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Cycling Gear Reviews Smart Trainers

Saris H3 Smart Trainer Review – Zwift Gear Test

There has been quite a bit of a change since Cycleops launched their Hammer smart trainer in 2016. To the degree that Cycleops has been folding within the parent company leaving the Saris H3 smart trainer. So let’s see if the H3 is more than just a name change in the Saris H3 review

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Saris H3 Smart Trainer Review – Zwift Gear Test

TLDR:

Solid rock of a trainer, massive (and heavy) metal casing instill confidence.

Power meter has *issues* related to fly wheel.

ERG mode better than similarly priced trainers.

TG 3/5 – until firmware update resolves over reporting of power

So given that we are now looking at the third generation of the Hammer series, the Saris H3, we should likely start off by looking over the generational changes between the H2 and this current H3

  • ERG mode enhancements – A lot of the smart trainer features, responsiveness, accuracy etc have been refined to the degree that most manufacturers have little work left to do in this area. But ERG more remains an area that still needs to be fixed, and Saris have focused on this area considerably this year
  • Hammer and H2 models had suffered from power spikes during sprints, this has now been resolved – and the firmware also made applicable to the earlier models
  • Internal changes with a new drive unit, and drive belt to make the H3 quieter during operations – reported as down from 64 dB @ 20mph for the original Hammer, down to 59dB @ 20mph for the H3
  • Price reduction to £850 – which is a steal for a 2019 top-end trainer

That’s about it. We’ve only very slight changes here when you read over them, but the changes to the ERG mode may prove to be a feature to set the Saris H3 apart from competitors in this year’s turbo line up. Especially the as Zwift Academy gears up to 2019 with people starting to consider the legitimacy of training specifically for indoor e-sports races, as well as outdoor events

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With that in mind, let’s get on with the Saris H3 review unboxing!

Saris H3 Smart Trainer – Design

I think the breadth of trainer boxes out there, and how every manufacture is taking a different route. From the full-colour printing on the Elite trainers, through to the much plainer offerings of Kinetic and Saris. I do wonder if it is related to being American companies, with new trainers this 2019 year that we are seeing an awful lot more recycled material.

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I want to be clear on this point, I think this is absolutely terrific, especially with the internal protective packaging made entirely from cardboard. When you look at the massive blocks of polystyrene, which are used in Wahoo, Elite, and Tacx boxes, I think the slightly more environmentally sustainable approach from Saris, and Kinetic is to be commended. Although not forgetting the irony that they are producing products which have transformed cycling for many, from a carbon-negative sport into an energy-intensive one in terms of server costs, screens, and general power supplies.

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Inside the Cyrus H3 box, we’ve got the trainer. No surprise. A very large power supply, international adapters. The thru wheel adapters, but NO QR skewer. I understand that these have not been included since the original Hammer, but it still seems an odd area to try to cut costs. Particularly as it is annoying for the end-user, as they don’t have a spare QR Skewer. Yes, you can argue that the trainer also needs a spare cassette, but I have no objection to that, as many people want to use their own specific cassettes. QR skewers are pretty universal, and personally I’d be happy to pay a little more, to have one included in the box, mainly to save me hassle!

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The powerpack, as one of the larger units that I have here. In fact, if you exclude the tax mark by, this is the largest, of all the turbo trainers by not an inconsiderable margin, particularly when you take into account that you are playing the transformer directly into the wall.

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There is also an interesting little packet that comes with the Saris H3. You get a little quality control card, highlighting who is the engineer who was working on your unit, along with a months access to Rouvy. I have always been a fan when it comes to Wahoo trainers where they have a small extension lead hanging off the back of the trailer, meaning that if you were to trip over the wires, you are less likely to cause wiring damage to the trainer. Saris has gone one step further, by including a little dongle, that allows you to extend the connector away from the trainer. So not only do you have greater flexibility, but you not have two points of release, if you should try over the wire, greatly reducing the chance of damage. Very smart move and at likely little cost.

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With that, let’s take a look at the Saris H3 trainer itself. I utterly love the design language of this smart trainer. It looks as though someone with real flare was allowing to design the casing here. That scalloped front of the trainer still looks as sharp and unique as it did when the unit was first revealed

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Another great factor about the Saris H3 case is that not only does it look great, but has been well designed from an ergonomics perspective. The very easily accessible, and comfortable handle almost seems to stand in contrast to the designer looks of the turbo. I do wish that other manufacturers would consider the possibility that people need to interact with their trainers in terms of storage as well as riding. The Tacx Flux S and the Wahoo KICKR Core are two perfect examples here. Good trainers and the Tacx unit looks nice, again visually designed well, but both are utter pigs when it comes to handling and storage

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The sides of the Saris H3 are made of aluminium, and frankly give the legendary Wahoo KICKR a run for its money in terms of perceived durability. The H3 feels like a tank! But thankfully doesn’t weight like one when you come to fold it up and put it away!

