Sunday, September 16, 2012

Travelling abroad with an iPhone - Here are my must-have apps.

So, you're stuck in the Amazon rain forest and you would like to communicate with your family to tell them that you will not be home for a while.   What do you do?

Well, unfortunately, I hope that you purchased a satellite phone for that particular bit of travel, because an iPhone isn't going to help you.  But if you are a little more sane and go on vacation where there is at least some semblance of technology, then your iPhone will suit you just fine.  As long as you remember to find a wifi hotspot and download a few apps before you go.   Now, the "before you go" reference is very important.  There are some hotels in the Caribbean that have significant restrictions placed on their outgoing internet service.   Some have Certificates that interfere with the App Store so that you end up with messages, after intermittent and spotty wifi service that state:  Unable to download app.  Attach device to the computer to complete download.   

This happened a number of times to me while in the West Indies, but I soon found out that going to another area wifi provider resolved the issue.   What is nice is that the App store is available from any where in the world and so too is iCloud.  So if you mess up your address book, you can log into a computer and retrieve it from Apple.

On my recent travels abroad, I found myself having a need for certain "Don't leave home without it" Apps.  Below is my list, which is no where near a full list, but should provide a start if you are going abroad:

1.  SKYPE.

                 Trust me on this one, download it and pay the pennies per call that they offer.  AT&T and Verizon will rip the shirt off your back if you go for their international rates.  And God help you if you decide to use the text messaging options of either carrier.   If you have wifi available, Skype is amazing.

2.  WhatsApp.

                Although I did not use this app, due to not wanting to reveal my address book, the app is found on almost all iPhones in the Caribbean.  It uses wifi to deliver texts to just about any phone on the planet, regardless of whether it is linked to a wifi or 3G connection.

3.  iMessage.

               Standard with the iPhone.  Advantage is that it sends multimedia and text messages to anyone with iMessage on their phone.  Disadvantage:  Only sends/receives multimedia and text messages to/from anyone with iMessage on their phone.  Yes, it is another Apple walled garden product.  But boy does it work well.  I sent an 80 mb video to a friend in the States in less than 4 minutes over a relatively slow wifi connection.   You do need wifi as noted above.

4. Star Walk.

               Yes, I know, you're asking yourself, what are you doing?   Well, I really loved this app, because on many of the islands that I travelled this summer, there were no factories and on many cloudless nights, I could actually see constellations.  Not being Carl Sagan, I used this app to identify many of the stars.  While looking at Vega, I was able to see a number of shooting stars.  My kids were impressed at this life changing event.  But it was made all the more possible by this app.

5.  SayHi Tranlate.

              Fantastic and actually works abroad in a hotel where everyone but you speaks fluent Spanish or Creole.  There have been a few other apps in this genre, but this was the one that I discovered first.  I would venture to say that this is an app that I must have at all times with me.  Brilliant technology.

6.  Dropbox.

              So you've taken a number of brilliant videos using your incredible iPhone.  Where do you store the information?  If you've got an iPhone, HD video is 1mb/second roughly.  If you leave the U.S. with 6 gigs free, you will be down to 1 gig before the end of day 3.  So where do you store the video?  Well, the first thing that you will want to do is make sure that wherever you store the video, it will NOT be compressed.  Many of the online services, including the brilliant and pay requring SMUG MUG compress the video, despite allowing for infinite uploads.  Dropbox has been the only place that I have found that will save your documents without compression.  Additionally, I would strongly suggest bringing a laptop, jump drive or 320 gb small portable disk drive or iPad to offload your videos if you have a large video library while on vacation.  This was something that I had to do eventually due to the slow wifi and the large amounts of data that I ended up with using video.   Dropbox is good for 2 gb. (Why the big deal about compression?  See addendum below).

7.  Shutterfly.

Gratuitous Doggy Picture :)
            I was always a big fan of KodakGallery for uploading files, but with its banishment, I have chosen Shutterfly to store my vacation photos. Like Kodak, they do not do videos, but they have a nice uncluttered file system that I can always go back to.  Editing on the computer is easy when you get back to the States and the uncompressed files can be renamed in batch, making it easy to import into iPhoto, Aperture or Lightroom.  The new batch upload feature makes this a wonderful addition.  As a plus, if you don't want to download and send photos, you can direct people to certain areas to view your photos.

8.  SmugMug (Camera Awesome)

         Another photo storage site, but you have to pay for this one.  They lack the batch upload feature on the iPhone, but the sharing and security on this site is second to none.   This is one that many Pros use, but it is not as easy to navigate as Shutterfly.  The one feature that this one has however, is the ability to take a photo and (with wifi available), have the photo go directly to SmugMug for storage.  Neat.
Please note, that the link is to Camera Awesome, the app made by Smug Mug.  The Smug Mug App, which was their first app still does not have batch uploading and is quite flaky and slow, even on a fast wifi connection.  It requires a lot of set up from the computer.

Camera Awesome is a much better application with a lot of very nice features for taking photos and having them look near professional.  Download both, but you'll probably only use Camera Awesome.  Don't forget that you will need an account with Smug Mug to do anything, but you can upload your photos to other sites as well. 

So there you have it.  Your next travel trip should have at least 5 of the above if you plan on using your iPhone for most of your filming and photo needs.  Feel free to comment and leave suggestions below.



When using HD cameras, the idea of adding additional compression to your image is something that you want to avoid.  When you import your document to use in a movie editing program such as iMovie, iMovie HD or other software, the act of compressing the file BEFORE IT IS UPLOADED will degrade the video quality substantially.  Remember that when the software has finished adding its effects, it will - depending upon what you use as your final output - compress the video further.  Over compression or multiple compression will lead to washed out colors (particularly Red) and a video that lacks the sharpness that HD offers.  You will especially notice these nuances in night time filming, where there will be a lot of noise and the black colors begin having white grains in them.   So, it's better to save your videos uncompressed if possible.  Of course, sometimes it's not possible, but if you can, go the uncompressed route.

By the way, compression on the iPhone takes a lot longer as is seen when sending a digital image to the cloud (ie. SmugMug and others)The phone must compress the file and then send it in its reduced form and size to the cloud for safe keeping.  A full 5 minute video sent to DropBox uncompressed is a lot faster than a full 5 minute video sent to SmugMug where 20 minutes of compression takes place on the phone before the transfer begins.

So, as I have suggested previously, bring storage with you.  Your laptop etc should suffice.