Finally, a $2,000 Treadmill That Checks the Boxes

Treadmills. There are the really robust treadmills you'd find in gyms, like Woodway, True, Landice. But as we consider pain cave treadmills that won't break the bank, it's hard to be confident they will last. The typical budget treadmill feels as if you could fold it up, put it in a suitcase, and take it on the plane with you as checked luggage. But a fleet of Woodways in a gym looks and runs like armored cavalry: you could invade a small country with them.

I have three treadmills in the Slowtwitch Pain Cave. Two are motorized, and of those two I have one at each end of the price spectrum. My regular treadmill is a Woodway, but as of now I have a Horizon Fitness 7.8AT as well.

When I ask how much you intend to spend on your treadmills, sixty percent of you who’ll purchase a treadmill will spend $2,000 or less, and almost three-quarters of you will spend less than $3,000. Interestingly, while none of you will spend between $7,500 and $10,000, about 3 percent of you intend to spend north of $10,000 and that’s almost certainly a Woodway you have in mind. So, while I love that Woodway, it’s not realistic for most of you, unless you bump into one on Craigslist at a ridiculous price.

So, this got me thinking about treadmills in the price category where you and I tend to live (“my” Woodway is on loan). I have a complex relationship with treadmill brands. I find that smart bike trainer companies are Silicon Valley thinkers, while treadmill companies are Detroit thinkers. I’m not going to develop this theme here, because you just want to know about the treadmill. But the point is, treadmill companies have tended to produce closed systems where the graphics, the software, everything is in the unit, which is pretty much not upgradeable, as opposed to smart trainers which have upgradeable firmware, companion apps, ecosystems, and that don’t aspire to do well what other industries do better (as in, Wahoo, Elite and Tacx don’t try to compete in graphic displays).

So I hunted for treadmills that sold for around $2,000, and that also came as close as possible to smart trainer thinking (treadmill designers who were eager to enable group runs; that placed upgradeable firmware in their units; and had the nuts & bolts features of treadmills, like a decent motor). This is the treadmill I came up with.

This is the top o’ the line in the Horizon Fitness treadmill range, and the company advertises this as “made for streaming.” Which it is. And we’ll get to that. Let me take you through the steps on my Horizon Treadmill journey. First – and important to me – it’s got a 30-day money back policy, and its warranty is 2yr, 5yr, and lifetime on labor, parts and motor respectively.

This is a consumer-direct seller, and I received the 7.8AT from a freight company, out the back of a largish box truck with a rear liftgate. The driver had with him a pallet jack, and it got placed where I wanted it by the driver. It was up to me to unpack and assemble it. This is what it look like after I cut off the strapping and peeled back the top of the box. And, by the way, the shipping on this unit is free.

It took me about 2 hours to fully assemble it (I timed myself). Mostly what you need are a few Allen keys (the 8mm you use to put on your pedals if your pedals go on your bike that way; plus a 6mm and maybe a 5mm). And a Phillips head driver. All this is included, but I found my own bike tools worked a little better. I did not find the included manual to have the installation instructions – maybe I misplaced it when I threw out all the packing material – but there is one online that guided me fine.

I stuck a monitor in front of the treadmill, up on a TV stand (this one), loaded Zwift onto an Apple TV 4k, turned everything on, and Zwift immediately saw the treadmill. The refreshing thing about this treadmill is that it’s marketed heavily toward Zwift use. So far I've engaged in about a dozen Zwift runs and I’ve yet to experience a dropout or any connectivity issue.

This treadmill goes up to 12mph (a 5min mile), a speed I have not tested with a runner aboard, and this runner’s 5min miles are long in his rear view mirror. The treadmill inclines to 15 percent. It’s got a 4 horsepower motor, and running the treadmill, monitor, computer all on a single 20 amp 110v circuit has not popped a circuit breaker.

This is a foldable treadmill. It’s on wheels. It’s not too heavy to move around. It’s a space saver if that’s what you need. The platform is stable, and there is enough – but not too much – give in the running surface. There’s plenty of running surface. The running surface is a belt which is 60” x 22”. The electronics deck looks like a jetliner cockpit, and there are plenty of controls and data feedback. The controls are there, available, and easy to access. This unit even has a built-in sound system and I was able to BLE a playlist from my iPhone to the unit while simultaneously running Zwift on my Companion App and with the treadmill streaming to Zwift in-game. (It is not always a given that a device can handle multiple simultaneous BLE connections.) There’s even a built-in fan.

