With companies such as Garmin, Wahoo, Polar, and Lezyne making some great cycling GPS units, is there anything that we haven’t seen already? Hammerhead says there is, and with a little help from Google they’re going to change the landscape of cycling technology.
Hammerhead Karoo GPS Review – Android on your bike computer
With all that modern smartphones can achieve these days, you’d be forgiven for wondering why the cycling computer still exists at all – apart from the fact smartphone tend to be a touch fragile – Quadlock have done a lot of suggest that your phone is more than adequate
Enter: The Hammerhead Karoo. Which is an impressive conjoining of names, with the companies namesake a shark and their GPS units called after a vast semidesert region of South Africa notorious for being inhospitable – and coincidentally where many of the company team hail from.
Karoo states that the Hammerhead has been engineered to survive life on the bike – be it road or MBT, but with all the smarts of a phone. As that is essentially what we have, an Android smart phone, dressed as a cycle computer, sporting a sizable battery, waterproofing, an adventure-proof screen and a sim card slot. Can the Karoo encourage people to leave their phones at home and in doing so, worry the old guard of the cycle computer world?
Bringing out a brand new piece of hardware is always a massive step for any company, let alone launching into the crowded and highly competitive cycle computer market. Has the Hammerhead Karoo got what it takes tto to live up to its extreme environment name?
Hammerhead Karoo GPS Review – Design
The team at Hammerhead are billing this as “the next generation of cycling computer” which initially does sound like hyperbole. Although not aware of any other cycle computers with sim cards for connectivity, so let’s crack open the box and see if they can live up to their own marketing!
In the box, there is everything needed to get started, right down to the allen keys for mounting.
We’ve the GPS unit itself, branded BarFly out front mount, lanyard, spare M3 allen screws, 2.5mm and 2mm allen keys, SIM card frame and removal tool, screen cloth, micro USB cable, and a dead tree start guide (basically telling you how to fit the mount and turn on the device).
Let’s take a closer walk around the Hammerhead Karoo.
When it comes to aesthetics, whilst black-on-black can’t be called striking in appearance, it does have an understated “form follows function” look to it. Literally looking like the love child of the classic Android phone and a Garmin Edge 520
The first thing that stands out about the Hammerhead Karoo is the size: compared to other cycle GPS units it’s a big thing, coming in at 190g. But at the same time, much less than the weight of your glass and steel smartphone
To look at, it’s a very subtle thing, and that’s pretty much ideal. When sat on the bike, the black on black dispears visually – which is REALLY useful for cafe stops. Even on a 30sec dash in, I’d pull off the Garmin Edge 1030, or the Polar V650 with their white cases
TheHammerhead Karoo uses the Garmin quarter-turn mount, meaning you have access to a wide range of accessories regarding mounting options. Which is a smart move from a new company? Yes, Wahoo ploughed their own furrow when they launched the Wahoo Elemnt, but remember they had a user base from their trainers and accessories to build on, so using the Garmin approach I think is a sensible approach for the Hammerhead Karoo.
Speaking of which, rather than throw in some el cheapo mount – which would have been possible with the Garmin quarter turn, Hammerhead has included a branded BarFly out front mount which does say something to the value of the Hammerhead Karoo package, as these cost £32 alone. Given the routing options with the Karoo, going out on the MBT seemed a reasonable plan, which also means it’s a bright idea to also use the lanyard, as things are more likely to crash off on the downhills, then when out enjoying the tarmac
The micro USB port on the Hammerhead Karoo does have a design…oversight, in that there is no port cap to stop dirt and water ingress. Whilst Hammerhead repeatedly highlights that the port is internally waterproofed as we see on the Polar head units, that doesn’t prevent muck and dust going in. Which is a bit surprising for a product named after a desert region, as the dust there tends to get everywhere!! Hammerhead argues that they’ve done away with a port cover and removed the chance of it coming off. I’d argue it is a design flaw, but only time will tell on that one!
