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Road tested: Runkeeper, Runmeter, 321Run and Trailguru

Exercise apps are a highly personal decision. That's because there are so many ways apps can match -- or impede -- your style. Take Trailguru, for example. I've been using it for quite some time, happy with many little touches the application brings to the table. It's an application written by a person who obviously loves hiking and biking, and understands what tools need to be provided for the user.

Unfortunately creator Tim Park has not updated Trailguru since January 2009, and its age is starting to show. White it's a free application, Trailguru could easily have been monetized. It offers a dedicated website/wiki, excellent onboard algorithms, and a highly usable (albeit ugly as sin) interface.
Trailguru gathers all the data I want, including lap times for arbitrary "laps" -- you can start a new phase of your activity at any time during its progress. It offers an odometer, distance, max and average speeds, elapsed time, and so forth. I particularly love how Trailguru understands idle time. Unlike the other applications I looked at for this post, Trailguru is designed to be used on long hikes and bike rides, where you're moving most of the time and stopped for breaks and meals. Instead of averaging in your non-moving times, Trailguru keeps those breaks separate. It's a great feature, especially for all-day multi-hour activities. You can also take and post pictures along the way using the built-in photo features.

So why look around at other tools? While Trailguru seems to have stopped development, other applications have moved forward and are providing exciting new features that are well worth looking at.

Runkeeper is probably the most beloved running application out there. The user base for this $9.99 app is pretty fanatical, which is why I wanted to give it a real-world try. Sure enough, it offers some really great features, notably its audio cues. Runkeeper allows you to listen to your current time, distance, and average pace at a time interval that you specify. For example, you can hear your stats every 5 minutes or or every quarter mile. (If you want even more stats, see the write-up of Runmeter, which follows below.)

Spoken stats isn't a feature for everyone. I found that the little electronic voice kept kicking me out of my "zone", as it repeatedly surprised me just as I was getting into the groove of my walk. If I were more focused on performance and less on just enjoying my walks, I could really see that this would be a real treat. That kind of immediate feedback can help you improve your pace, as you're moving.

Unfortunately, Runkeeper does not allow you to change your settings once you've started your activity. In my first test of the application, I had to stop my walk after a half hour of what were increasingly becoming interruptions rather than info feeds, silence the voice option, and then start a new activity. That was a bit of a let-down since I often want to switch around options mid-walk.

A solid feature of Runkeeper is its three-paned status window. The main window offers your basic stats: time, average pace (minutes per mile), estimated calorie consumption. Drag that window to the right and you'll find the same kind of lap summary that Trailguru offers but in a much more elegant table format. You'll see how each mile was paced. To the left is a live map screen, showing your progress in the real world; tap the arrow to leave this mode. I really liked this overview and the live data it provided.

"Runkeeper Live" is the Web-integrated service that broadcasts your activity while you're doing it. In addition to the progress map on your iPhone screen, you can send your ongoing route data off to the Runkeeper website. An application upgrade, currently in review with Apple, promises to let you control your Runkeeper Live settings directly from the app itself. That means you can switch on the Live mode if you're walking out by yourself, so your family can know you're safe and moving, or when you're participating in a marathon, so your friends can cheer you on.

Runkeeper is being updated for iOS 4 multitasking; it's currently built and in the approval queue at Apple. Jason Jacobs of Runkeeper/FitnessKeeper Inc tells TUAW that they will support multitasking to the extent that Apple allows, with the goal of improving the user experience over time as the technology matures. The new update will also provide a way to download routes to your phone, so you can group your activities by route -- and compare them over time. "We're not yet at the point of doing turn-by-turn route directions," Jacobs said. "But you can see that we're working on building blocks towards that."

Runkeeper does not provide automatic idle detection. Users who wish to take breaks need to tap the pause button and then resume when they continue running. Again, that's a feature that works well for people taking morning runs but is more of a hassle for anyone on a long rambling hike when you stop for potty breaks and for breakfast or lunch.

Rather than build a tool for a general audience, Runkeeper focuses directly on serious runners. Because I'm not a runner myself, the application does not show as well as it might in my tests -- and that's rather unfair for Runkeeper. But for people who run, it really has been designed for their needs and their niche. In regards to the runner-specifity of the app, Jacobs added, "Our goal is to provide a phenomenal tool for our core base."

Runmeter is another great tracking app. Retailing for $4.99 in the App Store, it provides another tool for tracking your performance. Unlike Trailguru and Runkeeper, Runmeter is not integrated with a web service. Instead, you review your progress calendar and routes from within the application itself. As the developers point out, "years of runs only take up the space of a few songs" on your device, so you still have centralized access to all your historic activity data.

That's not to say you cannot see your runs from e-mail. The application can automatically send you a pace/calories/distance summary along with a link to Google Maps that displays a specific run. You can also tweet and post your updates to Facebook -- but you can't visit a central site the way you would with those other apps.

Of all the Runmeter features I explored, my favorite was the live interactive map. It adds mile markers to your route, as you're walking, so you can immediately understand how far you've traveled in a concrete numeric fashion. I also very much like the calendar view. Tap on any date with a dot, and you see a list of routes for that day listed below. That's the kind of user-centered detail that makes the application stand out.

Like Runkeeper, Runmeter does not support idle detection at this time, but Abvio's CEO Steve Kusmer told TUAW that that feature is in development. "You'll be happy to hear that we're now in beta testing of our automatic stop detection feature, which uses the GPS to automatically determine when you've stopped." For a rambler who does prefer to stop along the way, that's great news. OS 4 multitasking support is also on its way.

Another Runmeter feature that stands out is its remote control support. You can use standard Apple earphones to start and stop your run timing, without having to reach into your pocket and pull out the device itself. Again, that's user-centered design in action.

Runmeter's graphs provide an in-application sense of how you are progressing. You can see your pace and elevation per mile traveled. That's a feature I didn't find on any other application, and a nice addition for anyone who prefers to review their progress directly from the phone rather than having to call home to a website.

Runmeter supports voice-over announcements like Runkeeper, with the same kind of time-interval and distance-interval settings. You can optionally choose to interrupt your music with these announcements, which include time, pace, average speed, distance traveled, remaining distance to your goal, estimated calories burned, vertical distance climbed, time of day, plus a dozen or so more options.

At this time, no one does voice-over like Runmeter does voice over. As I've already mentioned, however, I'm just not a voice-over kind of user. It's nice to know those features are there for people who do like that kind of live interactive feedback.

321Run is the final application I looked at. Selling for $3.99, it is targeted at runners like Runkeeper is, to the point that when you start your activity a voiceover announces the countdown that's implied in its name. My problem as a walker is that I tend to amble out slowly in the morning, all bleary-eyed. I wasn't expecting my device to start me off shouting "Three! Two! One! Run...!" while I was trying to keep from waking up my husband and the kids. Chalk that one up to experience.

The application itself performed well, although its calculated distances didn't seem to match the other applications very closely. My normal 3.17 mile outbound walk to a nearby shopping center recorded as 3.04 miles for some reason on 321Run.

Interface-wise the application offers all the basic statistics you want in a stripped down format. There was a basic pace calculation in minutes per mile, a miles per hour summary, and an extremely inaccurate calorie estimation. There is absolutely no way that I expended 1268 calories for a 6 mile walk, or 826 calories for a 4 mile walk.

In the end, I do find it hard to consider moving away from Trailguru. Runmeter and Runkeeper both offer strong applications. When I do make the jump, it's likely to be towards Runmeter because its upcoming ability to handle idle times is a better match for the way I personally work out.

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