Bike GPS Tracker: will it get your stolen bike back?
GPS bike trackers have been around for a long while. At least as long as I’ve been writing about bicycle security! But during that time, they haven’t taken off in any significant way. They remain a niche product.
However, I don’t think that’s because of disinterest from cyclists. A 2016 survey by Stolen Ride UK found that 65% of respondents believe that “that better availability of cost effective tracking devices will help recover more stolen bikes”. That’s a significant number.
Instead I think it’s that bike trackers have just been a bit rubbish up until now!
Technology waits for no man though. And under it’s relentless progress, it’s inevitable that GPS trackers will improve.
Have we reached a point where they become an essential tool in our fight against bike theft yet? I remain to be convinced, so let’s have a look at what’s currently available.
What do we need from a good Bike Tracker?
But first, what are the essential components of a good bike tracker?
- Easy to set up and install
- Long battery life
- Quick and easy to charge
- Difficult for a thief to discover or remove
- Effective tracking!
- Made by a company doesn’t go bust!
Easy to set up and install
Technology wise, bike trackers are complicated bits of kit. But however complex they are under the hood, they should be simple for us to set up.
That means, it should be easy to connect the tracker to the smart phone app (which should also be intuitive to use), and easy to attach the device to the bike.
Long battery life
Ideally, no-one wants to be charging the battery very often. But this will be more important for some people than others.
For people that store their bikes inside, near a power outlet, it will be less of a big deal than for someone like me, whose bike is always outside.
Quick and easy to charge
How do you know when the battery level is low? Do you have to remove the whole tracker or just the battery to charge it? How easy is that? How often is that?
How long does it take to fully charge? If it’s easy for us to remove, does that also mean it will be easy for a thief?…
Difficult for a thief to discover or remove
There are three approaches here. One: try to hide the tracker completely (eg inside the frame). Two: try to disguise the tracker as something else (eg inside a bike light). Three: make it overt and obvious that the bike is protected by a tracker.
With the hidden option, the tracker needs to be completely hidden somewhere a thief is very unlikely to look. But will this make it difficult for us to access it to charge it? And will a hidden tracker have a weaker signal?
With the disguised option, the tracker needs to be completely unrecognisable. But again, will that make it difficult to access and charge? And what if a thief steals the component that the tracker is disguised as?!
And with the overt option, will a thief be sufficiently deterred by the fact that the bike is clearly protected with a tracker? How can we prevent a thief stealing the tracker? Will they take their frustration out on the visible tracker and smash it up?
Of course this is the most important job of any bike tracker. As we’ll see, there are big differences in the way they work.
But the bottom line is this: once your bike is stolen, you should be able to accurately track it to it’s new location!
Made by a company that doesn’t go bust!
If a bike lock company goes bust it doesn’t really matter. The bike lock will still work. However if a bike tracker company goes bust, that is more of a problem.
Whether immediately or after a period of time, the software will stop working and your tracker will be useless.
So a good bike tracker’s got to do many things well. And not only is there some conflict here (eg easy access for us vs difficult access for thief), different circumstances of different cyclists means we have many different priorities in terms of what we need from our trackers.
Luckily the range of bike trackers is increasing all the time so there’s more chance than ever of finding something that works for us...
GPS vs Bluetooth
Bike trackers use one of two technologies: GPS or Bluetooth. And the way each technology does the actual tracking is very different.
Without going into too much technical detail (that I don’t really understand and you don’t really need), the important differences are...
GPS trackers communicate with your smart phone via satellite. And they usually require a SIM card to do this. The big advantage of GPS trackers is that they will provide accurate, real time location information directly to your phone, from an unlimited range and independent of anything or anyone else.
So in other words, if the tracker can connect to a GPS satellite and your phone can connect to a GPS satellite, it doesn’t matter how far away your bike is, you’ll be able to see its exact location (accurate to within 2 or 3 meters).
Bluetooth trackers on the other hand, communicate directly with your smart phone. However, this communication is limited to a maximum of distance of around 400 ft (122 m). So once you’re more than 400 ft away from your bike, you won’t be able to see where the bike is on your phone.
This is a massive problem for an anti theft device! First of all, if a thief steals your bike when you’re more than 400 ft away, you won’t be notified, as the tracker won’t be able to communicate with your phone.
