Editors’ Note: The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission recently announced that no hoverboard currently on the market is safe for consumers to use. The CPSC sent manufacturers and retailers a new set of safety standards, and asked that all boards be removed from sale until they can be certified by UL, an independent safety certification company. You should look for a UL certification on any new hoverboard purchases, and check with your retailer about recalls on any recently purchased vehicles. You can also get a refund for purchases made through Amazon.
Readers of this guide almost surely have one major thing in common: They are desperately trying to make sense of this year's unstoppable holiday hit, the so-called hoverboard.
Or rather, the smart scooter. Or perhaps the rolls-off-the-tongue two-wheeled self-balancing motorized scooter? While there's no consensus on what to call this novel form of next-gen personal transport, everyone who tries one seems to agree they're insanely fun to ride and (pretty) easy to figure out. And they will inspire joy in anyone who receives one.
The catch is figuring out which model to buy ─ assuming it isn't already sold out. Unlike with name-brand Christmas must-haves of the past, there isn't a single item to hunt down, as hoverboard models from literally dozens of companies have flooded the market. In fact, it seems that virtually every one of the boards available are all based on just a couple of different models churned out of a handful of Chinese factories, just with different decals, boxes and names.
Here are some helpful guidelines to help you make a decision, as well as some factors you ought to consider around safety and legality, before diving in.
Editors' Note: Amazon pulled hoverboard brands from its site in mid-December, citing safety concerns related to fire hazards.
If you're in a hurry, scan these tips to help you make the best choice.
- Today's hoverboards are self-balancing electric scooters. Don't expect to levitate like Marty McFly.
- Don't buy a hoverboard for younger children. The typical recommended age range is 12 and up.
- Read customer reviews on Amazon and elsewhere for comments on build quality.
- Consider U.S.-based brands first, such as Razor, which offer both warranties and customer support.
- Hoverboards can take a few hours to charge, so you may need to be patient.
- These boards go from anywhere from 2 to 10 mph and most have a range of 10 to 15 miles.
- Check how much your hoverboard weighs before you buy, to be better prepared to transport it ─ and don't expect to climb very steep hills on it.
- Don't spend more than $600 for a hoverboard unless you plan on taking it up as a sport. Entry-level models will probably give you the same thrill.
- Check local laws or with your local police department about where you can ride and how much fines may cost.
- Beware of knockoffs trying to pass themselves off as a major brand, and don't purchase any hoverboard that doesn't come with a return policy.
What Is a Hoverboard and How Do They Work?
If you're completely unfamiliar with the product, today's hoverboards/personal transporters are sort of like mini Segways without the handlebars. Riders stand with their legs akimbo, feet near a wheel on each end, and thanks to some nifty sensors built in, hoverboards can almost magically maintain their balance. Lean slightly forward and you zoom, up to 5 or 10 mph, or in some cases 15 mph. Lean back and you slow or reverse. Turns happen when you alternately press forward with one foot and backward with the other.
Hoverboards have a rechargeable battery inside, which propels one or sometimes two motors at the wheels. Depending on the model, there may be other features, such as a smart key system or even an app for preventing others from using your ride.
What today's hoverboards are not are the sci-fi gadgets popularized in movies like Back to the Future. There are companies working on boards that truly levitate and don't use any wheels, such as Lexus and Hendo, but they're not for sale.
Serious safety concerns have been raised by hoverboards, some of which have caught fire either while charging or being ridden. The National Association of State Fire Marshals recently issued an advisory warning that explosions are "not a unique occurence" with hoverboards. The Consumer Product Safety Commission is investigating ten fires in nine states. Amidst these concerns, Amazon recently pulled many hoverboard brands from its sites. Overstock ceased selling the category of product.
British authorities have confiscated more than 15,000 imported hoverboards since October, then testing them for faulty lithium-ion batteries. They have found nearly 90 percent of those were at risk of overheating or exploding.
Before buying, look at the brand you're considering to make sure it's not been associated with the disasters reported in Alabama, Florida, Louisiana and London. You'll definitely want to avoid Halford Air Runners, which have been recalled due to risk of catching fire.
The fire marshal's association also issued a few tips about how to prevent the hoverboard from bursting into flames. For instance, don’t leave it unattended while it's charging. Do not overcharge and do not leave it plugged in over night. The organization also recommends you avoid using third-party chargers.
Consider Your Rider
Even if your 3-year-old zips around on her scooter like The Flash, let us be clear: Hoverboards aren't meant for little kids. These things can cook, some at up to 10 or 15 mph, and hitting an otherwise unremarkable sidewalk edge could be a disaster for a child (and, in fact, it can be for folks who aren't generally well-coordinated, especially the elderly).
Most hoverboards are recommended for ages 12 and up, and the included directions with the more mainstream models tend to spend many pages explaining how potentially hazardous they can be to the uninitiated.
