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 have tried inline skating in the past and gave up on it, you'll be pleased to learn that today's skates are more comfortable and easier to control than earlier models. Soft boots, with a combination of laces, straps and buckles have all but replaced the former standard of a hard plastic shell with ratchet buckle closures; the result is a more comfortable mix of support and flexibility. Some specialized, high-end skates even 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 the grinds, slides, leaps and other tricks that you'll see being done in any skate park.
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.
You'll also 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 turns 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.
How we found the best inline skates
Although each type of inline skate has specific priorities to fit its intended use, as experienced and avid skaters ourselves, we look for similar qualities in the best-reviewed models: a stable, supportive and comfortable boot, with secure and easy to manipulate closures; maneuverable, responsive 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.
There are very few expert reviews for inline skates, although we found a series of excellent video reviews from Roller Warehouse that are especially helpful in evaluating aggressive skates. Although old, expert reviews from InlinePlanet.com are also extremely helpful (and still pertinent) for judging the relative merits of high-end speed skates. For other skate types, we heavily weighted our evaluations toward user reviews; after all, the real measure of a skate's worth is how it performs when the wheels hit the pavement under real world conditions.
The best inline skates
Although they still retain the easy to use heel brake and ankle-supporting boots you might remember from the '80s, inline skates have come a long way. Unlike the rigid, high-cut plastic boots of yesteryear, modern inline skate boots are usually made of soft, flexible materials that breathe, helping keep your feet cool and dry no matter how hard you're skating. A lightweight exterior frame or exoskeleton provides additional foot support and keeps the boot solidly fastened to the skate.
The wheels are also getting ever larger: Speedy 90mm wheels are quite common on recreational skates now, and a few models sport 100mm wheels that position them as fast, efficient long-distance skates. Larger wheels mean faster skates, and their popularity is no doubt due to the design improvements that make speedy skates easier 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 80mm) use the superior maneuverability of those smallish wheels as a big selling point. Beginning and intermediate skaters may also find the smaller wheels easier to control than their 90mm cousins, but make no mistake -- you can still get going fast on skates with 80mm wheels, too.
What about inline skates for women?
The biggest change we've noticed in inline skates over the last two years is that single-gender models are increasingly rare. Quite a few manufacturers used to produce one model for men and a completely separate model for women, but nowadays you'll usually find men's and women's versions of the same model.
This is more a change in terminology than anything, but it makes things much less confusing for shoppers. All of our top-reviewed skates are very popular with both men and women, and with high-end models the women's sizes are usually built on a women-specific last instead of simply a smaller version of the men's skate.
K2 continues to dominate the fitness skating field
In our last report, we wrote that K2 was far and away the dominant company in the world of fitness skating. That's still true, although current models from Rollerblade -- the company that first popularized inline skating in the United States -- offer the strongest competition we've seen yet.
K2's most popular high-end skates come with large wheels (90mm and up) and relatively soft, low-cut boots that are really designed for intermediate users, but we found quite a few reviews from relative beginners who were pleased with how quickly and easily they adapted to the 90mm wheels and speedy ILQ-9 bearings on our best-reviewed skate, the K2 VO2 90 Pro (Est. $240).
Users say the VO2 90 Pro offers the best combination of speed, stability and support they've experienced. That ease of handling is, at least in part, due to the smooth ride and shock absorption you get from those big wheels; for most riders, they're the perfect combination of maneuverability and energy-efficient cruising that'll help you go faster and farther with less effort. Those 90mm wheels also let you roll over gravel, sticks and pavement cracks with relative impunity.
The K2 VO2 90 Pro also draws a lot of praise for its soft boot, which has generous mesh siding for great ventilation and a form-fit liner that molds to your foot every time you put the skates on, meaning that they require little to no break-in period. One user skated a half marathon the first time he put the skates on and found them perfectly comfortable.
In general, owners say the VO2 90 Pro boot fits true to size (go up a half-size if you have wide feet), and that the improved speed laces work well once you get used to them, tightening all the way down the boot to the toes. The lace cinch point is integrated into the tongue of the skate, so you don't have to worry about the laces flopping around. We did find a few comments that the laces seem to loosen over time, though, so if you like a consistently tight fit Improved speed laces you might prefer the K2 VO2 90 Boa (Est. $290) the exact skate with the addition a twist-tighten, wire-laced Boa closure.
The K2 VO2 90 Pro's wheels have a durometer of 83a, which makes them fairly hard and fast. That also means they'll last longer than you might expect; in fact, users say the entire skate seems to hold up well to prolonged use, so it's a good investment that will require minimal maintenance. Both the K2 VO2 Pro and the K2 VO2 Boa are available in men's and women's sizing.
