Wednesday, June 22, 2011

first impressions of Strava Android App

Recently I've been testing the new Android Strava app. My preferred method of recording ride or run GPS data has been the Garmin Edge 500. On the bike, I use the usual mount which I attach to my stem. For running I got a Forerunner wrist strap which works great: the Edge 500 and the Forerunner share the same strap.

But when the Strava app for Android app was released I was pretty excited. I'd read and heard hints and rumors of real-time features, perhaps for example instant notification of KOM rankings results while on the bike.

But, alas, nothing so spectacular. The app reports speed, distance, and time of exercise, then allows the user to upload the ride to Strava. Once uploaded, a limited resolution map of the activity can be viewed along with rankings on matched segments (once the servers have had adequate time to process the data, less than a minute).

So it seemed as if I'd have little use for it. But I decided to give it a try anyway.

And I was pleasantly surprised. First, my Android phone is substantially quicker to acquire GPS signal than the Edge 500 unit. For example, if I want to record a ride from the 22nd Street Caltrain station to home, I need to either turn the Garmin on well before the stop so it has a signal uninterrupted by the series of tunnels leading to the station, or I need to move out to to an area clear of obstructions near the station and wait there. The issue is the only such area I've found is the middle of the intersection between 22nd Street and Pennsylvania Ave. Staying here for sufficient time for the Garmin to pick up signal presents certain hazards. So if I don't turn it on by the time we pass the Bayshore station it's a challenge to get signal acquisition in time.

Contrast the Android phone. I can turn that on when I'm leaving the station and as soon as I leave the direct obstruction of the overhead freeway, I'm good to go. Very quick. And here's the result in this challenging GPS environment... even though the phone was in my front pants pocket, it even had the correct side of the street:

Riding home from 22nd St Caltrain

For a typical longer ride, if I'm meeting people I'm typically rushing to get out at the optimal time. If I've thought far enough ahead to turn on my Garmin before going downstairs to get my bike, by the time I get there the unit's typically auto-powered-down due to inactivity. More typically I turn it on as I get on my bike. I then ride down Potrero Hill, glancing at the display periodically to watch the progress of the satellite aquistion bar. This reminds me of Coach Sok in high school who used to count ten pushups finishing with "7", "8", "9", "9", "9", .... With short blocks and frequent intersections I of course need to watch where I'm going, but since I don't want to lose more ride than necessary I'm tempted to check the unit more often than necessary. Typically around a km from home it will declare "motion detected" indicated the signal is acquired, and I am asked to hit start. So I quickly hit the start button (there's four, so you need to remember which one this is) and try to make my appointment. Eventually I'll glance at it only to see I hadn't pushed the button with adequate firmness and it's still waiting for me to hit start. So rides recorded with the Garmin 500 often "begin" several km from home.

I simply don't see this mistake happening with the Android app. The satellite acquisition is only a few seconds: no problem waiting for that before I ride off.

Then there's upload. With the Garmin I need to get the micro-USB cable, plug the Edge 500 into a USB port on my laptop, log into Strava, select "upload activity", select "use local file", open the Garmin device once it auto-mounts, select the "Garmin" directory, the "Activities" subdirectory, wait for the directory to load, pick the last file in the long list, confirm upload. Not too bad, actually.

But with the Android app I click on "save ride" and it uploads. Done.

But it's not as one-sided as it seems. The issue is when I upload an activity, I need to enter certain data fields. For example, I need to select the activity type. Is it a bike or a run? If it's a bike, what bike did I use? What was the difficulty and the roughness of the terrain? Was it a group ride, a commute, or a stationary bike ride? And what was the name of the activity? Maybe I even want to post a ride report.

These things must be done through the Strava web page. On a laptop, it's all easy. On the phone, text entry is considerably more challenging, and selection of the widgets which allow entering many of the fields is difficult with human-sized fingers. And on the Android browser, not all aspects of the Strava site even work. For example, I am unable to select individual segments within a ride (although I can see the pages for the segments themselves).

This is especially an issue for runs. If I upload them via the phone, they'll receive the default designation of a bike ride. This leads to a corruption of the on-line data (for what that's worth). Usually, obviously, a segment completed by foot will be slower than one ridden by bike, so the matched segments from a run will appear towards the bottom of the standings. But this isn't always the case: I dare say I can run the Broderick sidewalk faster than I could ride it, assuming I could ride it. The Broderick sidewalk is a 35% grade...

I am sure this will be fixed. Obviously Strava wanted to get something robust and simple into the marketplace to get people who've not made the specific investment in a Garmin GPS unit able to use their service. Since smart phones with GPS are becoming virtually ubiquitous, and since Strava's social networking business model is invested in gaining a critical mass of users not just in the San Francisco Bay area but around the world, I understand their decision. There's time for more functionality later.

First thing is they need to add data entry directly to the phone app. I should be able to select the activity type and the other activty data fields. I would also like to be able to browse KOM lists.

Beyond that there's all sorts of things they can do, including the "real time" data I thought they might already have.

But as it is now, it's my option of choice for short commute rides. In the past, I didn't bother with these: to and from the train station, for example. But with the Android Ap, it's trivially to include these. I just select the ap when I leave, wait a few seconds for GPS acquistion, then hit "start". When I get to my destination I hit "stop" and "save". I annotate the rides next time I check the web page on-line.

Then there's the issue of accuracy. GPS accuracy is important to getting good matching and timing of segments. Here the phone has a big disadvantage to the Garmin, and that is location. I tend to keep the phone in a pocket: a jersey pocket if I have a cycling jersey or a pants pocket. This obviously reduces available signal strength since my body is an electrical conductor and blocks the signal from the satellites. However, while the Garmin Edge was terrible when I'd run with it in my pocket, my phone does surprisingly well. Maybe the phone uses more current; I'm not sure why. But it works a lot better than expected.

Another worry I had was battery life. My HTC Incredible Android phone has terrible endurance. Even moderate phone use the the phone won't last more than 12 hours without a recharge. but I've had no problem doing lunch rides, for example, with the Strava app running. I've not yet tried truly long rides: for those I prefer the Garmin.

Then there's weight. The Garmin Edge 500 checks in at 56 grams: almost exactly 2 ounces. My Android phone is mind-numbing 138 grams. Remember my threshold for saving weight on my race bike is $4/gram, so that 80 gram difference would cost more than $320 to counter, and for running, mass is even more important than for cycling. So I wouldn't use the phone if I was in a scenario where I placed a premium on lightness. But since I often have my phone with me on rides anyway, this typically isn't an issue.

So if you have an Android phone and use Strava but haven't checked out the Android app yet, I definitely recommend giving it a try. You may find you prefer it in many cases to the Garmin.

1 comment:

TnA said...

Strave better get on the ball...iMapMyFitness has "real time tracking" already ;-)