iPhone GPS with iTrail and RunKeeper (Kelso)

This week sees the introduction of RunKeeper and an updated version of iTrail for the iPhone. Both applications make use of the platform’s built-in hardware support for GPS tracking in real time and recording routes for future reference.

Let’s look at how each app performs against my criteria as expanded from my earlier blog post:

  • Live GPS tracking
  • Real-time display of route and current location on interactive map
  • Custom interval precision (how often GPS location is recorded)
  • Storing of multiple GPS tracks
  • Display of stored GPS tracks on map
  • Location tagging (set placemark)
  • Provides real-time feedback on altitude, speed / pace, and distance traveled
  • Provide and record GPS accuracy (eg: accurate to 10m, 310m).
  • Provide “smoothing” / “straightening of the track based on the GPS accuracy
  • Provide altitude readjustment by matching lat/long against SRTM elevations
  • Export to GPX format
  • Export to KML format
  • Import of GPX and KML tracks to “follow” (eg, download a trail and follow along in the field)
  • Import map (via KML/KMZ ground overlay?) and follow along (thus not requiring Edge or 3G connection)
  • Attach photos to location (location is created on capture of photo)
  • See all photos in an album on the map as icons
  • Click on the photo icon in map view get a big view of the photo
  • Attach a longer text description to each location, not just the name
  • Can the app be exited (not be active) and still record the GPS track?
  • Can the app be screen locked while recording to prevent data loss?
  • Battery life (offer ways to maximize beyond 3 hours)
  • Developer support (responsiveness, feature updates)
  • Price


Active App: The apps are limited by Apple to only record while the app is active on the display. If you take a phone call or decide to answer a text or check an email or otherwise switch out of the application it will stop recording. This is fine if you stop moving and then pick up your route. But you must remember to go back to the app and “resume” the GPS tracking.

Battery Life: The iPhone is NOT a dedicated GPS device and, while you can eek out more “GPS time” by turning off wi-fi and dimming the screen, you’ll still only get between 3 and 4 hours track time before running the battery into the ground.


These apps are just the tip of the iceberg for GPS on the iPhone. Both apps are cheap compared to a full featured GPS and should be complemented with other apps like Where to?, Vicinity, Where, Nearby, and Yelp to get the other “nearby points of interest” found on a full service GPS device. I’d purchase both to support the further development and see where apps go 🙂

Now to the reviews…

$3 — get on iTunes — company website

iTrail was first to market (it’s been out for a week+ now) and is priced to move at $3. It has been updated to version 1.2 as of Monday morning and version 1.3 is promised as soon as Apple can review it, which lags a week or two behind real time.

Version 1.2 introduces a screenlock similar to Apple’s own screenlock so you can store the iPhone in a pocket and not worry about accidentally canceling the GPS tracking. I had problems with that while testing version 1 on the trail.

iTrail allows the altitude and speed to be graphed against distance. After the track is recorded (or between recording sessions) iTrail allows the route to be previewed on a Google Maps (requires Edge or 3G service, won’t work in the back country). But there is no ability to zoom in or out, pan, etc. Version 1.1 introduced the ability to export the track to GPX and KML formats via Google Docs (free account required).

The GPX can be loaded into your standard GIS software and the KML can be added to your own Google Maps mashup or viewed in Google Earth.

iTrail can be complimented with TrailRunner for the Mac which will import the GPX file and you can perform all sorts of “sports” analysis on the saved tracks.

I occasionally had problems with the track starting to record with a spurious first data point. This can be worked around by starting a track at the trailhead and then waiting a couple minutes and using the reset track button.

The track accuracy was not especially detailed. The new v1.2 adds ability to increase the precision but still it is not as good as RunKeeper.

Overall, iTrail meets 10 of my 22 criteria and is cheaper than RunKeeper.

$10 — get on iTunes — company websit

RunKeeper has managed to generate quite a bit of hype preceding it’s launch Monday. Overall I find it to be more precise in tracking locations. I think it is doing this by sampling the GPS signal with greater frequency (say every 2 seconds instead of 10 seconds). Unlike iTrail, you must publish your “run” (or ride or walk or drive) to the runkeeper.com site to view it on a Google Mashup that is full featured and can toggle between map and hybrid satellite mode.

While RunKeeper is more accurate in recording the locations along my route than iTrail, there is no user-modifiable setting for this. Nor does RunKeeper track elevation (altitude).

Both RunKeeper and iTrail apps should allow an option to calculate the speed and adjust the interval accordingly in real time to achieve optimal data quality or via a set X seconds interval.

RunKeeper excels in track map quality on the web. The Google Mashup there is fully interactive and has nice icons including mileage markers. There is a full run history of all the different tracks. When you click on a different run (the green bars in the bottom screenshot) the statistics show and the map updates. The web site is free now but not guaranteed to stay that way.

RunKeeper does a better job of displaying fitness statistics on the device. It also looks nicer than iTrail. But it’s lack of map display in the app is a serious negative. Their website interface is not optimized for th iPhone.

Also below, a YouTube video demonstrating how to use the app.

Overall, RunKeeper meets only 5 of my 22 criteria and costs more than iTrail.

The same company came out with GPS Twit in July for posting to Twitter with your location

4 Responses to “iPhone GPS with iTrail and RunKeeper (Kelso)”

  1. […] spent the weekend experimenting with the app and the accuracy seems comparable to RunKeeper and iTrail which I reviewed last week. However, GPS Kit has better features, though by the time you […]

  2. Marc Heller says:

    I like gps kit,
    is there a gps app for iphone 3g, that allows you to turn it off, and save the battery, and then restart it.
    I think you mentioned one in one of your blogs, but I can’t find the comments.

  3. I do not know is it problem with a precision of the iPhone’s GPS hardware or software but after trying multiple GPS apps over the weekend on my mountain bike exercise I didn’t get precised outlines on the maps. I ordered handlebar holder so we will see would that help next week.

  4. nathaniel says:

    Make sure your GPS apps are set to record every second instead of every minute.

    Also, if you’re biking in mountainous terrain with tree cover, accuracy can go down.