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In this report

Elliptical trainers offer an intense, but low-impact workout

An elliptical trainer provides a workout that resembles a combination of walking (or running) and climbing in place. Ellipticals feature oversized pedals that move with the motion of your legs. Many people like ellipticals because they are easier on the joints than walking outside on a hard surface or running on a treadmill. You can go as fast or slow as you'd like on an elliptical trainer, and in either forward or reverse to vary your workout. In addition to giving you a great cardio workout, most elliptical trainers have moving handlebars that provide full-body resistance as you pedal in place. One great feature of a home elliptical is that they are very quiet, so you won't disturb your downstairs neighbor -- a big plus for apartment dwellers.

Portable elliptical trainer

Stamina In-Motion Elliptical Trainer
Stamina In-Motion Elliptical Trainer

Many people use ellipticals in a home gym alongside other stationary workout equipment like treadmills, exercise bikes and stair steppers, all of which we cover in separate reports. All of these exercise machines have different functions and purposes, and many people who prefer working out at home like having a circuit exercise options handy, or just like having a machine for everyone during family workout sessions.

There are two primary types of elliptical trainers -- rear-drive and front-drive. Some users feel that front-drive elliptical trainers give them a slight forward lean, while rear-drive elliptical trainers let them remain more upright. Rear-drive elliptical trainers are more common in commercial settings, while front-drive elliptical trainers are the most common type sold for home use.

In addition, if space is a concern, you can find a handful of compact center-drive elliptical trainers. Center-drive designs position individual drive systems to either side of your feet, providing a relatively tiny footprint. One thing to note is that the pedaling motion of a center-drive elliptical is different; these work more in a swinging pendulum-style motion, rather than the forward, almost circular stepping motion of rear- and front-drive styles.

Which elliptical is right for you?

There are two main factors that will influence your home elliptical purchase: price and available space. Elliptical trainers can be extremely expensive -- close to $10,000 in some cases. Those gym-quality ellipticals are the best you can buy, and usually come with white-glove service as well, but, realistically, they're out of most people's price ranges. Fortunately, there are many terrific elliptical trainers for home use that sell for just a fraction of that price.

Full-sized elliptical trainers: In our research, we found plenty of really good ellipticals in the $600 to $1,700 price range. Of course, a sub-$1,000 elliptical won't have quite as many bells and whistles as a pricier machine, and it will likely have lower user weight limits, so a machine in that price range won't be a good fit for heavier users. However, if you're an average weight person (300 pounds or less) and don't need multiple programs and user profiles, you'll be very happy with a cheaper machine. If you like the bells and whistles or need a higher weight limit, an elliptical priced at $1,000 and up will be nearly as sturdy as anything you'll find at your local gym. All of the full-sized ellipticals we cover in this report have excellent owner satisfaction and are offered by companies with excellent customer service track records -- always a huge plus with any large home fitness machine.

Compact and portable elliptical trainers: If you simply don't have the space for a full-sized elliptical, we found a couple of very highly-rated home ellipticals that give you a great workout, but have a relatively small footprint. One drawback is that these elliptical trainers are designed to have one, relatively low workout level. However, users who are just trying to move more, who describe themselves as "un-athletic" or who simply want an easier workout love them.

Portable ellipticals focus only on the lower pedaling portion of the elliptical machine. While some have handlebars for balance, others do not; they are, essentially, a pair of pedals that you can operate standing or sitting, such as under a desk at work. As minimalist as they sound, these portable machines get a lot of love from apartment and dorm dwellers who don't have the room for anything larger, and office workers (and others) who like to "move" while sitting. Another plus is their bottom line, with some top choices selling for less than $100.

Try before you buy

When it comes to buying a home elliptical, comfort is another very important factor. Not every elliptical trainer can fit every body type; and if it hurts any part of your body, or is otherwise uncomfortable to use, you probably won't use it regularly or for long. Unfortunately, you can only tell so much from reading specifications and looking at the equipment. A stride of any given length -- say, 20 inches -- can feel different not just between brands but also from one model to another, even from the same manufacturer. As a general rule the taller you are, the longer a stride length the elliptical trainer should have. An adjustable stride length is a nice feature as well, but you generally have to pay extra for that perk.

If you can't try out an elliptical before you buy it, make sure you're dealing with a company that allows you to return the elliptical machine if it doesn't suit your needs. Keep in mind, however, that returning an elliptical might not be a simple process. For one thing, most ellipticals are very heavy. They can also take hours to assemble, and it stands to reason they take just as long to disassemble. If you return it for any reason other than a legitimate complaint (for example, a broken part), you may have to pay a restocking fee.

To find the best home ellipticals, we looked at a few important factors: Smooth, stable and quiet performance; easy-to-use features and controls; durable, long-term reliability; and a good warranty backed by responsive, helpful customer service. There aren't a lot of expert reviews for elliptical machines, and the one comparative test we found at ConsumerReports.org had a few discontinued models, but there are expert sources that review individual ellipticals. Most important, we evaluated hundreds of customer reviews to gauge user's satisfaction with the features and usability of their home elliptical machines. This information, along with expert evaluations, led us to finding the best ellipticals for any home fitness regimen.

Elsewhere in this Report:

Best Home Ellipticals: Home ellipticals can help you get in great shape without the joint stress of running or walking. We name the best overall elliptical and the best cheap elliptical trainer.

Best Compact Elliptical Trainers: Don't think you have space for an elliptical trainer? Think again -- these compact ellipticals can fit in even the smallest space.

Buying Guide: Not sure what type of home elliptical is right for you? Our buying guide will help you figure out how to find the perfect elliptical trainer.

Our Sources: These are the expert and user sources we consulted in finding the top elliptical trainers. They are listed in order from most to least helpful.

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