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TUAW Faceoff: Nike + iPod versus iPhone 3G Challengers

Dedicated runners, bikers, hikers, and walkers like to keep track of their efforts, dutifully logging miles (or kilometers), time, weather conditions, elevation gain or loss. That's why there was a lot of excitement after the Nike + iPod Sport Kit was announced in 2006, since the same device you were using to listen to music could be used to tell you just how far and fast you ran.

Unfortunately, many competitive runners quickly realized that the accuracy of the Nike + iPod Sport Kit wasn't all that great. TidBITS Publisher and marathoner Adam Engst wrote a post last year in which he pointed out how inaccurate the Sport Kit is, even when carefully calibrated. Adam thought that the Sport Kit had some possibilities for fitness runners, but not for those who need accurate measurements of distance and time.

When the iPhone 3G arrived this summer, I wondered how it would work as an exercise tracking tool. After all, the device has GPS built in and should be able to accurately measure distances, time, and even elevation. I looked at
  • Trailguru
  • RunKeeper
  • The Running GyPSy
  • iTrail
To see how these apps and the Nike + iPod Sport Kit compete, read on.

The current champion


The Nike + iPod Sports Kit for the iPod nano was the first real app of this kind to hit the Apple world. Since I'm going to compare all of the rest of the iPhone apps to the Nike + iPod, let's see how it stacks up.

To begin with, the Nike + iPod Sports Kit is cheap. If you already have an iPod nano, you're only talking about spending $29 to add some limited exercise tracking capability. This doesn't count the ridiculously high amount of money you may spend on a new pair of Nike shoes that have the built-in cubby hole for the wireless sensor. You can also buy a rather inexpensive "pocket" that will tie to the laces or straps of an existing set of running, walking, or hiking shoes.

My miniThe software is pretty cool. You can listen to your playlists while the app runs, tracking your strides and calculating your total mileage. It can be set up to provide you with verbal prompts as your exercise session progresses, and the final data for your walk/run/hike can be uploaded to Nikeplus.com for tracking, comparison, or even virtual races against other Nike + owners. A new feature of the Nikeplus.com site is the "mini," which is a running avatar (see picture at right) that you can create for your account. Mine isn't running...he's playing with one of those ball-and-paddle games.

On the downside, the Nike + iPod Sports Kit can be fairly inaccurate, it doesn't track where you ran, and there's no way that it can determine your elevation -- important if you want to see why the pace of that last mile was so slow. Was it because you were running up a killer slope, or because you hit the wall? You can't use the Nike + iPod for anything but running or walking, so trying to track your mountain biking miles is out of the question.

Trailguru

TrailguruThe first of the contenders we'll look at is Trailguru. This website has been around for a while, but just published their iPhone app in the App Store. Sign up for a free account, install the free app on your iPhone 3G, and you're ready to roll. As you can see from the screenshot at right, Trailguru captures a lot of information using the GPS built into your iPhone 3G.

Some of the information collected in the right hand column -- Tracks Collected, Odometer, Maximum, and Average -- is data that is collected over a period of time. Other info, such as the time, distance, speed, elevation, and lat/long, is updated frequently from the iPhone GPS. Your movement can be displayed as speed or pace, helpful if you're training and wish to maintain or improve upon an existing pace.

All of that data is then synced with the Trailguru.com website, where Google Maps maps and detailed elevation plots of your run or ride (yes, it works with bikes, too). I personally preferred the way that Trailguru displayed my exercise info over RunKeeper, but your preferences may be different.

You can name and save your routes to share with others, and the Trailguru team then combines similar routes to avoid duplication. As you would expect, Trailguru needs to be in operation while you're going on your run, walk, or ride so that the location services of the iPhone 3G have a chance to capture the location information constantly.

RunKeeper

RunKeeper, from Raizlabs, is the second of the iPhone 3G exercise-tracking apps to take on the Nike + iPod Sport Kit. The US$9.99 app requires an account on the RunKeeper website for posting your exercise data. The RunKeeper application (click opens iTunes App Store) is very similar to Trailguru in terms of the way that it captures data while exercise is underway, then syncs it with a separate website for mapping and analysis.