This is everything good about this treadmill. What is not good about this treadmill?

I like things sturdily built, and this treadmill is. That said, I might try to replace the wheels and footpods on which this treadmill rests with hardware that I consider more worthy of the overall value of this treadmill.

This treadmill has upgradeable firmware. There are oblique references to WiFi connectivity across the Johnson fitness product line (Johnson is the parent, which also owns Matrix Fitness and Vision Fitness) but I can’t find any evidence of a WiFi card in this machine. Rather, you would go to software updates, see if there’s an update, load it onto a thumb drive, transfer the thumb drive to the treadmill’s USB port, and then upload the firmware per the instructions on that page to which I linked. This is what I mean by Detroit thinking. If it was a smart cycling trainer, we’d all download the app (e.g., Wahoo Fitness or Tacx Utility apps), which would pair with treadmill; the app would determine automatically if the firmware was current, and download as needed.

Which brings me to the next issue. There are quick, one-push buttons, for incline and mph. But, the mph buttons are next to useless, because we need a much finer granularity than that. I’m not usually going from 6mph to 7mph to 8mph. I’m going up or down by tenths. This machine is equipped with QuickDial™ controls, which are a pair of blue ratcheting wheels that you see, right where your hands are. This is where the fine granularity is to be had.

I have two problems with the QuickDial™ wheels. First, I tend to run right up on the front of the treadmill, and when I do I inadvertently hit those wheels with my hands, causing an unintended change in either incline or in speed. I solve this by running a bit further back on the platform which, thankfully, is possible, because the platform is so long. I’m used to this now, and I find the middle of the belt a little more to my liking anyway, in terms of the response of the belt (the unit is designed with 3 different belt feedback stiffnesses depending on where you run, front to back). But it took a few runs to get used to this.

Second, the granularity is too fine. For example, I usually run with this treadmill at a .5 or 1.0 percent incline (it feels a little better on my legs; and I do the same on the Woodway). Each ratchet increment in the QuickDial™ wheel is a half a percent. I think it really needs to be more like two-tenths, or even one-tenth, a percent of grade with each QuickDial™ increment click. It takes awhile to develop a technique that allows you to grab onto the “joystick” and turn that wheel as you’re running, and do it with precision. This is where an app that allowed configuration of the wheels would be handy.

I’ve interviewed the management at this brand and they are refreshingly open to considering all of this. And, because this treadmill is firmware upgradeable, I see no reason why this can’t be a self-improving device, even as it now is sold.

You can program in interval workouts, which I have not done but that means, I assume, one need not fiddle with the QuickDial™ controls to speed up or slow down. There’s simultaneous HR input and they include a HR chest strap with the purchase. But I always run on Zwift, and I would bypass HR connectivity to the treadmill, instead just connecting my HR monitor to Zwift (remember, Zwift prompts you every run for a speed, HR and cadence input). This device – so I hear – has the capacity to generate a cadence output, which is determined by slight changes in motor amperage. Could one anticipate a future firmware update that includes a run cadence output recognizable by Zwift?

How accurate is the speed of this treadmill? (You assumed that treadmills accurately record their speed? Hah!) There would be two ways to determine this: via a RUNN device and I see no reason why one couldn’t go on this treadmill, and by using a measuring wheel. The RUNN would be superfluous on this machine since it already has built-in BLE, and my measuring wheel broke last month and I haven’t replaced it yet, so, I have nothing to report. What I can say is that it’s either off a little in my favor, or it’s just a decently fast treadmill.

That’s it! The unit is $1,999, currently, freight-free, so, it’s that plus sales tax. My whinges about WiFi and helper apps should be read thru the prism of somebody spoiled by how the bike trainer industry presents its products to us. I think the treadmill industry in general just has some learnin’ to do from a more tech-savvy part of the fitness industry. Here is more about this treadmill. As of last week they were in stock, but as I look on the web page what I read is, “More in stock soon,” as of this writing.

LATE ADD: As of this morning (Dec 30, 2020) I got a note from the folks at Horizon, who read this review. On their own volition they created a discount code for Slowtwitchers, which is SLOWTWITCH100, good for $100 off on sales from now thru the end of January. Further, “We do have some in stock right now,” is what I was told this morning. This company is not a Slowtwitch Partner, and we are not participating financially in this. It’s just a nice treadmill at an affordable price, and when we polled this earlier in December about 15 percent of Slowtwitchers are in the treadmill market right now. So, there it is if you find this of value.