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

 

36 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.

    • rick gann says:

      I wanted to take apart and rebuild a Dura Ace 9sp shifter and found there are a hundred or more parts— it is actually rocket science – like a swiss watch all springs and cams – a work of art
      Alternatively the gear components for an electronic shifter only require a switch – I would bet that over time the manufacturers will compete each other down until the incremental cost of the switch over a brake only handle is 50 cents [in fact you could DIY with a switch on the handlebar]
      In fact it wont be long before someone comes up with a simple electronic box that pulls cables with user adjustable increments and you can just use the mechanical Integra setup bypassing the shifters and cables

      • Damian says:

        I am sure the prices will come down but for now there is a gap as wide as the grand canyon. I just looked and a Dura Ace 9000 rear derailleur is $148, a Di2 is $507 and for a front it’s $67 vs $271. That is a huge difference and just one of many reasons I always steer people away form electronic.

  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…

    • Terrence Bennett says:

      I have to disagree. Electronic shifting was first introduced back in the 1990’s and it flopped. Magic was the first and if I’m not mistaken, Campy tried back then too with no success.

      Disc brakes have many shortcomings too. Don’t be too impressed yet. Those “archaic” brakes seem to perform better in the most grueling braking conditions at high speeds. Think about it: Isn’t the rotor on the conventional system the actual rim? It can cool down faster because it’s larger and can get more air on the surface between contact with the pads. The downside is that the pads aren’t as stellar and many have an issue with the aesthetics of a brake strip on their carbon wheels. Disc brakes would be a legitimate answer for that, but I don’t like the busy look of disc brakes, not to mention the added weight. Maybe one day disc brakes will be functional and attractive at the same time….. Or someone will found a way to incorporate a quality, reliable internal system inside the hub.

      Sorry for rambling on, but as much as I love my 7910 Di2 2011 Felt F1, I’m in the market this time for a 9000 equipped bike. Di2 is great and has been trouble-free,but it feels like there’s some substance missing in the translation. I can shift by myself thank you and fine tune my rig too. The mechanical system isn’t idiot-proof, but I’m no idiot. Racing next year will still be a pleasure regardless.

      • exmaschine says:

        I hear what you’re saying, but ultimately, it’s from a retrospective pov. The future IS discs and fully automated electronics. Guaranteed.

      • Damian says:

        I agree the electronic is the future, but not because it is any better but because manufacturers will leave you with no other option. I have ridden Di2 and aside from needing slightly less strength in my fingers to shift I saw no real benefit over a top shelf mechanical and it was more prone to accidental shifts on bumpy roads. Disk brakes work fine and are a cheaper solution to the problems of heat build up and poor wet breaking on carbon rims as opposed to extensive R&D to improve the breaking track on the rim. In the end it will be the future but mostly because it will cost manufactures less and they will charge you more, not because it is really any better.

    • Kairos Levi says:

      For the travelling cycling, who tosses his bike into a bike bag or box, who rides remote climbs in countries where there are no bike shops, for those of us exposed to high humidity, heat, dust, torrential rain, mud, muck, packs of game stray dogs, poor roads where the probability of a crash is high; the reliability of a mechanical group-set is unparalleled.

      Dura Ace 9000 is the pinnacle of mechanical shifting and it is probably the last great mechanical groupset we will see as the attn. shifts (no pun intended) to electronic groupos. I predict that next year Shimano will release a wireless group-set with small solar panels that trickle charge the battery and extend it’s life, when electronic shifters have been fine tuned to Dura-Ace-like levels of dependability then I may make the switch, until then I will be riding the dog infested South American mountains on Dura Ace Mechanical.

  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.

      • Terrence Bennett says:

        I agree with this but the possibility of failure is still there and with parts costing a mint in comparison, it’s not worth it yet. Practically every product out there is field tested. 10years of development should lead to trouble-free technology, but real world experience dictates otherwise. 10 years is a lot, so problems should be a non-issue. If there are issues, then there there has been ä lack of QC over that decade of testing. I applaud what both companies accomplished this time. Mavic’s R&D was pretty thorough too but that rear derailleur still had lots of issues. Campy and Shimano has pretty much sealed the position of electronic shifting for the time being. Let’s see what SRAM has to offer.

