Running

The Dash Front and Back

The Dash (by Bragi) Review

The Dash is made by a German company, Bragi, and was funded by a Kickstarter campaign with almost 16,000 backers contributing 3.4 million USD. According to Bragi’s marketing department, these are the world’s first wireless smart earphones. They’re quite expensive and are priced at 299 USD, excluding shipping and GST. For all the details on features and specifications, check out the product page. Bear in mind that a long list of features does not equate to a “smart” device.

My primary purpose for The Dash would be to use it for running, and it does seem to be targeted towards more active users. I have tried numerous ear/head phones and none have met my expectations. Yurbuds Inspire worked well for a few runs, but then the silicon ear pieces got dirty and wouldn’t clean well. This caused them to lose most of their hold and they’d slip out of my ears and pop off the earphones. I also could never get the right fit (no matter how many combinations I tried) with the wireless Jaybird Bluebuds X. These couldn’t handle running, and a combination of the natural bouncing and sweat would cause them to eventually become dislodged.

Yurbuds and Jaybird

Left: Yurbuds with their twist-lock silicon ear pieces (Source); Right: Jaybird’s outer ear clip  (Source)

The constant need to readjust the earpieces of both products made running with them annoying; especially if I was out for an hour or so. It got to the point where I eventually stopped running with music.

The Good

Music and Playlists

The fact that there is 4 GB of storage and the option of storing up to 4 different playlists means  there is some decent flexibility in terms of what music you can queue up. Audio quality itself is fine, and the ability to switch between up-tempo or more motivational playlists is a useful feature, because you can adjust the style of music to suit your run type.

Fit

To avoid getting sweat into your ears and causing earphones to slip out, there needs to be a pretty much perfect seal around the earphone in the ear. As soon as the seal is compromised, you get earphone slippage and battling to keep them in then becomes the main focus of a run. The Dash fit me well. In order to get a good seal I had to manipulate my ear and try open up the ear canal a bit more so I could shove each ear piece in tightly.

seal

The best kind of seal (Source)

Once in, The Dash stayed in place, and lasted me up to an hour (the length of my longest run) without falling out or slipping. During this time, a lot of sweat was generated and I’m quite sure The Dash would have been fine for longer runs. In my book, this is a huge plus. Earphones that actually stay in with no adjustments required. The seal feels tighter than that of the Bluebuds and I found the security of the twisting mechanism similar to the Yurbuds.

If a secure fit was the only thing I was looking for, The Dash would be perfect for me. However, I’m a bit fussier than that and unfortunately, there is quite a long list of reasons as to why I won’t be getting my own set any time soon.

The Bad

Fit

Once you get a good fit, The Dash sits in the ears wonderfully. However, it is absolutely crucial that you get the perfect fit right off the bat. I found it quite difficult to tell until I actually started running, by which time it was too late. If any sweat makes it through the seal, no amount of ear-pulling or Dash shoving will ever reinstate it.

img_0160._6-pcs-do-not-accept-if-seal-is-broken-packing-white-tapes-2-inch-x65-met-

My mantra for earphones (Source)

I also wore The Dash casually (not running) and found that after half an hour, my ears were getting a little tender and I had to take them out. This may have been caused by the steps I had to take to get a good seal, but this discomfort wasn’t experienced while running.

Controls

The Dash uses an optical touch sensor to detect taps and swipes for controlling all of its features (music, activity tracking and feedback, audio transparency, etc.). This works pretty well when you’re stationary – but the actions of swiping, tapping and holding the earpieces while moving become significantly more difficult.

The problem is that the entire control interface of The Dash revolves around touching it in some way that could break the seal and completely undo any sort of “PerfectFit” you managed to achieve. Even then, because pretty much every part of the body is bouncing around, the wrong commands are often sent.

A gesture-based interface would work with no contact. Even my phone can pick up when I’m waving at it, so that should be possible for core commands.

Audio Transparency

The idea behind allowing ambient noise to pass through to improve situational awareness and safety, is a good one. The Audio Transparency of The Dash works well… when you’re not moving. Once I started actually moving quickly, I found that the Audio Transparency pretty much picks up and amplifies all the sounds around you. Including wind. If you want to see what it sounds like running through a tornado, turn it on while running. I didn’t get a chance to try it in the shower or while swimming, but I imagine it would sound like you were banging your head against a tsunami.

wind.png

Ahh… that nice breeze (You can find a hundred of these photos here)

So… I turned that feature off. An update to the firmware of The Dash that includes some audio filtering could help with removing the noise. I could barely hear my music over the amplified wind.

