TACX Vortex Smart Review Part 1: The Build

Hello Everyone,

img_5467The TACX Vortex Smart comes in as a very affordable option as a Smart Trainer.  Suggested retail price for this trainer is $550.  However, through a deal that REI had at the time, I was able to purchase this trainer for $440.  We are going to review this trainer in 3 parts.  I normally try to stick to a Build and Ride review, but this trainer operates a bit differently than the other mid range trainers that I have reviewed.  The TACX Vortex Smart uses a virtual power curve and adjusts resistance from that.  This means we need to spend some time in Part 2 looking at the setup.  If we don’t set this trainer up right, there is lots of potential for inaccurate power readings.  That will skew my review and I would hate to not give it the chance it deserves.

TACX Vortex Smart Review Part 2: Spin Down Calibration

TACX Vortex Smart Review Part 3: The Ride!

Support the site and purchase your Tacx Vortex Smart

If you want to skip all the words, here is my video below.  My videos will show up on my Youtube Channel a few days before I get the written review complete.  Subscribe to my channel to get early access to the review.

Market Comparisons

screenshot-2016-12-02-21-00-45Like I said above, I won’t be comparing this trainer to the Wahoo KICKR Snap or the CycleOps Magnus.  The Vortex Smart just can’t compete on paper with the solid mid-range trainers in those categories.  This trainer is better compared to the Elite Qubo Digital Smart B+.  They have very similar stats.  However, the Qubo Digital Smart B+ comes in much cheaper than the Vortex smart.  Also, digging up stats on the Qubo is a bit hard when searching the internet.  Elite isn’t very forthcoming with displaying their information or stats.  It doesn’t matter, when it comes in, I will figure it all out when review the Qubo after the Vortex Smart.

Take a look at those price numbers in the graph.  The price on the right is what I actually paid for it.  I did get the Qubo for a deal with a European seller, but I still need to figure out what their warranty and return policy is.  Buying a TACX trainer or Elite trainer from a local bike shop is a consideration here.  I don’t think these two companies take returns directly like Wahoo or CycleOps.  This means, if you buy it online and it breaks, you have to ship it back to the company where you purchased it.  Buying from your local bike shop may mean paying a slightly higher price, but the bike shop will handle the return for you.  Paying for peace of mind is worth something when you end up with a trainer that is a lemon.

What You Get

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The Driver comes as one complete unit that you attach to the frame with two bolts.

When Unpacking the Vortex Smart, we see a metal and aluminum frame right up front.  We also have the main resistance unit that comes in one piece.  In that piece, is all of the electronics, 3.6lb flywheel, and electromagnets put together in one casing.  You get a power cord which is about 2 feet too short.  Yes, I hate cheap power cords.  You will need an extension cord with this trainer.  The plug is not very long.  It is 6 feet in length and really needs to be 8 feet.  You also need to assemble this trainer, but it is only putting the driver unit on the frame.  It wasn’t that hard to do, but you do need to pay attention to the placement of the driver when it goes on the frame.  There are little marks on there that correspond to wheel size (see picture below).

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I found that number 3 just didn’t seat up well with my 700mm tires, so I chose number 2 instead.  Number 2 was much better.
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Front wheel block fits into the trainer and serves as a great carrier handle.

Design and Style

I also like that they throw in a wheel block.  I think if a trainer needs a wheel block, it should come with it.  We are paying good money for these trainers and wheel blocks should be mandatory.  The front wheel block is unique because it bolts into the trainer for easy storage.  You can use it as a handle, and move it very easily.  This trainer weighs in at 20lbs, so it is pretty easy to pick up and store.

The other great piece of engineering here is the plastic balls that fit in between the leg arms and the frame they are attached too.  I’ve heard rumor that the KICKR Snap, which has some really smooth leg action, can get some rubbing and squeaking after a while due to metal on metal rubbing.  As you can see from the picture below, TACX has engineered this problem out of their design.  That’s smart, and great for long term use.  This is the kind of trainer you could store easily which means lots of opening and closing the legs.

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Plastic ball that the leg closes and extends on.  This will reduce wear and tear in the future and hopefully keep the squeaking down.

The overall build of this trainer is decent.  I say decent if you are buying it for under $499.  If we really look at this trainer at $550, then it is Average to below average build compared to the KICKR Snap.  I don’t see many people buying a Vortex Smart for $550 when they can just spend an extra $49 to get the KICKR Snap.  Also, with the lightweight frame, there is going to be a bunch of rocking and rolling when I try to sprint.  I haven’t done it yet, but I know a 20lbs trainer isn’t going to do a good job of keeping me stable during high powered sprints.

