Pros: High build quality, effective exercise platform that offers great value for money.
Cons: Display quality is poor and users can't save custom programs.
Fitness pros will tell you that you won't get gym-quality equipment in this price range, and of course they are mostly right. Gym-quality requires a robustness and quality that is expensive to obtain, so the home user with a more limited budget has little option but to buy an inferior product which has shortcomings of one kind or another. Often shortcomings that render the result disappointing, even unsatisfactory.
Looking for exercise equipment on a tight budget is often an exercise in near-futility. There's no shortage of inexpensive machines, none of which seem particularly solid or sufficient for long-term use. Some are lightweight and unstable, some are noisy and fail to inspire confidence, and most seem intended to be disposable. Add the weight of professional opinion, usually recommending a budget the wrong side of $1000 (often well on the wrong side), and it's easy to conclude there is no satisfactory equipment at a reasonable price for the home user to buy.
That's pretty much what I had thought, until I came across the Fitness Quest 1400.
This machine stands out in the sub-$1000 market as exceptionally well built, quiet, stable and suitable for serious use. The pros are right that it is not gym-quality, but it seems remarkably close in many ways, and avoids the pitfalls of budget equipment in being constructed of heavy, high grade, steel and sitting firmly, squarely on the floor with no hint of instability. It has the feel of a tank, and weighs like one!
It comes packed in a large box measuring 41.5 x 30.75 x 32.5 inches. As such this is not going to fit in the back of a car! It will (just) go in the back of a PT Cruiser but anything smaller is impossible. It's also 200lbs, so it takes two fit people (or four less fit ones as in the case with the Walmart guys who carried mine) to load it. And thereby hangs a problem: getting it back out again at home proved impossible for two! It was necessary to cut the box off while still in the back of the car, and unload it bit by bit.
Inside the box, the machine is packed in three layers of polystyrene, making unloading, unpacking and organizing the parts for assembly very easy. Assembly itself was also straightforward. Each step is numbered, described and diagramed in the manual. A pack of parts with the matching number contains everything needed for each step. All the tools required are supplied. If flat-pack furniture was done like this, everyone would be buying it (are you listening, IKEA?!)
Some of the frame members are heavy and require two people, and each of the bolts must be done up nice and tight, but despite the complexity, it only took a couple of hours of steady work.
Once built, the machine is remarkably compact and stable, but it is too heavy to easily move about, so it's wise to get the positioning right before you start! It does have a small pair of wheels on the front crossmember, but it has to be lifted up quite high at the back to use them, and that isn't a job for the faint-hearted or muscularly challenged!
In use, it offers a manual mode where the user controls the choice of resistance level between 1 and 16, and a program mode where the user selects one of 8 pre-programmed workouts, designed to simulate various types of terrain by varying resistance levels as often as every 1/10th of a mile. There are two sets of handlebars: a static pair for a simple lower-body workout or those who are getting familiar with the machine, and a 'dual action' pair which move in conjunction with the user's stride. Holding these allows for a full body workout, pumping arms as if walking. These handlebars also contain pulse monitors in the grips.
Unlike a number of other ellipicals, this one doesn't have a single large flywheel at the back, and instead has a smaller one each side. This doesn't just help keep the size more compact and the center of gravity lower, but also means that the stride pattern is flatter and more natural than on other machines of this type. Additionally, stride length is adjustable between 17 and 21 inches, allowing almost any user a comfortable position. The result is a very comfortable exercise machine to use.
The Fitness Quest 1400 can be used in manual or program mode. In manual mode the user can set exercise duration and any of 16 levels of resistance. In program mode, there are 8 programs to select from, representing a range of types of terrain from mostly flat to steep hill. Changing terrain is represented by varying levels of resistance over 1/10th of a mile increments. The user can further modify programs by manually altering resistance levels within the selected program and so create custom exercise routines. However, there is no option available to save these custom settings, so they are lost after each session.
Aside from the mechanical adjustment of stride length, the machine is controlled from the display, and unlike some other systems where the display is powered by batteries, this one requires an AC adaptor (supplied). The display itself is fairly small, flat and pretty basic, offering no backlight and little interaction. There's no audio system or connection for an iPod as is found on some other machines, and only a relatively small amount of information on the current exercise session as it progresses. When inactive, the displays reverts to showing date and time and ambient air temperature, while in use it is divided into three sections. At the bottom it shows resistance level in manual mode, or the current program, while to the right is a small stack of readouts for exercise time, speed and rpm, distance, calories used, pulse rate, and load (resistance).
