RFLKT and Runmeter: It's basically Pebble for your bike

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People love the idea of the Pebble watch. It's an iOS-compatible display that sits on your wrist, so your iPhone can stay in your backpack, purse, or pocket. It's a great way to keep light track of your notifications, and what's going on in your life. It is, however, not a particularly good match to bike riding, where constantly checking your watch for fine detail might end up with a bad case of road rash, small screaming children who you just hit as you checked your inbox, or even the less dramatic wobblewobbleohdear.

For years, bikers have used small handle-bar mounted computer systems to keep track of their speed, cadence, heart rates, and distance -- among other OCD-friendly metrics. In the more recent past, vendors have produced iPhone mounts, so you can watch all this data directly as you bike.

This also has several negative side effects. First, keeping the screen on and well lit kills your battery quicker than Steve Sande goes through nachos at a Rockies game. Second, when your bike goes down, your iPhone goes crash, and there are few insurance policies generous enough to cover the case of "Oh, I stuck my multi-hundred-dollar-phone onto my bike handlebars" with good humor.

Enter the Wahoo RFLKT. It's a Bluetooth Low Energy (BTLE) display that mounts to your bike and keeps your iPhone out of the way. It offers a way for your favorite apps to keep you supplied with data while you ride. Tuck your phone in your sleeve, your back pocket, or your pannier, and you're ready to go.

I assumed the RFLKT would blow my cheap Avenir bike system out of the water. Turns out the reality is much more nuanced.

Let me start with the hardware. The RFLKT is about a quarter of the size of an iPhone 5, so it's about double or more the size of most bike computers. It can be mounted to stem or handlebars. It has a low-energy screen, runs off a coin battery and in theory can be removed from that mount every six months or so to change that battery. (In practice, I completely stripped the pop-out section and could not, for the life of me, get that darned thing off my bike. I basically ended up destroying the back, using the manufacturer-supplied metal pry bar.)

I first ran the RFLKT using the free Wahoo-supplied app. In my preliminary outing, I quickly realized how much I wanted to go back to my standard exercise app of choice, Runmeter. That's because of several things. First, none of the output selections really appealed to me. I like to see current speed, max speed, elapsed time, current time and I couldn't get that on one screen. Second, the app kept making rookie mistakes -- and I knew they were rookie mistakes because I've written GPS apps. These are things that Abvio's Runmeter has long long since figured out and fixed.

By rookie mistake, let me give you an example: max speed. When working with GPS, you often lose sync. The quality of the data you receive can vary all over the place, from accuracy within miles to within tens of meters. You have to keep this in mind as you calculate the current speed.

When you bike, you earn your max speed. You "walk" that bike up the big hill using your granny gear and you soar down like an eagle. (In my case, that eagle is fat, slow, and middle aged, but it's still an eagle, damnit.) Your max speed should reflect that.

With the Wahoo software, I was doing 43 MPH while trudging along on the flat. I may be a persistent cyclist, but I am not a good one and there's no way I live in Lance Armstrong territory, even in my most addled cold medicine dreams.

While Wahoo was delivering the right hardware, it wasn't giving me what I needed in terms of software. The second I returned from my initial test ride, I started googling to see if I could use Runmeter with the hardware.

Fortunately, I was within days of Runmeter's releasing their new RFLKT support. I contacted Abvio and they set me up with their latest version, complete with RFLKT integration. This is just a $4.99 in-app purchase for Runmeter Pro (which is what I use), Cyclemeter, and Walkmeter owners.

I should warn you that Runmeter is clearly an app written by engineers instead of artists, but it's one that has served me well for years and one I'm wildly enthusiastic about. It does everything I need in terms of tracking my exercise. With RFLKT, it let me select one of about a dozen pre-designed templates and customize it to show exactly the statistics I wanted to see.

Sure, the menus to do this tweaking were a bit antidiluvian, but if you're a tech geek to start off with, you shouldn't have too much trouble picking and customizing one of the choices shown here.

RFLKT and RunMeter It's basically Pebble for your bike

I had to reset the RFLKT (there are instructions right inside the settings of Runmeter on how to do this), enable Bluetooth Sensors, and upload my custom screens. It wasn't particularly painful, although it did take some time to figure my way through the menus.

Using a RFLKT display isn't exactly like using a bike computer. You gain some things, you lose others. Take speed for example. Because of the GPS sync problem, your Runmeter speed will always lag unless you use an external sensor. That means you can be flying down that mountain and still register 7.7 MPH for a while. For speed and distance measures to be accurate, they need a wider range of sampling time.

Side by side, my Avenir bike computer knew my speed changes as they happened. I found myself referring to that much more often for MPH versus the RFLKT monitor. You can, however, integrate other sensors into the Runmeter/RFLKT experience to fix that.

If the Runmeter app can integrate with the sensor (they have posted a list here), you can add it to the RFLKT display -- this includes digital speed and cadence from Garmin and Bontrager, negating any issues of GPS sampling. You can also add heart monitors, giving you some extra performance feedback.

Regardless of speed, the distance portion of the solution was wicked accurate. There's no need to measure your tire or estimate its pressure and multiply the circumference to calculate how far you've gone. Need to go 3.7 miles? The RFLKT/Runmeter combination gets exactly that. It's brilliant. Other measures like date and time and max speed are also super-precise.

I have no intention of buying new sensors so I found that I liked having both displays -- traditional and RFLKT on my bike, even though I had to sacrifice one of my night-riding lights to fit it there. I have small girlygirl handlebars, which don't offer a lot of real estate. I also had to pad the RFLKT with not one but THREE layers to get it to fit the bar and stay firmly mounted.

Speaking of displays, I really do wish the RFLKT offered a lip the way my Avenir does, giving a little shade and offering glare protection. The RFLKT is pretty obviously a 1st gen device, and I expect it to evolve to be a little cleaner, and less boxy over time, but even as is, I really fell in love with it.

On Monday, I had a chance to sit down and talk with Steve Kusmer of Abvio, the man behind Runmeter to talk about RFLKT, its technology and how the app has integrated itself with display. The relationship is longstanding. "Wahoo has provided the technology we've used for over two years to access Bluetooth devices. With the RFLKT, Wahoo provided the hardware, a wonderful design point, and we built from there. We've been demoing the RFLKT since September and just now released support in our software."

The RFLKT took a lot of its design influence from the Palm Pilot. "It had to run on a simple battery and last forever. The RFLKT works with a coin cell battery, can be alive for months if not a year, and powers down on idle, when nothing is being used. Plus, it uses BTLE with minimal bandwidth. It has buttons and it's programmable. It's very simple but effective."

Kusmer talked about integrating the device into riding. "Once I put the RFLKT on my bike, it becomes a different experience. It's providing a lot of value that enhances my experience."

Making Runmeter work with the device helped leverage the app's underlying features. "We've been spent more than four years deployed -- started back in 2008, and we have spent a lot of time on the underlying data architecture for storing and displaying application data. It's very hard to do this right. One spike of data and your Max Speed is toast. We went through a year or more of iterations on trying to figure out the heuristic so bad GPS data doesn't whack your data.

"We love RFLKT because we could take our data architecture and match up with anything you want to do on RFLKT. We can display 148 different statistics -- from your current speed to your previous interval average heart rate --- all readily accessible during your rides on the RFLKT."

What you get in the end is a terrific combination of software (from Abvio) and hardware (from Wahoo) and one that I was really happy using. You can pick up a RFLKT for $130 at Wahoo. Runmeter is free with a $4.99 in-app upgrade to Pro, and another $4.99 in-app upgrade for RFLKT support. Cyclemeter and Walkmeter are $4.99 each.

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