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Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Soleus GO! Review

So Soleus has entered the activity tracker market with the new GO!. Many long time runners will be familiar with the brand as they have been a long time manufacturer of running watches. Obviously the GO! is their first attempt at creating an activity tracker and they have delivered a pretty interesting feature set for the GO!. (Yeah I'm not 100% sure how to punctuate the title GO! being at the end of a sentence given that an explanation point is sentence ending punctuation however it is technically part of the title)

Feature wise the GO! tracks all of the usual: steps, calories, distance, etc. and sleep. The GO! also has an exercise specific tracking mode that measures steps, distance, and time for a user triggered exercise period. The big unique feature for the GO! though is the inclusion of smart notifications when paired to your smartphone. That means when you get a text message or phone call the GO! will tell you who is calling and what the message says right on the device's screen while your phone is still in your pocket.

But I am jumping ahead as I will cover all of these features in MUCH more detail below in the actual review. As for the usual my review sample of the Soleus GO! was provided to me by Soleus. After this review is posted and I have answered any lingering questions than the sample goes back to Soleus. Sometime I'm going to have to ask what they do with the used samples. I mean I've worn this thing for almost 3 months it can't be high on anyone's want list now. But I send all of my samples back because I want my reviews to remain fair and unbiased meaning I don't accept compensation to do them. And in my book accepting a $100 product sounds like pretty good compensation although I do think Central Arkansas Water will accept a Soleus GO! in lieu of cash for my water bill. But enough with the technicalities and on to the review.

In the Box

Any returning readers will know that I am a big proponent of appropriately sized packaging! I hate when a tiny item is in a HUGE package it is just wasteful. Well I can happily say that the GO!'s packaging meeting my standards as it isn't much bigger than the actual unit itself. It's almost as good as the Withings Pulse (Review Here) which has my all time favorite packaging. Well aside from the box what actually comes inside of it.

There you won't find much just your usual's which would be the GO! unit, a USB charging cable, user guide, and warranty information. I would keep the user guide handy as it actually is necessary for setting up the GO!.

The Soleus GO!'s charger definitely wins a unique design award although I'm pretty sure it isn't a positive here. The unit is charged via two metal pins on the back of the GO! which is pretty standard for fitness devices to maintain some level of water resistance. However, usually you see either magnets (Mio or Polar) or a clip (Garmin) to hold the pins in place. Well Soleus opted for a strap which technically works but I don't think it has the same elegance factor to it. I also wonder why there are numerous different positions for the strap given that it is attaching only to the device which is one standard thickness. But on the other end of the cable is a USB plug in so the GO! can be charged via your computer or any USB charging block.

The GO! Unit

The hardware of the GO! is by far the shining star in the sky for Soleus here. As I will continue to discuss there are some not so insignificant issues with the GO! but they are all software issues and not hardware issues; so let's talk about the actual unit. Looking at the band from the side you will see that the top half of the band is rigid plastic which contains all the electronic bits while the bottom half is soft plasticly stuff for adjustability. Usually I am not a fan of so much rigid plastic as it limits the fit options for people with either very large or very small wrists (I fall into the latter category) but with the GO! it actually hasn't been an issue. I tend to wear it ever so slightly looser than I would most activity trackers and it feels pretty comfortable. Now not being a particularly thin unit it will get caught reaching into deep pockets and such but I have yet to test a single activity tracker that doesn't have that issue.

The soft band at the bottom uses a double snap enclosure to keep the GO! on your wrist which has worked well for me as I have never had the device fall off. I also think the spacing on the openings is appropriate so you have room to dial the fit into what is comfortable. However, I do feel like there isn't a huge amount of room for large wrists as the snap enclosure is perfectly in the middle for me. And trust me I do not have the average wrist size! There are three color varieties of the GO! although the only part that changes is the soft strap and not the rigid hard plastic part. My unit is the Black/Black but there are also Black/White and Black/Pink units available. On a mostly side note I do really like the Silver Soleus logo clasp on the back; just a nice finishing touch in my opinion

On the top of the unit there is the LED screen and two buttons. Obviously I don't have to explain what the screen does but the two buttons allow you to navigate the GO!'s menus as the LED screen is not touch compatible, which for the record is cool with me. I think touch screens are iffy at best on such small devices. The 1 button (marked by one dot) allows you to pan through all of your normal day to day screens like: time, steps, distance, etc. while the 2 button (marked by you guessed it, two dots) is how you access the other modes of the GO!: Exercise, Sleep, Data, Pair, and Set up, which I will discuss later.

