WaterRower Performance Ergometer review – Classic rowing machine gets connected

One of the slickest rowing machines now gives you workout advice and lets you race friends online

T3 Platinum Award
WaterRower Performance Ergometer Review
(Image credit: WaterRower)
T3 Verdict

It might look like a piece of Scandinavian furniture, but the WaterRower has always delivered a fantastically realistic rowing experience. Any previous criticisms levelled at its lack of tech have now been addressed with Bluetooth technology and an accompanying smartphone app, which delivers data by the bucketload and packs plenty of workouts to suit any level.

Reasons to buy
  • +

    Feels like rowing on water

  • +

    Easy on the eye

  • +

    Intuitive smartphone app

Reasons to avoid
  • -

    Seat isn’t very comfortable

  • -

    Resistance bleeds off during stroke

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The WaterRower Performance Ergometer is the latest development in a beloved line of rowing machines. The twist this time is an online platform that helps you get the most out of your new rower and train with and race against other users worldwide. It's like a water-borne Peloton, in short. 

The WaterRower has already won some serious plaudits here at T3, as the S4 Performance Monitor version was handed our coveted T3 Platinum Award when we reviewed it last year (read our WaterRower review here). The slick blend of natural wood materials and the serene sound of water rushing with every rowing stroke stands it out from a competitive pack of fairly homogenous performance rowers.

Perhaps one of the bigger criticisms levelled at the original WaterRower is the lack of connected tech (oh, and the haphazard foot fasteners), but both of these sticking points have now been addressed, with the company fitting a hardier commercial footboard to the latest Performance Ergometer and injecting it with some neat Bluetooth technology.

The unit itself remains fashioned from drop-dead gorgeous solid Appalachian Oak, while the resistance remains in the form of a large ‘paddle’ that spins around inside a tub of water. In essence, the harder you pull on the T-shaped rowing handle, the greater the resistance.

It’s beautifully simple, with no noisy fans, clanking chains or awkward resistance dials to contend with. It’s just you, the rowing handle and a gentle sound of water rushing around the tub with every stroke. In short, it may just be the best rowing machine you can buy.

WaterRower Performance Ergometer Review

(Image credit: WaterRower)

WaterRower Performance Ergometer Review: Styling

This more technologically advanced model features essentially the same frame as the unit we reviewed last year, except here, the rails have been given some added width and the footboard replaced with a tougher, more commercial-biased unit. Perhaps they listened to our quibbles?

Extending from the front of the unit is a foldable smartphone or tablet holder, which is fashioned from the same posh wood. This features a simple spring-mounted clamp that can extend to fit even the largest of tablets, but users can also fit an optional laptop stand.

For me personally, the seat has always been a bit of a bone of contention, as it’s simply not as comfortable as something you’d find on a Technogym or Concept 2 product. There’s very little cushioning under the glutes, and its relative lack of contouring means it can be a bit hard on the butt.

Aside from that, it looks fantastic and has the same Scandi sex appeal as any of the wooden products in the WaterRower range. It’s also comparatively light and easy to move around the house or garage, thanks to small wheels at the front of the unit. There's no folding mechanism, but it's easy for one person to tip it up and stash it against a wall. 

That said, it remains really grippy, even on smooth surfaces. This is partly down to its low centre of gravity, but also the rubberised feet mean it doesn't slide around the floor like some of its competitors. Alternatively, WaterRower sells a heavy-duty mat if you are a particularly intense rower.

WaterRower Performance Ergometer Review

(Image credit: WaterRower)

WaterRower Performance Ergometer Review: Tech

Cleverly, WaterRower has stashed a diminutive Bluetooth unit that sits between the handle and the water tub. Pulling on the handle activates the little unit, which it happily sends buckets of data to a smartphone or tablet in real-time.

Available on both iOS and Android devices, the SmartRow app connects quickly with your WaterRower and then remembers it for future workouts. Similarly, it’s just as simple to pair an external heart rate monitor to get an even clearer picture of the overall effort.

Once downloaded and running, it requires a few personal details to get a picture of your age and vague fitness levels. Then, it’s simply a case of sticking your phone or tablet in the provided holder and rowing.