Heart Rate Monitoring

I’m not sure how The Dash measures heart rate. The device has told me numerous times to adjust the earpiece to get a better recording but I was not willing to compromise a good seal if I have one. Sensors listed on the product page include the optical touch sensor, and 3-axes accelerometer, gyroscope and magnetometer – none of which can really be used to measure heart rate. So that has me confused.

When I did have it positioned correctly I felt like the heart rate quoted to me was lower than expected, and I suspect it’s influenced by cadence. Unfortunately, I don’t have an actual heart rate monitor to compare against. However, based on my pace, how I felt and my experience with heart rates, I am quite confident the values quoted to me by The Dash were significantly off.

Battery

The really cool thing about The Dash is that its case doubles as a charger. Supposedly this can restore both earphones to full charge up to five times. Combined with the play and track time of approximately 3 hours and the standby time of 250 hours, you would think that you wouldn’t need to charge The Dash that often.

I don’t know how they came up with those figures but my experience was way off. For some reason, I had complete discharge of the charger and earphones after a week of non-use. And from full charge I got the audio low battery prompt after about 50 minutes of running.

battery

Think my battery may have been leaking (Source)

I probably need to test battery performance more thoroughly, but those were my initial findings.

Miscellaneous

Just a couple of minor gripes. It took me a while to get my phone to pair with The Dash over Bluetooth. I don’t know which device’s fault it was, but finding and eventually connecting to them took several attempts. Once connected, I again hit a wall in trying to connect The Dash to the Bragi Android app, and after several attempts, I gave up.

I did not like how cadence was reported as a total. This isn’t a Fitbit – knowing I’ve taken 2,417 steps over the last 15 minutes is not a useful metric. Steps/minute would be far more informative.

Conclusion

I’ve neglected to mention many of the finer selling points of The Dash, and instead focussed on disappointing features. I would honestly be perfectly happy with something that just stays in my ears and plays music on shuffle. I don’t even need the ability to change tracks or store more than 50 songs.

For the price point and features offered by The Dash, I would expect them to work well – and that is my main problem with it. The impressive list of features that I’d rather not use because of their sub-par performance, makes them redundant and means the near 600 NZD final price tag is far too high.

The Dash is a well-designed and well-intended piece of hardware, but lacks a little in the execution and testing with actual, active users. It may be the world’s first smart wireless earphones, but The Dash would need to get a little smarter before I’d consider buying it. Perhaps fewer features done better would be a good start.

I’m looking forward to either firmware updates, or Bragi’s next version: The Dot.

(haaaaaaa, I’m so funny *cries*)

 

P.S. Does anyone have a pair of running earphones they swear by? Absolutely must stay in, and have local storage for music. That’s pretty much all I need.

Tired runner

Running Data: Damn Nike – Part 2

In Part 1 of this series I gave a “brief” outline of my journey through running and how I ended up using particular training tools and apps. The purpose of this post is to highlight an issue that is important to me, but echoed by a startling minority. The scary part is that it basically affects anyone who uses a device to track fitness, activity or workout data – and yet the number of people table-flipping, making a fuss or even aware of the issue, is depressingly low.

I am talking about data access (or ownership). The Fitbit on your wrist, the GPS watch you’re using for your runs or even your smartphone, are all recording data that you generate and send to companies who analyse the data and give you interesting insights on your activities. They can tell you how much REM sleep you get at night, give you an overview of how active you were during the day, or summarise how well you did on a training run (by providing information on splits, pace, cadence and/or heart rate).

Werable devices on wrist

Wear all the wearables! Source.

In the rapidly growing industry of wearable technology, companies are trying to add as many analytics and features to their devices as they can. Unsurprisingly, their shotgun approach can still not provide the specific insights you’re after. But it’s ok, you can just dive through the data yourself and easily pull out the metrics you need or are interested in, right? NOPE. What, not even simple data you could look at using the built-in functions of Excel? HELL NOPE.

And this is the problem. The data is there. You’ve created it – it’s a quantification of you and it’s just sitting there. Sometimes, you can jump through certain hoops to get it, and other times you have to drag yourself over a mile of broken glass… using only your face.

Man screaming in frustration

The frustration (or pain) is real. Source.

The problem can be split into two interacting parts:

  1. Current apps don’t provide analytics or metrics that are of interest to you, or if they do they charge you for it (these can vary from really basic information to advanced analyses).
  2. These apps make it difficult or impossible to export your data.

The first part wouldn’t be so bad if not for the second. The only reason I can think of for companies to make it difficult to take data out is to force platform (and brand) loyalty. This is complete and utter bullshit. If a company’s product is good enough to solve any issues I would have with problem #1 then I wouldn’t even want to extract my data. Basically, the company is aware their product is below-par and the only way they can keep people using it is to lock them in. That is not sustainable.

