Whether hoverboards are this year’s Tickle Me Elmo or the beginning of a true movement in, well, movement is yet to be seen. Either way, they’re among the most discussed gadgets this holiday season, and, much as in the similarly trendy field of selfie sticks, figuring out which one to buy can be quite confusing. We researched these self-balancing, two-wheeled scooters for more than 10 hours and rode three for more than 20 hours. After all that, we can’t pick any one model as the “best,” because they all work similarly—and many even use the same technology inside. But we can give you some advice on what to look for when shopping, and we can suggest a model that meets our criteria for a safe buy.
We’ve contacted Swagway and confirmed that it is currently working with the CPSC and UL to certify that the X1 complies with the new voluntary standards for self-balancing scooters. Swagway will continue to sell hoverboards, and the company stands by the safety of its product. Over the weekend, Mashable reported that Swagway was suggesting that customers refrain from riding its hoverboards until the company could get UL approval, but the company told us that the report was due to an “apparent miscommunication.”
Our goal was to determine what sort of differences exist between models that appear to be largely identical on the surface—and sometimes sell at vastly different prices. Ultimately we discovered that we prefer riding inexpensive copycat models over a “real” one that costs $1,000 more, because the hardware controls on the cheap hoverboards are easier to master. Our general advice is to choose an inexpensive hoverboard with a good warranty and responsive customer service to back it up.
After poring through dozens of product listings looking for models that fit those criteria, we tested several hoverboards and found them to be very similar in design and performance. However, the Swagway X1 is one of the only hoverboards sold by a company with a customer service department that actually replied to our requests for assistance—important because it’s likely indicative of how responsive the company will be to customer support requests. A dedicated “learning mode” makes the Swagway easier to start on than the others; we felt more comfortable going faster on it than on other models, too. And it has a UL-certified charger, which not all competitors do, helping to assuage fears that it might burn down your house. If you must buy a hoverboard soon, it’s what we’d get.
If the Swagway goes out of stock or its price increases dramatically, the MonoRover R2is an acceptable option. If you’re shopping around, keep in mind that—as we explain below—if a model looks identical to the Swagway and MonoRover, it probably is. If you find a similar model in the $400 to $500 price range, and it has good reviews, it’s probably safe, though we can’t guarantee that you’ll get a UL-listed charger, or that something inside isn’t slightly different. We do recommend confirming that the company has a US presence—you might even try contacting the company, as we did for this guide, to see if you get a response.
Are these things really hoverboards?
No, they don’t actually hover (real hoverboards do exist), but “hoverboard” is the most commonly used term for these devices—partly because there’s no agreed-upon name for this class of product. You’ll see them called self-balancing scooters, motorized personal transporters, two-wheeled smart electric drifting boards, endless amalgamations of those terms, or just various brand names. All of that makes it difficult for you to find what you’re looking for without direction. We’ll stick with “hoverboard” here for simplicity.
What it’s like to ride a hoverboard
Hoverboards aren’t likely to replace your car, your bike, or the bus as a daily form of transit—at least not if you need to commute over anything more than a couple of miles of smoothly paved surfaces. They have limited range (less than 10 miles on flat roads) and don’t move very quickly (the fastest model we tested maxes out at about 10 miles an hour). But they are a lot of fun.
Getting used to riding a hoverboard takes at least a few minutes—for some people, longer. (We suggest wearing a helmet and maybe having a friend walking behind, ready to catch you if you fall.) Once you get the hang of it, though, it’s much like riding a bike: You rarely think about it when you’re doing it. To go forward, you subtly tilt both feet forward; to turn, you simply apply a bit of pressure on the footpad opposite of the direction you want to go. The hardest part is getting on and off, because the board will start to move a little as soon as you put weight on it. Your best bet is to hold on to something as you mount and dismount, at least at first. The Swagway’s learning mode makes this task a little easier—the hoverboard is less sensitive with this mode enabled, so it’s more stable when you step on.
(While a lot of people may criticize “lazy” hoverboard riders for gliding instead of walking, know that constantly keeping your balance takes some leg muscles. It’s far from a workout, but you may feel the burn, especially after a long ride.)
As for safety, a hoverboard’s small wheels and lack of handlebars do compromise its stability when you’re riding over irregular terrain. It’s fine indoors or on smooth pavement, but you should prepare for challenges when going over the bumps, cracks, and rough surfaces you regularly encounter on a street or sidewalk. We spoke to Kevin Roose, a news editor at Fusion who detailed his purchase of a hoverboard from Alibaba earlier this year. “The thing that’s hardest for me to imagine, with respect to hoverboards, is that they’ll ever be a popular outdoor form of transportation,” he said. “They’re extremely hard to ride over even the smallest sidewalk cracks and gentlest curb slopes, and topography of any kind presents a real challenge.”
