It Lets Runners Keep the Beat and Track the Feet

The $29 Nike+iPod Sport Kit can track mileage and music for runners.
The $29 Nike+iPod Sport Kit can track mileage and music for runners. (By Peter Belanger For Apple Computer)

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By Rob Pegoraro
Sunday, August 27, 2006

Running is essentially a no-tech activity: Put on some comfortable shoes and clothing, put one foot in front of the other at a sufficiently fast cadence, and continue until you reach a finish line or return to where you started. (On the right surface, even the shoes are optional.)

That fundamental simplicity, however, doesn't stop runners from geeking out in their choice of high-tech footwear, shorts, tops, watches and heart-rate monitors. And with the recent introduction of the Nike+iPod Sport Kit, they can add Apple's ubiquitous digital-music player to that list.

This $29 item comes in two parts -- a sensor pod that slips into the bottom of some Nike running shoes, and a receiver that plugs into an iPod nano. The sensor tracks your progress with an internal accelerometer and beams its findings to the receiver; the iPod processes the sensor's data and shows your progress -- miles covered, minutes elapsed, calories burned, average pace -- on the iPod's screen.

After each sprint, run, jog or walk, Apple's iTunes software uploads the results to a free personal page on Nike's Web site that tracks your progress.

The nano (other models aren't compatible) requires a free software update from Apple to recognize the new hardware and add a Nike+iPod item to its onscreen menu. To start a run, select that item, then choose "basic workout," where you run or walk for as long as you want -- or set a goal of time spent, distance covered or calories burned.

Preset distances run from three kilometers all the way to a marathon (note that the rules of many organized running events prohibit wearing headphones), but the preset time and calorie allotments don't come close to that intensity, maxing out at 90 minutes or 800 calories. You can also set a custom goal in any category.

A Settings sub-menu hides a few other important options. You can choose a playlist for your running soundtrack and designate a "PowerSong" -- a motivational tune you can crank up by mashing the iPod's center button. You can also choose whether a male or female voice will call out your progress. And you can enter your weight, so that the iPod can calculate your calorie consumption accurately.

While you run, the iPod's screen shows your current stats on its screen in addition to the title of the song playing. Those recorded voices break in every now and then ("beginning workout," "one mile to go" and so on), but otherwise it's just like running with a regular iPod. The only glitch comes when you're waiting for a light to change; you can pause the workout monitoring to avoid dragging down your pace, but that also pauses music playback, leaving you standing or jogging in place in silence.

Apple says that the sensor should measure distance with 90 percent accuracy, but it did much better than that when I compared its results to those of my usual run-measurement tool -- the fantastically useful Gmaps Pedometer Web site ( http://www.gmap-pedometer.com/ ), which uses Google Maps data to calculate distances.

On a series of two- and three-mile runs, the sensor and the site's findings agreed with each other within a few hundredths of a mile, with Nike + iPod's measurements usually on the low end. You can also calibrate the sensor for added accuracy by running a known distance at a steady pace, but I didn't bother after seeing that level of accuracy.

Following each run, I plugged the iPod into a Mac. After receiving the running data, iTunes offered to take me to my page on Nike's nikeplus.com Web site. (You must set up a free account on the site beforehand.) After a wait for this unnecessarily Flash-driven site to load, you can see a graph of your most recent run, showing how your speed varied and noting when you rocked out to the PowerSong. It also lists your running totals week by week and lets you set goals, such as a monthly mileage total or a faster per-mile pace. Yes, you can erase a weak run from your records.

If you've got friends with Nike + iPod setups, you can also challenge them to meet one of these goals, then see how everybody fares along the way. It's like the group-competition features in such online game services as Microsoft's Xbox Live, except here you have to get off the couch.

Apple and Nike advertise this kit as being limited to Nike's line of compatible shoes, all of which feature a pocket for the sensor under the left insole. (A plastic plug occupies that space if you don't pop in the sensor.) Nike's Web site lists four Nike+models for men, at $100 to $110, and seven for women that sell for $85 to $110.

But what if you don't like the feel or looks of those models? (The pair provided by Apple for this review came in black with silver and red trim, a combination that looked like something a pimp would wear.) Or what if you'd rather keep your own perfectly good shoes? With some tweaking, you can take the sensor along in other footwear.

One reader, for example, wrote to say that he had carved a slit in the tongue of his New Balance shoes. I wasn't prepared to conduct that surgery on my own Asics, so I tried parking it under the laces -- which caused it to pop free within half a block. Stuffing it next to my foot, so it was lying vertical in the shoe, completely confused the sensor; it clocked a two-mile run at a pathetic 0.27 miles.

But hiding it under the shoe's tongue allowed it to function with a slight drop in accuracy, probably attributable to it not being parallel to the ground. I was able to repeat that test with a couple of pairs of walking shoes. (Now I know that I walk nearly a mile on my commute, from my front door to Metro to my cubicle; maybe I'll have an extra cookie at lunch!)

I can't think of many less pleasant environments than the inside of my running shoes, but the sensor seemed immune to that abuse. But it can't survive the limits of its non-replaceable battery: Apple says it's good for 1,000 running hours, after which you'll have to buy a new sensor.

The Nike+iPod option isn't likely to persuade somebody who has held off on buying an iPod to get one now. But for a runner used to jogging with an iPod-provided soundtrack, this is a fascinating, useful extra at minimal cost. Along with all the other gizmos you can plug into Apple's music player, from radio receivers to car adapters, it shows how the iPod is becoming the Lego of consumer electronics: The fun starts when you connect other things to it.

Living with technology, or trying to? E-mail Rob Pegoraro atrobp@washpost.com.


© 2006 The Washington Post Company

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