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I don’t need anything, well, just my phone but nothing else!

by | Jul 21, 2011 | Mobile Technology | 0 comments

This year for fun and education (although many of our friends know another way that we might refer to this…but this is a public blog…,*wink*) Chris and I took a road trip around ‘Lesser Spotted America’. The trip took us through Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, Nebraska, South Dakota, Wyoming, Utah, Colorado, Arizona and New Mexico. One of the goals of this trip was to try and use ‘mom and pop’ establishments all the way. This proved more difficult to do as we wanted to stick to a tight budget. Another goal was to record / blog the trip whilst on the road. A good test as to how the telecommunication industry is reaching out to small town America and to ascertain what the digital divide is like between rural and urban USA.

This is probably one of the first vacation’s I have taken which did not include a laptop. A few reasons were “an extra thing to worry about when leaving it in the car”, “when camping there is no wireless” and “I could not be bothered carrying it through airport security”. I could continue but you get the point. Ultimately those were just excuses; the main reason for not taking my laptop was to see how good mobile technology has come along.

At this point let me point out a couple of things about me and mobile technology:

  1. I am a recent smart phone user (as of Christmas 2010 when Santa left an iPhone for both Chris and myself)
  2. This is not an extensive test of all things related to mobile computing and smartphones
  3. I do not claim to be an expert in mobile technologies but an enthusiast of the technology
  4. This is not a comparison of iPhone versus Android. I expect Android can do all that the iPhone can do but seeing as I do not have one, I cannot use it.

Now that I have included the obligatory CYA statement, I shall continue.

Our journey started out from Houston, TX. Chris was leading a workshop there so it made sense for the trip to begin and end there. We came up with a rough route outline and essentially new we would head north for a while, then west, a bit of south, wrapping up with some eastward travel and circling the wagons back to Houston. Both of us had our ‘tunes’ with us but as it turned out, the car that I had ‘expertly’ rented had both an iPod dock and Sirius XM Satellite Radio. For the next 16 days we relived an era of 80’s music and enjoyed a lot of Blue Collar Comedy with the iPod being relegated to the travel compartment of the car. The car was a Chevrolet Equinox and I have to say, was very enjoyable to drive.

Our arsenal of mobile computing gadgets included:

  1. iPhone
  2. iPod
  3. Canon DSLR
  4. Galaxy Tablet
  5. EEE netbook

The netbook was infrequently used but was required by Chris when leading her workshop. The Galaxy Tablet was infrequently used due to the crap service T-mobile offered across the states that we visited.

The mobile apps that I had installed on my iPhone which were to be used:

  1. MapQuest (it’s free!)
  2. Every Trail Pro (the free version may do the same job)
  3. Facebook
  4. Twitter
  5. Around Me (the free version)
  6. WordPress

Part of the reason for using MapQuest rather than relying on the Maps application was MapQuest can shout out the directions. I believe this is coming to Maps. A shout out of when to turn is very useful. We do have a GPS system for the car but currently after the last map upgrade(?) it now is an expert in traveling around Guam. It has lost all other knowledge of North America. It believes it might be Canadian…

Every Trail is a very cool mobile application that I discovered for breadcrumbing hiking trips. It can also be used for road trips and basically any kind of motion. It tracks direction, altitude, speed, etc. All the important parts of a trip. There are other apps out there like Motion-X GPS. At the time of investigation, Every Trail looked to do all that was needed of it.

Facebook and Twitter just seem to be required apps these days. Y’all know what these do!

Around Me is a cool little mobile app at locating things in the nearby vicinity. It does not contain the de-facto list but does contain enough to find what we are interested in (Breweries and Coffee shops, for example).

So what became part of the normal routine was to determine were we would be heading for in a day or so in advance. Take a look at what was within a decent driving distance (using Maps in the iPhone or using Google Maps on the Galaxy when it worked [Note: the Galaxy was useful for the larger screen]), deciding if we would camp or hotel it then get some directions (using both Maps and MapQuest). Also part of the conversation would be should we stay 1 night or 2. As we were expecting to cover around 4000 miles in 16 days, this was an important question.

Using 2 different mobile based mapping technologies is useful to get an idea on how far away the destination is and what type of roads are being suggesting. At one point on our road trip Maps had suggested a route through a State Park whereas MapQuest did not. On further investigation it was probably not a road the Equinox would have done fifty miles on. Now, I am a big fan of giving rental cars the off road experience – but that is why in answer to the question at the rental car company when offered the insurance you reply –

“Yes, I would. ‘Cause you’ve got a Ford Fiesta that’s about to see more airtime than a skateboard at the X-Games.

Jeff Foxworthy”

– but when you still have another 2000 miles to go, it may be too soon to ‘push’ the car. I believe that Maps and MapQuest use different underlying mapping companies so it’s useful to double check them.

