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Having recently written a long feature on the future of cycling computers, I was very excited to test this new Garmin. I've skipped ownership of the previous generation of Garmins, so was eager to experience the improvements that must have been made in two generations of refinement. But I confess this review was daunting when I came to write it. My experience of the Garmin Edge 540 Solar was practically bipolar; there are elements of the 540 that are brilliant, consummate and class leading, but it is also the most frustrating head unit I've ever used – brilliant one moment, and infuriating the next.
If you're interested in the Edge 540 Solar, check out our guide to the best cycling computers for more options.
I've been using a Wahoo Elemnt Bolt v2 and a Hammerhead Karoo 2, having switched from Garmin a few years ago. I wrote in my feature on cycling computers that the Wahoo, Hammerhead and Garmin hardware, philosophy and experience are so distinct and different that they're almost not to be thought of as competitors; of course that's not really true, but this 540 has also reaffirmed to me that it sort of is.
The reason I highlight my 'priors' going into this, is that I'm sure there will be moments where people who know and love the Garmin ecosystem might be tempted to shout at me that I'm being a dunce, and that's utterly possible, probable even. However, I thought it reasonable to chronicle the experience of using the 540 not just at its best, but also from the position of someone becoming conversant with the ecosystem, rather than someone who already is.
Also, rather than just list the frankly staggering feature set, I thought it important to assess the 540's user-friendliness, the setup process, the manual, and the overall experience of this computer day to day. The learning curve to the 540 I found to be steep, and at times frustrating, but once I got to grips with it, there's a tremendously powerful computer underneath.
First off, using the wizard to set up the device resulted in a crash that needed everything reset. Second time round, it was a great. All my profiles and settings and courses were ingested rapidly, and ready for use. However, in the accompanying Garmin Connect app, I found I was unable to complete the setup process without inputting an emergency contact, and then getting that contact to confirm via text message. I then had to remember to go into the relevant profiles and disable the emergency contact function. A 'skip' button here would have been useful.
Later that first day I was due to meet a friend on the other side of London in an area I didn't know, and I decided it would be a perfect opportunity to have the 540 plot a route through town and test the navigation and mapping functions. So, armed with the street name I needed, I set about asking the 540 to take me there.
This seemingly simple process was the single most frustrating part of the 540 'ownership'.
It took me over an hour of searching and shouting at the 540 to work it out. You'd think you'd be able to enter a street address somewhere under the broad heading of the 'Navigation' menu. But no. You can browse the map (no help to me), use stored courses, or create new ones. Aha, perhaps this? No again, you can only create a course on the device from a ride you've already done and logged. OK...
The 'search' function surely. Nope. You can search for nearby bike shops and water stops and coffee shops and restaurants and banks. Great in itself, but I could not enter a simple street address. And that was it. The Navigation section of the manual confirmed what I'd just discovered: no way to enter a street address.
Perhaps, like with Wahoo, I needed the companion app to enter a street name? Nope, the albeit slick-looking and snappy companion app would let me create a new course, but only with drop pins, with no facility to enter a street name. Huh?
To those who know the answer, which I did EVENTUALLY discover, there's an old adage in gameshows: 'it's easy if you know...' The solution was to use an internet browser and log into Garmin's webpage, and go through its dashboard to create a new course which would accept a street name as a search parameter. Then save it, and synch it across to your device. The moment I saw the webpage, I remembered this was the way to do it from two generations ago, and all my frustrations at the time rushed to the fore again.
I subsequently discovered another far simpler way of doing this, which is to add a 'Glance' (a shortcut) to the home screen called 'Location Search'.
From here, it's simple to type a street name and then route to it.
But that shortcut is somehow not under the Navigation section of the computer, and the only way to find it is to manually add it to the home screen. It boggles my mind that this isn't there as default. Instead it's lurking within 'Edit'.
One further point of interest re this navigational idiosyncrasy is that on the Edge 840 (the touchscreen variant) you can enter a street name under the Navigation menu's 'search' function... It's exactly where you'd think it is, it's just absent from the 540. A weird 'choice' by some Garminite.
So the first 90 minutes was a bad experience. Again, feel free to judge me, I just couldn't penetrate the frankly unhelpful manual, and surely that bears reporting. From here, things got a LOT better, it must be said. As I really got under the hood of the 540 I came to see it more favourably. Let me tell you some of the bits I loved.
It's very quick and responsive in use, very powerful, and nice and light. It now features a USB-C charging port and, like the Edge 1040, the same multifrequency/dual band GPS. I've never really had problems with single band, but the accuracy, and speed of acquisition particularly, was better than anything else I've used. And you can have the unit automatically switch between single and dual band as required to save a little juice.
