Monday, July 26, 2010

A Car, an iPhone, and Open Roads

My wife and I recently got back from our first coast-to-coast road trip, we’ll not quite. We made it as far as Albuquerque, New Mexico before catching a plane back to San Francisco. For some people, bay area commuters and the like, the idea of sitting in a car throughout the day doesn’t seem like much of a vacation. However, for me getting out from behind the desk and experiencing the freedom of the open roads was a refreshing break.

We started our trip in Savannah Georgia and in two weeks time made our way 2700 miles across the Country and into New Mexico. The most adventurous part of the trip was that there were no plans (well, very few plans) along the way. Aside from the flight to the east coast, some backcountry campsite reservations, and a list of towns and cities we wanted to see along the way, we just let the trip unfold in front of us. As spontaneous as that may sound, we still had some of the great tools of the 21st century to help us on our way, an old school Garmin GPS (StreetPilot C330), an iPhone 3GS, and a 40GB iPod that was fully loaded with music, audio books, and lot’s of standup comedy. Being someone who embraces technology, I’d like to share some of my experiences with this gadgets on our trip.

First of all, you can’t go on a road trip without music and who carries around CDs nowadays, especially for 2 weeks of driving. The iPhone we brought had 16GB of storage but that’s shared amongst pictures, videos, apps, etc. So we dusted off our antiquated 40GB iPod video (glad it was still lying around). In the past, I've hooked the iPod/iPhone into the stereo using an FM transmitter. Anyone who has every tried this knows that it's a constant hunt to find a clear station. I don't know about anyone else, but I've had 3 different makes and I would not recommend any of them. Fortunately, to our surprise, our 2010 Ford Escape rental car came equipped with an auxiliary stereo input. With the purchase of a cheap car audio cable we had crisp sounding hassle free audio for the entire length of the trip. A must have for any new car stereo!

It's only a matter of time before these devices run out of juice, so the next great accessory is a USB car adapter. These small and cheap little adapters let you charge any USB device. We used it to charge everything...the iPhone, iPod, and Garmin.

When it came time to get driving directions we had both the Garmin GPS and the iPhone. If we knew exactly where we were going, then using the Garmin was the better experience. The iPhone worked well, but the Garmin was much more accurate and responsive. Plus with the windshield mount it was totally a set it and forget it experience. However, any time we didn't have the address and we just new the name of where we wanted to go the Garmin was unusable. It's a pretty old device (in the scope of consumer electronics) and it took way too long to search for location by name. Most of the time it wouldn't find any results. This is where the iPhone clearly excels. With it's top quality software and user-interaction focused design, we were able to find nearly all our destinations quickly and easily. Since we didn't know where we wanted to go most of the time (landmarks, hotels, restaurants, bars, etc.), the iPhone quickly became our go to device.

One of the major advantages for using the iPhone was that it was totally mobile. We could take it anywhere. Our Garmin GPS is old and the new models are much smaller and thinner, but I can't see carrying around a dedicated device just for navigation.

I wish I could say that we had a plethora of apps that came in handy while we were traveling, but just a few of the fundamentals is really all we needed on this particular trip. We chose to use the iPhone as a travel tool. The Maps app was of course very useful. Yelp was used a lot for destination discovery, Wikipanion for a quick reference, Taxi for when you shouldn't be driving, and of course the Camera app.

The biggest disadvantage to various iPhone apps including the Maps app is the data connectivity requirement (via a cellular or wifi network). Unfortunately we found ourselves with very little or no signal all too often. So what's the remedy? You can wait for a more expansive and robust network (not holding my breath) or you can have all the data you need local on the device. Something like Tom Tom's navigation app would have come in handy. I didn't buy the app before I left for the trip so I couldn't download the 700MB+ of map data. Sure you use more memory, but you have the assurance of getting navigation instructions in an unsure cellular world.

All in all, the iPhone really shined for us on this trip. With more memory (32GB now available with iPhone 4), having local map data supplemented with online data, and maybe a compact car dock, I could easily travel for long periods of time and have everything I need tucked into my pocket.

Here are a few pics from the trip:

Savannah, Ga

A street in historic Charelston, SC

The Biltmore Estate (George Vanderbilt): Ashville, NC

The Great Smoky Mountains National Park (old Cherokee land): Gatlinburg, TN

A Parthenon replica (exact scale): Nashville, TN

Broadway St. in Nashville, TN.

The Ozark Mountains in Arkansas

Replica of an ancient Cherokee village: Park Hill, Ok

Route 66 outside of New Mexico

The road to Taos, NM

The Rio Grande River Gorge: Taos, NM


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