Nicholas Skinner

Freelance website and web application developer

Archive for May, 2010

Ski GPS iPhone App Reviews

Saturday, May 1st, 2010

A review of the 3 “Ski GPS” type iPhone applications I tested out on a recent ski holiday to France (Les 3 Vallees area).

VisioSki – Les 3 Vallees

VisioSki ScreenshotI first downloaded VisioSki because it was the only application I could find on the app store for the 3 Vallees area.

Features:

  • 3D Map
  • Show current GPS position on map
  • Search for runs by name
  • Search for lifts by name

Testing it beforehand it looked impressive and seemed to work reasonably well. Also since I installed it at home the 330.4 MB download was not too much of an issue although it did seem quite large.

VisioSki Memory Error ScreenshotHowever the more I used it in the resort, the more frustrated I became with it. There appears to be some kind of memory issue with the application that occurs after you zoom in/scroll around the map too much resulting in the message “You are running low on memory, you will be taken to the home position to release memory.” Making it difficult to really use the application effectively at all.

Overall I was left disappointed with this application especially after I had paid for it and after it had been such a big download (although admittedly only £2.39 I would have still expected it to work).

My assumption is that it has only been fully tested / only really works properly on the more powerful iPhone 3GS.

iTunes Link: VisioSki

Ski: Alps

Ski: Alps ScreenshotAfter a bad experience with VisioSki “Ski: Alps” was the 2nd Ski navigation application I managed to find on the app store, and it took quite a bit of searching on various keywords to find it. As far as I can see there does not seem to be an easy way to locate Ski specific navigation apps that support specific Ski resorts.

Ski Alps in general is a much more polished / professional application.

Features:

  • Support for many resorts in Austria, France, Germany, Italy, Switzerland.
  • Download maps for only the resorts you need
  • Show current GPS position on map
  • Search for runs by name
  • Search for lifts by name
  • Search for various other points of interest including Ski Schools, and rental shops
  • Tap to show nearby runs
  • Ability to record tracks (did not try this)
  • Ability to turn on/off Google/Bing map overlays

I think it is certainly a useful option to be able to show street map overlays, especailly if you are just trying to find a particular run after coming off a bus in town, and to also be able to hide them to improve the responsiveness of a application / save on overseas data fees / save on battery life / when 3G coverage may not be available anyway.

Ski: Alps No Overlay ScreenshotI like the ability to search for lifts, runs, other points of interest, and that it is a polished / responsive application, I also like that runs include direction arrows. I dislike and can not really understand why they chose not to include run names on the map (my guess is that there is a technical limitation with this due to how they chose to show maps) meaning that to find out the name of a run you need to click on it, so if there are many runs going from the same place you need to click on them all until you find the one you want which is not really very practical.

The major difference however between this software and e.g. a paper Piese map is the application uses a Google maps style of doing things where the top of the screen is North, whereas on a paper piste map (or at least “Les 3 Vallees” piste map), the top of the map is the top of the mountain (which in this case is actually roughly South).

Overall after personally getting used to the paper piece map that seemed somewhat intuitive, I found it difficult to get used to the applications orientation, and that together with the difficultly in actually seeing the names of runs led me not to make much use of it.

iTunes Link: Ski: Alps

Satski

Satski ScreenshotI first heard about Satski (and the existence of Ski specific GPS devices/software) from “The Gadget Show” (Winter Challenge, Update) on Channel Five.

After seeing two relatively positive reviews of the Satski (both the dedicated hardware version, and the Android app version) this was my preferred option however I initially discounted it not wanting to spend £175 on the dedicated unit, and not having an android compatible phone. However after checking the Satski site part way through the holiday I discovered that an iPhone version had just been released, and I therefore downloaded it.

Features:

  • Support for many resorts in a large number of countries
  • Download maps for only the resort you need
  • Show current GPS position on map
  • Show nearby points of interest
  • Uses an electronic version of the paper piste map
  • Supports route navigating between points of interest

Satski’s use of scanned copy of the paper piste map was a definite advantage, along with its ability to show your location on the map. This also means you can find your location on the map using Satski then quickly find it on the actual paper map. Its ability to navigate between points of interest was also a definite advantage over the other two applications I looked at which did not support this feature.

However after spending more and more time trying to use the application on the slope I was again left disappointed.