Now the GO! is listed as water resistant but Soleus does point out that is not meant for water sports or for wearing in the shower. It'll survive being splashed with water from washing your hands just fine and sweat while working out hasn't done a thing to it. But it shouldn't be submerged in water so try not to wash it.

Battery life is definitely a bright point with the GO!. Even with smart notifications turned on I have seen battery life of 7-9 days which exceeds even the manufacturers claims. How often is the battery life better than what they claim it is? In my experience not often. Given the connected nature of the smart notifications I really expected the to take a serious toll on battery life but that has proved to not be the case. 

Set up & Usage

Set up for the Soleus GO! is similar to other devices the only real difference being that you first need to put the device in pairing mode. This is one of the options that is reached using the 2 button to pan through the choices then pushing and holding to activate. It is a pretty simple process once you are used to the device but I remember during initial set up it took me a few moments to get it figured out as the GO! is the only 2 button style activity tracker that I have ever used.

Once it is in pairing mode you you will open the Soleus App and pair the GO! to your phone. After pairing is complete you will go through the usual process of inputting your info into the Soleus App and completing the set up of the GO!. Now there is a mode on the Soleus GO! that allows you to do the set up manually on the device without an accompanying smart phone. This will probably appeal to a certain set of users but sorry has no appeal what so ever to me. I like the inclusion of the ability to set it up manually but I would never do so and I haven't. So cool that it is included on the device as it can't hurt but I'm not discussing it for this review.

After set up usage is pretty darn simple you know that whole just wear it thing that I have mentioned before with other activity trackers. Just keep the GO! on and it will track your daily steps, distance, and calories burned. There is no need to do anything special like with activity or sleep tracking you basically just wear it.

Which brings me to probably the biggest issue with the GO! it is a wee bit optimistic on the step count. When I first received the unit I was getting step days of 20-25k steps which although sounds great is WAY to many. Since then Soleus has tightened it up significantly but in a head to head comparison against the Misfit Flash the GO! tracked an additional 5,000 steps! (Flash: 10,612; GO! 15,851). Now to be fair the Flash was worn at my waist where as the GO! was on my wrist which can account for some of the variance, I would have been thrilled with 10 or even 15%, but that is still a pretty large difference.

Now although I prefer to see accuracy I like to come from a pretty real world point of view so I will point out that the Soleus GO! is consistently wrong. Which is actually a good thing for two reasons. One it still provides legitimate bench marks for tracking your activity comparatively each day. Yeah you shouldn't brag to your friends that you walked 20,000 steps (who would though?) but if one day the GO! says you walked 10,000 and the next 20,000 you clearly were more active. So why does it particularly matter if it was in reality 7,000 and 15,000 as long as it is consistently off. Exercise tracking to me is the place where accuracy is more important and the GO! has proved to be phenomenally accurate there. The second reason that this isn't a huge issue is that it allows Soleus to easily fix the issue as it is software driven. It is an issue with how the GO! is processing the data it receives not an issue with the data it gets. Soleus has already improved the step count some and I expect them to continue to do.

So although I prefer an accurate device and I do think the inaccuracy should be taken into account when there are other accurate activity trackers on the market I don't think it is a deal killer in my book. Just take your step count with a grain of salt and look at the general trend day to day or week to week to see if you are really being more active. And don't brag about how many steps you are walking!

Smart Notifications

Yes I get that is a crappy picture
But it is the name associated with a text message
This is by far the most exciting feature of the Soleus GO! to me. Adding smart notifications to activity trackers was a logical next step for the market and is now being followed up on by others like Garmin with the soon to be released Vivosmart. But that does make Soleus the first to effectively do it with the GO!. So what exactly do I mean by smart notifications? Basically a smart notification is any notification pushed from your phone to a connected device aka: activity tracker here.

For the Soleus GO! those smart notifications take the form of text and phone call notifications. So when someone texts my iPhone the GO! will vibrate and display the message on its screen. With text messages the Soleus GO! will display the full contact name first then scroll through the body of the text message. With a phone call it will just display either the contact name or the phone number if there isn't a stored contact. In theory these are great but in reality it becomes a bit of a mixed bag. Although Soleus deserves some serious credit for starting smart notifications and some software based refinements could significantly improve the process.