Naturally, being a Garmin, there's a full complement of ANT+ (it owns the protocol) and Bluetooth tech; I couldn't even think of a component this won't talk to.
Slightly disappointingly, the processor in the 540 is the same as the previous generation, but performance has been improved by optimising the software.
This 540 was the Solar version, and I found it fun to play with. As you shut down the computer it tells you how many minutes of power you've harnessed from the sun (or you can create a solar page to keep tabs on your recharge rate). Some of the solar cell is opaque and sits around the display, and some is 'transparent' and sits over it.
As a technology this is great; I was enthusiastic about it in the Edge 1040 (as was George in his review last year), it's a great toy. But the fact of the matter is it's £100 more, and to repay that money, even at current electricity prices (roughly 0.3p per charge) you'd have to recharge the unit fully over 30,000 times. So it's not a money saver. The solar cells can add up to 25 minutes per hour of sunny riding to an already impressive 26-hour (intensive) and 42-hour (battery saver) life.
One thing to note, as I discovered after leaving it in the sun to charge one afternoon, is that it doesn't work like that; it needs to be powered on to charge. And given that the discharge rate is always faster than the solar-charge rate, all the solar is doing is slowing the discharge, ie extending battery life. You can't go from 20% battery to 30% by leaving it in the sun.
Beyond that, it has charging pins on the Garmin mount so you can top up by connecting a power pack, or connecting it to the new generation of e-bikes and running it off the bike's main battery. Garmin's pulling hard on the power lever.
One area where the Garmin is streets ahead, pun very much intended, is in its mapping data. The 540 has 16GB of memory, the same as the 530 (but half that of the 840), and most of that is taken up by the roughly 14GB of core map data and climbing data. This is over twice the size of Hammerhead's map data. The detail and facilities that litter the map, coupled with the speedy acquisition and inch-perfect positioning, make navigating the map, even at busy multi-lane intersections, easy.
It's also got a (potentially) great function for those wanting to create new circular rides/loops from their front door: simply set a course length and a general geographic direction, and the Garmin will plot a loop leaving from and arriving back home. It was my first experience of automatic circular course creation on a Garmin. Although, again, this was a 'sublime to ridiculous and back again' experience for me with the 540.
From setting a quick 15km loop from my front door and swooning at the facility, it first took me needlessly through the courtyard of a council estate that required dismounting, then later onto a wonderful and hidden cyclepath I'd never found, before dropping me unceremoniously onto the North Circular at rush hour...
I was trying very hard to like the 540, but its capriciousness was making it hard. Great ideas in need of refinement.
I tested the 540 next to my faithful Hammerhead, and noticed a few differences. The Garmin's record of my route was, unsurprisingly, more accurate than Hammerhead's, the dual band accuracy paying dividends, and its accuracy of the gradient of a climb was also better. That said, I noticed a lag in detecting changes in gradient; the Hammerhead would respond in a few seconds, whereas the 540 might be as much as five or more seconds behind.
The new ClimbPro feature in Free Riding works exactly as advertised, and I found the data to be the most accurate I've tested. Essentially, you can now ride freely, without a route programmed, and the 540 will automatically load and display the climbing data of any uphills in your path. If you change direction, it'll recalculate climbing data in the background. I think it's great that this 'how did we ever live without it' tech is here and penetrating the market to the point it's effectively standard (for premium computers).
The advanced training features of the 540 will appeal to the more serious cyclist, and all my moments of negativity found their counterpoint in the power of the software here. By ingesting the usual gamut of power and HR sensors, the 540 can gather a very holistic view of your capabilities as a cyclist, and work with you to train generally, or for a particular course or race. It can create a digital training buddy for you to cycle with/against, or you can pull in a course from Komoot or Ride With GPS and have the 540 estimate if the course is do-able for you at your current level of fitness.
If you want to train for it, the 540 can devise a schedule, complete with rest time between sessions, and work around any specific 'unavailability'. If you want to run the course on your home trainer, the 540 can simulate it digitally, controlling your trainer to give you a real taste of what it would be like. Clever stuff.
For those who live and die by power, the 540 (and 840/1040) is perhaps the most advanced trainer available. It'll also help you finish races faster with Power Guide. Effectively, once the 540 has gathered enough information about your fitness and ability to push Watts, it can overlay an estimation of sustainable power targets based on your FTP (functional threshold power).
If you're overflowing with adrenaline and caffeine on race day, you can adjust the slider to raise (or lower) your power targets for different sections. This will generate an estimated finish time if you adhere to the numbers, which means if you're planning a PB you can granularly keep track of the watts you need to sustain per segment, and where you sit in relation to your target. Again, really clever.
