Not even a year ago, there were those who questioned the hoopla over the iPhone. And here we are now, secure in the knowledge that Apple’s micro-Mac isn’t just a radical new phone, it’s a revolution in computing, communication, entertainment, and connectivity. If you disagree, well, you probably don’t own one. And that’s not meant to be snotty–I’ve arrived at this conclusion after testing nearly every smartphone available and then stepping up with my own precious cash for the iPhone and monthly unlimited calls and data. It’s a spendy conclusion, but oh-so-worth it.
So, with more than 15,000 programs in the iTunes store, what of those for use in the outdoors? Do the iPhone and Mother Nature play well? The short is answer is “yes”. The iPhone excels at delivering information. Programs that channel local knowledge–surf reports, snow reports, water flows–are perfect applications of the phone’s strengths. Those that replicate already-dialed electronics, like GPS, bike computers, and training devices, maybe not so much. (And of course you have to consider whether you really want that $300 chunk of sweet electronic envy exposed to the elements.) But still, the iPhone itself is already on its way to becoming indispensable and will become even more so–these 25 outdoor apps are part of the reason why.
Two quick things before you hit the list:
One, iPhones don’t swim and they don’t like sweat. Invest in the strongest plastic baggie in the world, the aLoksak from Park City, Utah–the waterproof bag keeps content safe and dry down to the bottom of the lake. Get a three-pack of the five inches by four inches for $6.39.
Two, it’s probably not obvious, but if you click on the app’s title, the link will take you to its page in the iTunes Store. Oh, and click on the thumbnails to see the screen grabs larger.
Six bucks will weed out the casual from the lunartics, which is a shame cause this is one very sweet and detailed moon app. It represents the big chunk of cheese as a sphere, which is how you really see it (as opposed to flattened), and has 1,800 named features and the locations of 26 spacecraft. And while you probably won’t need to search for many spots by name, it does that, too, and has a wonderful Google Earthian flyby and you come in above it. Oh, and it also lets you view the dark side of the moon–cue Pink Floyd…now.
Divides the moon into quadrants and lets you scroll through seamless NASA photos of lunar surface, with 200 named objects. The image zips across the screen with the flick of your finger–it’s a great companion with binoculars. But you’re left wanting more: more detail, more objects, more resolution. All those features are available for $2 with the full version.
If your primal intuition isn’t quite strong enough to tell you when the moon is full, get this simple lunar phase app. As you can see from the pic, it shows you moonrise and set, sunrise and set, phases, etc., for any date and any location. And that’s about it. Simple is as simple does.
Star Walk has the coolest interface of any app, astronomy or otherwise: All your planetary and stellar info scrolls across a gorgeous map of the stars and looks like the navigation screen of some intergalactic cruiser. It’s the prettiest and most enjoyable way to scan the night sky short of walking outside and looking up. And you can fast forward through time and watch the night sky streak across the screen. The content itself, though, is rudimentary: Star Walk helps you identify what’s in the sky and not much more. It sure is purty, though.
Far simpler and not as pretty as Star Walk, Starmap is actually more usable. There are more controls are your fingertips, searches are faster, constellations are ID’d in a split-second, and there’s beta on extra-stellar objects like meteor showers. Oh, and it has a flashlight that works in white or night-vision-saving red. The bottom line: Both of these programs are simple star finders–they’d be a lot more engaging if they including actual information on the star, planets, and constellations.
Bicycle Gear Calculator
UPDATED: Cost: Free $4.99
I swap chainrings on my single speeds about once every presidential election, but I still think this app is fantastic. Most cyclists don’t need or don’t care about the esoterica of gear ratios or gear inches, but if you’re a wrench, single speeder, or fixie fanatic, you’ll find it irreplaceable. The freebie quickly calculates ratios using chainrings from 20-tooth to 61-tooth, sprockets from eight to 35, and cranks from 150 mm to 200 mm. Simple, efficient, and fast, it does one thing and does it well. UPDATE: The price changed just after this review posted. At $5, Bicycle Gear Calculator is for true believers only.
