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Let’s get this right out of the gate: The photos I took here are of hand-built prototypes. As such, they look a bit sketch – like, Elmer’s glue and Home Depot sketch. Also, these units are about 30% larger than the final production units. And, there’s a bunch of other caveats we’ll get to later. But, this is also the reality of hardware – be it for startups or giant companies. All devices look rough initially.
With that said, let’s talk about the device itself. As you’ve obviously seen by now, it’s a cycling GPS computer, designed to compete in the same price range and screen size as Garmin’s Edge 1030 and Sigma’s ROX 12 (as well as Hammerhead’s Karoo). More than that, the designers were aiming for a more modern and refined look to the unit, leveraging design firm Valeur Designers (with ties to Bang & Olufsen) for the exterior design. Though ultimately, I suspect most of us care more about how well it works than looks. Fear not, we’ll get to that.
In fact, to that point, Absolute’s biggest technical feature/focus area is their claims around GPS accuracy, saying that it’ll be “the most accurate cycling computer in the world”, which they detail through what they call ‘Absolute Positioning Technology’, and by sampling 20 times more frequently than traditional bike computers. Again, another topic we’ll cover in a minute.
Of course, this is a crowd funded project, which went live today. And my general policy for covering crowd funded projects with any sort of standalone post is hands-on time. I want to touch and feel the product, turn it on, and determine where they really are progress-wise, allowing me to in turn judge whether or not they have a shot in hell of hitting their claimed timelines. So yesterday, that happened. They came to the DCR Studio and we even went for a short ride. Which yet again, you’ll find details on down below.
Oh, and finally, please note this is not a review. God no it’s not a review. The product is 9 months away from shipping (in a best case scenario), and I’ve had only a short ride on something that’s nothing like what you’ll eventually get. Instead, this is just my usual first look ‘explainer’ about what the company’s plans are. Again, not a review. Got it? Good.
The Basics & Specs:
Now, let’s have a quick look at the hardware specs. For the most part, these are in the general ballpark of other GPS units in this price range. But keep in mind, hardware doesn’t really matter as much comparatively these days. It’s mostly about software.
– 20 hour battery life
– GPS claimed accuracy within 2 meters
– GPS/GNSS types support: GPS, GLONASS, Galileo, Beidou
– 3” Full color screen (non-touch)
– Audio alerts/tones
– Resolution of 800x400px
– Ambient light sensor for changing display brightness based on light outside
– Three buttons on unit
– Waterproofed (unclear on exact specification)
– Target weight approx. 100g
– WiFi for uploading rides, downloading routes, maps, etc…
– ANT+ & Bluetooth Smart sensor connectivity
– Wireless charging (no wired port)
Now, it’s this last one that sticks out a bit. And honestly, I’d wager it’ll never happen in the final device. Rather than going with a USB-C or Micro-USB connector like most companies, they’re going straight wireless. While that’s bold, I honestly think it’s not exactly smart bold. It adds a bunch to the bill of materials, adds complexities for end users to charge while on the road, and takes a hell of a lot longer to charge (at least 5-6 hours they suspect). Not to mention the most obvious: When something goes wrong, there’s zero option for an end user to use a cable with support to fix something. I could come up with more reasons, but for now I’ll assume that won’t happen by next spring (or, there will be a charging port there too).
Just for clarity purposes, here’s what the final unit is set to look like down the road. All the photos you see here otherwise are from me, taken with a prototype unit:
As noted, the rest of the specs are pretty normal. Battery is about the same as the Wahoo ROAM and Garmin mapping units (for regular battery profiles), and the resolution is higher than Garmin and Wahoo’s units, and even twice that of the Sigma’s ROX 12, and about 25% more than the Hammerhead’s Karoo. The only other catch is the three button menu system. For comparison, Wahoo’s non-touchscreen ROAM has 6 buttons, and Garmin’s non-touchscreen Edge 530 has 7 buttons. When you move to touchscreen systems you generally remove buttons (with 3 being the norm).
