Elliptical trainers are available at a wide range of price points, from $99 to motorcycle territory. Generally, however, you get what you pay for. At the extreme low end, many poorly made elliptical machines fail to give a comfortable workout. If you don't enjoy the workout, the money is wasted, no matter what. If you can't afford to spend at least $500 and up, you're probably better off getting a Gazelle, or some other type of machine (like a stationary bike or HealthRider) rather than an elliptical you might not use or enjoy. Since, at the high end, gym quality ellipticals can cost thousands. The challenge, for most of us, is to find a decent machine that meets our needs for a reasonable price. Here are a few main factors to keep in mind before deciding on the equipment you want to buy.
Stride Shape - the most important factor
There is a wide range of machines calling themselves elliptical trainers. They all have a resistance flywheel and a pair of footpads and some handles - but beyond that there are some real differences. At the low end there are a lot of very attractively priced machines but if you look carefully you'll see they have footpads attached directly to the flywheel. This means that the stride shape will be almost a circle - not really an elliptical. The stride is so humped it feels more like bumping up and down.
Here's an example of an elliptical trainer with the footpads attached directly to the flywheel:
ProForm StrideSelect 825 Elliptical Trainer
Better machines have a track of some sort for the footpads to roll along - the footpads connected to the flywheel with metal rods. This allows the stride shape to be an elongated oval - an elliptical. This stride motion is much more natural - much smoother. This is the first major feature to look for. The taller you are the longer the stride length you should look for. 16 inch stride should be considered a minimum. If you are 6' tall you should look for 18 inch stride at least. 20 inches is better - check out the Sole and Spirit lines (20"), as well as Precor (18") and Life Fitness (20") for long stride length.
Footpads - closer is better
When you run or cross country ski your legs move past each other with only a couple of inches between your ankles. Elliptical machines have to deal with the width of the flywheel, so it's hard to engineer a machine where the footpads allow your feet to be that close. When the footpads are far apart it can stress your ankles, knees and hips. Over time, this can be painful.
Flywheel in the front or in back
Another thing you'll notice about the Precor and Life units is that the flywheel is in back. You'll see that in Tunturi and some other lower priced units. The flywheel in back is supposed to be a better geometry for having a good stride shape - but only if it's well implemented. The other style is with the flywheel in front. Look at the Sole and Spirit trainers to see examples of good implementations with the flywheel in front. The key to these is the curved foot pad rods that help keep the stride shape more level and elongated. But the location of the flywheel isn't as important as the overall engineering - and particularly the geometry of the flywheel connecting rods.
The other major features that you need to be aware of while choosing the best elliptical trainer are:
1) Weight bearing - a general testament to the stability and build quality. The heavier the rated weight, the better built and more stable in general. This is especially important if you're heavy, of course.
2) Heart monitor - it's a cardio machine so monitoring your heart rate is a critical aspect of doing a cardio workout. You can always augment with a wrist mounted heart monitor, but having the heart monitor integrated into the electronics head is a great convenience.
3) Number of preset routines, programmability options, quality of the display - the electronics head in general. The quality of the head can make a big difference in your day to day enjoyment of the unit. Having programmable routines is also a great feature. Some machines have fans, TV screens, and other amenities in their electronics heads. All of these should subsidiary to the mechanical integrity of the machine.
4) Flywheel resistance mechanism and number of levels. The bigger the flywheel, the smoother the motion. Magnetic resistance is much smoother and more mechanically reliable than mechanical resistance. The more resistance levels, the more customizeable the workout.
5) Adjustable footpad angle - a really nice ergonomic enhancement.
6) Heart rate handgrips are nice in that you can get a heart rate reading without wearing a strap. However the strap is still great because you don't have to worry about your grip placement - especially important for the moving grips.