The best smart trainers

We put data-rich, power-sensing, avatar-racing smart trainers through their paces

This article first appeared on BikeRadar

It started with phones, moved to TVs, and now it seems like everything has to be 'smart' these days, including turbo trainers.

Having something to entertain or guide you while you're slogging your guts out on your own makes sense. And having accurate feedback on your power — or even control on required power — is invaluable for training.

But what companies mean by 'smart' can vary. Some units are ANT+, so need a dongle to connect to your phone, tablet or computer, but can link to most bike computers. Some are Bluetooth-only, so can connect to electronic devices without a dongle — but can't connect to most cycle computers. The CycleOps comes in either ANT+ or Bluetooth. Others are smart enough to communicate in both protocols so you can connect to whatever device you like.

There are two main selling points for smart trainers, and they both center around interactivity. By measuring power and cadence, smart trainers can animate both virtual riding games like Zwift and facilitate specific training with programs like TrainerRoad. This can also be done with a regular trainer and a power meter, though.

The cool thing about smart trainers is that third-party software like Zwift and TrainerRoad can control resistance as you ride. Hit a hill in Zwift and all of a sudden you are really having to grind out the power; come to a rest interval in TrainerRoad and the power required immediately drops to the prescribed level.

Updated December 2016

Things to consider

1. Brain

The 'smart' trainers here offer everything from ultra-accurate wattage monitoring to wireless connectivity, but always check which devices it's compatible with and whether you need extra sensors to use all its functions.

2. Direct drive

Direct-mount trainers use their own cassette and axle to replace your rear wheel. That reduces tyre wear and improves handling, and the larger flywheel gives a smoother, 'richer' ride. They're often heavy and pricey, though.

3. Axle clamp

The appearance of different axle standards can impact on turbo trainer choice. Most direct-mount or wheel-driven trainers can cope with 130 or 135mm QR axles, but 142x12mm-compatible trainers are still quite rare.

4. Wheel Drive

The traditional wheel-driven trainer uses a metal or urethane roller pressed against the rear tyre. They're generally cheaper than direct-mount designs but wear tyres out quickly and are generally noisier and slightly less stable.

5. Frame

Whether you go for a wheel or direct drive design, you want a frame that's heavy and stable enough to lock your bike in place securely and not wobble or wander around if you're giving it full gas out of the saddle. However, bulkier frames are inevitably harder to store and transport.

6. Brake

Most brakes use a metal disc and magnet to create contact-free resistance. Fluid brakes use a paddle or impeller in an oil tank that naturally increases resistance the harder you pedal. Flywheels add the momentum you need to stop pedalling feeling jerky.

In all cases wattage was compared to a Stages power meter. Some were also compared to an SRM power meter. Noise levels were measured at the handlebar in decibels, and spin-down times are from 200W to stationary (on the lightest resistance setting, where applicable).

The best smart trainers

Tacx Flux Smart

Tacx Flux Smart

Price: £699 / $900 / AU$1,100

The Tacx Flux Smart is a direct drive trainer, in the sense that it replaces the back wheel of your bike by mounting the cassette of cogs onto an axle embedded in the turbo. That obviously removes tyre wear, tyre/roller noise and tyre/roller slippage out of the equation and holds the bike — and you — more securely than a conventional turbo trainer.

While there are cheaper direct drive trainers on the market, the Flux is currently the cheapest one available with full F-CE smart integration (but more on that later).

Inevitably there are some cost cutting features such as a bolted crosspiece that creates a stable but bulky tripod stance rather than the folding, self-locking 'wings' of the Neo.

With 17 years of development since Tacx hooked up its first interactive trainer, there's also a wealth of 3D tracks and films in the free Tacx Cycling app and pay-to-play fourth generation Tacx Trainer software — that can all be linked to Tacx's own Cloud storage.

Once warmed up it's impressively accurate with just a couple of minor idiosyncrasies that are easy to work around. In other words it closes the previous price gap with conventional turbo trainers while still delivering all the advantages of a direct drive trainer and it's currently the only unit to do it at anywhere near it's price point.

Tacx Vortex Smart

Tacx Vortex Smart

Price: £400 / $530 / AU$749
Noise level (200W): 85dB

The Vortex Smart builds on the Satori Smart's simple set-up, easy connectivity and user-friendly apps by electrifying the brake. This means you can alter resistance via adjustable power or gradient settings on the excellent and free Tacx app (or any other virtual training software).

The resistance tops out at 950W or a 7 percent slope, so really powerful riders will overrun it, but for the rest of us it'll be fine. It creates a really smooth feel with realistic road-like momentum and the power settings are very accurate, if slightly slow to update compared to our Stages cranks. You can also run it as a fluid-feeling progressive trainer when not 'smart'-connected.

