The 30-Second Review
The best cheap elliptical machine retains the smooth ergonomics of its pricier peers, provides challenging levels of intensity, and offers clear programming that doesn’t get tangled up in low-quality tech. Over in our Best Elliptical review, we pursued great ellipticals at a range of price points; here we zoom in on our most affordable favorites.
A small but mighty machine. The minimalist console pares it down to just the most useful controls. Its slim profile had us expecting a shaky, low-intensity workout, but we found it to be incredibly sturdy, smooth, and challenging. One drawback: No incline.
If you can sacrifice a little sturdiness for a few more bells and whistles, this striking, black and red machine offers automatic incline, a fan, and three times as many workout programs (29 vs. Horizon’s 10). We appreciated the additional cubby for stashing a phone or sweatshirt, but not that the water bottle holder is stationed around knee-height.
The Schwinn 470, minus auto incline adjustments. You’ll have to jump off the machine in order to bring the pitch up or down, but the easy-to-pull, color-coded lever makes it a quick task. You can save an extra $150 by downgrading.
The Best Cheap Elliptical Machine
Ellipticals are complex machines. Their interlocking joints and powerful resistance mechanisms contribute to descriptors like smooth, harmonious, and expensive. Top-shelf ellipticals can run you many thousands, but we’ve tracked down a few great options that keep your bill under $1,000. The best part? With these models, you won’t be sacrificing the elliptical traits you love most: Whisper-quiet riding and challenging intensity.
The best of the bunch also happens to be the smallest. The Horizon Fitness EX-59 packs a lot of power into an unassuming profile and a super pared-down display. Despite its size, we experienced as comfortable a range of motion on it as we did on any front-drive elliptical. One contributing factor: The Horizon sets you back farther from the console, which makes the ride feel more spacious. With just a handful of workout programs and a simple but clear-cut display, the Horizon keeps everything understated. It also carries a comparatively steep MSRP ($999), though we found it available through retailers like Amazon for $650.
Our two Runners-up, the Schwinn 470 and the Nautilus E614, might suit you if the Horizon’s two omissions — no fan and no incline — make you cringe.
The Schwinn 470 and Nautilus E614 are practically twins, but we prefer the Schwinn ($650) for a couple of key reasons: automatic incline adjustment, a useful spare cubby, and less cluttered controls. But its upgrades also come with a relative upcharge — an extra $150 over the Nautilus. Both provide a similarly smooth and quiet ride with just a soft motor hum that’s easy to ignore. And each comes equipped with effective fans, inclines adjustable up to 10 degrees, and decked-out consoles.
The Nautilus requires manual adjustment, but it’s much less arduous than it sounds: Press a color-coded lever to maneuver the lightweight track. More inconvenient is what the lack of incline adjusters do to the console. The Schwinn has four separate places to adjust resistance up or down, plus a weirdly extensive list of quick-access resistance levels (…7, 9, 12, 14, and more). It’s a cluttered, confusing layout. But if you are truly looking for the cheapest good-quality elliptical, and don’t mind a couple of usability quirks, the Nautilus is a steal at $500.
How We Found the Best Cheap Ellipticals
Ellipticals come in a diverse range of designs, with various motor placement, pedal construction, and resistance systems. A lot of these choices map to price. To find the best models, we brought in a variety of well-rated picks — favorites from elliptical review sites, fitness guides, as well as customer feedback — that feature different combinations of design features.
The ones that keep their price beneath $1,000 tend to utilize front-drive motors (versus rear or center drives) and wheel track pedals (versus the more complex suspension pedals). Front-drive machines, which house their motors upfront beneath the console, are the most typical budget models, and the design tends to force a shorter stride length and a vertical plane of movement more akin to stair-climbing than running.
The low-price elliptical market can be hit or miss, but through our research we landed on three exceptionally good-quality machines that met our criteria. For the most part, we remained impressed. We ranked them on ride feel, ease of use, and overall ergonomics — three factors that we have found directly lead to a superior workout through testing for this and other exercise equipment reviews.
Ride feel comes down to a sturdy frame, a smooth wheel track, and even resistance. We exercised on all three, making full use of their settings and programs to get a sense of how each model performed under varying levels of stress. We were pretty pleased with their construction across the board, but the Schwinn and Nautilus fell slightly behind due to greater shaking and a more confined range of motion. We thought adjusting the incline would help elongate our strides, but we didn’t notice a substantial difference between the two that offer adjustable inclines (Schwinn and Nautilus) and the one that doesn’t (Horizon). Nor did we enjoy how both Schwinn and Nautilus left our feet pointing downwards when we raised the incline up to max — we found ourselves putting more weight into our heels, which was an unpleasant riding experience. Taller testers also found their knees banging into the water bottle holder when the incline was maxed out.
With low-cost ellipticals, the best console is a simple console. For ease of use, we would rather have a great-functioning basic system than a poorly-functioning, system with unresponsive touchscreens and nonsensical consoles. That’s why we loved the Horizon’s plain and straightforward style. Its minimalist layout keeps the total button count low — there’s only one place to make any one adjustment. The Schwinn adds a confusing array of options that outpace its abilities, like an extra set of arrow buttons just to navigate a basic set of programs, and the Nautilus, with its double resistance controls, does even worse.
The ergonomics of an elliptical largely depend on the placement of the handles, water bottle holder, media shelving, and controls. The Horizon’s handlebars stand lower and closer to the user, so that even as we felt we had greater upper-body room on that elliptical, we didn’t feel the need to stretch forward to grip the handles like we did on the Schwinn and Nautilus. While holding the handles on both, the arm that’s extending forward is forced almost completely straight. It reminded us of straining our legs to reach bike pedals when your seat is up too high.
