Upgrading your Zwift experience

As I write this, we’re getting close to Black Friday and it’s Autumn/Fall in the Northern Hemisphere.   The weather has turned for the worse, which seems like a perfect time to look at how to step up your Zwift experience. It’s the season to upgrade your pain cave as you may be spending a lot of time in it over the next few months. This post is to help give you some ideas and suggestions on how you might choose to do this. If I’ve missed anything please feel to add suggestions in the comments.

I’m going to break this down into several different areas: Smart Trainers, Big Screens, Computers and final details, which will just make it a bit nicer.

Smart Trainers:

If you don’t have a smart trainer, then this in my view, is the biggest improvement you can make and is where you should spend your money first.

Here are some of the stand out choices in the mid and the high-end of the Smart Trainer market:

Mid-range Smart trainers:

Elite Direto:

With a retail price of £750, 1400W of resistance, the abllity to replicate a 14% climb and a stable, easy to fold up design, this is the mid-range trainer to beat in 2017. Find out why here

Check prices on the Direto at Wiggle, Probikekit and Evans Cycles

Tacx Flux:

This was the first mid range smart trainer, released last winter. It suffered a few teething problems at launch but these have been ironed out now. Compared to the Direto, the main differences are that the Flux can replicate a 10% slope, whereas the Direto can manage 14%. The Flux doesn’t have folding legs like the Direto, so may be more hassle to foldup if you don’t have a dedicated training space. The Flux is cheaper than the Direto by £50 at retail and likely more if you shop around.

Check prices  on the Tacx Flux at Wiggle, Probikekit and Evans Cycles

High End Smart Trainers

If you can stretch your budget to the top end, there are three options that stand out. At these higher price points you get significantly more powerful drive units with the ability to provide over 2,000 Watts resistance, greater power accuracy and the ability to mimic climbs above 20%. In the case of the Tacx Neo, you even get the ability to mimic road surfaces and an incredibly quiet trainer.

Tacx Neo: This is one of most impressive products I’ve ever reviewed (you can read my review here). I was so impressed I bought one and it’s now the benchmark for any trainer I have in to review. It’s accurate (power), incredibly quiet, powerful (up to 2200 Watts and 25% slopes). It requires no calibration and can mimic 14 different surfaces. In my view it is the state of the art for now. It’s not cheap at £1200 retail but deals can be found if you shop around.

Check prices on the Tacx Neo at Wiggle, Probikekit and Evans Cycles

Wahoo Kickr: This is the smart trainer that created the category. It first came to prominence with many riders when it became the smart trainer for Team Sky. The Wahoo Kickr, is reliable, accurate, works seamlessly with all of the key platforms and is a deservedly big seller. It’s a classic product that you can’t go wrong with.

Check prices on the Wahoo Kickr at Wiggle & Evans Cycles

If you fancy a Kickr Climb, you’ll need either one of these or a Kickr Snap too!

Wattbike Atom: For those people who want a dedicated set up to train on, or who are in a house where there is more than one person who wants to use a trainer, the new Wattbike Atom is also a strong choice. It’s a Wattbike for the Zwift generation, combining the static bike premise of the original Wattbike with a built in smart trainer that’s compatible with all of the latest connection standards. It’s brand new, in high demand and therefore the waiting lists are long for now. I’ve got one to review right now and you can read my early impressions here

You can order a Wattbike here

With any of the above trainers, you’re going to be getting the best out of your riding experience.

Big Screens

The next most important item worthy of an upgrade for the full-on Zwift experience is making the change to a large screen TV. Bigger is better here and a minimum of a 40” TV will make a big difference to how immersive the game is and from there it’s up to you on how much budget or space you can spare. I think that between 40 to 55 inches looks ideal (and I’m considering a 40” TV in the Black Friday sales – don’t mention that to my wife!). I’ve checked with Zwift and they tell me that they use 40 inch UHD (4K) TVs but run them at 1080p when they’re at events.

When looking at a large screen TV, the first decision to make is what resolution. For TV’s 40” and larger you need to decide between an HD TV (1080P) or a UHD or 4K TV. A 1080P TV displays images in 1920 x 1080 pixels. A 4K TV displays images in 3840 x 2160 pixels.

