As an iPhone owner who runs for exercise, my biggest disappointment at Apple's recent iPod event was the lack of Nike+ support for the GPS-sporting 3G iPhone. Instead, the second generation iPod touch has Nike+ built-in, and the iPhone still has nothing. I would be disappointed, but the power of the iPhone App Store pulls out a big win on this front, as several free Nike+ alternatives are already leveraging your 3G iPhone's GPS capabilities to provide you with many of the same functionality as you can already get from Nike+ and then some. Keep reading for a look at some of the best free Nike+ alternatives.
I tested two different iPhone apps: Fitnio and RunKeeper. Both of them are free from the iTunes App Store, and both automatically upload your running stats to a web site à la Nike+. (There are actually tons of similar apps in the App Store, but these are the two that caught my eye.) I took each on run side-by-side with my girlfriend, who was wearing her Nike+ kit with an iPod nano, for comparison. Here's how each worked:
RunKeeper is a beautiful iPhone application—in fact, it's exactly the kind of app you'd expect a real Nike+ solution to be. It tracks your speed, pace, time, and distance, displays that blow-by-blow information directly on your iPhone while you're running, and has a great history feature that lets you browse through your recent runs and delete a run if you don't want it. That's all completely awesome.
To add to the fun, RunKeeper automatically uploads each run to the RunKeeper web site, where you can browse your run history on a Google Map and view a great speed and elevation vs. distance graph.
The downside: For whatever reason, RunKeeper was terrible at mapping my run to Google Maps correctly. The actually distance measurements were on the money, but the route was way off. I'd give the folks at RunKeeper the benefit of the doubt that they'll get this one worked out, but right now it's a bit off the mark.
Fitnio is a little less polished all-around than RunKeeper, but it also outshines RunKeeper on a few key points. The Fitnio interface on the iPhone is nice, with big readable text you can quickly decipher while your iPhone is bouncing around in your running case (it beats out RunKeeper in readability). Unfortunately it doesn't log all of the blow-by-blow pacing and speed information that RunKeeper does, which is unfortunate—especially since this is one of the nicer features that you get with Nike+. It also doesn't have as many built-in options as the RunKeeper iPhone app, so you can't browse recent runs or anything fun like that. Instead, the only thing you can do with the Fitnio iPhone app is track your run. Give the app your weight and height and Fitnio also outdoes RunKeeper by tracking the calories you've burned. Admittedly, this feature will probably be trivial for RunKeeper to implement, but it's the kind of information you love to see when you're sweating it out.
Another point at which Fitnio bests RunKeeper is with its pseudo-lock mode. Since your iPhone's GPS won't work when your iPhone is locked, you have to keep both of these apps running and your iPhone unlocked during the entirety of your run. Fitnio is smart, though, and displays its own slide-to-unlock screen after a few seconds of inactivity so you don't accidentally bump a button and stop tracking mid-run. It also has a cool down mode for tracking your cool down work separate from the run.
Things are very much the same on the web front—Fitnio is much more spare at the moment, but what it does, it does well. For example, where RunKeeper's mapping of my run to a Google Map was erratic and just plain wrong, Fitnio mapped my route with impressive precision. On the other hand, Fitnio doesn't sport the cool Flash graph displaying your pace and elevation over the course of your run.
How Do They Compare to Nike+
The distance and speed measurements matched almost perfectly with the readouts we got from the Nike+ iPod we were running with. As the Fitnio web site points out, these apps and web sites are just getting started. Where the Nike+ iPod site is slow to innovate and add new features, these dedicated little sites are much more likely to push the limits and give you everything Nike+ can and then some.
Granted, it may still be just a matter of time before the Nike+ iPhone GPS app hits the App Store, but by the time it does, you may already be hooked on one of these alternatives. The one thing these apps can't have that an official Nike+ app would is tighter integration with your iPod. You need to play your iPod before you start your run, and you can play, pause, or advance tracks using either your headphone button or by double-clicking the home button, so you can still get most of the functionality from your iPod. But you don't get the motivational soundbites of encouragement that Nike+ offers from the likes of Lance Armstrong (Congratulations, that was your best run yet!), and you can't set a super-motivation-song or whatever it's called to kick in when you need an extra boost.
But hey, these apps are here right now, they're free, and as long as you have a decent GPS signal, they work. Since Apple doesn't seem to be moving anywhere on GPS-enabled Nike+, I'll gladly accept these free and promising alternatives.
If you've tried these or any other fitness tracking iPhone app from the App Store, let's hear how they worked for you in the comments.