4 November 2010

App Review: Trails for iPhone

Trails for the iPhone (Route Overview)
A couple months ago I looked at The North Face's Trailhead for iPhone.  Whilst I found it to be better than Everytrail Pro (which uses the same online back-end), I concluded it wouldn't be replacing my app of choice; Trails by Felix Lamouroux.  So I think it's about time we had a look at Trails and why it's still my pick of the bunch for GPS tracking on the iPhone.

I think the biggest attraction to Trails is the fact it does exactly what is says on the tin.  Designed to create GPS logs, that's pretty much all it does - and it's all the better for it. 

Open up the app and it immediately presents you with a "My Tracks" list, with the opportunity to sort them chronologically (most recent first) or alphabetically and also search through them once you have enough saved.

To get started with tracking it's as simple as hitting the "+" button, giving your route a title and description (although both are optional) and pressing the "Start recording" button on the next screen.  The app normally acquires a GPS fix pretty quickly in my experience, however it is worth waiting for the accuracy to improve before setting off, otherwise you can end up with the beginning of your trip "done" at impossible speeds as it narrows down the location.

Simple yet powerful home screen
On the go there's a wealth of information to be had at a quick glance - with even more just a tap away.  Trip duration, distance, pace and average pace are visible at all times, but a quick tap and you  can cycle through altitude, current speed and averages.

If there's a phone or data connection available, Trails pulls down a terrain map from the OpenStreetMap website whilst underway, but can be turned off if you're worried about data charges.  Zooming and scrolling is available on the map without having to unlock the screen and  if you're relying on the on-screen map for your navigation (you can preload maps before you set off) there's also a "minimal" mode available, showing a larger map with distance and current speed.

Photos and way-points can be added to the route by unlocking the screen and pressing the relevant icon.  Whilst the way-points are useful I find myself using Pro HDR instead of the built in camera app for photos, but they both save GPS data with the picture - so matching it all up later is child's play.

Once you're done with a trip Trails can export the log straight to an EveryTrail account, e-mail you a GPX and KML file or, usefully, send it to an application like TrailRunner over a wifi connection.

Track summary screen
Unlike Trailhead and EveryTrail, Trails allows for routes to be imported from anywhere you can download a GPX track.  "Imported Tracks" brings up a list of routes you've already imported, with the add button opening a browser window that lets you download GPX files from your favorite sites.

Moving on to the Settings screen; there's enough to play with to keep a control freak happy for hours.  Everything from the units and type of map to the accuracy of way-points and the distance between them can be customised to suit.  4 user-definable presets mean you can tweak the app to work differently depending on the activity you're doing.

So What's the USP?

I've been using the app reasonably heavily over the last few months, and the uniqueness is that's its superb at its job, it doesn't try to be a jack of all trades. Like paying extra money for high-quality tools, they'll only do what they're designed for but they'll do it reliably time and time again without letting you down. You could argue that a dedicated device from Garmin, or similar, would run rings round it, but I'm into convergence and carrying less weight rather than more.

Where Does it Fall Down?

If you're looking for something that lets you create featured-packed trip reports, shoot HD video, make audio guides, and share with the global community then you'll probably have a few bones to pick with Trails for the iPhone.

Having said that, it doesn't mean that there isn't room for improvement, as mentioned earlier it sometimes records incredibly high speeds between the first few way-points (the worst I have saved is 200yards covered at 309mph!), so some kind of logical operations might not go amiss.

Visually the app is nothing special, but the interface is laid out sensibly.  It doesn't need the embellishments or visual effects of other apps as that would steer Trails away from its purpose.


If you're looking for a well written, and well supported, track logger that does exactly what it says on the tin, then you can't go far wrong parting with a very small amount of cash for Trails. 

Yes, it has it's little idiosyncrasies; starting a trip log takes a few taps and you've got to unlock the screen twice whilst you're underway to add waypoints or take a photo (However as Apple doesn't allow the physical buttons on the iPhone to be used to control apps...). But, to be honest, they're little things that are easy to live with and it'd be a steal at twice the price.

Next week I'll be taking an in-depth look at the latest release of EveryTrail Pro. Has it improved since the first release? Check back next week.
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