Part of the reason for the shift away from buttons is Absolute’s plan to have the unit heavily phone-driven. The vast majority of the menus (as well as configuration) will be on your phone. So when it comes to riding, it’ll be more or less just the start button. If you want to load workouts or courses, you’ll do that from your phone.
With their release not planned till next March, the app wasn’t done yet (completely normal). However, they did have extensive mockups/wireframes of the app done with all of the user flow and UI bits completed that they walked me through. I’ll give them props in that their app looked nice, and properly flowed. That is to say, it was done be legit cyclists.
And that’s a super important point that I don’t think can be overstated enough: The software development team (8 dedicated software engineers from a 3rd party software development company) is in the Netherlands and all cyclists, some of them front of the pack racing cyclists. That’s a huge shift from what we saw with Hammerhead when they launched their Karoo, where their software development was outsourced to India.
To be clear: There’s nothing wrong with outsourcing to India. Many companies do it successfully. But I’ve rarely seen it work for startups that don’t have the organizational structure to oversee it locally. And I’ve never seen it work well for a sports technology company where understanding the nuances of sports is super important, as is living and breathing the product.
Like them or not – Garmin, Suunto, Polar, and Wahoo all have in-house developers that live and breath their products on the weekends. So it’s great to see that Absolute’s development team speaks the same language and are all doing the sport that this product is made for.
Speaking of keeping things local, all hardware production will be done in the Netherlands as well. Now less you think that just because I live in the Netherlands I care too much that a given product is made here – I don’t. Really, I don’t. What I care about is that it’s made local to wherever the company is based. Down the road when startups get big enough to know how little they actually know about product development, then they can outsource manufacturing elsewhere. But I strongly advise all sports tech startups to find manufacturing facilities in the same country as them (ideally within a short drive) speaking the same language as them. This allows them to ensure details and nuances are exactly as they see them – not translated twice – and then also allows them to quickly be on-site to fix things. Sure, it costs a little bit more upfront, but every sports tech startup I’ve talked to has noted how much it saved them in the long run (or didn’t, when they went overseas).
But we’re getting distracted. Where was I again?
Oh, right, software apps. The unit at launch will sync with Strava and TrainingPeaks. Both for routes and structured workouts. For routes it’ll pull from Strava Routes, as well as .GPX/.TCX files. They’re also hoping to have some form of route creator built into the app at launch (hey, Wahoo still doesn’t have multi-point route creation in their app, and Garmin only added it two months ago). I don’t think that’s mission critical, but it’s a nice to have.
From a mapping standpoint the company is using Mapbox (same as Hammerhead) and will allow you to download maps for your region. These maps will show your current position and past track. Additionally, they’ll give you turn by turn guidance with street names.
At present they don’t plan to recalculate on the fly if you get off-course, instead, they’ll take the approach of pointing you back to the course for you to get on by yourself.
For structured workouts, they’ll allow you to execute a structured workout from the device itself by pulling the workouts from TrainingPeaks. They’ve got some pretty cool ideas on how to show each segment of the workout as you go through it. Nothing earth shattering, but it does look super clean and polished (again, in theory, it’s not real code yet). Also note, below is a computer generated image from them, which shows the smaller size unit and the polished final look.
Data fields are customizable as you’d expect, whereby the customization is done from your iOS or Android smartphone app. You can pick and choose data field layouts, as well as some pre-canned ones. Again, looks pretty clean at this point. Also of note is that it does permit you to see course directions (i.e., turn by turn details) while also executing a structured workout.
Also of note is that they’ll allow you to create multiple custom profiles for data configuration. Such as race, mountain bike, etc… And last but not least, the unit will support smartphone notifications from both iOS and Android.
Phew, with that overview, let’s head for a ride.
Brief Test Ride:
Now like I prefaced the first line of this post, there’s a slew of caveats to the first test ride. The most notable is that there was virtually no configuration options enabled on this unit, nor any app to control it. Basically, we turned it on, and it started recording immediately. I could only toggle the different data pages (3 pages in total) using two of the three buttons. Though, it was paired to a power meter (4iiii Precision) and heart rate strap (Wahoo TICKR) via Bluetooth Smart.
