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-   -   Beginner's review of the Silent Partner Smart (http://tt.tennis-warehouse.com/showthread.php?t=447218)

scottf2 12-03-2012 09:27 AM

Beginner's review of the Silent Partner Smart
 
Hi all - as a new tennis player, I've been learning a lot from browsing the TT forums, so I figured I'd contribute a bit myself. I recently bought a Silent Partner Smart and after using it for about 6 weeks I feel like I have enough information to share for others considering a similar purchase.

I started playing tennis about three months ago, and decided pretty early on that I wanted a ball machine. I tend to get pretty obsessed with new sports, and compared to the sports I've done in the past (triathlons, cycling and rowing), tennis is very inexpensive, so a ball machine didn't seem too extravagant. I also quickly realized that hitting against a wall or with my girlfriend wouldn't provide enough consistent practice for me since I wasn't good enough to get it back to her reliably. My girlfriend is getting back into tennis after playing quite a bit in high school, so I also knew she'd be able to get some good use from the machine. Our club has an older Playmate machine which can be rented for $10/hour, so I thought about just using that, but the machine seems to be almost always broken, and the one time I was able to use it, it kind of worked, but would only spit balls out about every 10 seconds... not very conducive to a good workout!

After reading as much information as I could about the various models, I had narrowed my decision to a Silent Partner or Lobster machine - they both seemed to offer the advanced features I thought would be useful, and had good reputations for customer service, etc. The Lobsters seemed like they might be better built and a little more feature rich, but that came at quite an increased cost (about $1000 more for features equivalent to the Smart). So I decided to go with the top of the line Silent Partner Smart, with AC/DC.

The machine arrived in about a week (to northern California) and I quickly charged it up and took it out for a spin. I had read the manual in anticipation, and found it to be easy to use the basic settings. I loaded it up with about 150 of the Penn pressureless balls, which, to my inexperienced arm, seem to be similar enough to regular balls and of course much more durable.

In general, the machine seems to be fairly well designed, but there are certainly some rather obvious design flaws that aren't that hard to address:

1) The contouring on the inner basket means that 3-5 balls are almost always left over in the hopper. Not such a big deal, but from across the court it's hard to see if the hopper is actually (almost) empty so you're never quite sure when it's REALLY done shooting balls at you. I've mostly managed to solve this issue by just sticking a piece of cardboard in the area where the balls get stuck. A better fix will probably be a small piece of PVC but I haven't gotten around to that yet.

2) The wheels are a bit wonky - mostly because they just need a few washers inserted on the axle to keep the wheels centered and avoid them rubbing on the base of the machine. I keep meaning to just add the washers but haven't gotten around to it - I assume this will fix the problem.

3) SP claims that the model will hold 300 balls. I find this impossible to believe. I currently have it loaded with 140 balls, and if I tilt it just a little bit too much when I move it, balls fall out. I can believe that I could get maybe 200-225 balls in there, but the slightest jostling would cause balls to come out. No big deal though, 150 balls is plenty for me.

I keep the thing loaded with ~150 balls with the hopper on it and just wheel it back and forth from my van to the courts - it just barely fits in the back of my minivan with the hopper attached. It's a bit heavy to pick up with all the balls in it, but my 130 lb girlfriend can manage it with just a bit of difficulty... But it's very nice to be able to have all the balls loaded and just wheel it to the court in one piece.

I haven't done any extensive battery testing, but I generally get about three two-hour sessions before I charge it, and the battery usually reads 1/3 full at that point. I carry the AC adapter in the car in case the battery dies, but haven't had to use it yet. I assumed I'd use the AC function more often, to avoid having to unload it from my van every night for charging, but I usually just leave it in the van and take it out about once a week to charge it, so the AC might not have been necessary, but it is nice to have a backup if the battery dies halfway through a session.

75% of the time, I use either the plain old straight ahead function, or add a bit of back and forth sweep, either full court of half court. I hurt my ankle a few weeks ago, and being able to just stand in one place to hit a bunch of balls, or just have to run a few feet to get to them (when using the sweep function with the "reduced angle" setting) has been great for rehab.

The remote control is very full-featured and works great about 95% of the time. Every once in a while (it's happened twice so far in about 30 hours of usage) it just stops working, requiring me to walk over and "reboot" the machine, and then it's fine again.

I have played around a bit with the advanced functions, with mixed results. All of the "advanced modes" require a pre-calibration step, and this is of course crucial to the results. It took me a while to find a pre-calibration setting that works well, but once I found it, I programmed it into one of the three memory settings so I can get back to it pretty easily.

1) My girlfriend and I often use the "dual line" mode so we can both hit at the same time, one one each side of the baseline. This works very well - the balls shoot out consistently and it can be set fast enough so that we're both getting a ball about every 3-4 seconds.

