A rolling-element bearing is a bearing which carries a load by placing round elements between the two pieces. The relative motion of the pieces causes the round elements to roll with very little rolling resistance and with little sliding.
One of the earliest and best-known rolling-element bearings are sets of logs laid on the ground with a large stone block on top. As the stone is pulled, the logs roll along the ground with little sliding friction. As each log comes out the back, it is moved to the front where the block then rolls on to it. It is possible to imitate such a bearing by placing several pens or pencils on a table and placing an item on top of them. See "bearings" for more on the historical development of bearings.
A rolling-element rotary bearing uses a shaft in a much larger hole, and cylinders called "rollers" tightly fill the space between the shaft and hole. As the shaft turns, each roller acts as the logs in the above example. However, since the bearing is round, the rollers never fall out from under the load.
Rolling-element bearings have the advantage of a good tradeoff between cost, size, weight, carrying capacity, durability, accuracy, friction, and so on. Other bearing designs are often better on one specific attribute, but worse in most other attributes, although fluid bearings can sometimes simultaneously outperform on carrying capacity, durability, accuracy, friction, rotation rate and sometimes cost. Only plain bearings are used as widely as rolling-element bearings.
Ball bearings use balls instead of cylinders. Ball bearings can support both radial (perpindicular to the shaft) and axial loads (parallel to the shaft). For lightly-loaded bearings, balls offer lower friction than rollers. Ball bearings can operate when the bearing races are misaligned. Precision balls are typically cheaper to produce than shapes such as rollers; combined with high-volume use, ball bearings are often much cheaper than other bearings of similar dimensions. Ball bearings may have high point loads, limiting total load capacity compared to other bearings of similar dimensions.
Common roller bearings use cylinders of slightly greater length than diameter. Roller bearings typically have higher load capacity than ball bearings, but a lower capacity and higher friction under loads perpendicular to the primary supported direction. If the inner and outer races are misaligned, the bearing capacity often drops quickly compared to either a ball bearing or a spherical roller bearing.
Needle roller bearings use very long and thin cylinders. Often the ends of the rollers taper to points, and these are used to keep the rollers captive, or they may be hemispherical and not captive but held by the shaft itself or a similar arrangement. Since the rollers are thin, the outside diameter of the bearing is only slightly larger than the hole in the middle. However, the small-diameter rollers must bend sharply where they contact the races, and thus the bearing fatigues relatively quickly
Tapered roller bearings use conical rollers that run on conical races. Most roller bearings only take radial or axial loads, but tapered roller bearings support both radial and axial loads, and generally can carry higher loads than ball bearings due to greater contact area. Taper roller bearings are used, for example, as the wheel bearings of most cars, trucks, buses, and so on. The downsides to this bearing is that due to manufacturing complexities, tapered roller bearings are usually more expensive than ball bearings; and additionally under heavy loads the tapered roller is like a wedge and bearing loads tend to try to eject the roller; the force from the collar which keeps the roller in the bearing adds to bearing friction compared to ball bearings.
Spherical roller bearings use rollers that are thicker in the middle and thinner at the ends; the race is shaped to match. Spherical roller bearings can thus adjust to support misaligned loads. However, spherical rollers are difficult to produce and thus expensive, and the bearings have higher friction than a comparable ball bearing since different parts of the spherical rollers run at different speeds on the rounded race and thus there are opposing forces along the bearing/race contact.