Saturday, October 8, 2011

Roundup! Gearhead's Guide to Smartphone Apps

It goes without saying that mobile technology has come quite a distance in the past decade. According to a 2010 study, over 45.5 million people in the US owned smartphones with the rate of adoption increasing extremely rapidly. From 2009 to 2010, global smartphone shipments increased 74% so it's safe to assume that at some point in the near future, only phone purists and grandparents will lack a device in their pocket that can access the web and function like an anorexic laptop.

This trend has created an impressively robust market of applications that address every niche imaginable with the automotive space being no exception. I'm a gearhead and I'm also a huge nerd and there's never been a more exciting time to be both. Below the fold I'll examine some of the coolest apps car nuts will love, whether they sport a pocket protector and thick frame glasses or not...

With the sad news of the passing of Steve Jobs, Apple's mercurial headman, it may have been trendier to cover offerings for iOS. However, I do not own an iPhone and I think reviews are much better when you have first-hand experience. Conveniently, Android actually has a much wider array of apps designed for car nuts and this should come as no surprise, really. Not only does Android boast a completely open development platform where 3rd party developers are welcomed and able to cook up pretty much whatever they can imagine, the Android operating system has eclipsed all others in recent years in terms of devices that run it.

Share of worldwide 2011 Q2 smartphone sales to end users by operating system, according to Gartner.

Torque (

First up is an app appropriately named Torque and, having received over 250,000 downloads, this one is extremely popular. And for good reason as this impressive app is a jack of all trades and, despite conventional wisdom, it actually does everything it sets out to do very well. Ahem, not like all-season tires that are simply mediocre in all seasons. Anyway! The free version is neat -- it does give you a feel for what it can do -- but the real fun starts when you spend a little money to upgrade to the paid version for $4.99 and purchase a Bluetooth OBD2 adapter such as the OBD2Key available here. Sure, you may find yourself spending $150 but in the end you'll be equipped with a very substantial bit of DIY kit!

Torque is able to seamlessly tap into the on-board diagnostic (OBD) computer found in all vehicles today and this allows Torque to do some pretty fancy stuff. On the most basic end, it is able to read and reset fault codes. On the most complex end, it is able to provide real-time data feeds from your car's computer which can be displayed as any number of gauge style. That data can also be logged for analysis. It activates your GPS antenna thus allowing you to track the route you've taken while logging data. It also uses your smartphone's accelerometer to provide information on G-forces. Recently, Torque has built a plug-in feature that allows people to create add-ons to the program. It will be very interesting to see where this goes -- it has great potential -- and some that have come out already allow for real-time video overlay and outputting of raw data from the OBD2 port.

There are some limitations because certain cars don't play nice with scanners not explicitly designed for a particular car. When this is the case, Torque may be limited to only reading codes and resetting them may not be possible. Also, the granularity of the data you log is limited by the speed at which your particular car streams the data. On BMW's, for example, despite their reputation for being extremely fast on the tarmac, the data comes out quite slowly at a rate of approximately 1 data point per every 1.5 seconds. However, this rate is perfectly fine to keep an eye on most data points.

The options and customization available are extensive and too voluminous to cover in explicit detail, but let me provide you with a quick rundown of how I've used this app. I have used it to read and reset codes but keep in mind that some codes on some cars will not clear without specialized scanners. Some codes clear without issue whereas others do not. Most do. Even cooler is that I have also used the app to log data while I am on the track. After selecting which data points I wish to log and after setting a few options that start the logging whenever a connection to the OBD2 adapter is detected, at the end of the day I am able to email myself a spreadsheet containing all of the values from each of my sessions. Because the data exports to a very standard CSV (Comma Separated Values) file, you can bring the data into Excel and create graphs! Here's an example of a graph I created to investigate a low-RPM hesitation issue by comparing RPM (the blue line) with oxygen sensor voltages (the other lines):

You can also import this data into programs like TrackVision (available here) that will allow you to create synced videos with beautiful overlays of track maps and data! Here's an example:

There is a learning curve and it can be somewhat steep if you aren't a card-carrying nerd but the program is thoroughly supported through a forum at Torque's website. If you have questions, just ask and you'll be surprised how many people jump to assist!

TrackMaster (

Next up is an incredible program that drops OBD2 synchronization and focuses more directly on GPS mapping and timing. There's no free version but, trust me, this one is a must-buy for any track nerd; for $9.99 you gain what is close to a typical full-featured timing solution costing in excess of $1,000.

TrackMaster allows you to use a Google Maps aerial view of the track you're going to be lapping so that you can insert split points so as to create sectors for you to analyze your timing. Using your phone's GPS antenna, you can obtain extremely accurate lap times, sector times, split times and best times. You can export the data to Excel or you can use its own impressive graphing functions. TrackMaster gives you the ability to view a map of your movement around the track and examine what your speed is at any particular point. Want to know what your entry speed was to Turn 3 on Lap 10? Just pull up Lap 10, zoom in on the map and find the point at which you turned in and you'll see your speed. Another very trick feature of this app is that it uses your phone's accelerometer to overlay lateral G information onto the map as well as provide color-coding information about acceleration and deceleration.


I haven't been able to find many things to criticize about TrackMaster but it can fall victim to hardware limitations of the smartphone you're using. Specifically, some smartphones have better GPS antennas than others with some not being particularly effective at achieving a rapid lock on satellites or some not being very accurate. However, TrackMaster addresses this issue by allowing you to connect to external GPS receivers via Bluetooth. Even if your phone has a competent antenna, this additional purchase makes the app's precision even more impressive than it is without the add-on.
Trackmaster for Android on AppBrain

RaceDroid Lite

I played around with this app for a short while and it's an acceptable tool for someone who simply doesn't want the level of sophistication offered by Torque or TrackMaster. It really only tracks your speed via the GPS antenna and provides accelerometer information. Sure, the graphs are nice to look at but you can do that with the far superior Torque and TrackMaster apps. Estimated horsepower and torque figures are calculated through algorithms but I've never seen a these provide accurate numbers. I should disclose, however, that Torque also calculates horsepower via algorithms but that's just one of it's hundreds of features. Bottom line, I'd skip it but its free so download it for yourself and see if it catches your attention. You may find its simplicity, err, endearing?

Next weekend I'll be participating in an autocross event and I'm going to test out a promising app called aLapRecorder HD ( I actually downloaded this app a while ago but didn't get the time to learn how to set it up properly. I've since read the substantial manual available here and I think it's a worthy app to revisit. Have any of you used this app with success (or failure)? Actually, if any of you have your own experiences with these or other apps, please share in the comments! All nerds aboard!