iPhone apps for travelers

How do you say "no MSG" in Mandarin? You might not have a clue, but your Apple iPhone can help.

Downloadable applications from Apple's iTunes App Store can turn your iPhone into a helpful traveling companion. As of this writing (early August, 2008), the App Store's Travel category includes foreign language translators, currency and weight/measure converters, a smattering of guides to municipal transportation (such as one for London's Tube), and Frommer's city guides for New York and San Francisco.

I tested two programs I thought might interest travelers: Urbanspoon, a free restaurant guide/recommendation program, and TravelTracker, a US$30 program designed to help you keep tabs on your itineraries, expenses, and such. Urbanspoon is a useful tool, if imperfect, but TravelTracker doesn't seem worth the money n its current version.

Worth noting: If you're traveling internationally, be wary of using any iPhone application that connects to the Internet for information, as roaming charges for data access can be substantial.

Urbanspoon: Shaking Up Restaurant Reviews

Urbanspoon's clever interface is the biggest reason behind its cool factor.

The free, location-aware restaurant finder features an interface resembling a slot machine's three reels. To start the reels spinning, shake your iPhone--literally--or tap Urbanspoon's Shake button. Instead of cherries and oranges lining up, one reel lands on a specific neighborhood, the second on a type of cuisine, and the third, a price category. A restaurant that matches all three attributes is displayed at the bottom of the Urbanspoon screen. Tap the restaurant's name to read brief reviews, or tap the restaurant's phone number to call.

For example, let's say you're visiting Boston, with no idea where to dine. Launch Urbanspoon, and it will find your location (as long as the city is in its database, which Boston is). Shake your iPhone, and you may get Newton (for neighborhood), American (cuisine type), and two dollar signs (price range). The restaurant displayed matching those three attributes, in my test, was Union Street Restaurant. You can lock any of the reels, too. So if I only wanted to look for restaurants in Newton, I could click the lock icon under the neighborhood reel after it landed on Newton. I could also manually spin any of the three reels. The interface is fun to use and encourages exploration.

Like other apps offered through iTunes, Urbanspoon could use some refinement. For example, listed among Union Street Restaurant's reviews was a link to Boston magazine. I assumed if I clicked that link, I'd be able to read a review--or at least excerpts of one--of the restaurant. Instead, Urbanspoon took me to a Boston magazine Web page where I had to manually enter Union Street Restaurant as a search term. The search returned 61 results, listing Union Station the Restaurant, Union Oyster House, Union League Café--but no Union Street Restaurant.

Still, Urbanspoon is free, it's extremely cool, and it may help you discover a restaurant nearby. So who's to complain?

TravelTracker: Not Up to Its Palm Predecessor

And then there's TravelTracker.

TravelTracker has been around as a Palm application for 10 years. (I recommended the Palm version back in 2002.) Its developer, Silverware Software, says TravelTracker is designed to store all the essential information related to a trip and display it in a single itinerary screen. The program also lets you record travel expenses, use customizable packing lists, keep track of your frequent traveler reward programs, and so on. I tested TravelTracker 1.01 on my iPhone 3G.

Unfortunately, all that data must be entered manually on the iPhone, which can be a bit tedious. Unlike some App Store programs, TravelTracker doesn't have a Mac or Windows counterpart into which you can enter data that can be synced with your iPhone or iPod Touch. There isn't much "live" information the program grabs off the Internet, either. In several instances, my efforts to get real-time flight updates caused the program to crash. In addition, I felt the program's interface could be more intuitive.

In short, the $30 TravelTracker doesn't really do anything you can't accomplish on your iPhone for free using its Calendar and Safari Web browser.

Mobile Computing News, Reviews & Tips

Your Laptop, Under Arrest: The U.S. Department of Homeland Security now has the authority to seize and retain electronic devices indefinitely, as part of border search policy. Government agents can seize your laptop, cell phone, MP3 player, or other device and inspect documents stored on them. The new policies are "truly alarming," U.S. Senator Russ Feingold said.

Pay for Carry-on Bags? Airline industry analysts believe some domestic U.S. carriers may begin imposing fees for carry-on bags, in addition to fees already being charged for checked bags. You can read more about it on my blog. Whatever happens, it pays to streamline your packing whenever possible. I've got tips for lightening your load in "Packing Tips for Painless Trips" and a recounting of my one-bag-only experiment in "Many Gadgets, One Carry-On Bag."

A Nearly Perfect Netbook: Asustek's latest mini-notebook, the Eee PC 1000, improves upon many of its predecessor's shortcomings. The $700 netbook weighs less than 3 pounds and includes a bigger, brighter screen and a nearly full-sized keyboard, plus improved battery life and more data storage.

This story, "iPhone apps for travelers" was originally published by PCWorld.

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