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(Pocket-lint) - Throughout 2020 and 2021 we've all had plenty of time to exercise at home. Numerous home-focused connected exercise solutions have quickly sprung up, allowing you to get fit without even stepping out of your front door.

But what if you don't like running, cycling, or doing yet another HIIT workout? Hydrow is one answer. This connected rowing machine takes a similar approach as Peloton does with cycling, but is instead purely focused on rowing.

Hydrow offers the opportunity to row with real athletes in well-known environments from around the world, all through the product's integrated display. But how does the experience translate? We've been virtual rowing to find out.

Design

  • Integrated 22-inch touchscreen display, 1920 x 1080 resolution
  • Aluminium & steel frame, flat anthracite polymer body
  • Measures: 219 x 64 x 120cm / Weighs: 66kg
  • Integrated 2x 3W forward-facing speakers
  • Wheels to assist with moving
  • Optional wall storage mount

Hydrow isn't a small rowing machine setup that you can tuck out of the way easily in your lounge. This is a proper rowing machine so it'll need a fair chunk of space. However, it does at least come with wheels so you can move it.

It's a well-designed and stylish piece of kit, though, which favours a magnetic resistance system instead of a fan-based one as found on the popular Concept 2 rowing machine. This magnetic resistance approach means drag is set to replicate rowing on water as best as it can, however you can also quickly change this setting at any time giving you an easier or harder workout.

Pocket-lintHydrow review: Peloton for rowing photo 5

The whole product is draped in muted greys and silvers and is both comfortable and easy to use. The seat is well padded, foot straps easily adjustable, and the rowing handle solid. All that weight and quality means it stays put when you row regardless of your size or how much effort you put in. This is a quality piece of kit.

Because there's no fan, the Hydrow sports a much sleeker design that looks almost like a boat. Instead of a carved wooden figurehead at the tip of the bow, though, there's a large 22-inch touchscreen monitor compete with speakers facing back at you ready to deliver all those classes and instructions. It's crisp and clear and delivers strong visuals.

That 22-inch display is effectively a giant Android tablet, running Hydrow's own software without any access to the core Google operating system. Don't expect to be checking your emails or watching Netflix when you aren't rowing; much like Pelaton's system is closed, so is Hydrow's. 

Pocket-lintHydrow review: Peloton for rowing photo 6

The speakers, however, are lacklustre. You'll need to turn them up to hear the instructions and music over the noise of the belt and we would recommend connecting either a pair of Bluetooth headphones or speaker as soon as you can.

Picking a workout

  • Wi-Fi & Ethernet connectivity
  • 1-to-60-minute workout options
  • Workout types: Breathe, Strength, Drive, Open

The user interface is all about letting you scroll to find the class you fancy doing, although the system does offer you recommendations to give you some inspiration to get you out on the virtual water.

That could be an introduction to rowing or something more advanced. There's a range of workouts to choose: from single sessions to four-week courses that will help you work on endurance or technique.

Pocket-lintHydrow review: Peloton for rowing photo 10

If you're not up for a course with an athlete - as Hydrow always refers to them - then that's no problem either, as there are several river or lake rows from around the world that just allow you to row as you please without someone barking orders at you.

You row from a first-person viewpoint out the back of the boat. Indecently, regardless of the pace of your rowing, the video doesn't match it - it's merely a recording set at the pace of the rower, so usually around 20-to-24 strokes per minute.

It's here we thought we would use Hydrow the most, as this is most akin to a standard rowing machine, but in practice it's the feature we've used the least. That surprised us.

The workouts, which focus around three core approaches - Drive, Sweat, Breathe - range from a minute (no, really) to an hour, with the majority sitting around the 20 minute mark and focused on all good old interval training.

If you're used to running or cycling then 20 minutes doesn't sound like much, but rowing works in a different way, working most of your muscle groups at the same time. A 20 minute workout with athletes James Dietz or Nick Karwoski will have you easily sweating.

Pocket-lintHydrow review: Peloton for rowing photo 8

The bulk of the workouts are pre-recorded, but all on the water rather than in studio in downtown LA. There are live workouts spaced through the day, however for UK users you'll have to fit in with US timings for the time being. An early morning row in Miami is mid-afternoon in the UK and that might conflict with the school run. Hydrow has told Pocket-lint that it is looking to expand live classes to the UK and elsewhere in the future though.

It's all someone moot anyway, as there is very little difference in terms of what you can get out of the experience when comparing live and recorded classes - aside from knowing that as you row backwards and forwards in your house a stack of other people around the world are doing exactly the same thing at the same time.

Picking an athlete

  • Numerous athletes
  • Filter options to find right workout for you

Just like Apple Fitness+ or Peloton or various other online connected exercise offerings there are various classes hosted by various athletes. That means you can find an instructor that you like.

Pocket-lintHydrow review: Peloton for rowing photo 2

All the athletes / instructors are very friendly (overly so at times) and are keen to tell you stories of past rows from their life - presumably to distract you from the fact that you are doing some exercise. As with anything you'll soon come to realise they each have their own style and approach, and you'll soon come to realise whether you like that approach or not.