My main gripes are with the vibrate function and how the screen displays the text of messages. First, the GO! will vibrate about 10 times for each text message which is excessive and can get rather annoying quickly if you are having a text conversation with someone. You can cease the vibrate notification by hitting the 1 button on the GO! but you will have to do so for each individual text message you receive. I really think just a single vibrate would be adequate for text messages. My other gripe is how text is displayed in that one line of text takes up the entire screen of the GO! and then scrolls so that you can continue reading. The problem is that this takes FOREVER! I literally get frustrated and just end up taking my phone out to read the text kind of killing the whole point of seeing the text on the screen. The frustrating part is that the GO! has the ability to display the text smaller so that multiple lines could be displayed on the screen at one time. This is how past messages are stored on the GO! so simply using the multi-line format for notifications as well would be a huge improvement.

Also, the only difference for phone call notifications versus text message notifications is the lack of the text message body. So when a call comes in the GO! vibrates just like a text message and starts by showing the contact who is calling. So sometimes I think it is a text when it is a phone call and obviously  one requires immediate response while the other does not. A quick fix would be to have text messages cause a single vibrate where as phone calls continuously until you answer. That until you answer your phone part is KEY as currently the GO! will continue to vibrate even though you have answered the call which can be mildly distracting when trying to talk on the phone; you know vibrating wrist and all!

Along with the smart notifications the GO! pulls time/date and weather data from your phone. So although these are not notifications based it can be pretty nice to just look down at your wrist to see the temperature outside. Also, if you fly and change time zones the GO! will change the time to match your phone once it has synced again. Also, the GO! will store you 20 most recent text messages and phone calls on the device itself so that you can look through them on your wrist. Although it is possible the interface to go through them (a combination of pushes, holds, and both buttons) is a "little" complicated so it isn't a feature I use very much.

One point that I do want to mention though is the ability to set a window during which you can receive smart notifications. In other words outside of that window your GO! will not alert you to texts or phone calls. This is meant so that you won't be disturbed while sleeping and is really a cool feature! It is one of those features that pretty much slides to the back of your mind but it is definitely a value adder and works without you having to think about it.

So although Soleus deserves some serious credit for being the first to bring smart notifications to activity trackers there is definitely some refinement left to do. Luckily they are all software and not hardware issues so I think Soleus could address many of them with updates if they were to choose to. The last big improvement that needs to be made (and Garmin is doing so with the Vivosmart) is allowing users to customize what alerts they get to the activity tracker via the iPhones notification center. That would allow me to also receive notifications for emails, tweets, or about anything else I wanted to set up. But still a really good and solidly functional first try here that needs just a little refinement.

Exercise Tracking

Is the Soleus' mode for starting a timer and tracking steps/distance
specifically for exercise. Which should be called Run Tracking as running is the only exercise that is trackable via the mode. So basically Exercise mode tracks a specific workout (run) and is manually activated/ended to provide you with some basic metrics of your exercise (run) which are then also filtered on into your daily totals.

So being a separate mode you activate it by a push of the 2 button and pan through the options although Exercise will be the first one. Then a push and hold of the 2 button will start exercise tracking and another push and hold will end exercise tracking. After completing the exercise tracking you will get a little readout of the distance, time, etc of the exercise tracked. Now for many users this is not going to be 100% useful as it by no means replaces a Garmin or other GPS running watch feature wise. However, there will be some users who are just getting into running who might find it rather useful for basic running activities.

The part that has really impressed me though is the accuracy of the Soleus GO! for distance on tracked runs. Usually activity trackers can vary up to a quarter of a mile for EACH mile ran easily. However, in testing the Soleus GO! was scary accurate and was within 0.01 miles of my Garmin Forerunner for a 4.16 mile run. That is well within the standard error for even the GPS device! Another run with Nicole was 2.03 on my Garmin and the Soleus clocked it at 2.01. Again only 0.02 of variance for an even shorter run so a pretty small margin of error. The GO! is able to be so accurate because it allows you to calibrate the exercise mode.

After completing an exercise tracking you can go to the Exercise tab of the Soleus GO! app to see your % to goal as you are able to set an exercise goal. Good idea but kind of silly to me as most people most definitely including me don't exercise 7 days a week. But you will also be able to see past as well as stats for your exercise activity. The stats included are pretty thorough covering start/end time, average pace, distance, exercise time, calories burned, avg. speed, and steps. All of these stats are also available for past exercise and for lump periods of time averaged (week or month).

