July 14, 2024

sookhouse

Interior The Freshmaker

Your home gym can run Android, too

You read that headline right. We reviewed a piece of home gym equipment. But this has one interesting detail that sets it apart: It actually runs Android. The software is not what you’re used to on a phone, but a more embedded-type system with a stripped-down experience and a custom launcher. And, of course, this is a cross-trainer and not a smartphone, so its purpose is entirely different.

The Bowflex Max Total 16 has lots of annoying software bugs, a dumb yearly subscription for built-in features, and a stupendous price tag. There’s no way you can call it a “value” at $2,500. But the actual workout experience is fantastic, learning from your feedback to tune itself in exactly to your skill level and abilities. It’s not cheap, and the software issues are inexcusable, but if you want a “smart” whole-body trainer for at-home workouts, I think the Bowflex Max Total 16 is a great way to lose weight or stay in shape, and I like using it.

ANDROIDPOLICE VIDEO OF THE DAY

The Bowflex Max Total 16 runs Android, but it’s loaded with software bugs and requires a $150-a-year subscription just to watch your own streaming services. Actually exercising is great, but you’ll pay plenty to do it at $2,500.

Specifications

  • Display: 16″ “HD” touchscreen
  • Software: “JRNY experience,” based on Android
  • Sensors: Heart rate hand grips
  • Connectivity: Wi-Fi, Bluetooth
  • Resistance levels: 20
  • Adjustable inclination: No
  • Max user weight: 300 lbs
  • Dimensions: 49.3″ L x 30.8″ W x 65.7″ H, 155.5 lbs
  • Minimum ceiling: Your height + 15″
  • Misc.: Built-in speakers, Bluetooth heart rate armband
  • Price: $2,500
Pros

  • Fantastic build quality, exceptionally solid.
  • Relatively small footprint can be finagled into plenty of spots.
  • A wide variety of workout types from guided to set-it-and-forget-it that you can watch a show to.
  • Customizes workouts to your fitness level.
  • 20 resistance levels for added granularity.
  • Runs Android and is Wi-Fi connected so you can stream shows from Netflix, Prime, Hulu, Disney, and HBO.
Cons

  • Really buggy software with piles of issues.
  • At $2,500, it’s not cheap.
  • And without paying an extra $150 a year on the JRNY membership, even built-in features like video streaming are disabled, which is dumb.
  • Can’t play HD-quality Netflix even though you paid for a big HD screen, and certain sources can have distracting blocky video artifacts during playback.
  • The resistance knob is clicky, but the clicks don’t actually map to input.
  • Bottom status bar default position blocks text input and subtitles.
  • Can’t sync with Android health platforms like Google Fit or Samsung Health.

Buy This Product

Hardware

The Bowflex Max Total 16 doesn’t quite look like something you stole from a gym, but it’s close. It’s a cross-trainer, sort of like an elliptical with arms that swing to add an upper-body workout. I can’t say how truly well-rounded that makes it, but it works your arms and back more than most ellipticals do, with three different foam-wrapped metal handlebars you can pull and push against to work different groups, though the motion of the pedals is steeper than most trainers and closer to a stepper. There’s a cup holder, a space for a phone or tablet, and a pair of heart rate monitors built into some stubby stationary arms.

Up top, you have a big 16” touchscreen with wide viewing angles. It’s powered by Android — more on that later. Below the screen, you have a pair of okay-sounding built-in speakers, which you can also connect to via Bluetooth. One annoying detail: Every time you tap the display after a short period of inactivity, the speakers “wake up,” and there’s a quiet pop sound like you might hear flipping on an amplifier. On the back of the display is a power button, hardware navigation, and volume controls. You’ll probably never need to use them, as volume can also be controlled on the screen and the software UI has all the navigation options you really need.

Down below, you have a pair of plastic-framed pedals that you’ll pump and sprint with while exercising, made grippy with a set of hard rubber nubs set in a metal plate that’s easy to wipe clean. These petals follow a linear up-and-down path somewhere around a 50° angle, though the angle of the pedals themselves also changes on the downstroke vs. the upstroke. These pivot with a long arm that rotates around a large central mechanism, gliding up and down a metal track with a pair of wheels. Resistance seems to be supplied via a fan.