I’m going to talk about the running apps I am familiar with and you should be able to get an idea of the scale of offending that is out there.

Runkeeper

Runkeeper is actually the best out of the three when it comes to exporting training data. Reason being – they actually let you. You can export all your data within a custom period to a .zip of GPX files (these contain GPS data) which can be easily imported into other platforms. Fantastic! The metrics and analyses Runkeeper provides are quite basic. Individual workout data is fine – but if you want to look at how you’ve gone over time (to see how training is going) the only thing you can look at is distance. Duration, speed, pace, heart rate, or elevation? Bah, who needs that info? Unless you want to pay for it (30 USD a year)! No thank you, but I am grateful they made it easy to get all my data out (‘Export Data’ is in the ‘Settings’ menu), and do not contribute to problem #2.

Runkeeper logo

You’re doing good Runkeeper. Not fantastically… but good.

Endomondo

Similar to Runkeeper, Endomondo requires a subscription (29.99 USD a year) for you to see any type of data that includes more than one workout. However, they also contribute to problem #2, by limiting data exporting to one workout at a time (manually). I have 152 workouts on Endomondo so uh… if it takes me about 2 min to download one workout (navigating to the workout and saving it)… that’d take me… five freakin’ hours. That’s the thanks I get for subscribing for a year.

See, most people wouldn’t bother trying to get there data out so in a way their strategy of locking people to their platform must be working to some extent. However, as soon as I found out I had to continue my subscription to see detailed analytics, I was ready to jump ship.

Fortunately in the case of Endomondo, there is an easy solution. Endomondo Export is a handy tool that allows you to bulk export your data with an easy-to-use interface. I did have some problems with missing elevation data in the GPX file outputs, and wrote a Python script to help clean these. I suspect the data was bad because of my phone (Galaxy SII), but if anyone else tries to use the export tool and has problems let me know, and I’ll see if my script can help you out too. If you are a bit more technically inclined, there is also this Python script but I cannot verify its effectiveness.

Bear in mind that Endomondo can change access to their API at any time which could make either of these tools defunct. I would suggest you create backups now, while you still can – otherwise you may find yourself in the same situation as I did with the final app…

Apparently this hand gesture indicates "meh".

Apparently this hand gesture indicates “meh”.

Nike

I use a Nike+ GPS Sportswatch and I love it. However, for a 100 billion dollar company whose market ranges from suburban mums to the world’s most elite athletes, the design of their website and app is absolutely terrible. For the few years I’ve been using it, there have been no significant improvements in the user interface design or functionality of the website, which in this fast-paced world is totally crap. I’ve had problems logging in, maintaining sessions, viewing activity data, and browsing friends’ data. Admittedly, it’s all free – but that is not a valid excuse. Individual workout metrics are fine and over time metrics include things such as average distance and pace changes. Still not as in-depth as it could be, but sufficient for most people.

That being said, my recommendation is to stay away from Nike+ and its Running app. This is the absolute worst example of a company trying to lock you into their platform. You absolutely CANNOT export any data – not even individual workout data. Previously, you could use third party tools similar to Endomondo Export that would allow you to bulk export workouts from Nike. However, Nike have recently shut off access to their APIs except for official “Fuel Lab Partners” or whatever they’re calling them. Basically, other companies that Nike are working with because despite their wealth and resources, they can’t build a decent app on their own.

The closing off of their API has meant that the third party tools I used no longer work, and the developers of those apps have retired them or stopped updating them to keep up with Nike’s changes. I have figured out a way to still get my data out and export it to my platform of choice (RunningAhead: I can’t say enough about how good it is, even if just to park data). At the moment, the process is a little convoluted, but I am interested to know whether there are people who do want to get data out from Nike. If there are, I will try turn it into a web solution – or at the very least, post how to do it and wait to see how long it takes Nike to do something to prevent or block it.

In the meantime, I’m syncing my data to RunningAhead and saving up as fast as I can for a new running watch.

Ironically, the Nike tick showed up when I image searched "good". Fortunately, I was able to find enough fingers to give it.

Ironically, the Nike tick showed up when I image searched “good”. Fortunately, I was able to find enough fingers to give it.

 

Running Data: Why Is it an Uphill Battle? – Part 1

I originally started writing this post in October 2015. Life has been quite hectic since then, so I didn’t quite get around to publishing it. Recent events have caused me to revisit it, and I think some of it may still be interesting for people to read. I will be following this post up with an up-to-date rant and a couple of other running-related posts.

