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21 August 2010

App Review: The North Face's Trailhead for iPhone

New Trailhead App from The North Face
Years ago, long before the days of web 2.0, I had a Garmin eTrex, a great little hand-held GPS that I logged all my travels with. Unfortunately it didn't play nice with the candy-coloured iMac I had at the time so my adventures stayed in it's minuscule inbuilt memory, going unshared and unappreciated.

Fast-forward to two months ago and when I got an iPhone 4 the first use I thought of, other than the obvious making calls and other phoney-type things, was logging my hikes. So I started to play with a number of apps that eventually led me to Trails and Everytrail Pro. Now whilst Trails is presently my preferred app due to it's interface and simplicity, Everytrail is was a whole new ball-game.

The only way to describe Everytrail Pro would be like the beautiful woman in a bar that you have a whirlwind relationship with, move in together after a couple weeks then discover she's an absolute psycho to live with and so run for your life. This was my experience with the app, initially fabulous, great to show off, then turned out to be a nightmare and impossible to live with. So I dumped her it and went to Trails instead.

A nice, simple, home screen
Last week there was an announcement  of an Everytrail powered tracking app from The North Face, "Epic fail" was my immediate thought, but upon looking into it the app's only using the data from the site  - rather than the underlying engine.

The North Face have got the developers at Factory Labs to do for free something that Everytrail couldn't do with a paid app, make it visually attractive, simple to use, and featureful.  So as we've two apps using the same content here, let's have a bit of a comparison feature...

Unlike Everytrail Pro (and Lite) you open Trailhead and after a quick splash screen you're given two options; Start tracking, and a list of popular trips nearby - seems they've made good use of location services to give you a list of activities nearby, straight away, no guide to Dublin or hikes in Yosemite here.  The trips are pulled down from the Everytrail site (of which I'm actually a huge fan).

Select a trip nearby and you get all the usual photos, statistics, story and tips, along with the options to follow the trail, add it your favorites, get directions to the start (courtesy of Google Maps) or share it with friends via Facebook and Twitter.

Map screen showing photos taken
Choose "Start Tracking" and up pops a satellite image of your location, press "Start Tracking" at the bottom of the screen and your icons change to give you a plethora of options to play with whilst en-route.  As you'd expect you can scroll and zoom in and out of the map to your heart's content, add way-points, edit your route on-the-fly, and take-geotagged photos.

A rather nice feature is the little iPod icon at the bottom of the screen to navigate through your current playlist without having to multitask, simple-things-for-simple-minds I know but it's nice that North Face appreciate that a lot of activities are undertaken alone and invariably with an MP3 player.

The options icon gives you the choice between map modes, and turning off way-points and images. Unfortunately your only map options are Google's regular map, satellite, and hybrid modes - no terrain maps here, which is a shame.

Once you've finished your journey press "Finish" and you can edit the trip story, add any tips and suggestions for others, view the photos and edit captions,  and then upload it straight to the EveryTrail site for the world to see (and hopefully get out and do themselves).

Filtered search results
The Search icon allows you to search all the trips on Everytrail using your location information or by place name, post code, or keyword(s).  You can refine your search by distance, and selecting the types of activity you're looking for from a pretty exhaustive list.  Advanced options give you the keyword(s) option as well as the ability to filter out trips and trails without photos.

The search results are provided in the same layout as the home screen, however you can filter them by proximity, length and rating.  Trails without photos are represented by a small overview map.  Here a search for Cumbria with keywords of "Blencathra" has brought up, surprise surprise, one of mine...

Tapping on a  trip then brings up the same details as if you've selected a route from the home screen.

Opening the saved trips section give three options, a list of your saved trips on Everytrail (assuming you have a free account), favourites chosen from trips nearby and searches,  and draft trips - the ones you've completed but not uploaded to the site.  Once again you can sort the trips by length, proximity and rating.

Finally there's the 'Features' section which is slightly lacking compared to the rest of the app, but lets you access an FAQ, The North Face's news feed, Events (unfortunately not based on your location data), a handy dealer locator (if you're in the USA) and, of course, the application settings.


So how does Trailhead compare to Everytrail?

Well, for starters you don't have to drill down through menus to get where you want to be, everything is along the bottom of the screen and then is normally no more than one or two taps away.  So that's 1 point for ease of use.

Secondly it doesn't look like it was designed by a five year old.  The branding actually suits the app, unlike Everytrail that looks like it's a kindergarten class project. So that's another point for Trailhead.

Thirdly Trailhead ignores all the paid for content from Everytrail (for the time being at least) it loads local journey's and your saved trips without making you scroll through totally unrelated guides first.

Furthermore Trailhead doesn't seem to have Everytrail's problem of forgetting that it's meant to be be a GPS tracking app and so ignoring half your route, and leaving you scratching your head as to where you journey went when you check the screen an hour later...


Where does it fall down against the competition?
  • No pre-caching of maps, No terrain maps :  Trailhead downloads the map as it needs them.  If you want to see a map on your screen you need a phone signal and that's not always possible.   Also the map options are limited to street, satellite and hybrid - there's no terrain maps from Google or  OpenStreetMap here. Although you really shouldn't leave home without a paper map and a compass anyway...
  • No realtime stats :  Unfortunately statistics aren't shown onscreen as you're under-way, they're a button press away and even then it's as of the last way-point.  Additionally the stats screen does its best to load up a satellite photo of your location every time you open it - not necessarily useful information.  An altitude log might be better if they're looking for something to fill the screen, otherwise just make the numbers bigger!
  • Not retina display compatible :  You'd think that an app released, and presumably developed, a while after the iPhone 4 launch would be coded to take advantage of the gorgeous display.  Nope, the graphics are as rough as the bears proverbial and unfortunately it lets the rest of the app down.
  • No video : It's rare for me to use this feature, but hitting the camera button only allows pictures.  Fine if you just want snaps of your journey, not so good if you want a bit of HD video to go with your trip.

Conclusions

As free GPS tracking apps go Trailhead is up there with the best of them.  It's easy to use, easy to live with, and easy on the eye.  With a few little tweaks it could be on par with, if not better than, any of the paid apps.  If you're looking to try GPS tracking, or just don't want to spend hard-earned cash, then Trailhead's certainly for you.

Find the Trailhead app here at iTunes 
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