As the covid-19 pandemic eases, one quarantine discovery I plan to stick with is working out at home. Planning my schedule around going to the gym is tedious, and exercising in my house at a convenient time for me eliminates almost every excuse I have to just... not. It’s no surprise that Peloton’s popularity has skyrocketed in the last year, but there are also plenty of other home gym options—including alternative connected bikes that offer a different type of workout experience. I’ve been testing one such bike, NordicTrack’s Commercial S22i Studio Cycle, to see how it compares to Peloton.
If you’ve ever been to a commercial gym, you’ve probably used a NordicTrack machine, but the company has been making connected home gym equipment for years. Before I dive into what you get with this bike, let me begin by saying: If you’re considering buying the NordicTrack bike because Peloton shipping delays are annoying and you think you’ll get a similar experience from a similarly priced alternative, you should know that the NordicTrack, and specifically the bike’s iFit software platform, does not even come close to what it’s like working out with a Peloton bike. Some might actually prefer Opposite Peloton, for reasons I’ll get into, but if you feel the Peloton vibe is right for you, NordicTrack is not it.
That’s not to say NordicTrack’s Commercial S22i Studio Cycle is bad. The hardware is very good, with bells and whistles you won’t get from either of Peloton’s offerings. But look, people are buying connected stationary bikes to motivate them to work out at home, and reader, let me tell you that the only thing that motivated me to hop on this bike a few times a week during my month of testing was the fact that I had to write this review.
It all comes down to content, and that’s where NordicTrack falls short.
The NordicTrack bike differs from a Peloton in a few key ways. Instead of controlling resistance with a knob, there are physical arrows on the top of the right handlebar to adjust between 24 digital resistance levels. Perhaps a bigger deal is the bike’s ability to incline, which can adjust to -10% and +20%. The incline is controlled with another set of buttons on the left handlebar. There’s also a built-in fan, which has kept me cool as a cucumber during every ride, even on its lowest setting (though, good lord, it gets loud). There are also a few similarities. Like the Peloton Bike+, the NordicTrack cycle has a rotating 22-inch touchscreen. It also requires a paid subscription to unlock its classes on top of the cost of the bike itself. Therein lies the biggest difference: the quality of the classes.
NordicTrack offers a few different kinds of rides. There are the usual studio spin classes where an instructor calls out cadence cues, similar to Peloton, but there are also outdoor rides led by iFit trainers who are professional cyclists. The ride locales range from mountains and beaches to city highways and desert trails, with classes filmed on every continent. With the bike’s auto-follow feature, the resistance and incline adjust according to your instructor’s cues or to mimic the outdoor terrain. This is where iFit definitely sets itself apart—speeding down the Pacific Coast Highway outside of San Francisco or chugging along through a snowy pass while trailing a pack of Huskies in Alaska is a unique experience.
And I really wanted to love those outdoor rides, because the environments are so cool. But you can hear the machine adjusting the incline, and if you’re on particularly rugged terrain, those adjustments happen frequently, so it’s not as smooth or immersive an experience as I would like. (I tested both the 2020 and 2021 versions of the bike, and while the newer one is definitely quieter, the incline is still audible.) I always felt like I was pedaling while watching a National Geographic special on a small TV rather than actually doing intervals in the Swiss Alps or wherever my chosen class took place. Case in point: a ride through a Turkish desert during which the trainer literally pulled over to grab an orange juice from a local cafe and described its freshness while I was instructed to “keep pedaling.” I confess my jaw actually dropped. I do love the incline feature, though, despite the cranking you hear, and the auto-follow feature takes all the guesswork out of adjusting resistance. The outdoor trainers are definitely pros, though there’s little in the way of motivational pep talks. (Instead, you will hear some fun facts about whatever location you’re in.) So if you, like me, need a bit more from an instructor, these outdoor rides aren’t for you. But I know some people don’t love a lot of talking during their workouts, so if this sounds like your jam, I would suggest lowering the class volume, picking a podcast to put on, and just riding.
I was surprised I gravitated toward the iFit scenic rides because I love a Peloton-style spin class. But the iFit studio workouts are not great. I’ve tried various instructors and formats and didn’t find anything that pushed me as much as a Peloton ride does. There are a few issues: The first is that each class features an instructor riding in front of a backdrop of flashing lights. It’s incredibly disorienting for me, a person who is normally not affected by lights, and iFit seems to recognize that it could be a problem for some users because there’s a warning about it before every class. Then there are the instructors themselves, who are definitely capable trainers but lack the personality and motivational qualities that Peloton instructors have in spades. (There are some Peloton instructors who are not for me, but I haven’t found a single iFit trainer who motivated me to push myself.)
