Sunday, May 1, 2011
Product Review: Oartec Slider
I have been meaning to review this for a while but I am now finally getting around to it. The Oartec Slider is an example of what is often referred to as a "dynamic ergometer" or "dynamic rowing machine". In contrast a typical rowing machine like the Concept 2 is a "static" erg. The difference is in how the seat moves in relation to the flywheel. A common criticism of static ergs is that they do not mimic what happens in a boat. Instead the whole body mass is moved up and down the slide during the rowing motion and the feet remain anchored. On a dynamic machine the seat moves as does the the mass to which the feet are anchored. This is more like what happens in a boat. In addition there is data suggesting that the body (particularly the low back) is subjected to less stress on a dynamic machine. In this case the body is not slammed into the catch position as it is on the static.
Currently the rowing machine market is dominated by Concept2. Their traditional machine (currently model D and E) are commonly seen (but often neglected) in commercial gyms. These are the machines that are used for indoor rowing competitions. They are superb in quality and design and performance is standardized so what you pull on one machine would be the same as any other assuming you have the same drag factor set. Concept 2 has revolutionized indoor rowing and they provide outstanding customer service. Concept 2 though was late to the party when it came to dynamic machines to an extent. In fairness they offered an option to give their traditional erg a more dynamic feel with the addition of slides that can be ordered from their website for a few hundred dollars. The problem with these is they require a lot of space as they significantly expand the range of movement of the entire apparatus. In the last few months Concept 2 has brought to market their new dynamic erg. The design is interesting and the footprint of the entire machine is about 6 feet, this is nice if space is an issue. I haven't tried it but there are a few things I don't like about it. My main complaint is that the flywheel sit just beneath one of your arms so you will tend to sweat right into it. Also they replaced the chain with a cable. Reviews so far have been mixed. Given all that I decided to look at other options.
Another major player in the dynamic market is the Rowperfect. This is a very nice machine that is well liked. The major problem with this is its cost. It costs about 3x as much as either an oartec or a Concept2. My other issue was that I couldn't find anyone in the USA that had them available. Could be a problem if I need spare parts or a repair. That plus the price equaled a F-that according to rational fitness mathematics. This left the Oartec as the best option. Oartec is an Australian company but they are made in the States now and marketed by the folks at Waterrower. Waterrower is another brand of static erg. They make a really nice machine that looks more like a piece of modern art furniture than an exercise machine. It uses a water filled drum instead of a fan to generate resistance and it is actually pleasant to row. Never mind about that. Lets talk about the Oartec.
The Oartec is a very well constructed machine, solid, easy to assemble. It uses the same type of flywheel as the concept 2 and is reportedly calibrated the same as the concept 2, so theoretically 500m rowed on the Oartec would equal 500m on the static Concept 2. I say theoretically because I think they are actually a bit different. The Oartec is dynamic so the seat and the footstretcher/flywheel assembly move independent of one another. It is easier to increase your rating (strokes per min) on the Oartec but you pay a price in a very short time. I did a little experiment. I currently get my rowing workouts from www.rojabo.com (great site, first month is free so it is worth a try). To use this site you have to do two tests, one is a power test, the other is an endurance step test (not fun). I tested these on both the Oartec and the static Concept 2 a couple times. In both cases the power test results were nearly identical. It is a six minute test with 1 min splits at 20, 20, 22, 24, 26, and 28 strokes per min so not very hard. The results of the power test will tell you how to proceed on the endurance test. In both cases my endurance test ended much earlier with the Oartec because I couldn't sustain the power at the given rating as long. This fits with what others have said about dynamic ergs. Initially you can crank but it catches up with you quickly. I am not exactly sure why but I think it may have to do with additional mechanical factors with respect to the movement of the seat, flywheel and foot stretcher/flywheel apparatus and energy loss from this. Seriously I don't know, its just a good deal harder.
Ok lets review this bad boy. First the good: It is well constructed and nice to look at. Black and orange are a great color combination. I like the color orange for some reason. It is fairly easy to get a good dynamic rhythm going but if your technique deteriorates you will know immediately, it provides instant feedback. It is also great for technique drills like one leg rowing and strapless rowing. It can be stored vertically so if you need it out of the way, that isn't a problem. The handle is wide and comfortable. The foot stretchers are typical and not that different in function from the concept 2. However they connect to a solid plate and the overall effect is almost like you are getting into the machine rather than sitting on it. This thing is solid and the build shows quality. At the price point it is close to the static Concept 2, a little less than the C2 dynamic and way less than the Rowperfect. The monitor is easy to use and actually gives you some interesting features that the Concept 2 monitor lacks, for example stroke length, drive ratio, and you can have your distance in miles or other units. The drag factor is easy to get and corresponds pretty well with the Concept 2 (i.e a 150 drag factor feels similar on both machines).
What about the bad? Although the monitor provides some interesting new features it is nowhere near as good as the concept 2 monitor. It will only store your last sessions data. Want to race a previous performance or see a pace boat? Can't do it. Also with Rojabo I do a lot of intervals. If I want to see my stroke length I have to tell it that for each interval (i.e. when the next interval starts it won't tell me stroke length unless I tell it to again). Same problem applies to heart rate. You can use a polar HR monitor with a pickup device that plugs into the monitor (same as with the concept 2, unless you have a C2 PM4 monitor and a Suunto HR monitor, then you don't need a pickup on the C2). Also you are stuck with polar as far as HR monitors go on the Oartec, the Suunto strap that C2 provides with the PM4 is about 1000x more comfortable. In addition, you can't have two tech functions displaying at the same time on the Slider, you must pick between HR, stroke length, drive ratio, drag factor, or avg strokes per min (wtf is that there for?) I suspect that these issues will all be addressed soon as they are planning to release a computer program to interface with the Oartec. The website makes it sound like it is already available, it isn't as of right now. Also if you like to use other software like RowPro, the Oartec is currently not compatible. Other issues are minor. It is a bit louder than the the Concept 2. It has a throaty sound especially when you get cranking on it. This isn't a big deal. If noise is a big issue for you get a WaterRower maybe. One thing I didn't like that everyone else seems to like was the seat. It is soft (too soft) and comfortable but after about 10k it starts to chafe. I took it off and ordered a spare Concept 2 seat which I mounted. It cost me $15. Fifteeen bucks! Did I tell you Concept 2 had good customer service and good prices on parts? Well let me tell you, they are the cat's meow when it comes to that. Oartec also has been excellent as far as customer service goes. Initially I had a problem with my monitor and they spent a lot of time on the phone troubleshooting it. It ended up that they overnighted a new monitor because the first monitor would not allow interval programming and would not accept a software update.
Overall despite some minor limitations, I am happy with the Oartec. It does seem easier on my low back and I enjoy rowing it. I think the release of the new computer software will address any remaining problems and i can't wait for that. Bottom line though is, as they say, "ergs don't float". There is no substitute for being on the water but with the weather we have been having lately, the Oartec is the best game in town much of the time. Tomorrow or thereabouts I will provide links to videos of all the machines mentioned here. This post is testing the limits of the human attention span (mine in particular).