From the beginning of the trip we did say we would buy an up-to-date road atlas, because my wife is the Geography Teacher (yes, really – they still exist!) and likes to navigate “old school”. However, this never happened. Even though on occasion the directions became a bit confused at times, even the mobile technology rookie in the car found it easy to navigate, with the only disadvantage being sight at night on the screen. For the past few years, when using Google Maps to navigate Georgia we have coined the phrase “Is that a Google left or a proper left”. Sometimes, like us all, Google Maps got it’s left and right mixed up. Well, as it turns out MapQuest suffers a bit from this as well. This was especially noticeable around Houston and it’s crazy interstate junctions. I think it’s fair to assume most exits on an interstate are off to your right (a proper right and not a Google Right!). In Houston, there are a lot of interstates and highways meeting up. Lots of roads splitting, exits stacked together and confused tourists (a.k.a me). When trying to listen to MapQuest shout out directions, view a small screen to make sure we are following the correct road, keep within the white lines, etc. there are occasions when the wrong exit is taken. To add to the confusion, when the road splits and we need to stay left to get onto the correct road and MapQuest is shouting out take the right exit this can further lead to wrong roads taken.

So my first assumption I believe is true, that the mapping software assumes all exits on an interstate will be to the right. If you want lane guidance, that is extra! One thing that has been thoroughly tested is the auto reroute option. That is both very good and very useful!

One thing to note on using your phone as a GPS it does take a toll on your battery. As part of this trip we took a dual USB car charger which proved very useful. Both phones and tablet could be charged at the same time (2 in USB charger, 1 in iPod dock).

The next most heavily used app was Every Trail Pro. What I like about this particular app is it’s ‘easy to use’ interface, it’s accuracy is very good and you can tie in pictures and waypoints to the journey. Once your journey is completed you can upload the trip to the Every Trail website and share this with everyone. You can also edit the trip online, add more photo’s, etc. The trips can be downloaded by other people (heck if you get good at this, you can sell routes) and you can rate them, etc. Clearly, there is an educational purpose to this as well – my wife’s students may no longer be writing about what they did in the summer – they could well be mapping and photographing and blogging about it by next summer with the kinds of mobile technology that are entering the modern school for the use of the 21st Century student.

The main purpose of using this app was to record the journey and to be able to view this on a map to get an idea of the distance covered. There was also a couple of hikes included. Now this leads me to an area of mobile technology where I need to do more research into. How does the GPS work on an iPhone when you have no cell coverage. Certainly on parts of our car journey and on parts of our hiking there was no cell coverage. I understand the iPhone uses aGPS (Assisted GPS) but Every Trail did an excellent job at tracking our location and breadcrumbing routes. This is an area of the mobile technology I need to dig more into.

Using Every Trail, it was also fun to include photo’s immediately into the trip. On occasion the iPhone would not be able to apply GPS co-ordinates to the photo but Every Trail was able to add it into the correct part of the route. Again, not sure why this happened but something to look further into (or it will all be fixed with iOS 5 in the fall!).

Then once the trip was finished for the day, it was a simple upload to the Every Trail website. A notification was posted to Twitter (including #tmtt) so that my small following could be amazed at our trip! I really cannot say a bad word about this app after using it solidly for 16 days.

For those who know Chris and myself you will realize that I am not the Geography minded one. I am a tech nerd and enjoy gadgets (I even recently tried out a Mint floor sweeper – it was fun to watch but it’s much faster for me to Swiffer the floor! Alas – technology has not downsized my “honey do” list! It has since been returned. Once they add virtual wall technology, return to home for charging and programmable jobs this will be a very good device and that is one other thing I can cross off my list). Chris likes tech stuff too but also loves maps. Yet, in a test of our eleven year marriage, I was the one doing most of the navigation around the cities. Armed with Around Me I could have been mistaken for a member of the Star Trek Away Team wandering aimlessly with a Tricorder.

Around Me is a cool little app for finding things that you are interested in which are close by. I am sure there are other apps out there like this one, but this is the one I found on the App Store and tried out. Overall, this app was very good at providing us everything from ATM’s to Steakhouses, Coffee shops to Breweries and offered good directions. Even with me directing!

At this point, I should reminisce about Salt Lake City. This is an impressive city with the Great Lake on one side and snow capped mountains on the other. There is also an incredible amount of breweries! So, armed with Around Me, I researched them and choose one which was about one mile away and had great reviews. After about a twenty minute energetic walk we arrive at this brewery of choice and it turns out to be a package store (or off license). Bugger! Wife is now dehydrated and has dressed nicely for a good night out! We are now about one mile away from the next closest brewery. Wife has that look that I know well “I’m tired…hungry…thirsty…feed me or suffer the consequences!” Off for another walk with me navigating again. We are both hungry and thirsty by this time so it becomes a rather quiet walk. Eventually we get to our destination, quench our thirst and have something to eat. It turned out to be a fun night and I suffered no consequences – my wife does have a great sense of humor!