To do so you first need to go out and do and track an exercise to give the GO! something to work off of. Then within the Soleus App you can calibrate the GO! by correcting that activity with the actual distance covered. The GO! then figures out from that how to treat all subsequent runs. This is pretty similar to the treadmill mode in the Forerunner 220 or the treadmill mode of the Wahoo TICKR's just applied to an outdoor setting. But what really has set it apart compared to other activity trackers is the accuracy of the distance estimates. Definitely a value addition for beginner runners although I do wish that the Exercise mode tracked more than just plan running. Then again it's a pretty common limitation of most activity trackers.

Sleep Tracking

Week View

Like most activity tracers on the market currently the Soleus GO! has the ability to track your sleep. Basically the GO! uses the accelerometers normally used to track steps to measure how much you move throughout the night and make conclusions about your sleep from that. The GO! tracks light sleep, deep sleep, and time awake throughout a sleep cycle and will then graph that over time in the Soleus App.

To utilize sleep tracking you must manually engage, and disengage (the part I forget to do) sleep tracking on the GO! device. It is accessed similarly to Exercise tracking by pushing the 2 button and using it to pan through the various modes although Sleep mode will be the second choice. Then you push and hold the 2 button to activate sleep tracking and push and hold the button again to turn sleep tracking off. Turning sleep mode on is easy enough but I have a rather bad habit of forgetting to turn it off in the morning. To be fair I am in a sleepy groggy state at that point.

There is a an automatic mode that will engage sleep mode automatically at a pre-set time but I find it kind of useless given that I don't go to bed at the same time every night.

What happens if you engage sleep tracking
and then don't actually wear the GO!
I wish the GO! had a safety mode like the Withings Pulse O2 in that if it detected a certain period of continuous activity (15 minutes) in sleep mode the Pulse would assume you just forgot to turn sleep mode off and deactivate it for you. However, the Soleus GO! doesn't have such a feature so that if you do forget to do it you probably won't remember you forgot until well later in the day. Which means you have been tracking sleep and not activity that whole period which effectively ruins both your sleep data from that night and your activity data from the following day. Definitely a frustrating omission on Soleus' part.

That being said if you do remember to actually turn on and off sleep mode the GO! will provide comparable data to many other activity trackers that I have previously used and does so well. The Soleus App displays all of the key stats you want to see for each day along with an easy to read graph. Also, you have the ability to view averages of your data over both weeks and entire months which I think is interesting and lacking in many activity trackers.

It is rather difficult to accurately test the sleep tracking abilities of activity trackers and there are some serious arguments that they aren't that accurate anyways given their ability to only measure movement. But I will say the Soleus GO! seems to trend well with my perceived sleep patterns (aka it doesn't say I'm asleep when I was up going to the bathroom) and seems to fit in well with what I have seen from other units in the past.

Along with the sleep mode there is a silent alarm feature on the Soleus GO!. The point of the alarm is to set a wake up time along with an amount of variation before or after that time which the GO! will wake you up at depending on your sleep state. For example, mine is set to 8:00am with 15 minute variation so I could be woken up anywhere from 7:45 to 8:15 whenever I am in light sleep. I have found it to be pretty ineffective but I have also disliked similar features on other devices. I have never seen in work particularly well. 

Soleus GO! App

The Soleus App is definitely a weak spot of the system which pretty well reiterates that most of the issues I have with the GO! are software based and not really hardware so much. With the app it is really more just a point that the user interface is just not "nice" enough or polished enough to compete in the market space. The best activity trackers are really able to differentiate themselves through slick apps given that most activity trackers are islands when it comes to their data (no where else you can take it) which means you HAVE to use their app.

The Soleus App brings down the user experience instead of elevating by being clunky and just plain ugly compared to others on the market. Now to be fair the Soleus App doesn't limit the user experience as it displays all of the relevant data in an easy to read format it is just plain old unappealing. Actually the Soleus App probably shows more data than most activity tracker apps so kudos there. The home screen of the app displays your % towards your goal in the center with key metrics arrayed around it. One of those metrics is battery % of the GO! which is an example of a nice touch!

At the bottom will be your sleep bar as a percentage of your custom goal but I think it would have been wise to include steps and exercise as bars as well to just build out the home screen. At the bottom are tabs for moving to the other main screens for the GO!'s modes: Activity, Sleep, and Exercise. I have already covered Sleep and Exercise but Activity works much the same graphing your steps for the day by hour across the top with key metric below. Also, you  have the ability to view past day's stats as well as larger chunks of times (weeks & months) averages. Again kudos for making large swaths of data available as I usually tend to find this lacking with most activity tracker ecosystems.

