TL;DR: Buggy software and difficult to use but with a simple change could replace RumbleStrip as the best delta timer.
If you saw the video in the post last week, there was a curious device with blue and red LEDs on the dash. That’s an APEX Pro, and it’s one of the most interesting driving devices in recent history. The hardware itself is gorgeous. It’s a block of metal the size of a pack of gum with one button, one USB port, and 12 LEDs. It feels great in the hand and looks better in the car. There is a separate base that attaches to the car with an adhesive and the APEX Pro magnetically locks in place very securely. The internal battery lasts a couple hours, but you can also plug it in if you’re running endurance races, for example. The physical design is really appealing and I wouldn’t change a thing.
Phone Required, Desktop Supported
The APEX Pro requires a phone. That’s how you tell it what track you’re on. It has a huge track library but you can also define your own track. The phone software is pretty slick. It lets you export data, see who’s using the device at the moment, and let’s the team examine your laps from the inconvenience of their phones. I say inconvenient because looking at squiggly lines on a phone is tedious. The better way to review APEX Pro data is with a desktop app where you have a large monitor and a mouse. Although APEX Pro doesn’t come with its own desktop software, it imports into the Track Attack desktop app really easily, and Track Attack is pretty good.
As a data logger, it works well. It has high resolution GPS and a bunch of accelerometers. Other similar products include the AiM Solo and several phone-based apps like Harry’s Lap Timer, CMS Pro, Track Addict, and Track Attack. At $450, the APEX Pro is $50 more than an AiM Solo. But once you figure in a secure mount for the Solo, it’s not much different. The biggest difference is the display, which I’ll get to later. As a data logger, there’s not much difference between the two devices. But why fork over $400+ when you get the same functionality out of a $10 smartphone app? Because smartphones have lower quality sensors. If you decide to use your phone, you’ll need a very secure mount and a high resolution GPS antenna. This will set you back around $150. That’s a lot cheaper than an APEX Pro or AiM Solo and the quality will be acceptable. I prefer dedicated devices to phone apps, but I’ve also had good experiences with phones.
The sine qua non of the APEX Pro is its Apex Score. The brain of the device learns both you and the track while you drive it. After a couple laps it can tell you where you’re driving under the limit. The idea is that it’s like live coaching. A quick check of the LEDs tell you your current Apex Score. What exactly is Apex Score? Some combination of speed, G-forces, and yaw I suspect. Under the hood, the APEX Pro is doing some machine learning magic. Unfortunately, that magic is full of bugs. You can observe these bugs really easily. Just load up a couple of laps and overlay them. Turn on all the sensors so you can see their raw outputs. If you’ve been driving consistently, you’ll see consistent sensor values. But the Apex Score will be all over the place. Whole sectors of the track will differ in Apex Score from one lap to the next. It makes no fucking sense.
For racers who are driving close to the limit, the Apex Score is not something you’re trying to optimize. If two drivers have the same lap time, the one with the lower Apex Score is the one doing less work. They’re driving more efficiently, which pays off the longer the race goes. So novices will be interested in maximizing their Apex Score while racers will be trying to minimize it. That’s sort of confusing.
The LED display is really cool. You can adjust the colors and brightness. Apart from looking totally amazing, it’s completely useless. The idea is that you can check your Apex Score at any time. But the only time it’s really safe to look at it is when you’re on a straight. You simply cannot look at it mid-corner. I’m a pretty advanced driver, and I had a hard time watching the thing. A novice who is struggling with finding the limit is going to be a hazard on track if he’s also trying to monitor his progress by watching LEDs.
So what happens when you look at it on a straight? It shows 4 green and 4 red lights. Let’s talk about what the lights mean. If there are 8 red lights, it means the total grip available is 8. As your performance increases, green lights will overwrite the red lights and you might see 6 greens. There are still 2 more greens to go if you push it harder. So what does 4 green 4 red mean on a straight? That I’m not pushing hard enough? Uh, the pedal is all the way on the floor. I literally can’t go any faster yet the Apex Pro thinks I can. But if I crest a hill and the car gets light (e.g. T7 at NYST last week) then all the lights go green because somehow the change in vertical acceleration indicates I’m at the limit. Bonkers.
Let’s sum up.
- When you can look at the Apex Score (straights), it gives the wrong answer.
- When you want to look at the Apex Score (corners) it’s not safe to do so, and if you did, the Apex Score might be wrong anyway due to software bugs.
Ultimate Lap Timer?
Data loggers are essential for reviewing your performance after the session. While you’re in the car, the most important tool is the delta timer, which lets you perform and analyze driving experiments every corner. It works like this: “I wonder if staying in 4th will be better than downshifting to 3rd?” Check timer before corner. Drive the corner. Check timer after the corner. “Hey, I dropped 2 tenths, that was better”. Note that I didn’t try to check the timer mid-corner. That’s dangerous. My favorite delta timer is the RumbleStrip DLT1-GPS. Why? Because of the big red LEDs. You see them instantaneously even on a sunny day. It’s so much easier to see than an LCD from a phone, tablet, or AiM Solo. You might think $300 is too much for something that doesn’t even log data. But it’s the best $300 I’ve spent on racing.
My RumbleStrip is such an important part of my driving that I literally feel naked without it. If you do a lot of sim racing, you probably feel the same way about your on-screen timer. iRacing has a particularly beautiful delta bar that shows how far off you are from your best lap and if you’re gaining or losing. It’s just a red/green bar on the screen, but it’s incredibly effective. The APEX Pro could be configured similarly with its LED strip. I understand that the underlying motivation behind the APEX Pro is the Apex Score. While that may be a useful tool for coaching novices and intermediates, it’s not what advanced drivers want. Give us the option of a race mode where the LEDs display a time delta. Give us the sexiest damn lap timer on the planet. And unlike my RumbleStrip, I’d get to review the data after the session. Yeah, that would make the APEX Pro worth every penny.