In simplistic terms a 4K screen should deliver a more detailed picture than a 1080P picture. So if you want the highest quality image – a 4K TV should be your choice. Of course, it’s not necessarily quite as simple as that. Viewing distance is also a factor and you need to be closer to a 4K screen to see the difference in resolution (and go for a larger screen) compared to a 1080p screen of the same size. The best thing to do is to visit some shops and see them yourself. Here are a couple of links on viewing distances https://www.crutchfield.com/S-T1FrIIrxBa0/learn/learningcenter/home/TV_placement.html & https://referencehometheater.com/2013/commentary/4k-calculator/

Another factor to consider with Zwift is that to deliver all of those extra pixels to a 4K screen you will need a higher performance computer or device to do this, so you may need a more powerful computer or graphics card if you choose a 4K screen. A factor unrelated to Zwift is that if you want to use your big new screen to also watch TV on, there aren’t a lot of 4K sources right now and the scaling up of HD or lower quality content, may not be great to watch (if you’re fussy about image quality).

If you’re in the UK like me, two retailers that offer long warranties on TVs are John Lewis (5 years) and Richer Sounds (6 Years) and I’d prefer a long warranty if at all possible. They also often price match deals found in other physical stores (as opposed to online retailers).

Here are a few suggestions on large screens that might be of interest:

Cheaper large screen TVs:

The Sony Bravia KDL40RE453 is a 40 inch HD TV with a reputation for a quality picture without Smart TV features, which reduces the price. If you want a simple good quality HD TV at 40 inches, this is a decent option. It’s available at Amazon here with a 5 year warranty but there are plenty of other retailers online selling these for around £370 at the time of writing. If you’d prefer having Smart TV features too, then the Sony Bravia KDL40WE663 is available with a 6 year warranty at Richer Sounds for only around £20 more.

If you want a larger full HD option, the Sony Bravia KDL49WE663 moves up to a 49” screen and adds some Smart TV features. Available via Amazon here or again at £479 with a 6 year warranty at Richer Sounds

Sony’s Bravia KDL49WE753 is their top of the range HD (1080P) TV and is well worth checking out at around £550. It’s at Richer Sounds with a 6 year warranty here

The Samsung range has some models worth checking out too. The What HiFi award winning Samsung UE40MU6400 is available at present from RGB Direct for £399 or with a 6 year warranty from Richer Sounds for £480 (John Lewis have been price matching at this price)

Philips TVs have a strong reputation, particularly in Europe and this 50PUS6262 50 Inch 4K UHD HDR Ambilight Smart TV looks good value for £499.00 from Argos: http://www.argos.co.uk/product/7238215

If you want to go larger, this Hisense 55N6800 is a 55” 4K TV for £679 with a 6 year warranty it was recommended for gaming at AV Forums in a recent review

If you have a much bigger budget, LG’s OLED TV’s are some of the best around but you’re looking at around £1500 for a 55 inch model.

Once you’ve chosen your new screen, you need a computer/device sufficiently powerful to run it at high frame rates and quality. This brings us to:

Computer upgrades for premium Zwifting

The good news is that Zwift isn’t the most demanding of games for a computer to run. However, if you want to have a great experience you need a decent machine to deliver maximum visual quality on your big screen.

If you already have a PC with room in the case for a new graphics card, it can be a relatively cheap upgrade. Using the Zwiftalizer site, you need a minimum of a Nvidia GeForce GTX 1050 Ti with 4Gb of video ram. A good option for one of those is this model from EVGA, that’s overclocked to squeeze out a bit more performance. The 1050 Ti doesn’t even need an extra power connector like most graphics cards, it is energy efficient and just takes what it needs via the motherboard. This card will run Zwift in 4K resolution fine and have no problems with 1080P. It’s a simple and effective graphics upgrade.

