Illustration for article titled Echelon's Connected Rowing Machine Proves Content Is Key

Photo: John Biggs/Gizmodo

The pandemic has proved that the future of fitness is online. Companies like Peloton and Apple have embraced online training completely, offering classes that seem as real and vibrant as anything held in a sweaty gym. Other companies like Hydrow are taking a more refined approach by creating a real-life experience in the real world, taking you on a trip across a rippling lake or down a distant river.

And then there’s the Echelon Row-S.

Echelon builds lower-cost connected exercise machines for those on a slightly lower budget than what a Peloton or Hydrow goes for. Their latest machine, the Row-S, is a standalone rower with a 22-inch screen and an electronically-controlled resistance system. The entire thing costs $1,599, not including the monthly subscription, which is slightly cheaper than a Hydrow and comparable to NordicTrack’s $1,599 connected rower. Dumb rowers start at $279 or so, so you’re definitely paying a premium to stream workouts.

The Row-S is a well-made machine. It folds up compactly and is easy to unfold when you want to use it, which makes it better suited for those with small spaces. It’s extremely solid, and the built-in controls on the handle allow you to increase and decrease the resistance with a few presses of a button. As a rower, it’s quite usable and the heavy velcro straps that keep your feet in place are superior even to the Hydrow’s smaller straps. I felt very well seated on the machine and I was able to get a full range of motion. While other home gear I’ve tested has felt poorly made and plastic, the Row-S is a high quality product and it collapses easily for storage.

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Photo: John Biggs/Gizmodo

Now for the bad part. I recently tested the Hydrow and found it to be one of the best rowers on the market for one reason: the content. This is becoming a competitive space, with services like Apple’s Fitness+, Equinox+, and Peloton offering highly produced, well-lit content with professional trainers that draw you into the session. In fact, I’d argue that 80% of the value of connected workout machines comes from the content. NordicTrack’s iFit content is filmed on location, and the camera work and resolution are excellent on your tablet or phone.

Echelon… doesn’t do any of that.

Echelon’s streaming fitness classes cost $339 for a year or $39 a month (like Peloton), and prepaying gets you further discounts. And to be clear, you do get a solid workout. The trainers suggest resistance levels and tell you when to work harder or go more slowly. They also roll off the rower sometimes and onto a mat for floor exercises. They do everything you’d expect them to do in an online exercise routine. Below are some stills from one of the lessons. As you can see, they’re really fuzzy.

Again, the trainers are doing great work, but the audio is tinny, the video resolution is abysmal, and the entire thing looks like it was shot in a basement. In fact, given I put all my gear in the basement, that’s exactly the kind of environment I’m trying to escape. Using this rower on a daily basis gets extremely tedious. Why? Because every session looks exactly the same.

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Photo: John Biggs/Gizmodo

What’s worse are the outdoor rows that seem to have been filmed with someone’s broken cellphone:

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Photo: John Biggs/Gizmodo

My wife, who loves fitness apps but doesn’t care very much about tech, had one thing to say: “Ugh.”

There is a certain level of production we all expect from our fitness products, and this ain’t it. I’d understand if Echelon were an up-and-coming fitness company, but it’s has been making products since at least 2017, and could be a solid competitor to Peloton and the others. For this critical aspect of the experience to be so lacking is quite frustrating.

I have nothing against the hardware. Again, it’s solid, and the price isn’t terrible as far as these things go. But when you’re spending more than $1,000 on a connected rower, Echelon just can’t compete. You might as well buy a low-cost, “dumb” rower and subscribe to a different service, like iFit or Hydrow, and get to sculling without a 22-inch screen in front of you.

The Echelon Row-S is a solid exercise machine that’s priced on par with competing units. It’s not a luxury machine, but it’s definitely well-built. But the content is just as important, and for me, it’s a dealbreaker. If I’m paying $339 on top of $1,600 for a rower, I’d expect that content to be top-notch. Right now it isn’t. These machines are designed to get you hooked on training sessions through nice design, great trainers, and crystal clear video. Right now Echelon only offers the great trainers. Content issues can be fixed with investment, but until Echelon puts some money into making its classes higher-quality, I’d skip this connected rower.

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