What is it? – Use your iPhone 3G’s GPS chip to track your movements and then upload them to the GPSies.com site
Cost – Free
Anyone who knows me will tell you that I’m an enthusiastic cyclist, so although you could also use this app when hiking, skiing, driving, rollerblading etc., I tested GPSies on a 70 mile (113km) cycle.
Last summer, as well as getting an iPhone 3G, I also purchased a Garmin Edge 705 cycling GPS unit that I have found to be pretty darn good…but that’s a different review. I’ve had to send my Garmin back for a repair, so I’m temporarily left without a way of recording where, how far and how fast I’ve cycled until it returns.
Why would I want to track my routes, you ask? Well, I’m doing some training for an event called the Circuit of the Cotswolds in June and this year, I’m doing it with my friend John; a triathlete and recent Paris Marathon participant. Therefore, it’s handy and motivational to be able to add a bit of science to the training and also to see my average speed and total mileage increase in line with my fitness. Hopefully, this will ultimately help me to keep up with my super-fit friend in 6 weeks time.
I sometimes use the site GPSies to plan routes and also let others download my routes to their GPS devices, so when I was thinking about how to temporarily replace my Garmin, I noticed that GPSies have an iPhone app that makes use of the GPS chip in your iPhone 3G.
Downloading. I downloaded the app, which installed very quickly due to its 0.7Mb size and prepared to set off for a cycle in the Chiltern hills, mid-way between Oxford and London.
Settings. Tapping the “i” in the bottom right corner of the screen got me into the settings screen. I selected to measure speed in metric. I could have selected Pace, represented in time per km or mile, if I wanted. You can switch between Pace and Speed and the display will adjust accordingly.
I set the recording interval to 2 seconds frequency which was recommended for cycling. There are also recommendations for Driving, Running, Hiking, Climbing and Boating. Presumably, this affects the number of waypoints recorded.
Pocket mode is designed to preserve battery life presumably by switching the screen off but I wasn’t entirely sure if it did anything else. You can also link to an account on GPSies.com if you want to upload your tracks to the site later.
Map. The first thing I noticed was that the lower half of the screen didn’t show a map. The FAQs for the app say:
Unfortunately Google will not allow us easily to use their map material and programming interfaces on a paid iPhone application. We are working on an implementation based on a free map service for a later release of the application.
This is disappointing (and also odd, as at the time of writing the app is free ) but considering the website has Open Street Maps and OSM Cycle maps as one of the mapping options, then I’d be optimistic that GPSies can make good of their claims for the iPhone app. Luckily, I know the area reasonably well, so thought I’d be OK. If I didn’t know the route or area, then it would be a problem compared to the Garmin, as pre-planned routes can be navigated on the screen of that device.
Bike mounting. This brings me to the second issue, which is more of a hardware issue than a software one. Even if maps and route navigation become available on the GPSies app, how do you look at the screen and operate the app while on the move? I don’t have a bracket to mount the phone on the handlebars, and although I have seen some on the web, they look pretty clunky.
I don’t think I would want to mount my phone to the handlebars anyway because the iPhone would not be protected from the ingress of water and dirt; and from vibration. Even on a road bike, there is a fair amount of vibration which the Garmin is bettered equipped to deal with. I imagine that this type of thing would be a problem for other activities like skiing and boating, as well.
I got away with this because I only wanted to record my route without having to access the screen frequently, so a small, padded bag, which has a mesh lid. The bag is designed for triathletes and straps to the top tube of the bike.
Route recording. You can see what the app looked like a little over 4 1/2 hours later. The GPSies app has successfully captured my route out of Oxford to the southeast, then up and down the Chiltern escarpment a few times before heading back the way I came.
Tapping anywhere on the top half of the screen will start recording, while tapping and holding will pause. In practice, this worked well. During the ride, I received a text message and viewing didn’t affect the app. When you re-enter GPSies, just tap to resume.
A swipe of the lower part of the screen shows you the altitude profile.
Tapping “Save and Start Over” will save to the track list which you can then view by tapping the icon in the bottom left corner.
Editing the track allows you to name it and tag it as suitable for a number of types of activity.
Uploading. You can upload the track to the main GPSies.com site where you can edit your track, export it in a multiple of formats including Google Earth and Garmin. My Circuit of the Chilterns route only took a few seconds to upload over my home wi-fi connection.
Signal and Battery life. The mesh lid on the triathlon bag meant that GPS reception was easy to find when out of doors. I didn’t notice any lapse in signal even when I was in areas where there was no 3G or GPRS coverage.
Update – I went for another ride two days later and this time had the phone in a protective Foofpod, inside a jersey pocket and the track wasn’t recorded successfully. Note to self, the phone’s gotta see the sky!
My battery was fully charged when I left and there was still over 1/5 left upon my return; the 20% battery warning hadn’t appeared yet. I had switched 3G on but turned bluetooth and wi-fi off, to preserve battery life. I hadn’t used any other features of the phone apart from reading 2 text messages and taking a few photos with the camera, such as the one below. Can you spot the pheasant?
Overall. The app is well designed and easy to use, much like the GPSies site itself. I literally downloaded it, played with it for 5 mins and then hit the road. The GPS signal was picked up quickly and seemed to be constant throughout the ride, even when I didn’t have a cell phone signal.
Logical additions to the app (apart from adding proper maps) would be the ability to load routes and to navigate them, although with the shortcomings (at least for cycling) that I mentioned above. Ultimately, it can’t match up to a dedicated GPS unit like my Garmin but as an interim measure it was fine. For simply recording where you’ve been, it does a good job. It’s integration with an already great website makes it even better.
Version: 1.0 | Size: 0.7MB | Tested on: iPhone 3G, 2.2.1 | Works on: iPhone 3G with 2.2 software update