I've tried all three dockless bikeshares in Seattle and I also tried Pronto when it was here. You can google the basics so I'm not gonna get into how these work in detail and history and stuff I just want to describe my specific experiences for anyone who doesn't have the time or money to try them all.
I should note that I believe in the concept of bikeshares a lot. It may seem like techy bullshit and I think the companies are probably all scummy as hell but I don't know how else to make this thing happen. Having bikes available to tons of people for very cheap with low commitments is a net positive for society. I've been seeing kids who definitely have no money riding these things in my neighborhood and I'm glad to see that. Pronto was the only reason I started getting interested in bikes again after many years of not having one, and I ended up losing weight and feeling a lot better about myself. I rode from downtown Seattle up to Ballard a few times. It felt great.
Problem is, none of the dockless shares rent them. You have to buy one and bring it with you. This is a huge pain in the ass and nobody knows what to do about it. I tend to rent bikes on my lunch break at work so I have a helmet at work. If this doesn't work for you I don't have any advice. Please don't ride without a helmet, you'll get hurt.
Pronto offered helmet rentals and they worked great but nobody knows how to make that work for the dockless bikes.
If you've never ridden a bike with an IGH gearbox you should know a couple things.
First, they're inverted from derailleurs. With a derailleur you can only shift when moving. With these you can shift when stopped, and in fact it's harder to shift if you're pedaling. If you're actually applying pressure to the pedals the gears can't slide and will often keep going in the same gear until you let off the pedal some, and then they'll click into the next gear. This is harmless but you have to be aware of it.
Second, it can be hard to tell if you shifted. The gears are often really close in ratio and the violent action of the chain isn't there, so the only way you can tell you shifted is if the pedals get easier or harder to push.
Third, when they're poorly maintained they can slip out of gear more easily. This isn't as bad as a derailleur system generally since you can't drop your chain (it's permanently held taut) but it can be disconcerting to feel the pedals slipping and changing ratio. Best way to handle this that I've found is to rack through the gears and back to sort of reset the mechanism.
First one I tried. Bike frames are heavy, like Pronto's were, they feel like they're built for the public to abuse. I had trouble getting my first couple unlocked because my phone couldn't get consistent signal where they were parked, and then when I did get an unlock request through the lock jammed. I've read other stories about this happening but only had it happen once.
Seat is hydraulically adjustable which is important if you're still not that experienced with bikes and can't quickly adjust a seat to an appropriate height.
There's a headlight powered off the wheel (flickery) which I have not tried at night. There's also a phone holder which neither Spin nor OFO have; it is much less cheesy than I feared. It's clamped to the handlebars and instead of being spring loaded it has a screw adjustment, like a vise that clamps onto your phone. It's very sturdy and made of PA6 nylon; you can trust it.
The gearbox is seven-speed and on the couple bikes I've ridden so far it was really bad about slipping out of gear or not changing gears smoothly and reliably. Prontos bikes also had internally geared hubs and they sometimes had this problem but not like this. I'm not sure what the difference is.
First gear is pretty low, but IMO not low enough for climbing even moderate inclines if you aren't in shape. Pronto's first gear seemed lower. Of the options we have now though, it's definitely the only one that has a true low gear. Top gear is not as high as Pronto's was and as a result it's hard to get up to a serious tilt unless you pedal hard.
The brakes are roller brakes. I hate roller brakes. You can squeeze them as hard as you want but they will not stop the bike dead if you're going at a significant speed and in my experience they do nothing on downhill slopes, you have to stop with your feet. I've seen people say that's an advantage because you can't get pitched over the handlebars but I'd rather go flying over the bars than go sailing into 1st Ave traffic at 30 or crash into a person or building.
When I was out once a person stopped me and asked if I'd "tried" a specific bike they indicated. I didn't know what they meant. They told me that once someone unlocks a bike, it stays locked for 30 minutes even if they park it and lock it. Sure enough, they demonstrated that the bike showed as "still in use" in the app. This is a serious problem IMO but I have not encountered it personally yet.
I tried OFO second.
The seatpost has a normal adjustment mechanism which is fine. The brakes are ordinary rim brakes which can actually skid the tire, which I feel MUCH better about.
I hate the gearbox. It's a three-speed and the gears are VERY close together and extremely high ratio. I actually thought the first bike I rented was broken, that the shifter wasn't shifting, so I dropped it off and picked up another. I'm still not sure if I was wrong, the second one wasn't much better if at all. I had to ride for about five minutes and experiment to determine if I thought it was shifting, and I decided it was, but the ratios were barely discernable.
All of the gears were very very high. In first gear I had to push off against the pavement, then nearly stand up on the pedals to get going. I felt exposed and vulnerable crossing streets as a result, because in a pinch I could not have gotten going quickly. I don't understand why they're like this but it didn't work for me at all.
I tried Spin last, and it's kind of a weird in between but not a bad one.
The seatpost is normal and the brakes are rim brakes which can stop the bike reliably, so I like those things.
The gearbox is still three speed but it's geared lower than OFO, so getting moving is much easier. It's still not as low as LimeBike, but definitely better than OFO.
The strangest thing about the Spin bike is the basket. It's anchored not to the fork but to the frame, so when you turn the handlebars the basket doesn't turn with them. I found this VERY disorienting at first. I kept turning the handlebars and panicking because I thought the bike wasn't turning. I'd never seen this sort of thing before but I'm not much of a bicyclist to be honest. It was strange but I did get used to it.
LimeBike if you're not much of a cyclist but be careful about going down significant inclines or getting up to high speeds since the brakes aren't very effective.
Spin if you're OK at cycling and/or don't intend to do any significant upward inclines and want serious brakes.
OFO I'm not a big fan of at this time.
Including this info for historical reference since these are gone now.
Pronto required you to park your bike at a dedicated dock. This sucked a lot. They weren't anywhere I wanted to be, they were all in weird places IMO. Parking them somewhere was concerning - your only real option if there wasn't a dock was to bring your own lock, because if it got stolen you'd get fined $1000+ or at least have to pay for the thiefs ride unless/until they redocked it.
Pronto bikes were incredibly heavy. I think heavier than all the current options. They were hard to pick up if you needed to pick them up and just felt clumsy.
They had, I feel, a wider range of gears than any of the current options. It felt like they went lower on the low end and higher on the high end, in what I believe was a seven speed gearbox.
They had roller brakes, which I hated. They could not stop the bike in an emergency or on a downhill slope at all. They were also extremely squishy and did not feel positive or reliable.
The prices were uncomfortably high compared to the $1-per-30min approach being used now. I can't remember but it was a couple bucks to unlock a bike and it always felt a little intimidating if you weren't sure what you were going to do with it.
As noted above, Pronto did offer helmet rental and it's a huge problem that none of the current options do.
Contact me at email@example.com - I would love to hear your input, stories, disagreements, etc.
List of Articles