For the sturdier rider over 200lbs, I don’t see this as your trainer.  You are going to completely dominate the Vortex Smart and I don’t see it holding up to someone who has a larger build.  The legs are made of aluminum and don’t seem extremely sturdy.  I’m confident they’re fine for riders under 200lbs, but riders above that well…

Looking under the Hood

We are just going to cover the basics here of what we see under the hood.  If you ever want to get a look at the communications pieces of any trainer out there, you can go to the FCC’s website and look them up.  You can see all the communications testing that smart trainers need to go through before they are certified.

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Looking to the other side of the Vortex Smart there is a lot of interesting things going on.  This is why I will need to review this trainer in 3 parts.  Setting up this trainer correctly is going to be critical in getting power numbers that are accurate.  I’ve already been fooling around with setup and I have determined if you don’t do it right, you might think this trainer is junk.  Well, that wouldn’t be fair if I didn’t do it right.

The Vortex Smart is basically a Mag Trainer with electromagnets to provide smart control.  The trainer is using a virtual power curve internally and then adding a certain amount of power into the electromagnets.  I find it a very interesting idea.  However, you are now exposing the customer to two scenarios where things can get very inaccurate.  I’ll take about those later.

One one side of the trainer is the communications and main boards with the flywheel.  On the other side, we have all the resistance control.  In the picture below, you can see a metal plate that rotates across some Neodymium Magnets (NeoMagnets).   Those magnets provide a base level of mag resistance.  We will call that our base virtual power curve.  I used a metal hex wrench and dragged it across each spot and verified that there were indeed 8 magnets back there.  (Learn More About Neodymium Magnets) NeoMagnets are also the strongest commercial magnets available for use.  They won’t lose magnetic resistance over time.  This guarantees that the baseline virtual power curve used should last a long time.

neomagnets

On the other side we see our 8 electromagnets evenly spaced apart.  This will be providing our smart resistance.  I imagine a certain amount of power is put into the electromagnets for certain wattage requirements over the baseline virtual power curve.  That is an inventive way to do smart power.  However, it leaves the consumer open to error on two possible fronts.  You need to setup your bike like a virtual trainer.  Each time you get on the Vortex Smart, you need to have identical tire pressure each time.  Otherwise, your base curve and upper levels of resistance will be off.  Furthermore, there is a Smart Component here and we need to spend at least 5 minutes warming up our trainer before we do our spin down calibration.  Miss one or the other, and I bet your wattage will be off.  I’ll cover that in more detail in part two and show you the wattage differences when you don’t do it correctly.

Supporting Products

TACX has two main apps.  They have the TACX Utility app where you can do your firmware update and spin down.  I would highly recommend doing the TACX Spin down.  It looks like they take into consideration the tire pressure and contact when doing the calibration.  That is probably figured out by spin down time.  At least that is the way I would do it.

TACX also has their own training App.  I didn’t have the time to dive into their training App yet, but it does look very extensive.  I’ll look into this later in the week.  However, I will not be doing a full review on their training app any time soon.

Summary

Overall, I’m excited about using this trainer.  Mostly due to the fact that I get to run my Stages power meter behind this trainer and really see what can get screwed up during different spin down situations.  I’ve heard people reporting 40+ watt differences between the Vortex Smart reporting power and a power meter with a strain gauge.  I am betting those people are not setting up their Vortex Smart the right way.

I’m not going to be over critical with the Vortex smart and it’s performance.  Like I said at the beginning, on paper it just doesn’t stack up to the Mid-Range Smart trainer.  This is your basic entry level smart trainer and will be reviewed as such.  I think you will start seeing the price drop on this trainer in the future.  I don’t see how the Vortex Smart can compete at $550.  Keep an eye on this blog as I’ll be doing part 2 this weekend on how to properly setup this trainer so it reports correctly.  After that, I’ll spend some more time on it next week and see how it really performs on The Sufferfest App and Zwift.

Aaron Johnson

Aaron Johnson

Aaron served in the military for 20 years. Multiple tours in Iraq and Afghanistan. He retired from the military after 20 years of service to take care of our three small children in 2013 as a Stay At Home Dad.

athletictechreview has 55 posts and counting.See all posts by athletictechreview

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