But more importantly: once the thief is more than 400 ft away you simply won’t be able to track the stolen bike. Which defeats the whole object of a bike tracker!
Bluetooth trackers get around this by leveraging the power of the community of other people with the same type of tracker. So, when your bike is stolen, you mark the tracker as lost in your phone app.
Then, if anyone with the same type of tracker passes within 400 ft of your stolen bike, and the tracker connects to their phone, it will be identified as lost and you will be informed (via your app) of it’s location. Pretty cool!
However, there are a lot of conditions for this to work. There has to be people with the same type of tracker close to your bike. And more importantly: they’ve got to have the tracking app open on their phone!
So why bother with a Bluetooth tracker, when a GPS bike tracker will provide a much more dependable tracking service?
Three reasons: cost, size and battery life. GPS trackers typically cost more to buy and you’ll need to pay a monthly subscription on top of that. They’re also bigger, so finding somewhere to put them on your bike is more difficult. And the battery life is much shorter, so you’ll need to charge them much more often.
The difference in battery life is not insignificant. Bluetooth trackers can last up to a year before needing to be charged. While GPS trackers will need to be charged at least every 3 months and often every 7days!
So don’t reject the possibility of a Bluetooth tracker. Depending on your circumstance they might actually suit you better that a GPS tracker.
OK now we’ve cleared that up, let’s look at what’s currently available…
GPS Bike Trackers
Sherlock GPS Tracker
Boomerang GPS Tracker
Invoxia GPS Tracker
Overt (Bottle Cradle)
Battery charge time:
4 - 6 hours
Battery life (armed):
Battery life (stolen):
10 hours - 4 days
3 days - 8 weeks
2 years free then €3/month
- Ride data
- Strava integration
Hidden: Sherlock GPS Bike Tracker
The Sherlock GPS tracker is designed to be hidden inside one end of your bike's handlebars. It’s flexible, so it should fit within all kinds of handlebar shapes. However there are certain limitations and Sherlock has a helpful guide to these on their website.
To charge it, you simply pop off the plastic cap (which looks like a regular handlebar stopper) to reveal the micro USB port.
If you can get your handlebars close enough to a power point, you can charge the tracker without removing the device. If not, you’ll need to pull the whole device out of the handlebars and take it to a power point.
You also get a regular handlebar stopper (which looks just like the cap on the end of the device), for the other side of the handlebars to create a consistent look.
The tracker is controlled through a smart phone app (available for iPhone and Android). You can put the tracker into two of three modes. “Standby” is for when you’re with the bike. “Active” is for when you’ve left the bike unattended somewhere.
If the bike is in “Active” mode and thinks it’s being stolen, it will automatically put itself into “Theft” mode and send you an alert to that effect. Sherlock has a motion sensor and when a thief moves it as they’re stealing the bike, this is what causes the trigger into “Theft” mode.
In Active or Standby mode the battery will last up to 2 weeks.
Once in Theft mode, Sherlock will send your phone intermittent messages with its location. The frequency of these messages will vary between every 2 minutes and every 3 hours, depending on how you set the device up...
Every 2 minutes will give you 10 hours of battery life. While, every 3 hours will give you 4 days of battery life.
Once the battery dies you obviously won’t receive any more messages so this is the window you have to recover your bike!
Sherlock has been around for a good while, so they’re unlikely to go bust (leaving you with a useless bit of kit), anytime soon.
They’re a European brand from Italy, and you can use their tracker through Europe and the USA.
Overt: Boomerang GPS Tracker
Rather than trying to hide, the Boomerang GPS tracker is very visible on the down tube, screwed into the holes in your frame that are designed for a water bottle cage. The idea is that the tracker will act as a warning to thieves.
Several police forces have advised Boomerang that a visible device will act as a deterrent, and to be honest I’m inclined to agree: a thief is likely to be wary of any electronic anti-theft system that they are unfamiliar with.
Of course they might decide to steal the GPS tracker instead! But the Boomerang is attached to your bike with irregular screws, which should make that inconvenient enough to be very unlikely indeed.
Although the Boomerang and the Sherlock are very different in the way that they are attached to your bike, in terms of basic functionality they are very similar...