The menu button is a three lined icon in the top of the screen which gives you access to all of the sub-menus. This allows you to customize the user for the device (me), Alter settings which again although clunky is a thorough. You can select the units of measurement, sleep setting, toggle vibrate alerts on or off, Set all of your different goals (steps, distance, exercise, & sleep). You also can set up your Move alarm so that if you haven't moved in a set period of time the GO! will vibrate and tell you to get your lazy butt up and so on. Also accessed through the menu is the ability to calibrate the GO! for exercise as well as your standard about & maintenance screens.

Also built into the app is usage of the iPhone's share feature for the activity, sleep, & exercise screens. This allows you to share a screenshot of the screen through text, email, and to social media with the tag "My Soleus Activity". I am not a big one for bragging about my physical activity on social networks but honestly this is hardly the most built out social settings available but definitely not the worst either.

Bugs

Spider-Dog
Originally there seemed to be was an issue with the GO! not accurately recording step data. I would have days with over 20,000 steps and although I am an active person that is a little much. My step goal is only 10,000 steps after all. Usually without some sort of exercise I will end up within 7,000-12,000 steps. So you can see how days of 24,000 steps don't make a whole lot of sense. Since the most recent app update step data seems to be significantly more accurate VERIFY STEP DATA.

Also the silent alarm that will go off even if I have already woken up and disabled sleep mode. As in the picture to the left I was already up and about for the day when the GO! informed me that it was time to wake up. Hardly a huge issue but definitely something that should be corrected.

Pros:

  • Week+ Battery Life
  • Comfortable
  • Smart Notifications
  • Accurate Exercise (run) Tracking
  • Accurate Sleep Tracking

Cons:

  • "Optimistic" step count
  • Location of Steps Data
  • Scratchable Screen
  • Over Vibrates Smart Notifications
  • Outdated Soleus App User Interface

Summary

All in all I like the Soleus GO! but I don't love it. I will say I think it is an impressive first go (no pun) at it by Soleus for the activity tracker market. To take it one step further a lot of my issues could be resolved with software updates specifically around smart notifications. If Soleus can work out those kinks they might have something good here. I think the activity tracker market is going to see a split in the near future to devices that are smarter (smart notifications, etc) and devices that are cheaper. Right now Soleus is on the right side of of both with the first smart notifications on an activity tracker and a much cheaper price tag than the soon to be released Garmin Vivosmart.

But I think to gain market share the GO! is going to have to strengthen up on its core area around step counting. At the end of the day, daily step count is just plain off. I am usually not super picky when it comes to step count accuracy because duh it is going to vary between two devices but it can't very this much. I don't walk 20,000 steps in a day that is a fact. Now yes Soleus has already improved step tracking to bring it back to the realms of reality but I want to see even more accuracy although I really haven already given my thoughts on how the step count will effect users. The super bright shinning star for the GO! though is distance tracking during exercise! It is phenomenally accurate with 0.01 miles of 4 mile runs. That is crazy accurate for an accelerometer based activity tracker and if I were Soleus I would hype the hell out of that feature. Combine great run distance tracking with improved smart notifications at a $99 price tag and you can grab a large market share of customers that aren't quit there for $150 budget GPS devices from Garmin.

So the big appeal to me of the Soleus GO! comes down to Exercise Tracking and Smart Notifications. Those are the big reasons to look at the GO!. If you want swim tracking or a budget activity tracker I would recommend other units but I do think the GO! and future iterations of it will have a place in the market if Soleus can make a few software improvements and really tighten up daily step tracking. Especially if you do not already own a GPS running watch and/or use your phone for distance tracking. Getting accurate running distance without carrying around your phone can be really liberating and I would recommend trying it!

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Monday, October 27, 2014

Last Couple of Rides

Given the completion of my athletic season for the year I have been floating rather aimlessly recently. Which basically means I have just been riding my bike how and when I feel like it and not according to a training plan. That being said it also clearly (given by the title) shows a lack of time in or around pools or running shoes. Some people need a complete break at the end of the season; I just want some aimless riding. So here is a compilation of my aimless rides.

