Top Free Android Apps for Travel

android_logo These days a smartphone is becoming as handy a tool for travellers as a laptop or a digital camera, with a massive number of capabilities contained within, from mapping to translation, to data access and beyond.

I’ve been travelling with an Android based smartphone (a Samsung Galaxy S for those of you interested in such things) for a few months now, and have come across a variety of applications that I believe are of tremendous use for the travellers toolkit.

These are all free, or ad supported, although in some cases a “premium” ad-free version can be purchased which either disables the advertising or unlocks additional features. For more on disabling the ads on your phone, see the section on rooting towards the end.

In no particular order, here are my current favourite Android Apps to travel with.

Internet

Opera Mini. When travelling, data use is often something you need to keep an eye on. Opera Mini is a great help in this scenario, as it cuts down on your data usage by compressing everything at the Opera server farm before sending it to your phone, greatly reducing your data consumption. It also has all sorts of handy features such as bookmarks, password management and pinch to zoom, that you would expect from a modern web browser.

Seesmic. The native Facebook application for Android is pretty good, but it is lacking in one key feature – Facebook Page access. If you have a facebook page, then Seesmic is a great way to see what is happening on it. Seesmic also has rather excellent built in support for Twitter, thus killing two social networking birds with one stone.

Miren Browser. Sometimes Opera Mini won’t quite get it right with its compression, or you’ll want to browse the web using the equivalent of a desktop rather than a mobile browser. In these cases, Miren is the answer, with features such as tabbed browsing and a full-on desktop browsing mode. This is good for situations when, for example, a website refuses to render in anything other than a mobile version of the site. I’m looking at you, Facebook Pages.

Dropbox. If you use Dropbox on your computer to back up critical files to the cloud (see my post on data backup for why and how you should be doing this), then the Android application is a great way to get access to these files from wherever you are.

imo / skype. Keeping in touch with people via instant message is wonderful when on the road. Unfortunately, there are a lot of different instant messaging networks, and running an app for every one of these is a bit of a hassle. Which is where the imo app comes in. This supports all the major instant messaging platforms, including facebook, skype, yahoo, aim, gtalk and msn messenger, from one interface. The only thing it won’t do is voice calling, in which case, the skype app is the way to go.

Photography

Camera360. Sometimes you won’t want to lug your main camera around with you. The chances are however that you will have your phone on you most of the time. Sure – a phone camera is probably not going to be producing images that are quite on par with what your camera can achieve, but some picture is usually better than no picture at all.

I use Camera360 for just those moments, mainly because it offers all kinds of features that my standard phone app doesn’t, including image stabilisation and modes ranging from HDR shooting to Tilt shift photography. Worth a look.

News / feed reader

Newsrob. RSS feeds are a great way to keep up with news from all kinds of sites when on the go (including this one). Newsrob is a brilliant app for reading these on a mobile device, and has the huge added bonus in that it allows you to synchronise up to 2000 articles for reading when you are offline. Comes with full Google Reader synchronisation.

Tools

ConvertPad. When on the road you will start to realise that all those units of measurement you had treasured from back home may no longer be quite as universally adopted as you may have thought.

Luckily, ConvertPad exists to help you overcome your problems. Featuring conversions for pretty much every unit type you have ever heard of (and I suspect, quite a few you haven’t) including, crucially, updatable currency conversions, this app is an absolute must have for travelling.

Jota Text Editor. Sometimes we just want to take notes. There are a myriad apps available out there for this, but the most useful I have found to date, with support for a great pile of file formats, is this one. Combine it with Dropbox and you have a fully featured toolset for simple cloud based note management.

Google Translate. Language becoming a barrier to your travelling wants and needs? No worries. Load up Google Translate for instant translation between a whole number of languages. You can even speak into the phone, it’ll work out what you’re saying, and speak it back in the language of your choice. It’s a bit like Star Trek really.

Navigation

Google Maps. Google Maps is, basically, the daddy of free navigation aids on the Android platform. With turn by turn navigation (data connection required) and the power of Google’s Map knowledge, this can get you out of a navigation pickle in no time. And when you arrive at your destination, it’ll even show you a street view picture of where you are supposed to be. Amazing stuff. Preloaded on pretty much every Android phone.

