13 October 2014

Sunday Ride to Lake Tsukui -- without Garmin -- and review of iPhone GPS cycling apps - Strava, Mapmyride, RidewithGPS, Runtastic, CycleTT

On Sunday I went for a ride out to the Tsukui-ko area.  Out Onekansen Doro, along the Tank Road, around the north side of the lake via the forest road, then a loop and back over a different bridge to the North side, and home a slightly different route.

It was a relatively short (97.5km) and easy ride.  Saturday I had conflicting commitments; Monday we will have rain later in the day as a typhoon approaches.

Nothing unusual, except that I left my Garmin Edge 800 device at home.  No, I did not forget it, I just left it at home.
Early fall near Lake Tsukui
Mysterious weather ... still far ahead of a massive typhoon
Watch out Garmin.  Your days are numbered, at least for recreational use!

It is a commonplace observation that Apple and its products, especially the iPhone, have been like a mass extinction event for parts of the consumer electronics industry.  Sony Walkman and other MP3 players?  Gone.  Record and CD retail shops?  Gone, when most buy the same music on iTunes for instant download. Cable TV and broadcast radio talk shows?  No need when you can get the same content customized via podcasts. Digital cameras and videos?  I think I bought my last digital camera about 5 or 6 years ago.  The photos taken on my iPhone 5S are much better, plus when I need to I can use the free "Theodolite" app and get a photo stamped with time, GPS coordinates, elevation and direction and vertical/side-to-side angles on the photo.  Train timetables?  Weather forecasts?  Filing receipts?  Personal video conferencing?  Foreign language dictionaries and phrasebooks?  Maps, and more maps?  All gone.  There's an App for that (as they say).

I tried some of the cycling GPS apps back when I got my first iPhone (4S)  in 2011.  I found that they would eat up battery life, so I could not imagine using them on any full day ride or longer brevet/randonee.  But with subsequent versions of the iOS and a newer phone (5S), I now rely on Google maps instead of a car Navi and find the power usage acceptable.  So I figured it was time to try again the cycling apps.

A month or so back, I started using Strava and RidewithGPS for recording some of my commutes.  Last week also MapMyRide.  They record the 30+ minutes each way (with the screen turned off much of the way) without a noticeable drop in the battery, so I thought it was time to try them on a longer ride.

They all work great.  Each app is using the same underlying data and GPS sensors from the iPhone, and each is going into a "sleep" mode when the phone's screen is switched off (but still capturing and recording the GPS data), so it is not surprising that the results are similar. The interfaces are each different, and everyone will have a favorite.  I rode for almost 5 1/2 hours, and used about half my iPhone battery life.  I also sent and received/checked emails and SMS messages, plus used Google Maps navigation for about 15 minutes to find a shop.  So these apps are now just nearing the point of being usable for an all day ride.

Please note, what follows are just a layman's impressions.  You can get much more detailed, technical information and guidance elsewhere.  And just go to the TCC site for lots and lots of discussions about these services.

Strava.  I like the clean Strava recording screen, ... but I need to go to another screen to access a map and that page lacks the cyclecomputer data, whereas the others have a map on the "main" page.

Strava has the best integration with its website and its social media-style features -- you can see your "feed"on the iPhone app, and upload quickly to your friends when you finish a ride.  And if you ask the App will find you a "route back to the start".  It chooses this based upon the popularity of various potential roads with cyclists.  So when I was out near Hashimoto and asked for a route home, it directed me down Onekansen Doro -- by far the best choice I know of as a cyclist, and not the choice that Google Maps would have made.

I am not a "premium" Strava member, but the service seems to just get better and better.  I just tried their route drawing sub-application, and it seems to work very well now.  I do not know if it even existed the first time I tried Strava.  Also, way back then Strava had a limit on the number of monthly rides recorded for non-premium (non-paying) members.

RidewithGPS.  RidewithGPS uses the screen "real estate" very well -- with both cycle computer info and a map on the main page.

RidewithGPS iPhone app does not seem very customizable (though it was possible to switch the map from a "pointing North" orientation to a "pointing the same way as the bicycle" orientation, and the app nicely pulled in my basic choices from the website (e.g. metric system).  Then again, with 5 key pieces of data on the main app screen, I cannot think of much I would add (or subtract).   And it does offer numerous background map choices, as with the website version.  Plus it features tight integration with photos -- great if your trip report consists of the RidewithGPS data and photos you took along the route.

I long ago joined RidewithGPS as a paying member, since I really valued their route drawing/export-friendly site, and also they were the only site with clear instructions about the differences between GPS data formats -- GPX (and GPX track), TCX, FIT, etc.  and recommendations on what to use for which Garmin Edge device.  Plus, as far as I can tell RidewithGPS is mainly a young guy named Zack in Portland, Oregon.  He would send personal responses when I had a question, so I felt I owed him my business.