Issues:

  • Application loading time – On a dedicated device when you are leaving the application running loading time is perhaps not so much of an issue however on an iPhone that can not do multitasking you are likely to more frequently switch between apps. Satski however takes over 30 seconds to load which is frustrating when you just want to take a quick look at a map.
  • GPS accuracy – In my opinion the worst thing a GPS application can do is tell you where you are and be wrong especially if you are up on a mountain, but that is exactly what Satski did. I have used GPS technology for a long time, first unit was a Garmin GPS 12 around 10+ years ago, and I now also have a TomTom, and the iPhone with inbuilt GPS. I realise that on occasion GPS capable devices have difficulty finding your location however generally they will give you some indication of this. On the GPS 12 for example you could see how many satellites were in range, and see if a 3D or only 2D fix had been acquired (not perfect but better than nothing). On the TomTom it generally seems to either have a fix or not have a fix without anything in between, and may sometimes get confused but generally gets back on track quickly if you keep on the path you were on. In the iPhone maps application it will generally start off with a large circle where it things you are and slowly narrow that down while it gets your exact position, and can sometimes be slow to update but is usually fairly reliable. Satski however pinpointed my location wrongly and then continued to do so without changing even though I stood in the same location to give it some time to correct itself, it also gives no indication of the position being unreliable, or how accurate it was. It is worth noting that this may have also been the case in the other applications however with Satski errors were just more noticeable as I knew where I was on the paper map and could compare it with the identical copy on screen.
  • Route Navigation – Ideally I would be looking for an on screen turn-by-turn type direction feature (if possibly making use of the iPhone 3GS compass if run on the 3GS, an option for spoken directions would also be good), text directions as an optional extra, a line indicating where you need to go overlaid on the map, and a marker (that moves) depending on where you are currently located (something similar to what TomTom and other car navigation systems do). The Satski however does none of this it just “animates” (moves) the map to your starting position, then animates it along your route until it reaches the end. This may be acceptable on short runs, and piste’s with only a few runs in the same place however for anywhere else it is not very useful. There is no speed control or ability to pause / resume animation, the user is left to quickly try and remember the route, and even this is difficult because you can not zoom in to easily see the run names. I therefore found this feature useless for actually finding your way anywhere, even text based directions would have been easier to follow.

Overall if Satski had loaded in a reasonable amount of time, accurately plotted your position on the map (or at least told you if the position was not very accurate), had a usable route navigation feature it could be a useful application however until it does I will not be using it again in the future.

I am left wondering if the application performs the same on all the other platforms it is currently available for (dedicated hardware, Windows Mobile, Android, Blackberry) or if it is just the case that the iPhone OS port was released too soon before all the bugs were worked out.

iTunes Link: Satski

Overall

Overall I do not think any of the 3 applications I tested are really worth using in place of a paper piste, as they do not offer enough additional value to make up for their shortcomings.

Advantages of a paper piste map:

  • Navigating by sign posts, run names, points of interest is at least fairly reliable, or if there are none of these you know its not reliable.
  • When planning a route, you can see a large amount of the map at the same time (without endlessly scrolling), and you can do it in your own time and be able to read the names of routes / which routes you need to take.
  • You are not risking loosing/breaking/dropping an expensive phone in the snow that is not really meant for / ideal for that environment.
  • You do not need to wait for +30 seconds in some cases to start viewing the map.

On the one occasion where I really did get somewhat lost I opted to use the paper map and save the battery life on my phone.

Note: All applications were tested on an iPhone 3G running software version 3.1.3

An Alternative For Next Year

After not having a positive experience with the iPhone, and 3 iPhone applications I tested this year I started looking around for alternatives. Unless anything else comes out before then, for next years holiday I will likely be purchasing a Garmin Dakota 20 (support, review) i.e. a general purpose outdoor GPS unit, and a SnowRanger software ski addon map pack.

It is also worth noting that since the original review on ‘The Gadget Show’ (which was not that great compared to the Satski) the application does now support ‘Turn by turn’ navigation however with some caveats since it is using hardware designed to navigate only on roads.

Advantages to dedicated hardware: (that is meant for GPS navigation)

  • Long battery life / no need to worry about leaving it on and the battery running out.
  • Possible to leave it on to log your route which can be downloaded later.
  • Possible to instantly see where you are now and where you have been.
  • Robust / waterproof hardware that is meant for use outside in harsh conditions.
  • Hopefully will provide a more reliable / accurate positions.
  • Includes a compass that appears (from other reviews) to be fairly reliable once calibrated, and is likely used for navigation, i.e. the map will move depending on which direction you are facing.
  • Shows a bearing (arrow) to your destination.
  • Screen does not rely on capacitance to work like the iPhone, i.e. can be used with gloves on.

It does have the main disadvantage of not using a scanned copy of the piste map which most people would already be familiar with reading however hopefully the other advantages such as turn by turn navigation, more reliable GPS, long battery life, digital compass, bearing to destination would make up for this and deliver more value in the long term.