iPhone is not yet a good GPS, but it’s a start

By Steve Outing

I’ve been playing around with exercise/trail tracking applications for the iPhone recently. All of them are weak, though I think it’s the phone’s GPS and not the software that’s mainly to blame. I hope that some day a smart phone will replace the need to carry a stand-alone GPS unit, but we’re not there yet.

This morning I took a mountain bike ride on the Walker Ranch trail near Bouldler (CO), and I had TrailGuru.com‘s iPhone application track the route. The software worked well, and when finished I uploaded the track to the TrailGuru website. Here’s it is:

Steve and Pete’s slow tour of Walker Ranch

There are several problems with the track:

  1. Maximum speed: 46mph (umm, no; 20mph hour would be more like it).
  2. Total ascent: 4268ft (that would have been a great workout, but the actual trail ascent is around 1750ft).
  3. Distance: 8.15mi (my bike odometer and the trail map agree that it’s really 7.5mi).
  4. A chunk of the map route shows as blank; that section is in the trees, where GPS didn’t work.

Also, the battery on my iPhone was nearly dead at the end of the trail.

My trusty Garmin GPS unit would have done a much better job — more accurate, and the batteries would last for a much longer ride.

It’s exciting that we’re starting to see smart phones that can work as GPS devices. But at this point the hardware isn’t up to the task even for the short ride that I did this morning, though the software is already getting pretty good.

I especially like TrailGuru, since its website collects tracks from the iPhone as well as tracks uploaded from traditional GPS units. I may still track some short rides with the iPhone, but for long ones I’ll use the Garmin. With TrailGuru, I can store everything in one place.

I’ve also tested RunKeeper, which is similar but not as full-featured as TrailGuru. RunKeeper’s big drawback is that it doesn’t track elevation gain/loss; for me that’s an essential thing. Its developers say they’ll add that soon.

It’s no fault of those app developers, but the other thing that’s a pain is that the application must be running to collect GPS data, so you can’t use the iPhone for anything else (other than to answer a call, which puts the apps on hold while you talk; and you can listen to music using the phone’s iPod functionality, as long as you launch iPod before starting the trail app). The iPhone will work better as a GPS at the point the iPhone operating system supports running more than one application at a time.

Author: Steve Outing Steve Outing is a Boulder, Colorado-based media futurist, digital-news innovator, consultant, journalist, and educator. ... Need assistance with media-company future strategy? Get in touch with Steve!