And what RidewithGPS lacks in customization at the App level, it more than compensates for on its website, with a wide range of views, tabs.  RidewithGPS generally piggie backs on existing social networks -- Facebook, Twitter -- rather than trying to create its own.

MapMyRide.   This app toggles between two data sets ... good if you think of your GPS as more of a calorie counter, but useless for the rest of us.  And there is a screen pulldown tab so you can see all 4 data items at once -- distance, duration, speed and calories.

MapMyRide annoyingly asks me to upgrade to MVP with prominent notices.  Strava has much more tasteful, subtle upgrade requests -- more effective.  Then again, the Mapmyride App seems to have more customization possibilities.  And Mapmyride has lots of social network features as well.

Comparison of the 3 apps website views.
Strava -- clean, slick design, focus on segments (just below this screen capture).
RidewithGPS -- lots of data and selection tabs, and plenty of menu choices all the top as well.
MapmyRide -- another nice interface, but that annoying MVP upgrade request.
And the Winner Is.  This review barely scratches the surface, but I guess I still rank RidewithGPS and Strava ahead of Mapmyride.  If you like the Strava social media features -- the segments, activity feed and challenges, you will find them unmatched.  I find it quite satisfying to do the Strava "Eddy Merckx 1969 Challenge" to ride 700 kms in 20 days ... and end up #11 out of 850 riders in Japan, #773 out of over 55,000 worldwide.  Yes, I may not be fast, but I do go far.

As for the rest of the App, I prefer the RidewithGPS App's "single screen", especially when I want to see a track along which to navigate.  So I guess I will probably use RidewithGPS when riding on a Brevet or an unfamiliar route, and Strava for commuting or familiar rides.  Or I can try the same as this ride -- and just turn on both apps at once.

The key point, for me, is that ANY of these apps works great for a 5 or 6 hour ride.  And with a USB charger/battery, that time can be doubled or tripled.  Plus with a dynamo hub driven charger, it can be extended indefinitely.

The Garmin Edge (excuse the pun).  My Garmin Edge 800 still has some advantages over these iPhone apps.  Actual battery life is still around 14-15 hours.  Plus if the battery should happen to run out ... I can still pull out my phone and use it. If the phone battery runs out ... then I am really stuck.  Of course, the answer is to carry a small supplemental battery.  Plus the Garmin data screens are highly customizable and work with all kinds of additional sensors -- power, heartrate, etc.  I have not used those lately, but could be tempted again.

And in pouring rain, I do not mind the Garmin being exposed on the bike.  The iPhone, even with case and all ports plugged, I will probably still put in a plastic bag!  Then again, the Garmin has died on my in the rain before, and though the USB port eventually recovers, it seems to take some weeks.

I will keep using the Edge 800 on longer rides, as long as it functions.

Audax riders in the U.S. note that they go through many areas without mobile phone coverage. Without mobile data, you cannot access the map information via iPhone in Google or Apple maps, so lose significant functionality.  And financially not viable when "roaming" and incurring high data charges.  But as has been pointed out to me, it is possible to load OpenStreetView maps onto an iPhone for "off network" map coverage.  ... and this surely cannot be much more difficult than doing so on the Garmin, since Garmin gives no instructions on such things and just expects you to buy one of their Micro SD cards with proprietary map loaded.  I will need to try loading some maps and using the iPhone apps with mobile data turned off ... but GPS on ... and see if it works.

With a dynamo powered charger and a plastic bag to cover my iphone in streaming downpours, and some maps loaded in advance, I should be ready to go.

Garmin the Company.  Of course, sometimes I will stay loyal to a company because of things about the company, or just plain inertia, rather than the strength of a product.  (Note my mention of Zack's great customer service at RidewithGPS).  I got a Garmin Edge 205 long ago, switched to a 705 with its more readable screen and maps, then around 5 years ago when the 705 stopped downloading to my PC upgraded to the Edge 800.   But Garmin never has seemed user friendly.  The models I own are not adapted to Japan -- will not work with Japanese characters.  The Japan-specific versions were outrageously priced. ...  And the proprietary maps were an expensive add-on.  So I figured out how to use OpenStreetMap alternatives.  What kind of business builds itself around selling expensive add-ons when the educated, tech-savvy customer can find a free workaround?  A business that views its customers as cash registers, even chumps.

