Throw Down: Electronic vs. Mechanical Shifting

mech-vs-elec

 

With SRAM finally getting ready to launch their long awaited electronic drivetrain system, all three major manufacturers will now offer electronic shifting. This got us thinking about how far these systems have come in just the last few years (never mind how far since Mavic Mektronic, if any of you guys remember that), and also wondering if electronic will ever fully replace mechanical shifting.

SRAM prototype units (or maybe full production, hard to tell since some units had clearly covered up logos) were spotted on the bikes of the Bissel Pro Cycling team at the Tour of California. SRAM is keeping such a tight lid on them that even Belgian superstar Tom Boonen and Paris-Roubaix winner Niki Terpstra were chased way when they came to investigate.

If the pro’s are racing them, then that means that they must be in the final stages of getting ready to launch. With the unveiling, SRAM will join Shimano Di2 and Campagnolo EPS in the electronic drivetrain market. The race now is not to be first to market, but who can add new features and make the technology economical enough to appeal to every cyclist– but will this justify an upgrade for most riders?

We take a look at the pro’s and con’s of both electronic and mechanical shifting to see who comes out ahead when we looked at a few key features.

Click here to shop for Shimano Di2 Bikes
Click here to shop for Campagnolo EPS bikes
Click here to shop for all road bikes

 

Electronic shifting systems, once reserved for the highest-end race bikes, are starting to appear on more and more bikes every year, like this Fuji Gran Fondo with Ultegra Di2

1. Shifting Performance

Hands down electronic wins this one—especially when it comes to front shifting. We were skeptical at first too, but trust us, after one ride you’ll understand.

While the power and feel of mechanical shifting has been refined to an art-form these days, it’s just tough for cable-actuated spring mechanisms to match the power and precision of electronic computer-controlled servo motors.

Because the motors are so powerful, it’s now possible to shift the drivetrain, even while under load, without fear of damaging components (though it’s still possible to snap a chain). Many systems also include novel features, like Shimano’s add-on climbing and sprinting remotes, or Campagnolo’s ability to sweep the entire cassette with one shift.

Winner: Electronic

 

2. Ease of Maintenance

This one goes to mechanical. Electronic shifting is pretty straight forward to get adjusted. You simply use the shift levers as barrel adjusters, and once you have it set, you don’t have to worry about adjusting it again unless you switch bikes or crash.

Mechanical shifting on the other hand can be finicky to set up—especially with some of the newer 11-speed designs. It also requires fairly frequent adjusting since the springs and cables eventually lose tension.

The upshot though is that problems with mechanical shifting are very easy to diagnose, and seldom require anything more complicated than replacing a cable or some housing. It can seem complex, but it’s one of those things that after you’ve done it once, you kind of have it figured out.

Electronic shifting…not so much. Beyond fine tuning adjustment, any real issues with your components will require them to be serviced by a trained technician. Which is probably good, since not too many of us have the engineering expertise to a) realize what’s gone wrong, or b) even know where to begin to fix it.

Winner: Mechanical

 

Newer mechanical drivetrains, like the Ultegra 6800 found on the Ridley Fenix CR1, can be easier to maintain than most electronic systems

 

3. Reliability

Electronic. We know, we know. Its battery operated. But take it from us…most people will have to recharge their batteries maybe twice a year. And the battery will give you plenty of warning that it needs to be recharged—but in the meantime each charge will be good for about 1100 miles or more.  And besides… you remember to charge your laptop and your phone, so surely you can remember to charge your bike every now and again too.

But all that aside…in our experience we’ve had fewer of the weird quirks and random mid-ride issues with electronic than mechanical. We’ve never seen anyone drop a chain on an electronic system, and the automated front derailleur trim means that you can cross-chain without really having to worry about anything (not that you should worry about cross chaining anyway, it’s not as bad as it’s hyped up to be).

Plus, you don’t have to worry about snapping derailleur cables, having to fine tune barrel adjusters or any of that nonsense. It just works without any of the finicky-ness of mechanical, and seldom goes out of adjustment.

