Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Hoverboard Redux

The “Hoverboard”: simultaneously one of the most popular and irritating gadgets to emerge in recent memory. From the misleading name (unlike other hoverboards we've encountered, they don’t even hover!) to their tendency to go up in flames, the meteoric emergence of hoverboards is a case study in the dynamics of fads…and patent infringement. But we’re not here today to talk about the sociological aspects of this goofy-looking invention—rather, we’re discussing the technical ones.

A few weeks ago, we were contacted by the makers of the “AlienBoard”, who asked us to review their product on our website. While product reviews aren’t ordinarily our thing, we couldn’t bring ourselves to turn down a chance to snag one of these for free. That’s the “Full Disclosure” for the day—keep in mind that our opinions might be colored by the fact that this blog post was so generously made possible by the folks at AlienWheels. That said, we like to think of ourselves as having a smidge of journalistic integrity, so we won’t be accepting the kickbacks they tried to offer us based on how many people use the coupon code they gave us (physicscentral, for those of you who feel like buying one).

Even before I opened the box, I could tell this was not a “flimsy” product by any stretch of the imagination. Given the hype around these and the fact that we got it for free, I expected something that felt cheap, weighing about ten or fifteen pounds. In reality the thing weighs closer to thirty. This is both a pro and a con. While the heft is reassuring and the battery life that comes with such a large power supply is great, if it dies on you, you can expect to lug thirty pounds of lithium the rest of the way to your destination—which I can say from personal experience is a pain, even with the included carrying case.

While unpacking it, the first thing I noticed about the board was—unfortunately—the smell. I have a relatively sharp nose, but even to those of us without a sensitive sniffer, the odor was difficult to ignore. It smells a lot like a freshly minted tire, a serious combo of rubber and plastic, and it has a tendency to fill any room it’s in with that smell, unless it’s kept in the carrying case. I left it in my girlfriend’s hall closet for the weekend, and by the time I left on Sunday, the jacket I’d kept hanging in there had temporarily picked up the odor as well. I don’t know if breathing the stuff in is bad for you, but it certainly doesn’t smell healthy.

Visually speaking, the board is pretty impressive. The shiny white plastic that makes up most of the casing is reminiscent of Apple’s older design aesthetic, although the blue LED strips on either wheelhouse kill that vibe pretty effectively. The casing’s highly angular geometry makes it look as if the whole thing was rendered on a Nintendo 64 and then yanked into existence through the screen. This goes a long way toward distinguishing it visually from other hoverboards. The wheels seem to be made of solid machined aluminum, while the tires are solid rubber.

After unpacking, I took a look through the manual, which appears to have been translated by a non-native English speaker; the inside cover insists that “Self-balancing scooter will bring you a new life experience, there will be a surprise waiting for you.”—perhaps not the best introduction to a product notorious for exploding into flames without warning. Other gems include “…uses aerospace attitude control theory…” and “If the driving speed is over limit speed, the wheel will up-warp and control the safe speed.”

Undeterred, and slightly hopeful that it actually came with a warp drive, I powered the thing on using the small button on the back. With a series cheerful beeps, a pair of green LEDs lit up to indicate that the hoverboard was operational, moments before I was nearly startled out of my desk chair by the robotic-yet-coolly-feminine voice that boomed from its integrated speaker.

“WAITING FOR BLUETOOTH CONNECTING” it announced loud enough for the entire office to hear.

After leveling the footpads, I stepped on with some trepidation, ready to grab a fire extinguisher if need be, but the board merely beeped reassuringly to register my foot on top of it. So far, so good. After rocking my weight back and forth a few times, causing the right wheel to drive forward and backward, I distributed my weight evenly between my toes and heels, and hopped up onto it with my other foot.

I had tried out one of these things before, so I had a distinct head start over my coworkers, but most of us found the board exceedingly easy to use. Moving forward or backward is as simple as leaning one direction or the other, while steering left-to-right is only marginally more difficult—accomplished by pointing one toe or the other downward. The wheels are completely independent of one another, so keeping the weight even on one foot while tilting up or down with the other is enough to turn the board in a wide arc, and tilting one toe down and the other up lets you spin in place. It takes a few minutes to get used to, but once you’ve acclimated it’s almost as easy as walking (at least on the smooth, flat, carpeted floor of our office). At the insistence of the board’s incredibly loud robot voice, I pulled out my phone and messed around with the Bluetooth settings until I figured out how to pair the devices, which led to a good half-hour of fun whizzing around to the Superman theme, Ride of the Valkyries, and various other ironically majestic soundtracks. For a brief while, hoverboarding became the favored mode of transportation around our office, with people volunteering to run invoices to the other end of the building just to have an excuse to use it. I say “brief”, because we were shortly informed that if anybody ended up hurting themselves (or others) on it, the company would be liable for damages and medical costs. Use was restricted to off-site.

The Superman theme was playing from the hoverboard's speakers, but James' phone has a broken mic. We decided we liked the results.

One thing we learned from having folks around the office try it is that it’s easiest if you don’t “fight” the board. It’s a bit counterintuitive, but trying to balance for yourself when you get on it almost invariably leads to failure. If you’re leaning forward and don’t trust the board to “catch” your fall, your instinct is to push down with your toes, to try and move your center of mass backward. However, since putting more weight on your toes is taken by the board as a signal to accelerate forward, it’ll zip out ahead of you, leaving you keeling backward and trying to put weight on your heels to adjust, allowing the process to repeat. Watching someone go through this process is highly entertaining—a bit like witnessing that awkward sidewalk dance two people do when each is trying frantically to get out of the other’s way*—but it can end in disaster; one coworker’s friend has his arm in a sling after just such an experience.

