When it comes to purchasing a power meter, my recommendation will always be to choose the most flexible product that your budget allows. For this reason I advise purchasing an on-bike unit that can be used both indoors and outdoors, and for training and racing. However, there are some compelling new indoor power training options that may fit your niche. Cycleops, maker of the most popular power meter, the Power Tap, has been incorporating its technology into spin cycles, and most recently, the PowerBeam Pro stationary trainer.
I have used Computrainers in my coaching business for over a decade. The Computrainer is a very sophisticated and accurate training tool that has a lot of bells and whistles, but is also quirky and not very user friendly. It functions as a stand alone ergometer/power meter or it can be hooked up to a PC for more featured functionality. The software that comes with the CT allows an athlete to ride courses and race other athletes in virtual reality, and it has a software device called “spin scan” that graphically displays where and how you are producing torque throughout the pedal stroke. The Spin Scan by itself is a valuable coaching and training tool that we often use in our bike fitting process.
How does the Computrainer compare to the new PowerBeam? It really depends on what your needs are. For out of the box ease of use, the PowerBeam fairly crushes the CT. It comes fully assembled and requires a short learning curve. If you have used a stationary trainer before, set up is a breeze. The wireless head unit functions in wattage mode (a feedback loop maintains consistent wattage as cadence varies) or slope mode, in which you can set the resistance, as if climbing a hill. The display is intuitive and functional. Within minutes you have your metrics of cadence, heart rate, power, etc. displaying and are you are rolling. The PowerBeam does have a virtual cadence (senses cadence by power fluctuation) function similar to a Power Tap, although the lag time is a bit longer. If you don’t want to hook up the wireless cadence sensor and don’t mind the lag time, then it is functional. In comparison, a Computrainer requires considerably more set up time and subsequent frustration, especially if the user is less technologically savvy. Because it is PC based, you must install the software, drivers, software patches, driver updates, and change PC settings, sometimes to no avail. Be prepared to spend a lot of time with the Computrainer owners manual(s) and learning the how the head unit functions, which is also not very intuitive or visual.
The Computrainer is not highly portable. To get full functionality you need a PC and four separate cords for PC interface, power cord, control unit, and cadence plus the heart rate sensor, or three cords in stand alone ergometer mode. The cords often get caught and cut in drive trains or frayed and the connectors into the motor unit can break if not handled carefully. Computrainers work best when they are not moved often. They are very stable but heavy and wide.
The PowerBeam stand is very well thought out. It folds flat and has an adjustable leveler for uneven surfaces. The legs have lock out mechanisms and the cam lock that interfaces with the rear tire keeps you from over tightening once set. It definitely is the best stand design I have come across: simple, relatively light, durable, and functional. It is easily portable to stationary training classes, although it does require a power cord. The PowerBeam would be even better with a rechargeable battery pack instead of an AC power cord.
The PowerBeam head unit uploads directly to the proprietary Power Agent software and to Training Peaks/WKO software, whereas the Computrainer requires saving and uploading a file manually. For post workout analysis of raw data, the PowerBeam is quicker, easier, and the Power Agent software much more useable. Workouts can also be created for the PowerBeam and uploaded to the head unit; the resistance of the trainer changes with the course or workout you create. It is ANT+ compatible, which means that it functions with the new Joule head unit, although if you already own a Power Tap I do not see that as a major selling feature. The resistance is very precise, like the Computrainer, and if you are used to finding a lot of “space” between gears on your fluid trainer you will be pleasantly surprised by an electronic trainer. The only thing I did not like about the Head unit is that the rubber mounting straps tore off after just a few uses.
Although the Computrainer software is very dated, it does function in a way the PowerBeam can’t—as an entertainment tool. Riding the five hour Ironman Wisconsin course is a lot more motivating when you can see it in virtual reality or racing the pacer. If you are snowed in for the winter and need a way to ward off the mind-numbing boredom of riding on the trainer, this may be worth the extra expense and hassle of setting up the Computrainer. Computrainers can also be linked together is small groups and you have the ability to create 3D courses of your own. A Computrainer’s accuracy is purported to be the best there is, whereas the PowerBeam is +/- 5%. You will find that most institutions and testing centers use Computrainers for this reason, but in order to achieve that accuracy the CT must be warmed up and calibrated each time.
The PowerBeam and Computrainer are really two separate tools that encompass some of the same features. The PowerBeam is simple, reliable, and easily functional, whereas the
Computrainer is a much more complex and featured PC software based training system. Whether or not you will use these features should probably dictate your purchase. If you are technophobic, a Computrainer, or perhaps power based training in general, may not be for you.