Map My Fitness is a big social networking site that allows you to upload and share training rides. Not my thing, but this iPhone app works with it seamlessly. Registration required.
At last check, there were 27 pages of health and fitness apps on the iTunes store, everything from the sounds of Hawaiian waterfalls to trackers for menstrual cycles. Most are superficial and somewhat hapless. If you’re gonna use the iPhone as an exercise aid, go all the way: Absolute Fitness pulls all your efforts under one roof and keeps track of calories consumed, calories burnt through exercise, weight, body fat percentage, BMI, and more. At 15 bucks, it’s not for dabblers–it’s a fully featured, powerful little life organizer. The database of foods is extensive and you can easily add custom items or whole meals. Online reviews have mentioned crashes, but I’ve never experienced any–the only glitch is that the amount I enter for a particular food sometimes resets itself to zero. Perhaps it was coded by an Italian mother wants me to eat more?
Turns your screen white. Don’t underestimate the usefulness of this. Also gives you red (great for stargazing), green, blue, black (huh?), custom color, all of which can be brightened or dimmed. And sorry about the picture, but it’s better than a plain white screen.
Knots, Splices and Ropework
How much of an outdoor geek are you? The test is whether you think this app rocks. I do, so capital G for me. What is it? It’s a copy of the 1917 guidebook by outdoorsman A. Hyatt Verrill, which outlines 154 knots, splices, and tangled messes of cord. It’s filled with old school writing and illustrations that never go out of style, and the content is every bit as valuable today as the guidance in “Freedom of the Hills”.
Despite the clunky design, this is a killer app: Using the iPhone’s location, it organizes resorts by those closest to you and shows at a glance base depth and recent snowfall. Click down a page to the resort level and it shows dumpage in the last 24, plus the four most recent snowfalls. And very cool, it displays onsite ski reports from users. A lot of these boil down to “sick!” but it’s still the only fast independent verification method short of calling a local bro. Oh–and there are quick links to weather and webcams. This app should be on every skier’s and boarder’s phone.
This app from Big Air Software will track your runs throughout the day, log your stats, and let you load the whole data cluster to Google Earth. Nice, if you like novelties, but not especially useful. The real power is that it displays a three-dimensional view of the resort, so you can grasp the topography you’re riding faster than with any trail map. Using the touch screen, you can spin, enlarge, pull back, etc. Resolution could be higher and the inclusion of topo lines would make the terrain feel even more 3D, but it’s still a clever, informative little program.
The sister app to iTrailMap 3D, this freebie is the best software for viewing trail maps. All it does it display the resort’s map, but it’s one of the few programs that lets you enlarge the map big enough to be useful. Coverage of North America is complete, Europe less so–unless they’re hiding under neighboring resorts, there’s no La Grave or Alagna, for example. Big Air Software is continuing to add maps, though, so you just have to drop an email and ask them to include the missing resorts.
The Snow Report from the North Face
TNF learned the elementary school lesson that neatness counts: This is the best designed, most modern-looking of all the snow applications. Easy on the eyes, as the saying goes. And it’s the only one of the snow reports whose images don’t suck. With great photos of Sage Cattabria-Alosa, Ingrid Backstrom, and others, shot by masters like Scott Markewitz, the free app is almost worth downloading for spontaneous snow stoke on photos alone (even though there are just a handful of pics).
The snow report itself is visually arresting, graphic, and presented in a simple grid. Current conditions, recent snowfall, and the weather forecast are quickly grasped with a glance. Data is provided by snocountry.com, the same service that powers REI’s app and seemingly dozens of others, so there’s nothing special there, it’s just organized well. Another cool feature is a quick link to a detailed weather forecast for the resort by the National Weather Service, but this opens in Safari and can take ages to load.
Other features fall short. The app is preloaded with three resorts–if you want more, you have to add them yourself, and navigating to this feature isn’t obvious. There’s no scrolling by region, either. You can view trail maps, but they’re so low resolution as to be almost worthless. Still, it’s worth a few clicks and a sync to check it out.