On the other hand, the water bottle holder on the Horizon is set bizarrely low. You have to bend in half to reach it. The Schwinn and Nautilus do better, with holders that you don’t have to stop moving in order to access. None of the three offer good media shelving. Using the shelves obscures a good portion of the buttons, and they are set either too low or too high to be feasible for reading material. Only the Schwinn offers any additional storage space: a handy cove set into the motor cover, large enough for a balled-up sweatshirt or an extra device.
Testing for the Best Cheap Elliptical essentially meant seeking out the best quality available for the best price. To read more about our testing process, and see our other favorite ellipticals, see our review of The Best Elliptical Machine.
Our Picks for Best Cheap Elliptical Machines
Horizon EX-59A no-nonsense elliptical that gets it right, with nothing but essential functions and a luxurious ride feel.
The Horizon EX-59 puts its energy into the right things. While this elliptical shrinks most characteristic features — handles, programming, even dimensions — they’re all well-designed and refreshingly functional. The ride was surprisingly smooth on this machine, better than we experienced on some ellipticals at higher prices. We felt a slight grind when pedaling the Schwinn and the Nautilus, but the Horizon simply glides as you move. It’s a subtle difference that you might not initially notice if you weren’t testing a handful of ellipticals, but the longer we spent on these machines, the more we appreciated the smoother glide.
The Horizon’s console was nice, too. The small, lime green screen features just a few essential metrics — time, calories, progress. The crystal clear readings give nothing but the information we were looking for. A pleasant surprise after seeing so many that are chock-full of scrolling messages, flashing lights, and extraneous info.
A lot of low-cost ellipticals don’t give your heart rate numerically, but instead translate it directly into a bar chart of heart rate zones. That can be helpful in its own way, but we loved that the Horizon serves up the raw data. Knowing how individualized people’s fitness goals are we much preferred the Horizon’s specificity rather than the other models’ mysteriously calculated estimation.
When we checked our heart rate, we found we were working hard. With just ten resistance levels (most ellipticals run up to 25), we jumped on the Horizon for our first workout expecting a max intensity cut in half. In fact, the upper levels on the Horizon are grueling — the same skiing-through-peanut-butter feeling we got on ellipticals that give their resistance higher numbers. Here again, Horizon doesn’t brag about its power, but it’s there.
With one of the smoothest rides we experienced from any elliptical we tested (not just its low-price peers), the Horizon is a budget pick that feels like a lot more.
Schwinn 470If extra perks make your workout better, this more decked-out (but somewhat less sturdy) pick brings a lot to the table.
Bigger and more visually striking than the Horizon, the Schwinn 470 offers a silent ride — the only sounds are the gentle motor hum and the squeak of the rubber pedal cushioning.
Thoughtful extras like cushioned pedals can be found throughout the machine. To make climbing on board easier, there’s a tiny, tractioned landing pad located behind and between the wheel tracks. The Schwinn also features a small but powerful fan, a convenient nook for storing devices or a book, and, of course, automatic incline. It’s the only model of the three that will raise and lower the pitch of the track for you.
While the Schwinn and the Nautilus E614 are structurally identical, a couple of the best features on the first are not present on the second, and auto incline is one of them. The effect auto incline has on the console is another. While both ellipticals include a ton of buttons we never had occasion to use, the Schwinn’s console feels less cluttered and confused, thanks in part to incline functions taking up a share of the real estate.
Another fun feature: When you burn a record amount of calories (more than you have ever done in a previous workout), the Schwinn dings! And flashes a star across the console screen. But we didn’t quite feel like we deserved it — our first “workout” consisted of turning the machine on to see if it was alive, so our second workout sounded the tinkling reward after a mere 13 calories. And if you like to keep an eye on your heart rate, know that the Schwinn gives the read-out only as a bar graph, not a number.
The console shivers and shakes slightly while you’re in motion, an inconvenience we didn’t encounter on the Horizon. Beyond that, we enjoyed the Schwinn’s ride and additional design features.
Nautilus E614The most affordable of the group offers the incline and fleshed-out programming that our top pick doesn’t, but its confusing console wasn’t a big hit.
Looking at the Schwinn and the Nautilus side by side, you might think you’re seeing double. Most of the initial variations you notice are aesthetic — color choices, the design debossed on the plastic. But beneath those surface differences are ones that have impact on your workout experience. Most notably: The switch to manual incline adjustment and a less intuitive console.
Set the incline (like the Schwinn, it goes up to 10 degrees) before you start or jump off to change it during your workout. It’s not as frustrating or disruptive as it might seem because you don’t find yourself needing to do it much. Partly because the available intensity offers enough challenge (the high max intensity was too strenuous for us to keep up for more than a couple minutes — it’s like swimming in tar) and partly because the incline doesn’t make a lot of difference. Most of the movement on both machines is occurring in the posterior plane no matter how the track tilts — you can’t stretch your feet much farther than directly beneath your knees.
An odd side-effect of losing auto incline: The buttons that control incline on the Schwinn transform into tons of resistance buttons on the Nautilus. With four different locations for the same controls, the Nautilus’ console looks weirdly cluttered and ineffectual. In addition to a multitude of arrows, the numbered resistance buttons jump from side to side, like threading a shoelace, rather than in two continuous stripes, like the columns of a newspaper. There’s also a lot of small font on the console, tiny enough to make young eyes squint. Like the Schwinn, it gives heart rate not in numbers but as a bar graph that fall into Warm Up, Fat Burn, Anaerobic, etc. That translation of heart rate might be nice for novice exercisers, but fitness veterans will probably be frustrated with the lack of numerical information.
While the Nautilus’ drawbacks reduce ease of use, we were happy with the overall ride experience. And at its bargain price, you’re still getting a lot of elliptical quality for your money.
The Best Cheap Elliptical: Summed Up