 Winner: Electronic

 

4. Compatibility

Draw. Once, many years ago in the dark ages, few frames were electronic compatible. And even if they were, you had to choose between a mechanical- or electronic-specific frame. So if you ended up upgrading, you needed to get a whole new bike. All that has changed now, and most frames are dual compatible.

Electronic shift systems still have some wonkiness with compatibility (10-speed 7970 Di2 can’t be used with 10-speed 6770 Di2 for example, and Super Record and Record EPS systems are not compatible with Athena), but these days so do mechanical systems. With the increasing complexity of 11-speed mechanical systems and redesigned front derailleurs, fewer mechanical groupsets are cross-compatible, even within brands.

Winner: Draw

 

Campagnolo’s EPS system, like the Campy Athena 11 EPS gruppo on this Kestrel RT-1000 bike, has the ability to shift the entire cassette in a single shift

 

5. Upgradability

Electronic. Obviously, the digital nature of these systems means that the possibilities are wide open. In a world of apps and smartphone integration, engineers are only just beginning to play with what electronic shifting systems can do. Currently Shimano offers the ability to custom program some features of Di2 systems, for instance to allow for customized shifting combos. But there’s even more in the pipeline. From systems that talk to your compatible Garmin or cycling computer and tell them what gear you’re in, how much battery is left and more, to API’s that integrate with power meters to automatically shift to maintain a consistent power output, there’s no telling what the future holds for electronic shifting.

Plus…if rumors are to be believed (and please don’t quote us on this…), it appears that SRAM’s new electronic drivetrain will be completely wireless, which only makes it even more upgradable. This effectively makes each of the levers and derailleurs a standalone computer, which operates solely on software. They could in theory be wirelessly updated in the future for more speeds or improved functionality, or whatever else the boys in Chicago decide to dream up.

Winner: Electronic

 

Verdict

Ultimately, choosing which drivetrain to select for your bike is a personal choice. At our offices and stores we have lots of folks on electronic shift systems…but we also have plenty who have opted to stay with mechanical for the time being.

Electronic shift systems are definitely more expensive, but the benefits are pretty clear. More powerful, precise, and dependable shifting performance, with almost unlimited upgrade potential.

For many though, the tactile feel and cost-benefit aspect of mechanical makes it a still worthy choice. Especially with new approaches to engineering things like front derailleurs and shift levers, some of the very best mechanical systems are beginning to approach the performance of electronic.

At the end of the day, it’s up to you. So tell us: for your next bike, which would you prefer? Tell us in the comments section.

Click here to shop for Shimano Di2 Bikes
Click here to shop for Campagnolo EPS bikes
Click here to shop for all road bikes

 

17 Responses to Throw Down: Electronic vs. Mechanical Shifting

  1. froze says:

    That was a great report except one glaring thing was omitted…cost, both to buy new and to repair or replace when things go wrong. The Ultegra Di2 rear derailleur alone is about $150 more than the mechanical one, and over $225 for the front alone. So not only is the mechanical Ultegra easier to maintain but it’s also far cheaper. The reliability issue is in my opinion still has the jury out, the electronic units haven’t been out in the general public much at all, and those that do have it are far and few between, so how can a fair judgement be placed on that? Come back with the reliability judgement in 15 years of general public use.

    • BT says:

      Thanks for your comment. That’s a good point about cost. For the time being mechanical is definitely more cost-effective, but we’d wager that, as with all new technologies, within a few years the price of electronic will come down significantly. As for reliability, we have several riders in our office who have been riding Di2 almost since it came out and based our assessment on their experiences.

      • Paul says:

        There were no mentions of adverse conditions….snow? sleet? rain? I know most cyclists only ride in nice weather, some of us ride year around, no matter what. Any testing on the durability and longevity of electronic when you add in good old water to the mix?

      • BT says:

        Hey Paul,

        Thanks for commenting. You can ride an electronic drivetrain in pretty much any weather without having to worry about it. Just remember to check that the charging port cover is on tight.

        Shimano, SRAM and Campagnolo all strenuously test all of new mechanical and electronic drivetrains by giving them to pro racers and teams before they are released to the general public. Since the pro’s have to race on them (and depend on them for a paycheck) in all conditions, they need to be fully waterproof and sealed against the elements.

