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A tale of two rowers — or why connected fitness feels adrift Leave a comment

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Sitting in the middle of my living room is the $2,499.99 Ergatta rower. About 10 miles and a 40-minute ferry ride away, the $2,199.99 Aviron Strong lurks in The Verge’s office. At a glance, these two rowers look different. The Ergatta has an elegant wooden frame and a water tank that mesmerizes my cats. The Aviron, meanwhile, looks more like a traditional black and steel piece of exercise equipment — utilitarian but sleek in its own way.

I genuinely like both for different reasons. But these rowers share a fundamental problem: I’m often not compelled to use them.

It’s not because they’re bad rowers, either. If this were a traditional review, I’d give each a seven out of 10. Both are atypical for connected fitness machines in that they focus on little minigames instead of instructor-led classes. Ergatta reimagines rowing as a set of aesthetically pleasing abstract games that sneakily teach you the concepts behind rowing as a whole — strokes per minute, your 500m split, etc. Ergatta workouts are meditative (especially with the swooshing of real water) and make me feel energized yet calm.

The Aviron Strong has a series of more straightforward games, including one where you row madly away from a digital shark. It’s also a unicorn among connected fitness devices because you can use its screen to watch Netflix, Hulu, YouTube, and Disney Plus.

My favorite part of the Aviron Strong is the ability to stream Netflix, Disney Plus, YouTube, and Hulu, etc.

Ergatta’s games have a more aesthetic, rhythm-based vibe that sneakily teaches you the rowing basics.

And yet. Although I work out almost every day, I rarely want to pick the rower. It’s not a matter of access. There’s a rower at the office and at home. It’s not a matter of efficiency, either. Rowing works out 86 percent of your muscles while also getting in some low-impact cardio — it’s one of the most efficient workouts I could do. It’s not even a problem of enjoyment. I like rowing. A lot, actually.

After mulling it over, my issue is with both rowers, the companies want me to interact with their hardware in a specific and pretty limited way. Sometimes, a meditative rowing game or furiously rowing away from a virtual shark is exactly what I need. I’m not a competitive person, but every once in a while, even racing other members can be fun. Both of these rowers are great at that aspect. On days when I’m feeling this kind of workout, it’s easy to pick the rowers. Providing structure in this way can be helpful for beginners, but it can also be limiting as your needs evolve over time. (And they will.)

The trouble is that some mornings, my grumpy ass needs an instructor made of sparkles and rainbows to beam their radioactive positivity at me. Unfortunately, Ergatta doesn’t have classes at all, and Aviron’s class selection is pretty limited, with so-so music. If you don’t like their single instructor, tough noogies. (He’s not bad though!)

I almost always wish I could listen to my own music, but neither machine lets me do that. (Actually, of all the connected fitness machines I’ve tested, only the Tempo Move has ever let me listen to my own playlist.) I’d love to watch my favorite TV shows during longer rows. That’s a no-go on the Ergatta, and while you can stream from several services on the Aviron Strong, that requires both an Aviron subscription and Netflix (or Hulu or Disney Plus). If you don’t have the streaming sub, you’re stuck with Aviron’s content. If you need to pause your Aviron subscription or find you don’t like that content, you’re left with a machine that just reports metrics on a fancier screen. That’s true of every connected fitness machine.

You know what would let me do all of these things whenever and wherever I want? A much cheaper home rower (or the ones at the gym), my phone, and app subscriptions I already have. (Or free YouTube classes!) It’s what I do for running. On the days when I can’t run outside, I use the treadmill in my apartment building or hotel gym with either a workout or my own playlist loaded up on my phone. This flexibility and affordability are what’s allowed me to maintain this running habit of mine for years. When I don’t have a rower at home, I’ll probably do the same thing.

I appreciated the ability to watch other content because this room in The Verge’s office… does not have a lot to look at.

I don’t normally wear heels to row. I just really enjoyed the water theme of this elegant rower. I enjoyed the price a lot less.

Looking back, it’s a common complaint I’ve had with all the spin bikes, treadmills, rowers, and other connected fitness equipment I’ve tested. Why should anyone pay this much to be hamstrung on what they can do with a device they supposedly own? And whenever I send these machines back after a review, I don’t ever miss the hardware. (My cats, however, will miss the Ergatta dearly.) If I miss anything, it’s the content. But is access to content worth an extra $1,000 or more upfront, not to mention the monthly fee required to actually access the content?

