Gear review:
iPhone on the road

Me and my iPhone

Now that we’ve put in a few good weeks of travel, we’ve had a chance to evaluate the pros and cons of bringing the iPhone with us on our wanderings. I’ve had a couple of people ask me whether or not I was getting any use from it abroad, so here’s the answer! As I wrote in an earlier post, I’ve removed the sim card from the iPhone to disable its cell phone and 3G data capabilities. You don’t even want to know the rates that Fido would charge to use the iPhone normally over here. We’d be bankrupt already. I’ve also decided against jailbreaking the phone, even though this would allow us to buy a local sim card and drop it in, turning it into a local pay-as-you-go iPhone. There are a couple of reasons for this. First, it makes it a real pain any time Apple releases a new iPhone software update, as it usually requires waiting for a new jailbreak to come out as well. It also voids the warranty (a minor inconvenience, really). But finally, there’s actually something nice about not having a phone in my pocket — there’s something romantic about being unreachable when you’re out exploring new places. That being said, we have found many great uses and applications for the iPhone, and here they are.

Great applications

Offmaps

Offmaps: This application allows you to download maps of your area for use when the phone is not connected to the web. When we find a wifi connection, we simply download the map of the city we’re in, and we can then use the gps function when we’re out and about, sans internet connection! When downloading the map, the software allows you to determine the level of detail required, so you can get either basic maps (small, fast download) or detailed street-by-street maps (larger downloads). The map sizes are reasonable — in Amsterdam, for example, we downloaded the entire city centre, down to the second highest level of detail, and the map is about 120 MB. The extent of your map downloads is only limited by the available memory on your iPhone.

This has been by far the most useful application for us. We have started to download maps of cities that we are headed to next, so that we’ve already got them when we arrive. The gps functionality is a little sluggish sometimes, but this has as much to do with the limited capabilities of the iPhone’s gps chip as it does with the software itself. Check out their website here for more information on this great little app!

Skype

Skype: Many people are already familiar with Skype, which allows you to make calls over the internet to other Skype users (for free) or even to landlines and cell phones (for a small fee). We’ve been using Skype on our computers for a long time, and can’t say enough about it. The best thing about Skype is the cost: free to download, free to use. It’s only when you want to start doing fancier things with it that it costs money.

We downloaded Skype for the iPhone so that we could make calls to friends and family, and also to hostels and other travel places, from internet cafés or other wifi enabled hotspots. Once the software is up and running, it works wonderfully. The sound quality is nearly on par with a cell phone call, and is actually superior to the sound quality when using our laptop. To deal with the noise usually associated with busy cafés, we sometimes use it with the handsfree headphones/mic, which only improves things. All in all, a great app to have on the road.

The only hiccup with this app is that it is not available to iPhone users in Canada. If you search for it in the Canadian App Store, your search will come up empty. There is a workaround for this. All you need is an iTunes account with an American address, and all of a sudden you can download it, no problem. I won’t go into the intricacies of how to do that here, but a quick google search will point you in the right direction: that’s how we found our way.

World Nomads Dutch

World Nomads Language Guides: This is a whole series of small, free language programs that cover a large range of languages. Did I mention free? Awesome. We’ve downloaded 22 different languages so far. Each one contains a list of common phrases and words, and when you tap on them, they will speak them back to you so that you can get the pronunciation right. Some of them even include a short language lesson, which is usually a short interchange between a traveller and a local. The lessons have the bonus of offering tips on some local customs that one might encounter along the way.

WN language guides

These programs are by no means exhaustive reference guides, but they are a fun and free way to get a short, useful introduction to the local language. Brilliant! Check them out here.

Other great uses: The iPhone has also come in very handy whenever we find free wifi zones, as it allows us to check our blog and our emails, and to use the web browser to research local information or whatever else we need. In the places we’ve visited so far, free wifi has been extremely easy to find, so this has been really useful. We use it as an iPod on trains — one headphone splitter lets us both listen to our music on the long hauls.

iPhone disappointments

There were a few things that I’d hoped to use the iPhone for that have proven to be hopeless. Mainly, these were gps route tracking and photo geotagging. Here’s why:

GPS Route Tracking: There are two reasons why tracing our route using the iPhone gps has been unfeasible: battery life and a weak gps receiver. There are apps that you can get that will trace your route on a map as you travel, and even let you download it to your computer for use in Google maps, but these applications invariably drain the iPhone’s battery at a high rate. Any journey lasting longer than 3 or 4 hours would require the phone to be plugged into a power source continuously. No good. Also, the iPhone’s gps receiver is smaller than most other gps devices, and requires a very good view of the sky to work at all. It has a really hard time picking up a signal on trains. Also no good.

Luckily, this void has been filled by our handheld Garmin gps unit, which has both great battery life and a good, strong signal. Problem solved.

Photo Geo-tagging: This is a process by which a gps route is compared to the meta-data stored in a photograph as a way of determining where in the world the photo was taken. I’d hoped that this would be a seamless, easy process, that would help us organize our photos by location as well as by date. There are also apps available for this, but the main issues here are the same. They rely on a good, continuous gps signal, which we can’t get, and they drain the battery. Hmm.

It is theoretically possible that our Garmin device will also be able to fill this gap, but I haven’t had a chance to figure that one out yet. For now, we’re simply labeling our photos as we go. A little old fashion, perhaps, but it works!

The bottom line

We are extremely pleased that we brought the iPhone with us. The non-phone functionality as a wifi, navigation and music device have been great, and I know that biking around Amsterdam yesterday would have been a lot more complicated without it! It’s worth noting here that the gps in the iPhone sets it apart from the iPod Touch, so while the language applications, wifi and Skype would work well on the iPod Touch, one wouldn’t be able to take full advantage of an app like Offmaps. That being said, since the maps still show up even without using gps to pinpoint your location, almost all of the other functionality would be the same between the two devices. Obviously, since we already had an iPhone, there was no reason to buy an iPod touch instead — plus, this way we do have the option of jailbreaking the phone in the future if we determine that having the cellphone capability is important after all. So, while it isn’t the all-in-one device I hoped it would be (we still have a laptop and a seperate GPS receiver to carry around), its usefulness has definitely validated it as a key piece of gear in our packs.

Apple Store New York City

Comments

    I wonder if you guys will get a response from Steve Jobs like you did with Holey Soles? Hello Steve?…

    Thanks for that. I am tempted to get the new ipod touch-no data connection??

    C

    Hey as well guys, how are you liking the mobile me account? Do you pay a monthly subscription fee for the use of that?

    We love it. We pay a yearly subscription for it.

    sweet. commentary and review on that… will keep in mind..think i want one now…aaah!!

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