Where can you ride one?
Before you try to commute on a hoverboard, we suggest checking with local laws. As of December 2015, they’re illegal or banned on New York City sidewalks, British streets, and flights, as well as in the Cleveland Cavaliers locker room. A tip: If you happen to get in any trouble, be polite and respectful—there’s a good chance the police will be more entertained than upset.
Even if your city allows hoverboards on streets or sidewalks, you should also consider whether you’ll be a hazard to those around you when you’re riding. It’s tough to navigate a crowded sidewalk or shopping mall without bumping into people and running over toes.
Recently we’ve seen a disturbing number of reports of hoverboards catching fire. Asthe New York Post writes, “The Consumer Product Safety Commission has launched 10 active fire-related hoverboard probes across nine states.” These fires have been linked to hoverboard batteries, and many of the incidents have occurred while the owner was charging the battery.
Unfortunately, it’s difficult to know which models are safe—even well-known brands may cut corners by using inexpensive components that lack safety certification. In December 2015, we spoke to John Drengenberg, consumer safety director (and an engineer) for UL, about hoverboard safety concerns. At that time, UL had not yet tested any hoverboards, but Drengenberg was able to provide information about the UL certification process that remains useful for anyone shopping for a hoverboard.
UL certifies some finished products, such as vacuum cleaners, as whole units, but it also tests and lists individual components within products for electrical safety and fire risk. “No complete hoverboard is certified by UL,” Drengenberg told us then—a policy that has since changed—but a hoverboard may contain a UL-listed battery pack or use a UL-listed charger (or both). The charger will have the UL seal printed on its exterior, so you can easily verify this certification. Batteries, however, are more difficult to verify unless you take the device apart to find the UL seal on the battery itself.
Our teardown collaboration with iFixit found that the Swagway X1’s battery and charger are both UL listed, confirming the company’s earlier claims to us. We didn’t take the MonoRover apart, but a MonoRover support representative, in response to an email we sent as a customer, told us that both the charger and battery are UL listed, and provided the UL certification document for the charger.
However, even if a particular hoverboard’s battery and charger are UL listed, that doesn’t mean every (or any) other component inside is. The wiring may be of poor quality or use a risky design, for example.
In December 2015, the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) released a statement on hoverboard safety. In the statement, chairman Elliot Kaye says he has “directed agency staff to work non-stop to find the root cause of the fire hazard, how much of a risk it might present, and to provide consumers with answers as soon as possible.” (The agency is also looking into injury reports from falls.) “Retailers should always be asking their suppliers if there is an applicable safety standard in place before agreeing to sell those products,” the statement notes. “The absence of any standard should cause retailers to require extra proof of sound manufacturing and quality control processes.” The statement also includes a list of safety tips.
In January 2016, the CPSC issued a pair of follow-up statements about hoverboard safety. In the first, the commission says that it is investigating the safety of a number of hoverboards. The second references the ongoing safety tests, echoing our findings on UL certifications and speaking to the fall hazards these devices present. It also notes that anyone who has purchased a hoverboard through Amazon and is concerned about the safety of the product can return the product for a full refund by contacting Amazon.
In February 2016, UL announced that the organization would begin “accepting product submittals of self-balancing scooters, also known as hoverboards, for construction evaluation, testing, and/or UL certification.” The organization has developed a set of requirements, UL 2272, that hoverboard manufacturers should meet when designing their products, and “will now be able to test and certify these devices using UL 2272, which covers the electric drive train including the rechargeable battery and charger system combination for use in self-balancing scooters.” We’ll be looking for such certification for future updates to this guide.
UL has also published a dedicated Web page about hoverboards that includes safety information, tips for charging, and a summary of UL information on the topic.
If you’re unsure whether you have a hoverboard with UL-listed components, your best bet is to contact the manufacturer and ask for verification. In our interview, Drengenberg also suggested a few safety precautions every hoverboard owner can take: Don’t overcharge the battery—unplug the hoverboard once the battery is full—and don’t leave a hoverboard charging overnight or unattended. Make sure to use only the provided charger. And just in case something does go wrong, store the board away from combustible materials, especially while charging.
We continue to recommend avoiding budget-price hoverboards from unknown companies, and instead buying from companies with a US presence and responsive customer support.
How we picked
The manufacturing of hoverboards is such a twisted web that it’s impossible to know exactly who is making what, which brands are copying which, or who is telling the truth. And more than curiosity is on the line: Inventist, maker of the Hovertrax, claims to hold the patent on the hoverboard; founder Shane Chen and investor Mark Cuban are currently suing at least one company over the hardware.1
WIRED’s David Pierce was one of the first people to try to figure it all out: “They’re all the same. The designs may vary slightly—sometimes the faux hubcaps are shaped in Mercedes-like triangles, sometimes there are five or six spokes—but like painting tiger stripes on your kitty cat, nobody’s getting fooled here.”
