Nike+ GPS

by Doc Coleman - Nifty Tech Editor on March 14, 2011 · 24 comments

in iOS, Service

As spring approaches and the weather gets warmer, parts of the world shift to Daylight Savings Time, and many folks turn their minds towards the things that they can do to get themselves into shape. There are a lot of products out there to help you track your diet or your exercise. Some even track both. Most of these tools require you to know what you’ve done in terms of exercise so that you can record it. Today’s review is for a product that watches you while you exercise, tracks your progress, and give you the data you need to put into your other tracking utilities. We’re looking at Nike’s latest tool to end all tools for runners, Nike+ GPS.

Developed by Nike as part of a joint project with Apple, Nike+ GPS takes advantage of the Location Services built into the iPhone 3G, iPhone 4, iPod Touch, and presumably all future iThings. Displacing the Nike+ iPod software, Nike+ GPS doesn’t need a sensor hidden in the bottom of a shoe in order to track your progress. Instead it uses Apple’s GPS and Cell Tower tracking technologies from the Location Services toolkit. And while this approach may lead to some unpredictable results on rainy or cloudy days, overall it tends to produce more accurate results than relying on the Nike+ iPod sensor. The current version of Nike+ GPS is 3.0.1, and it is available from the Apple iTunes Store for $1.99.

The software keeps track of the number of individual runs you have taken using a particular device, while Nike’s Nike+ service tracks all the runs a person has made with all their devices. Nike’s core audience are runners, so each exercise is referred to as a “run”, no matter what activity the person is actually engaging in. When testing earlier versions of the software, I sometimes would start a “run” when going to a craft fair, and keep track of how far I walked during the hours of shopping. Nike+ didn’t care if I was running, walking, or idly browsing craft booths. It happily recorded my activity, counted my calories and my distance, and my total time. While the old Nike+ iPod would sometimes end a run if you stood still too long, or if it could no longer find the sensor, Nike+ GPS doesn’t have this problem.

While the software still isn’t perfect, Nike has built off what they’ve learned with the Nike+ iPod software and had made effective use of the iPhone screen. One can tailor your profile to accurately describe your particulars, aiding the software to accurately define your stride and level of effort. While Nike+ starts you out with a generic profile, you can re-calibrate the system as you go to better reflect your personal stride. Most runs can be used for calibration, providing you maintain a reasonably consistent stride through the entire run. Most importantly, to use a run for calibration you must know the exact distance traveled. For best results, I recommend finding a local track that you can use for a calibration run. Nike does not recommend using a treadmill for calibration, although they do claim to support using the Nike+ GPS on a treadmill. I haven’t been able to do any tests of this nature yet, so I can’t really comment one way or the other.

In addition to customizing how the Nike+ GPS calibrates your stride, you can adjust how it measures your distance, tracking your progress in either miles or kilometers, and you can adjust the software’s display so that it is most readable while the iPhone is in your favorite arm band, or however you choose to carry the device during a run.

For those who listen to music during their runs, Nike lets you choose a number of “Powersongs” that can be invoked at a touch of a button to give you an extra boost when you most need it. I haven’t actually played with this feature, as I prefer listening to podcasts as I exercise and working out my mind along with my body.

When starting a run, one selects one of three types, a Basic run, where the Nike+ simply records your progress and lets you go however far or long you want to, or a Time or Distance run, where one sets a goal in terms of a total time or distance traveled, where Nike+ also lets you know when you’ve met your halfway point, and gives you added encouragement when you’re near your goal. Nike+ GPS has optional settings for voice prompts, noting both time and distance traveled. Prompts can be set to remind you of your progress every minute, or every five, 10,  or 15 minutes. Likewise, distance prompts can be set for every quarter, half, or whole mile, or every two miles. Or the regular voice prompts can be turned off, and you can tap a voice feedback button when you want to check on your status.