However if you want a higher frame rate or just more future proofing, it’s worth stepping up to the GeForce GTX 1060 with 6GB of video memory. These are about £100 more than the 1050 Ti cards and requires external power via your computers Power Supply Unit (you plug in a power cable directly into the graphics card). Here’s an EVGA GeForce GTX 1060 6GB card as an example. This is what I put in my own PC and it now easily runs Zwift in 4K resolution without breaking into a sweat

If you need to buy a gaming PC, there are two paths. Firstly a mini/small gaming PC and Zwift themselves seem to be big fans of Dell’s Alienware Alpha R2 gaming computers. These are about half the size of an Xbox console so are easy to find a place for. They can be bought from about £750 depending on spec. You can configure an order one here: http://www.dell.com/en-uk/gaming/alienware-desktops. In speaking with Zwift, they’ve told me that they use the i5 version of the Alpha R2 with 8gb of RAM and a solid state drive (SSD) (this is the exact model here currently available with a 12% discount code ESLUK and a potential additional 4% cashback through the Quidco site).

My only problem with the Alienware Alpha is that it’s now 2 generations behind on it’s CPU and at one generation behind on graphics. Now as I said, Zwift isn’t that taxing but I don’t really like buying old tech – unless it’s very cheap. The big plus of the Alienware Alpha is it’s diminutive size. It’s possible they’re about to upgrade this product as Dell seem to have reduced the number of models you can choose from.

This image from the recent Zwift/Wahoo event I went to shows their big screens all run by Alienware R2 gaming PCs

Another way forwards is just to buy an off the shelf gaming PC to run Zwift. If I was doing this, I’d probably just order an entry level Dell XPS desktop as these now come with a brand new 8th generation Intel i5 CPU and a GeForce GTX 1050 Ti graphics card mentioned above. You can find these here: http://www.dell.com/en-uk/shop/desktops-and-all-in-ones/xps-tower/spd/xps-8930-desktop and at the time of writing, Dell are offering £200 worth of discounts, taking the price down to £700 delivered. I think this is pretty good value if you just want a quality solution and don’t want to have to think about it too hard.

Of course another option is to build your own computer and https://uk.pcpartpicker.com/ is a good place to tinker with build ideas and prices.

The new Apple TV

There is now another cheaper way to run Zwift on your big screen. Zwift have released the new Zwift Apple TV app which allows you to run Zwift on your big screen in a 4K/1080p hybrid resolution. It’s not as good as runnning Zwift on a gaming PC but at £180 to £200, it’s much cheaper! More info here: https://www.apple.com/uk/shop/buy-tv/apple-tv-4k. The Zwift TV app is a free download from the app store.

At this point, you’re on the home stretch for the maximum Zwift experience. You’ve got your new Smart Trainer, your big screen TV and a computer to power it with in full 4K glory. There’s just a few bits and pieces to go…

The final details

If you don’t have a suitable place to put it, you might want a portable TV stand like this tripod, which is the exact model that Zwift use themselves with their 40″ screens. Check the VESA mount size on your new screen before you place your order though to make sure you’ve got one that’s compatible (they need to be the same size e.g. 200x200mm).

A good fan is essential if you don’t have one. I don’t have any particular favourites to recommend but if you find one with a remote control it’s really useful to be able change the speed of the fan as you ride, adjusting your cooling without having to get off your bike.

Some of the added extras to round out your new improved Zwift experience include training mats for your floor. There are lots of options out there from the trainer manufacturers themselves, but I just went for a couple of these trainer mats from Decathlon. They’re great value and I’ve managed to cover my floor for £40 delivered!

For your PC to connect to your Smart Trainer, you need an ANT+ USB dongle. I’ve had one of these Suunto ones for the last 3 years and it’s been faultless. If you have any issues with signal strength between your ANT+ dongle and your smart trainer, then a simple fix is to get a USB extension lead so you can place the ANT+ dongle much closer to your trainer. You can pick one of these up cheaply from lots of places including Amazon, like this one.

If you need a new heart rate monitor, I’m a big fan of the Wahoo Tickr, which works with both ANT+ or USB.

A desk or stand is a good idea to put your phone on while you ride and ebay is a great place to look for bargains for these. If you want to push the boat out, the Wahoo Desk looks great but it’s not cheap. A bar stool is also a cheap option for somewhere to rest your phone and your drink whilst your riding.

I hope you find this a useful reference. Any questions, please leave a comment.

Ride On!