It will be for some people and absolutely not for others. The best I can say as a reviewer is here’s what I liked, here’s what I didn’t like, and here are your other options if the price is not right. But if you look at the state of connected fitness, I would say most people are voting with their wallets — and their answer is not really.

I liked the shark game. But do I think it’s worth the price of entry? Hmm.

Connected fitness flourished during the early days of the pandemic when gyms were closed and people were stuck at home, but it’s taken a major hit since covid-19 restrictions eased and vaccines became widely available. Peloton’s business woes are an entire saga. Other companies like Hydrow (another rower) and Tonal started 2023 with layoffs — and these were not first-round layoffs, either. Lululemon bought Mirror for $500 million during the pandemic fitness craze, and it was a gamble that did not pay off. It’s now trying to sell that business but struggling to find a buyer.  

Paying a premium seemed like a more solid investment back when everyone was cooped up at home. Since then, there’s been record inflation, thousands of layoffs, and a not-so-great economy. Forking over thousands of dollars for single-use, paywalled machines in exchange for content seems like a bad deal — especially since there are so many other alternatives that don’t cost this much.

For example, the Concept2 rower is beloved by enthusiasts, comes with a device holder, and costs $990. There are cheaper rowers that cost around $600 to 700. My cats don’t even have to miss the Ergatta’s water tank — there are similar water rowers that range from $500 to $1,500. Spin bikes can be found for $300 to $500, while you can find a good treadmill for $500 to $1,000. If you want metrics, all kinds of fitness trackers are available for $200 to $500. Fitness apps can cost as little as $40 to $70 annually, and many often come with community features. Also, YouTube is a free resource where you can watch dozens of videos from fitness professionals. The vast majority of connected fitness equipment will set you back at least $1,500 plus monthly subscriptions ranging from $25 to 40. Ergatta’s range from $26 to 29 monthly, while Aviron’s cost between $24 and 29.

I thought Ergatta’s design and water tank was unique until I looked up water rowers. They look very similar and cost much less.

I wanted to have enough to say about the Ergatta and Aviron to warrant two separate full-length reviews, as I had intended. Instead, I found myself echoing the same overall pros and cons of the last two connected rowers I reviewed: the Hydrow Wave and Peloton Row. They’re expensive. They take up a lot of space, though all four companies say they’re compact for apartment living. The content is good, but there are the limitations I outlined earlier. There are differences, sure, but it all boils down to price and personal preference. It’s hard to not feel like all four connected rowers are adrift in a sea of overpriced connected fitness machines, all struggling to stay afloat at a time when premium fitness isn’t a necessity. And it’s not just rowers. I’m starting to feel this way about all these bikes, treadmills, mirrors, and other connected fitness machines, too.

As a reviewer, it’s increasingly hard to recommend the average person drop thousands for these products when connected fitness is still trying to regain its footing — even if I like them. This is especially true since smartwatches cost several hundred less and can offer coaching, reminders, and health alerts. Apple has Fitness Plus, which fully integrates with your existing Apple products for $70 annually. The classes are downloadable, your Apple Watch provides on-screen metrics, and it can be used with whatever machine you have access to. Many Garmin watches come with Garmin Coach — which, for runners and cyclists, is a great free training plan that’s based on your personal metrics. Even Peloton now offers three app-only subscriptions. (It doesn’t get full credit for moving away from expensive hardware, however, because the company said recently that it plans to relaunch the Peloton Tread Plus at $6,000.) You could argue that some equipment, like the Peloton Row or Tempo, offer form guidance. To that I say, the tech is not fully baked yet and is often wonky, hard to trust, or inaccurate.

As much as I like these rowers, connected fitness machines need to divorce hardware from content.

Ultimately, I can’t see a future for connected fitness that’s reliant on pricey dedicated hardware. Companies have to figure out a way to make these machines truly affordable, divorce the content from the hardware, and allow people the flexibility to use their platform in a way that suits them best. Until that’s a reality, these machines are starting to feel like boondoggles.

All I’m saying is I’d love it if I could pay a small monthly subscription to play Aviron or Ergatta games on my gym’s rower. But I can’t, so I won’t.

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