An off-shoot of this is Stamina Insights; armed with your VO2 Max data (and ideally a lot of riding data at various intensities), the 540 will tell you how much it thinks you've got left in the tank. This is a real strategic help, sometimes telling you it 'feels worse than it is' and you've got greater reserves than you thought, and sometimes suggesting you're about to hit the wall, so perhaps don't press so hard and recuperate for a bit. Again, the more data you feed it, the more accurate it gets.
The 540 sure is an impressive bit of kit. In theory. Once I'd navigated the rather frustrating learning curve, there's a great computer underneath. The training and race features are certainly without peer at the moment. However, the experience of using this computer still feels a little unpolished, and on occasions, exasperating.
One of the menus to transfer settings from the app to the head unit resulted in the app crashing 90 per cent of the time, and the full UI/UX (user interaction/experience) feels like it's not quite finished. A firmware update during the test period did squash several bugs, and presumably more iterating will follow. However, some of the UI/UX may always be 'confusing'.
For example, on the right side of the computer are two buttons, 'back' and 'confirm'. We (Westerners) read from left to right, and from top to bottom. The back button on our browser is at the top, and the delete key is above the enter key on our keyboard. Everywhere else, left to right, top to bottom logic is followed, but it's rejected by Garmin; the 'confirm' button is at the top, and the 'back' button is below it.
It just makes no sense, and though it sounds trivial, even after weeks of using the 540 I was still hitting the back button when I meant to confirm. It just feels like the interface is hampering one's efforts to use the computer.
Comparing the 540 with other options on the market, the big contenders are naturally the Hammerhead Karoo 2 – which Anna reviewed in 2021 and thought was excellent – and the Wahoo Elemnt Roam 2. The Karoo 2 remains my choice of computer. The clever tech of the 540 is overshadowed by my enduring frustration at using it. I like the impressive training functions the 540 shoehorns in, but for me it's just not worth it. Also, the bigger (touch) screen and pixel density of the Karoo is impossible to give up.
That said, the 540 made it feel slow; it's definitely beginning to show its age, and yes I'd love the 540's dual band GPS, the 60 per cent weight saving and the battery life. However, with a staggering 30 per cent global price drop in the last couple of weeks, the Karoo is an utter bargain at the moment, dropping down to nearly half the price of this 540S.
At £349.99 the Roam 2 is the same price as the non-solar 540. I think it's superior to the 540 in terms of UI/UX; it's simpler, and more stable (a few more months to iron out bugs, no doubt). And, like Garmin, Wahoo has its loyal followers. It doesn't have Garmin's map data, though, and it can't quite match the deep performance and training integration. If this is most important to you, or if you've already endured the Garmin learning curve, then the 540's for you.
There is one huge caveat to all this, however. If I really look at it, the biggest hindrance to this computer is quite plainly the interface; it's too complex for the myriad button presses and finger gymnastics that are required to make it work, and I say that as someone who's usually delighted by, even prefers, a button interface.
BUT, Garmin also makes the touchscreen Edge 840 (again in solar and non-solar variants). I enjoyed the (sorry) gimmicky solar, I really did, but it's just not that useful for me. If it is for you, then that's super, please do enjoy it.
But for the same price as this 540 Solar you could have the non-solar 840, and though I haven't tried it, I imagine the touch interface removes almost all the 520's pain-points. Some 540/840 side-by-side videos on YouTube suggest I'm right, and the operation looks to be an order of magnitude easier and faster. In fact the biggest reason NOT to buy the 540 is the existence of the 840.
Finally, you can currently get the flagship (non-solar) Edge 1040 for only £30 more if you shop around (rrp £519.99).
Stu is currently reviewing the 840 Solar, so stay tuned to see what he thought of it.
Stunningly powerful and peerless training computer rather hamstrung by the frustrating interface and user experience
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road.cc test report
Make and model: Garmin Edge 540 Solar
Size tested: n/a
Tell us what the product is for and who it's aimed at. What do the manufacturers say about it? How does that compare to your own feelings about it?
The 500/800 series Garmins are probably its most popular computers for serious cyclists. They're all the power of the 1000 series, without most of the bulk and some of the price. Though Garmin certainly isn't giving them away, they still compete in the 'top tier' of price with everyone else. Garmin aims this at the serious cyclist who trains and perhaps races. This is totally appropriate, the training and racing versatility and power of the device is groundbreaking and peerless.
Tell us some more about the technical aspects of the product?