Tacx Satori Smart

Tacx Satori Smart

Price: £250 / $400 / AU$569
Noise level (200W): 90dB

The Satori Smart does everything you need to hook up with the latest training software or just tech up your sessions. Like most budget trainers, the metal-sheathed roller can slip under sprint loads until you get the tension right, and it's noisy at high speeds. The splayed leg base is stable, the cam-axle lock-and-roller engagement is quick and secure and it comes with a front wheel-levelling block. Ride feel is smooth and balanced, and there's a mechanical remote lever to add resistance.

It self-generates ANT+ and Bluetooth Smart signals so doesn't need a mains hook-up, and effortlessly syncs power, speed and cadence data to iOS, Android and Windows PCs. The free training software is intuitive and it's compatible with Zwift or other online simulators.

Tacx Neo Smart

Tacx Neo Power

Price: £1,200 / $1,599 / AU$2,299
Noise level (200W): 78dB

While the multi-coloured LED light show that goes on underneath the trainer can be a little gimmicky, the overall performance of this trainer certainly is not. Impressively accurate power, smooth and quiet operation and the ability to use the trainer unplugged are among the positives. We'd love to see this trainer lowered so you wouldn't need a block for the front wheel and we'd also like to see the price come down. Otherwise this is an excellent option.

Wahoo Kickr

Wahoo Kickr

Price: £949 / $1,099 / AU$1,399
Noise level (200W): 70dB

After riding the original Kickr for two years, I have been testing the new Kickr this winter and sharing notes with my colleague Guy Kesteven. The new Kickr is just as sturdy as before, connects quickly via ANT+ or Bluetooth to smartphones, computers and bike computers, and the updates — like a more ergonomic grip, a more convenient plug-in location and 11-speed compatibility — are welcome changes.

Wahoo says the new unit is quieter, but I can't tell the difference. My little iPhone decibel meter pegs it at about 70dB when riding steady at 200w.

The Wahoo Kickr has a built-in power meter that allows you to not only accurately measure your efforts, but also control them and there are a few ways to do this.

In terms of hardware, the Kickr adjusts quickly to preset heights for road, 650c and 29in bikes, and the hub spacing can flip between 130mm and 135mm for road and mountain spacing. No front wheel block is needed as the rear hub height matches that of the selected wheel.

The Kickr is an excellent if expensive tool. The lab-like ability to dial in exact wattage resistance is a huge training asset and when paired with structured workout software like something from TrainerRoad, it brings indoor solo training to a new level. When used with Zwift, indoor riding can actually be engaging.

Elite Drivo

Elite Drivo

Price: £1200 / $1,299 / AU$1,750
Noise level (200W): 71

Elite already had some of the most accurate, maximum workout Pro racer proof trainers in its line up, but the new Drivo brings a whole new level of lab quality data and accuracy to your home.

It's a heavy beast to haul round, but with the cassette already fitted and just the front T bar leg to swivel round you're good to go straight from the box.

The pre-calibrated wattage reading is hyper accurate when cross-checked with Stages cranks and comes from multiple sensors, which combine with built in (or optional strap on) cadence sensing to allow full circle pedal stroke analysis for a nominal upgrade fee.

Smooth spin and 2,200 watt max resistance will cope with any sprint and it'll still deliver 950Watts of resistance at 20kph for 25% gradient simulations. The three point stance can wobble if you get really wild though and while the big plastic Star Wars AT-AT style casing stops free-range pets and toddlers getting mangled by moving parts, you'll need to be careful with bike and chain not to make it look grubby.

While it's fine with third party software, Elite's own Myetraining software and apps need patience to set up and decipher too, although the data and range of virtual rides/tests/simulations is amazing once you start seeing the matrix.

Kinetic Rock & Roll 2 inRide

The Kinetic Rock and Roll 2 inRide offers a completely different experience to other trainers

Price: £465 / $569 / AU$ TBC
Noise level (200W): 80dB

The RnR II has a massively heavy and bulky lower frame that attaches to the bike and brake mount section, and sits on a large rubber block that allows you to lean as you corner and the whole device to swing during out-of-saddle efforts. It definitely needs the dedicated swivelling front-wheel mount (additional cost) to naturally correct sideways flop, but it feels surprisingly realistic, particularly when used with a POV ride simulation or race footage. Add a massive flywheel and fluid brake and you've got the smoothest, longest-spinning and most natural-feeling trainer here.

The inRide pod, which is sold separately, turns it smart with a reasonably accurate wattage reading plus cadence, speed and other data using the free Kinetic app or other synced software.

Wahoo Kickr Snap

Wahoo Kickr Snap

Price: £650 / $699/ AU$949
Noise level (200W): 83dB

Wahoo's Snap mounts a similar smart brake to the groundbreaking Kickr on a conventional roller-driven frame for much less. Maximum resistance is slightly lower and it's a tad noisier than the Kickr — but it's still quieter than most. The inertia from the massive flywheel does result in tyre slip on standing starts, but helps it sustain speed too.

Despite having the same type of frame as some cheap trainers we've tested, it's stable even when sprinting. Wahoo's free, multi-screen app is easy to use and comprehensive in terms of data and it links directly to virtual ride or other software via Bluetooth.

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