Friday, December 23, 2011

The Best Smartphone Apps work offline. Here are 4 You Probably Haven't Heard Of and One You Probably Don't Use Enough

Android Market
Image via Wikipedia

Travel can be intimidating.  You don’t speak the language, you don’t know local customs and you have no idea how much things should cost.  Figuring that stuff out is certainly part of the fun but wouldn’t it be nice if it was just a little easier?  

Google Translate, maps, Wikipedia and other apps are great resources but try using them when roaming and your cell phone bill could rival the GDP of developing country.  And if you traveling in out of the way places you might not have a data connection at all.  

On a recent trip to China I tested several phone apps that work without a data connection to see how helpful they would be.  I was in China for 3 weeks scouting a new route for our Silk Route Bike Tour.  I travelled from Shanghai to Lanzhou though urban and rural areas alike. All 5 of these apps served me well.  

When You Don't Speak the Language

Jibbiggo : Free app, $4.99 for each language pack  in the Android Market, also available for iPhone
Jibbigo is a lot like Google Translate except that it works offline.  The app itself is free but you have to pay for each language pack you download.   The app uses about 14 MB of space on your phone.  The Mandarin language pack I bought used 1.6 MB.  This is the one downside to offline apps, you need to have adequate storage space on your phone.  
Best Use
Your not going to use this app to have any in depth conversations but if you need to ask for a toilet in a hurry or order at a local restaurant it will do the trick.  Over time you’ll even begin to pick up words so you can rely on the app less and less.  It even has a history function so you don’t have to type in phrases you’ve used before.  
One word of caution is to choose the words you want translated carefully.  For example when I was looking for a bathroom I typed ‘washroom’ in to the app which translated to ‘shower room’ in Mandarin.  When I entered the word ‘toilet’ however I got the right translation

When You Need to Navigate

NavDroyd  $6.93 in the Android Market
NavDroyd uses Open Street Maps (OSM) to help you get around a city or country.  Like Jibbigo you first install the app and then download the maps for the countries you are interested in.   It used about 9 MB for the app itself and 56 MB for my maps of China.    
Best Use:
The most useful feature for me was the ability to attach a ‘pin’ to my location.  This allowed me to pin my hotel on the map then wander aimlessly through cites like Shanghai, Nanjing, Xian etc… without having to worry about how long it would take me to find my way home.   I’d also use it to ‘pin’ items I wanted to return to later like a restaurant that looked good or market stall where I wanted to pick something up on the way back to the hotel.   The level of detail was good enough that helped us to find a route around Lake Tai, something our paper chinese maps could not do.  

When You Need To Change Money

XE Currency Exchange  Free in the Android Market
Perhaps not useful for everyone but on our tours we cross a lot of borders at some pretty obscure border crossings.  This often means dealing with some black market currency traders and it pays to know the official exchange rate.  XE Currency allows you to update the rates when you have a wifi connection and then stores them offline for you.  

Guidebooks and Info

Kindle   Free in the Android Market and on Itunes
There are countless travel apps on the market and I’ve found many of them useful.  But rather than clutter my phone with dozens of individual travel apps I’ve begun using the Kindle App.  When Combined with a web service like Readability it really becomes a powerful travel tool.  

Best Use
An easy use of the app is to download any guidebooks on the places you will be visiting and store them on your phone.  Read them on the plane and use the Kindle’s notes and highlights feature to save the relevant bit for later reference.  There are not a lot of guidebooks for Kindle yet but there are a few.  
Used with the we service Readability  the kindle app really becomes powerful.  It allows you to send almost any web page to your kindle in a reader friendly format.   You’ll need the paid version of Readability ($5 a month) but it is well worth it.  You can then search the web for all the relevant bits of information you’d like to have on your trip and with a few clicks of the mouse send them to your phone to be referenced later.   Brilliant. 

Taking and Storing Photos

Light Box  Free in the Android Market
Light box is currently my favorite photo app.  It works as well as the stock camera app and it has several filters that allow you to alter your photo immediately after taking it.  
Best Use
My favorite feature is the ability to caption and geo-locate each picture immediately after taking it.  After a photo is taken a text box appears, type a quick description and save the photo.  Later, when you have a wifi connection you can upload the photo to Twitter or Facebook using the previously typed caption as the text for the post.  My only gripe is that when I download the photos to my laptop the text does not become the file name, that would be a nice feature.  

So there are five of my favorites, tested and approved!  I realize they are mostly for  Android phones but that’s what I use and I hate to recommend something I haven’t tried myself.  What are your favorites?  I’d love to hear about them in the comments.  


Paul McManus designs and guides long distance bike tours for Tour d’Afrique Ltd.  His next trip will be the Silk Tour Bike Tour from Shanghai to Istanbul starting in May 2012.  Find out more at  

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Anonymous said...
This is great! Thank you for taking the time to put this all together. I’m a huge fan of the translation and currency exchange apps, but love the games and trip advisors, too. In fact, your readers may be interested in the TV Everywhere app. I got this app through my job with DISH, figuring I would just keep it handy in case a customer had a question about it, but I love it! Whether it’s just on my lunch break watching something off my DVR to killing some time waiting between flights by watching live TV on my smartphone, this app is perfect.

iffatali said...

(Chinese travelers) could potentially dwarf all of our other inbound travel markets.
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Patricia Lobez said...

Yeah great, I had not heard the Kindle and XE factors…these seems to be updated ones. The offline editors have become our guide in any corner of the world and the planet will soon appear very small in front of these mini technologies.
Offline Translator