I don't think it's a secret that many of the brands you see on the rowing machine market are made by a small number of manufacturers, often in China. Of course, there's nothing wrong with this and you'll find all but the cheapest rowers are perfectly reliable and will give years of service with minimal maintenance.
A brand bringing a new model onto the market will effectively 'mix and match' a frame, mechanisms and all the components such as the seat, handle, foot rests and performance monitors from the manufacturer. Obviously cost is an issue. Market research determines which price sector a company will target, and then they'll 'design' a machine to best suit their target market and take cost and the price they feel they can charge - everyone has to make a profit :0)
A good example is the BH Fitness LK580 and the Sole SR500. Both are good machines in our opinion, scoring 80% and 85% respectively in our reviews. They both share the same frame and resistance mechanism but the monitors, seats and handles are different. While many may think it doesn't make a huge difference, just bear in mind something as simple as the seat. If you're considering using your rower for even 30 minutes a day, the seat is a vital part of the machine - would you row if your butt was sore? Yes, you can buy gel seat covers but this is an additional cost that is unnecessary if you buy a model with a good seat. And a word of warning, just putting a cushion on the seat doesn't work - you'll slip off, and trust me, landing on the rail isn't to be recommended :0)
Next comes the handle. A good handle is ergonomically designed to fit the palm of the average hand with no slippage when using, Hand blisters are the bane of the rower and really should be avoided. The diameter, width and padding of the handle are important. A small diameter is difficult to grip for most, a narrow width is uncomfortable for the broad-shouldered, and lack of padding can lead to blisters and hand may slip. An example of a model where the handle can make a difference are the Proform R440 and ActionLine. We rated the ActionLine 5% higher due to better handle (note, this model is now out of stock).
Foot rests can make or break a rowing machine. Your feet should be properly secured and held comfortably in place so you can zip up and down the rail during a workout. If your feet become unstuck, you have to stop and refit your feet - it's impossible to row if your feet come loose. We get quite a few moans about poorly-designed footrests - they really can ruin a good workout.
Things to look out for are velcro straps - these are cheap to make put can become 'fuzzed' up preventing them for securely fitting together. Yes, they can be cleaned with a stout bristled brush, but overtime they loose their grip and need replacing. A better option is a strap with nodules that fit into holes - and ones that have a choice of settings for width and depth. Some like to row bare-footed, others wear trainers. Good footrests also have a pivot so they can angle according to you position. A well-designed footrests costs more - but definitely well worth paying for in our view.
Lastly, but certainly not least is the performance monitor. This can be the most expensive part and many are quite complex bits of electronics. An advanced monitor with pre-set programs and a wide-range of functions can make the difference between a good rower and a great rower. Many such as Concept2's and WaterRower's now offer online racing - great if you're the competitive type. Others allow you to interface with your PC to record your performances and measure your progress - these are often combined with online programs from the retailers.
The data provided by your monitor is vital for getting the most from your rower. Some are incredibly accurate and will show all you need to know about your workout such as splits, times, watts etc. The cheaper monitors are not so accurate and may only tell you the number of strokes and the time you've been rowing - some don't even tell you how far?
Luckily, we cover all of these components in our unbiased reviews so you can make an informed choice :0)
Roy Palmer is an athletics coach, teacher of The Alexander Technique and a rowing fanatic.