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Best cheap smart trainers 2023: get connected without the cost

Mar 18, 2023Mar 18, 2023

The best cheap smart trainers will get your indoor training going without breaking the bank

The best cheap smart trainers will kick start your indoor training without the expense of many of the best smart turbo trainers. As indoor training has increased in popularity, trainer makers have trickled their products down to lower price points. Once a premium product, the best budget smart trainers offer similar functionality at a more reasonable price.

Indoor cycling doesn't just allow you to avoid grotty weather outdoors, it offers many other advantages. Indoors is a more controlled environment where you can concentrate on your riding, not the traffic. The gradients come to you, rather than you needing to seek out a hill to train on and a smart trainer will track your efforts and output without investing in a power meter.

The best indoor training apps make the experience a lot more immersive too, with the best budget smart trainers letting you ride and compete with other cyclists in on Zwift and other online cycling platforms, rather than just staring at a series of ramps to overcome.

Here, we've rounded up our pick of the best cheap smart trainers, so you can begin your indoor journey. At the bottom of the page our buyer's guide to affordable smart trainers will help you decide what to look for.

You can trust Cycling Weekly. Our team of experts put in hard miles testing cycling tech and will always share honest, unbiased advice to help you choose. Find out more about how we test.

Trainers come in two principal varieties: wheel-on and wheel-off, also called direct drive. In general, direct drive trainers are more expensive than wheel-on models. We'll start off with cheap wheel-on options and then look at the budget direct drive variety.

Our expert review:

It seems a bit unfair to compare a wheel-on smart trainer to its high end direct-drive stablemate, but the specification and performance of the Wahoo Kickr SNAP make it hard not to do so. After all, maximum power of 1,500W and a 12% simulated incline are figures that are much more usually seen on direct-drive machines.

The SNAP has a great planted feel and one of the smoothest wheel-on trainers we've ridden. No, it's not as smooth as a direct-drive turbo but that's a small price to pay given it retails at a third of the price.

At low powers we found the accuracy to be less than the claimed +/- 3% but this improved at higher intensities where these things matter more. Power readings can be a bit spikey, although this largely seemed to be due to an absence of excessive smoothing that more expensive machines are capable of rather than a variation in resistance. There's also a bit of a lag in resistance change at the turn of programmed intervals which we've picked up in other similar priced machines.

Read our full Wahoo Kickr Snap wheel-on smart trainer review

Our expert review:

The Tacx Flow is easy to set up and lightweight and can be used unpowered for warm-ups at events. It's very stable, with wide legs and it offers BLE and ANT+ connectivity to transmit speed, power and cadence data to a head unit.

There's a bit of a lag in ramping up resistance both when controlled by Zwift and using ERG mode, which can result in sudden increases when performing certain workouts.

The wheel-on design gives you more limited climb simulation than a direct drive unit at up to 6 per cent and maximum resistance is 800 watts, with accuracy of +/- 5 per cent, although we found the Tacx Flow read lower than comparison power meters.

Read our full Tacx Flow wheel-on smart trainer review

Our expert review:

With wooden legs and a square drive unit, the Elite Tuo looks smarter than most trainers. It folds up very small and is lightweight. It's easy to set up your bike on the trainer and thru-axle adapters come with it rather than being an extra.

Elite claims power accuracy of +/-5 per cent, with simulated gradients of up to 10 per cent and 1,300 watts maximum resistance. The ride feels very smooth, with no skips from the roller and power and cadence were accurately measured except in short, high power sprint efforts.

Read our full Elite Tuo wheel-on smart trainer review

Our expert review:

Zwift's entry into the world of training hardware is easy to get started with. It's easy to mount your bike and to connect via ANT+ and BLE and you can also use it as a bridge from a heart rate monitor or other device to a head unit. Its resistance stats are good and it has a 1.7kg flywheel. It also comes with an 11-speed Shimano-compatible cassette ready-fitted.

We rated the ride experience both when linked up to training software (you're not restricted to Zwift) and in ERG mode. It's relatively quiet and adequately stable, despite the parallel legs. There's no carry handle, although the trainer's weight means that it's not too hard to move around without. The legs don't fold, so it's not as easy to store as some other options.

