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Are hoverboards safe yet?

Hoverboards are starting to look safe compared with phones. But read this before you rush in.

Now Playing: Watch this: How to buy a hoverboard that won't catch fire
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Whether you call them hoverboards, self-balancing boards or explosions waiting to happen, these two-wheeled scooters aren't going anywhere.

This 2015 tech fad may have been cool, but it had a dangerous side. Last year the news was peppered with reports of hoverboards exploding and catching fire. Cities banned them from roads and sidewalks. Airlines wouldn't let you bring them onto planes. Retailers such as Amazon and Overstock stopped selling certain models and even told consumers to trash ones they've already received.

Suffice it to say that a lot has changed over the past year. If you're shopping for a board this holiday season and beyond, here are the things you need to know before you buy.

First things first: What exactly is a hoverboard?

These hoverboards can't actually levitate, a la "Back to the Future Part II." Instead, they use wheels to roll across the ground. It sounds lame, but really, they're far more fun to ride than a skateboard.

Technically, they're called "self-balancing scooters." These scooters look and work like miniature Segways (minus the handlebars) moving forward when you lean forward and braking and reversing when you lean back. You face forward while riding and use subtle movements of your feet, legs and torso to move in any direction.

To get moving, all you do is step on. The two pressure-sensitive footpads let you control the speed and steer with your feet. Since the hoverboard starts moving the moment you step on, mounting and dismounting can be tricky at first. And since there's no handle to steady yourself, balancing can be tough -- it's easy to fall off while you get used to the board.

Actually, it's kind of a workout. You use your core to keep yourself balanced and also feel the burn in your calves and feet since the muscles in those areas help you steer.

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Hoverboards don't actually hover. They roll.

James Martin/CNET

Why are they so popular?

Hoverboards can be tough to get the hang of. But once you master riding one, it moves seamlessly with you, stopping on a dime and turning easily. Riding one almost feels like an extension of yourself, and it doesn't require any manual motion, like a skateboard or kick scooter. You can pick up a lot of speed (most top out at about 10 miles per hour), making them faster than walking.

Though they can be expensive, they're smaller and cheaper than a Segway (which costs upward of $5,000), so they're much more accessible to buy, store and use.

Do hoverboards still catch fire?

2015 saw many reports of hoverboards combusting or exploding. The culprit was a combination of faulty batteries and bad electronics. Hoverboards are powered by large lithium ion batteries that can overheat and explode under rare circumstances -- something similar is thought to have happened with Samsung Galaxy Note 7 this past fall.

In early 2016, the Consumer Product Safety Commission investigated the safety of all hoverboards across all brands, recommending that any new hoverboards manufactured be "certified UL 2272 compliant" to be eligible to be imported into the US (more on this later). Compliant hoverboards are less likely to end in flames.

Then there were counterfeits. CNET video producer Mariel Myers encountered this when she purchased a board from a third-party seller on Amazon and ended up with a cheaply made fake. At the time, these knockoff boards seemed to be more prone to fires and explosions, but we don't know for sure. To get the real board, she ended up going directly to the Canadian manufacturer's website.

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Hoverboards are sold by many companies, but only buy ones that are UL 2270 certified.

James Martin/CNET

What are other safety concerns?

Even if you don't need to worry about explosions, there are still hazards to keep in mind.

Falling off and hurting yourself. As with any fast-moving vehicle, riding a hoverboard can end in injury. Hoverboards can reach a maximum speed of around 10 mph, so you could sustain a more substantial injury than you would falling off a slower-moving skateboard.

Though most riders (at least in San Francisco), do without it, proper safety gear is a must. You'll need a helmet, knee pads, elbow pads and wrist guards. This will lower your risk of fractures, sprains and other injuries if you fall.

Traffic accidents. As with bikes and skateboards, there's also a risk of getting into a traffic accident, especially if you're in or close to the street. A teen was struck and killed by a bus in London while riding a hoverboard. Please don't ride a hoverboard in the street or near traffic -- unless you're in California where hoverboards are classified as a bicycle under the law.

Weight limitations. Hoverboards have a minimum (usually around 45 pounds) and maximum weight limit (some boards can support up to 300 pounds). These limits are meant to protect the rider and scooter, so you should definitely check out the manufacturer's website to learn more.

Children under the weight limit will have trouble riding, since the scooters won't detect their weight and won't balance correctly. Should your kid ride a hoverboard? You'll have to use your best judgment.

Steep hills. Most boards also won't operate going up or down steep hills, usually over 30 degrees. There are no height limits associated with the boards, though keep in mind that most lift you about four inches above the ground. If you're particularly tall, you'll run a greater risk of hitting your head while riding.

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Hoverboards range in price from $220 to $800.

James Martin/CNET

So which hoverboards should I buy?

There are many different companies selling hoverboards, starting around $220 and reaching up to $800. Many of them work just the same, with minor differences in specs and style. I've ridden several models. While there are subtle variations in how they ride, it's not easy to tell apart the high-end and less costly versions.

The biggest factor to consider when shopping is to make certain that is UL 2272 certified. If you are not familiar with UL, it is an organization that certifies, validates, tests, verifies, inspects and audits electrical devices. UL seeks to "facilitate global trade and deliver peace of mind."

That said, note that CNET has not thoroughly tested any of these brands, nor can we specifically vouch for their relative safety or lack thereof.

Currently, you can buy UL 2272 certified hoverboards from: Amazon, Overstock, Target, Walmart and eBay.

Hoverboards Compared

EpicGo Sport Swagtron T1 Jetson V6 Hoverzon XLS
Price $700, £557, AU$944 $350, £279, AU$472 $340, £271, AU$459 $450, £358, AU$607
UL 2272 certified yes yes yes yes
Colors space gray black, white, blue, red, yellow, pink black, white, blue, red black, white, blue, red, gold, pink
Warranty 1 year 1 year 1 year 1 year
Weight 26 lbs (11.8 kg) 22 lbs (9.9 kg) 22 lbs (9.9 kg) 22 lbs (9.9 kg)
Maximum speed 10 mph 8 mph 10 mph 8 mph
Steepest incline it can handle 15 degrees 30 degrees not specified 30 degrees
Range not specified 12 miles 15 miles not specified

*All prices are given in US dollars and converted to other currencies.

Where can I actually ride one?

Hoverboards are cool, but some states, countries and airlines still aren't so excited about them. It's illegal to ride one on public roads or walkways in New York State, Australia and the United Kingdom. Many schools (including UCLA), malls, airports and other public places are banning hoverboards as well.

Before you pack one for a flight, know that most major airlines have banned hoverboards. American, Delta, United, Jet Blue, Southwest, Hawaiian and others have put out advisories stating they are no longer allowing them in checked or carry-on luggage.

On the flipside, California lawmakers signed a bill that went into effect as of January 1 of this year. It allows motorized wheeled devices, including hoverboards, anywhere a bicycle can go, including bike lanes on streets.

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Hoverboards are banned in many places, but California signed a law making them legal in bike lanes.

James Martin/CNET

Hoverboards may been a 2015 tech fad, but there are plenty of new versions with UL 2272 certification that came out in 2016. Though the days of hoverboards being recalled are far from over. Recently, the United States Consumer Product Safety Commission recalled the Orbit hoverboard. It did not have UL 2272 certification.