Technical recovery

I have been operating without any personal information management device since Wednesday when my iPhone shut down and refused to come back up. I had been trying to get a satellite fix so I could track a family hike using one of half a dozen GPS apps that I’d downloaded to the phone. The iPhone flat-lined in the middle of that attempt and despite my IT support team’s best efforts it would not come back to life. I still have a Verizon feature phone that I’ve been using when the iPhone can’t get a signal (which is much of the time) so at least I am connected. However, without the iPhone I can’t reach my business email any time that I wish and, most importantly, I’m unable to use GPS apps to track my runs.

After almost five days without an iPhone or Blackberry I feel pretty good. Funny that when these devices aren’t available you can really focus on other things. My wife surely appreciated that I wasn’t constantly staring at a 3″ screen all week while on vacation. Now that I’m back in my office I have a legitimate need for mobile connectivity and I just found out that IT has resurrected my iPhone. I’m rather shocked since I tried for hours to get it to restart. They still don’t know why it failed and they suggested that wiping it clean and starting over might be the best course of action. I’m unwilling to reload all the apps and content I’d put on it so I’m getting it back as is. I hope it doesn’t fail again.

I’ll use it tomorrow to track my morning run. Yesterday afternoon my daughter and I covered a couple of neighborhood miles which I tracked using my Garmin 50 that I’d calibrated at the track earlier in the day. I had some frustrations over the weekend when the Garmin Connect website coughed and sputtered and refused to upload one of my runs. The run appeared to upload but then disappeared from the site. I was thrilled when I went onto Connect yesterday and saw that the ‘technical difficulties’ notification had been removed and I was further amazed to see my 5.25 mile Saturday run magically appear in my log. So despite the clumsy way it happened two running technology issues are resolved. Well at least for now.

Et tu iPhone?

What my iPhone looked like when it was alive

My frustrations with the iPhone as a tool for tracking activities using GPS were further aggravated yesterday when I finished my run but could not shut off my tracking app. The process of unlocking the iPhone was difficult enough with the glare of the sun obscuring my view but when I finally got to the application it appeared to have stopped on its own. It turned out that it didn’t stop and later, when I went to relaunch the app, I saw that it had continued to run and so any hopes of getting an accurate accounting of my race speed and distance were gone forever. Happily the race used timing chips because my backup, the Garmin 50, was over counting distance by about 5%.

We’re on vacation this week and we decided to go for a hike at Cold Spring Harbor. It’s a great trail, very rugged with lots of elevation. I turned on my iPhone, switched to AllSport GPS and selected “Hike” but the GPS would not acquire. I pushed the power button on the iPhone and did a soft shut down hoping that after rebooting it would do a better job with GPS. When I hit the power button to restart nothing happened. I tried holding it down for different lengths of time but that resulted in nothing but the same blank screen. No power. We headed home after the hike (which was fun) but I had my mind a little too much on my iPhone problem. I went online to see if this was a known problem (it is) but the remedy they suggested, holding down both the Power and Home buttons, did not restore the unit. I plugged it into wall power, connected it to my iMac, tried to restart in every combination, but nothing is bringing this iPhone back to life.

A call into my company’s IT service desk has started an investigation but I don’t hold out too much hope that I’ll have a working device this week while on vacation. My wife will probably be happy because I tend to check business email two or three hundred times a day (an exaggeration but just barely). If that was my only use I could easily work around it but I’ve come to depend on my iPhone for so much more now. I’ll recalibrate the Garmin for my runs this week and table the GPS apps until this is resolved. We are thinking about looking for trail shoes for my wife a little later today and although I love my NB 460’s, yesterday’s experience is making me think I also need a new, higher end pair for long runs. While we’re out I may take a look at pricing on the Garmin 405’s although everything I’m reading about them makes me worry that I won’t get much more accuracy than on the iPhone. Maybe I should take a break from technology for a day. It certainly hasn’t helped much lately.

Good running apps can be worth the money

I’ll give it to the folks at Trimble Outdoors (creator of AllSport GPS) in terms of helping users understand their product. I’d mentioned to them that the accuracy and rest detection with the AllSport GPS app were off the mark and they gave me some good feedback (rest detection can be turned off) and told me that are working to improve some other features. I know it’s funny to say this but, even with some of the issues I’ve encountered, but I’m glad they charge $10 for the app. These utilities are valuable to runners and to other athletes who wish to track their performance. These are applications that should be differentiated from lesser apps that cost far less or are free. Software companies will only invest in optimizing applications if there’s a real opportunity to monetize the result. In a world of free or $0.99 iPhone apps there exists great choice but little practical value. I like MotionX a lot, it’s priced low for what it offers (but it’s not $0.99 either) and it does as good a job as it can with the limits of the iPhone and GPS.