Read our full Zwift Hub review

Our expert review:

The Elite Zumo's spec sheet totally belies what a well rounded trainer this is. The cheapest trainer on test, it's also the lightest and has the lightest flywheel, the claimed accuracy is joint worst at ±3% and the maximum resistance is the lowest at 1,350w. The slope simulation stands out in being second shallowest at 12%.

Most of those points are immaterial, though. The max gradient of 12% is still more than enough for all your low cadence/high power interval needs – it's just that you’ll be pushing a slightly larger gear than with a Tacx Neo 2T or a Wahoo Kickr. Plus, if you haven't fiddled with the default realism settings in Zwift at all, the maximum gradient of 22% will be reduced to 11% and within the trainer's capabilities.

The maximum resistance of 1,350w is worth a little more of a consideration than that of the other turbos on test as it's not a number that's unfeasible for amateur riders to top. But as an amateur rider who's never once topped 1,300w, I still haven't been able to test its limits.

With that out of the way, let's get onto the more important bits. First, the ride feel. Despite having the lightest flywheel on test, the sensation riding was really very smooth - much better than the Jet Black Volt 2, which we’ll get on to later. Riding around the Sand And Sequoias map on Zwift, it responded to the gradient changes quickly and proportionally with barely any lag.

So far so good, but the flipside to this is that when riding in erg mode and doing a session such as 20/40s or 10x1min – anything where there's a big power differential – you can quietly easily end up in something of a ‘death spiral’ of ever increasing resistance as you struggle to spin your legs up to speed.

This is something that's true of all trainers to some extent, it's generally a good idea to spin up your cadence just before entering those intervals to give yourself a bit of a buffer. But this was a particular issue for the Zumo – and was also a problem for the higher end Direto that we tested last year, so it seems that this is a more general problem for Elite.

And speaking of general problems for Elite, when doing turbo sessions without erg mode, I found it was quite easy to end up running out of gears and spinning out. Even with a 50x11t combination – actual road, not gravel – I had to pedal uncomfortably fast to hold 250w.

This isn't an issue if you only free-ride in events and the like with the realism on, and it's not an issue if you only ride in erg mode (plenty of resistance can be provided there). But this is an issue for those who like the mental challenge of consciously holding a set wattage. And this is also an issue that Elite turbos have had problems with in the past – not the aforementioned Direto, that was fine, but the lower end wheel-on Tuo.

In all, the Zumo is super portable thanks to its carry handle, foldable legs and general lightweight build. At the same time, it's very stable thanks to its wide footprint and the resistance is very nicely controlled and feels very smooth despite the smaller flywheel.

It's let down by the propensity to ‘death-spiral’ when doing interval sessions with large power differentials in erg mode – an issue shared by its big brother, the Direto. And it's also let down by the low resistance when riding without the erg more or any realism, spinning out at about 250w – an issue shared by its little brother, the Tuo.

Our expert review:

First off, this is a really great turbo trainer. But that's what makes this one a little frustrating, as it is just so close to being the obvious go-to for pretty much everyone. But, as it is, there will be some people for whom it's not quite the right model – let's go though the performance.

With the heaviest flywheel on test, the Flux S also comes in as the heaviest trainer overall. Couple that with its unique footprint and you’ve got an incredibly stable platform – I’d say even potentially a little more stable than its big brother, the Tacx Neo 2T, which I tested last year.

Likewise, the resistance and ride feel of this entry-level model is impressively close to that of Tacx's flagship trainer. Changes in gradient were fast and smooth, whilst the resistance remained steady even when climbing at a low speed and low cadence – a challenging combination for a trainer.

The erg mode coped well with even large differences in power. The resistance would ramp up quickly whilst also not crushing my cadence in the way the Zumo did. Another point of contrast is that when riding without the erg mode on or not up any virtual gradients, I was able to push a comfortable cadence at 250w with plenty of sprockets to spare – no danger of spinning out.

In terms of the virtual ride feel and stability of the turbo, this was the best on test – and is better even than some turbos at a higher price point. The Elite Direto unequivocally and, for me, also the Wahoo Kickr – but we’ll get into that in more detail later on.