Then there’s the issue of music. iFit doesn’t license tracks; instead, it uses a radio service called Feed.fm to pipe in pop songs during rides. That means the trainers don’t curate playlists the way Peloton instructors do, and it truly eliminates half the fun of spinning. Now, I know there are people out there who do not like to listen to music while they work out. I don’t understand them, but I know they exist. For those people, iFit classes might be great. But for me, a person for whom an absolute banger of a track can push me to PR, the lack of curated music is incredibly disappointing. This is especially a problem when instructors encourage you to “ride to the beat,” and it is clear that whatever they’re hearing in studio is different from what I’m hearing on the radio.
A side note: I found it a little strange that iFit trainers have continued to teach studio classes with an in-person audience of cyclist extras throughout the pandemic. A company spokesperson told me they take a slew of precautions, including testing and cleaning, to safeguard against the spread of covid-19, but the audiences add nothing to the workout experience and it just seems like an unnecessary risk. Now that the pandemic is easing, this may be less of a big deal going forward, but I definitely found it weird, especially because other streaming fitness services (including Peloton) have eliminated audiences in the last year, and I actually have found I prefer the more focused instruction.
I also didn’t love the user interface of the Android-based iFit software on the 22-inch HD screen. The home screen shows you a recommendation for a class to take based on the previous class you took, but after that one recommendation, you just see a random assortment of classes. I started several different workout series (iFit loves a series, which often involves biking in various parts of the same locale), and never did iFit encourage me to resume any of the series beyond that first recommendation. I always found it difficult to decide on a class unless I saw a locale I wanted to experience a ride in.
The iFit class filtering system isn’t difficult to navigate, once you figure out what you’re looking for (say, a 30-minute mountain ride), but the actual class names and descriptions leave a lot to be desired. Peloton and Apple Fitness+, for instance, break down the structures of their classes so you get a good preview of what you’re in for. I couldn’t even tell which iFit studio classes even incorporated weights at a glance based on their names, and took a guess based on one of the class photos when I was in the mood for intervals and arms workout.
A Total Body Toning Workout class was a little more obvious in its inclusion of weights, and it turned out to be a bootcamp-style class that made use of the bike’s rotating screen. (Props to NordicTrack here; the S22i sported a rotating screen before Peloton’s Bike+ existed.) The screen is great; I was easily able to hop off the bike and do planks and strength beside it before scrambling back on for the rest of the ride.
I have a few other issues with the bike. NordicTrack has another unique class type, which is a choose-your-own-adventure ride that you can create yourself using Google Maps. You literally draw the route on the touchscreen, in any place around the world, and iFit creates a ride for you with automatic resistance and incline based on the route’s reported elevation. This sounds super cool, but in reality, is an extremely chaotic experience. I chose to ride around my old neighborhood in Brooklyn, beginning in Grand Army Plaza at Prospect Park, and quickly realized the ride’s visuals are composed using Google Street View snaps that cycle through every few seconds. I don’t know why I imagined I could smoothly cruise down Prospect Park West and loop around through the park, taking in the sights, but watching a rotating Street View does not make for a fun ride. I made it less than a minute before jumping out of this self-created workout.
There are also a few hardware issues. The bike can’t actually be completely powered down unless you unplug it from the wall, and even in sleep mode, it makes an audible humming noise. The bike is currently sitting in my office behind my desk, and if I don’t unplug it, I find it impossible to work. The Peloton has a power button that puts it to sleep or powers it down entirely, but it’s also completely silent when not in use.
Also, I prefer clipping into pedals over the NordicTrack’s caged pedals, though you can swap in road pedals for the NordicTrack-provided ones and I know some people prefer to ride in regular sneakers.
My last quibble is perhaps the biggest. The chances of knowing someone with a Peloton are much higher than knowing an iFit subscriber, and so the social element is virtually nonexistent. Being able to plan rides with friends or even high-five strangers on the leaderboard is a perk for those of us who find accountability motivating. iFit also has a leaderboard, which you can view on the right sidebar while you ride or swipe away, like Peloton, and you can filter by who has taken the class, who’s currently taking it, and how you’re competing (miles elapsed, output, etc.). But I found I was often the only person riding at a given moment, or who had taken a particular class that day, so the competitive spirit was lacking.
Look, connected home exercise equipment is not cheap. The last thing you want to do is buy a bike that becomes a dusty clothes hanger because the classes you pay for aren’t engaging. The NordicTrack Commercial S22i Studio Cycle is a fine bike for those who like the style of classes I’ve described, with hands-off guidance from pro trainers, no music, and no frills. There are absolutely folks who dig that type of workout. But for those of us who need more—a well-curated playlist, a social platform, a lineup of personable instructors who push you to work your hardest—then NordicTrack is not the bike.
- Lack of music curation is a downer.
- The scenic rides offer a good workout due to the auto-adjusting incline and resistance that mimic an outdoor bike ride.
- The iFit software interface could use some refining.
- If you can’t stand the thought of buying into the Peloton ecosystem but you want an exercise bike, this one is fine.