You control the Boomerang through a phone app (available for iPhone and Android). When you leave the bike, you “arm” the tracker through the app and it has an inbuilt motion sensor so that when it’s jostled, it will send a “theft alert” to your phone. You can then track it through your app.
However, there are a good few differences between the Boomerang and the Sherlock too. For example, unlike the Sherlock, when it’s in “armed” mode, it will emit an alarm to warn the thief when it’s jostled.
And you get other extra features with the Boomerang, like analytics (distance, elevation, calories burnt etc) for each ride. You can also set up a “geo-fenced” boundary, so that you get an alert if your bike leaves a specific area.
These extra features are possible because unlike the Sherlock, the Boomerang GPS is always tracking (even when you're riding it). Which is all well and good, but this obviously affects battery life.
Boomerang’s battery will give you 8 hours of riding. After which it will require a 4-6 hour charge. And you’ll need to get the bike close (6ft) to a power point as you can’t remove the battery from the device.
When you’re not riding it, and it’s just in "armed" mode, it will give you up to 30 days from a full battery charge. But as soon as you start riding it, that will decrease rapidly.
So when the bike is locked up, Sherlock will give you 14 days of battery life from a full charge, while Boomerang will give you 30 days. However as soon as you start riding, the Boomerang battery will decline more rapidly because of the constant tracking.
When your bike is stolen, you’ll get between 10 hours and 4 days of battery life from the Sherlock and 8 hours from the Boomerang.
And whereas it only takes 2 hours to fully charge it the Sherlock, it will take 4-6 hours to charge the Boomerang.
But like Sherlock, Boomerang has been around for a while, so you’re unlikely to be abandoned if you invest in their technology, which is continuously being improved.
Disguised: Invoxia GPS Bike Tracker
The Invoxia GPS bike tracker [Amazon] is disguised as a bike reflector, in the hope that a bike thief will ignore it because they don’t see it as a threat, and a component thief will ignore it because it’s just a reflector rather than a more coveted light!
In terms of how it works, it’s very similar to the Sherlock and the Boomerang. There’s a smart phone app that’s available for both iPhone and Android. There’s a motion sensor in the tracker that will send you an alert if it’s moved.
And like the Boomerang, you can set a safe zone and if the tracker crosses the boundary out of that area, you’ll be sent a message.
Like the Sherlock you can alter how often the bike sends its GPS location to your phone. There are three settings: every 2-4 minutes, every 5-8 minutes and every 10-14 minutes. And of course the more frequent the updates, the faster the battery will run out.
But here, there’s a big difference in battery life. On the most frequent setting, you get between 3 days and 2 weeks of battery life. On the least frequent setting, you’ll get between 12 days and 8 weeks of battery life.
These ranges depend on how often you use the bike, as when it’s not actually moving it only communicates with your smart phone every 4 hours. This keeps the power consumption to a minimum, giving you up to 6 months of battery from one charge!
But why the big improvement in battery life (over the Sherlock and he Boomerang)? It's because the Invoxia uses a different GPS network.
Unlike the Sherlock and Boomerang bike trackers, the Invoxia doesn’t use a SIM card to connect to the GPS. Instead it uses the Sigfox network which has been created for the Internet of Things.
The advantage of this network is that it uses less power, so your battery lasts longer and your subscription fees (which all GPS trackers will ultimately charge you), are much lower.
However, the coverage of the Sigfox network is more limited than the standard cellular networks. So you need to make sure your area is covered before you invest! Most urban areas in Europe and the US are covered. But in rural areas it’s much patchier.
Luckily you can check the coverage in your area before you buy on the Sigfox website.
Like Boomerang and Sherlock, Invoxia have been around a long while, and they produce various types of tracking device, so you’re unlikely to be left high and dry by this company either.
So how well do GPS bike trackers work?
People do seem to have very mixed experiences with these GPS bike trackers. Limited battery life, endless false alarms triggered by the motion sensors, inaccurate location mapping and general unreliability are some of the complaints I’ve seen against all three of these GPS trackers.
However, its worth pointing out that many of the negative reviews you read will be based on earlier iterations of these trackers, running older software. They are constantly being updated and improved...
But even as battery life, location accuracy and reliability improve, whether they’re a good choice for you will depend very much on your personal circumstances. You still need to charge them at some point and if like me, your bike is never near a power outlet, that is bit of a pain!
