Review: Garmin Varia smart bike system

Since the launch of the Varia Rearview Radar, Garmin have grown their smart cycling device range and the degree of integration of each device. As a standalone, the rear view Radar is a smart rear bike light that improves your visibility, situational awareness and safety with adaptive brightness and a radar display. Garmin did not stop there and have built a complete eco-system with the addition of the Varia Vision and a headlight and tail light that communicate with the Varia system.

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Varia Smart Bike Headlight & Tail light

 

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The headlight offers four settings: high beam, low beam, auto beam and flashing. The 600 lumens on tap make it only slightly less powerful than the average car's headlight. Thanks to several mirrored surfaces surrounding two high power LEDs, the light creates a rectangular shape down the road lighting up the tar directly in front of the bike, to the sides of your wheel, and down path ahead.

 

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The mount option out of the box is a reinforced out-front mount, with a male Garmin mount on the underside for the headlight and female on the top for your head unit. This allows you put your computer on the top while the light hangs underneath. It works well and looks neat, but it is fairly restrictive as you can not angle the head unit and light independently of each other. I suspect this won't be a big problem as most riders mount their head units fairly flat (read aero) but other mounting options would be welcome.

 

Paired with an Edge head unit, the Varia headlight comes to life. At slower speeds the light will cast its beam closer to your front wheel, but at higher speeds it will automatically adjust the beam to shine further down the road. On the road it works really well and the adjustments were spot on - I never felt like the beam was too close or too far ahead.

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In addition, pairing the headlight with an Edge 1000 adds light level detection and will adjust the beam strength as it gets darker or lighter.

 

 

The tail light has seven LEDs which put out 22 lumens. The tail light also offers four settings: high beam, mid beam, low beam and flashing. The only smart function on offer is the auto brightness setting when paired with an Edge 1000 head unit.

 


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The tail light can be mounted in a variety of ways using the familiar Garmin mount in conjunction with a couple of different brackets. Amongst these is a dedicated aero seatpost bracket.

 

Mounting the light was easy and it stayed secure throughout our review period. Brightness is excellent and, as an added bonus, it offers good side-on visibility. With the use of a handlebar mounted remote it is possible to signal left and right turns, if you have two rear lights paired to the system. We were not able to test this as we only had one rear light on test, but judging by the flawless operation of the rest of the system, we have no reason to doubt its functionality.

 


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During use the lights delivered on the claimed 2.5 hours runtime for the headlight and 4 hours for the tail light. Thankfully the battery levels can be checked on your Edge head unit and there is a red flashing warning light when battery life is running low.

 

 

Varia Vision In-sight Display


 

The Varia Vision clips to a twist-lock base plate that straps to either arm of your sunglasses. It is best to think of the Varia Vision as a "remote display" for your Edge head unit: displaying information about your speed, distance, power and performance metrics. When paired to a Varia Radar, the Vision will also display incoming-car warnings. If you're using your Edge to navigate the direction prompts will also be visible in your Vision.

 

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The Vision allows up to five pages (with up to four data fields per page) that can be tweaked to your liking and, in addition, you can also configure Strava Segments (On/Off), Navigation (On/Off) and Virtual Partner (On/Off). At the top of the screen you will always see the battery status, temperature (from the Edge head unit) and the time of day.

 

Pairing the device took a firmware update which required me to download the Garmin Express desktop app. Thankfully this only took a couple of minutes and from there on out, once paired, it linked to the "network" without fail.

 

On my first ride I was worried about the impact it would have on peripheral vision. I was also concerned that it would be distracting. Both of these worries proved baseless, as using the device was quite easy. I did not find it distracting and it had little to no effect on looking over your shoulder or any loss of peripheral vision.

 


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Thanks to the mounting system and some rotation available in the display unit, it is quite easy to find a position where the display is clearly visible without obstructing your view ahead. It is a bit like looking at your nose: look straight ahead at the road and you don't notice it, but with the slightest bit of eye movement the screen comes into focus. When a car is detected the Varia Vision will alert you with a short vibration.

 

There is a glove-friendly touch panel on the body of the Vision that is used to swipe through the available data screens but the unit can also be set to auto-scroll. The built-in ambient light sensor will adjust the screen's brightness on the fly and the 428 x 240 pixel colour LED screen provides great clarity and brightness, and is easy to view in all conditions.

 

A surprising benefit was that in cases where the glare of the sun was bad enough for me to not be able to see the display on the Edge 1000 clearly, all it took was a quick movement of the eye to bring the information on the Vision into focus.

 

 

Varia Rearview Radar and Display Unit Bundle


The Varia Rearview Radar Tail Light bundle is made up of the radar tail light, which attaches to the bike seat post just below the saddle, and the display unit which can be attached to the stem or handlebar. They are both high gloss black plastic and communicate with each other via ANT+ wireless technology. If you already own an Edge 25, 510, 520, 810, 820, 1000 or Edge Touring, you can skip the radar display unit and simply pair the rear view radar with your head unit to receive alerts on screen and with an audible beep.

 

 

Using the Radar

 

From unboxing all the units, updating them, pairing and then mounting to my bike took around two hours. Keeping in mind that I had a Varia Vision, headlight, tail light, Edge 1000 head unit, heart rate strap, and Varia Radar bundle to use during the review.

 

After the initial setup it took a minute or two to clip all the devices to the bike and turn them on. Each time they would connect and communicate with each other without fail.

