Using an elliptical trainer is a bit like a cross between running on a treadmill and doing the moonwalk. The oversized pedals and moving handlebars provide full-body resistance as you pedal in place, with none of the repeated pounding that can make running on a treadmill uncomfortable for some (or too loud for a downstairs neighbor).
Elliptical machines come in two primary styles -- rear-drive and front-drive. Neither has been proven definitively superior, although some users say they feel 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 most common in the home exercise equipment market. However, both drive types appear in both markets, along with a very few compact center-drive elliptical trainers. Center-drive designs position individual drive systems to either side of your feet, providing a relatively tiny footprint but twice as many moving parts to possibly break.
When it comes to buying an elliptical trainer, feel is far and away the most important factor. Not every elliptical trainer can fit every body type; and if you don't like how it feels, 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.
It's essential to try out a few elliptical trainers before buying if at all possible. If you can't try before you buy, make sure you're dealing with a company that allows you to return the elliptical trainer if it doesn't suit your needs. Although, keep in mind that most ellipticals weigh more than one or two hundred pounds. They can also take hours to assemble, and it stands to reason they take just as long to disassemble.
When shopping for an elliptical trainer, expect to spend at least $1,000 for the best-quality machines. Although some sub-$1,000 models still have impressive feature lists, their durability is not usually very good. These less-expensive elliptical trainers tend to have very short stride lengths and less-durable frames, and are sometimes downright unstable. However, we did find the occasional budget-priced elliptical trainer that's worth your hard-earned money -- especially the Schwinn 430 (Est. $600) , which is impressively sturdy and stable.
Once you crest the $1,000 mark, you have much better access to smooth, sturdy and stable elliptical trainers. As cost climbs, look for more features (including interactive workouts, wireless heart rate monitoring, heart rate control programs or adjustable stride lengths) and heavier-duty components that are more likely to stand up to prolonged use.
Overall, the best elliptical trainers will excel in four categories: Smooth, stable and quiet performance; easy-to-use features and controls; durable, long-term performance; and a good warranty, backed by responsive, helpful customer service. Brand name only matters insofar as it affects your odds of receiving good customer service, although Precor -- which pioneered the first elliptical trainers -- retains a near-unbeatable reputation for solid, durable machines (and prices to match).
ConsumerSearch evaluated dozens of elliptical trainers, analyzing expert and owner reviews for performance, ease of use, durability and customer service. The result is our recommendations of the best elliptical trainers – one is sure to fit your fitness routine.