15 July 2009

iPhone/iPod Touch Surfing Apps Review

I've been testing out some offerings from the Apple App Store for checking the surf on my iPod Touch. Sadly, there's not one app I'd fully recommend, and I'll keep relying on the superior Surfline Mobile until Surfline - or someone else - comes up with a good one.

For comparison, Surfline's website this morning reported Steamer Lane to be inconsistent, occasional 2 ft, and poor+ conditions, traces to knee high at best. "Looking like a pretty good dawn patrol to skip this morning." Surfline Mobile had the same text sans commentary, and also features the streaming surf cam, this morning obscured by fog. The cam can be rotated and zoomed for a closer look. In addition, the mobile site gives swell, wind and tide info, with LOLA forecast graphs. It provides a substantial slice of the full website distilled for the small screen.

The free Surf Report by Oakley is purportedly "powered by Surfline," but it's a poor shadow of Surfline Mobile. The Today screen for Steamer Lane boasted 2-3' in large print, with 1 ft SSW @ 16 sec in a tiny font below along with "poor+, inconsistent, occasional 2 ft." The quoted text was repeated on the Details screen. So what's this business about 2-3'? The Details screen also gives limited textual tide information, usually in the past and sometimes for yesterday, as well as break info, sunrise/set (more forward looking than the tides), and weather. The Forecast screen is frequently "unavailable" even for well-known breaks like Steamer Lane, and shows only today and tomorrow. There are some nice features to the Oakley app, like finding the nearest breaks to your location, plus access to Surfline's comprehensive list of surf spots. And, hey, it's free, so go ahead and download it; just don't expect too much.

Surf by Wavewatch promises more than it delivers and has some obvious flaws which make $4.99 too high of a price. There are only 3 NorCal spots covered: Steamer Lane, Pleasure Point and Ocean Beach. A NorCal overview screen provides an undated text forecast which is frequently interspersed with odd characters, like a capital A with a hat, making it less readable. Each break screen has a tiny streaming cam - it can't be viewed lengthwise - and current swell, tide and wind information. This morning's swell for Steamer Lane read 5.5 ft @15 sec, 210 deg, deviating widely from reality. Rotating the iTouch/iPhone shifts the screen from the cam to graphs for today and the next five days of break height/direction, tide, and wind speed/direction, with a simplistic weather icon taking up valuable real estate at the bottom. Tides are undoubtedly the most (perhaps only) useful information displayed, since the break height is fantastical. The graphs are less helpful than they could be, since they have odd, squished scales that make it difficult to determine what values the plotted lines represent. One advantage over Oakley is that Wavewatch retains loaded information when off the grid, while Oakley insists on having a WiFi connection.

I just came across another app, Green Room Surf Forecast, which looks pretty good at only $2.99. The bar chart for Today at Steamer Lane shows 2' and fair. There are 5 days of hourly forecasts plus a 7-day outlook, as well as graphical tides. Unlike Oakley, which doesn't predict anything past tomorrow, and Wavewatch, which thinks the near-flat swell is 5 ft now going to double-overhead in a few days, Green Room is properly capturing the forecast bump up in swell for the weekend. However, one key piece of missing data is the swell direction. Other features include Map to locate the break in Google Maps, and Share which lets you email the forecast. Santa Cruz breaks are well covered, but San Mateo County has only Linda Mar and the Jetty. (Just as well, the better to keep my uncrowded spots uncrowded.) I'll have to try it out a bit more, but so far, Green Room may be the best of the apps, especially if they add swell direction and wind information. Update 7/24/09: Sadly, a little use dashed my hopes for Spitcast's Green Room. In the face of a (perhaps overhyped) big south swell heading into the weekend, it's forecasting Pleasure Point at a constant 2-3' for the next week, while the Jetty is reportedly double-overhead but dropping to 2' tomorrow. Huh?

All of these apps are flawed in some ways; a mashup of the best bits would make a fine surf tool. But for now, Surfline Mobile still rules.

Bombora was not reviewed because new version 1.0.2 still has too limited coverage of NorCal to be worth even the reduced price of $6.99.