In having swept up on the fundamentals, it's fair to ask whether it goes on to clear any of the higher bars – is there any point in buying a more expensive model? Sadly, yes there is. But only for people with quite specific use cases.

First, the accuracy. Rated at ±3% this is the same as the Zumo. But it's worth pointing out this doesn't meet the ±2% cut off for the upper echelons of Zwift racing. For most people, this isn't a consideration – the majority of Zwift users aren't racers, and it's only a very small subsection of them who would be racing in those categories. But it's worth being aware of.

Similarly, for challenges such as a ‘virtual’ everesting, the rules stipulate that the realism must be set to 100%. If you’re planning on using the Alpe du Zwift for your attempt, then you’re going to fall foul of ‘the rules’, as the maximum gradient there is 14%.

Again both these points won't matter to most people, and is part of the reason why this is the trainer that we would recommend overall. But just because this trainer is so good, it is worth being aware of exactly where the limitations are, so that there aren't any surprises.

The other consideration is that this is not a trainer for moving about or stowing away. The legs don't fold and it is really very heavy.

Our expert review:

The Wahoo Kickr Core and the Tacx Flux S line up for a particularly interesting contrast. It's almost like a Venn diagram, but where the two circles have been pushed together so that it's just a thin sliver on either side where there isn't any overlap.

We’ll blast through the fundamentals pretty quickly again because, like the Tacx Flux S, the Wahoo Kickr Core executes these so well that it's worth spending a bit more time on the hair splitting points of differentiation.

Starting with the ride feel, I’d actually argue that the Core does better (in some aspects) than the flagship Kickr V5 I tested last year (although this model has now been surpassed by the V6).

How can this be? Well, my assumption is that it's down to the weight of the flywheels. With the Kickr V5, it always felt like there was a great deal of inertia to spin up when accelerating – for me it was a little less like riding out on the open road and a little more like that of a ‘spin bike’, with their huge fixed-gear flywheels.

True, the Tacx Neo 2T itself boasts an electromagnetic flywheel that can simulate a weight of up to 125kg, but it's not simulating that all the time, and, in my opinion, it has more of a ‘road feel’ than that of a Kickr V5.

Coming back to the Kickr Core, with the flywheel being 5.4kg compared to the 7.3kg of the V5, the sensation of accelerations felt just that bit more natural for me. Although this should be heavily caveated with the point that if you’re a heavier rider, you might well find the opposite.

In terms of the response to sudden changes of gradient and interval sessions with large differentials of power in erg mode, the resistance changed smoothly and quickly. It also didn't have a particular propensity to ‘death spiral’ and force you into pushing an ever lower cadence – all very good and very similar to the Kickr V5.

As mentioned, the Kickr Core does manage to hit points that the Tacx Flux S has missed. With an accuracy of ±2%, this is one of the cheaper entry points to high-end indoor racing. Plus, with a maximum gradient of 16%, you’ll be able to cut your vEversting teeth on the Alp du Zwift and feel every ramp. It's also an easier trainer to move around than the Flux S and takes up less space.

However, there are points which do let it down in comparison to the Flux S. First is the stability: these two-bar designs are much less stable than three leg versions – and the Flux is particularly solid.

Then there's the price. £100 more might not be too much when choosing between bikes, but it's a sizable chunk when it comes to turbos.

Our expert review:

Let's get this out the way first: the Jet Black Volt 2 does look pretty similar to the Wahoo Kickr Core. Coming in at the same list price, simulating the same maximum gradient and delivering the same maximum resistance – you might start to wonder if anything is different at all.

On closer inspection, there are quite a few areas where the two trainers are distinct. The first clue is in the weight. At 15.4kg for the Jet Black Volt 2 compared to 18.0kg for the Wahoo Kickr Core, there's obviously quite a chunk – to the tune of 2.6kg – that does vary between the trainers.

Part of that is down to the heft of the flywheel, coming in at 4.7kg for the Jet Black – the second lightest on test – compared to 5.4kg for the Wahoo Kickr Core. The housing of the flywheel also varies between them, with the Jet Black having a bit more of a plastic covering.