Nike+ GPS also has social integration with Facebook and Twitter, allowing you to update your status on completing a run. With Facebook, there is also an optional “Cheers” section. What this does is update your Facebook status when you start a run, so that your friends on Facebook can “Like” the fact that you’re exercising, or leave comments. When someone interacts with this status post, the application on Facebook sends a message back to your iPhone, and a pre-recorded cheering audio will play, letting your friends and family cheer you on by proxy. Of course, if this is irritating to you, you can silence the cheers, or turn the function off altogether.

When you start a run, the Nike+ lets you specify if you will be indoors or outdoors, what music you wish to play, and if you want to take advantage of the Cheer facility on this run. For your music, you can choose no music, whatever is currently playing on your device, a particular playlist, or let the system simply shuffle through whatever music is in your iTunes library.

Tap Continue and you move to the main display for your run. This screen will let your start and stop your workout, skip to the next song or re-play the last. It will even let you change your music altogether if you find it doesn’t suit your mood. But for most people what will be more important are the three sets of numbers displayed on the screen. These are your current rate, the elapsed time you’ve been running, and the total distance traveled. For a basic run or a distance run, the distance gets the prime position. If you choose a timed run, time and distance exchange places. To better illustrate this, let’s take a look at a screen shot from a run in progress.

In this view you can check your progress at a glance, or if you can’t afford to glance, tap the Voice Feedback button and get Nike+ to tell you how well you are doing. Or you can tap the little lock icon in the upper right corner and the screen will transform into this.

This screen is better for night running in those areas where you don’t want to be a lit beacon saying “Rob me now! I have valuable electronics on me!” And it also happens to be gentler on your night vision.

When you finish your run, Some kind of inspirational message from a professional athlete will usually play. These can be either encouraging or annoying, depending on your point of view. Unfortunately, this is one function that Nike doesn’t give you the option of turning off. Nike+ will also automatically sync with Nike’s servers, adding the statistics for your new run to the rest of your account, and updating Twitter if you’ve got the Social Media option turned on. For an update to your Facebook Status, it gives you the opportunity to add a few words of your own.

So you’ve completed your run and synced your results. You’re done right? Well, not quite. Nike also gives you the opportunity to tag your run indicating how you feel, the kind of weather you experienced, the type of terrain you traveled over, and any other notes you’d care to add. This can be vary useful if you’re trying to correlate changes in your times and distances to any of these factors. Of course, you don’t have to tag your runs at all if you don’t want to.

But one of the most interesting features that Nike has included also comes into play at this point. This is the Map Tracking feature. It allows you to see your run laid out on a map, and you can see your rate of progress as a color code on the map, letting you review the run and determine where you slowed down and where you achieved your best speeds. This can be very useful for those who habitually run the same paths over and over again, as it visually displays your information so you can better refine your approach to your route and identify the areas where you need to focus on your progress. One can even zoom in to specific areas to get a finer view. Of course, the closer you zoom the more you’ll see the imperfections in the way the Nike+ tracks your progress.

While Nike+ GPS is a very useful tool for runners, walkers, and anyone else who needs a little help recording their exercise, it isn’t perfect. Your accuracy is often at the mercy of atmospheric conditions that might kill cell signals or GPS transmissions coming down from the satellites. If the application crashes in the middle of a run, for whatever reason, it will either terminate or lose the entire run. When the Cheers function was first added, there were problems where the system would play the cheer audio, end the run, but keep playing music through the earbuds. This was fixed in later updates, but it made cheers impossible to use for a time. Nike has also not been quick in responding to some of the user community’s requests for changes. Many users would like to be able to enter data from a treadmill directly into their Nike+ accounts instead of having to use the application. Especially those who go to gyms that are shielded so that the Nike+ can’t get a signal.

But even considering these drawbacks, we have found it to be a useful tool at a reasonable price. Provided, of course, that you’re already using an iPhone. We haven’t really seen anything that comes close to this level of utility and we’re confident that the Nike+ GPS has earned our stamp of approval.

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