Oct 262008
 

The aim of this review is to compare four different GPS applications for the iPhone. I selected them on the basis of generally positive reviews in the App Store, potential as an educational tool, and value for money. Over the course of preparing this piece, I had the opportunity to reflect on the perfect neo-geography iPhone application, and the ideal handheld learning device…

The applications on test are..

The applications on test

Each application was tested on a short bike ride around my block. I live in a rural part of the South West and phone reception is patchy – though actually O2 is the only carrier that works properly in my area. There’s no wifi or 3G reception and part of my route takes me through a GPS blackspot consisting of a lane with high banks and overhung with trees. I recorded a track and then uploaded it to the relevant web site. If the application permitted, I took  photographs and recorded waypoints.

The first application to be tested was My Moving Map website / iTunes

My Moving Map

This is a simple application that transmits your position to a website from which others can view your location, simply by entering your email address. It was extremely simple to set up and use. In operation, one merely taps the screen to broadcast the location of the device, which can also be seen on a Google map. The My Moving Map website not only offers a real-time map showing your location, that can be embedded in a blog (not WordPress I found) but also allows tracks to be downloaded as a csv file and KML for viewing in Google Earth. Here’s a map showing a recent walk during which My Moving Map constantly pinged my location.

Without the ability to create waypoints, the application is limited, but could be fun for certain classroom situations. You could envisage giving your phone to chosen students to go on various missions around the school while their progress is being tracked on the interactive white board. The application is is missing a software lock (necessary for all GPS applications on the iPhone) It didn’t seem to work well in my jacket pocket either. For what is does though this is a great application and well worth £1.19.

Next I tested RunKeeper. website / iTunes

RunKeeper

RunKeeper is a free application and simply records a track that is uploaded to an excellent website where it can be viewed on a Google Map and speed evaluated against altitude. The RunKeeper site also logs your trips. The track data is very accurate, but there’s no export option which is a shame as it precludes the use of sites such as Magnalox and GPS Visualiser. A software lock works well.

RunKeeper is very highly recommended and I’ll be using it frequently. I’m not convinced that there’s much value to the geographical curriculum though for a collaboration with the PE department it would be excellent. Ollie Bray has also reviewed this application and seems to be impressed. It would be my first choice for monitoring runs and bike rides.

Next up was EveryTrail website / iTunes

EveryTrail

This is a really useful application for geotagging photos. Just walk around and use the camera. At the end of the trip, upload the details to the EveryTrail website where it can be analyzed and viewed in a mumber of ways. The EveryTrail website is a popular resource among the geotagging community. See the details of my test here.

The GPS track was very accurate, the application has a software lock and is extremely easy and reliable to use.  The trail can be exported to Google Earth or as a GPX file. A great little application and definitely worth the £1.79. There is a real niche for this kind of application for fieldwork. I’d love to be able to add notes and recordings as well. The only other limitation is the notoriously poor iPhone camera!

Finally I looked at iTrail website / iTunes

iTrail

I really wanted to like iTrail, having chosen to review it ahead of the more expensive GPS Kit. Like RunKeeper, iTrail is a tracking application; it’s USP is that it also records waypoints. In practice I found it difficult to use. iTrail crashed on several occasions, and I was unable to complete a journey without experiencing a problem. I’ve had several attempts, but each have ended up in frustration. The programmer mentions on his site that iTrail is in constant development, which is encouraging news. There are two modes – Quick Trail – which you’d use if you just wished to monitor a walk or run (though RunKeeper would be a free alternative). In Trail Mode you can add waypoints (though not photos). I found the lock button worked sporadically, more often than not resulting in the selection of Quick Mode, after which it was confusing to regain Trail Mode. The application crashed several times when entering waypoint information. I’d like to see the lock button moved to a different part of the screen, and a button to toggle between the modes. When it worked, the GPS track was accurate, and the program does give you an indication of GPS strength. A strong point is the ability to export KML and GPX data formats direct to a computer (rather than a third party web site) I’m going to watch out for updates to iTrail, though at the minute I wouldn’t rely on it. I’d like to think that out of the four applications, this one has the most potential for further development.

Summary of features:

Conclusion: The best GPS applications on the iPhone are the simplest. There’s little point in pretending that the iPhone, in it’s current incarnation could possibly replace a specialized GPS device for serious navigation or field studies. Poor battery life and cost are just two of the constraints. (Hence this is a rather futile post, despite the hours spent in preparation!)  However researching the post has helped me draw up a specification for the ideal neo-geography iPhone application which would…

Record a GPS track
Display a live view in Google Maps (similar to the free Maps app)
Have a screen lock and dimmer to preserve battery life
Create waypoints
Able to annotate waypoints with short written notes
Able to annotate waypoints with audio recordings
Add photos to waypoints
Geotag photos
Export in KML format and GPX format
Offer tools for analysis of performance, speed, altitude etc

I’m looking forward to seeing which developer gets there first!

Although I’m really conscious of the fact that I’m in the fortunate position of owning an iPhone (though it’s on PAYG) the era of widespread adoption of handheld devices as learning tools in schools is clearly arriving. I don’t think that the web-book type devices currently popular in some schools are quite mature enough yet for really immersive geographical fieldwork. However I’m sure that altruistic Apple developers are working away to create the ideal classroom computer, in the form of a slightly enlarged iPhone/tablet device featuring the same touchscreen interface, a better camera (and video recording) and a long life battery. The device would incorporate all the functions of the iPhone and also suport Flash, Google Docs, Google Earth and optimized versions of iWork and iLife. Not much to ask for…

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