Sat-navs have been widely available for cars for decades, helping us to drive from A to B with minimal fuss. But what about cycling? Navigational aids are now more common, but with the need to build that mapping tech into a seriously rugged body, it usually comes at a price.
One company that's looking to change that is BeeLine, which has built a simple device for cyclists to get around, but with a twist. After launching in January this year following a successful Kickstarter campaign, the compact handlebar-mounted gadget is ready to "help you rediscover your natural instincts".
We've been giving it the true commuting test to find out if BeeLine deserves a permanent place on our bike.
Breaking down BeeLine's simple sat-nav
The best way to think of BeeLine is that it's more smart compass than full-on GPS device. It doesn't give you turn-by-turn directions, but simply tells you how far away you are from your destination in miles or kilometres, alongside an arrow that – like a compass – tells if you're going in the right direction or not. The idea is that while this provides rough instructions that keep riders on course, it leaves the exact route decision-making to them.
The £99 device is considerably cheaper than a lot of its rival handlebar-mounted GPS devices, and that's largely down to the fact that it doesn't feature its own mapping tech baked in. It's simply controlled via smartphone GPS; syncing with the iOS or Android companion app over Bluetooth.
If you care about looks, it's available in three different colours (blue, red and grey) and it's water and shock resistant, so you can use it in all weather conditions.
Out on the road
The good news is that the BeeLine is pretty lightweight, small and portable. Its silicone casing acts as a clasp, which keeps it safe from getting damaged while not in use. The case's clever design means you can clip it to your bag or on your keys. It also doubles up as a mount, stretching around your handlebars whatever their shape or size. At first you might not be so convinced that this will keep it secure while riding, but during use we never had any issues with it coming loose.
Keep on ridin'
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Once clipped on, and connected to your phone via Bluetooth, Beeline will need you to open up the app and tell it where you're going. In a similar way to Google Maps, the app pinpoints your location and lets you input your desired destination, then quickly calculates the distance. The good things is that if you need to go via a certain place, you can add as many waypoints as you like with a simple drag and drop on the map itself. Once you've selected your destination, you tap a big yellow bike icon and the device's screen will display the directional arrow to give you an idea which direction to head in, along with the distance left to travel until you get there.
The route you actually choose though is up to you. The whole idea of using BeeLine is that you have more leeway to concentrate on what's going on around as opposed to following strict turn-by-turn directions. The arrow works via the device's built-in magnetometer and gyroscope sensors, which constantly recalculate your location as you cycle and keep you pointed in the right location.
During our time using it, BeeLine's navigation proved accurate and worked surprisingly well. Although it's worth noting that navigation is dependent on the signal of your connected smartphone.
Once you've reached your destination, BeeLine will either tell you so, or you can open up the app and tell it yourself that you've arrived. You can also see in the app that it has tracked the route you took, alongside how long it took to complete, the distance travelled and your average speed.
And that's another thing. BeeLine has an accelerometer, so it is able to tell you how fast you're going, which is a nice touch. You can see this different information (time, navigation, current speed and battery life) while riding by simply pressing the small arrows at either side of the display.
Also worth a mention is BeeLine's e-paper screen, which offers a crisp display in different light conditions, including bright sunlight – and it's backlit, so it's still readable if you're cycling around after dark.
In terms of battery life, BeeLine is powered by a 350mAh battery that is USB rechargeable, and – according to its makers – will last for four weeks of regular use before recharging is required. During our testing every other day or so over two weeks, the battery drained from 100% to 39%, so the company's projections are not too far off. A small icon on the Beeline screen lets you know when you're getting low.
Should you buy it?
BeeLine's unique style of navigation provides a steady steer on direction. As a result, the device is fun to use, and it's less stressful than a traditional turn-by-turn system.
Despite working beautifully during the time we used it, there's one thing people need to be very aware of before considering a purchase of BeeLine. While the concept is great for those that ride in built-up places and know roughly where they're going, or want more flexibility en route, it will not work well if you're in a rush to get somewhere you've never been before. If you're wanting to get to a location quickly by a certain time, it's probably not the cycling tech for you.
While you're going in the right 'general' direction, there's still a chance you'll hit a one-way road you can't go down, or have to go a much longer way around than you'd hoped to. We'd say it's better suited to those Sunday bicycle rides when you're not so tied for time.
If you're looking to mix up the way you cycle, and want to add a touch of adventure to your rides, BeeLine is a nifty gadget to try out. It's simple and really easy to use and doesn't take a techy to figure it out; anyone could use it right out of the box. It hits the gap in the market for non-GPS driven routing where exploration and awareness trump the most efficient route.
You can pre-order one now for £99.
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