The K2 VO 90 Pro is the best all-around skate in this report, and it's surprisingly easy to control once you have a little experience under your belt. If you're just starting out, however, you might be more comfortable in the K2 F.I.T. Pro 84 (Est. $180), thanks to its smaller 84mm wheels. The F.I.T Pro comes with a well-ventilated soft boot and K2's integrated quick lace system.
If you're into inline skating marathons or are thinking of transitioning to speed skating, you might prefer the K2 Radical 100 (Est. $350), which comes with a slightly lower, less supportive soft boot that allows you to take a faster, more aggressive skating stance. If you're a fitness skater who needs plenty of secure ankle support, this probably isn't the skate for you, though. A rigid, responsive and shock-absorbing glass fiber base gives the sort of supportive, smooth ride you'd expect from a speed skate, and the K2 Radical 100's 100mm/85a wheels are hard enough to stand up to all the miles you'll be putting on them. Like K2's 90mm skates, the K2 Radical 100 comes in men's and women's sizing.
The Radical 100 also 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 110mm wheels in the back two positions. This skate is only available in unisex sizing.
Although K2's skates continue to dominate the high-end market, the Rollerblade Macroblade 90 (Est. $200) is also quite popular with intermediate users. They say it's very fast -- too fast for beginners -- but if you can control it, you'll get a smooth ride, even over rough ground.
Users say the Macroblade boot is soft and comfortable after a short break-in period, with a seamless toe and decent breathability. However, on long skates you'll notice that this boot is not as well-vented as the K2 VO2 90 Pro. User opinion is fairly evenly split on whether the Macroblade boot runs a little small or true to size. The Macroblade 90's wheels are 90mm/85a -- just a little bit harder than the stock wheels on the comparable K2 model -- on SG9 bearings.
The Rollerblade Macroblade is also available in 80mm, 84mm and 100mm wheel sizes, so you can tweak the wheel sizing to suit your ability level; each wheel size is available in men's and women's sizing. All things being equal, we'd go with the K2 VO2 90 Pro and save $30. However, if you can find the Rollerblade Macroblade on sale, it's a great option.
Urban skates combine the best of dance and slalom ability
All of the skates we just discussed are at their best on long cruises, although they're certainly maneuverable enough to handle windy, snaking pathways too. If you're skating in a crowded, obstacle-laden urban environment, though, you might prefer the Rollerblade Twister 80 (Est. $230)
The 80mm/85a wheels and short wheelbase offer excellent maneuverability for avoiding people, cracks in the road, or darting through slalom cones. If you're looking to turn up your inline skate dancing game, these are the skates for you.
Users say the Rollerblade Twister 80 is also good for short-distance cruises, and the SG7 bearings are fast enough for most people. (The higher the number the faster the bearings, so real speed demons might want to upgrade the stock bearings in this skate.) The Rollerblade Twister 80 comes with an optional brake that you can install for cruising, but if you're doing tricks you'll want to leave the brake off and master other stopping methods; the SkateFAQ website has an excellent tutorial on stopping methods.
The rigid, molded plastic boot on the Twister 80 is a mixed bag. It offers exactly the support and protection you need to land tricks like jumps, and it's great for beginners who are struggling to control a skate with a soft boot, or just want the ultimate ankle support. However, you should definitely buy these skates from a place where you can return them if they don't fit well. We found a few complaints that if the boot doesn't fit just right, it'll cause pain in the protruding bones on either side of your ankle, and most users recommend wearing long socks -- padded, if possible -- to prevent blisters. They also say that you need to size up between a half size and a full size to get a good fit.
Inexpensive Rollerblades are beginner-friendly
For a beginner-friendly skate that doesn't present the conundrum of a hard boot, we recommend the Rollerblade Zetrablade (Est. $100), which also happens to be the best inexpensive skate we found for this report. The Zetrablade has a soft boot that's cut high for extra ankle support and it comes in men's and women's sizing. The SG5 bearings are speedy enough to let you get a feel for the exhilaration of skating, but slow enough to help a novice keep things under control.
The Rollerblade Zetrablade's smallish 80mm 82a wheels skew a little toward the maneuverability/control side of the equation -- again, good for beginners just learning to control their Rollerblades -- and are a little softer and grippier than the wheels on the other skates we've covered. The good news is that this offers you great control; the bad news is that they ride a little choppier over rough asphalt and are going to wear out quickly, especially if you skate on rough ground.
With a retail price that's about half that of the other skates we've covered, these skates are a great entry point to help you decide if inline skating is for you. If you find yourself hooked, you can either invest in one of the mid-range to high-end models for the better ventilation, speed laces, additional padding and smoother ride, or keep these skates and upgrade the wheels and bearings. Be warned that the Zetrablade comes in whole sizes only; if you can't get just the right fit, switching to thicker socks can help pad any empty space.