Software reviews: Summer holiday apps
Going travelling? There’s more your mobile can do than just message or phone home.
The Organised Traveller
The idea of an all-in-one app that will manage your travel for you – a travel companion or concierge – is not a new one. Nokia preinstalled an app called Worldmate on its E-series smartphones in the days before iPhones and Androids, for example. Yet they were tough to maintain financially, and several have fallen by the wayside.
New ones have appeared though, mainly aimed at business travellers and frequent fliers for whom the convenience outweighs the relatively modest annual fees charged for optional features such as real-time flight updates and expense tracking. Indeed, several (including the technology that used to be Worldmate) are now owned by companies in the travel business, for whom they are part of their ‘customer ecosystem’.
Even Google has jumped in now, with Google Trips. As you’d expect, it’s both free and reasonably capable – particularly for dedicated GMail users, because it collates all your emailed travel bookings from there. It then adds local tips and suggestions for your destination, as well as making it easy for you to plan your own local itineraries.
For more serious travellers though, it’s a toss-up between the two biggest survivors of the concierge wars, TripCase and TripIt. Not surprisingly, they work in remarkably similar ways: you forward all your travel emails, or give the service access to your mailbox, and it compiles them into a schedule. Part of the cleverness is how they parse all those differently formatted emails to pull out the relevant information.
If there is anything not in an email, you can add it manually. You can then view your itinerary in the app (synced for offline access), follow it on your smartwatch, share it with family or colleagues via email, and subscribe to a personal calendar feed so it appears in your online diary.
Of the two, TripIt (which is now owned by software company SAP, and is its preferred tool for travel and expense management) is cleaner and more capable, but only once you pay the $49 annual TripIt Pro subscription. It can track your frequent flyer accounts for you, for example, and tell you if you might be eligible for a refund or that a better seat is available. It also has a teams option, so colleagues can travel together or edit each other’s itineraries.
However, TripCase offers more for free, including in-app or emailed notifications of flight changes. You can even link a booking by entering its six-character reference and the traveller name – the fact that TripCase is owned by Sabre, the agency which handles a large proportion of the world’s flight bookings, may help here. Its only chargeable extra is a $6/year expenses add-on that lets you store receipts for each trip in digital form.
The best thing about both TripIt and TripCase is the way they put everything in one place, consolidating and linking (mostly!) all the elements of a trip. If you need to be organised, this is how to do it. On the other hand, if your plans are more spontaneous Google Trips will probably be enough.
Free on Android and IOS
Fewer and fewer people send postcards in these electronic days, yet most of us still enjoy receiving them. TouchNote attempts to bridge that gap, allowing you to create postcards (and other things) using your own photos and your phone’s address book. It then prints and laminates them and mails them worldwide, so your ‘wish you were here’ card can be both unique and as personalised as you like.
The results are attractive – you can use one photo or several in a grid, with or without a border and a caption. The process is also surprisingly inexpensive – not much more than a picture-postcard plus first-class stamp, and cheaper if you buy a bundle of credits.
The down-side is no more characterful local stamps or postmarks, and no more trying to decipher tiny handwriting, as the sender tries to squeeze in as much news as possible – but maybe the latter is for the best!
Spark Sixty Four
Free on Android and IOS
Whether you’re fair-skinned and naturally susceptible, or simply going somewhere sunnier than you’re used to, you need to think about sunburn – and of course the other potential consequences of over-exposure to ultra-violet. We still need a few warming rays for health though, as long as we’re sensible about it, and that is where apps such as UVLens come in.
At its simplest, it takes your location and finds the UV intensity from the local weather forecast. You then need to tell it about yourself – your skin type, eye colour and so on – as this will modify your burnability. Now tell the app what you’re doing and what sunscreen you’re wearing, if any, and it will estimate how long you’re safe for, and also optionally warn you when to reapply sunscreen.
It’s not perfect – the weather reports won’t reflect a cloud sailing by, say – but it’s a good start.
For real accuracy you need something that actually detects UV, such as the QSun wearable monitor, designed to work with an app of the same name. The problem for now is that the original QSun gadget is no longer available and the second-generation one isn’t due until the end of 2017.
Free on Android and IOS
Parents too often come to dread the summer holidays. In the absence of residential summer camps and the like, it can be several weeks of either trying to find suitable kids’ activities or of biting your nails while they figure out their own activities and amusements, for better or for worse. So an app like Hoop can be even more of a help then than it is the rest of the time.
For users in mainland Britain (England, Scotland and Wales), Hoop aggregates all sorts of activities for children. Many are free while others are commercial, and they cover pretty much anything from toddler storytime in the local library to robotics workshops for pre-teens.
Of course, being a mobile app means that it can be location-aware, so it only shows you activities within a radius that you define, and you can also choose only to see free events, specify what ages you want events for, and also at what time of day.
The one caveat is it doesn’t cover the entire country, and even within that it’s mainly urban, as you might expect. It is gradually rolling out to new cities though, and where it works it’s a great way to discover new things for both kids and parents to do.
So long, and thanks for all the apps
Time catches up with us all, and I’m sorry to say that the pressure of other work means that this is my last software column for E&T. It’s been a lot of fun writing these pages over the last few years, not least because it opened up whole new areas of appdom. Not everything sticks, of course, but here are some of the apps that have put down roots on my phone since I reviewed them in these pages.
Feedly: Google’s cancellation of Google Reader left a big gap to fill, and Feedly has done a great job here. It helps that it is multi-platform and makes it easy to add and remove feeds. Feed readers such as these remain a very effective way of aggregating new content as web pages are updated and refreshed.
LastPass: When websites demand ever more complex passwords, and identity theft is a constant worry, a good password manager takes a lot of weight off the mind. LastPass won my vote mainly through having the broadest multi-platform support – there are desktop and mobile versions for Apple, Microsoft and Linux/Android. It has got better too: following its 2015 acquisition by LogMeIn, multi-device sync is available for free, where free users previously could only sync their password store to one device.
Pocket: It’s frustrating when someone links you to an interesting article online, but you just haven’t got the time to read it right now. You could bookmark it, but who remembers to follow up last week’s random browser bookmarks? This is where read-it-later app Pocket comes in, and because it (mostly!) syncs the text to your device, it means there can always be something to read, even on a plane or underground.
Slack: For those of us who’ve been using instant messaging since the late 20th century, it’s a bit of a mystery why it took IM so long to win friends at work. But with its business-friendly ‘teams’ approach, plus its integration with other online services and openness to people developing add-ons, Slack has managed it.
Signal: OK, so most of the time it’s just another SMS app, but it’s a good one, and the option is always there to switch to secure messaging – or even a secure phone call – when the other party supports it.