2) The "all court oscillation" seems to work pretty well, but I don't use it much... I will probably play with it some more after my ankle heals. My girlfriend does like it quite a bit since she's always looking for a good workout with lots of running, and this seems to provide it.

3) I have had little or no success with the "match play" mode. Even after calibrating a few times, the balls are launched WAY long in match mode 1. In modes 2&3, they seem to land about where they are supposed to, but I haven't used those modes much. Again, I will experiment more with this shortly and report back. I haven't contacted Steve about this issue, though I'm sure he would be helpful if I did, since he is very responsive and provides good information. If I confirm that this isn't just user error, I'll check with Steve about it and report back.

4) The "select a drill" mode works pretty well, again, assuming the calibration is done correctly. I haven't used this extensively but tonight my GF and I plan to try some more advanced drills using select-a-drill so we'll see how it goes.

All in all, I'm very pleased with my purchase. If I had it to do over again, I might go with the Quest instead of the Smart, since the match play function doesn't seem very useful, and I haven't used Select-a-drill very much, but perhaps I'll find those more useful after more experimentation. If so, I'll provide an update...

I will probably do some videotaping of some of my ball machine sessions soon, so I could post those here if anyone is interested. If there's anything specific you'd like to see, let me know.

I hope this is helpful for anyone in the market for a ball machine - I know it was a tough decision for me but I'm pretty happy with what I ended up with!

Scott

USS Tang 12-03-2012 10:04 AM

Good info. Do you mind telling us what it cost?

scottf2 12-03-2012 10:07 AM

It was $2049 total (shipping included). For comparison, the prices for the SP machines are listed here: http://sptennis.com/ballmachines.asp

As mentioned, if I were doing it all over again, I'd consider saving $550 and getting the Quest battery only model for $1499 (thus sacrificing AC power, and the Select-a-Drill and match play modes).

HacknSlash 12-04-2012 04:45 AM

Really great review!

Thank you for taking the time to not only describe the machine, but also your thought process & background.

I've toyed with the thought of purchasing one as well...but it is -way- down on the "want" list. Still quite a few on the "need" list before we get there!

Congratulations on your new toy!

scottf2 12-04-2012 07:29 AM

Thanks HacknSlash! I always have a hard time distinguishing the "wants" from the "needs" ;)

scottf2 12-04-2012 07:42 AM

Further update on Select-a-Drill
 
UPDATE:
Had a great session last night with my girlfriend. In the past, when we use the machine together, we've either just taken turns (which usually works out well since she's better and likes more challenging speed settings) or we just do two point baseline drills (ie: set the machine to fire alternating balls to the ad court baseline outside corner and to the opposite corner about every 1.5 seconds, so we're each getting a ball once every 3-ish seconds). The latter works OK as a static drill (and is especially good for me) but doesn't involve any movement so it's not a "workout" and it gets kind of boring.

So last night I decided to experiment more with the Select-a-Drill function. My goal was to emulate two drills we've done in one of the weekly clinics we attend:

1) Alternating baseline shots to the middle of the ad/deuce court - we both line up at the baseline hash mark and take turns moving a few steps, hitting the shot, then clearing out wide and back around just in time to split step as the next ball is ready for us (meanwhile, the other person is hitting their ball). This worked out really well - with some adjustment of how far out to "clear" we could time it so that we were hitting our split step just as the ball was being launched. This provided good practice at movement and also a very nice workout since we were constantly moving and running around to hit a new ball every 4-5 seconds.

2) A more complicated drill: Start at the deuce court outside baseline corner (not sure if there's a better way to describe that - basically, the rightmost baseline corner of the doubles court) - hit one baseline shot near that spot, then an approach shot somewhere near the middle of the deuce service box, then a volley at the net in the ad service box. I might be getting my terminology muddled, but basically, you'd move on a diagonal towards the net, and moving to your left, hitting a forehand at the baseline, forehand approach shot, then a backhand volley (usually)... then the next person would go, starting at the opposite corner and reversing the direction (and usually hitting backhand, backhand, forehand). After some tinkering (both with the machine settings and with our timing and footwork) this also worked GREAT. It was a really good drill for me since I'm abysmal at volleying (having just learned how to do them about 2 weeks ago) and my GF says she needs work on her approach shots.

So last night's session really sold me on the utility of the Select-a-Drill -especially for keeping things interesting and creating a much more intensive workout. The settings are sometimes a bit finicky and we did notice a weird phenomenon during the second drill: the balls seemed to steadily drift deeper into the court as we went through the hopper. Not sure if this has something to do with the lighter load as the hopper empties, but it was quite noticeable - in the beginning of the drill, the baseline balls would bounce 2-3 feet inside of the baseline and by the end, they were landing almost at the baseline. We ran through two hoppers full of balls for this drill and noticed the same pattern each time. It wasn't that big a deal, but it was interesting.