Any of these readouts can be selected and be displayed in larger digits on the main part of the display, otherwise the main display will continuously rotate between the readouts, changing every 2 or 3 seconds. That can be rather confusing if you don't realize what's happening! It's also a little superfluous, because the display of all the exercise details is constantly updating on the right, so the numbers are always visible. It is good to be able to select a particular item, such as exercise duration or distance, and keep that updating on the main display, but since it only echoes the smaller numbers, it would really be better to do away with that and have all the parameters visible in larger characters.
Controlling selections on the display can be a little confusing too, because it's not clear or consistent which buttons to press to get which settings or results, but a little familiarity takes care of that.
Using the machine feels very comfortable. The foot platforms are sufficiently large that it is possible to find a stance that fits the workout required - the further back the user stands, the more effort is required so by varying the stance, a more thorough workout is possible. Along with the flatter and very natural-feeling stride, this machine can also be used backwards if required, which helps exercise different muscle groups. Overall, it's possible to get a very thorough lower body workout with the Fitness Quest 1400 while not finding it discomforting.
With 8 programs this machine is not particularly versatile for a guided workout, but the programs themselves reflect a wide range of intensities in 1/10th of a mile increments, and with names such as 'fat burner plateau', 'mountain pass' and 'cardio plateau' it is pretty clear what they are each intended for. It is disappointing that user-adjusted resistance settings cannot be saved for future use since that kind of personalization would be greatly useful, but it is easy to be critical when in other respects this machine feels like it ought to have cost considerably more.
Many inexpensive ellipticals suffer noise or seem to require fairly constant maintenance to prevent them loosening up. If care is taken with assembly, making sure all the bolts are done up tight, neither of these are issues with this machine. It remains remarkably quiet and totally rigid. When high resistance settings are selected, the user can feel a little vibration through the handlebars, and the overall noise level increases, but the only thing I found annoying was that the small coiled wires connecting the pulse rate sensors in the handlebars to the body of the machine tend to trail across the lower edge of the water bottle holder, making a constant 'clicking' sound in time with the motion. It isn't loud, is easy to fix, and can't be heard more than a foot or two away, but it gets annoying and shows a little carelessness of thought in design!
I also found it puzzling that when using a programmed workout, as the resistance level changed in accordance with the program, the 'load' figure in the display did not vary. It does change if you manually adjust the resistance, but not as the program is in progress. This is odd. The user can tell what the resistance level is because the lower part of the display shows a 'map' of the program in 1/10th mile segments, with the height of each segment showing the resistance and the current segment flashing. Why the resistance figure on the right can't show the correct number when duration, speed, rpm, distance, calories and pulse rate all update constantly above it is a puzzle.
The Fitness Quest 1400 also has a 'recovery' mode, which tests how well the user's heart returns to normal after a workout. While the pulse rate measurements are not really all that accurate, they are good enough as a broad guide to cardio-vascular condition after a workout. The user simple presses the 'recovery' button on the display and holds the handgrips for 60m seconds. The pulse rate at the end of a minute helps the unit display a score, from 1-6 showing from excellent to poor, how well the heart is recovering. It's a bit of a gimmick, but helpful even so, with one caveat - that the hands must be on the hand grips as the workout comes to a close, or else the recovery score may show worse condition than it should.
The manual with this machine is a sparse 30 pages, with the first 15 of those being devoted to contents, warning and assembly. It does, however, cover a number of fitness basics, even if it could be more thorough.
All in all, this is not the best elliptical on the market, nor the cheapest. But it is certainly the least expensive machine to even approach gym-quality standards, and as such the compromises made in design and features do little to inhibit a good exercise regime, while still allowing the machine to do the job it is meant to do. I would highly recommend it to anyone considering an elliptical, and say that it is great value for money. A better display and more versatility in programs would be nice, but at this price, the Fitness Quest 1400 is better than the competition, and the criticisms are quite minor in the context of how solid and resilient it is, how effective as an exercise platform, and how little it costs in relation to other quality machines.
UPDATED TO ADD: The maximum weight limit of this machine is given as 300lbs, both in the user guide and on a non-removable sticker on the frame itself.