Wish it was Fall (10/7/14)

Apparently I was wanting it to be fall just a little too badly when I had to take off the arm warmers 10 minutes into my ride. Which is only made worse by the fact that I didn't get out of the small chainring the entire ride given that it was my first post race ride. I don't know what it is about fall but it is just most definitely my favorite time of the year in general and my favorite time to ride a bike. I really enjoy busting out the arm & knee warmers for a nice chilly ride. I just feel like I control my overall temperature better in the fall and I don't sweat to death. That could be a symptom of Arkansas' summers for you though.

Rode into a Little Rain (10/13/14)

After a week off from the bike I tried to squish a ride in between some pretty forbidding rain clouds. I thought about stopping to get some pictures of the downtown skyline with the clouds by my desire to um ride my bike won out. That being said I wasn't too surprised when it started to rain just shy of 15 minutes into my ride. I contemplated turning around but I decided it was a rather light rain and I could give it another 5 minutes. I then continued to make the exact same contemplation and come to the same conclusion every 5 minutes until I hit the halfway point. Then I just had to sucks it up with no other real option other than riding back. Now it really never got too hard, not even bad enough to justify getting my gilet out of my jersey pocket, but it did sprinkle just enough to annoy my sunglasses which quickly ended up being removed. But given the look of the sky when I set out I ended up getting rather lucky. It ended up storming pretty hard that night.

FTP Test & iBike Cal Ride (10/19/14)

Not having to be at work until 12pm means you are required by law to get in a bike ride right? I am going to assume you answered yes and henceforth Sunday morning I brought out all of my winter cycling goodness for a nice chilly ride. Temperatures were expected to be around the high 40's when I set off warming up to the mid 50's by completion of my ride so I threw on the arm & knee warmers, a base layer under my jersey, and a ear band thing (my ears get cold really quickly for some reason). Sufficiently attired I set off on my ride by calibrating my iBike Newton+ test unit given that it recently received a software update (see here for more details).

After the iBike Cal Ride was complete I set off on my ride proper and immediately ran into the local celebrity blogger JBar. He writes a Central Arkansas focused cycling blog that I would recommend checking out. I am definitely a fan! JBar Cycling (Link).

Celebrity encounter for the day complete I lapped the Sigma Rox 10.0 to do an FTP test. Why I would do an FTP test when it is 50 degrees out I don't really know but I figured what the hell. 17 minutes later I got back 213 watts. I ended up running out of room to complete the normal 20 minutes but I can't figure the difference is too huge. After that I just pedaled my way along the River trail to get back home enjoying the fall weather.

Longerish Ride cut Short (10/20/14)

I noticed that all I have ridden recently was the Arkansas River trail which means all of my rides are the exact same length and course. So to change it up, but not be too bold, I decided to go for a long ride to Pinnacle Mtn State Park. Continuing on my theme of this is m favorite time of year to ride I threw on my warmers and set out in the 50 degree temperature for a nice longer ride. Which was promptly cut short about 45 minutes later when it started to rain.

To be fair I made it "most" of the way ending with 26 of my goaled 35 miles so hardly horrible. On the positive side it is always nice to set some Strava personal records without trying!

Something Different (10/22/14)

I have done a LOT of the same ride of the River Trail recently as I mentioned above so I decided to do something a little different on Tuesday. Plus it was also another opportunity to test out the routing feature on the Sigma Rox 10.0 so pretty much a win-win. So I set off to ride up through Hillcrest and the Heights which if you can imagine by the names is uphill of where I live. So it was steady climbing for the 6-8 miles or so. Now not serious straight uphill climbing but definitely a lot more up with basically no down. It was actually a lot of fun. After coming down from the Heights to the River Trail I stopped to take some cool pictures of the Big Dam Bridge shrouded in fog, they are on my twitter account @GitzJarred. After making it across the Fog Bridge to Nowhere (you couldn't see the other side) I rode around Cook's Landing in North Little Rock before taking the River Trail back. All in all a very successful ride if I must say so.

10/7/14


10/13/14


10/19/14


10/20/14

10/21/14

Friday, October 24, 2014

Compact Crank: A Beginners Guide

Photo from: DCRainmaker.com
Compact vs Standard cranks is a topic that flies right over the head of most new cyclists for good reason.  I mean gear ratios are hardly interesting and more than a little confusing.  On most new entry level bikes these days if you look at a specifications sheet you will usually see that the crank is a 50/34 compact crank; and you might have said what on Earth is that?  Well I have the answer for you.

