It’s not often we get to do the sort of road test we’ve managed for this month’s column. But a trip through Europe and the UK gave us an excellent chance to push our iPad’s travel credentials to the limit. Our trip included Singapore, Germany, France, Switzerland and the UK. That meant several languages, four different currencies and lots of getting lost.
Our iPad was the regular Wi-Fi variety – that meant that we didn’t have to chase down local SIM cards for 3G access and weren’t slugged with exorbitant 3G roaming charges. With some carriers charging as much as $20,000 per gigabyte – that’s not a typo – it’s worth checking roaming charges before heading away.
However, it meant that we were at the mercy of local Wi-Fi connections. All of the hotels we visited offered Wi-Fi – none had wired connections for guests – but coverage was spotty. In some places, coverage worked only in the foyer while in others it depended on which wing of the hotel we were in.
Much has been said about the iPad’s Wi-Fi reception. We also took a 13in MacBook Pro along for the ride and it had clearly stronger reception. Where the MacBook Pro had three or four bars of reception, the iPad had one or none. Fellow travellers using cheap netbooks also found hotspots that were unusable by the iPad.
As far as applications go, we installed several to our iPad either prior to or during our travels. We started by grabbing Lonely Planet city guides for some of the places we were visiting. These were handy as they gave us a ready reference for local attractions, festivals and information. Most of the Lonely Planet City Guides sell for $7.99 – cheaper than their paper-based equivalents.
One of the most challenging problems travellers have to face is the cost of food, souvenirs and other travel essentials. Not all of us are gifted with Rain Man’s mathematical prowess, so an easy-to-use currency converter is a must.
XE is probably the most popular online converter and its free iPad app makes it a snap to calculate currency exchanges. We added Swiss francs, British pounds, euros, US dollars and the Aussie dollar. Rates could be updated whenever we found a web connection. Then, all we did was tap on the currency we were using, and enter the amount we were planning to spend to get an instant view of the cost in all the other currencies. Free, easy and highly recommended.
Trying to coordinate call times to home is always a bit tricky when dealing with multiple timezones. Apple, for some reason, decided to omit the Clock application most of us use on the iPhone. However, that’s created an opportunity for Orlin Kolev’s World Clock application. For $1.19, it provides an attractive way to look at the time in up to five cities at a time. Our only criticism is that on an extensive, multi-timezone journey it can only show up to five cities.
We’d have liked a few more, particularly as most of the screen is used up by a map of the world rather than usable clocks.
Travelling to a foreign land often leads to the inevitable language barrier. Our German only goes as far as “Ein großes bier” (one large beer) so a phrase book was an essential. Our choice was Ascendo’s German-English and French-English phrase books. Each cost $12.99 – not cheap for an iPad app but comparable to regular books.
As well as providing a ready means of translating single words, both included a set of basic phrases. These were categorised for specific occasions such as eating, food and drink, emergencies and flirting. We validated the phrases with some friendly locals and were told that the phrases were accurate.
The last thing we recommend for the itinerant iPad traveller is an anti-glare screen protector. If you’re sitting on a plane, train or bus, sunlight streaming in through the window can make it really hard to read the iPad’s glossy display. The one we picked up made a significant difference in bright, sunny conditions.
This article originally appeared in the September issue of Australian Macworld magazine.