The always difficult relation between transport authorities and software developers has reached a new high. British app shoppers and Londoners in particular would have noticed already how certain travel tools are gaining momentum on the App Store charts. In between your cheap casual games, novelty apps and free texting tools it's not difficult to spot the latest microtrend in travel apps - live bus arrivals.
In September we heard that Transport for London, the public body that amalgamates all aspects of London's transport system, was testing a new feature to tell passengers how long buses take to arrive to a stop in real time. This isn't rocket science. We've seen similar attempts using SMS services and many stops in the capital already have countdown signs and plans to extend them to 2,500.
Comparing the best Live bus departure iPhone apps
TfL's website offers different flavours including a mobile version that just works fine on the iPhone's Safari. This can't be a proper web-app (doesn't even have a custom home screen icon, don't bother), but I guess it loads quickly and does the job in a multitude of handset models.
Fortunately, the feeds powering TfL's own system are now also available for developers to create native iOS alternatives. Great news for the community of budding Brit developers, who will definitely try to get out the king app baked with the same ingredients others are using. This explains the rush and multitude of apps featuring live bus arrivals and departures, right? While having such a service available is great, the amount of apps attempting to offer the same is certainly overwhelming for the user.
I haven't found any guide comparing these and I just happen to be curious enough to try most of them
This series will cover the most popular travel apps using the countdown feed hoping to help you in your search and be able to pick my favourite. I'm also trusting a select group of friends and family to give me their feedback. The majority aren't hardcore app users and seem to be blown away by the service itself anyway. Ready for the comparison?
London Bus Checker - The indisputable leader?
The first in the series is FatAttitude's London Bus Checker - Live Countdown for Every Stop [iTunes Link]. At the time of writing this appears to be the king of the Travel category on the UK App Store. It proudly advertises this fact on the app description along with its benefits, sharing a very similar set of features with other alternatives.
As you might have expected, Bus Checker uses the live countdown feeds from Transport from London. I won't criticise it's accuracy, since you get the same on the official website, but on the experience and how this makes a better native experience for your daily use.
Launching the app brings up immediately Google-style map with your location. This is extremely useful to pinpoint your nearest bus stop but can also be frustrating if your cellular connection is poor. Every stop listed - the developer claims more than 20,000 - is signalled using a custom map pin instead of the standard ones used in the default Maps app.
I've given harsh comments before about this sort of customisation, but in this case the mini bus stops went from being revolting at first to actually very useful as I used the app. I found very convenient that it shows the letter of the bus stop, specially in those very close to each other. It can get slightly confusing to zoom in and tap on the right one, as you'll normally have another bus on the other side of the road doing the route on the other direction.
A single tap on the bus stop pins brings up a legend with the bus numbers that stop there. Those are tiny, hence the need for a full screen view of the bus stop board accessible from a small blue icon. This is also usable, as taping on the route number opens up a map with dotted with all the bus stops. Unfortunately, once you get to this point there isn't any back button and you'll have to start again clearing your selection.
The regular user won't mind much this messy workflow since you'll probably use only a handful of bus stops regularly that you can keep on your favourites. Using the favourite list is more convenient and adds speed to the "how long before my bus arrives" answer. Although there are other useful screens displaying bus stops and bus routes on maps, the killer view is the actual countdown sign. In case you didn't get it, this is actually pictured more less like the real black boxes you see hanging from some bus stops. In fact you can choose to have the dot-matrix font type too.
There are other bits a pieces that you can customise to your taste and that give Bus Checker the feel of a very refined and polished app. I'm not a big fan of the graphic style used, but I guess it will work for a majority as it rise to replicate original physical objects such as the bus stop boards, stop poles and countdown boards. Without sounding biased, I'm sold with the fact that the developer used one of my local streets to be used as a background, making it look extremely familiar until I finally realised.
Although I really enjoyed and found useful Bus Checker for my daily commute and social time out in the capital, there's a big drawback that I hope will be addressed with an update. The bus arrival board doesn't update automatically and it's necessary to go back and return to see any sort of refresh. There's a small blinking dot on the right top corner which should indicate the up is constantly checking , but this doesn't always seem to be the case since it takes approximately 20 seconds to refresh the information on the display. I'm missing some sort of update or pull to refresh gesture here.
I can see this becoming every bus traveller go-to app and I encourage every Londoner to using an iPhone to give it a go. You get the same information on the TfL's website but I'm sure you'll agree that presentation and convenience matter a big deal.
This is just the first stop in a series of live bus departure iPhone apps: keep tuned for others and feel free to recommend other candidates.
I've been told by developer Carl Partridge about some of the criticisms in the review above regarding the refresh time and the lack of a dedicated button. The departure boards on the app refresh every 30 seconds, which is a limitation imposed by TfL. He understands that there are strict limitation on the feed usage so he decided against including a refresh button to update those automatically.
This information clarifies one of the limitations using the app and my word of advice is that you trust the blinking yellow dot on the departure board corner. It actually indicated the feed is updating... every 30 seconds.