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Speaking of storage the Saris H3 design goes even further when you find that not only is there a (albeit very slim) front wheel riser in the box,

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Keeping with that, surprising yet useful theme, if you look under the wheel riser, there is also a disc brake lock held in place. Only a small thing really, but these are the sorts of accessories which disappear over the life of a trainer, having them locked in place should you actually get a new bike makes things much better

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The genius of storage designs extends beyond the front riser block to where it is held between the legs of the Saris H3 trainer when it is all folded away

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The leg themselves are a resin moulding and extend from behind the trainer out forwards, giving stability to yaw and pitch as well

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There is a small black tab on either side of the Saris H3, now more discrete than the yellow of the Cycleops Hammer. Pull that and you are able to release the legs which are pretty much locked in place until you need them

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Once again, going back to the storage comments, when you’ve finished with the H3, it does fold up into a very slim package. It perhaps isn’t a big stretch to consider where Elite may have been inspired when it comes to their approach to building the Elite Suito trainer

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Whilst the body of the Saris H3 is the slimmest of the big players, the fact that the Tacx NEO 2T has the cassette within its frame means that the Tacx remains the slimmest. But even compared to the Wahoo KICKR the Saris H3 is the easier trainer to move about and store. Whilst the Tacx is slimmer, it is a proper pig to haul about

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Another small design flare on the H3 actually went unnoticed by more for the first few weeks of using the trainer. Do you see that dark, foreboding, Saris branding on the side of the unit?

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Well, it is actually high viz tape, which when you’ve noticed or realised, you really can’t quite look at in the same way, as even when not reflecting light directly, it certainly catches your eye

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Before the Wisconsin located Saris decide to streamline, by jettisoning PowerTap and rebranding Cycleolps under the Saris banner, the Cycleops Hammer had a very distinctive set of decals. I have to admit, I preferred the yellow Cycleops flashes, which also extended to the arm releases and feet. They gave the trainer a nice bit of visual flare

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Yes, I fully understand the need for corporate branding, and the high viz is a nice touch but it is a shame that Saris removed such distinctive case aspects. Particularly so, as one of the mild annoyances, I had with the Cycleops Hammer case: Some of the surface finishings were quite raw

Here are the rough burrs on the Hammer:

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Are still present with the H3 which is a touch surprising. Perhaps I should email the chap on the warranty card and ask him if the moulding shop would like to borrow the file from my tool kit?

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At the rear of the trainer, you have the side power port, along with the ANT+ ID sticker printed.

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When the Saris H3 illuminates a dark plastic crystal on the top of the unit lights up, confirming you’ve powered up

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Green for power and ANT+ connection

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Blue for BLE connection

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The massive wall wart of a transformer also has a power light on it. Which is useful as my transformer died. I’d know if the issue was a fuse, but because there is not a separate cabled plug. There was no solution but to replace the whole unit

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Saris H3 Specifications

  • Dual compatibility for both quick release – fork widths of 130mm and 135mm
  • Thru-axle compatible for bike frames – fork widths of 142mm or 148mm
  • Communications: ANT+ FE-C and Bluetooth FTMS
  • Max Wattage: (at 20mph): 2000W
  • Max Incline: 20%
  • Dimensions when Open: 787.4×469.9×495.3 mm
  • Dimensions when Closed: 76.2×469.9×495.3 mm
  • Weight: 21.3 kg
  • Flywheel Weight: 9kg
  • Noise: 59 decibels at 20mph
  • Accuracy: +/- 2% accurate power readings.
  • Includes a Shimano splined freehub for compatibility with Shimano 8-11 speed cassettes –
    • Although it should be noted that a Shimano cassette is not included in the box
    • XD/XDR 12-Speed freehubs can also be purchased separately
  • Headless mode (powered on, not paired to any apps) lets you ride with a progressive resistance curve that matches the Fluid2

Saris H3 Product Manual

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You can find the manual for the Saris H3 PDF is here

Saris H3 Smart Trainer Review – Zwift Gear Test

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After you have installed the cassette on the Saris H2 then we need to get things calibrated for which you’ll need the Saris App. To be fair it is actually better to check if there any firmware updates first and then go onto the calibration. The main reason being that when the H3 started shipping early firmware has an issue where you could get power spikes. This has now been put to bed we hope with the latest firmware, but you’ll have to make your own judgements on the graphs below