And perhaps equally notable is that the GPS antenna was outside the unit. While there was actually a GPS chipset and antenna inside the unit, they found they had interference from some other temporary non-final components that was causing them issues. So for now, it was tethered via USB cable. Which is sorta like cheating a test to some degree.
But this ultimately isn’t a test. It’s not a review (remember?). It’s me trying to figure out where they really sit. Speaking of sitting, here I am, sitting on my bike, pointing my camera at my handlebars. Here’s what it looks like:
Now as noted, this specific prototype was hand-built, and more important than that the glass laid atop it was basically from a hardware store and hand-epoxied. So the glare is horrendous. Obviously, that won’t exist in a final production product. You can see though that as I press the two outer buttons, it’ll change the data fields, including showing me my wattage and HR:
And if I pressed it again, I got a different set of pre-configured fields. In this case, this was the best photo I’ve got of that data page. Look, it’s better than no photo. Maybe. It’s at least artsy. Kinda.
The map page was configured as a half-page, so it’s not quite as easy to see in the photos, though is super easy in real life. Ultimately it displayed my location as a blue dot throughout my ride, and seemed approximately correct:
At present, there’s really no other functions to show you. Since the smartphone app isn’t ready it couldn’t configure/tweak anything, and the same goes for the unit itself. Note that almost our entire route was in the woods. Not off-road technically, but not on-road either. Just paths.
I did record a secondary GPS track with the Garmin MARQ on my wrist for comparison. Then afterwards they shot me the GPS track file from the prototype unit. I then compared them in the DCR Analyzer. The good news is that the GPS didn’t die. Though, given they’re still 9 months from release, I’ll give them the benefit of the doubt that they’ll ‘optimize’ it a bit more between now and then. Again, that’s basically why you’re getting a discount on the product: For them to figure this stuff out.
Speaking of GPS accuracy, most of the testing they’ve done to date has been on a standalone test bike, focused more on their sensor fusion algorithms between the GPS antenna and the gyros. Essentially they’re doing roughly the same thing as Suunto does with their Suunto 9 and Suunto 5 GPS watches whereby they utilize non-GPS sensors to interpolate GPS data points at much higher frequencies (20x second). From there they mesh the track together to remove errant GPS points.
The benefit of such a system being that it can work inside tunnels too, even if the tunnels change directions. And of course trees. That said, I’m honestly not sure this is a huge issue for road cycling anymore. For the most part people seem pretty happy with GPS from bike computers (not wearables) while road cycling. Off-road is a different story, but I’m also not sure if the design aesthetic of this unit meshes super well with mountain biking. Though, they did have a rider down at the Cape Epic give it a go this year.
The challenge for any startup isn’t just balancing making a product from scratch, it’s also balancing when exactly to make that product known to the public. More specifically, when to launch it. Launch too early, and people are hesitant to jump on it as they don’t see the reward as immediate enough. And launch it too late and more products are sold by your competitor. With a sports/outdoors product you’ve got the added seasonality complexity, where people largely think in seasons and races. With shipping not till next March, that’s a tough spot to be in.
That said, I like what the app flows look like. It’s clean and efficient to get around, and the structured workouts look pretty nice as well, especially if they seamlessly pull from TrainingPeaks. As for the specific design aesthetic of the unit itself, everyone has different preferences. Once the unit is smaller, it’ll certainly match well against swankier carbon bikes. Plus, I’m always a fan of more competitors in the space.
Not to mention, they have been willing to mix it up with pro teams and riders, even this early. For example they did an event recently with the prototype unit on a Team Quick-Step rider. While there were some lessons learned there, at least they’re giving it a go and not afraid to fail. They also had it in a race – Rush Hour – a few weeks back. Somewhat similar results there, but again, at least they’re giving it a whirl.
The bigger challenge for them will be pricing. At 449EUR ($502USD), it’s a really tough ask – especially for something not available till next spring and with far less features than any of their competitors. Now, before someone says it’s not all about features – that’s true, it’s not 100% about features. It’s also about stability. But history has taught us that for crowd funded projects the first year after release is rough, just as it can be for bigger companies too.
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