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Photo by Yunhee Kim

Thank engineering upgrades for giving the old-fashioned manual mower added traction. Along with fume- and fuel-free exercise, the latest models offer owners of small, tidy lawns sharper cuts and more cutting-height choices. New features also allow mowers to roll more smoothly and handle more nimbly than the clunkers of yesteryear. All this adds up to a healthier lawn and less work. Read on for five ways to compare models before deciding which fancy clipper to let loose in your yard.

Check out the blades and reel

Thicker, heavier steel blades, like those on this 44-pound model, add power and can slice through dense grass, weeds, and small twigs that can jam other mowers. This one's blades can go six-plus years between sharpenings because a miniscule gap prevents them from directly striking the cutting bar, so they experience less wear and tear.

Shown: Fiskars StaySharp Max Reel Mower, about $250;

Kick the tires

Small front wheels make for easier maneuvering and, in this case, help ease height adjustment by

the lever in front. Inset wheels allow the blades to extend across the mower, so you can make a close cut along walls and edges.

Measure the shave

Some types of turfgrass are healthier when kept up to about 4 inches tall. We like the model shown because, unlike some reel mowers, it adjusts to cut grass to that height. The reel raises easily by adjusting the lever to one of nine positions, starting at 1 inch, while keeping the blades in the optimal position for cutting.

Watch your shoes

Clippings typically land on your feet. With this model, the cuttings neatly fly forward.

Test the handle

It should be comfortable and adjustable and allow for a smooth tip up in front when turning a corner. Popping a wheelie won't make mowing pure fun, but when it comes to lawn chores, every little bit helps.