In short: It’s a cross-trainer, but more compact in its design than most you’ve seen, squeezing together or changing the angle of the different mechanisms in novel ways to save space. This makes the unit surprisingly compact, with a narrow footprint that most of us can probably find a place for. All you really need is about three feet by four feet, open on one side for you to step up into it. But it doesn’t fold up for storage, as some exercise equipment does, and it will have a defining presence in a smaller room.

The angle of motion is steeper than some trainers/ellipticals

My unit was assembled on delivery (at the time, my back was acting up), but I followed along with the process, and this is actually the second Bowflex trainer that I’ve used. While the first (the M9) seems like it would be easy to put together, the Max Total 16 has more fiddly parts, like a finicky display cable and what seems like a too-small hole it has to be routed through. While someone who is technically inclined can probably put it together themselves if they want to, it might be worth paying extra for assembly. Though it’s a little steep at $170, they haul the boxes inside and do everything for you, including leveling the unit, which is trickier than you might think.


Software

The Bowflex Max Total 16 runs Android (as does the slightly cheaper Max Trainer M9), but outside the boot screen and a few UI elements in some of the built-in streaming apps, you wouldn’t notice unless something goes wrong. It even has the Play Store, but not in a user-accessible way, and you can’t install your own apps. I accidentally triggered an update prompt once that opened the Play Store, but the system freaked out and rebooted before I could use that to have some fun.

The launcher, which is the bit you’ll spend most of your time interacting with outside of workouts, is really, really simple. There’s a three-tabbed navigation system on the bottom that takes you between a “workouts” section, a “journal” section that records your past workouts awards and various metrics, and a Profile section for setting goals, adjusting system settings, and providing feedback.


Tapping the user name up in the top left lets you select between multiple profiles if you’re sharing the machine with others in your household. You’ve got shortcuts to things like Bluetooth and volume control on the top right. If you like, you can pair it with Bluetooth headphones or use the bundled Bluetooth heart monitor.

I won’t go into too much detail, because you can find whatever you need pretty easily and within a few taps, the interface layout is intuitive. But the software itself isn’t exactly problem-free, unfortunately.

In the interests of brevity, I’ll just list the software bugs and issues that I’ve run into:

  • The burn rate indicator randomly spikes for no reason, independently of activity or exertion.
  • Loading other profiles in the list is weirdly laggy sometimes.
  • The workout profile graph will sometimes bug out after changing profiles, cropping your timeline view to just a small range.
  • Netflix reports only Widevine L3 certification, limiting playback to SD.
  • Content in streaming services like Netflix can randomly be “blocky” with gray squares and other compression artifacts filling the screen.
  • My unit lost its ability to sleep the display somehow, so it’s on all day and all night.
  • The bottom bar blocks subtitles in its default position. It also has no memory for positioning, so you’ll have to change it at each workout. It also blocks text input, so you have to manually move it around a lot if you’re trying to find a specific show to watch.
  • Once in a while, the machine won’t respond when you go to use it, requiring a sort of hard reset by physically unplugging it (the power button won’t function when this happens). And if you are too fast to plug it in…
  • You may randomly run into a “Console Disconnected” message that seems to have something to do with the Android-running part of the system being unable to communicate with the other sensors and exercise equipment in the body of the trainer.


Outside of the Play Store update issue, I never had any outright crashes or workout-halting issues, but it is prone to bugs ranging from weird little annoyances to workout-delaying impediments. Half the advantage of having a machine like this at home is being able to squeeze a workout in during small gaps in your schedule, and having to fiddle with these sorts of problems can and does eat away at the little free time you had to work out, eliminating its purpose.

Left: My unit measures random spikes in intensity that aren’t there — I’m not working out any harder. Right: The bar at the bottom blocks subtitles and text input in its default location, it’s obnoxious constantly moving it around every time.