Rounding out the physical differences, the Volt 2's legs are oval rather than circular and the front bar is fixed in place, whereas the Wahoo Kickr Core can be adjusted vertically.

The performance is quite different as well – although this doesn't reflect so well on the Australian brand. Riding the Volt 2 on steep virtual climbs, the resistance felt distinctly choppy. It was like pushing through treacle between two and four o’clock on the pedal stroke, but past that it would ease up significantly - almost slipping past - before ramping up again at two o’clock on the other crank arm.

To be fair, this wasn't an issue when pushing higher power and cadence numbers (around 270w and 90 RPM), but the 180w and the 70 RPM that I was having these problems at aren't ridiculously low. Even the most powerful riders ride around that level when recovering between intervals – and for others this will be within their training zones.

I’m not entirely sure what the exact issue is here. You might think that it was the relatively light flywheel struggling with the steeper gradients, but the 7% inclines I first noticed the issue on were easily handled by the Elite Zumo – which has a lighter flywheel and a lower maximum gradient.

Although, with that said, the erg mode wasn't as aggressive as the Elite's and it was possible to ride without any additional resistance from climbs or the erg mode without spinning out – so the Volt 2 does have some positives over the Zumo.

But overall, the Tacx Flux S simply has a significantly better ride feel and, in those areas where the Flux S isn't the test leader (i.e. accuracy and gradient simulation), the Volt 2 doesn't ‘do the double’ either, and so isn't a compelling option.

If you're not sure how to decide on the best budget smart trainer for your needs, out buyer's guide will answer some key questions. For further advice, it's worth reading our guide to the best smart trainers that we've tested here at Cycling Weekly.

To be useful, a trainer has to offer variable resistance. Yes, you can spin away and varying your cadence will give you some training benefits, but working against varying resistance will give you more.

A non-smart trainer will give you an adjustment knob to up or reduce the resistance yourself. But a smart trainer will vary resistance automatically, which opens up a much more interesting experience when you link your trainer up to Zwift, Wahoo X or any one of a number of indoor training apps.

Your smart trainer will have Bluetooth and ANT+ connectivity to a cycling computer, smartphone, computer or other device built in, so you can link it up, collect up the other essentials for indoor training and start to ride.

The cheapest smart trainers are usually wheel-on options. They have the advantage that you can just anchor your bike in the trainer and start to ride. But among their disadvantages are that the trainer can wear through a rear tyre quickly, so you may need a harder compound indoor cycling tyre. The power measurement is likely to be less accurate than a direct drive model too.

A cheap direct drive trainer will give you more reliable power figures. Although it probably won't be as accurate as a premium model, a figure of +/- 3 per cent in power readings isn't going to make a lot of difference to your training and racing. You'll have to buy a cassette to hook up to your bike, but you'll save wear on your rear tyre.

An affordable smart trainer will give you the same basics of resistance variable by a programme like Zwift as a more expensive smart trainer.

As mentioned above, the absolute power accuracy may not be as precise as with a premium smart trainer, but it's not going to be enormously inconsistent. If you have a power meter on your outdoor bike, you can always use that for your indoor power measurement, so you get consistent results indoors and out.

Brands are adding new functionality to their premium models. In the case of the Tacx Neo 2T, that includes simulated cobbles and both the Neo 2T and the Wahoo Kickr, but not the brand's more affordable smart trainers, provide side-to-side movement for a more realistic ride feel.

Wahoo has now added WiFi to the updated Kickr too, so you can network it directly to the internet, increasing data bandwidth and allowing automatic firmware updates.

Paul started writing for Cycling Weekly in 2015, covering cycling tech, new bikes and product testing. Since then, he's reviewed hundreds of bikes and thousands of other pieces of cycling equipment for the magazine and the Cycling Weekly website.

He's been cycling for a lot longer than that though and his travels by bike have taken him all around Europe and to California. He's been riding gravel since before gravel bikes existed too, riding a cyclocross bike through the Chilterns and along the South Downs.

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Read our full Wahoo Kickr Snap wheel-on smart trainer review Read our full Tacx Flow wheel-on smart trainer review Read our full Elite Tuo wheel-on smart trainer review Read our full Zwift Hub review