  2. exmaschine says:

    Although I have mechanical…I vote Electronic all day long.
    The FUTURE is electronic (wireless at that) and, composite disc’s. (much lighter and improved technology)

    Disc’s are the future as well. Current brakes are archaic. Naysayers will be pushed aside…laughed at. Like everything in life…progress and technology marches forward despite all the wailing…from the Luddites…

  3. exmaschine says:

    And, like carbon, prices will come way down. Parts, systems, etc. Cost will not be a factor in a decade or less.

  4. I really think electronic shifting is absurd and totally unnecessary. Mechanical shifting takes really no effort at all to shift, and its reliable a majority of the time. I have never had any serious problems with my cable powered shifters. Electronic shifters are powered by a battery, and there is a chance the battery could fail during a ride. The old saying goes, if it aint broke, don’t fix it!

  5. Jim Rice says:

    Same as new automobile models and systems. Come back and talk to mie after its been out in the field for a few years. When something craps out 50 miles from home, I get no satisfaction or comfort from being on the bleeding edge of technology.

    • BT says:

      Hey Jim,

      Thanks for commenting. Campagnolo and Shimano spent over 10 years developing EPS and Di2 respectively, and Di2 has been available since about 2008. In that time the technology has gone through several iterations and improvements– and we haven’t seen anyone have a system fully fail yet (though we have witnessed some failed derailleur cables in that time…).

      The good thing about electronic though is that as bugs or issues are identified, like your smartphone, the issue can be addressed with a firmware or software update, instead of having to replace an entire mechanical system.

  6. KylePolansky says:

    I haven’t used an electronic groupset before, primarily due to cost. Sure the prices will probably go down eventually, but I don’t expect it to ever become cheaper than mechanical systems. I’m interested to see more news on the SRAM units. I really like the idea of an integrated battery. I didn’t know that they required so little charging (I thought after like every ride), so a built-in battery makes sense as long as it’s still serviceable. Wireless will make it easier to mount, but there is the potential for lag and missed shifts. And who knows, maybe someone will be able to hack your bike and make your gearing impossible to ride.

    Don’t get me wrong, I love the concept of electronic shifting, I’m just pointing out some potential flaws. Even on my new bike I’ve had to readjust everything twice, and I’ve had the chain fly off the chainring a couple of times. I’m still getting used to the bike and clipless pedals and everything, so the cassette sweep would be a really nice feature to use when you forget to upshift at a stoplight.

    It’s a good thing that both types of shifting are currently available on the market, as there is something to please everyone. And in the future, both systems are only going to improve.

  7. Peter Gorham says:

    I used a bike w the Di2 drivetrain at a Ride Camp in Grrenville, SC. It was perfect timing to try it as I was looking to upgrade my bike. What I did NOT like about Di2 was that you have to tap it for every single gear in the cassette. So if you’re on a ride with LOTS of shifting, I found it to be a pain… The Di2 also dropped the chain TWICE in the 4 days that I rode it…

    The verdict? When I got back, I called Performance and ordered my Altamira SL with 11-speed Dura Ace mechanical drivetrain, and have ZERO regrets!

  8. Pingback: Ridden and Reviewed: Currie Tech iZip Path+ E-Bike | The Performance Bicycle Blog

  9. Pingback: The official Campagnolo web site – Bicycle Parts and Components Cycling – The Newest Evolution in Mechanical Shifting | the quiet bicycle mechanic

  10. Bondt1 says:

    Is there a wieght difference? Where are the batteries stored?

    • Bondt1 says:

      Weight. (wait?)

    • BT says:

      Hi Bondt,

      There’s a very slight weight difference, but not much. There are two types of batteries for electronic systems: newer ones use a thin battery that slots inside of the seattube or seatpost. The older types use an external battery that mounts on either the downtube, the bottom bracket shell, or on the non-drive chainstay, depending on where the frame mounts are.

  11. Steve Lambert says:

    I’ve already had two riders in out group with reliability problems, i.e. the gruppo work shift. Both riders have had to use their back up bikes while things were sorted. I love gadgets, and have several Garmins, a power meter, and so on, but I still prefer knowing my drivetrain will get me home. I understand, though, that you are part of the industry and need to promote this stuff.

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