Streaming service support is also limited to a handful of apps that the unit ships with. Thanks to that bug I triggered, I know that Play Store support is present (probably just to deliver updates), but you’re only allowed to use the built-in Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Prime Video, Disney+, and HBO Max. You can’t even load up your own Spotify, as it’s not one of the pre-installed apps! I’d really rather have some sort of Play Store front I can grab other services from and the option to launch more sorts of services and apps while working out. Zoning out to something like Star Trek used to be my go-to for cardio, but since the Max Total 16 can’t access Paramount Plus, that’s not an option for me anymore. And when For All Mankind kicks off again, I won’t be able to watch it on Apple TV+ while working out either.


On top of that, what limited streaming access the unit provides is tied to the yearly membership fee, even though watching your own Netflix account doesn’t have a single damn thing to do with Bowflex. If you don’t pay for the subscription, you can’t use any of your own streaming services.

There are also almost no third-party fitness platform integrations. It claims to work with Apple Health, but you can’t plug it into Google Fit or Samsung Health to sync your activity data. So for Android fans hoping to pick up an Android-powered trainer, it won’t play as nice with the rest of your gadgets as it could.

Ran into weird video decoding artifacts in some titles, and Netflix reports it can’t stream in HD due to a lack of the required Widevine certification.

Bowflex needs to work on its software, both when it comes to these weird limitations, noteworthy omissions, and the numerous bugs. Even just highlighting an HD screen as a selling point on a $2,500 product and then not including the level of Widevine certification required for HD playback is really frustrating, and I simply can’t understand how a product manager could have made this mistake or overlooked all the other little problems that are present here. For the money, these software problems make the Max Total 16 really hard to recommend.


Exercising

If you’ve ever used an elliptical or a cross-trainer before, then the Bowflex Max Total 16 should be familiar. However, the higher angle does feel more like a stepper than your average elliptical does, and like all trainers, you can push that much harder when you add in the strength of your arms and upper body. It might take a little getting used to at first, but it can be a more intense way to workout for short bursts, though still perfectly suited for longer, lower-effort exercises if you want to just cruise for a while watching a show.

Unlike a treadmill, this is a relatively low-impact activity, which can be easier on the joints. I have a knee that acts up once in a while, and this doesn’t aggravate it at all, whereas activities like running can easily. I’m also not the most coordinated person, with an awful sense of balance and less proprioception in certain parts of my body, so the relatively limited and consistently defined range of motion is a big help.

Even if you don’t need the extra cushion on your joints, the Max Total 16 offers multiple resistance options, letting you dial in how hard you need to push rather than simply how fast you go. Ostensibly, that helps build strength faster together with endurance, but I find it’s also an easier way to spike my heart rate together with a change in speed, ensuring I hit the right heart rate ranges at different times of my workouts.

Like many of us, I let myself go a little during the pandemic, blimping up in the process. For years, an hour of cardio at lunchtime had been a workday practice for me — a big perk for working from home. But as an immunocompromised person, I wasn’t comfortable going to the gym given the risk of Covid, and I never enjoyed running. I tried a stationary bike for a while, but it just didn’t feel the same to me. The style of workout provided by an elliptical or trainer is just different, and I missed it. If you’re in a similar boat, and the mixed upper body/lower body workout provided by a trainer is something you enjoy, you’ll be glad to know that the Bowflex doesn’t do anything weird.

Often, home gym equipment requires that you settle, adopting a more limited workout, a lower maximum resistance, less resistance granularity, or oddities like a grindy operation or wobbly frames. None of that applies here. This feels just as smooth and precise as the multi-thousand-dollar machines at your big local gym. I won’t exaggerate; the range of motion is a little limited compared to some of the big machines out there due to the compact design, but it’s still pretty wide, and that’s really the only issue. Things move in their tracks or rotate smoothly and resistance isn’t janky or rough, with enough options you can dial it in perfectly. There’s also a pretty high resistance ceiling — I’ve never needed to max it out. Perhaps the only other issue is that, since resistance is supplied via a fan, you have to deal with a rhythmic “whoosh” of air at each step, but some music or a show can drown it out.


Workouts on the Max Total 16 cover a range from a manual mode you can just sort of idle away into “adaptive” workouts that tweak themselves to fit your fitness level and automatically adjust resistance up and down according to a pre-set graph you follow along with. Some are just a fun variety to keep you on your toes; others have interval training-like rises and falls. In every case, a series of bells will warn you when the intensity is about to change, and you can either speed up, crank the resistance, or do both to hit the new target, which is easy to follow with a clear visual range presented.