 

Just to test the radar and how well it communicates to the other devices and the adjustments they make using this information, I parked my bike one evening on the side of the road inside a yellow line. I kicked all the devices into life and just about immediately received a warning vibration from the Vision that a car was on its way. Cars were picked up at around the 130 metre mark, but the road I was standing had a slight bend so it could be even further.

 

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The Vision displays two lines on the right hand side of the screen to represent the road with an incoming white dot that moves up the screen towards the top where an orange dot represents you. It is accurate to the point where when the car passes you the two dots line up. Quite impressive. Along with the vibration and dots, the sides of the screen turns orange to alert you of the traffic behind. Multiple cars (up to five) can be picked up as well with a white dot representing each, with the gaps between the dots to indicate the gap between the cars. Once the cars have passed and the road behind you is clear, the sides of the screen turns green for a couple of seconds. There is a "red" indicator that alerts you to a vehicle approaching at a very high rate of speed.

 

The Edge 1000 uses a very similar display system. Regardless of the data screen you are in, as soon as the radar picks up an oncoming vehicle the sides of the screen will turn orange and it will show a thin "road" on the right hand side of the screen. A white dot representing the oncoming car will move up the screen towards the orange dot at the top.

 

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Amazingly enough the radar does well to only warn you of cars coming up from behind. It seems to disregards anything moving at the same speed which helps when riding in a bunch. The unit will also not display any warnings for vehicles having passed you from the front and travelling away from you. Quite clever.

 

While all of this is happening on the display unit(s), the rear radar light reacts by switching from a four-light blink into a full eight-light flash, alerting the oncoming driver of the cyclist's position on the road. If you are in any of the static modes (none blink) the tail light will automatically switch more of the LEDs on to form a brighter light and attract the attention of the driver.

 

My only concern here is that if the car is heading straight for you or is about to clip you, there is no way of knowing as the radar does not differentiate between a vehicle passing and one heading for you. You can of course move as far to the left of the road as possible every time an alert pops up to be safe, but that will not stop all collisions.

 

Recommended Pricing:


Varia Rearview Radar and Display Unit Bundle - R 4 499

 

Varia Smart Bike Tail Light - R 1 599

 

Varia Smart Bike Headlight - R 3 599

 

Varia Vision - R 6 899

 

Verdict


I'll admit that I was a skeptic when the original Backtracker was announced. I would have to admit to a change of mind having used it now. For me, it worked best in light traffic or on sections where the combination of road and wind noise was too loud to hear a car approaching.

 

Knowing that I had at least 120 - 130 metres to respond, I found it comforting being able to ride to the right of a yellow lane out of the way of debris and the road edge. Only to move over when the warnings of an approach vehicles started. All of this without the need to be looking over your shoulder or worrying about vehicles sneaking up on you.

 

Add up all the parts and the complete Varia system is not a cheap buy. Of course you don't need all of what was tested here. The radar paired to your current Garmin Edge will bring you most of the on-road safety that comes with the complete eco-system. But as soon as you ride after dark the smart lights offer genuine value, as they do an excellent job of warning traffic of your presence on the road.

 

For riders who frequent our roads during peak hours or when the sun is not quite out yet or is on its way down, the Varia system will be a big peace of mind. I found the whole system to be simple to use with excellent execution. The whole system felt like it was at quite a mature level of development which is surprising for something so new and groundbreaking on the market.

 

Pros

  • Each units feature set can be listed as a pro
  • Proper integration when run with a compatible Edge head unit
  • Ease of use
  • Increase in awareness and safety is genuine
  • Build quality is topnotch - what one would expect from Garmin
  • Excellent display on the Vision
  • There are mounts for every conceivable mounting option that sits secure and does an excellent job of keeping the device in place
  • Rear light and radar is visible from the side
Cons
  • Price of the complete system
  • Charging it all can get tricky and potentially messy thanks to the amount of cables needed
  • To maximise its potential you will need an Edge head unit, preferably an Edge 1000
  • It needs another level of warnings to notify you of imminent danger




10 Comments

AlanD, Oct 04 2016 11:22

Entered...for the win :-)

corriekuilder, Oct 04 2016 11:39

I want....

Skylark, Oct 04 2016 11:50

Only R16.5k and 6 units to charge before each ride, I love it when technology makes my life easier!!!!!!

Can't wait to see the MAMILs out on the road with the heads-up display strapped to the Oakleys and swanning around like TDF winners :D :D Oh gawd

Showtime, Oct 04 2016 12:25

Living in the middle of nowhere I mostly cycle quiet roads with the odd car passing so the radar makes sense for me.

Rocket-Boy, Oct 04 2016 12:37

My wife might not even moan about be riding solo on the roadie using that setup!

dirtypot, Oct 04 2016 01:30

I like it.  Entered.

VicanZA, Oct 04 2016 02:23

err, the big blind spot aint gonna work for me..

shaper, Oct 04 2016 02:30

yep also entered :)

Anthony D Machado Edwards, Oct 07 2016 09:18

Digging those gnarly flats on the road bike ;)

Iwan Kemp, Oct 07 2016 09:34

Digging those gnarly flats on the road bike ;)

 

Shhhh!

 

Was wondering when or if anyone will notice. Just so much easier to get around and on and off the bike with camera gear at night.  ;)