Learning to use the hoverboard was easy enough in the office, but how it handles in the street is sort of another story. I took the board for a test-ride home, along the sidewalk route that I usually walk to work, and immediately discovered my first qualm with the board (besides the odor, of course).

It can. Not. Handle. Curbs.

Seriously, this thing is worse than a dalek. I'm not talking about getting onto a sidewalk from the street, I'm talking about the few centimeters of height that separate a handicap ramp from the parking lot, i.e. terrain specifically designed to be accessible to wheeled modes of transportation.
Eventually, I developed a little trick that helps with small vertical climbs—taking them one wheel at a time seems to be the only way to surmount an obstacle more than a few centimeters in height. Even such small ledges, if taken straight-on, will more often than not result in leaving the hoverboard behind while your momentum sends you careening onward.

The firm, solid rubber of the tires is not a great shock absorber, although it undoubtedly makes for a smoother ride than the plastic apparently utilized in some other brands’ models. Riding home on the sidewalk, I experienced a noticeable thunk every time I crossed the gap between two concrete slabs, creating a steady percussion in my body much like the one experienced on a skateboard. This isn’t so bad, and it’s definitely not worth trying to ride on the street to avoid it, although by the end of the ride home I could understand why someone would be tempted to. The slant of the sidewalk also required constant, conscious adjustment to avoid veering off into the street—a possibility which had me on edge the whole ride home.

There’s a “governor” in the hoverboard’s circuitry that prevents it from going over 12 km/h (~7.5 mph here in the US). That feels plenty fast in an enclosed space, but on a sidewalk with cars racing by at four times that speed, it’s easy to get “velocitized”, as my old driver’s ed teacher used to put it, and end up forgetting how fast you’re going. The board starts beeping softly when you’re near its speed limit, so listen closely while riding; since you lean forward to go faster, trying to push the board past its limit will result in an awkward topple at top speed. The low volume of this speed alarm is actually one of my biggest issues with the product’s design; the thing clearly has a speaker designed to blare “Party Rock Anthem” loud enough for people at the other end of the shopping mall to hear you—there’s no reason the “you’re about to fall on your face and send this thing into an axial 720” warning should be inaudible over standard traffic noise. After several such experiences, I caught on to what was happening and took it a little easier, but not before the board’s casing took some serious aesthetic damage—the manual bills the case as “scratch-resistant”, but some of those slick-looking angles had been sanded down by the concrete after a few spills.

Once I was home, I brought the board over to my neighbor Jordan’s house, to let him have a try at it. A friend of his had gotten a different brand recently, and he got a chance to try it out, so I figured it would be worthwhile to seek out an opinion from someone who had a little experience with the other options on the market. Jordan’s verdict was that the Alienboard is extremely sensitive, responding far more readily to weight shifts than the other one he’d tried. He compared it to driving a car with really “tight” steering.

For some reason, we discovered, getting off the board in the wrong way sends it into a sort of seizure—it shudders violently back and forth until it hits an obstacle or is stopped by someone’s weight on the footpad. I have no idea what it is that triggers this behavior, but it seems to happen most frequently after someone falls off the front of the board—while it’s a relatively minor glitch, it’s a little alarming the first time you see it, so be warned.

Another warning, if you decide to buy one of these—the manual indicates that the green lights at the board’s center should turn yellow to indicate that the device is at 50% charge remaining, then turn red to indicate 20%, but ours has gone straight from green to red every time we’ve used it. At first, I wasn’t sure what was wrong, since I assumed the thing was at >50% battery when the light turned red and the board started beeping to indicate the low battery status. This led to a minor panic, but when it died on me at speed (resulting in a slightly less-than-graceful dismount) the mystery was solved; the yellow indicator light on our board was either nonfunctional or left out entirely. A quick charge (around two hours from 0-100%; not bad!) had us up and running again, though.

After a particularly nasty encounter with a curb, the Bluetooth speaker stopped working. The hoverboard still connects, but there’s no more robot voice when it turns on, and music will no longer play. Holding the board's speaker up to one ear while it was on, I noticed it emitting a faint buzz, the kind of tone you get when you plug a paused MP3 player into the auxiliary input of a stereo.  Perhaps we were a bit rough with it, but this is presumably the point of a review—to put the thing through its paces as an average consumer might, and find out its strengths and weaknesses. I’ll take the fact that it can suffer some internal structural damage and NOT catch fire as a sign of quality manufacturing.

So, to recap on the Alienboard Batwings B2 model:


  • Plenty of fun indoors
  • Sleek design, solid manufacturing
  • Moderately useful for transportation—faster than walking
  • Quick charging
  • Good battery life (~10mi range)
  • Tight handling
  • Integrated speaker
  • Lack of spontaneous combustion


  • Price point ($630 for this model, $480 for the cheaper one)
  • Speed alarm too quiet
  • Smells like endocrine disruptor
  • Heavy (~25 lbs)
  • Does not handle curbs or obstacles well
  • Battery indicator does not work as described
  • Board has seizure if dismounted improperly
  • Speakers prone to breakage
  • Random passersby constantly warning you that you’re going to catch fire
  • Somehow less dignified than a segway

All in all, the Alienboard is a remarkably well-made toy, but it shouldn't be mistaken for something else; if you're expecting a new mode of transportation, you'll likely be disappointed. It’s amazing how far battery technology has come in recent years, making something like this viable for the mass market…for the price, though, you could buy yourself a battery-powered Sondors e-bike, which has significantly better range, stability, and speed...and which isn’t banned as a fire hazard.

1 comment:

  1. Great review, I like the description you give of the hoverboard, I liked your comment about how these don't really give a good transportation experience, and some do appear to be just toys, but I believe others are evolving towards something more serious and still fun. Cheers!