At the end of every workout, you fill out a little survey stating on a sliding scale how hard or easy it was and how much you liked it. Over time, it can learn from that to dial in the right levels of resistance for different effort levels, presenting you with workouts that go up and down in intensity but are tuned precisely for how hard or easy you like it. This changes over time too, and if you take a break and a workout is a little too hard, it can turn things down for you. You can also tune the intensity of a recommended workout in the “just for you” tab ahead of time to be a little harder or easier, depending on your mood. It’s the easiest way I’ve ever seen to dial in a workout that perfectly meets both your skill level and needs.


On the other hand, there are some “explore the world” workouts that take you on a virtual tour of specific picturesque areas. It seems like it could be fun, but the visuals often don’t match the varying workout intensity, and they’re sort of amateurishly edited together with transitions that I found distracting. Some folk might enjoy them, though. If you want a more guided workout, there are videos with specific trainers available across a range of skill levels.

My only complaints here are the fact that the display can’t be tilted for a more ergonomic angle, and I wish the handlebars were a little longer. I’m only 5′ 11″, but sometimes I find myself hunching over the machine a little, which isn’t great for my back. I can fix my posture, but the fact that I keep falling back into it without noticing implies to me that the proportions are a little on the small side.

Should you buy it?

Maybe. I’m of two very different minds about the Bowflex Max Total 16. On the one hand, I need to say it outright: I really like using mine, and I’d absolutely recommend it to someone like me who has a reason to work out at home rather than at the gym. But Bowflex’s software is loaded with bugs, and paying both $2,500 for it and an extra $150 a year to muddle through all its stupid issues will legitimately sting — and that’s ignoring that basic built-in functionality like watching your own damn Netflix is paywalled. Bowflex is arguably doing more things wrong than right in its software, and the company might want to rethink its approach.

I don’t usually get this much time to think about my opinion on a product before I write about it, but a string of injuries prevented me from finishing our review. I’ve been using the Android-powered Bowflex Max Total 16 off and on for over six months. And even with its many, many software issues, I have enjoyed it — hell, I’ve lost somewhere around 20 lbs since I started using it and the Max Trainer M9 before it. It’s a great way to work out at home, especially in the winter. But I think the base model Max Trainer M6, which lacks the big-screen smarts, is the better option for most people. Buy it and an iPad for less, and you’ll get better streaming quality too. It’s also the smarter decision if you don’t want to pay the yearly subscription — you leave fewer features on the table.

I still can’t believe that Bowflex locks out basic built-in features like streaming behind a subscription paywall, and I don’t understand what possessed the company to charge a regular fee for something its services never touch. Charging for the adaptive workouts, on the other hand, makes more sense, as there’s a regular drip of new ones via automatic updates. The costs in development there are clear, and $150 a year is also cheaper than most gym memberships. Having full access to the Play Store for more streaming services would also be rad.

No matter how you look at it, this is an expensive product, but you are also paying a premium for hardware quality. You absolutely can buy a cheaper trainer or elliptical-type exercise machine, but none of the models I considered were as nice as this. The Max Total 16 has big steel parts with massive welds that look right out of a gym, and though you might have to deal with a rare click or squeak if dust gets somewhere, it’s still more beefy and durable than a lot of other at-home consumer exercise equipment is.

As someone who can’t take the risk of a daily trip to the gym, the Max Total 16 has been a joy to use, and I really look forward to my daily cardio. I wish Bowflex cared more about its software, I wish it synced with Google Fit or Samsung Health, and I wish some of the basic built-in features weren’t locked behind a dumb paywall. But here’s the thing: I’d still buy one for myself tomorrow even with these limitations.

Buy it if

  • You want an at-home elliptical/trainer.
  • Price isn’t a huge concern, but build quality is.
  • You can overlook the many software bugs and issues.
  • You really want a built-in (but limited) screen for workouts and entertainment.

Don’t buy it if

  • These prices have you screaming “What?!
  • Going to a gym is more convenient or comfortable — it costs less and you get access to more.
  • Software bugs, limited service integrations, and arbitrary paywalls will leave you frustrated.