Updated February 2017 with more trainer reviews and new acceleration information on the Wahoo Kickr
Turbo trainers are now morphing into smart trainers to help you get more from your indoor training but what is a smart trainer and which one is best for your needs? We've tested a whole bunch to see how they stack up.
The term 'smart trainers' refers to indoor resistance units that can interact with software, so programs like the virtual-riding Zwift and the prescribed-interval TrainerRoad control the resistance you feel when pedaling. Most smart trainers work on both ANT+ and Bluetooth. ANT+ is the common wireless protocol for cycling products like heart-rate monitors, and Bluetooth is standard on most newer smartphones, tablets and computers.
Besides interactive resistance control, the other main selling point of a smart trainer is power measurement. Like a power meter, a smart trainer will tell you exactly how hard you are working.
Why buy a smart trainer? 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 precise control on required power — is invaluable for training.
Yes, you can do both Zwift and TrainerRoad on a normal trainer or on rollers. But with a smart trainer, when you hit a virtual hill, all of a sudden you are really having to grind out the power. Similarly, when doing intervals, the resistance will be pinpointed to the specified level, and when you finish, the power required immediately drops to the prescribed level.
Here are the best we've tested.
The best smart trainers
Tacx Flux Smart
- Price: £699 / $900 / AU$1,100
The Tacx Flux Smart trainer 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.
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 smart trainer 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.
One point to note: When used in in ERG mode for intervals, the Kickr will hold an eerily straight power line. This is because Wahoo has removed acceleration from the algorithm. For the most part, this is a good thing; it keeps your power graphs satisfyingly tidy. But if you stop pedaling partway through an interval, it is a bear to get back on top of the gear.
Tacx Vortex Smart
- Price: £400 / $530 / AU$749
- Noise level (200W): 85dB
The Vortex Smart trainer 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
- Price: £250 / $400 / AU$569
- Noise level (200W): 90dB
The Satori Smart trainer 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
- 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 smart 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.
- Price: £1,100 / $1,199 / AU$1,699
- Buy now from Chain Reaction
- Noise level (200W): 70dB
CycleOps has made solid trainers for decades and, under its PowerTap brand, power meters for almost as long. The new Hammer direct drive smart trainer combines both technologies, with the ability to not only measure power but wirelessly control resistance in sync with third-party training software like Zwift or TrainerRoad.
In general, the Hammer performs very well, on par with the category leader, the Wahoo Kickr.
Whether mimicking hills in a virtual program or raising and dropping resistance to a specific wattage with an interval program, the Hammer smoothly adjusts the ride with electromagnetic power working in tandem with a 20lb flywheel.
The Hammer is an excellent smart trainer that quickly connects to the major training software and apps, and controls resistance smoothly and strongly.
- 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 smart trainer 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 My E-training 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
- Price: £465 / $569 / AU$ TBC
- Noise level (200W): 80dB
The RnR II smart trainer 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
- Price: £650 / $599/ AU$949
- Buy now from Wahoo Fitness
- Noise level (200W): 83dB
Wahoo’s Snap smart trainer 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.