      • Damian says:

        As someone who works in the tech sector I would remind you that not all bugs can be fixed with a firmware update. Electronic shifting was inevitable, not because it’s better but the mechanical had gotten so good all the way down the lines that it was the only way to get consumers to spend more money.

  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!

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  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.

      • Damian says:

        It’s not that slight, current Di2 is 300g more than Sram Red, and more than a $1000 dollars more, that could be spent on things like better, lighter wheels. If you are building a bike to a fixed budget your Di2 bike will be considerably heavier than the mechanical. This doesn’t matter to pros as they are not paying for it and the UCI weight limit.

  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.

  12. Rckrd says:

    Mechanical! Rim brakes, just wish for bettered brake tracks on carbon wheels.

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  15. Froze says:

    Cost to fix or repair was completely ignored as was the reliability factor of the CPU and servo motors, it’s highly doubtful that if a CPU or servo fails that a shop can replace them, no, you’ll have to get another new derailleur, but another overlooked issue is CPU or servo failure is what happens when one fails and you’re 50 miles from home? losing the CPU or servo or a battery 50 miles from may not be an issue if the system stopped in gear you can use all the way back, but if you have steep climbs to worry about and it stopped in a small gear you’ll probably be walking those climbs. Servos do wear out from normal wear and tear and abuse, the average life expectancy of a servo is 3 years, but that is in the RC world, how that will translate into the cycling world is yet to be determined, and CPU’s are known to fail. Add on top of all of that is the wireless system, I’ve had 3 wireless computers and the sending unit on all 3 never lasted more than 4 years which I can assume would be the case for wireless shifting. All I can see from this is more of the trend that cycling is going, more expensive parts and labor needing to be replaced more often which is turn keeps churning your money out of your bank account and into theirs.

  16. Tom says:

    One thing that wasn’t mentioned – I’m looking for opinions because I’m about to buy a new bike. Don’t batteries (all batteries) fail faster at lower temps? I follow a tri-athlete on podcast / twitter / etc. She had an electronic system, and the weather for her Ironman was particularly cold (40s maybe?) and even though she had charged her bike before she racked it the night before, the batteries were dead half way through the bike = no more shifting. Thoughts?

    • BT says:

      Hi Tom, first thought is that she may have had an issue with the battery itself, like overcharging, or something else went wrong– one possibility we’ve run into in the past is leaning the bike against something that accidentally pushes on the shift lever and runs the battery down. 40 is cold, but not so cold that I’d imagine it’s outside of the battery’s operating temperature spec. Around the office plenty of us have been riding electronic through the winter, and haven’t noticed any batteries draining particularly fast. I don’t think I’ve charged my EPS system since November and it still reads a 55% charge, and that’s doing about 100 miles a week, with recent a 4-hour ride in 30-ish weather.

      • Tom says:

        Thanks for the info! I think I’m going to need to think about this a bit … I’m looking at a Cervelo P3 triathlon bike, and I can go with Ultegra or UltegraDi. The cost difference is almost enough to do a good wheel upgrade, so I don’t know where the money is better spent (or do I convince the wife that I should have both electronic shifting and awesome wheels!) Then, I still worry that when electronic fails, it’s going to fail hard – if something goes wrong 50 miles from home I’ll be S.O.L. But I guess I could be anywhere and have a chain break or a mechanical cable snap. Oh how to decide!?

    • BT says:

      Hey Tom, glad we could help! The Cervelo is a fine bike, but you might also want to look at the Kestrel 4000 or the Fuji Norcom. Both are considered to be among the best tri bikes around, and we usually have pretty good deals on them, which could save you some money for that wheel upgrade (although the Di2 bikes already come with excellent, deep section carbon wheels). Plus, we have a lifetime guarantee on everything we sell, so if at some point in the future your Di2 has any problems, we’ll take care of everything, no hassle and no additional cost.
      Here are some options we have available:
      http://www.performancebike.com/bikes/SubCategory_10052_10551_401102_-1_400001_400306

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  18. Dan says:

    Have test ridden electric. Very nice. I look at it like this. Electric is like driving an automatic car. Mechanical is like driving a stick shift. Both get the job done and done well. I like the feel of mechanical. If I was racing I might opt for electric because it’s fast and precise. So for a guy like me.. long rides, charity rides, Fondos, it’s hard to justify the extra cost at the moment and pushing thru the mechanical gears is still fun and active VS the passive feel of electric.

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