The main menu system allows you to filter by a range of elements such as work out type, location, and athlete, which allows you to avoid those who don't inspire. So far, we've not had to filter anyone out yet.

Getting down to rowing

  • Leaderboard to see other rowers
  • Key stats on screen

Once you've picked your class there's little left to do other than to put in the effort.

Each row presents you with a series of data points to help you monitor your progress and effort as well as a leaderboard so you can see how you fare against others that have done the class already.

Pocket-lintHydrow review: Peloton for rowing photo 14

The leaderboard can be filtered to allow you to virtual race against others in your peer group - like age or sex, for example - and it's a good way of motivating you onwards as you chase down random names on a screen that are a couple of virtual meters in front of you.

As any rower will know it's all about strokes per minute or your split 500m time - and both are always clearly visible, along with distance covered and time rowed. For even the most technical of rowers it's all here and easy to read.

Connect a heart rate monitor to the machine (not the Apple Watch unless you are happy with this work around) and you'll also get calorie and heart rate information on-screen too.

Aside from all those data points you also get to watch the chosen athlete on the screen row at the same time as you. We've found this invaluable for getting technique right - and it's really helpful when trying to pace correctly thanks to the audible instructions given. It's a lot easier to keep to 26 stokes per minute if you can row in time with the athlete.

Depending on the workout you pick you can opt to hear the athlete, listen to music picked specifically for the workout, or a balance of the two. The music varies depending on the athlete and the workout you're doing, but we've found there's a strong influence in early 90s music in the workouts we've been doing.

Pocket-lintHydrow review: Peloton for rowing photo 12

Yes, if you're in your mid-40s then you're going to feel right at home, although the music always feels like an afterthought rather than truly in sync with what's happening. Don't expect perfectly timed bass drops the moment the athlete tells you to up the tempo.

At the end of each workout there's the option of doing a five-minute cooldown session (always a must) and you get key stats displayed on the screen so you can see how you've done and how those also rowing have done.

Analysing your rows

  • Key rowing stats like Split/500m and S/M
  • No Apple Watch / Fitness support
  • Can sync data with Strava

Each workout, and all its relevant stats, is recorded so you can monitor your progress. You can either see how you're doing on the Hydrow, via the accompanying app on your phone (handy if you're bored and away from the rowing machine), or have the data synced to your Strava account.

Pocket-lintHydrow review: Peloton for rowing photo 11

Sadly, and a glaring omission we think, Hydrow doesn't support Apple Watch or Apple's Fitness app, but the Strava integration does offer a workaround if you are happy to spend 10 minutes setting it up at the start.

Community & costs

  • Dock leaderboard
  • Team partnership opportunities
  • Hydrow machine: £/$2,295 / Membership: £/$38pm

Hydrow really wants to focus on the community aspect. You're encouraged to make friends, pick rowing buddies to team up with, and generally feel like you are part of a bigger community. The athletes constantly try to beat it into you that you aren't rowing alone.

Pocket-lintHydrow review: Peloton for rowing photo 7

You can opt to follow other rowers, but unless you already know them, there's not really an easy discovery mechanism and it feels like you've really got to do lots of rows and remember those who seem to finish around the same place as you to spark that intro.

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It's certainly not as easy as Peloton with its high-five system, for example, so we're yet to really embrace this side of the experience. We suspect it's important to have this kind of lure, too, as the £38 per month subscription cost - it's the same in the USA, albeit plus applicable tax - adds up quickly (that's £/$456 per year on top of the over £/$2k purchase price).

Verdict

Rowing by its own nature isn't as fast-paced as a spin class or trying to smash out a 5k run on a treadmill, so the pace of Hydrow follows a gentler approach even if the result is the same - to get you fit.

That approach is very much welcome, but in the same breath we don't feel that the Hydrow ecosystem is as polished as Peloton. It still has that plucky underdog start-up feel to it, partly born out of those live and very chatty rows on the various rivers and lakes around the world rather than the studio-focused spin classes that Peloton is famous for.  

That's no bad thing, as rowing is never going to deliver a SoulCycle-like experience - and Hydrow's inclusive approach makes it much easier to get into the swing of things than be intimidated from the start. That approachability is only helped further by the friendly athletes who are there to guide you to greatness.

What you're paying for here is access to those classes, something that could easily be done for considerably less via services like Apple Fitness+, but again those are from a studio and don't have the same dynamism.

If you're looking for a challenge, like the low-impact approach of rowing, and can foot the cash for the kit, then Hydrow certainly ticks plenty of boxes. It's a very approachable experience for newcomers and seasoned rowers alike.

Also consider

Pocket-lintHydrow also consider photo 1

Peloton Bike+ 

It's not rowing, but the Peloton Bike+ takes a similar approach to exercise. If you have the space for it, have the money to invest in initial purchase and ongoing monthly cost, then it's an outstanding bit of kit to build into your workout schedule.

Writing by Stuart Miles.