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Saris has the full complement of smart trainer technologies, ANT+, FEC, BLE and BlueTooth FTMS. One of the other bugs which Saris have been trying to squash is an issue with their internal cadence readings. This is particularly important, as their cadence data is woven into the BLE / ANT+ signals so as not to take up extra channels for people using iOS-based Bluetooth devices where only two sensor slots are available

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The problem that Saris was dealing seemed to be that shifting power, and upping resistance were causing the cadence sensor from the H3 to drop out, or just give rubbish data. I had wondered initially if it was an issue with the FEC protocol, as I was recording as a Smart Trainer on the Garmin Edge 1030, rather than as individual sensors, but I’d get the same thing on Apple TV

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The cadence issue is troubling, as you always wonder what is behind the issue, and more importantly how did this leave the factory. With some of the problems which have been shown in 2019 trainers, I have had the distinct impression that manufacturers are using customers as paying beta testers, which just isn’t good. If you have a problem with a product, i) test it properly and ii) delay the launch and protect your credibility.

Now that sounds like a not exactly unreasonable push back to manufacturers. Please bear with me as I briefly pop off the reservation: I don’t really care about the cadence issue. Sure it doesn’t look good from a reputation perspective, but I truly wonder how many riders this is going to affect, as I would have thought that the vast majority of riders who are buying a smart trainer will already have a cadence sensor on their bike for monitoring their performance outside. The converse is NOT true of power meters. These are still very much a high-end product, often costing more than a rider’s bike, so manufacturers of smart trainers have no excuse to bungle their power meter readings on a smart trainer, as wattage data, along with interactivity are the fundamental things people want from smart trainers. I think this is one of the reasons that for years Wahoo just included a cadence sensor in the box with a Wahoo KICKR, as it is such a simple device these days and isn’t work the effort of incorporating into a trainer. Yes, I know Wahoo do now, but I suspect this is more due to spec sheet Top Trumps than any fervent desire to put the feature on their trainers. ( I will now dismount my soapbox and return to the scheduled Saris H3 review!)

Saris H3 Smart Trainer – Power Test

Moving on to the power meter test, which is what many people are interested in on for a turbo trainer. As ever, power meter testing is done using the latest Zwift build and using the Jon’s Mix workout, so we have a consistent benchmark between all the different turbos / smart bikes which have gone through Zwift Gear Tests on TitaniumGeek

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To ensure we are all on the same page, let’s run through the approach to trainer testing I use here. Trainers run in two modes: ERG mode and Sim mode

  • Sim mode is basically just blasting around on Zwift. 
  • ERG mode is harder for the trainer, as the device is tasked with varying resistance to enable to you target certain wattages – normally as part of a training plan:
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In order to perform in ERG effectively, a trainer needs to be able to adapt quickly in order to stop the resistance ramping too high – Often called “burying the rider” where the resistance is set too high to even turn the pedals!!

Whilst setting the resistance at an insane level might seem odd to the rider, it makes sense to the trainer’s electronic brain if you are not putting enough power down, increasing the resistance makes you push harder, helping riding hit the power target. But that can lead to a death spiral of increasing resistance which really breaks the mode. As such ERG mode is something which companies put a lot of development time, and is where some of the additional cost of the top end trainers like the Drivo II and the Neo 2T is going. 

Which is why I always start off with an ERG Mode test – specifically Jon’s Mix. With all of that in mind, Saris states they have worked hard on the flywheel refinements, but also ERG mode optimisation for the H3. Let’s see how that has turned out on the roads of Zwift as we shift from the standard Saris H3 review to the Zwift Gear Test!

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I always start out with Zwift’s Jon’s Mix as that requires me to try – crucial word there – and hold 834 watts for ten secs (which I’m actually getting better at hitting!). I think that the recurrent phases of high power, fast changes, and plenty of warm-up time are challenging test for any trainer, and if we’re going to lock up in ERG mode, we’ll see it here

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As ever the power graphs produced from the power meter on the test are compared with data from two other power meters, you need three units to determine if one is out of whack!. NB I’ve applied a 4-second smoothing to the data, which can be effective in highlighting subtle issues, and makes the graphs look, well smoother!

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So here is the first run of Jon’s Mix, just the Saris H3 internal power meter alone to give us an idea of the overall pattern. On a simple overview, it looks alright, but the drops after each of the hard sections look a little deep. The question is whether that is related to the power meter responsiveness, or was I just having an off day?