There’s a lot more functionality that can be added to these applications to benefit the runner. The accelerometer within the iPhone can be better leveraged to help gauge effort. The GPS can sync with a database of prior runs to provide comparisons to past performance. I have not used Running Gypsy but I noticed it has a feature for automatically capturing 1 mile splits. Why don’t they all do that? There are many things I’d like to know when I’m running like temperature, humidity and real time elevation. I have a terrible time reading the display while I’m running due to factors like sun reflections, screen locking and angle of the unit. I’d like to have the option of listening to my metrics in real-time and on demand. As the iPhone and other mobile devices add more capabilities related to user needs and actions it can get very interesting. In the meantime I struggle a bit with the fact that the best apps are still limited by the technologies they need to leverage. I still think about the Garmin GPS watches and wonder why, with the same GPS tracking signal, they would be more accurate than an iPhone.

Luddite technologist rant

I am feeling very grumpy about technology today and I felt I needed to do something so I deactivated a Facebook account I’d created some months back. Nothing personal about Facebook, as a technology it’s been fine and if I’m ever reincarnated as a 19 year old female, alcoholic, exhibitionist, college student I’ll reconsider joining. But like I said, I’m grumpy. I never check the site or contribute to it. At least once a week I received invites from people (many of whom I actually like) but finally decided that accepting them was disingenuous because I’ll never check the site. I have an Emerging Runner Fan page that (ironically) I can no longer access. I wonder what will happen with that. Thanks to everyone who fanned it. Sorry to disappoint!

The reason I’m grumpy about technology is that it often doesn’t work like it should. I’m not talking about technology that we depend upon daily like elevators and traffic lights, I’m talking about running technologies. Especially those that run on my iPhone. I love my iPhone. It’s much more fun than my Blackberry that I gave up with some real misgivings. But when compared to the Blackberry as a business tool it’s not very fun at all. Okay, I’ll accept that as long as it still does the job. It’s annoying to switch from Verizon to AT&T, I liken it to taking a step back in time to the mid 1990’s when getting a usable signal on your phone was an unexpected surprise. I’ve put some GPS apps on the iPhone to help track my running metrics and so far I am not impressed. MotionX GPS, that I paid for ($2.99), has great features (lots of data elements captured: photo utility, interactive maps, iPod integration, etc.) but I’m at about 50% in terms of successful outcome when using it. The other apps I’ve tried, iMapMyRun and RunKeeper Free, have less capabilities (they’re both free) but clever enough. I just bought AllSportsGPS (the company gave me a promo code for a comp version but I managed to screw that up (technology!). I’ll see how it works. For $10 I’m expecting a lot.

The performance of these GPS utilities is often undermined by the inherent inaccuracy of public GPS. Despite its potential for getting to an inch of your location it misses greatly and often. If you have to remap on Google Earth every time you use these apps what’s the point? I’ll try the AllSport app on Friday and see how it performs. So many other running technologies have disappointed. AG tried to use the Qstarz on a 6 mile run recently and it failed to capture any data. What’s annoying about that is there’s no way to tell with that unit if it’s working or not. The original running technology that I used, the Nike+ Sportband, failed so often that I needed to replace it three times before I returned it and bought my Garmin 50.

In truth the Garmin 50 has been a great technology and I won’t disparage it although it does consume batteries and each time they are replaced calibration gets out of whack. Running technologies don’t all run on batteries either and I’ll give due credit to Nike, Adidas and other clothing makers who have perfected the art of sweat wicking technology. But for today I’m just a bit grumpy.

iMapMyRun Mobile is free and worth every penny

The great GPS experiment continues with addition of two running apps on my iPhone: iMapMyRun and RunKeeper Free. Both of these apps are free and have fewer capabilities and features than MotionX GPS that cost $1.99. I plan to download a few more of these apps and later do a comparison on Runner’s Tech Review. For now I’ll talk about my experience with iMapMyRun yesterday and today.
One difficulty I’ve encountered with MotionX is GPS signal acquistion. This problem is more pronounced in the city than on suburban Long Island but even there it can take a few minutes to get an accurate read. I was able to get a green indicator very quickly with iMapMyRun but that might be related to threshold. iMapMyRun considered the GPS signal viable at an accuracy of 162 ft. where MotionX prefers to get closer before it glows green. Or in the case of MotionX, blue. I went out this morning and selected “Start recording” on the iMapMyRun interface. It was still white when I was ready to start my run but within ten seconds after I left my driveway it turned green. I liked that it had large numbers that showed distance covered along with average and current pace and I thought, hmm, maybe this will work. The darkness helped me see the display as I ran, unlike during the day when the sun reflects off the plastic armband cover. About a mile into my run I looked at the display and everything said 00:00 despite the fact that I’d hit the start button as I left my house. I fumbled with it as I ran and succeeded in getting it working but I knew I’d only recorded half my run at best.