Naturally a full complement of ANT+ and Bluetooth compatibilities, including:
ANT + cycling lights, Radar sensors, Shimano STEPS, ebike ANT+, SRAM/Campagnolo ANT+ shifting, Shimano Di2 (proprietary ANT+) ANT+ Extended display, ANT+ FE-C Smart trainers/bikes.
Feels nice to hold, it's that great intersection between lightweight but not flimsy. It's plastic but doesn't feel cheap.
Only downsides are the plastic Garmin mount (metal on the 1040), though this is replaceable, and the plastic USB door/cover doesn't quite seem up to the robustness of the rest of the unit.
Performance-wise, this is an exemplary computer. Other than the 1040, there's nothing more powerful, complete and insightful. It ingests every metric and helps you train and race better than any other product on the market.
Feels fairly sturdy. I have no qualms about taking it off road.
Exceptionally light for a computer of its power and battery life.
If this falls under 'comfort'... I find the whole software/hardware of this computer profoundly frustrating to use. It just doesn't match the power and versatility of the unit.
As a 'new' unit, there's currently a premium price attached to the 540. Sadly, competition from other brands, particularly Hammerhead whose Karoo 2 is nearly half the price of the 540S, makes it look very expensive. Furthermore, though it costs the same, the non-solar touchscreen variant (the 840) represents considerably better value for money I think, as the whole interface change will make it a much much more pleasant computer to use. Finally, the non-solar version of Garmin's own flagship, the 1040, is only £70 more than this 540S.
Tell us how the product performed overall when used for its designed purpose
Dichotomously. When it worked, and when set up properly, it was a pleasure: fast, powerful, insightful and with a wealth of training facilities. However, I continually struggled with software bugs, crashes, an impenetrable manual, a hampering button-only experience, and the UI/UX is my least preferred in any computer. With a Wahoo, Hammerhead and this Garmin on my desk I found, out of choice, I would never reach for the Garmin (unless I needed some incredible training feature only it could do, and there are a few of these...).
Tell us what you particularly liked about the product
The training, Power Guide, and Stamina features are peerless.
Its light weight.
Multifrequency/dual band GPS is the way forward. Lovely to have such accuracy, and the quick acquisition is brilliant too.
The solar function was surprisingly addictive.
Tell us what you particularly disliked about the product
I really struggled with the UI/UX. Getting it to do things was, to me, an unintuitive experience. The manual also needs some work, and to my mind the 'Confirm' and 'Back' buttons should be switched.
How does the price compare to that of similar products in the market, including ones recently tested on road.cc?
Very expensive. Twice the price (nearly) of the now-reduced Hammerhead Karoo 2, and only £70 less than the flagship Garmin 1040 (non-solar). The non-solar 540 is the same price as the Wahoo Elemnt Roam 2, while this solar version is £100 more. The Roam 2 lacks the deep training metrics, power and versatility of the Garmin, but is a more intuitive and friendly user experience.
Did you enjoy using the product? Not at all to begin with. It got better as I learned to use it, but bugs and crashes hampered the experience.
Would you consider buying the product? No
Would you recommend the product to a friend? No
Use this box to explain your overall score
It's a powerful computer, with some excellent and peerless features. However, my overall experience of using it was one hampered by frustrations; principally as a result of the myriad button presses required, and the slightly unintuitive interface. There are features on the Garmin that you just can't get on any other brand, though, and if you need them then you have to have a Garmin. However, the reason I wouldn't buy it and wouldn't recommend it to a friend, ironically perhaps, is the existence of its stablemate the 840. The touchscreen is going to be a much faster way to navigate Garmin's long, complex, feature-rich menus. It was with some regret that I didn't find the expensive £100 solar premium to be worth it; I wanted it to be more useful than it was, to be able to charge it would have been great, but it's sort of just like a battery life extender in practice.
So if you need the Garmin-only features, buy the (I suggest) non-solar 840.
There may be some people who'll use gloves permanently, and never want a touchscreen, and be happy with the myriad button-presses it takes to do anything. If you've learnt, or are prepared to learn, the Garmin operating system, you might get along with the 540, but for everyone else, the 840 looks to be a much better option.
About the tester
I usually ride: Custom titanium gravel My best bike is:
I've been riding for: Over 20 years I ride: Most days I would class myself as: Experienced
I regularly do the following types of riding: commuting, touring, club rides, sportives, general fitness riding, fixed/singlespeed, mtb,
Tom is features and tech writer who's been writing and riding for over 20 years, and has had misadventures on almost every conceivable bike. From single-speeds, to aero race-bikes, gravel bikes, ebikes and mountain bikes, he's a big fan of almost everything that rolls on two wheels.