RunKeeperThe screenshot at right shows the main app screen. It is rather sparse compared to the data-packed Trailguru screen, which makes it much easier to interpret while on the move. RunKeeper does not appear to track elevation information,which could be a deai-breaker for those of us who like to keep detailed records on our vertical rise and fall during bike rides or runs. That bar chart that you see in the screenshot indicates your speed during a particular one minute interval.

I like the big Pause button that appears on the RunKeeper screen while the application is running, since that can be useful when stopped at a crosswalk, tying a shoe, or stopping to answer a phone call. Raizlabs is considering adding on-screen map plots of your exercise, although they're not included in the 1.0 release. As with Trailguru, RunKeeper must be running during your entire exercise session. Raizlabs estimates about 3 hours of tracking on a fully-charged iPhone 3G. You can listen to your favorite playlist by starting the music before firing up RunKeeper.

The Running GyPSy

Don't let the clever name fool you -- The Running GyPSy can be used for any outdoor exercise activity. This $1.99 app is a bit different from the first two contenders to the exercise application throne in that it does not sync data with a website. Instead, if you wish to move your data from the iPhone to a computer for analysis, you can email it to yourself.

The Running GyPSyAs seen in the screenshot at right, The Running GyPSy has a very easy to understand interface. One feature that I wish the other products would adopt is the indicator showing how good or bad the GPS accuracy is. With this feature you get an idea of whether the accuracy is OK, moderate, unacceptable or if the GPS cannot obtain a location. The application shuts off the location tracking in the latter two cases.

Developer Bernard Kim provides a tremendous amount of information about the application on its website. The Running GyPSy is another fairly new addition to the App Store (click opens iTunes App Store), having become available over the weekend.

iTrail

C'mon, you didn't really think we were going to make it through a complete review article without having at least one application with an "iSomething" name, did you?

Of all of the apps listed here, iTrail (click opens iTunes App Store) has the most attractive interface of the bunch. It's also the only app that can display your information on a map or in chart form on the iPhone itself. This is handy if you want immediate feedback, since you can plot speed or elevation versus distance, or see where you currently are on a map. You can add labeled waypoints at any time, and there's a GPS signal strength indicator to let you know if trees or buildings are compromising location accuracy.

iTrailIt's a good thing that iTrail gives you the on-phone map and charts, since it doesn't do a stellar job of moving your exercise data to Google Maps. In fact, the developer provides a step-by-step process to get that data to Google Maps. The application moves the data to Google Docs, but then it's up to you to copy and paste the data into a text editor, save the file in the .gpx or .kml format, and then import that information into Google Maps. This seems like an oversight, and it's something that should be addressed in the next version of iTrail.

Justin Davis, developer of this $2.99 application, has localized iTrail for English and Japanese.

Summary

If you run, walk, cycle, hike, or do any other outdoor activity that involves moving over a distance, you might want to consider one of these iPhone 3G apps over a Nike + iPod Sports Kit. You only need to carry one device, since your phone and exercise tracker are combined into one unit.

Are they accurate enough for competitive runners? My personal impression, based on using the iPhone 3G and these apps on a measured trail loop near my home, is that they are. Your accuracy may vary based on a number of things, including the amount of tree coveragethat your favorite route has.

For any of these apps, I highly recommend that you do several things before you start tracking your run. First, make sure that you have a good GPS signal. Several of the apps have a GPS signal strength indicator, or you can open Google Maps and check the size of the location circle to see how accurate your current location is.

Second, make sure that you are moving when you start tracking. I'm not sure why, but the apps often displayed a very high speed in the first few steps if I happened to start up while I was stopped.

Another caveat -- realize that these are iPhone 3G apps. Don't try to run them on a first-generation iPhone, as the WiFi and cell-tower location services aren't accurate enough. And if you find that any of these apps just aren't working well enough for you, consider one of the sports GPS units that are available.

My personal favorite of the batch was the free Trailguru application, followed closely by RunKeeper. Most of these apps are reasonably priced, so be sure to try them out before settling on one. Whatever application you pick, just remember that you're exercising when you use it, and that's a very good thing.

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