We have a completely clean back, no serial numbers, no comms protocols, nothing
It’s only when the back off does we see any such details – but again, comms details are missing
OK, let’s do the button walk around. They’re big and sit very slightly proud of the body of the GPS. Four are seriously textured. The on/off button conversely is smooth and placed on the upper LEFT side of the unit. They have a nice positive ‘click’ when pressed, and are big enough to get at easily one handed, whilst wearing gloves. My only criticism here is that they’re not that easy to tell apart when gloved – the slight gap between them isn’t that obvious.
On the bottom, RIGHT are similar nondescript buttons – I say nondescript as they are situation specific, and will change function as you move through different screens on the Karoo.
The little situational icons are a bit small. However, the options to which they are mapped are normally quite intuitive, so you can’t go far wrong.
When you do take the back off, you get to see a little more about how the Hammerhead Karoo made. If you do get caught in an utter downpour, or for some reason decided to take the Hammer Karoo swimming (I’ve done odder things when doing reviews!) the water is going to easily get through the external buttons and under the case
However you can clearly see that those external buttons are actually just floating plastic tabs which interface with full sealed buttons underneath, so looks like the sealing is legit!
While the back is off; you’ll notice a rubber sealed port. Given the Hammerhead Karoo is based on Android, I initially thought this was going to be a micro USB slot in order to go beyond the units 9GB of storage…
Hammerhead has taken what I would consider as the next logical step with cycle GPS units and actually installed a SIM card slot so that you can entirely leave your phone at home!
Moving on to the screen, it’s a bit of a gem! It’s a nice high resolution screen at 229 pixels per inch, and with a saturation and brightness that really puts Garmin to shame. This is a beautiful screen to have on your bike. Now there is a very reasonable argument to be made that says you don’t need that level of detail. However, it comes as a facet of the Android system underneath
All testing I’ve done with the Hammerhead Karoo was done at the minimum brightness which was more than sufficient – when turned up to full light it’s a bit like looking directly at a collapsing star, making the Garmin screens look even more pathetic. Please don’t mistake me, and I don’t think Garmin has been terrified that Hammerhead is going to steal their lunch in the way Wahoo have, but they could certainly stand to learn a few tricks from these guys!
So that’s the outside, let’s take in the spec sheet, and then head out!
Hammerhead Karoo GPS Review – Specification
- Device weight: 190 grams
- Screen: (640×480 – 229 Pixels per inch.) and complemented with a multi-point capacitive touchscreen
- Memory: 16Gb total, 9.33Gb user modifiable
- Battery: 3000 mAH – 10hrs ride time
- Water resistance: IP67 (“protected from harmful dust, and immersion in water up to 1 metre for up to 30 minutes”)
- Sensor compatibility: Bluetooth; HRM, Speed, Cadence, and Power, Air pressure Barometer built-in
- Connectivity: Bluetooth Smart & ANT+
Hammerhead Karoo GPS Review – Using the Device
Turning on the device gives a pleasing animation of the Hammerhead logo, which is lovely and smooth.
On to the home screen, where you have five icons to choose from:
- Activities – ±All the rides you’ve recorded on the device, and sort them by date, time, distance, elevation, or by name.
- Routes – here are all routes that have been added to your Hammerhead dashboard. Note, these aren’t available without a WIFI/data connection until you select “available offline”.
- Pages – allows you to customise the display that you’ll be seeing during a ride. You can add more than one profile (e.g. MTB, commuting, road cycling) so that you see different parameters depending on what activity you’re doing.
- Sensors – here you can turn on or off Bluetooth and ANT+, and toggle paired devices.
- Settings – this menu contains all other settings like paired Strava account, WIFI connection, and available storage.
None of it really rocket science
Gliding through these pages is a joyous experience compared to other touch screen GPS units
– the screen is just silky smooth and that doesn’t seem to be significantly impaired in rainy conditions either. in terms of the Android OS overall everything loads up nice and quickly, with no jerkiness or freezing. It feels like a modern smartphone.