Buzzfeed reporter Joseph Bernstein traveled to Shenzhen, China, to find answers but didn’t come away with anything definitive. “Perhaps one factory sells boards to another. Perhaps one factory sells parts to another. Perhaps both factories buy parts — or just boxes — from a third factory,” he writes. “Many such permutations exist among all the factories floating in this strange, extraordinary bubble.”
With this in mind we tested three hoverboards—the $1,500 Inventist Hovertrax, the $500 MonoRover R2, and the $400 Swagway X1—to see for ourselves what, if any, differences we could find across the huge price range. The models do have differences, to be sure, but not nearly as many as you might expect.
We can’t recommend spending more than a thousand dollars with a company you may never be able to get ahold of.
We found the MonoRover R2 and Swagway X1 by wading through the thousands of listings in the category on Amazon, finding 10 models with US-based websites and warranties of at least one year, plus at least 100 Amazon reviews with mostly positive ratings. From there we contacted each company to request samples. Seven never responded to our repeated emails and phone calls, including high-profile, name-brand manufacturers IO Moonwalkers andPhunkeeDuck maker PhunkeeTree.3 These companies’ products are currently popular, but we can’t recommend spending more than a thousand dollars with a company you may never be able to get ahold of. We chose to also test the Inventist Hovertrax because of that company’s patent claims, and because it actually responded to our inquiries.
A (relatively) safe pick
As we mentioned above, our advice is to choose an inexpensive hoverboard with a good warranty and responsive customer service. Of the models we tested, the Swagway X1 is the one that meets those criteria and offers the best riding experience.
All three models we tested look similar, with a small platform in the middle for your feet and a wheel on each side. The MonoRover and Swagway models are nearly identical, with only minor aesthetic differences such as slightly different curves over the wheel wells and different trim designs on the rubber footpads and the wheels.
The Hovertrax, on the other hand, looks like a more-refined piece of hardware. It’s a little smaller in every dimension (for example, 20½ inches across for the Hovertrax, compared with 22½ inches for the MonoRover and Swagway), and while the cheaper options look as if they came out of the same factory, the Hovertrax is obviously of different manufacturing lineage. All three are fairly heavy: The Swagway and MonoRover weigh about 22½ pounds each, while the Hovertrax is a bit lighter at just under 15 pounds.
The three have similar but not identical specs. The Hovertrax has the slowest claimed top speed, at 5 miles per hour (the same as a fast walk); the MonoRover R2 claims to go about 7½ mph (a decent jog), while the Swagway X1 claims to go up to 10 mph (a fast jog). PCMag was able to move at about 10 mph on the MonoRover R2 and only 7 mph on the Swagway X1. We didn’t methodically test top speeds, but we did perform some time trials, and the Swagway X1 was consistently (though just slightly) the fastest of the three, followed by the MonoRover R2 and then the Hovertrax. We’ll also say that we felt more comfortable going faster on the Swagway (even in advanced mode)—staying balanced at faster speeds seemed easier on the Swagway than on the other two models, especially compared with the Hovertrax, which “pushes” back a bit when you approach its top speed. That said, you probably won’t want to ride any of these things much faster than walking speed—the lack of anything to grip onto is more psychologically limiting than the actual top speed.
As far as range goes, the less-expensive hoverboards promise about 20 miles per charge, which is double what the Hovertrax promises. However, PCMag got only about 7¼ miles out of the MonoRover and the Swagway on a level track. (PCMag didn’t test the Hovertrax, and we didn’t test range.)
The three hoverboards also vary in the amount of weight they can handle. The Hovertrax again comes in at the bottom here, with Inventist noting that it supports a maximum of 200 pounds—just barely more than the average weight of an American adult male. In the middle is the Swagway at 222 pounds, with the MonoRover listed as supporting riders up to 250 pounds. (The Swagway’s documentation notes a minimum weight of 44 pounds; the other two models don’t list a minimum.)