MORE: How Hoverboards Work
Similarly, if you tend toward husky, topping the scales over 200 pounds or so, you may be too bulky for many models, which will limit your range and speed, even if you can manage to get it to scoot.
If you're ordering online, it's tough to get a sense of how well a product is made, but there is a wide range of differences in build quality with hoverboards. The frame, the housing material, metal versus plastic wheels ─ not to mention the sophistication of the internal motors, sensors and other electronics ─ may all be different.
Read through online customer reviews and you'll see endless complaints about scratch-prone housings (apparently the Achilles' heel of all models), or wheel covers that rub against tires, or batteries that die too quickly. Wherever possible, take a few minutes to research a specific model and heed customer comments.
We recommend avoiding foreign sellers; instead, opt for U.S.-based brands like IO Hawk that are subject to state and federal laws. These companies are also more likely to support a warranty, much less have a customer-support line that actually works. Amazon is known for its generous returns policies, but check the terms of the warranty with whatever retailer you opt for.
The batteries are pretty much everything with hoverboards: All things being equal, they determine how fast you can go, how far you can go, and can also add weight to a hoverboard. And charge times are a major factor, too.
You may spend a good chunk of time waiting for your ride to charge up.
Speed and Range
In terms of speed, most models offer a similar range, from slow speeds of 2 or so mph up to 10. A few can go a bit higher; PhunkeeDuck models hit 12 mph. (That doesn't sound fast, but consider that's sprinting speed for many people, and you aren't even moving your legs!)
Range is tough to measure, as a number of factors will affect how long and how far you can go — the terrain, the incline, the speed and the weight of the rider, in particular. Most models get a couple hours or more of typical use, or about 10 up to 15 miles, on a flat surface. Swagway models claim up to a 20-mile range, which depends on the rider and terrain.
If you plan on rocketing around town all day, you'd be wise to check how much your hoverboard weighs — they don't actually hover, after all, and most boards weigh 20-plus pounds, many closer to 30. For someone in average shape that's doable to lug around for brief periods, but will be a burden for a great distance or a long time.
The other considerations are range — you may need to bring along a charger — and the terrain you'll be encountering. Most models claim to have enough torque and power to scale an incline of 5 to 10 degrees, a few as much as 15 degrees, but for steeper, San Francisco-style climbs you may be stuck lugging your intended ride for the day.
While the vast majority of hoverboards are practically identical, there are a few outliers with souped-up specs, not coincidentally commanding a top-shelf price. Better-quality models feature sturdier frames that will stand up to heavier riders and bumps and bruises from the road; a few have dual direct-drive motors that offer more power and range; and some have a keychain remote control for locking up while you're away (and, inevitably, some have built-in Bluetooth for streaming music, much to the chagrin of your neighbors). That includes hoverboards by IO Hawk and PhunkeeDuck, to name two.
It's not immediately clear, though, that prices that are many times higher than low-end models are worth the investment, other than for peace of mind. So if you feel ready to throw caution to the wind, feel free to gamble on a generic model as long as it's got the backing of a retailer, such as Amazon.
Legal Gray Area
Absurd as it may sound, some municipalities have laws or local regulations on the books that may forbid the use of any vehicles on sidewalks, as well as unlicensed vehicles in the streets. That means it may actually be illegal for you to ride your hoverboard in your locale anywhere other than a parking lot, your driveway or your basement. A few high-profile examples include New York City, where riding one in the street or on a sidewalk can earn a $200 fine, as well as London, which has a hard policy against electric vehicles since the Segway was launched. And don't bother trying to ride it in big-box stores — most all have quickly drummed up policies banning them already, too.
California, on the other hand, has passed a law due to take effect soon making hoverboards legal in bike lanes, as long as age and safety requirements are met. Before investing, make a quick call to your local police department to see what, if any, laws exist, and what the plans are for enforcement if there's a gray area.
Beware of Knockoffs
Look at any online purveyor of hoverboards, and you will be dazzled by the unfathomable array of brands, many in stunningly bad English. Take a closer look and you'll see that most all are variations on a theme. This is because many of the products are quite literally the same board with a different sticker and name. That said, many of the internal elements change depending on the brand — that's one reason there's such price differences. That may mean a weaker battery, or less sensitive gyroscopes, or less powerful motors, and so on. There may even be a fire hazard related to the batteries.
The bad news is that you have no easy way of knowing. The good news is that, depending on the retailer, you can buy with some confidence that should things go hairy, you'll have some protection. Buying direct or from an authorized dealer of one of the better-known U.S.-based brands, such as Phunkeeduck or IO Hawk, and you'll get a 1-year warranty. Amazon, in particular, has a very forgiving policy on returns — just be sure you're buying direct from the company and not a reseller.