Running with a Smartphone (iPhone and Android)

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One of the advantages of Running With A Smartphone is you always have a camera with you.

Most smartphones have a GPS built in and support various applications that allow them to function as sports watches. There are quite a number of advantages and disadvantages to using a smartphone compared with a dedicated watch, some of which can be alleviated with a companion SmartWatch (see below). Personally, I much prefer running with a dedicated sports watch, but I know many people that get on well with a smartphone.

1 Smartphone Pros

  • If you already have a smartphone, this is the cheapest option. All you need is a good running app, and these are available for free or at a low cost (see below for details).
  • The GPS Accuracy of Smartphones is generally better than a dedicated running watch. (See below for details and caveats.)
  • Carrying a phone allows you to call for help. You can also use apps like find my friends to allow people to track your location for safety.
  • You may be able to use the smartphone as an MP3 player. (I still prefer a dedicated MP3 player.)
  • A smartphone means you always have a camera, which can be handy.
  • It is possible to use a Heart Rate Monitor and a Footpod with a smartphone.

2 Smartphone Cons

  • A smartphone is heavy, bulky and has to be mounted on your upper arm, making it hard to see the display (a SmartWatch helps solve this).
  • A smartphone mounted on your arm makes you a potential target for theft, reducing your safety.
  • Most touchscreens do not work well with gloves, in the rain, or with sweaty hands.
  • Few smartphones are waterproof, so a specialist case will be required to protect it. (See caveats below regarding cases and GPS Accuracy.)
  • The battery life of a smartphone can be an issue. I've found that typically a fully charged phone will only last around 4 hours with the screen active.

3 Heart Rate Monitors for Smartphones

There are a number of options for adding heart rate monitoring to a smartphone.

4 Android or iPhone?

I have run extensively with both android and iPhone SmartWatches, and have noted these possible advantages for each. Both platforms can perform admirably, with great GPS accuracy possible.

4.1 Android Advantages

  • There are a much wider variety of android phones to choose from, so it's easier to find a form factor that you like. Generally speaking, a smaller phone is easier to run with. (The iPhone 6 does come in two sizes now, but nothing alike the variety of android phones.)
  • The physical ergonomics of most android phones is better than the iPhone. The iPhone tends to be slippery where you need to grip it, and has hard edges that are a little uncomfortable to hold while running.

4.2 iPhone Advantages

  • The running apps seem to be better on the iPhone than on android.
  • iOS is far more secure than Android, with 97% Of Mobile Malware On Android and the remaining 3% on Nokia 's defunct Symbian. None are reported on iOS or Windows Phone.

What about Windows Phone? I like the Windows Phone operating system a lot, but I've not had the opportunity to test one account. I suspect that the selection of a running apps will be more restricted than the other platforms however.

5 SmartWatches

Some of the problems of using a Smartphone can be alleviated with a SmartWatch. With the phone mounted on your upper arm, it's hard to see the display or control the app, but the SmartWatch can act as a remote display and remote control. A SmartWatch also allows you to turn off the display on your phone, which greatly prolongs battery life.

  • Pebble. This is a small, lightweight SmartWatch that uses e-ink technology to provide long battery life, though not as good as the Echo. It works with a number of smartphone running apps, though the support is better on iPhone than android. The pebble also functions as a general purpose SmartWatch for receiving text notifications end of the like. ($49.00 USD at Amazon.com
    (Referbished $20.99)
    ).
  • Magellan Echo. The Echo is designed as a sports focused SmartWatch, rather than the general purpose pebble. One of the coolest features of the Echo is that it uses a standard watch battery to give 6 to 12 months of battery life, so there's no need to recharge it. The Echo works with iPhone and a limited number of android phones. (price not listed at Amazon.com.) You can get the Echo with a heart rate monitor bundled, but I'd strongly recommend getting the Polar H7 instead. There is also a version called the Echo Fit that adds daily activity monitoring. If you want an activity monitor, the Basis Activity Tracker has far more sensors and does a much better job than the simple accelerometer based monitors like the Echo Fit. On the other hand the Echo Fit is not much more expensive than the base Echo, so the additional functionality might be worth considering.
  • Adidas Fit Smart. This is a rather strange hybrid device, that I don't recommend as a running watch or an activity monitor. It looks like an activity monitor and functions a little like a sports watch, but in reality is neither. The Adidas has the same optical heart rate monitoring used in the TomTom, but this rapidly drains the battery giving only five hours of use, so it not an activity monitor that is worn all the time. It has to pair with a smartphone to provide GPS, which makes it more of an advanced smartwatch, adding heart rate monitoring to the display functions. The optical heart rate monitoring only works with Adidas' own smartphone app, which is shame.
  • Casio STB-1000. This looks like a 1980's Casio watch, so you might consider it retro, ironic, or horrid. Sadly I found it to be more horrid than ironic, as it was not only retro in looks, but also retro in usability. The buttons are fiddly, with too many labels, the user interface is cumbersome, and it has a tendency to lose communications with the phone. The Casio only works with iPhones, not Android, and only a few running apps. In fact, the only reason to consider the Casio is that it's one of the few devices supported by the excellent running app RunMeter. On the plus side, it does have a long battery life (2 years), and it will function as a standalone stop watch.

6 Recommended Running Apps

My favorite iPhone app is RunMeter which offers great functionality, with lots of data that can be displayed. It exports to many social networks, including Twitter, Facebook, Strava, and dailymile. I've tried a number of Android running apps, but I never found anything I liked as much as RunMeter on the iPhone. To use an Android phone with the Pebble smart watch I used Pebble Runner, which was rather basic, but worked. I also like iSmoothRun, which supports several smart watches including the Pebble and the Magellan Echo.

7 Optimizing GPS Accuracy

There are several things you may need to do to achieve the levels of GPS Accuracy that I have obtained.

  • Different applications have radically different accuracy. While they are all using the same data, the sampling frequency and the smoothing they perform can make a huge difference.
  • The choice of case is a critical. I've found that a cheap case works far better than a thicker case, especially if the thicker neoprene becomes soaked in sweat. I had to restart my testing of the iPhone 5s as a thicker case was destroying the accuracy when it got soaked with sweat.
  • The phone needs a good view of the sky, so holding it in your hand, or strapping it to your upper arm works well. Clipping it to a waistband can reduce GPS accuracy.
  • Close all other applications other than the running application. This does not appear to be a major problem, but it may help slightly.
  • Even if your smartphone and your application are accurate, check that the exported data is also accurate, as I've seen some problems in this area.

8 iPhone as a Camera

I've come to enjoy using my iPhone as a camera, and I've tried a vast array of apps, with the following being my top picks.

  • I use the built in iPhone app for quick shots, or where I need HDR of a subject with movement
  • I find 645 Pro is the best all-around camera app.
  • For images where I want to blur, such as waterfalls or light streaks I use SlowShutter.
  • At night or in low light conditions I like Average Camera Pro which can produce images with surprisingly little noise.
  • When I need good HDR I use the auto bracketing feature of 645 Pro and post process with TrueHDR.
  • My favorite photo editor has become Snapseed.
  • If I want to upload to Instagram, I use Squaready to put on a border to prevent cropping to a square format.