When I’m traveling or shooting on location, the iPhone 3GS is an indispensable tool. Aside from all of the great little camera apps that you can get with the iPhone, there are a few apps that are creatively useful. A couple relate directly to location use, and others are more for entertainment value while getting from place to place.
- Where’s that pesky sun gonna be?
The built-in compass is great, as far as it goes. Anywhere you have line of sight communication, the compass will leverage the built in GPS system on the 3GS and give you a good indication of east and west. Very useful when you need to locate yourself in relation to a distant photographic subject. In conjunction with the compass and GPS feature, a couple of apps go further in helping you determine sunrise/sunset and moonrise/moonset times. With a built-in database of location coordinates, these apps will tell you precisely where the sun will be at any given time during the day or night. My favorite is Focalware 2.0, published by Spiral Development. Darkness, by Bjango, is a world clock with the ability to give you sun and moon times as well. See also my post on photographic tools for a couple more ideas.
No expedition is complete without a set of maps. I still swear by the old-fashioned topographic kind, including the USGS maps, and the Benchmark Road and Recreation series are especially good for backroads. However, Google Maps and Google Earth, both free, are invaluable in finding your way. Google Maps, built into the iPhone, has a better traffic indicator than many dedicated GPS systems. TomTom and Navigon both have full-featured GPS apps that function as well as dedicated GPS, but I don’t like giving up the other features of the iPhone to use it as a GPS. When multitasking hits the iPhone operating system, perhaps this will change. My wife uses Navigon, and likes it. But for me, the Garmin GPS units are better suited for highway and in-town navigation.
Google Maps is best used in conjunction with a dash or vent mount system, such as Kensington’s windshield mount, or the Gomadic vent mount so that you can view the info without taking your eyes off the road. Personally, I like the vent mount, as it puts the phone close, without it being too intrusive. Using Google Maps on the iPhone and a GPS, I have very good advance beta on road conditions ahead as well as directional info without fumbling with a big bulky atlas.
- NPR Radio.
I like to listen to audio books and NPR as well as music while driving. The iPhone is great for music and books, but sometimes the radio works just as well. But it’s hard to find NPR stations in unfamiliar territory. That’s where this group of apps comes in. NPR Station Finder excels at using the location info on the iPhone to search for nearby public radio stations. Sometimes listening to the radio is preferable to listening to streaming radio, and if you’re like me and don’t want to pay for satellite radio, finding a local NPR station is just the ticket. But you can also use the iPhone to stream public radio, with apps like the Public Radio Tuner, a collaboration between American Public Media, National Public Radio, Public Radio International and Public Interactive. If you have a good 3G signal, you can listen to 100’s of streaming public radio stations for free. NPR also has their own news tuner, NPR News, although I haven’t tried it yet. You can find it, and many more, in the iTunes App Store.
- Accomodations and Eats.
Finding a good place to eat or stay is often problematic on the road. Fortunately, there are lots of apps to help you out. Most of the major hotel chains have their own app, like the Hampton Inn or Choice Hotels locators. These apps are good for finding hotels chains that you often stay at, but what about when you are miles from home on an unfamiliar stretch of road? Finding restaurants and businesses couldn’t be easier with ManGo, Vicinity and YPMobile, which all take different approaches to the problem. YPMobile excels in helping you find businesses as well as restaurants, hotels and other essentials. With predictive search and voice control, the new version is even better. You can also browse by categories, which is helpful. YPMoile is also free, and probably the most useful if you know what you’re looking for. ManGo searches the immediate vicinity for known chain restaurants, which makes it especially handy when you need a bite to eat. ManGo uses different apps for different categories, each costing $0.99. Vicinity ($2.99) goes one better, and searches for banks, cafes, convenience stores, gas, hotels, and more, all within the immediate area. Vicinity also has links to Panoramio and Flickr, a marginally useful feature, IMHO.
Another approach taken by apps like BestExit, which let you know in advance what’s off each interstate exit. The main drawback to BestExit is that it only works on the interstate, not on tollways, or within city limits. It’s a good add-on when you need a gas station or a McDonalds, though. BestExit is just a buck, though, and has been useful the few times I’ve needed to use it. And don’t forget perennial favorites like Urban Spoon and Yelp. Both have iPhone app versions, and feature other folk’s opinions of local establishments. Urban Spoon’s iPhone app has a neat randomize feature that will give you suggestions based on a limited set of parameters and a quick shake of the phone.
When you stop for the night, it’s great to have a little something to keep you entertained after you’re done checking the web and your email. There’s always YouTube, built in to the iPhone, or a downloaded movie, but I like to settle in with a good book reader. I can use it in my tent, or in the back of the camper, without bothering with a flashlight. One my favorites is Stanza, which comes with the ability to download thousands of free public domain titles from the Gutenberg Project, Random House Free Library, Feedbooks and many more. You can also download tech books from O’Reilly, SmashWords and many more. A close second is Amazon’s Kindle for iPhone, which works just the same as its big brothers, letting you download any Kindle title almost instantaneously. Both apps are free, but you’ll pay for the privilege of downloading best-sellers for the Kindle. Both apps do feature many free titles, however, and are among the best values in road-worthy apps. And I haven’t even mentioned the many newsreaders that are currently available. Apps like Mashable, HuffPost, Sportacular, USA Today, and even the Bible are available at the App Store. If you like it, chances are it has an iPhone app available for it.
- Weather Apps.
I almost forgot these extremely important utilities. There are two kinds of weather apps, those that run in the browser, like the NOAA weather site, and those that stand-alone. I like the stand-alone versions, and while the supplied app from Apple is okay, it doesn’t really tell you too much you can’t learn by sticking your arm out the car window. WeatherBug works extremely well, loads fast, and has a good radar display, which is important when you’re at a show and need to know whether a storm will hit at 4 or 8PM. Also good is Weather Underground, which does run in a browser window. You can put a bookmark on your iPhone desktop though, because if you’re like me, you’re constantly checking the radar. The Weather Underground radar display is better than WeatherBug’s, and features the “WunderMap”, which lets you zoom, pan and animate the display. The best news is, Weather Underground is free, while WeatherBug costs a buck.
Okay, so maybe I mentioned a few more apps along the way. These are just a few of my favorites, and all have been tested during many highway miles. Please keep in mind that it is uncool to use these while driving. If you need more info on this, read Andy Ihnatko’s post in the Sun-Times. ‘Nuff said. Pulling off to a rest area is much safer, and will keep you tootling along much longer. So drive safe & enjoy the trip!