On the run with the Nike+ GPS iPhone app

Though it's missing a couple of features, the Nike+ GPS iPhone app offers runners a ton of useful information in a polished, accessible experience.

Though I've always been intrigued by Apple's original Nike+ Sports Kit, I didn't want to have to buy a specific Nike shoe (I'm an Asics guy) just to use the sensor. Also, the sensor seemed like just another thing that I would lose.

Still, I liked the idea of keeping track of my runs by measuring pace and actual distance. So when Nike finally introduced a standalone app earlier this month, I was pleased to give Nike+ GPS a run (so to speak). Granted, competing iPhone apps like Runkeeper are available--CNET contributor Rick Broida compared four such titles last year--but I wanted to see if Nike's+ GPS could deliver on its promises. Fortunately, I was pleased with the experience even after a couple days of use on CNET's iPhone 4. There are some missing features I was hoping to see, but the app performs well and is easy to use. I have no trouble recommending it, particularly at the affordable price of $1.99.

Nike+ GPS iPhone app

What's good: You'll find a user-friendly-interface, informative and accessible maps and plenty of options for setting running goals.

What's not: The apps aren't completely accurate and the app lacks interval and lap timers. Some information is available only through the Web interface.

Final verdict: Though it's missing a couple of features, the Nike+ GPS iPhone app offers runners a ton of useful information in a polished, accessible experience.

Getting started
After downloading Nike+ GPS from the iTunes App Store, I was ready to hit the pavement almost immediately. I started by setting my profile (height, weight, and sex), units of measurement (miles or kilometers), and preferences for voice feedback (more on that later). The app also has a short tutorial, but I didn't find it very useful.

After you've described yourself, you're offered three convenient options for structuring your runs. You can designate a set distance, a set time, or you can just go for as long or as far as you'd like. The first two options offer several preset choices--with distance, for example, they range from one kilometer to a full marathon--but you can enter a custom field if you like. To finish, just tell the app whether you'll be running outside or on a treadmill, and you can be off on your way.

On the go
For outdoor runs, first you'll need to establish a GPS connection. Keep in mind that this can take a couple of minutes if trees and buildings are in the way; on both runs I had to move to an intersection to get a fix. Luckily, the GPS connection didn't appear to wave once I had a fix, though I noticed on at least one occasion that the iPhone lost a cellular connection for a few seconds. It didn't seem to make a difference in tracking my route (see the Maps section below), but I'm wondering why I received the notification at all. I'm checking with Nike and will report back.

As you run, Nike+ GPS will continually track your distance, time, and current pace (minutes per mile). And if you activate the voice feedback feature, the app will alert you of your progress every few minutes or after a set distance. You also can pause the app when you're stuck at a spotlight or pausing for a rest. I didn't always do this, but it's a good idea if you don't want the app to factor any stops into your pace.

If you prefer running to tunes, the app can tap into your music player. It supports a shuffle mode and playlists and you can set a "powersong" if a particular track gives you an extra mental boost. I didn't test this feature completely--I find music distracting when I run--but appears to work as expected.

Maps
When you're finished and resting your feet, you can view your route on a Google Maps interface. Two versions of the map are available: the first shows your total distance with flags for each mile, while the second shows your pace throughout the course. The latter view was particularly interesting for my first course, which took me from San Francisco's Hayes Valley neighborhood to the top of Corona Heights and back. As I climbed hills and stairs, my pace slowed but then picked up again in flatter areas.

On my second course, which covered smoother ground in the Hayes Valley, Civic Center, and Mission neighborhoods, the pace was more uniform, but I can't say that it was completely accurate. For instance, in one flat area near San Francisco's City Hall, it showed me slowing to a walking speed even though I remember keeping up the pace. Perhaps it was because I didn't pause the app at a couple of stoplights, or maybe I lost the GPS signal while running under a grove of trees, but I couldn't explain it easily.

Track your progress with the mapping feature. Screenshot by Kent German/CNET

Though it was mostly accurate, I also noticed quirks with the GPS tracking. On the upside, despite losing the cellular connection on my first run (just after mile one), the finished map didn't show a gap at that point. The app also kept track when I veered off roads into parks and public squares.

At other places, however, there were small, unexplained gaps in the route. The maps also showed a much curvier route than I remember taking--I can assure that I didn't run through San Francisco's Opera House--but that's a minor quibble. And in any case, when I used an online GPS pedometer to measure the same routes, the difference between it and the Nike+ GPS maps was less then 4 percent. For bigger discrepancies, the app's integrated calibration feature is an essential tool.

Battery life
Though the app remains active and constantly uses the GPS radio, it didn't require as much battery life as I feared. Indeed, during my first 44-minute run, the battery level dropped from about 45 percent to 31 percent. That's not a huge drain, but I can't imagine the phone lasting for a full marathon. Also, if you take an hour run in the morning, you'd most likely need to power your phone by mid-afternoon.

Congratulations
The app will store your stats for each run in the History database in which you can view the course, total distance, average pace and calories burned. You also can rate each run according to the weather conditions, terrain, and how you felt. When you're ready for more, you can opt to surpass your last run by jogging longer, farther, or faster. And if you're really feeling ambitions, you can choose to beat one of your last records (see the slideshow for more information). Recorded celebrity voices will then congratulate you as you set a new record. Some of the voices, like cyclist Lance Armstrong or marathoner Paula Radcliffe, make sense while others, like comedian Tracy Morgan, don't.

Nike also offers a Web portal at Nikeplus.com where you can achieve status levels and get even more data on your runs, including your slowest and fastest miles, and your top speed. The breadth of information available is impressive, and I love that it doesn't require a subscription. Also online you can set personal goals, access training programs, chat in user forums, and challenge other runners to best your performance. That last one appears to involve a lot of tiresome trash-talking.

What's missing?
It's disappointing that Nike+ GPS only offers elevation data information through the Web portal. That information is particularly useful in a place like San Francisco where hills are hard to avoid when running long distances. As my first course ranged from a low of 39 feet to a high of 447 feet, I would have preferred to see it on my phone while I was on the go. Furthermore, the app doesn't appear to take elevation changes into account when determining your pace.

I'd also like to see the app have lap and internal timers for run/walk training (where you take a short walk break after every few minutes of running). Indeed, I became a big fan of this method when training for my first marathon and still use it for long runs more than  4 miles. Hopefully, we'll see this in a future version of the app.

 

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