My Tracks. If you are into hiking, running, cycling, or well, anything outdoorsy and map based, then My Tracks from Google is a great way to keep track of your activities. Using your phones GPS and Google Maps, this tool will tell you how far, how fast, and how high you have gone, all presented in a nice handy format that you can then export to Google Maps to share with the world. Pretty cool.

MapDroyd. The one key feature that is missing from Google Maps is a proper offline mode. I suspect that this has to be coming (and the latest version as of writing has a labs setting to allow a limited offline download) as it is about the only thing stopping this from being a full navigation aide. In the meantime, there are a great number of applications that claim to offer offline mapping. Unfortunately these often require the downloading of a large number of map tiles which can make them impractical.

Step in MapDroyd – a very simple application that uses vector based mapping to keep file sizes low. The entirety of the New Zealand road system for example, weighs in at around 20MB. There are some fairly major drawbacks to this application – it has no routing, navigation or Point of Interest support – but if you need a map that shows you where you are and you have no data connection, then this is the app to get. Just ensure you preload the maps for the areas you are going to when you do have a data connection.

Entertainment

Angry Birds. Seriously, where would any list of applications be without this gaming classic? Not every second of our travelling career is going to be filled with moments of incredible awesome, so for those moments of downtime, grab a copy of this gaming classic and while the hours away trying to get three stars on every level. Amazingly, this is entirely free on the Android platform, as are the sequels, Rio and Seasons.

RockPlayer. Many Android phones are more than powerful enough to be used as video players. Rockplayer is a handy application with support for a vast array of file types, so load up your phone with a few classic movies and use this to watch them with.

Miscellaneous

Rooting. You may have heard people talking about rooting their Android phone. Essentially, this is a way to get full administrator access of a phone. Doing so opens up a whole number of doors, including the option to install custom ROM’s.

There are a number of advantages to doing this, not least being that a number of apps won’t run without super user, or root, privileges. Additionally, it means you can install the latest version of the Android operating system – usually bringing a host of new features – without waiting for your phone manufacturer to do so.

Rooting a phone can be a complex and risky affair, with the serious potential to cause it to stop working, so I’m not going to go through the steps here. If you are interested in rooting and custom roms, then I can highly recommend checking out the Cyanogen Mod website and seeing if your phone is supported.

If you do successfully root your phone and install a custom ROM, you will have access to handy features such as tethering (sharing your phones data connection with your laptop), as well as being able to install application such as Titanium Backup (application backup and restore functionality) and AdFree, which will disable all the ads on your phone, and reclaim valuable screen real estate.

Google Sky Map. Stars are awesome. Staring up into the night sky somewhere like the Australian outback is an experience that has to be seen to be believed. Not too soon after you have stared up, and had the inevitable conversation about the potential for alien life, you will probably find yourself wondering which star is which, and how to recognise constellations.

Google Sky Map is your friend in these situations, allowing you to become a expert on the sky in no time, particularly because when you point your phone at the sky, the exact stars you are seeing appear on your phone screen, with names and lines attached. This is one of those amazing show off apps, which has to be seen to be believed.

Google Goggles. Google has some seriously clever people working for them. Goggles is an example of what clever people can come up with.

Take a picture of something with your camera in Google Googles, and it will send it off to the Google servers which will analyse your photo and come back with all kinds of information on the subject at hand. This works well for things like landmarks, bottles of wine, books and Sudoku puzzles, and not so well on people. Give them time.

Prey. Last on my list of incredibly useful Android apps for travellers, but by no means least, is the almost mandatory installation of an anti-theft program.

Whilst there are many on the market, Prey offers free monitoring and tracking for up to three devices, and if the worst should happen, and your gadgets are stolen (or mislaid), then you can remotely activate Prey via a web page from any computer, and locate / wipe your stolen device.

This is one of those tools, like backups, that we only consider using after we have lost something or had it stolen, so don’t delay, and install it now.

Well, those were my favourite Android apps for travelling. If you’ve got apps to share that you can’t travel without, please do share in the comments below. Also, I'm sure that equivalents for most of these apps are available for iOS based devices, so do shout if you have thoughts on that platform.




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