Peloton Bike Plus: an upgrade at a crucial time

Last year was the year of the COVID-19 pandemic, the year sweatpants become acceptable workwear, and the year Peloton peaked. Mid-pandemic, the company announced two new devices: the pricier Bike Plus and a less expensive treadmill called the Tread. The Bike Plus started shipping in September and includes significant updates to the company’s signature hardware during an especially critical time, when many people have shifted their fitness routines from gyms into their own homes.

I, for years, have been a dedicated Crunch gym-goer, usually taking five classes a week. But with gyms closing off and on and classes generally being canceled, I moved my routine indoors. First, I started with Peloton’s app workouts, using resistance bands and bodyweight. I then switched to Zoom classes taught by an instructor I enjoy from Crunch. For the past few months, I’ve been testing Peloton’s Bike Plus. To put it simply: I’ve loved my time with the Bike Plus. It’s become an important tool for my well-being. Anytime I need to sweat out stress or transition my day from work into leisure, the bike is my go-to. Peloton has built a truly reliable spin bike, but at $2,495, the price is still hard for me to accept, especially considering its ecosystem lock-in.

The main thing to keep in mind when assessing Peloton’s products is you’re paying solely for new hardware. The Peloton software remains the same across both the old and new internet-connected bikes, similar to how most old and new iPhones receive the current iOS. You can also access that app content without any official Peloton equipment. To get people to upgrade, though, Peloton has to offer real hardware innovation in order to justify the Bike Plus’ nearly $2,500 price versus the original bike’s $1,895 cost. This time around, for the extra $600, riders get a new swiveling display, a fresh speaker system, automatic resistance calibration, and Apple Watch GymKit support.

Before fully assessing the bike investment, though, let’s first break the Bike Plus down by what’s new and how those features work:

THAT SWIVEL DISPLAY

The most obvious change with the Bike Plus is the new 23.8-inch HD touchscreen. The prior model included a 21.5-inch HD touchscreen with thick bezels on all sides. It effectively looked like an iMac bolted to a stationary bike. The Bike Plus places a speaker across the top of the display, augmenting those bezels. To be clear: there are definitely still bezels on the new display, but they feel unobtrusive. It’s a massive screen solely for workout content, and your attention is firmly planted at the center of the screen most of the time. However, for a display this size and at this high of a cost, its lack of an ambient light sensor is questionable. I work out at various hours of the day but particularly love an evening ride in a dark room. The screen should dim itself rather than me having to manually do so. (There’s a camera at the top of the display for video calls with friends, so it could easily detect light.)

As for the new swivel function, the main idea is people can take Peloton’s floor classes without having to uncomfortably stand behind their bikes. You can swivel the display out and away from the bike to face the rest of the room, allowing you to move around to complete yoga, strength, or meditation classes.

Peloton also launched a new class format, called Bike Bootcamp, to coincide with this bike’s release. The bootcamp is designed to give cyclers a chance to do it all — bike and strength train within the same class — without having to complete two separate workouts. And while the swivel display makes this option feasible, I still found these classes difficult to pull off for the first few weeks, namely because of the Peloton cycling shoes. When you ride on a Peloton, you clip into the bike with cycling shoes, and these shoes take time to clip out of the pedals. It requires lots of practice. For context, the Peloton employee who delivered my bike recommended leaving my shoes in the pedals and slipping my foot in and out to avoid a hassle.

Bike Bootcamp classes expect you to clip in and out to complete various portions of the class, and that took me a while to get used to doing. Adding to the quick transition stress was the lack of a pause button, meaning that I often missed the demo portion of the strength routine and fell behind. Peloton says the missing pause button is because the bike is “designed to give you a great workout and ensure that you work as hard as you would in a live indoor cycling class.” In a home context, however, it’s more of a pain than anything else. You can exit the class, but this means you’ll have to reenter it, which takes a while and is annoying to do. And if you accidentally tap that you want to restart the class entirely, there’s no forward or back button.

I also found the angling of the display to be slightly off. Working out on a mat means you want the display to tip as far down as possible to provide a good view of the content. But this display doesn’t angle far enough down, meaning I had to crane my neck to see the instructor. This didn’t prevent me from using the screen for mat workouts, but it did annoy me (and kind of hurt!) at times.

Still, the swivel is an essential upgrade, especially if you use your bike’s display as your main one for other workouts. I don’t have a TV, so I need the swivel, but Peloton also offers a suite of options for broadcasting to a TV, including a Roku app, Fire TV app, and AirPlay and Cast compatibility. If you have any of these options available to you in your home gym, the swivel screen likely won’t do much for you and isn’t worth the upgrade cost.

THE NEW SPEAKER SYSTEM

The new bike comes with 26-watt, front-facing stereo speakers, as well as woofers that face away from you. The prior bike only included rear-facing stereo speakers. The new speakers sound great, although I preferred to bike with Bluetooth-paired wireless earbuds. (There’s also a headphone jack for anyone who might want wired options.) Peloton lets you select between different audio mixes, either prioritizing the music, the instructor, or finding a balance between the two in the original mix. I always work out with the music prioritized and when I do this through my AirPods Pro, I have no problem also hearing the instructor. But when I listen through the speaker, I find the music mix to be almost unusable; I sometimes can’t hear the instructor at all and miss my cues. The music is loud and sounds fantastic, which is perhaps what Peloton wanted, but finding the perfect balance between thumping music and hearing directions was complicated. (I’ll also note here that the bike is remarkably silent. My roommate would ride next to my bedroom door, and I couldn’t hear anything apart from his breathing. It’s a great bike for a shared home where people want to exist in their own spaces.)