I ended up running 2.25 miles at a 9:06 pace according to my Garmin and the iPhone recorded just 1.1 mile of that. The route map it created showed a similar margin of error to the MotionX routes, again making it look like I cut lots of corners and ran through homes. A Runner’s World Loop blogger told me that the Garmin GPS watches are much more accurate than the iPhone location apps. If that’s the case I’m back to considering the Garmin 405 because I suspect Run Keeper will perform in a similar way. I did have a little fun with iMapMyRun last night. I set it up to record a run as I drove home from the train station. I covered a little over 2 miles at a 3:15/mile pace. The amazing thing is that many elite runners would have given me a run for my money despite my 300 HP advantage.

Motion(X) sickness

I promise that I’ll eventually stop complaining about the GPS functionality of the iPhone but this morning’s experience made me wonder if the whole concept needs a few more years to develop into a viable technology. I got off to a good start today in terms of timing, I was dressed and ready to make it out the door by 4:00 AM. This was important because that extra ten minutes would give me more time to run and I really wanted to work on distance as I train for my August 23rd race. If I’d ignored the iPhone on my way out I would have been much better off since it added to my setup time and – therefore – took away from my run time. That would have been forgiven if the result was even remotely accurate but the GPS app did not come through. More on that later.

Yesterday, instead of doing my usual elliptical workout, I decided to work on my upper body that I’ve sorely neglected over the last month. I started with 20 minutes of arms-only elliptical and followed with 15 minutes of free weights. I didn’t want to overdo it so I stopped there. I worked up quite a sweat in the process, something I’ll attribute in equal parts to hard work and oppressive humidity. Today I was anxious to get back out on the road and after having a carb-rich lunch and small but well balanced dinner I woke up feeling ready. As I mentioned above I started a few minutes early and even with the extra work stuffing the iPhone into the armband I was outside stretching by 4:09 AM. I turned on the MotionX application and was disappointed, but not surprised, to see that the GPS wasn’t acquired by the time I was ready to leave. I started off anyway and switched on the app knowing it would start tracking eventually.

I got a little confused along my course because so many of the streets look the same, especially in the pitch dark and saw that I was on a different street than I’d expected. I figured that the MotionX map would show me where I went wrong when I reviewed it post-run. I felt great and could have easily gone on well past my time imposed limit. I ended up covering 2.6 miles at a 9:09 pace. This was good considering that I wasn’t really thinking about speed as I ran. The MotionX was completely off with the path showing me running through people’s homes and across lawns and through back yards. I thought in the early morning there would be far fewer things that would interfere with the signal. While the Garmin (accurately) showed 2.6 miles traveled, the MotionX showed 2.09 miles. It did show me where I veered off onto a different street so at least it keeps a true, if sloppy, record of my course.

The great experiment

One reason I enjoy running is that the sport allows me to indulge my interest in technology. From my first few months using the Nike+ Sportsband to my switch to the Garmin 50 I have tracked my performance and progress and studied the results. Technology isn’t limited to sports watches, I started a site within emergingrunner.com called Runner’s Tech Review to provide feedback on every type of fitness technology I use. To be sure, some of this technology is battery powered but much of it isn’t. Sports drinks, running shoes and energy bars are all technologies in their own right.

I’ve just replaced my Blackberry with an iPhone and I’m learning to deal with it. In many ways it’s a step down from its replacement but it offers some capabilities to runners that the Blackberry cannot match. For one thing I can finally look at comments posted on my Runner’s World Loop blog without being tethered to a PC. I thought I would have better tools for mobile posting using Safari but Blogger doesn’t really work right. There may be issues with Flash or Java. I can post simply by sending an email to a special address so I’ve found a good solution for that. The big exciting technology opportunity is leveraging the GPS capability of the iPhone. I mentioned MotionX yesterday and put it to the test walking a few places in the city. The system had a difficult time acquiring a signal but that could be related to the many tall buildings in mid town NYC. Today I will try a run with the iPhone using MotionX to track my speed, distance, elevation and route. I’m hoping that it works better than the Qstarz Sports Recorder.

To hedge my bets, I’ll have my trusty Garmin as backup and it will be interesting to compare results between the two. The only concern I have is the weather. Storms are expected and I don’t want to soak the iPhone.

Nike+ without the Nike part?

I saw this interesting post on MIT’s Gizmodo technology blog. The Gizmodo article states that:

“Apple wants to take Nike+ to a different new level to perform precise, real-time tracking of runners’ performance and offer location-based information and advertising. Their latest patent not only details how they will get rid of the current RFID sensor and add a series of force sensors instead—as well as GPS support—but also how they are contemplating other “authorized” shoes. Does this mean they are abandoning their relationship with Nike?”

Interesting idea to put the entire sensing system into the shoe itself. With all that plus GPS I imagine it would be a very expensive pair of shoes. Given that most established runners replace their shoes after about 350 miles I’d hope that the electronics can be detached and moved to another shoe. The article also says that the GPS will be able to serve location based advertisments to the runner through an iPod so maybe consumers can get a break on the price if they agree to accept ads.