)

I tend to ride with my display set to show the 3-second average power, the cadence and the current lap time. This keeps me focused on what matters most during training, but hides all the other data that might be distracting, but it ultimately depends upon what kind of ride I am doing at the time.

If you are interested in training with power, but don’t yet know much about it, start by reading Training and Racing with a Power Meter. Training with power is great fun, but the bottom line is that you either need to be analytical (okay, a bit of a geek), or have a coach that uses your power data to keep track of your progress. Otherwise, you aren’t likely to realize the benefits of the tool.

Advantage: both devices are equally capable.


Bottom Line

Both devices are excellent at what they do, and either is a powerful training companion. If you are just a bicyclist, and do no multi-sport activities, then the Edge 500 is the right choice for you. If you are into multi-sport, the ForeRunner 310XT is all that you will need, but the Edge 500 does have a few advantages, such as the large memory capacity.

The Edge 500 is also a little bit cheaper than the ForeRunner 310XT, especially if you already own a compatible heart-rate monitor or power meter.

Garmin Connect screen shot
Garmin Connect screen shot

A lot of folks are buying Garmin sports devices these days so that they can upload and share their data using Garmin’s excellent Connect website. If you haven’t tried Garmin Connect, go there and give it a shot. It’s worth the price of admission and continues to get better as Garmin adds features, albeit rather slowly.

2008 Duke City Marathon

Today I ran the half-marathon course of the 2008 Duke City Marathon event in Albuquerque, New Mexico. This was my first organized half event and I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect. I followed the advice of my running group back home and treated it just like a training run.

Luckily, it was a very well organized event. The “motivation stations” every 2 miles had plenty of water and gatoraide so I wound up not using my water belt much during the race.

The route had us wind through downtown for about two miles before taking us onto a trail system that followed the banks of the Rio Grande. This had the double benefit of being the lowest altitude in the area and fairly flat.

I was concerned about the high altitude compared to the near sea level back home, but it turned out to be a non-issue. My heart rate during the race was the same as home and I never felt light-headed or got a headache afterwards. I completely credit this to my hike up the mountain 2 days before and the pint of beer I had at the top.

I finished the race in 2:09:35 which is about a 9:54 minute/mile average pace. That is just a tad faster than the pace I average during my long training runs so I am really pleased with that result.

Woo hoo; now to try and improve my time at next week’s Houston half.

halfway 2