AUTOMATIC RESISTANCE DETECTION

This feature is undeniably cool. Typically, in a spin class, the instructor offers a range within which the riders should aim to set their resistance level. Spinners reach down to their resistance knob and turn it to the desired resistance whenever a new range is called out. The Bike Plus now adjusts the resistance automatically. It’s slick and convenient and absolutely the neatest feature of the Bike Plus.

I did encounter some bugs, though. Sometimes the cues were off, either with the resistance setting itself between a different range than the instructor called out, the timing of that resistance change being off, or the resistance dropping at times when it should have stayed consistent or even increased. This seemed to happen more frequently in older archive classes than new ones. With that said, though, the few times I ran into this problem weren’t a huge issue. I adjusted the knob myself and waited for the bike to catch the next instruction. I still find this feature hugely helpful, allowing me to concentrate more on the class rather than adjusting the knob to get to the right resistance, especially during climbs when the resistance can go up suddenly during an energy push.

APPLE WATCH GYMKIT

The Bike Plus is also the first device from Peloton to directly integrate with the Apple Watch through GymKit. I had a couple of problems with this functionality at first: the Watch wouldn’t pair with the bike, but then Peloton issued an update which seemed to correct the issue. Only one other time did I have a problem with pairing and had to restart my Apple Watch. Although these issues only came up a couple of times, they were particularly upsetting because when the bike is paired with the Apple Watch, your heart rate shows up on-screen during a workout, which I look to monitor as I’m moving through a class. With the Apple Watch paired, workouts are also tracked in Apple’s Health app with all the bike’s own data taken into account, like energy output, so the functionality not working 100 percent of the time is frustrating and actively takes away from my exercise. But on the whole, it’s remained mostly reliable.

The watch only directly syncs with the bike for spin or bike bootcamp workouts, meaning you won’t be able to see your heart-rate on the screen while you complete a strength or pilates class, for example. This isn’t great and feels like it defeats the purpose of having GymKit compatibility in the first place.

IS THIS THE BIKE FOR YOU?

The Bike Plus is an expensive, tough sell for Peloton and one that needs to be pulled off flawlessly, especially as new software competitors, like Apple Fitness Plus, enter the market, as well as cheaper hardware competitors like Echelon and Bowflex. The Bike Plus feels like the iPhone of spin bikes — it’s intuitive to use and works right out of the box. (But actually, there is no box because Peloton offers white glove delivery and setup with every purchase.)

For the person who doesn’t want to fiddle with a bike that isn’t totally built for Peloton’s software, meaning it doesn’t monitor output and all the other fancy fitness metrics, Peloton’s bikes are tempting. But buying one means committing to a $39-per-month subscription. The app itself only costs $12 per month but doesn’t include multi-account support, live classes, the leaderboard, and full metrics.

For some people, that $39 is a savings compared to what they used to spend for gym access, especially considering it provides access to an unlimited number of different profiles. For others, it’s a significant investment in their health and life. Either way, you’re committing to Peloton and its subscription plan forever. The display is useless without the subscription, meaning if you ever wanted to try Apple Fitness Plus or SoulCycle or any other on-demand cycling classes, you’d have to ignore the massive display and instead get a TV or laptop to watch.

As much as I loved my time with the Bike Plus, the high price and software lock-in is difficult to accept. Peloton has built undeniably great hardware. I just wish I could use it with any software I liked rather than only Peloton’s app. If I had a TV, this might bother me less because I’d plan to use whatever fitness app I liked on my TV and wouldn’t sweat losing the subscription. Although, of course, I’d then be saddled with a massive HD display that literally does nothing.

The question of whether I’d recommend this bike depends on how much you love Peloton’s classes and how much you want to work for your exercise bike. Other spin bikes exist, many of which are cheaper and allow you to swap in your own tablet. You can even use Peloton’s app with them, albeit with some compromises, like losing your place on Peloton’s competitive leaderboard.

There’s also Peloton’s notorious delivery delays to consider. The New York Times notes that buyers’ delivery dates are being rescheduled day-of with the actual equipment showing up months after the date they were first quoted. All of this is to say, if you’re considering this bike purely for pandemic workouts, prepare to wait.

Still, to me, the Bike Plus is a must-get for anyone who lives the true Peloton lifestyle and sees themselves loving the company and its software far into the future. It’s reliable, works well, and, broadly, my gripes didn’t take away from the experience; I’ve been riding nearly daily for months now.

I just can’t predict whether I’ll want to go back to the gym post-pandemic or if I’ll get used to working out at home indefinitely. To Peloton’s credit, however, I can’t imagine myself readily giving this bike back; it’ll hurt a little to watch it leave. That feels like a victory for the brand and an admission for me that I do want a Peloton bike in my life.

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