As I think many regular readers of this site know, I was involved in a near fatal accident with a car in 2010. Since then, I've maintained a real passion for bikes that make riding safer. One company that always seemed to have the options to do more here than they did was Garmin. This was a company with a great set of automotive products designed with safety in mind, such as their black-box camera system for cars. I never understood why that technology couldn't be adapted for bikes.
While Garmin didn't go down that road, this year they released a suite of products that I believe are the most compelling safety innovations for bike riders that exist today. Because there is so much to the Varia line of bike products, which includes the Varia Vision heads-up display (HUD), the HL 500 and TL 300 smart bike lights, and the RDU and RTL 500 radar and taillight system, I couldn't cover the system as a whole with any sort of completeness in a single review. These all pair with the new Edge 820, which is the smallest Garmin unit to also offer incident detection (covered in the next article in this series), as well as with most other "current" Garmin Edge computers (check the Garmin site for compatibility of particular models). Because of the way in which these products function together, I wanted to review them as a single group. But each product has more than enough to bear out a full article on its own, so my "group" became a series. The integration of the units are pretty cool together, and I'll cover that as best as I can in a logical way within each review, so there will be some redundancy; sorry about that. The Varia Radar, for example, does integrate in a particularly unique way with the Varia Vision, and I'll talk about that briefly here, but I'll cover that in-depth in the radar-specific review.
The product that, to me, was the biggest difference maker in terms of overall bike riding experience - the Varia Vision. It's been a long time since a product totally changed the overall bike riding experience for me. But after my first ride with Garmin's Varia Vision HUD, I can honestly say that riding will never be the same for me. It's hard to express just how different it is for a data-geek like me to ride for four hours and to never even once look down at my computer. All I can say is that it was truly transformative.
One thing Garmin does really, really well is mounts. The 1/4-turn mount has become an industry standard because it just works. And they adapt that nicely here for the Varia Vision. It's also a 1/4-turn mount, just much smaller, and with a little more flexibility in terms of positioning; rather than clicking into place, you can turn it 3/8 or 5/16 or just slightly more/less than a quarter turn to position it exactly how you want it. The based plate attaches with two little elastic figure-8s to the stem of your glasses, and the the Varia Vision clips in there.
Once the unit is clipped in, you then bend the semi-rigid stem to wrap it around to place the display in front of your lens. The stem only bends left/right, so you then rotate the lens itself slightly up or down to fine tune things. This combination of rotation at the attachment point, the flexible stem, and the ability to pitch the display up/down allows you to really fine tune things. You can make the display either more or less prominent. Basically, you can put it exactly where you want. And it's easy to adjust it on the fly if you want to tweak it while you ride.
LEFT-EYE / RIGHT-EYE
One huge advantage of the Varia Vision is that it can be mounted on the either the left or right side. I am strongly left eye dominant, so this was a huge plus for me over something like the Recon Jet, which is currently only available in a right-eye version. On the downside, the Varia Vision uses some sort of accelerometer to figure out which side it's on, and this can misbehave, flipping the display upside down. I imagine it's worse for me, since the default position is right-eye dominant, because that is what more people are. I think Garmin could improve the firmware here a bit to fine tune the sensitivity here. A couple of times, the display got stuck upside down, and I could not fix this except by powering the unit off and back on.
The display is configured on your Edge unit. You can set the display to be either white with black text (what I used) or black with white text (probably better in low light); you can also set it to "auto," which uses GPS-based sunset information to invert the display, just as it does on Edge units. The display is remarkably sharp, owing to a very high pixel count of 480x240px. It's a landscape display, as opposed to portrait display on the Edge computers. This is actually the highest resolution display (in terms of pixels) that Garmin makes. It's even higher than the 3" Edge 1000. The display itself is 13mm x 9mm (approximately), but it might be even smaller than that, as that is just what I measured the convex glass covering at. But the dimensions here are largely irrelevant. When you look at the unit while you are riding, the effective size is massive (in terms of visibility). The quality of the display is first rate. As with the attachment system, Garmin nailed this.