The main data screen collates information on absolute force and stroke length to accurately calculate overall power output. This is neatly displayed on a real-time graph, dubbed Force curve mode, which allows the rower to optimise their stroke technique for improvements in power and speed.

Of course, there’s also classic information, such as distance travelled, stroke rate and heart rate, or you can leave the screen completely decluttered and just focus on hitting a set distance in your own time.

The only issue I found was that the smartphone or tablet holder is situated just out of reach for anyone with regular-length arms, so if you have rock-hard hamstrings (like me), you’ll often find you have to unstrap the feet to interact with your device. It’s a minor point, but something rivals have addressed by keeping any screens or dials within easy reach to make sure any in-workout adjustments are seamless.

WaterRower Performance Ergometer Review: Online workouts

The app in itself is extremely easy to use, with the various menus laid out at the bottom of your phone or tablet screen. After rowing for a few weeks, you’ll also have access to a fairly comprehensive ‘Insights’ tab, which gives details on the distance covered, personal achievements and online ranking.

This is the really cool part because SmartRow pits you against fellow users from across the globe in a bunch of classes. These are based on sex, weight (light or heavyweight) and age groups, so you get matched up with someone of an equal fitness level. The more you row, the better the app gets to know your skill level and therefore matches you up with the appropriate rivals with greater accuracy.

Match-making races selects opponents of a similar skill level, and you can compete at anything from fast 100-metre sprint races to 10,000-meter slogs. There’s a real-time leaderboard to spur you on during the race and an all-time leaderboard for ultimate bragging rights. Alternatively, if you want to shy away from the virtual jocks, you can always race one-on-one with your personal bests and aim to better a previous time.

WaterRower Performance Ergometer Review

(Image credit: Leon Poultney)

When the thought of competing feels like too much, there’s also an extensive list of pre-programmed workouts, which again are arranged to suit everyone from complete beginners to expert rowers. 

Admittedly, rowing workouts tend to heavily lean on the school of interval training but here, there’s options to simply row hard for a short time, followed by a period of rest, or row to a prescribed wattage output, making it slightly more scientific.

On top of this, some of the more advanced workouts also have intervals where you are asked to hop off the rower and perform press-ups, sit-ups, bodyweight squats and burpees to create a well-rounded CrossFit style workout. If none of those appeal, you can also set up your own workouts with infinite sets and rest periods. 

As with many digital workout platforms today, you can also choose to automatically synch your SmartRow data with third party apps, like Strava and Apple.

WaterRower Performance Ergometer Review

(Image credit: WaterRower)

WaterRower Performance Ergometer Review: Verdict

The WaterRower Performance Ergometer is a brilliant addition to the WaterRower range, as it packs all of the charm of the Original Series but adds another layer of technology that makes working out more engaging and fun.

The rowing experience itself is fluid, quiet and as much of a challenge as you want to make it. Arguably, there are more professionally-orientated products on the market, such as the Technogym Skillrow, which has one of the most realistic strokes that money can buy. But, the WaterRower package doesn’t look like an eyesore in the home, it’s by far the most stylish piece of fitness equipment on sale today, and not many will even notice resistance bleeds off slightly at the very end of the stroke, will they?

The SmartRow app is simple to use but offers enough in the way of pre-programmed workouts and online races to keep users entertained for a long time. Should you start to grow tired of these workouts or improve to the point you need a greater challenge, simply set up your own and crack on.

Rival machines from Technogym and Concept2 arguably go into a more detailed analysis of rowing data, but unless you are seriously competing for Olympic gold, this can prove a tad overwhelming and pointless anyway. The WaterRower would look great in the middle of a swanky gym, but it also feels like a perfectly judged piece of kit for home use. If the budget can stretch, you won’t be disappointed.

Leon Poultney

Leon has been writing about automotive and consumer tech for longer than he cares to divulge. When he’s not testing the latest fitness wearable and action camera, he’s out in a shed fawning over his motorcycles or trying not to kill himself on a mountain bike/surfboard/other extreme thing. He's also a man who knows his tools, and he's provided much of T3's drills coverage over the years, all without injuring himself.