REI Snow Report
It’s free, but don’t waste your time: This snow reporting app is poorly organized, slow, and too blatantly commercial. Surprisingly greedy for a company known for its customer service, the iPhone program shows four panels on its home page–three are resort reports you select, the fourth is a link to shop online at REI. Piping snocountry.com reports can be done faster and less offensively through TNF’s report.
Ski Jump Lite
What a hoot! The game is nearly as much fun as gelande and a whole lot less dangerous to your body and skis. I hucked it 88 meters on my first jump. Beat that, sucker! Of course, I have yet land properly, but hey, crashes count for style points, right? And chicks dig digital scars, right?
Utah Snow Report
Surprisingly useful. I say “surprisingly” because expectations are low when apps are so clearly commercially self-serving. But this is a good build. The main menu is plain jane–a simple alphabetical list of Utah’s resorts, but when you drill down to the resort level it gets a lot better. At a glance you see recent snowfall, current webcam, last two snowfalls, and a brief overview of the area. There are links to trail map and resort website, but these launch Safari, which is a drag. One cool idea: There’s a “call resort” button that dials it up for you.
It would seem lame not to include Google Earth here, but the mini me is a pale shadow of its desktop/laptop self. Nowhere near as featured and darn slow to boot, it’s worth downloading cause it’s free, fun, and singular. Just don’t expect the same “wow” experience you get on a big machine.
Map My Fitness is a big social networking site that allows you to upload and share training runs, rides, hikes, etc. Not my thing, but this iPhone app works with it seamlessly. Registration required.
Motion-X GPS Lite
There are dozens of apps that use the iPhone’s GPS to record speed, distance, routes, waypoints, and all those other navigatory geekimetrics. But every time I use one, I feel like a doofus. Why carry the weight and risk the damage? But if you are gonna do that, here’s your pick: MXGPS seems the most accurate of all the trail apps and plots pace, too. You can set waypoints and navigate back to them. And there’s even a rudimentary map feature–it shows your track, but not terrain or streets.
Trails runs neck and neck with Motion-X GPS Lite. Its emphasis is on tracking routes and waypoints, not speed and distance. Oh, it does the latter, but its mapping is superlative. Using Google Maps, it provides views of road, satellite, or topography. And you can email or upload your waypoints and track in the near-universal GPX format, which can be added to “real” GPS units.
If you want cheap mapping from your trail program, check this one out–it incorporates Google Maps. You can’t add waypoints and it seems consistently less accurate than Motion-X. But hey, there’s maps.
Oakley Surf Report
Be skeptical of corporate infiltration of your outdoor brainspace, but be the first on your block to DL Oakley’s bitchin’ Surf Report–this thing kicks major ass. It compiles every little tidbit of watery data this side of buoy readings, worldwide. Oh, wait, there’s that, too. Wave size, interval, tide, sunrise/sunset, forecast, weather…the big O’s application even tells you when and how a particular spot breaks best. And hey, all you intermountain wave geeks, there’s no Sayulita report so you’ll have to rely on regional forecasting…but it’s 3 to 4 and the water temp’s 77.
RiverGuide for Kayakers
Near as I can tell, this is the only application for paddlers, but it’s so good it’s the only one you need. With 11,000 stream-flow gauges across the United States updated as often as every 15 mintues, RiverGuide tells you current conditions on just about every creek, river, or waterway you can put in. Search by name or region–results are almost instantaneous. For that alone, RiverGuide is worth five bucks, but it also has a sweet news service: Sorted by style of paddling (whitewater, sea, rafting, canoe) or region, it summarizes the latest developments from around the world (a random click turned up river news from the Jakarta Post)–and you can read the full story without leaving the app.
AccuWeather, Weather Bug, and the Weather Channel offer solid free weather apps, but AccuWeather is the best: It has the most features, the most video reports, and the best interface. The home page has six dedicated buttons, including one for special weather alarms and one for National Weather Service alerts–you see almost everything at a glance. And while AccuWeather is a one-stop meteorologist, Weather Bug is worth downloading too. AccuWeather stinks at displaying multiple locations, but that’s where Weather Bug excels. As for the Weather Channel app, it’s fine. But AccuWeather gives more and better-organized reports.