During our ‘fun’ walk Around Me was very good at providing accurate directions.

WordPress was the final ‘must have’ app for this trip. This app is coming along nicely. Not as feature rich as the web interface but still very useful to write up blog posts and at least get them into a draft state. It is possible to write a full blog and include pictures with the post but it does require discipline and organization. Going back to a post and adding a picture can lead to duplication of a post but the WordPress developers are very good at improving the app and fixing issues.

For the ‘road warrior’ wanting to minimize the gadgets in the backpack, I think it’s good enough so that you do not have to bring a laptop with you. Of course if you have a tablet in your bag, then you can easily leverage the full web UI.

The final part of our gadget check list was the Canon DSLR. Have to say for the amateur photographer this is a good camera. We have managed to take some very good photo’s over the last few years. We still have the SLR body but digital is the way to go. You can take so many shots without having to worry about the cost of development. I think, on this camera, we took around 700 shots. Between this camera and the two phones, we probably took around 1200 to 1300 shots. Chris did have her netbook with her as she was working for the first part of the trip. This proved useful for transferring the photo’s from the camera to the blog as it has a SD Card slot. I do see there are adapters you can get for the iPhone to allow it to read SD cards. This is something I need to investigate further.

How do I summarize our 16 day road trip around Middle America (or the lesser spotted America as we called the road trip) with a view targeted at mobile technology? The telecommunications provider was AT&T. For 99% of the time when we needed cell or data coverage it was available. Now, I am not saying that for 99% of the trip this coverage was available but we did not always need it. My rough guess would be 90%+ was the coverage. Still better than what I thought it would be, and better than T-Mobile. I cannot comment on Verizon or Sprint as I don’t have anything on this network. Well, I have a Mifi card but I could not find this before our journey so I did not take it with me. Turned out to be in a bag where my wife said it would be! Hmmmm! However, one less gadget, one less car charging lead and one less wall charger. A side whine, the more gadgets the more power leads required. Will we ever see the day were leads are not required or we standardize on a single lead? A solar panel on the roof of the car to solely supply the technology needs of the driver? One plus is most gadgets are using the USB style charging lead so its separate from the electrical outlet wall plug. At least we could charge the majority of devices with the dual USB car charger and only need a couple of wall plugs.

For the type of journey we undertook a laptop was not required. Everything I needed was accessible from my phone. Fortunately I did not have to do any ‘work’ whilst I was traveling although with VPN and an RDP app this would have been possible (even though it would have been very frustrating on a small UI – this is were the tablet would come in handy. After using the Galaxy I still prefer the iPad but this is probably more to do with the familiar look and feel and usability across all of Apple’s platforms and devices).

We were able to:

  • navigate 4400 miles from the phone. View the overall map!
  • determine places we wanted to visit from the phone.
  • find campsites and hotel accommodation along the way from the phone. [A side note, we use Marriott hotels as our preference. After years of being members we now get decent deals but one thing Marriott is lacking is an iPhone App. If it’s out there we could not find it. They have a mobile site but it lacks certain features when trying to book hotels using points. Marriott, you need an app. I know a company you can talk to!].
  • blog, tweet and Facebook from the phone.
  • Skype with my parents on Father’s Day from the phone. [We did have wireless that day, have yet to try this over 3G. We phoned Chris’s parents but we are now one step closed to getting them on Skype].
  • record the drive, hikes and balloon ride on the phone. [For those who are fine with heights, take a balloon ride. It is awesome! For those really wanting to experience this, go to Fiesta Field, Albuquerque in October for the Balloon Festival – this looks to be a lot of fun and visually spectacular.]
  • play “Angry Birds” when the long drives got a little monotonous…

The data plan we have for both phones is 2Gb. If you are streaming Netflix or Amazon VOD this maybe an issue. For our trip, my usage was pushing close to 900Mb. I was actually impressed at how little was used. Maybe we should have tried watching a film over 3G at one the campsites to really see who good it was. Maybe on our next road trip?

The only piece of equipment for this trip we could not replace with the phone was the DSLR camera. Maybe one day this will be possible but for now if you want to take pictures which are high quality and can be enlarged to poster size take the DSLR. For us the phone was a good enough replacement for the ‘point and shoot’ camera.

Prior to this year, I had little experience with mobile technology and Smart Phone technology. Now I am hooked and can see the potential from a business, education, safety and fun viewpoints. The cost is still a pain, though considering I use this device a lot more in the day than I do cable television it is far better value.

We have the new hierarchy/evolution of Smart Phone -> Tablet -> Laptop -> Desktop to consider when getting kitted out for every day technology life. We have not, as yet, acquired a Tablet. Considering how long it took to get a Smart Phone there will most likely be another generation of tablets to come and go but who knows. Maybe, just maybe, we will make that jump sooner after recent road trip experiences.

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