Some models do use different technology inside, and some of those differences are noticeable, but they’re unlikely to matter for most people. A Planet Money investigation and teardown found that, like a Segway, the Hovertrax uses gyroscopes for steering and balance, while cheaper knockoffs, including the other two models we tested, rely on simple mechanical switches under each foot, leveraging your natural sense of balance to achieve similar mechanical behavior. However, in our testing, the budget models felt similar to the Hovertrax during riding. Where they differed was, surprisingly, in ease of use: Because the Hovertrax uses calibrated gyroscopes instead of pressure-sensitive switches, it requires you to position it flat on the ground before powering it on. Even more annoying, you can’t pick it up at any point while it’s active, or you’ll totally throw off its balance—try to get back on, and it won’t steer properly. Inventist makes this limitation clear in the instruction manual, but the switch-based systems have no such drawbacks, and the gyroscopes have no obvious benefits.2
Because it’s difficult to tell what really goes into a given hoverboard, or even who actually makes it, we relied solely on subjective testing in our evaluations. We rode around an apartment, around a coworking space, down the street, and in a brew pub. We wanted to see if any of the boards were easier or harder to ride, or if any of them felt significantly faster or safer.
We found no huge differences in performance or behavior among the hoverboards.
To put it simply: In our real-world tests, we found no huge differences in performance or behavior among the hoverboards, but we did end up preferring one of the models over the others.
The narrower body of the Inventist Hovertrax makes the whole thing feel tighter—a little cramped—and it’s slower to turn from a standing position. In addition, its wheels lack any sort of tread, unlike with the other two hoverboards, which means the Hovertrax will be a little less forgiving over rough terrain. Even though it’s the most expensive model, and it may have inspired all the rest, we liked riding this one the least.
The MonoRover R2 and the Swagway X1, on the other hand, felt largely the same to ride. However, one benefit the Swagway has over the MonoRover is its learning mode. Press the power button once when turning it on, and the Swagway automatically enters a mode in which the switches are less sensitive and a bit easier to get used to, especially when you’re getting on and off. PCMag calls the more-advanced performance mode (which you activate by pressing the power button twice when turning the Swagway on) “unpleasantly twitchy,” which we don’t agree with, but it does make sense to work up to that mode. Overall, we simply felt more stable and more comfortable on the Swagway.
From everything we could evaluate from the outside, we were confident in our choice of the Swagway X1 as our top pick. But knowing that it’s the guts that count when it comes to safety, we turned to our friends at iFixit to see just what’s inside the hoverboard, and to determine if it’s truly as safe as the manufacturer claims.
iFixit’s teardown showed that, with a few small exceptions, the X1 is a well-built device that isn’t obviously prone to bursting into flames. Overall, iFixit found that the charger is well-constructed, the wires and connectors are safely insulated, the battery is safely separated from the main board (which would help contain any fires if they were to start), and the batteries are highly regarded LG models. The X1 does have some minor quality-control issues, such as mismatched color coordination among some of the cables, which could cause confusion for someone trying to repair the unit down the line, but, again, these are minor. (iFixit has many, many more technical details in the teardown article.) The teardown, combined with our own research, real-world testing, and long-term use, helps remove any reservations we have about our recommendation. We haven’t been able to test every one of the hundreds of hoverboards out there, but we’ve been impressed by the X1, and we’re confident that it’s a safe option, at a reasonable price, for those interested.
What to look forward to
Razor–yes, the company behind the other scooter Christmas fad–recently licensed the rights to the Hovertrax brand from Inventist. Razor has since introduced its own version of the Hovertrax, and, surprisingly, it looks a lot more like the Swagway and MonoRover models than the Hovertrax. At $600, it’s more expensive than our current pick, but we’re looking into it to see if it offers any advantages. (The company also has a more-expensive model, the Hovertrax DLX, “coming soon,” but it’s not yet clear what the price will be or what’s different, other than a claim that the DLX has “gyro-sensor technology.”)
Swagway, the maker of our current pick for a safe-choice hoverboard for most people, introduced its upcoming unit which is tentatively named Swagtron. Set to launch in February for $500, the Swagtron builds upon the favorable qualities of the original Swagway. The body is totally unique, unlike the multitude of self-balancing scooters we’ve seen, and the company claims the interior is improved with an in-house design. Enhancements include a flame retardant housing and a fireproof cage around the battery, both of which help to assuage any fears of explosions or fires. Also new to this unit are a built-in Bluetooth speaker, an elastic carrying strap on the bottom, and a smartphone app that can be used to switch between different modes, measure speed, and even sound an alarm if the board is stolen. It looks to be a solid improvement to our favorite unit, with safety as a clear focus.
Should you buy one?
Hoverboards are toys. They’re fancy toys, and they’re fun, but that’s all they are. If you want to buy one, know that you could end up spending several hundred dollars on an unregulated product with little quality assurance that may be illegal to ride in public in your jurisdiction.
If you’re okay with that, go ahead and get one! Don’t break the bank buying a big-name brand, though. While we haven’t tested every model out there, the Swagway X1 is a safe bet because it currently costs half the price of the brand-name models but rides pretty much the same. And unlike most other cheaper models, it has a one-year warranty and a responsive customer-support department. Enjoy zooming down the street.