Have iPhone, will travel

David Braue
11 August, 2009
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Travelling with me always requires a certain level of technological acceptance, since I typically lug along enough photographic and computer gadgets to equip an army. However, even I felt a pang of sympathy this weekend for my companions, who were flummoxed to see me waving my iPhone around furiously in the back seat of the taxi as we took the half-hour drive from the airport to our Fremantle hotel.

“I’m recalibrating the iPhone’s compass because there’s something in the taxi throwing it off,” I explained, as though this made perfect sense. You see, I was using the iPhone’s built-in Maps feature to follow our progress through the suburbs of Perth, a city that until that point in time I had known only as a dot on the western edge of maps of the country.

“See?” I somewhat helpfully tried, holding the phone for all to see the pulsating blue dot as we trekked across unfamiliar roads. The map was spinning rapidly and erratically, the result of whatever magnetic anomaly was preventing the app from aligning the map to the direction we were currently heading. Hence the frantic figure-8 waving gestures in the back seat as I tried to recalibrate the compass and succeeded only in making my companions look on in bewilderment and the taxi driver clutch the steering wheel a little bit tighter.

It was the first time I had to explain what I was doing with the iPhone on that three-day trip, but it was hardly the last time I would pull it out of my pocket. In fact, over the course of three days walking around Perth and Fremantle, I quickly came to realise the inherent value of having this jack-of-all-trades-phone-but-so-much-more along for the ride.

There was, of course, the photo taken in Melbourne Airport’s voluminous long-term parking lot, which showed the numbered sign so I wouldn’t forget where in that paved city-state I had parked. By the time we arrived in the terminal, I was downloading .DOC and .PDF email attachments so I could use the iPhone’s built-in document viewer to use them as references while writing.

In the ensuing few days, the iPhone was a constant companion. There was, for example, the time I wanted to buy flowers and stood, sheltered from a downpour, pulling up their phone number and using the White Pages’ maps site to navigate myself to the florist as quickly as possible. Or the time when I needed to check the train’s timetables, or explore options for taking the bus to the Perth Zoo. Or, when I was able to pull up maps of the Perth CBD – it’s bigger than it looks – to manoeuvre my way to the Perth Mint.

A little while ago, I called for opinions about the iPhone as a phone, trying with icy determination to avoid romantic views about the device and make it earn its keep against competitors. Yet over the weekend trip, I realised that this is folly: not only are iPhones good phones, but their mix of connectivity and application flexibility makes them indispensable in ways that no smartphone I’ve had ever managed to be.

Sure, previous models could run programs, and sure, they were good phones. But as I stood on top of the Swan Bells tower and used the excellent Pano application to make a 180-degree panorama of the Perth CBD, I couldn’t help but marvel at just how versatile the iPhone was – and how much time I was using it outside of my pocket.

Having recently bought a standalone geotagger, I wasn’t using the iPhone for that purpose – which is probably a good thing, given its hit on battery life. But I could have done just that, thanks to a new breed of geotagging apps that generate geotagging logs that can be used to tag photos and for other purposes. And while I didn’t end up buying and downloading Night Camera while I stood admiring an interesting nighttime view, I could have – and I will make sure I have one such app to hand next time I’m doing travelling.

This, I have realised, is the key thing about the iPhone: it makes you want to use online services; want to look up travel information and phone numbers; want to research your tourist destinations while you’re stuck in the taxi; want to check email while cruising along on the train. My other smartphones could do these things, but at such slow speed and with such effort that I never bothered.

For me, the killer app was Pano, which easily takes and stitches together quite stunning-looking panoramas. I made over a dozen panoramas over the course of several days, quite happily doing the click-tap-turn-repeat routine in the happy knowledge that I would be spared the bother of having to manually make the panoramas later. This is a Very Good Thing.

There were those waiting-for-the-bus games of Flight Control, while Postage got a few uses in helping me send photos to distant friends and relatives while I was still standing at the place. It’s a lot quicker and easier – and, in my case, more likely to actually happen – when you can send a photo the second you’re thinking of it.

Any number of other apps would have helped in other ways, but even these basic iPhone features and a few add-ons really paid their way. Even my back was happy, since having the iPhone to hand meant I didn’t have to carry around so many paper guidebooks. That left more space in the backpack for snacks and souvenirs – and proved to me just how right it was to go with the iPhone as opposed to its many competitors.

If you have one too, be sure to consider how it might help you on your next trip: spend some time building up a toolkit of useful photo, video, picture sharing and other apps – or even entire city guidebooks such as the Lonely Planet series – and you may be surprised at just how much easier and more enjoyable your travels are with the right phone along.

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