It’s worth mentioning at this point that Hammerhead is planning to open up the platform to third-party apps at some point in 2018 – so hopefully we’ll get something a little more Google Play store than Garmin IQ – can you imagine what it would be like having the Zwift Companion app on your GPS (assuming it didn’t crash). Admittedly the app store comes down a long list of promised changes to the GPS that have been in the planning since the product’s infancy (Strava live segments has been on the horizon for months now, and still has yet to land, and in my opinion as we start to close out 2019 that is MAJOR oversight)
At this point in a review, I would normally talk about the device’s speaker, which means we’ve got to talk about the elephant in the room. If you’ve done any reading of the Karoo discussion board, you will have seen one topic crop up more than any other in criticism of the device – its lack of a beep. (I initially thought the groove to get the back case off was the speaker grill!)
For some, this is enough for users to swear off ever using the Hammerhead Karoo, citing everything from safety concerns to training limitations. Some argue that a warning beep when navigating by GPS is essential to avoid missing a turn.
To be honest, for what seems like a relatively small detail at the hardware design stage, it’s an omission. Whether you are pro or anti beep, Hammerhead does somewhat undermine their “Smartphone” credibility with no speaker; you are not going to be making an emergency phone call from the Hammerhead Karoo… so suddenly I’m back to taking my phone with me!
Do I think it should have been designed with a beep from the start? Absolutely. Is it a death sentence for the Hammerhead Karoo? Depends on your mindset. HOWEVER, Hammerhead in October released a cire system update, bringing the option to pair Bluetooth headphones – YAY – however Hammerhead state that “this is primarily a future-looking feature, as the Karoo has limited audio options at this time” – BOO
As cycling with the AfterShokz Titanium headphones, actually works really well, and I would have expected something like this could have been used by Hammerhead to overcome both the sound, and emergency telephone limitations, we’ll have to wait and see – but probably worthwhile sorting this before Strava Segments is pushed to the Hammerhead Karoo
The Hammerhead Karoo can be used as a pure fire and forget GPS unit if you want, but in doing to you’ll miss out of all that Android goodness, something the Hammerhead will highlight to you every time you use it like this! Resistance is futile, join our collective!!!
Unlike most modern GPS units, you don’t need to connect the Hammerhead Karoo to a smartphone to get the most out of the device, in fact, Hammerheads app is more of a smart phone biking navigation device in its own right, only being needed for firmware updates.
Adding routes to the Hammerhead Karoo can be done either on the device or by uploading a route to the Hammerhead dashboard online. Both methods require the device to have an active internet connection of either WIFI or cellular data via an added SIM card.
Routes can also be added to the Karoo by uploading the usual GPX, FIT, TCX, KML, or KMZ files, or by linking to a range of GPS file dump websites (e.g. trail forks). This means you can simply pick any route you fancy from off the internets, load it, and get out there to enjoy it. Marvellous.
The Dashboard is a much easier way to produce your own routes, but the Hammerhead Karoo’s onboard route planner is from MapBox and is much easier than other GPS units on the market – due to the Android system
Using Hammerhead’s route builder is fairly intuitive, however if you want to go off to the MBT trails there are a few tracks that Strava’s route builder will use which the Hammerhead’s won’t – not the worst thing in the world since Strava’s known for forcing MTB’ers to clamber over stiles and through kissing gates. Hammerhead’s system also has the advantage of tools to reverse the route (although this usually doesn’t work well for MTB trails) and make up a return leg to loop back to your start point – neither of which is an option on Strava. So although the route planner is fine for road cycling, for mountain biking there’s room for improvement.