Of course, I could be wrong.  Maybe Garmin is a great company?  After all, it does sponsor a pro tour cycling team, and so it is supporting racers!  And it is a U.S. company, right, started and built up in Kansas.  Indeed, its entire business is based on a series of satellites bought and paid for by the U.S. government, and its first customer was ... the U.S. Army.  My tax dollars at work.  And Garmin is part of the Standard and Poors 500!

Err, at least Garmin WAS a U.S. company.

Then it did a "tax inversion" so that a Swiss entity is now its parent, even though its headquarters is still in Kansas.  No more U.S. taxes on the non-U.S. business.  When Allan Sloan of Fortune Magazine asked them about the inversion, Garmin apparently responded to Fortune that it never was a U.S. company.  Maybe they did not understand the question.  Well, I guess they will need to remove those "Oregon", "Montana", "Colorado" and "Dakota" lines from their handheld GPS models.

So now Garmin is a "top 10" company.  Top 10 corporate tax avoiders.


I should mention that Japanese cyclists tend to use a Yahoo Japan-affiliated site, Route Labo, for drawing routes that can be exported to Garmin/GPS. These routes are visible on the Safari browser on a page designed for mobile use, though I do not think there is a specific iPhone app.  Then again, more and more Japanese riders seem to use Strava.


Nov 2, 2014 update:  Another GPS iphone/computer application was recommended to me -- the road bike pro version of "Runtastic".  It has the major benefit of offline OSM map integration.  If you trace your route and download maps ahead of a ride, you will be okay even if you do not have (or, if roaming internationally, want to pay for) mobile data during the event.  I paid the $4.99 and downloaded the app.  On first impression, it tries to do too much -- too much marketing, too many email messages, too much attempt at social media integration.  Too commercial.  But I hope I will get the settings right since the offline maps are a great option.

On my Nov 2 ride with Jerome, I used the Garmin Edge 800, plus set the RidewithGPS on from the start around 7:45AM.  Both ran uninterrupted (only "auto pauses").  The total elapsed time was 9 hours and 10 minutes.

  • The Garmin still showed almost 50% battery remaining -- perhaps a benefit from running it with a timer page -- not a map page -- visible the entire ride.  Maybe it is recalculating the map screen that burns up Garmin battery life, such as on the Nishi Tokyo 200 brevet?  
  • I also used my iPhone for photos and emails/messages at times during the ride.  The battery had gone down to 16% so I turned off the ridewithgps application at just under 8 hours elapsed time -- 152kms travelled.  If I had not wanted to preserve the ability to use the iPhone for its core telephone (and email) functions, I could have just made it home on the last 16%.  Next ride I will try the same experiment with the Strava iPhone app.
Nov 10, 2014 update:  At Cyclemode there was a display for a Japanese iPhone app -- CycleTT.  It is available on the iPhone App store (at least the Japanese app store), and has a free version and a "premium" mode for 500 yen per month or 5000 per year.  I have not yet tried it but will do so.  Zenrin Datacom is the provider -- a major Japanese map data supplier for "Navi" systems and Google maps.  I will try the free version in due course.


Richard said...

Thanks for the summary of these apps. Do you have any comments/experience about their ability to help navigate a preloaded route?

My main requirement for a GPS is to help me navigate a route, and not so much to record my own rides. Just wondering how these apps would fare against my annoying Garmin 800.

David L. said...

Hi Richard:
Both RidewithGPS and Strava have route drawing functions and you can at least show the route imposed on a map.
I have not tried to see if they have further voice navigation/off route prompts, since I never use those on Garmin in any event. I assume Mapmyride also has this.

Manfred von Holstein said...

Personally I think it is the American government which is the odd one out by pursuing its companies and citizens beyond its borders, rather than Garmin being evil by trying to increase the return to its shareholders, who must be mostly Americans anyhow.

I cannot help the impression though that while Garmin is commended for bringing GPS and computer maps to consumers in the early days, it has not made the leap into the world of more advanced gadgets and software alongside companies like apple, google etc. Even the Edge 800 is a joke when compared technologically to an iPhone, let alone Android devices.

Manfred von Holstein said...

To Richard's point, I would appreciate most the ability to have my GPS navigate me. Garmin is very bad at this. You need to upload waypoints rather than a track, which requires using their own rather clumsy software. Moreover, as the devices calculates the route between waypoints using the map that is active, it is nearly impossible to select a route beforehand on the PC that the device will then also follow. So I gave up on this a long time ago, and have just used the ability to display a track on the Garmin screen and then follow it somehow. Not ideal because the map rotations are slow and sometimes the roads are complicated - plus in broad daylight none of the colours works well to highlight the route versus the rest of the map. Garmin still has a long way to go - but I'm not sure anyone else has a solution that even matches what Garmin can do right now.