Bike Index review: Boomerang Cyclotrac - GPS tracking for bikes

If you've read our other reviews, you know we're basically huge nerds and cyclists at Bike Index, so we're always on the lookout for new anti-theft technology.

When Kevin Fahrner with BoomerangBike dropped me a line, my interest was piqued, because the Boomerang looks a lot different than other GPS units we've seen before.

Just to recap: GPS is a tricky thing do so with bikes. The biggest problems are

a) Stealth - it's pretty hard to hide a huge GPS device on a bike somewhere a thief can't find it.

b) Battery life - GPS trackers are basically functional cellphones, and power hungry. Thus they eat up a lot of power, which means charging and power are often an issue. Nobody wants to have to charge their bike's tracker every 12 hours.

c) Price - keeping costs down on a tech-heavy device is hard, and with GPS it's also complicated by the need for a cellular subscriptions (so the GPS can talk to the owner) which also compounds the price issue.

Most GPS-bike trackers we've seen so far have either

a) totally failed to ever get out of the crowdfunding phase, or

b) are subpar, hacky devices sold on foreign auction sites - and buyers have to plow through their own SIM provisioning and a whole bunch of other tech issues on their own

So while we've seen some very neat engineering ideas come and go, most of the bike-centric GPS trackers we've been told about over the years haven't delivered a solid product. Or any product at all. And sadly this is par for the course in the bike-related theft/tech space - and yes, LATTIS LOCK, I'm looking at you. And I'm still waiting on my #$% refund. :P

With that in mind, I took a long hard look at the Boomerang - and I was pretty surprised at what I found.

First impressions:

The Boomerang is ... overt. Really overt. Not only is it enormous, but it's got some blinking status lights, emits a fair amount of audio noise throughout the day, and is essentially built not to be hidden. It's a tracking device that more or less screams I AM A TRACKING DEVICE. It throws the stealth problem I mentioned above right out the window by being something thieves are meant to see right off the bat.

This overtness may be part of the point - in some Boomerang trials with police (in which no Boomerang-enabled bikes were stolen) they assumed nobody touched the bikes they put out precisely because they were so visibly sporting an enormous black Boomerang tracker.

Installation's pretty much a cinch - the Boomerang provided hardware lets you attach it in about 5 minutes, and in my case I went ahead and mounted my bottle cage on top. The mounting screws are also tamper-proof, to make it a that much more secure.

I have to admit, this addition made me a little self-conscious - I thought I'd get a lot of questions or comments from other riders about the enormous blinking thing now strapped to my frame, but I hardly got a second look. Whether this is because the unit's more or less hidden behind a water bottle or simply because this is Portland Oregon - where giant tallbikes and/or sparkly unicorn bikes are not unheard of - I can't say. But I rode with the Boomerang for weeks and only fielded one question about it. So even though it's big, it's still fairly low key.

Because the Boomerang is physically large, there is room for a sizeable battery. The charge port is a standard USB mini and located on the side of the device and a full charge takes between 4 to 6 hours. I plugged mine in for an overnight charge and began my first week's worth of testing the next day.

The Boomerang app

Daily control of the the Boomerange GPS is via an app (natch) which supports a single or multiple Boomerangs per account.

The Boomerang app lets you 'arm' your Boomerang, much like a car alarm as well as get at-a-glance location, alarm and battery status, and trip history.

If someone moves the bike while it's armed, the Boomerang goes off - much like a smoke detector - and texts you a rather alarming note - "Your bike is being stolen as you read this message."

Since the Boomerang is tracking your bike at all times, there's some other nice features in here for metrics-driven cyclists, like: Distance, Elevation, Rides history, and "Money saved". Personally, I don't fire up Strava when I ride to work - so I don't really make a habit of clocking my boring work commutes. So I've never really realized I clock about 30 miles a week on these 'boring' commutes until I rode with a Boomerang for a week.

Speaking of the app: many of the apps we demo here at the Bike Index are usually still pretty hacky, often because the products themselves are still in development. And I have another "pro" GPS device I use for vehicle tracking and other GPS tests, and the web dashboard on that product looks like something a first tier engineer drunkenly slapped together in Visual Basic on a dare. It is almost physically painful to use, and it certainly makes the case for paying UI folks more money.

Boomerang's app has no such hackiness or rough edges - they obviously put a lot of work and a lot of polish into their app and the dashboard (see below) and it shows. They're both easy to navigate, easy to use, the app didn't crash once on my iPhone and the dashboard is stable and worked in all the browsers I used throughout the test. Whoever designed and built the Boomerang apps and backend did their homework.

