The hardest part for most people in getting into exercising is the fact that it’s not a lot of fun. You’re putting your body through all sorts of things it’s not used to doing (especially if you’re most gamers), and mentally there isn’t much there for you other than the thought that you’re getting into better shape. Compared to spending time gaming, to most of us, physical fitness comes in a distant second place, or even maybe further back than that. Since the release of the Wii, “exergaming” has become a hot topic. Many nutritionist and personal trainers (including my own) are building some of these types of exercises into personal exercise plans. This rise in mindshare for exercise related controllers is something that 3D Innovations is taking advantage of with the release of the PCGamerBike Mini.
What I found most fascinating when I first got a look at the Mini at CES was that it really doesn’t look anything like a bike. It’s merely a small (less than 2 feet tall) stand with feet, a USB connector, a digital display, and a set of pedals. When I got my demo unit, I was surprised at the weight. While it’s not exactly light at 22 pounds, it isn’t so heavy that it can’t be easily moved when necessary. The frame, legs, and pedal mechanism are made of steel with the outer shell, pedals, and feet made of high quality plastic. Some assembly is required, and 3D Innovations include a nice wrench-like tool to attach the pedals to the stand, with total setup time taking about 5 minutes.
With the design of the unit, obviously there isn’t a place to sit on it. Instead, you use it with any chair to build a recumbent exercise bike. The back legs extend through use of a tension screw, which allows for increased balance for the unit if additional floor space is available in back of where the unit is to be used.
Connectivity for the unit is very easy. The only cord is the USB connector, and a single ‘AA’ battery is all that’s needed to power the digital readout unit. Once the unit is plugged in, getting the PCGamerBike Mini up and running is a snap. Simply install and launch the “PCGamerBike Configurator”. Once in the Configurator there are a lot of options, but the only ones that will matter to most gamers are the 2 key mapping fields. For whatever you’re going to play, you simply map the pedaling motion (forward or backwards) to the appropriate keyboard key (or any of the 3 primary mouse buttons) for forward or backwards motion in the game. This process takes all of 10 seconds, and doesn’t require any pedaling to configure. Plus, once you have a game mapping set up, you can reuse it at any time, and there’s no limit to the number of mappings you can create.
The real appeal of the Mini is that you can use it with almost any game. From the 3D Innovations web site, “Strictly speaking, the PCGamerBike can be used to play any PC game that uses a keyboard for input.” There is an entire page on the PCGamerBike Mini site dedicated to using the bike with World of Warcraft. (With 8 Million worldwide WoW players, who can blame them for a little targeted marketing?) While clearly, I had no way to verify the scope of that statement, I did my best to put the unit through its paces, having logged over 60 hours on the bike, playing a myriad of games, including The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion, Lego Star Wars II, Battlefield II, and the Mini’s “pack in” game, Island Worlds.
It was a little strange at first, not using the keyboard to control the primary motion in the game. During my first combat in Oblivion, I found myself running into my opponent as I adjusted to moving around by combining the side to side movement controlled by my hands with the forward and backwards movement of my feet. What was surprising was how fast this control scheme felt completely natural. By the time I came upon my second random encounter, I was fully capable of moving quite easily during combat, and found I was able to hit and run rather easily. Lego Star Wars II and Battlefield II also both made for good tests of the Mini, especially in Battlefield II where quick movement can be the key to not getting killed. It was during my time playing Oblivion that the advantages of both health and game play with the Mini stood out. Covering the long distances between important areas of the game, which can take a lot of the fun out of the primary quests became a lot more enjoyable. Instead of hunching over the keyboard, you can simply line yourself up for a straight walk, sit back, and start pedaling. I found it very rewarding to move through the game in this manner, and definitely won’t be going back to the old way of doing things anytime soon.
While it isn’t a part of the hardware itself, this review would not be complete without discussing Island Worlds, which is the game/editing environment/online portal that allows users to build and explores islands of their own design with terrain, buildings, even race courses that turn this world creation tool into an ideal training partner, allowing users to share custom built islands with other Island Worlds users. You could even go so far as to set up a race course on your island and have you PCGamerBike owning friends join you on your island for races.
Of course, if you’re focused on the exercise benefits, anther key feature of note is the Exercise Log. Inside the Configurator, the Exercise Log allows you to track your daily pedal motion, along with several statistics including total pedaling time, average speed, Maximum speed, and the estimated calories burnt (based on the weight information entered into the system). Personally, I found the estimated calories burnt to be somewhat inaccurate in comparison to the calorie counter on my watch/heart rate monitor, but that is to be expected from a system that can only take into account your weight, the resistance setting, and number of cycling revolutions.
Maybe the single most important feature aside from the ease in which the Mini integrates into game play is the fact that it has adjustable magnetic resistance (up to 100 watts). What this means is that by turning the dial on the front of the unit, you can increase or decrease the effort it takes to generate the same amount of in game motion. Being that I play hockey, and have been riding the exercise bike at the gym as part of my exercise regimen, I found I needed to adjust the resistance up a good bit from the minimum resistance. Because the resistance is magnetic, it remains even throughout, which is something that anyone who has used a bike with belt resistance will enjoy.
While I thoroughly enjoy using the PCGamerBike Mini, it is not entirely without faults. To begin with, many computer desk chairs have wheels, and it’s somewhat easy to push yourself away from the unit in a wheeled chair. Perhaps including optional chair clips or some other mechanism to connect the unit to the chair could alleviate this issue. The other issue is that of stability. For anyone with a less than perfectly smooth stride (like me for example), you may find the Mini to be a bit wobbly from time to time, especially if you’re supplying extra exertion to the pedals in an effort to escape an untimely demise at the hands of a Vampire, Nazi, or other n’er-do-weller. This is likely due to the somewhat high center of gravity of the unit. The workaround of course is to remember to keep moving your feet in the same circular motion more quickly without applying extra pressure to either pedal. A suggested improvement for future versions of the unit would be to increase the leg span of the unit a few inches on each side. I have a somewhat small desk, and even with an increase in leg span, the unit would still fit under it easily.
In discussions with hardware vendors in the past, I’ve mentioned that “It’s easy to get a good review, simply make a good product”. I can say that after a large amount of use that not only is the PCGamerBike Mini a good product, I am so fond of mine that after consulting with my nutritionist and personal trainer, I have replaced my rides on the gym exercise bike with the same amount of time on the Mini. And with an SRP of $179, it’s a lot cheaper than a gym membership, and you don’t have to give up any time in front of the PC to gain the benefits of a good ride.