Cheap GPS Hardware Beats iPhone Apps by a Mile

Not all cyclists care about their riding statistics. They don’t monitor their distance, speed, and RPM. They’re not concerned about a ride’s elevation gain or whether they’re on track to beat their average time for that route.

I’m not one of those lucky riders.

I’ve written about my obsession with numbers in my old blog. It’s what prods me into acquiring multiple gadgets and iPhone applications that capture my cycling data.

Now, after nearly three years of comparing dedicated cycling computers with the multi-purpose iPhone, I’ve come to a definitive conclusion: iPhone apps are dramatically inferior even compared with cheap hardware. So much so, even free cycling apps aren’t worth the trouble.

Yes, I’ve written nice things about, say, the Cyclemeter app. And I used it regularly for months. But now I’ve quit. Just as earlier I stopped using MotionX-GPS on my iPhone. When compared to a simple piece of hardware attached to my road or mountain bikes, these apps are a big disappointment.

I wish I could blame the software developers. But I can’t. They try hard and pack their apps with lots of nifty features. But they are undermined by the iPhone hardware and the real world.

Take my Garmin 205, a low-end GPS unit. It has six real buttons I can push that instantly respond to the command, showing me an array of data choices. Any app I use on the iPhone requires interaction with the device’s haptic screen technology. The problem is while riding I often wear full-fingered gloves because in the Pacific Northwest it’s darn cold for many of my rides. If I want to check some data in mid-ride, I need to remove my gloves to fiddle with the iPhone.

Worse, because my hands are warm inside my gloves, my fingers are damp from perspiration. Have you ever tried to work an iPhone with sweaty hands? It’s a hit-and-miss operation at best.

Then there’s the weather. Not surprisingly, here in the Pacific Northwest we get rain. A lot of rain. Apple wisely recommends that its smartphones not get wet. As such, I tuck mine into a pocket to stay dry. So, again, if I want to access information from my cycling app during a ride, I have to alter my pace to pull it from a pocket, remove my gloves, and struggle with the unit. My Garmin isn’t so dainty and has withstood rain, sleet, hail, and even snow.

Despite some of the advantages iPhone apps offer, they inevitably become one of those tools that never get used. And my iPhone increasingly becomes merely a phone that can play music. Oh, it does these tasks very nicely.

© Mark Everett Hall 2011

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2 thoughts on “Cheap GPS Hardware Beats iPhone Apps by a Mile

  1. Mark, sorry to hear you’re leaving the iPhone app world! I can certainly understand and appreciate the ergonomic reasons you’re leaving the iPhone for tracking your rides. Here are a couple of suggestions for making it a better experience:

    1) Use a http://www.ifitnessinc.com belt with the iPhone to your back so it sees more sky. String the earphone remote inside your jersey, but only put the one with the remote in one ear for safety reasons. Get audio updates on time and distance intervals. Or on demand, use our remote control capability with the remote to get an audio update of your time, distance, or any of 40 different stats. No need to take your eyes off the road this way.

    2) Use the Wahoo Fitness bike case as a mount. It’s waterproof and very sturdy. And it has an ANT+ receiver, which will come in handy in the future. And with an extra battery, you can set our app to keep the display on during your ride to avoid finger fumbling.

    We’re continually improving our app, and I hope that our relentless innovation will some day win you back as a supporter!

    Steve Kusmer
    Abvio, Makers of Cyclemeter

    • I definitely appreciate your reply, Steve. And, as noted, I do think Cyclemeter is loaded with excellent features, which can help numbers-nutty people like me enjoy cycling much, much more.

      However, I do want to point out that your solutions (which I will investigate) to my problems require a rider/iPhone user to make further investments in their device. That strikes me as more evidence in my favor about the inferiority of the iPhone as an ideal tool for cyclists.

      This situation raises the technology-complexity problem. When a general-purpose device is drafted to become a task-specific device by adding layers of technology on it, is that really the best tool for the task at hand? I think not.

      The iPhone is at the state where DOS/Windows computers were in the early 1990s. Powerful enough to be interesting and flexible enough for smart people like you to write software to apply for work previously done by purpose-built machines, but at a lower cost. However, the trade-off is always on the hardware side. Just as DOS/Windows machines were good enough to perform a task, they were not state of the art to perform it as best as possible.

      Again, this is not an Abvio issue. It’s an Apple problem. Until iPhones (or Androids) become powerful and robust enough to handle the varied environments you software folks are making possible, they will always fall short of task-specific devices.

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