Join Date: Oct 2012
Location: Sacramento, CA
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!