AirWheel X3 Electric Unicycle Review

On my first ever visit to China, I saw a bunch of people riding these strange devices (the red one on the left in the picture below) that I had never seen before. Like a Segway, except with only one wheel and no awkward handle. They are like unicycles, except self-balancing using an electric motor. 

Here is a video of the first two days with this: The clip begins with my first two hours of practice and concludes two days later when I was successfully going around short distances with it.

First impressions

The order arrived in about a week. Unboxing while getting pieces of styrofoam all over the floor. Included: device, charger and training wheels. Training wheels? That was a bad sign, as I expected this might be easy enough not to require any help. Just turn it on and it will magically balance me, right?

This thing is surprisingly heavy, like carrying a box of bricks. Why would you ever need to carry it though? Although theoretically you could ride it anywhere, realistically you do end up carrying it down the stairs or next to a power socket to recharge it. You probably don't want to roll a dirty tire along your floor. According to the specs, the weight is 10kg (22 pounds). 

After turning it on the principle was clear. If you imagine just having a wheel freely turning like on a unicycle, you would need to balance yourself from falling on your face. Additionally you would need to balance against tipping left or right. In an electric unicycle, when power is turned on the engine inside automatically prevents you from falling forwards or backwards. But you still have to balance left-right yourself, just like on a bicycle.

Learning how to ride it

I carried it downstairs, turned it on and balanced myself against a wall. First feeling: wow, this is impossible! I tried for maybe 20 minutes but could not go forward for even a second without falling. Which way is the front anyway? Went back inside to read more and learned that the controls (power button, charging plug, charge indicator) should be on your right. It seems like this would be one of the things where having someone instruct you would probably be extremely useful.

After about 2 hours of practice I was able to ride all the way across the parking lot with only about 50% chance of losing balance in the middle. It's like learning how to ride a bicycle, in that you want to go slow because you don't know how to balance yet, but you MUST go faster because you can't balance it from a standstill. You have to keep moving to keep your balance.

Learning to ride this is a lot of fun. I found myself looking forward to the next session. For a few days my usual coding - web surfing - coding - gaming - coding routine turned into coding - airwheeling - coding - airwheeling routine. As you learn you are constantly lifting the thing up and then straining your legs in riding attempts, so it feels like a workout.

How fast can you go?

The promised specs for the X3 version is 16km/h (10 miles / hour). When first practicing, I was more concerned about how I could go slower to avoid possibly planting my face in the asphalt. After getting used to it for a few days, I did find myself wanting to go faster. The device seems to have some self-enforced speed limit. If you try to lean forward to go faster, you can get a short spurt of speed but then it plays warning beeps and you can't go any faster.

After a few days I tried a 30 minute continuous ride. Balance was no longer a problem at all, but I found that the ride was straining to the calves, which are constantly pressing against the plastic. I had the same pain when learning to ice skate. It seems to have disappeared over time. 


The promised range is 15km (9 miles), charging time should be 45 minutes. The charging time turns out to be rather irrelevant in practice, as I am usually keeping it in the charger overnight. The amount of charge is indicated by four leds.

I was hoping to be able to ride to places and then recharge to come back, doubling the range. But this soon turned out to be unpractical, since you need a bulky charger. Of course you could put the charger in your backpack, but it's rather big. If you want to commute to work with this, one option would be to buy an extra charger to keep there. 

The charger is rather loud. It seems to have a fan inside that spins up. Not a huge noise, but loud enough that I would prefer not to work in the same room it is charging in. I think for an office setting you would want to find a power plug you can use at the entrance.


And how is the software? Well, you don't interact with it except through riding, looking at four indicator lights (they show the battery level) and listening to beeps. It makes three types of beeps at you. There is the turning on single beep. The one you will be hearing a lot at first is the "you fell down and you should feel bad" -extended beep. 

I'm doing this practicing in the parking lot of our apartment building. Each time I fell down in our parking lot I made a big noise of plastic and metal clashing against the concrete and the gyro-controlled wheel spinning out of control before it realizes that it is no longer touching the ground. When it does realize that, it stops spinning and makes a beeping error sound. My neighbors got to enjoy several such beeps and crashes as I slowly progressed from falling instantly to falling after a few seconds. 

Then there is a pi-pi-pi-pi-pi! beep that means "I ran out of battery, please carry me home in your strong arms". There seems to be a bit of reserve power, as if you turn it on after it claims to have ran out of battery you can actually still ride it a bit.

Sadly there is a "you are going too fast and I'm going to limit your speed!"-beep. I want to eventually find if I can override that. You are supposed to ride it while standing upright, not leaning forward. However if you do lean forward, you get a bit of a speed boost but have to listen to the warning beeps. If it was just slightly faster it would be better than a bicycle, but as it is for going to the corner store I would be better off riding a bike if it wasn't for the novelty factor. 

Slopes and turns

So after two days of practice, I was able to stay on it as long as I want as long as I was going on a mostly straight path. From there I graduated to practicing slopes and turns. It feels bizarre to go up and down slopes, as with a bicycle you are used to your body tilting forwards or backwards. But since this balances you automatically, it doesn't happen and you stay straight up even with slopes. There is some ground clearance, but in very sharp bumps I fear the plastic in the back might hit the ground (never happened).

To turn you tilt your body left or right. At first it is hard to maintain balance while doing this. With extremely tight leaning turns you risk hitting the ground with the metal foot rests. Another way to turn is to quickly spin yourself in place to turn almost 90 degrees in a single movement. 

Ordering one

After coming home I was still feeling curious about them, so I decided to just order one to try it out. I figured the basic principle would be the same and I just wanted to get one that would be sub $1000 and would have no problems being shipped to Japan so I could start riding it as soon as possible. 

There seem to be several manufacturers for these. The one I ordered was an AirWheel. Other options I found are called SoloWheel and RockWheel. The RockWheel site owner was responsive, but seemed to hesitate about international airmail of batteries. SoloWheel on the other hand was too pricey, so I went with the AirWheel.

In conclusion

For very short distances it is comparable to a bicycle. For a bit longer ones the beeps, limited range and speed limit make it inferior. Still, you can have hours of fun learning how to ride this. Seeing yourself progress from "this is impossible" to riding it around casually feels great.