The device also has an ambient light sensor that allows it to adjust the display's brightness automatically. In my experience, this worked quite effectively, though with the device pushed up against the lens of my glasses, I'm not actually sure how much the ambient light changed here. Regardless, the display was always clearly visible, even in bright light, and yet it was not overly bright when riding in the shade.
One thing that's interesting is that the display is much clearer and easy to read when it is front of your glasses. I am not sure why this is, but if you just hold the unit in front of you - even about as far away as it would be when it's mounted up, it's just not very clear. But when you put it on a pair of glasses and it sits in front of the lens, it becomes crystal clear. I'm sure that there is something fancy here in terms of how light moves through space and how your eye focuses, but all I know is that when you just look at the display, it's not very good. But when you look at the display as it's intended to be used, it's excellent.
One concern that people express about HUDs is that while they display a lot of information, they also block out potential important information that's right in front of you. It takes a little bit of tweaking to get used to having a HUD and to position the unit so you can see it easily while not having it block out anything. In my experience, the big issue comes when you look behind yourself. This is especially an issue for me, because I am left eye dominant, meaning the unit is on my left eye, and I'm looking over my left shoulder when I need to exit the bike lane to make a left hand turn. I never really found I didn't have a clear picture of the road in front of me; the issue was that I often didn't have the most clear picture of the road behind me when I looked back. You do get used to this and learn to look over/under the unit and to tweak the position so it doesn't sit right in the center of your line of sight when you look over your shoulder. But this does take some practice and this is what I'd make sure to dial in before riding, as opposed to worrying about how it sits in terms of forward vision.
ON DEMAND/ALERT / STAYS ON
You can set the display to turn off during normal riding and to simply turn on in the case of an alert. This seems more useful when pairing it the Varia Radar, but you could also use this if you wanted to use it to give you text or phone call alerts (which I would not want). Personally, I don't really see the benefit of using a HUD only for alerts, because it certainly does impact your line of sight at least a little bit. And why you'd want to give that up without really getting anything in return during most of your riding doesn't make too much sense to me.
It has a touch sensitive "pad," sort of like a long skinny version of the track pad on your laptop. You just swipe left or right to change between screens. For me, the key data that I want to see is just lap information, so I basically never touched this, but it seems to work well enough.
If you don't want to use the swipe control bar, you can set the unit to automatically scroll between pages on a set time interval, just like you can on the Edge itself.
The Varia Vision also has a little motor in it for vibration alerts. There's no speaker, but the subtle vibrations are very effective. Unfortunately, however, you cannot turn the vibration feature off. This should, however, be an easy fix with an update.
The Varia Vision supports up to four different fields, but what's really nice is that there are a bunch of different layout options for both two field and three field setups that allow you to tweak how you want the information displayed. This is a great feature that I'd like to see Garmin adopt for their Edge units.
The Varia Vision can display even complex graphical fields thanks to it's high-res display. Basically, whatever an Edge can show, the Varia Vision can show as well. This extends to navigation/mapping as well as training data. I personally haven't had a need here, but if you are riding somewhere new, I can see a lot of value in terms of being able to follow route directions without ever needing to look away from the road.
The Varia Vision connects to the 820 as you'd expect, via ANT+. I found this connection to be atypically unreliable. The Varia Vision and the 820 would regularly disconnect from each other. They'd find each other again quickly, but I was shocked that at least 2-3 times on almost every ride I did, the units dropped the connection. My guess is that this is a simple firmware issue, and I expect - as with other bugs like these - Garmin will fix it sometime in the near future. Even with them literally right next to each other, on my desk, the Varia Vision would vibrate regularly as it disconnected - and then reconnected - the 820. This is one area where the vibration alert (really, the inability to turn it off) is super annoying. Because every time the connection drops or picks up, the unit vibrates.
The Varia Vision uses a unique 4-pin charging cable, much like Garmin's watches but unlike their Edge computers, which use a standard micro (or, in the past, mini) USB cable. This is one area where I wish Garmin would be more consistent and, as CycleOps has done on the Joule and Polar has done on their M-series watches, just waterproof a standard micro-USB plug on their watches. Needing to bring yet another specific charging cable is a hassle.