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If we apply the other power meter traces over the top, we can see that those after the first drop off looks a little deeper than the other readings, and there is one drop out. The second high-intensity peak drop looks reasonable and in keeping with the other readings

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In fact, the overall data from the ride suggests that the H3 did register as low as the other meters, but that appears to be from the start of the ride, not the dropouts. Peak watts are all in the ballpark except for the Assioma pedals which seem to have spiked higher on the second peak. We’ll check that in detail in a moment

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When we zoom in to the first raised power sections of the graphs tracking is really good. The dedicated power meters all appear fractionally sharper than the Saris H3, which seems to be contributing to the overreading in the few sections where I have eased off the power

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Let’s dig into those familiar areas, the steady-state section and then the peaks

If we actually look at the data as the overview, we’re not seeing a huge amount of change with regard to the average data. However, now the C1 change ring and Assioma have recorded lower readings, which looking at the graph suggests greater sensitivity. The H3 has massively missed out on the peak however

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If we zoom in to the high-intensity areas we see the much greater drop in power from the H3 compared to the other units. However the blunting of the power profile as seen previously is present in the first hump, but not on the main kick down

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Again, the H3 is bleeding a few watts away at the peak, but then also under reading when coming off the power

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We can see the same thing in the second high-intensity section. Assioma spikes high, a blunting from the H3. Followed by a drop-off, and a slight over-correction from the H2

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So in a nutshell, for a trainer, the power readings are nicely responsive, but marred by slight blunting to subtle variations in a steady-state, clipping of peaks, and seemingly exaggerated dips when coming off the power.

What about riding the trainer though? ERG response is good. No burying the rider, and clear and crisp changes keeping you in your training or riding zones. Saris pretty much has a home run on the ERG front, something which is echoed away from the graphs, on simple Zwift training rides

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The slight issue for sim riding is that you do wonder in a Zwift race, when really mashing the pedals if the rider is pulling away from you is better, or if the power blunting we saw earlier is having more of an effect than you would imagine.

I’ll naturally update my Saris H3 review when the next firmware lands, and see if Saris have managed to improve on the issue

Saris H3 Sound Test

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As mentioned ERG mode and sound profile are still two the areas in smart trainers which are still active battlegrounds for manufactures. As units such as the Elite DRIVO II and the Saris H3 are light refreshes as opposed to significant product updates engineers have been left to try to refine their current designs. As a result, a lot of work has focused on the nature of the belts used on the pulleys within the units.

The change to a V-belt within the H3 has been instrumental according to Saris in being able to reduce their official sound levels from 64dB seen in the original Hammer to the 59 dB measured when the unit is doing 20mph

Whilst testing against the flywheel speed is technically a better test, for speed X, the trainer is producing Y dB, most riders are more focused on wattage when they are riding. Hence the TG sound test is run on the opening flat portion of Zwift, recording dB compared to trainer read watts.

So with that in mind, I give you the Saris H3 sound test:

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The sound profile is… okay. Not a massively intrusive trainer, but also far from silent. For those looking for effective ERG mode training, the sacrifice of the noise level seems reasonable. Which pretty much brings us to our Saris H3 Review conclusion

Saris H3 Review – Conclusion

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One area where Saris is really coming out swinging hard is price. At £850 for a current-generation smart trainer, that is comparable to the 2018 Tacx NEO 2, and Elite Drivo II and about £150 less than the Wahoo KICKR which is unchanged for 2019.

Whilst the H3 is quieter than previously, it still can’t compete against the KICKR or the Tacx NEO units.

However, where Saris have been able to separate themselves is ERG mode. Which is definitely a selling feature in the crowded market. I’ll be honest, I only really use ERG mode for the occasional structured ride on Zwift, and for testing trainers. However, if your focus is training, training, training, and your coach is giving you a stack of ERG workouts every month, then perhaps we’ve shown with this Saris H3 review a less mainstream turbo trainer to consider?

From a general Zwift riding perspective, the sim mode is very good and the occasional power spikes present on both the early versions of the trainers but also the H3 have been resolved via firmware. There are only a couple off flies in the ointment. Yes, the H3 might be quieter, but it still isn’t quiet. The unit can over-report when in coming down from a high-intensity section, which may balance out the slight blunting at the peaks.

Overall, a reasonable high-end smart trainer, made all the better by the astonishing prices Saris are seeming happy with. Until the next firmware update, I’m going to give a TG Score 3/5. Good, but not the best

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James Gill

Author of TitaniumGeek, which started after smashing off my RIGHT elbow. <br /> <br /> After learning a lot about olecranon fractures, I was introduced to the world Zwift, and slowly transitioned into writing about sports gadgets and the like<br /> <br /> Trying to keep up cycling, swimming and running whilst being a busy General Practice Doctor