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Hydrow could be the Peloton of rowing machines

It comes close to replicating the experience of rowing on water, but the software is incomplete.
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I would like to get in my time machine and explain to my college crew teammates what I'm looking at. It appears to be an ergometer (that's a fancy word for "rowing machine"), except the pull isn't a chain but a flat ribbon of fabric. There's no resistance lever on the side, and the underside is one big, swoopy curve, not unlike the hull of a boat. It has minimalist metal legs, similar to some TVs. Most important, there's a 22-inch screen attached, staring you right in the face. It's an erg from the future.

As a college rower I dreaded the erg; using it felt lonely and monotonous. But I might have liked the Hydrow. As its creators describe it, it is the Peloton of rowing machines -- which is to say, it's an erg for the home, with a monthly subscription plan that includes live and prerecorded workouts hosted by a mix of instructors. The program also includes mat exercises meant to complement rowing, like yoga poses. Hydrow won't ship until May and has yet to receive some of its most compelling software features. But even in its early stages, it comes closer than anything else to capturing the sensation of rowing on water.

Gallery: Our first look at the Hydrow rowing machine | 22 Photos

Curiously, though, the erg, which costs $2,399 for the hardware alone, wasn't built for people with formal rowing training. Bruce Smith, the company's founder and CEO, told me it's actually designed to introduce the sport to non-rowers. This is a tall order, not only because of the machine's lofty price but also because proper rowing form is not particularly intuitive. I didn't realize until after I took up crew that rowing is primarily a lower-body sport, with the arms reserved mostly for finishing a stroke. Frankly, most of the people I see erging at the gym are doing it wrong. Sometimes, I'm doing it wrong. After more than four years of being coached, I'm keenly aware my form is lacking -- my reach is short and sometimes I slouch -- but even now I'm never totally sure if I'm successfully self-correcting or just repeating bad habits.

To address this challenge, the company has a learn-to-row video available on YouTube and the machine itself. By the time the erg ships in May, the company hopes to have about half a dozen videos in total. This first explainer is short -- just three minutes. The instructor's form is flawless, though he doesn't say much about what muscles people should be engaging when. (Both Smith and the instructor in the video say that rowing uses 86 percent of the muscles in the body -- a warning that this is not an arms-only sport.) If I were teaching someone to row, I would probably explain how your power comes from your quads, hamstrings, hips. Rowing, I would say, is kind of like doing a jump squat while seated.

Last, I probably would also go out of my way to show what poor form looks like. People might not realize they're slumping at the finish or sitting up too straight until you point it out. Maybe future videos in the series can touch on that. To Hydrow's credit, at least, I've seen several videos in its catalog where instructors run through drills, like taking a few strokes with the legs only to locate one's leg power. In general, too, the rowers leading these videos take the time to explain stroke rate and make clear what numbers people should be targeting.

Even if you've only spotted a rowing machine in passing at your local gym, it's obvious the Hydrow looks different from a typical erg. There's that large screen and built-in camera, for starters. But it's not just the electronics that lend it some futuristic flair; it's the overall design. Smith said the company's goal was to build a machine sleek enough to live "upstairs" -- not in the basement but in spaces like your living room. "We're happy with the shape of the machine," he said. "We worked hard to make it beautiful."

Hydrow rowing machine

I won't bore you with the usual gadget-review tropes about how a device is so sleek it blends into your living room; after all, this is a considerable piece of exercise equipment we're talking about, and it has a 22-inch screen to boot. That said, the erg's modern design is nicer looking than other rowing machines'. It's also slightly more compact, at 85 inches long by 25 inches wide. (Concept2's Model D, the best-selling rowing machine on Amazon, measures 96 inches long.)

Hydrow also sells an optional $70 vertical dock, which brings the footprint to 25 x 33 inches. For the money, it's probably a no-brainer, considering you're already spending nearly $2,400 on the rower. Be warned though: The storage dock only makes sense if you or someone in your household can lift the roughly 130-pound machine. As it turns out, I can't.

The seat is comfortable. Hydrow said it can hold up to 350 pounds and accommodate athletes with up to a 36-inch inseam. (It's all relative, but a Hydrow spokesperson estimates that includes people as tall as six-foot-eight.) That said, the lack of a resistance lever was jarring at first. The default resistance setting made typical steady-state workouts feel harder than I remember them being. My sluggish 500-meter splits confirmed that fact.

But not to worry: You can adjust that on-screen in a settings menu while a workout is in progress. All told, there are 300 different levels of resistance. Smith added that a future update will allow that same resistance mechanism to be used for weight training on the machine. For instance, if you wanted to do bicep curls at the equivalent of 25 pounds, an algorithm would adjust the resistance accordingly. Other kinds of exercises include leg presses and seated deadlifts.

Hydrow rowing machine

As for the pull, Smith said the company went with braided nylon instead of a chain because it's less floppy and can help keep noise to a minimum. "Chains are noisy and bumpy," he said. "Rowing should be smooth and quiet."

And quiet it is -- relatively speaking, anyway. I live in an apartment where sound travels easily between floors, so I'd still worry about annoying my downstairs neighbor with this. But it is nonetheless quieter than I remember the rowing machines of my youth being. Even as I got up to 36 strokes per minute in one workout -- a hard effort -- the machine wasn't as noisy as other ergs I've used during intense sessions.

Of course, the biggest difference from a typical rowing machine is that you need to sign up for a subscription when you order it. The program costs $38 per month, and though you can cancel or pause it at anytime, you do need to at least sign up when purchasing your unit. (Without the plan, you get three workout videos and a manual Program mode, where you can create workouts based on time or meters.)