First a history lesson; there used to be only two kinds of cranks a standard crank and a triple.  A triple crank is a crank that has 3 front chain rings instead of the 2 on a standard crank.  The additional chainring gives a rider a wider range of gears allowing non-professional riders to make it up some significant climbs because of the added lower gears.  However, this system has some significant problems.  First, it adds a lot of weight to the bike.  It also requires special derailleurs to deal with 3 gears in the front and to deal with the extra chain length in the rear.  It also creates numerous overlapping gears (example: 2nd in the front and 3rd in the back could be the exact same as 1st in the front and 4th in the back) so you actually have less total different gears than you think.  Also, there is a significant problem with cross chaining and to prevent this you need to shift more often.  

The standard crank unlike the triple is still very common today and is the style professionals ride because they are really good and really powerful. So using the higher gearing gives them a couple of extra higher top gears and they are capable of turning over the not as low, low gearing on a climb unlike us mere mortals.  A standard crank is usually a 53/39 and what those numbers reference is the number of teeth on each ring.  Meaning your compact crank at 50/34 has fewer teeth on both chainrings; in the front the smaller the chainring the easier to turn it and the reverse in the rear.

Well today the compact chain ring has been the undoing of the triple.  A compact crank uses two smaller chainrings to give an almost identical low gearing as a triple, or at least low enough, without all of the hassle.  A compact crank effectively takes the top 2-3 gears off of a standard crank and moves them to the bottom giving you 2-3 more low gears that can be used for climbing.  If you think about it what percentage of the time do you spend in your highest gear; well the answer is not much if ever.  However, you spend a significantly higher amount of time in your low gears whenever you are ascending a hill.  The compact crank is designed with this assumption in mind.  The downside to a compact is that it can’t go as fast (Top Speed) as a Standard crank because you don’t not have as many high gears.  However, this really isn't an issue because a compact crank can still maintain most race speeds especially with an 11 tooth small cog in the rear. And if it makes you feel better professionals have been known to ride compact cranks on particularly hilly races.


 So to sum it up a compact crank tries to give you the climbing abilities of a triple crank in the form of a double and does a very good job at it.  This is a great option for new cyclists who can’t turn a high gear with a lot of power but instead allows you to quickly spin the crank achieving a high speed with less effort per turn.  If you want to start high level racing it would be wise to make the switch to a standard crank but a compact crank gives an amateur rider the ability to do some serious climbing.  Like I said earlier most entry level bikes come equipped with the compact crank and on most mid-level bikes it is an option that I would seriously consider.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Misfit Flash in for Review

Today the postman dropped off a new product which turned out to be the Misfit Flash. I have been looking forward to playing with the Flash ever since Misfit announced it earlier this year. The big selling point of the Flash is all of the my detailed review of the Misfit Shine (Review).
Misfit Shine's functionality at a retail price of only $50! That is a lot of features for a not very large price tag. I don't think anything else in that price range will come close to rivaling the Flash. Now the Flash builds upon the platform that was already established with the Shine so in many ways it is just the Shine repackaged to lower the price. It still uses the same Misfit app and has much of the Shine's functionality. So here is a link to

Physically the biggest change from the Shine to the new Flash is the hardware of the device. The aircraft grade aluminum of the Shine has been replaced with plastic for the Flash. I am actually not disappointed with the plastic body of the Flash at all. Apples to apples I prefer the aluminum but then again it costs twice as much. Now one HUGE change that I love is that the Flash has a physical button for clicking on the device. The whole face of the Flash is the button so one click down will display your % towards your step goal using the clock style 12 lights. Which I should note are now red instead of white which I really like. Three clicks on the face will engage one of the Flash's activity tracking modes such as swimming, cycling, basketball, or soccer. Which mode is activated will be controlled by the Misfit app.

Now outside of the changes the Flash still uses a coin battery like the Shine. So that means you will get 4-6 months of usage without charging the Flash. When the battery runs out your can just replace it with another for a couple of bucks, pretty easy. Also the Flash is still waterproof to 30 meters which covers just about every aquatic scenario I think most people will encounter. The Flash like the Pulse can be worn anywhere on the body via the sport band or the belt clip although you can also just throw it in your pocket if that is your style. One appeal to many users of the new Flash will be in the increased number of color options with 7 rather colorful varieties to choose from. I guess the days of just black or white are gone!

One of the big changes (for the better) is the packaging of the Flash. Clearly some costs have to be cut to half the devices price tag and I feel like packing is a pretty painless area. It still works well and as you all know I am a big fan of proportional packaging. The Flash's packaging is just less elaborate than the Shine's was. In the box you will get the Flash device, the sport wristband, a belt clip, and instructions. The instructions are brief but then again they don't need to be too detailed given that operating the Flash is pretty much mindless.

