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Nike has a speckled history of partnerships with MP3 player manufacturers. Its collaboration with Philips produced the relatively competent MP3 Run, but this failed to raise more than a bored eyebrow from the jogging community. The Nike + iPod kit is a significant improvement on this.
In many ways, it's surprising that Nike and Apple have waited all this time before embarking on what seems a natural alliance. Both brands have plenty of currency with the young, fashionable demographic that is keen to shed its disposable incomes. Both companies have also enjoyed their fair share of controversy over labour practices. Apple had its recent problems over iPod sweatshops, and Nike is not exactly a poster-boy for the worker's party.
The Nike + iPod Sport Kit looks like a very simple and effective way of turning your iPod nano into a sophisticated pedometer. The kit consists of three parts: the transmitter, which fits into your shoe; the receiver, which plugs into the base of your iPod nano; and the shoe itself -- a Nike trainer, of course.
So has Nike finally nailed this concept, or will your first run take you back to your place of purchase, demanding a refund?
There's not much evidence of Apple's typically impressive design here. The receiver that plugs into the base of your nano looks exactly like the head of the charger lead -- it couldn't be more utilitarian. The transmitter, which inserts under the sole of your Nike trainer, is a small, flat lozenge. Jonathan Ive must have been on holiday the week they injection moulded this. On the other hand, who cares what this stuff looks like when you're drenched in sweat? At least it's discrete.
The pedometer does not have a replaceable battery, so the device has a finite lifespan. Nike and Apple say the pedometer will last for 1,000 miles, and this approximates to one year for the typical user. Admittedly the kit is cheap at £19, but it seems unforgivably wasteful that two of the world's leading brands should be so blasé in their attitude towards the environment. Why not have a replaceable battery in the unit?
Unlike some fitness systems, the Sport Kit doesn't use GPS. Instead, there's "a sensitive piezoelectric accelerometer that monitors your footstrike when you walk or run and determines the amount of time your foot spent on the ground. This contact time is directly related to your pace".
You can calibrate the system so that it learns your typical walking and running gaits. The bundled manual states, however, that, "Even after calibrating, the accuracy of the distance measurements may vary depending on gait, running surface, incline, or temperature".
The Sport Kit uses a proprietary version of 802.11 wireless networking to relay pace data to the adapter on the nano. The nano uses this data to extract information on distance travelled, pace, calories burned and time elapsed.
As soon as you plug the Nike + iPod receiver into the base of your nano, a new Nike + iPod option appears in the root menu of the iPod (interestingly, there seems to be no way to remove this menu if, at some later date, you decide to stop using the kit). The new menu on your iPod includes data on specific runs and lets you start a new workout. You can also enter your weight and the kit will work out how many calories you've burned. You can prioritise calories burned as your principal task in a run -- rather than run a specific distance, you run to burn a certain number of calories.
Your workout music is selected by playlists. Runners can download preselected Nike-branded workout playlists from the iTunes Music Store, and one of these comes free with the kit. There's also the option to have a virtual trainer to keep you updated on how far you've run. The trainer speaks in either a generic male or female voice. Apple told us it has no plans to introduce a drill sergeant voice, so it's missing out on a trick there.
The spoken prompts are oddly motivational during a run, and you can select a 'power song' for when you need that extra push. Inevitably you'll choose Eye Of The Tiger.
When a run is finished, you hook the nano up to your computer and running data is transferred onto the Nike+ Web site. The site shows comparative charts which give you a visual account of how your run went.
Given a sufficient data set, you can take a look at longer-term goals based on your improved times. The system even shows incidental data, like the point at which you selected Eye Of The Tiger. You can compete against other runners all over the world in virtual challenges. This concept is incredibly inspiring, and gives you a decent reason to keep pushing your limits through competition.
As we've come to expect from recent Apple offerings, the Sport Kit is painless to set up. Seconds after we plugged the receiver into the base of the nano and the transmitter into the Nike shoe, everything was ready to go.
Apple concedes some margin for error in the way the transmitter measures your pacing, but we found it acceptably accurate straight out of the box. Using a fairly crude test, we compared distances displayed on the nano's screen to the distance our OS map told us we had run. The two seemed to match accurately. Sticklers for precision should take the time to calibrate the kit properly, as recommended by the manual.
Some users have reported success with the Sport Kit and a regular pair of trainers. It seems logical that provided the transmitter is firmly attached to the shoe and aligned parallel to the sole, any shoe will work. We haven't tested this ourselves, but if you already have money invested in a pair of non-Nike trainers, this is a possible option.
Like the iPod, the Nike + iPod kit doesn't break any spectacular new ground. Instead, it takes pre-existing technology and makes it very straightforward and reliable. We can't imagine a jogger who wouldn't benefit from this system. If you're looking for a personal trainer without the bank-busting price tag, look no further.
Edited by Mary Lojkine
Additional editing by Kate Macefield