It’s worth pointing out here that during testing and writing this, Hammerhead completely updated the system including dashboard layout, at the same time fixing several reported bugs in their system. Whatever problems this GPS may encounter (the lack of a beep seems to be unforgivable to some), the way the company responds to feedback is impressive. That isn’t to undermine someone like Garmin who seem to push out a new firmware update every week – however the Garmin approach seems to be based on what they want rather than users desires. It is a fine balance between the dog wagging the tail, and the tail wagging to dog, but Hammerhead at least seem to really listen – NOW WHERE ARE MY STRAVA LIVE SEGMENTS!!
Hammerhead Karoo GPS Review – Out on the Road
The Karoo allows you to set up different profiles for different activities (for example I went for ‘MTB’, ‘Commuting’, and ‘Training’) and assign different data displays to these.
You can set up as many Pages as you like, and within those pages fit as many data screens as you fancy flicking through, which is handy as you’re given the option of up to 76 fields of data! The full breakdown of all data fields can be seen on Hammerhead’s support pages.
The maximum data fields that can be shown per screen is 12, which is more than enough for at-a-glance viewing.
Hammerhead Karoo GPS Review – Setting up sensors
Thankfully this appears exceptionally with the Android OS, with both ANT+ and Bluetooth gives a very clear idea of which sensors you are looking at. Yes most power meters, and many sensors generally now are dual broadcast, as are turbo trainers, such as the Elite Diretto and the TacX Neo but Hammerhead still needs to be commended for doing things properly and having both communication protocols on the Karoo
I say “appears” as initially when you try to pair any sensors, pressing the side button and selecting “search for sensors” doesn’t allow you to find new sensors – uh?!
Instead to do that, you have to go into the settings menu, and use the more clearly named “pair new device” section. Not a major thing, but perhaps a slight reworking of the titles would make the appear intuitive menus, actually so
After the ride, the Hammerhead Karoo goes a bit data heavy. You don’t get any easily digested information about improvements and training advance, just data for you to use as you will. Again, I appreciate these guys haven’t had the development time of their competitors, but a more holistic approach here may be able to bring in less performance-driven riders when it comes to training
Out on the road
Once you’ve started a ride, you can use the side buttons to flick between either GPS navigation, or ride data screens – which mentioned earlier is adjustable under the ‘Pages’ icon. Here we do get the ability to display training graphs, although the barometer did fritz out a little at the start. Pretty sure that my house isn’t 21m below sea level – well I hope not!!
The GPS navigation screen is clear and smooth, with no jerking as you move along the road even when tested at 60mph. The lock function on the screen (little padlock icon) allows you to keep your navigation arrow centred, yet still zoom in and out.
Hammerhead Karoo GPS Review – Conclusion
As an opening shot at the big players in the world of the cycling GPS, the Hammerhead Karoo is a good effort and screams potential. Currently, it is easy to use, it’s battery is great, I found the 10hr predication a little conservative with the screen brightness down, and wifi off. The screen is stellar, please other manufactures, if you must do coloured LCD (and see Wahoo why that isn’t needed) the Hammerhead Karoo now should be your benchmark
The real ace up the sleeve/and Achilles heel is the future. Looking at the price of the Hammerhead Karoo currently, ‘Limited time discount’ from $499 (~£380) down to $399 (~£303). Reflects the fact that the device is still undergoing a period of rapid development. As a product to buy today… in all honesty, apart from the screen, the Hammerhead Karoo is an “also ran” device. It doesn’t currently push the envelope. The vast list of features plan for Android updates is terrific; the fact that core things like Strava Segments are absent is not.
The Hammerhead Karoo is currently a firm TG 3/5 device. But it has a lot of promise and the potential due to it’s Android OS to evolve quickly. If you are looking for a new GPS, want a terrific screen, and are happy knowing you own an evolving device, the Karoo is going to keep you very happy. If you are buying for today, however, maybe it is a tougher choice
(Just to clarify, I would have bestowed a slim 4/5 if Strava Segments had been present, and if Bluetooth were present including hands-free, we’d be a strong 4/5, bordering a 5. Definitely a product and company to watch)