Battery life is advertised at 8 hours, and I'd say that I easily got this out of the unit testing it across multiple rides over a week without charging. The only problem is that the unit doesn't seem to turn itself off automatically with any sort of reliability. I thought I had turned it off after a ride I finished with at least 50% battery left, but when I went to ride the next day, I had almost no battery life left. Some of this, I think, is related to a "feature" (quirk?) on the Edge 820, which has a new "Auto Sleep" mode that powers down the display but not the connections on the unit. So I think that until the 820 actually powered itself off, the Varia Vision continued to be connected and burning battery. If you make sure to power down the unit after you stop riding, you'll easily get the advertised battery life.
Technically, the unit weights 29.7g, but it's tough to really translate that into what most people really want to know here, which is, "does it feel weird?" And the answer there is a resounding, "No." I barely noticed that it was on. My glasses didn't slip off or skew or behave any different as a result of having the unit mounted. I tested it with both an Oakley Radar EV Path and a pair of Oakley Jawbones. The unit attaches more easily to the smoother profile of the Jawbone arms, but I was able to get it mounted securely on both pairs of glasses and get it positioned well. And, once it was on, I never really noticed it. Except for actually seeing it, I wouldn't be able to tell you if it was on their or not. And if you do want to take it off for any reason, even if it's just simply to tune out a bit and just cruise, the unit comes off quickly and is easily stowed in a jersey pocket. I found it to be surprisingly robust; while I wasn't abusive (I didn't throw it the way I did with the 820), I didn't baby it either.
MSRP is $399, which - to me - is almost irrelevant. I've spent at least that much on individual bike lights. I can't put a value on the feeling of being more aware on my bike. As a novelty product, it's expensive. As a safety device, it's cheap.
You can use the Varia Vision without an Edge computer with the Varia Radar. I decided to cover this in more depth in the Varia Radar-specific piece coming up next, but if you just want to use this set up for commuting, you can. You just turn them both on and they connect. I had to update RTL 500 with Garmin Connect before they paired. But once I had done so, if everything is on, then they just work together.
If you also have an Edge connected, the Varia Vision will only alert you if a car approaches; otherwise you can use the Varia Vision as normal; only a little radar icon in the top left persists to let you know that you have it connected. In this case, the Varia Vision overlays the radar display on top of your training data; it's quite effective, though I could not figure out any sort of intelligent way to take a picture of this without risking my life. So you have to rely on the Garmin-provided image.
It's hard for me to overstate the degree to which this has made me happier on my bike. Especially on my TT bike, where I regular focus on hitting very specific power numbers. I was able to do long intervals without ever taking my eyes off the road to look at my computer. I don't know that I'd always want to have it on, because there is something a bit annoying about always having the data right there in front of you; sometimes, you just want to ride. But for interval work or anything where I really want to see my numbers, I cannot now imagine riding without it. And that doesn't even get deep into the safety aspect of pairing it with the Varia Radar, which I'll cover next, to allow you to effectively see behind you.
While an increasing number of accidents are the results of even momentary distractions by the driver, the Varia Vision ensures that you can focus on your training while keeping your eyes totally on the road. I cannot recommend this product highly enough.
Given that he turned me on to it, please also check out Ray Maker's great review here. Ray has a bit of a different perspective than I do, so he may give some insight just in the different way he writes.
I wasn't really sure where to stick this, since I really focused this on the use of a HUD for safety. But I think the topic of racing bears mention. One obstacle here is that the fit of the unit now becomes a much bigger issue. You can't use it with a visor because there's nothing to mount it to. But even if you use a helmet without a visor, you still might run into issues, because the size of the unit would keep it from fitting under the earflaps of any helmet that has them. If you race in an aero road helmet, you won't have an issue (I can't imagine the drag penalty of it is very high), but in that case, I think you are also probably less likely to realize the major benefit of a HUD, which is that you can keep your head in the optimal position aerodynamically and still see your power. I don't think you'd have any issues racing with it, but it's also probably just one more thing to worry about on race day that doesn't necessarily offer any benefit. I can see future generations of HUD having a real benefit on the race course, but I don't see this iteration of the Varia as being impactful in that way.