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.
Best Inline Skates
Wheels keep getting bigger, but they're surprisingly easy to handle
Although they still retain the easy-to-use heel brake and boots high enough to provide good ankle support, the wheels on fitness and cross-training inline skates are getting ever-larger. Speedy 90 mm wheels are quite common now, and a few models sport 100 mm wheels that position them as good long-distance skates for speed skaters in training.
Those larger wheels are thanks, perhaps, to improvements in design that make them easy to turn and control at speed. Large wheels also help you roll more smoothly over obstacles like sticks, gravel and cracks in pavement, and they better absorb shock when skating across uneven surfaces like bridges.
Meanwhile, those fitness/commuting skates that still retain smaller wheels (in the range of 80 mm) use the superior maneuverability of those smaller wheels as a big selling point. Beginning and intermediate skaters may also find the smaller wheels easy to control, but make no mistake -- you can still get going fast on skates with 80 mm wheels, too.
If you are looking for a gender-specific model, this is the category where you are most likely to encounter separate men's and women's models. The biggest differences between women's and men's skates are usually the shape of the boot and cuff, plus the color scheme.
K2 dominates the fitness skating field
K2 is far and away the dominant company in the world of fitness skating, although its highest-end skates tend toward large wheels and relatively low-cut soft boots that may be intimidating to beginners. That said, we found a few reviews from beginners who love our Best Reviewed all-around skate, the K2 VO2 90 Boa (Est. $280). Reviewers say they're pleasantly surprised by how easily they can handle the 90 mm wheels and speedy, ILQ-9 bearings.
The VO2 90 Boa's ease of handling is, at least in part, due to those large wheels and the shock-absorbing qualities of K2's trademark soft boot, all of which combine to let you roll over gravel, sticks and pavement cracks with relative impunity.
The K2 boot is cut relatively low for a fitness skate, although its ratchet-lock cuff still supports your ankle. It's also well-ventilated, which leaves you more comfortable on hot days or during hard workouts, but also makes the mesh parts a little less durable in case of a crash. The good news is that the wheels, which drew criticism in years past for wearing out quickly, now last much longer.
The Boa closure system -- just twist a dial to tighten the laces, or pop the dial out to loosen them -- draws rave reviews from skaters who say it's well worth the extra $50 it adds to the skate's retail cost. But if money is an issue, you can get the same skate in a "Pro" version (Est. $240), with speed laces instead of the Boa closures.
The K2 VO2 90 Boa is the best all-around skate in this report -- but if you're into inline skating marathons or are thinking of transitioning to speed skating, you might prefer the K2 Radical 100 (Est. $350). The Radical 100 retains K2's soft boot, but upgrades to 100 mm/85a wheels and ILQ-9 bearings.
The Radical 100 uses traditional laces as a closure -- if you want the Boa system, you'll have to upgrade to the K2 Radical X Boa (Est. $500), which also comes with a hi-lo configuration, putting even speedier 110 mm wheels in the back two positions.
The Radical 100's ventilated boot still supports your ankle, but it's cut a little lower than your average recreation skate; if you're a fitness skater who needs plenty of secure ankle support, this probably isn't the skate for you. A rigid, responsive carbon fiber base gives the sort of supportive, smooth ride you'd expect from a speed skate, and best of all the K2 Radical 100 can stand up to all the miles you'll be putting on them. "I have had two pairs, put THOUSANDS of miles on miles on each, and never a problem," writes one happy customer at InlinePlanet.com.
Both the K2 VO2 90 Boa (sometimes sold as the VO2 Max 90) and the K2 Radical 100 are available in men's and women's versions. The Rollerblade Fusion X3 (Est. $180), by comparison, uses unisex sizing -- but if you want to buck the trend of big-wheeled fitness skates or want some serious ankle support, this could be the skate for you thanks to its rigid, molded plastic shell and 80 mm, 80a wheels.
Those mid-size wheels offer a nice combination of speed -- though not as fast as K2's big wheels -- and the sort of maneuverability you just can't get from big-wheeled skates. The stiff boot makes the Fusion X3 a particular favorite with heavier users who want the extra support, and most reviewers say it's comfortable after a short break-in period.
However, the hook-and-loop closure at the ankle of the Fusion X3 -- unusual, when almost every other inline skate uses a ratchet strap -- is a potential weak point. Several users warn that it's hard to get this and the instep strap snug, and that they can loosen up as you skate.
A budget skate worth buying
If all you want is a solid ride on a pair of reliable inline skates, you don't necessarily have to drop hundreds of dollars to get it. The Bladerunner Formula 82 (Est. $100) won't be winning any speed contests against higher-end competitors, but its 82 mm wheels and ABEC 7 bearings -- a great find in this price range -- will still get you where you're going in good time.
For some, the idea of "not too much" speed is actually a draw; beginning and intermediate riders like knowing these skates won't get away from them. Meanwhile, the mid-size wheels are nicely maneuverable and the soft boot, another nice find in this price range, feels comfortable and sturdy. You can expect these skates to hold up better than generic department store skates, but again a couple of reviewers warn that the closures are a bit of a weak point. One Amazon.com user says that if you fall forward, the ankle strap can break off.
The Bladerunner Formula 82 only comes in whole sizes, which can make fit challenging depending on your foot size, but it's available in both men's and women's models (and sizing), which helps expand your choices a bit.
Several of the general-purpose inline skates we've reviewed -- the Best Reviewed K2 VO2 90 Boa and Bladerunner Formula 82, and the K2 Radical 100 -- are available with either men's or women's boots. But one women-only model stood out enough in our research that it deserves a mention, too: the K2 Alexis Boa (Est. $200).
The K2 Alexis has the same Boa closure that's such a hit on the K2 VO2 90, and the K2 soft boot with a stable aluminum frame. Meanwhile, its 84 mm wheels and ILQ-7 bearings make it particularly good for beginning and intermediate skaters; they're fast, but not so fast that they'll get away from you. You also have the option of upgrading to 90 mm wheels in the future if -- or you can opt for the K2 Alexis X Pro (Est. $160), which puts two 80 mm wheels in the front two slots for enhanced maneuverability without sacrificing speed.
Finally, keep in mind that there's nothing sacred about a skate being labeled for women or men -- and with a trend toward relatively neutral color schemes for both genders, it's hard to tell the difference between the two at a glance. So just buy whatever gives you the best fit.