In the space of 12 months, hoverboards went from cool new gadgets to public (spaces) enemy number one. Between being a pedestrian hazard and potentially explosive, these motorized self-balancing skateboards are illegal to use outside of private property in New York City and the entirety of the United Kingdom (to name just a few locales), and many airlines ban their transport, too.
Into that challenging market comes Segway. That company's original product, the self-balancing two-wheeled Personal Transporter scooter, was essentially the original hoverboard. In fact, Ninebot -- the Chinese company that purchased Segway in 2015 -- has successfully barred all rival hoverboards from the US market, saying they infringe on Segway's patent for self-balancing two-wheeled devices.
And with its new miniPro, Segway's pitch is now, "Why settle for those knockoffs when you can get the real thing?" Indeed, the Segway miniPro is essentially a downsized version of the old Personal Transporter. But the name brand status will cost you a pretty penny: $999 or £889, to be precise. (Australian pricing is yet to be announced, but the UK price converts to AU$1,740.)
The classic Segway handlebars have been shrunken down to a distinctive knee-high "steering bar" poking up from the main platform. It's also better built than most hoverboards with chunky tires and a substantial-feeling platform to stand upon.
But while it may look like an old-school Segway, the miniPro's weight limit is more conservative -- 220 pounds (100 kg) versus 260 pounds (118 kg). While most hoverboards are controlled by leaning with your feet, only the miniPro is supplemented by the steering bar which makes finer control possible. You grip the steering bar above your knee and lean left or right to turn. It's easy to turn 360 degrees on the spot as a result.
It pays to keep in mind that the steering bar is "live" when powered on, and should definitely not be used to steady yourself when getting on unless you want to be flung off. Instead you need to step on one of the pads, listen for the beep and then carefully lift your other foot onto it. It takes a little practice, but it's not like balancing on a bike as the pads are unusually sensitive. You may end up scooting back and forward slightly when you stand still just to keep your balance.
While it's locked to 4 mph (6.4 km/h) for the first kilometer, it's capable of a potential top speed of 10 mph (16.1 km/h). But the device is designed to slow you down way before that and it does this by gently leaning backwards. The hoverboard beeps and notifies you when you're going "too fast" which we found was around the 6 to 7 mph mark (10 km/h).
It's definitely fun to ride around and a few people, including myself, experienced a kind of Hello Panda moreishness. You want to keep riding as soon as you get off.
One thing we did notice is that the unit can be a little hyperactive when left to its own devices. It can slowly roll away when sitting by itself even when on a flat surface. This is surely a gyroscope issue but it shouldn't move unless being controlled (either by a rider or by Bluetooth). While there is a balance control slider which is designed to prevent this from happening, it wasn't very effective. The scooter slid backwards and forwards anyway.
And yes, the Segway is controllable by Bluetooth. The scooter comes with an app (iOS and Android) which is used for a bunch of different functions -- and this includes annoyingly insistent and undefeatable safety instructions (even if you've sat through them before you need to wait 30 seconds or shut down the app to leave). The app also monitors speed and charge levels.
The remote control gives you a D-Pad type surface to control the miniPro, but there's no camera and it's only over Bluetooth. This means line-of-sight with 50 feet (15 meters) or so. It's a fun trick and great for scaring pets, but it's even harder to control than when riding. Braking takes a lot longer, even when you pull right back, and it's really easy to crash the unit. As a result, it's probably not something you'll use a lot.
It's worthwhile noting that there is a China-only version called the mini (as opposed to the miniPro) that's only $300. Segway says the differences between the two are in the feature set, and that the local version was subject to the UL 2272 certification which covers hoverboards specifically, unlike the mini.
Expensive, impractical -- and incredibly fun
The Segway is like one of those cool mini Mercedes electric cars for kids -- it looks like fun but its kind of out of the reach of most people. As a commuter device, though, the Ninebot by Segway miniPro is pretty limited because it's not designed to go over significant humps like crosswalks. This is a toy primarily, and a pretty expensive one.
But we can't deny that it's also very fun. Everyone in the office was crowding around and demanding a ride. For a product in our office full of jaded tech journalists, that's a rare feat these days.
Correction, Friday at 8 a.m. PDT: Segway has clarified that the original 185lb weight limit quoted is for the Chinese model only, and the correct weight limit is 220lb.