At some point I'll take some videos of these drills and post them up for reference.

Scott

Miles267 04-17-2013 07:12 AM

Great review Scott. I own the SP Quest and love it. Although honestly my wife and I tend to use it mostly for 2-line drills with a wide sweep. Got it late last year before weather changed so I've only saved one go-to preset (of 3 available slots) to minimize the start up time an get going.

First, I too consistently experience the 3-5 balls stuck in back of hopper. Until now, I just chalk it up to them being stuck and refill the hopper. Definitely seems to be the way the hopper tilts back that creates a pocket where they get lodged just slightly beyond the rotating agitator.

Also, I have the same issue where the wheels seem to rub on the inside against the ball machine creating a "braking" effect. I've not yet removed the wheels to add washers. A great suggestion. Please let me know if it helps?

One thing I've noticed or perhaps it's not a big deal... when transporting the unit using the handle fully extended (max height), at what angle does it need to be tilted? It seems as if, even on level pavement, I need to walk, keeping the handle at almost 45 degrees with the ground or else it feels like the gray oscillator mounted underneath the unit scrapes. Very awkward and uncomfortable. Is this normal?

scottf2 04-17-2013 07:23 AM

Hi Miles,
Thanks!

I did end up adding those washers and it has solved the wheel rubbing problem. Unfortunately, I managed to bend the retaining clip that holds the wheel on, so now in exchange for less rubbing I have wheel that comes off every once in a while! So if you make this fix, which I recommend, be careful when you remove the wheel clip that you don't bend it - it's a bit tricky to get off.

I don't find that I have to hold the handle at an excessive angle when rolling the thing - but maybe I'm shorter than you so it's not as awkward for me (I'm 5'10"). I do know what you mean about the rubbing if you don't hold it right, but usually I don't find that to be a problem.

I also put a small piece of PVC in the front and back slots and that does help with the balls getting stuck - now I usually end up with 0-2 balls leftover in the hopper. Not perfect, but an improvement and an easy fix.

I've also started using the drill mode more with my girlfriend - we set up a drill that does a three ball sequence (baseline, approach, volley) and then we each take turns going through that sequence - provides good practice moving around and also makes for some good exercise.

I'm still enjoying my ball machine a lot - it's really helped me improve significantly in the time that I've had it.


Scott

beernutz 04-17-2013 02:23 PM

1) The contouring on the inner basket means that 3-5 balls are almost always left over in the hopper. Not such a big deal, but from across the court it's hard to see if the hopper is actually (almost) empty so you're never quite sure when it's REALLY done shooting balls at you. I've mostly managed to solve this issue by just sticking a piece of cardboard in the area where the balls get stuck. A better fix will probably be a small piece of PVC but I haven't gotten around to that yet.

I have an SP Star and just cut off about a foot of a broomstick which is placed in that groove to keep balls from not being fed from it. PVC should work equally well. I agree it is odd that the ball basket has this grove as it isn't apparent to me what purpose it serves other than to catch balls so they can't be fed properly.

2) The wheels are a bit wonky - mostly because they just need a few washers inserted on the axle to keep the wheels centered and avoid them rubbing on the base of the machine. I keep meaning to just add the washers but haven't gotten around to it - I assume this will fix the problem.

That is an odd wheel design if the wheels on my friend's Quest are the same as what are on your Smart. I think I prefer the wheels on my Star to what I saw on the Quest because they seemed to have more rubber. Even so I keep my machine on a rolling cart which I push to my neighborhood courts to avoid wear and tear on the wheels and make it easier to transport balls, machine, racquet, water, cones, etc.

3) SP claims that the model will hold 300 balls. I find this impossible to believe. I currently have it loaded with 140 balls, and if I tilt it just a little bit too much when I move it, balls fall out. I can believe that I could get maybe 200-225 balls in there, but the slightest jostling would cause balls to come out. No big deal though, 150 balls is plenty for me.

Again, I think the Quest uses the same basket as the Smart does and my friend's basket will hold over 200 balls easy. I agree you don't want to move the machine much with it that full of balls as tilting it will almost surely cause a spill. Move it to where you want it initially and then fill it, then don't move it again until you've shot a lot of balls.

My Star has an advertised 200 ball capacity and it definitely holds 200 but not many more. I agree about the advantages of not filling the machine to its maximum. I have over 200 balls that I keep pressurized but I generally only use about 140 of them at a time with the Star. I can pick up that many in my Gamma basket without having to unload it and go back for more.

Miles267 05-02-2013 03:34 PM

Appreciate the suggestions. Will try putting something in that groove to prevent balls from becoming wedged there. Also the washer trick is a great idea. Will post back on the verdict.


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