They will obviously work best with e-bikes which also need to be charged regularly and tend to be high value purchases that warrant the extra protection. And they would work well with rental fleets that need to be tracked and will benefit from the geo-fenced boundary feature.
For most cyclists I think they will remain a niche product, for the time being. But that’s how these things work...
The early adopter enthusiasts are the guinea pigs that provide the feedback that enables these companies to refine their products, so that when the technical issues with limited battery life and network coverage are improved, the rest of us can jump in!
Bluetooth Bike Trackers
If the limitations of a GPS bike tracker put you off then you might want to consider the alternative: Bluetooth bike trackers (although these come with their own limitations).
The biggest issue is the limited range and consequent dependence on the community of other users.
For this reason it’s only worth considering those with significant user numbers, and the one with the most is Tile!
Tile Bluetooth Bike Tracker
Tile claim that they’ve sold 26 million devices and control 90% of the Bluetooth tracker market. Which is impressive. So if any Bluetooth tracker is going to be able to get your stolen bike back it’s going to be the Tile.
There won’t be 26 million Tile users wandering around wherever your bike is stolen. And if you’re going to use the reach of the “Tile Network”, how many Tile users are in the area is what’s really important.
Luckily you can discover how many Tile users are near you before you buy!
Just download the app, register, and you’ll be able to see how many other Tile users are within a 5 km radius. For me, in central Barcelona it was only 566, which was a little disappointing. We’re still in some form of lockdown though, so there are no tourists around.
Smaller tiles will be easier to hide on your bike and have longer battery life, but suffer from a shorter Bluetooth range. Bigger tiles have a longer range, but have shorter battery life and may be more difficult to conceal on your bike.
They all really shine in terms of battery life compared to GPS trackers though. You’ll get 1 year from the bigger ones and up to 3 years from the smaller ones! Which means you can pretty much install one and forget about it for the immediate future.
The Tile Pro [Amazon] has a Bluetooth range of 400 ft (122 m). However, it measures over 4 cm x 4cm, so the only place to put it realistically is under your seat. Which could work well if you hide it with tape. But a thief may well find it.
On the other hand, there is the Tile Sticker [Amazon] which is circular and tiny, with a diameter of just 2.7 cm. You may be able to fit this inside your frame. However, it’s range is only 150 ft (46 m) and that may be further shortened inside the frame.
It’s so small though, there will be plenty of other places that you could put it on the outside of the frame that a thief will likely miss.
So how well do Bluetooth bike trackers work?
Bearing in mind that once it’s gone, you won’t be able to track your stolen bike directly through the Bluetooth on your phone, you’re going to be entirely dependent on other Tile users walking reasonably close to your stolen bike.
If your bike is hidden away inside the thief’s lair, it’s unlikely that many people will come close enough. If the bike in the street, it’s more likely.
It’s possible that if the tracker is well enough hidden, that the bike might pass through the thief’s hands and out onto the street with the tracker still intact.
However, in general I think it will be pure pot luck as to whether you’ll be able to successfully track down a stolen bike a Bluetooth tracker. The good thing is, they’re so cheap and easy, it’s probably worth giving them a go anyway!
Anti-Theft Bike Trackers Summary
There’s no doubt that ant-theft bike trackers are here to stay and that they will only continue to develop and improve, as the technology develops and improves.
Due to the fact that both need charging, there’s a natural synergy between e-bikes and GPS trackers and I suspect that trackers on electric bikes will be the real growth area in the immediate future.
Being high value items, e-bikes are also well suited to the extra protection trackers offer. And of course GPS trackers will be an essential part of the increasing numbers of e-bike share schemes on our city streets.
For those of us without e-bikes and particularly for those of us whose bikes are never near any kind of power source, longer battery life is essential. And where they should be attached on the frame is another issue for me…
Hidden, disguised or overt, I’m yet to be entirely convinced by any the current solutions. The ideal situation for me would be something entirely invisible, impossible (or at least very difficult), for the average thief to detect, but relatively easy for me access for occasional charging.
But I think the tracking technology that’s currently available is unable to offer this! Once it does I’ll certainly be signing up as I’m sure many others will too.
In the meantime, in the coming months I’ll be testing some of these trackers to see how well they actually track a stolen bike...
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Last Updated on June 10, 2021 by Carl Ellis
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