Zwift Play Controllers Are An Instant Essential

There has been a lot of press in the cycling community surrounding the launch of the Zwift Play controllers. The combination of Zwift’s early-adopter price ($99 $150) and Wahoo’s firmware update for Kickr Cores was enticing enough for me to take a chance and give them a try.

Obviously, DC Rainmaker is the canonical source for info, experience, and insight, but I’m pretty excited about these controllers and thought I’d add my voice to the Internet conversation.

The UX Is Really Good

For a first-gen product, this ranks up there with the SRAM eTap in terms of how immediately good the experience was. Though Zwift has been online for a decade, riding with the play controllers completes the experience in a way that feels like something they intended to do all along.

Steering is ultra-responsive, especially compared to my Sterzo steering block. You can instantly make minor adjustments to position yourself exactly where you want to be in the pack, or hug the inside of a curved road. 

Braking provides subtle haptic feedback in the form of a light buzzing sensation. Is braking useful? There are good use cases, such as scrubbing speed so you don’t overcook an approach and blow past a group of riders you were hoping to draft. I could also see Zwift requiring this in the future for certain races so you’re not whipping around hairpin curves unnaturally at 50mph.

The speed of shifts is impressive. One of my reasons for this purchase was to reduce wear-and-tear on my IRL derailleurs but I came to almost immediately appreciate how much faster Zwift is, and that it can be done under load!

The range of gearing is great! I run a compact gear set and it was a bit difficult to get a good sprinting gear whilst maintaining my preferred cruising gears. The virtual gearing range gives me all I want in-game without having to change any real hardware.

Taken as a whole, these controllers add a noticeable amount of immersion into the world which better matches the experience of riding in the real world. Everything is intuitive, fast, and so far: reliable.

Speaking of reliable…

Bluetooth Is Good Now

This section is probably more for me than it is for readers. For some of the youngs, saying that you can (and should) use Bluetooth probably goes without saying, but I started Zwifting during their beta period in 2014. Back then, the state-of-the-art phone was an iPhone 6 and Bluetooth was on version 4.2. The most reliable way to Zwift used to be a USB ANT+ dongle set right under your bike via a powered USB extension cord.

To use Zwift Play you must use Bluetooth so for me it was a bit of a leap of faith, not to mention a few moments of confusion. While the Kickr was connected via ANT+, Zwift did not see it as a Bluetooth device. After physically unplugging the ANT+ USB cable the Wahoo Kickr did NOT show as a Bluetooth connection on either my phone or computer. It also did NOT show up in my Zwift companion app, but it DID show in the Zwift app itself so I guess all is well that ends well.

After you pair your Wahoo Kickr Core via Bluetooth you’ll get the virtual gearing tutorial, even if you went through the normal tutorial like me if you first connected via ANT+. After that, it “just works” — no calibration necessary. I picked the sprocket with the straightest chainline, which ended up being a 15t rather than a 14t that is recommended, but power is power and my virtual gear range was workable for me.

Because I’m a “trust but verify” kind of guy, I used Zwiftalizer to analyze my first few rides and it reported NO Bluetooth dropouts for an hour and a half on my first outing. Solid!

Ergonomics Are A Good Compromise, But There Is Room For Improvement

When you’re creating something that will fit every drop bar size with every brake lever configuration, there are going to be some compromises.

I run a “compact” handlebar which has a rather tight bend to the drops. This made the controllers fit VERY tight and I almost had to get a screwdriver to use as a crowbar to leverage the straps into place. 

In the next photo, you can see a couple of things going on:

  1. My thumb reaches far past the buttons, and the angle of the button panel is tilted away from my hand. Since thumbs don’t bend backward, this means I have to take my hand off the bars to push a button
  2. There is only room to wrap 1 finger around my brifter hoods, which gives me less leverage when climbing out of the saddle. Notice that my ring finger and pinkie are resting against the steer/brake paddle. 

Zwift play controller side view

I think this could be addressed in a future version by:

  • Making the steer/brake paddle housing shorter and sit closer to the handlebar
  • Allowing the control panels to rotate and lock in different positions
  • Allowing the control panels to be positioned further forward for longer fingers

Rare Corporate Goodwill

Wahoo really pulled through on this one. Almost any other publicly traded corporation would have taken advantage of this situation and required the purchase of an entirely new trainer to use these controllers. That Wahoo is giving all Kickr Core owners a free firmware update to add virtual shifting goes a long way toward consumer goodwill and loyalty.

Generally, Wahoo has been good to me but this makes it easy to say that “when this trainer finally dies I’m going with another Wahoo!”

This gesture was also a major contributor to me writing this post.

Wrap Up

When you’re riding outdoors you’re not just mindlessly pedaling forwards. You’re steering to find the best lines and to avoid obstacles, you’re adjusting your speed to maintain your position in the pack, and you’re shifting constantly to keep the optimum cadence. You don’t really think about it until you head indoors. These controllers add the “missing” interactivity back to indoor riding and I love it. 9 out of 10. Essential gear if you Zwift with any regularity. 

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