For that monthly fee, you get a mix of live and prerecorded workouts led by six instructors; Hydrow said it's adding a minimum of three new videos per day. Throughout, you'll see your 500-meter split at the bottom of the screen along with your strokes-per-minute rate, calories burned and heart rate, if you happen to have a wireless chest strap paired with the machine.

Hydrow rowing machine

The workouts vary in both length and intensity. I've seen them range from 10 to 45 minutes, broken into categories like Sweat, Breathe, Push and Drive. On some days, I've even settled for 10-minute warm-ups and cooldowns if I was short on time. I'm also a fan of the Journey series, which shows the bow of a boat moving through different scenic routes. There is no instructor and no music. It's not unlike some modern treadmills, which show a first-person view of running trails and other routes. I enjoy the change in scenery, though sometimes the spell breaks: If the boat slows down briefly to avoid hitting an embankment and you're still gliding along at 20 strokes per minute, something feels off.

The choice of music in the instructor-led videos varies and usually isn't to my taste. What's more, you cannot use the machine's Bluetooth and WiFi connections to stream music or movies. With the exception of Journeys, if you're looking at that screen it means you're there to row alongside the instructor and an untold number of fellow home athletes. "For us it's about community," Smith said. "We want people's work to show up as part of the community."

Fortunately, by the time the first machines ship in May, the company will have pushed out an over-the-air software update with the Program mode I mentioned earlier, which will allow users to log a workout on their own, without a video. So if you really wanted to row with your own music, you could use that manual mode and listen through your own headphones -- say, streaming from your phone.

That emphasis on community isn't a bad thing though. Rowing with other people is what makes the sport both beautiful and grueling. Depending on the configuration of the boat, I used to sit in the bow or two seat, which meant in an eight-person shell I had six or seven other rowers in front of me. Getting eight people to move in sync through each phase of the stroke, one stroke after another, isn't easy.

But once you fall into a rhythm, it's not only satisfying but also meditative. At the same time, rowing makes you accountable to the other people in the boat, which means you can't stop mid-stroke because you're tired. What do you think this is -- jogging? Rowing is relentless, but that's part of what makes it such an effective workout.

Hydrow rowing machine

I would add that I don't find each of Hydrow's instructor equally easy to follow. This is also true to life: A coach might change up their lineup from one practice to the next. Following different people who row at slightly different cadences is part of the deal. In any case, even if you're not a trained rower pining for the good old days, more instructors also means a higher chance of finding someone whose style works for you.

The waterfront scenes are compelling too. These past winter months, Hydrow has been filming entirely in Miami, but it also plans to record regularly in Boston starting in May, once the weather is warmer. Although these are sheltered harbors, they're still open-air, difficult-to-control environments, which means even the team's best-laid plans often go awry. Smith said his instructors have encountered stingrays, been barked at by nearby dogs and in rare cases, nearly capsized. In one workout, I found myself pausing when waves from the wake of a passing boat forced the instructor to take a breather. I was charmed by the unscripted nature of it -- and you can bet I appreciated the rest.

While I'm rooting for more Easter eggs like this, I hope that Hydrow can improve the sound quality before launch or in the first few months after the erg begins shipping. Though the streams are usually smooth enough over my WiFi network and the built-in speakers are clear, the sound of the background music sometimes drowns out the instructors while they're speaking. I hope Hydrow reconsiders its audio levels and maybe also its musical selections. (A company spokesperson said it is adding more licensed music to its library on a "regular basis.") Regardless, the company plans to add music muting in September.

Hydrow rowing machine

The good news is that the audio mixing seems fixable, and since Hydrow is already releasing dozens of new videos per week, it's safe to assume its early work will end up buried underneath newer, more-polished episodes. As it is, you'll be prompted to rate each episode on production quality, among a few other factors, and there's also a feedback button allowing you to send the team an email from the Hydrow itself.

Though Smith said he's happy with the hardware, the Hydrow's software and feature set are a work in progress. A leaderboard is already live, but you'll eventually be able to use the erg's built-in mic for two-way communication with instructors and other users during live workouts. Smith also envisions more community features, where multiple rowers could form a "boat," whether that be a quad, eight or two-person sculling team. Those friends could then row together or asynchronously and be able to see one another's stats.

Speaking of friends, this might be a good time to address the built-in camera I mentioned in passing earlier. For the time being, at least, it's completely disabled. In the coming months, the company will push out a software update allowing you to take a picture for your avatar. Smith added that in the longer term, there's potential to use the camera for two-way communication, but at present it's not connected to the network at all.

Hydrow rowing machine

Because the erg won't arrive until May and because some of its marquee features aren't available yet, I'm disinclined to give it a score or even call this a review. That said, after a couple weeks of testing, I managed to overcome much of my skepticism. I'm not saying rowing is for everyone, much less that it's a good idea to spend $2,399 on a piece of exercise equipment plus a $38 monthly subscription unless you already know you're fond of the sport.

But what I found through my own workouts is that for better and worse, the machine does the best job of recreating what it's like to be on the water as part of a crew. Rowing is hard. It is repetitive, with few breaks. Your hands will develop blisters and eventually calluses. But it's also a rigorous cardio workout and will strengthen nearly every muscle in your body.

If it turns out you love rowing but can't get on a boat at 5:30 AM (who among us?), rowing in sync with a virtual instructor could be the next best thing. For me, there is nothing more miserable than erging alone, watching my sweaty face redden in the mirror. With teammates -- even prerecorded ones -- it becomes possible to celebrate the small things: moving gracefully, making a boat cut through water. Rowing, as I rediscovered, is meant to be social. For those who love the sport as much as I do, this erg has potential. Just maybe wait for some of the software updates to arrive first.

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