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Fitness, fun and speed are the lure of the inline skate

Inline skates have come a long way since their initial mass-market introduction in the 1980s. General fitness skates are more sophisticated, with larger wheels and soft boots that both breathe and support your foot; meanwhile, specialized niches like speed skating, aggressive (stunt) skating and inline hockey skates have exploded.

If you tried inline skating in the past and gave up on it, you'll be pleased to learn that the skates are more comfortable now and easier to control. Soft and semi-soft boots with a combination of laces, straps and buckles have replaced the formerly ubiquitous hard-plastic shell and its buckle closures, offering a more comfortable mix of support and flexibility. Some high-end skates also come with heat-moldable liners for a custom fit.

Types of inline skates

Inline skates come in four primary genres: recreational fitness skates, with large wheels and relatively high-cut, supportive boots; speed skates, with low-cut boots and even bigger wheels for the ultimate in speed; hockey skates, with maneuverable mid-size wheels and protective boots that can stand up to direct hits from a flying puck; and aggressive stunt skates, which can be used for many of the same grinds, slides, leaps and other tricks that you'll see being done in any skate park.

Although each type of inline skate has specific priorities to fit its intended use, we still find ourselves looking for similar qualities in the best-reviewed models: a stable, supportive and comfortable boot, with secure and easy-to-manipulate closures; maneuverable, response handling; and reasonably durable wheels on speedy bearings.

The two exceptions are kids' skates and budget skates, usually the province of beginners, which have slightly slower bearings that help you keep the skates under control as you're learning. The best children's skates also have adjustable boots designed to grow with your child, prolonging the useful life of the skates.

Wheel size and durometer

Inline skate wheels are sized by their diameter in millimeters. Large wheels are faster, but small wheels are more maneuverable; some manufacturers aim to capture the best of both worlds with a hi-lo setup, which positions smaller wheels in the first two slots for increased maneuverability, and larger wheels in the last two positions for better speed.

Sometimes you'll see a second figure, followed by an "a," used to describe skating wheels. That number represents the skate's durometer, or hardness. The higher the number, the harder the wheels. Harder wheels are more durable, better able to stand up to the constant friction of skating on rough, outdoor surfaces or doing tricks.

Softer wheels are "grippier" and less likely to slide during fast changes of direction on smooth surfaces, making them a favorite of inline hockey players on smooth indoor rinks. The downside is that soft wheels wear out faster, especially if you take them outdoors onto rough surfaces.

Don't forget how to stop

General-purpose fitness and children's skates still come with the ubiquitous heel-stopper brake at the back of one boot. To brake with the heel stopper you "scissor" your legs, braking foot forward, and crouch back a bit to press the brake pad against the pavement; the resulting friction slows you down.

Most other skate types, however, are now completely brakeless. That keeps the brake from getting in the way as you race for speed or execute tight, fast hockey or stunt maneuvers -- but it also means you'll have to master different types of braking. For the most comprehensive roundup of inline-skate braking techniques, see the SkateFAQ website.

ConsumerSearch editors have examined customer reviews, forum posts and their own experiences and expertise with inline skates to pick the best inline skates in several categories and for every budget.

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