The sport band and belt clip have seen a pretty large redesign for the Flash. It clearly was done to decrease costs as the built quality is not at the same level as the Shine's. On the other hand the Flash not fits into the pieces from the back so it does seem like it will be harder to lose the Flash. I had my Shine fall out on a couple of occasions. I am not sure if the cheaper quality will make much of a difference but definitely something I will see over time. Again there are trade offs
when you bring down the cost of a device.

All in all I thin the Flash is a great move for Misfit. I think we are going to see a two way split in the activity tracker market. On one hand there will be smart connected devices like the Garmin Vivofit that display cell phone notifications and such; which will compete with the new Apple Watch. On the other hand there will be a new wave of budget focused activity trackers to directly compete with cheap or more likely free apps available for smartphones. I think the days of $130 activity trackers are over due to the pressure of free apps but I think there will still exist a market for budget devices like the Flash at around $50. Especially if Misfit can continue to build out features for swim, cycling, & sleep tracking; an area that free phones app have been unable to compete so far. Anyways I will get to thoroughly testing the Misfit Flash so that I can deliver one of my overly detailed reviews. In the meantime feel free to check out Misfit Wearables site for more info on the Flash and to pre-order.

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Monday, October 20, 2014

Olympic Road Race Format - Throwback Post

Picture: CXMagazine.com
Given that the UCI World Championships just recently happened it reminded me of two articles I originally wrote a LONG time ago.  One was my article on national teams versus trade teams which I already posted here (National Teams at the World Championships) but the other one was this article here.  Yes, I get it’s about the Olympic road race but at the end of the day that format is almost identical to the world championships format so I am calling it relevant.  Granted how teams qualify for riders isn’t but it is the same in that different nations qualify different numbers of riders for both the world championships and the Olympics.  Oh by the way huge congrats to Michal Kwiatkowski and the whole polish team for that gutsy win.  Definitely hard earned!  But enjoy this throwback article.

Picture: SteepHill.tv
Now it is quite possible that I am still to new to cycling myself to fully understand it but the Olympic road race does not make any sense to me.  Obviously there are significant differences between the Olympic road race and traditional bike races but the format doesn’t really make sense at all.  I feel like the format is caught between trying to pacify two different stances on cycling and therefore does a poor job at both.  My big problem is that I feel the Olympic road race can’t decide if it wants to be a team or individual event.
           
To me cycling is a team sport plain and simple Wiggins didn’t win in Paris, Team Sky did.  Now, I don’t think anyone would really disagree wholesale with that but there is room for slightly differing views.  I prefer watching stage races and grand tours so I come from a much more team oriented position within the sport.  Lots of people love to watch the spring classics that are one day races where the emphasis is more on the individual, although any winner will still say that his team was still key in winning of the race.
           
However, the very structure of the Olympic road race makes it extremely confusing to me.  Some teams qualify with a full Olympic compliment of 5 riders, compared to the 9 in the Tour de France; where as other smaller nations will get 1, 2, or 4 riders.  If the event is a team event why even bother giving a nation only 1 or 2 riders?  It is worse than pointless if you would argue that it is a team event.  Furthermore, if it is a team event 5 seems an extremely small number especially when compared to traditional team sizes in UCI World Tour events.  Therefore I would argue that the Olympic road race tries to satisfy both points of view, that it is a team event and that it is an inclusive event that could allow a small country with only rider to win, yet does a bad job at both!


There is a solution to the problems and that is changing the team sizes.  Either every qualifying nation should get the same number of riders presumably three so that variances in team strategies will be determined by a team’s riders not the number of riders.  There is an alternative which is to field larger team of 7 or 8.  The World Championships use larger teams so why can’t the Olympics?  If I recall correctly from watching the road race there were only like 160 riders in the race which really isn’t all that many as the Tour de France fields almost 200.  Either idea, smaller or larger teams, is a valid option but one or the other should be pursued over the current format.  I can embrace either view but the current setup is a compromise of views that creates a worst of all situation.  There was no way Team Great Britain could have brought this year’s race to a sprint finish and it only gave false expectations to think they could with 5 riders.  If they had a full compliment of 8 riders Team Great Britain could have done it or if they had only 3 riders they would have pursued a different strategy from the outset.
 
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