Technology

Nike + iPod Equals Smooth Runnings


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Editor's Rating: star rating

Two product powerhouses join up to bring runners a tiny tech training machine designed to help you achieve your personal best

If you're among the scores of Americans who overindulged this holiday season (and even if you didn't), there's a good chance you're kicking off the New Year with a vow to get in better shape. In the interest of helping readers stick to such resolutions, we're starting a series of reviews of high-tech fitness gear, beginning with a look at the $29 Nike + iPod Sport Kit.

I have typically regarded running as an almost equipment-free exercise—in contrast to, say, gear-intensive sports such as biking or backpacking. A decent pair of shoes and a pair of sweats make up the basics, whether you're Marion Jones or, like me, just trying to keep your post-college gut in check.

But ever since Sony (SNE) unveiled the Walkman in 1979, the most common addendum to that simple formula is some manner of portable music. These days, Apple's (AAPL) iPod has taken the spotlight from Sony and others in the area of workout accompaniment, especially with the introduction of the ultra-light iPod nano in late 2005. The Lilliputian player is not only feather-light at 1.5 ounces, but it's also impervious to skipping, which is essential for interruption-free listening on the go.

Handheld Workout Machine

Now, Apple has teamed with fitness giant Nike (NKE), and the resulting product has become as vital a part of my training regimen as the sweats and sneakers.

The Nike + iPod Sport Kit is a combination of gadgets that transform the nano into a reasonably sophisticated, running-oriented workout machine. A miniature transmitter fits into Nike Plus running shoes and beams data to a stamp-sized receiver attached to the dock connector on the bottom of the iPod. The pair let you track and store distance, pace, and calorie data from your workouts.

You can then sync the information in iTunes when you dock your iPod. From within Apple's free jukebox software, you can see a handy summary of your latest workout. A link takes you to NikePlus.com where all the data is transformed into a glitzy set of animated graphs and charts that you can use on your own and share with friends. The site helps you set goals, such as sustaining a particular pace or reaching a weekly mileage total.

Uphill Start

Mind you, the software isn't as sophisticated as packages that come with equipment from makers such as Garmin (GRMN). Nor is it as data-centric as free databases such as WinningStats.com. But it's a smooth package, as you'd expect from the combined forces of Apple and Nike. Better still, it has gotten progressively more sophisticated over time. For example, you can now delete particular runs—a task that wasn't possible three months ago.

From a standing start, the proposition is fairly expensive. Apple's mid-range, 4GB iPod nano will set you back $199, and a pair of Nike Plus compatible shoes runs between $90 and $110. Throw in a $29 sports armband and the $29 kit itself and you're looking at an investment of around $350. Steep.

Still, if you've already got an iPod nano (first or second generation) and are in the market for a new pair of shoes anyway, the financial bar is considerably lower. Some penny pinchers have even had luck using the transmitter with non-Nike shoes by attaching the device to laces.

Cheering Section Included

Assuming you do go in for the whole package, Nike and Apple make it easy to use and include features that make the Nike + iPod well worth the investment. Once your shoes are laced up and the iPod is connected to the receiver and powered-up, a new menu item shows up. Following the Nike + iPod prompt lets you start a workout based on a target distance, time, calorie count or just an open-ended run. You can also set a Powersong (in my case, a Madonna number) and play it by pressing and holding the center button for that extra push over a bad hill or an energy lull.

As with most Apple products, the pleasure is in the details. On a distance run, a voice announces your progress, pace and remaining mileage, counting down to the last 400 meters every 100 meters. Reach a personal best and celebrity athletes like Lance Armstrong congratulate you. A little hokey? Perhaps. But I found the encouragements more than welcome.

Nike guarantees 90% accuracy when measuring distance. But even right out of the box, my test unit was about 98% accurate on a four-mile loop in lower Manhattan in a quick comparison to the same route entered into Google Maps and tracked with a GPS-enabled Garmin watch.

Burning Rubber

My major complaint is that the kit isn't compatible with heart-rate monitors, not even Nike's own Triax watch-based systems. That's an obvious and crucial piece of data that could be profitably integrated into the package. It would also help reel in techies who pay hundreds of dollars for systems that track such statistics.

But such drawbacks are far outweighed by the benefits of using Nike + iPod. In a matter of months, I wore out the Nikes and am now using the transmitter duct-taped to a pair of Saucony shoes. With 2007 resolutions at stake, you're likely to find it well worth the investment.

Matt Vella is a reporter for BusinessWeek.com in New York.

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