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Peloton alternative: Here's how a $260 indoor exercise bike compares to the competition

This Famistar cycle looks like models priced considerably higher. Does it feel like one, too?

famistar-indoor-exercise-bike

Famistar's inexpensive exercise bike is impressive in many respects, but potential buyers should be aware of a couple issues.

Famistar

At the top end of the indoor-cycle spectrum, there are models like the Peloton (starting at $1,845) and Bowflex VeloCore ($1,699). They're great bikes, no question, but awfully expensive.

In the middle, you've got options like the Bowflex C6 ($999) and Schwinn IC3 ($599). And then there's the low end, which includes this $260 Famistar job. It doesn't even have a name or number, only a brand. With such a huge price discrepancy, how could it possibly compare with cycles costing three to seven times as much?

I decided to find out.

Read more: 6 best Peloton alternatives: Great indoor exercise bikes that cost less

Fast build, solid body

The bike, provided for evaluation by Walmart seller Little Red Lion, took me about 30 minutes to assemble. Save for challenges figuring out the pedals (a common source of confusion with indoor bikes), it's hard to make any real mistakes along the way. I do wish the instruction manual had larger print and illustrations.

Everything looks and feels very sturdy thanks to the steel frame, 45-pound flywheel and aluminum cage pedals (which don't have a clip-in option). The seat and handlebars can adjust up and down, while the seat can tilt and move forward and back. So far, everything is on par with much pricier cycles.

A very basic bike

Obviously something must be different, though, and it starts here: The Famistar has no screen to speak of, no integration with any kind of subscription service, no connectivity whatsoever. There's a stand to hold your phone or tablet, but the bike can't pair with anything. (There are ways around that; new services like Fitscope Studio and Motosumo promise to give you a Peloton-like class experience even on basic bikes like this one.)

So although there's also a very basic LCD computer that shows stats like speed, time, calories and distance, it won't send those stats to an app. Similarly, the bike has pulse grips built into the handlebars to give you an instant heart-rate reading, but if you want to record that data anywhere, you'll need to BYO heart-rate monitor, fitness watch or the like.

Read more: DIY Peloton bike: How to build your own smart bike on the cheap

The $260 question: How does it ride?

Now to actually get on the thing. The Famistar has a wide, cushy seat -- way more comfortable, honestly, than most I've tried. (Why high-end bike makers insist on using narrow, rock-hard seats, I have no idea.) Ironically, though, the seat has a usability issue: No matter how much I tightened the knob below it, it wouldn't stay put. Every time I climbed on the bike, the seat slid to the furthest rear position.

famistar-bike-seat

The seat itself is comfortable, but it won't stay put: It keeps sliding as far back as it can go.

Rick Broida/CNET

There's only three inches of play there, and I found I could still ride comfortably with the seat all the way back. But I'm 6 feet tall; shorter riders may find it awkward to grip the handlebars from such a distance.

Something else to consider: The Famistar employs a friction-based resistance system, not a magnetic one. The latter allows bikes like the Bowflex and Peloton to operate with almost zero noise. Here, once you turn the tension knob and add even a little resistance, you hear it. It's not loud, just noticeable -- especially to someone accustomed to a silent bike. If you're watching a show or listening to music while riding, it probably won't bother you.

But, long-term, the pads used to provide resistance will start to wear, and the instructions make no mention of how to replace them or whether they can even be replaced. The only way to contact the company is via email; there's not even a website. 

To buy or not to buy?

That's probably the deal-breaker for me, because exercise equipment can develop problems, and I'd be concerned about getting help with the bike. (Also of note: There's no warranty information listed in the manual or on Walmart's product page.)

Thus, while a low price helps to offset issues like a slippery seat-mount, I'm not sure I can fully recommend the Famistar bike. Can you get a good workout from it? Absolutely. Will you be able to get the support you need, especially down the road? That's harder to say.

For what it's worth, I've heard a fair number of complaints about the customer service (or lack thereof) provided by much larger bike-makers, so spending extra doesn't guarantee a better experience in that area.

The real question is whether you want the "whole package" -- the interactive screen, the live classes, the synchronized ride data and all that -- or just a simple cycling workout. If it's the latter you're after, and your budget won't accommodate one of the pricier models, the Famistar is worth a look.


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The information contained in this article is for educational and informational purposes only and is not intended as health or medical advice. Always consult a physician or other qualified health provider regarding any questions you may have about a medical condition or health objectives.