The Boomerang Dashboard

You can also log into the Boomerang's web-based dashboard, which offers all of the same features as the app, but with some additions like Geofencing and Carbon Offset calculations. (And if you're wondering what Geofencing is: it lets you define a zone on a map that your bike can't leave. If the bike ever leaves that zone, you get an alert. )

For the casual, single unit Boomerang user the app's probably enough to get by - but I can see bike fleet managers and other industry niche users who could get a lot of utility by having the web based, all-bikes-at-a-glance overview from the dashboard.

Daily use

My biggest two concerns when testing the Boomerage were simple: battery life and weight.

I ride a pretty standard commuter (a Surly Pacer) which is already fairly clunky, so adding the Boomerang didn't make much of a discernible difference in my daily ride. I'm already lugging a messenger bag and a laptop, so adding the Boomerang (5oz and 141 grams, according to its specs) to the mix wasn't really an issue.

As for battery life: I got a solid 7 days out of my first Boomerang charge, which was quite surprising. I got about 6 days out of it the next week - I rode more often so the unit was 'active' more - but this still great. Six to seven straight days of live tracking one one charge? That's a pretty great achievement for a device that's doing full-on live GPS and cellular.

I also put the Boomerang through some 100% authentic Portland downpours, and the unit survived intact. I wouldn't say it's completely waterproof, so I wouldn't take mine on a Pedalpalooza Puddle Ride or anything like that - but it held up to three days of sustained rain riding without a problem. Just make sure you close the rubber gasket to the USB charge port, to keep grime and moisture out.

A few quirks

There were a couple of quirks worth mentioning:

The Boomerang I demo'd had a habit of emitting an occasional 'chirp' for absolutely no reason at all. My bike would be parked, completely stationary, nobody within 20 feet of it - and it would emit a status beep as if it just wanted to say HELLO! HOWS IT GOING? This honestly isn't a big deal, but it is a little alarming when it happens at 2am.

The Boomerang also emits a wakeup 'chirp' after you move it for the first time when it has been standing stationary. So for example, as I'm walking out the door in the morning and I pull my bike from the stand in my house, it'll 'wake up' and chirp. I'm pretty sure this is because the Boomerang wants to say it is operating - but this is a little grating if you're trying to just get your bike out of the house early in the morning with a minimum of noise.

Boomerang says both of these are known issues and will be addressed in later versions.

Final thoughts

A Boomerang for my daily commuter (a Surly) is probably overkill, but I can see the Boomerang being a hit with cargo bikers, e-bikers, or fleets of cargo-bike based businesses. These riders are already used to a lot of weight, their bikes offer a lot more stealthy hiding spots for a Boomerang, and a lot of them already have a "charge station" set up for their rides, so plugging in another device isn't that big of a deal. Heck, with a little work you can probably charge a Boomerang off of a dyno hub or an ebike battery, which would be a huge plus.

A lot of the cargo bikers I know also tend to be family types who use their rides for kid-hauling - so I see utility in the app for parents who might want to be able to track each other's whereabouts via the Boomerang app all day long. Combined with the generally high value of most cargo bikes - and their propensity for getting stolen - I think the Boomerang's price point and utility would likely appeal to the cargo bike crowd.

Price wise: The Boomerang retails for $155 for the device and one year of cellular subscription, and they have US and non-US models (to support non-US cellular connections). After one year, it's another $15 (quarterly) to re-up the cellular subscription, which is paid through Boomerang. Like I said, the cellular link is always part of the GPS equation.

Even though they have a functional product you can buy right now, Boomerang will soon be running an Indiegogo campaign to to help fund further development.

I spoke to Kevin a little bit about their campaign goals and where they see the Boomerang tech heading in the future. According to Fahrner they're eventually aiming at some of what we've managed to do with the Bike Index, i.e. tie local users and shops into a larger network for theft awareness and recovery. Fahrner also says that scaling larger would help them aim for a sub-$100 price point, or as frame-embeddable tech. "The bike manufacturers are not investing in any bike security products," he says "And this is an opportunity for the bike community to loudly scream they support development of new security technology. We are well positioned to deliver on this technology - but we need the bike community's support."

You can learn more about their campaign at: endbiketheftnow.boomerangbike2.com.

Thanks for reading this review! Have questions? Comments? I'm bryan@bikeindex.org