I have the attention span of a gnat, and as a result I am abysmal or at best mediocre at most of my pursuits. However, two anomalies to this trend are running (inexplicably) and data analysis (pretty much my job while working at Uni).

I picked up running about 5 years ago and when I first started I neither followed a training plan nor logged my workouts. However, after a few years I was becoming more and more addicted to the endorphins and began to get more serious. On the recommendation of a friend, I started using Runkeeper with my phone to track runs. At the time, its popularity stemmed from its integration with Facebook, which made it really easy to find friends and quietly judge them for not running enough.

Image of a Woman Being Judged

What silly clothes to run in too. Source

My training plans up to 2013 had always been pretty much, “run lots”, and I was getting faster mostly because I was building the muscles used in running, which up to this point I’d never really developed. Another friend recommended Endomondo to me, and I was intrigued by its offering of a dynamic, “smart”, training plan. I paid for the premium service and had a plan that gave me pacing indication, distances and structure to my training runs. It would also adapt my workouts if it found I was maintaining faster/slower paces to what it recommended.

As smartphones counter-intuitively increased in size, I could no longer tolerate running with mine (a Samsung Galaxy SII) and switched to a Nike GPS watch for tracking my runs. I’m really happy with the change and if you’re serious, I highly recommend investing in a decent watch. It beats lop-siding your gait by strapping a brick to your arm or the struggle of fitting it into a waist belt. The workout data from my watch is manually synced to Nike+, a platform that stores activity data from all of Nike’s devices and Running app (which gives the same experience as the watch but uses a phone’s in-built GPS).

I continued using the Endomondo training plan with the Nike+ watch, and herein began my initial foray into the war of fitness data platforms. It seems to be that most platforms, in addition to the ones I’ve used, such as Strava and MapMyRun, try and force user loyalty by making it either impossible or incredible difficult to move data around platforms. This meant that the data from my Nike watch could not be easily taken out and uploaded into Endomondo to contribute to my training program tracking.

In fact, Nike+ has no option to export any data. I was enraged, because it’s my data! It appears that many others shared my feelings and as such, have made tools* to export the data through the Nike+ API (which is primarily made available to Nike partners). Using these tools, I was able to keep my training plan up to date.

Image of locked folder

I wish this was how my run data was locked… so secure. Source

More recently, I have discovered other apps, such as SyncMyTracks, which are designed specifically to sync data across multiple fitness platforms – but these usually come at a cost. They’re also vulnerable because they’re not partnered with platform owners and changes in their code or interface could easily shut them out.

Endomondo’s training plan served me well for a couple of years, but I didn’t really like the unpredictable changes it would make to my program. For example, tell me I have an 8 km run the next day, but on the day change it to 18 km. I also began to feel like I had gotten the gist of the training it was trying to get me to do. I figured I could design and follow my own program and cancelled my subscription to Endomondo and retained a free account. What I didn’t know, was that I would also lose access to much of my previous run data and this is what infuriated me the most.

Endomondo would allow me to view distance analytics over the history of my runs, but any other information, such as pacing, speed, elevation, heart rate, and even number of workouts, required a premium subscription. I can kind of understand their stance from a commercial perspective as it must be very costly to calculate the average pace over distance data I provided them (!), and I therefore must pay USD30 a year to see it… The data is there! It’s been calculated! So it really pisses me off that there is no real additional cost to them to show me my data.

And to top it off. What if I think screw Endomondo, I’m going to take my data elsewhere? Is there an inbuilt export tool I can use to take the data that I provided back out? Of course not. I have to rely on another tool created by a third party that could again, stop working at any moment.

Furthermore, what happens if I switch out my Nike watch for a Garmin, TomTom, Timex or Polar? These have their own platforms too so am I just going to have to cross my fingers and hope that these third party tools exist for them all? I’m not sure what the answer is but I’m hoping to mitigate it by putting all my data into a single platform: RunningAhead. This is absolutely free for tracking all kinds of workouts – not just running. No tricks or gimmicks and analytics are provided to you in detail comparable to all the other platforms. You can import a whole range of training files and store as much data as you want. If you want to backup or export your entire training history, you can. The only downside is the design is a bit dated but that’s of little concern.

Image of a RunningAhead screenshot

Form follows function, just the way I like it.

I’ve already uploaded all my workouts from Runkeeper, Endomondo and Nike+ into RunningAhead. I’ve also tried to streamline future uploads as I continue to use my Nike watch so that I don’t have to manually upload a run each time. If you’re interested in how I am trying to do this see my follow-up post. I’m also planning to share a bit more about the current tools I’m using for training and managing my running data.

 

* Due to changes in the Nike+ API, many of these tools no longer work. See upcoming post for the rage this has induced.