A Year Traveling With the iPad

Posted: August 4, 2011    Categories: Travel Gear

This is an overview of my year of traveling with an iPad. I’ve taken it overseas, used it on road trips, navigated with it on city streets and used it on the beach as well as in the mountains. I’ve probably done as much as anyone has in terms of traveling with this device since it was launched in 2010.

Over the last few months I’ve been seeing a lot of other travelers with iPads. I’ve been rather surprised at how quickly they have become popular. They seem to have overtaken netbooks with the travelers I see in hotels and hostels. My guess is that over the next 5 years tablets and the iPad in particular will become the primary computing device travelers use, at least for short term trips. They are lightweight, cheap and are capable of mobile internet in a large part of the world.

I’m well aware that this “review” is really late to the game as the iPad has been out for a while and is already on its second generation. Nonetheless, I’ve had many people ask me if they should take their iPad with them on trips of if they should buy one for an extended around the world trip.

I have owned both an original iPad as well as an iPad2. My original iPad was a 3G GSM and my iPad2 is a 3G CDMA model. The only accessory I have purchased for either model was a case: a rubber covering for the original and the smart cover for the iPad2. I have not used a keyboard with either iPad and have also been traveling with an iPhone and MacBook Pro as well.

International Travel

The only thing which you need to consider for international travel are the 3G iPads. If you just have a wifi iPad it will work wherever you can find wifi. Of the 3G models now available, only the GSM (ATT in the US) models will work around the world. The CDMA iPad (Verizon in the US) will not work on networks outside of the US.

The appealing thing about the iPad for international travel is that you do not need a long term contract to use the device. That means you can cancel your domestic plan at anytime if you will be spending time overseas. Likewise, you can purchase a GSM micro SIM card in whatever country you will be visiting. I met an American woman in Italy who purchased a micro SIM card for her iPad and used that as her primary internet device while she was there. The lack of a contract makes the iPad a much more attractive tool for mobile internet than the iPhone.

A few tips:

  • Not all countries have the iPad yet. If you are going somewhere that is less developed, check ahead to see if there is a carrier which has micro SIM cards which you can use.
  • Rogers in Canada will not let non-Canadians register. Last year when I was on my Newfoundland road trip, I picked up a micro SIM from Rogers. I put it in my iPad and went through the registration process. I got stopped, however, when I had to put in my credit card information. It turns out whoever designed the form you have to fill out made it such that only Canadian provinces could be entered. I don’t know if they’ve fixed it but I have heard other people with the same complaints online. If you are visiting Canada you might want to get a micro SIM from Bell or another provider.
  • Consider getting a Boingo account. Boingo has over 325,000 wifi hotspots around the world. Odds are you can find a place to use your Boingo account wherever you are. I was able to use my Boingo account almost everywhere in Switzerland and you can also log on to the municipal wifi network in Bangkok with it. Your Boingo account with work with any model of iPad. (Disclosure: Boingo sponsors me and I have been a customer since 2007)
  • If you are concerned about theft, buy a Scottevest. Their jackets have an internal pocket which holds an iPad. I travel with a Fleece 5.0 and I can carry my iPad with me and no one is the wiser.

Photography

SmugMug for iPadI have to confess that the first thing I thought of when I heard the iPad announcement was that it would be a great way to showcase my photos. I was right. The size and the colors make it a great way to share my photos with people I meet while traveling.

As a camera, however, the iPad is horrible. Data from Flickr shows that despite the popularity of the iPad2, hardly anyone uses the back facing camera. Not only is the image quality poor, but holding a tablet in front of your face to take a photo is really awkward. I personally never use the front facing camera either, but I can see I use for it at least with video calls.

My favorite photo application for the iPad is the SmugMug app. It allows me to browse all the photos in my Smugmug site and share it with others. The the default setting are for images to be pulled off the server as you look at them, but you can set individual galleries to be stored locally.

There are several photo editing programs for the iPad but I never use them. I have occasionally used the 100 Cameras In 1 app by Trey Ratclif, but I usually just use it on my iPhone where the images are.

Another great photography app for the iPad is LightTrac. This app will determine where and when the sun will rise and set for any location on Earth at any given time. It will also display the angle of the sun on top of a satellite image.

If you are using an point and shoot camera, you can use the iPad as a photo storage device. There is an external SD card reader which can be attached to the iPad. If you aren’t a serious photographer and just want to upload your vacation photos to your friends and family, this option might be good enough.

Tip: if you have a portfolio of images you want to show people, create a pdf file with the photos and then use the iBook reader to display the pdf. The images look great but you don’t have to worry about an internet connection and you can also add captions to the images.

Super secret tip: If you are at a bar and talking to a woman about your travels and your photography, take out the iPad to show her some of the places you’ve been. Tell a story about each photos and let her flip around the photos. Seriously, this shit works.

Maps

Since I purchased the iPad I have taken road trips in the US, Canada and Spain. I’ve used the iPad as my primary map every time and I couldn’t be happier with the performance.

If you have a 3G iPad then you shouldn’t have a problem setting routes and pulling up maps. The built in mapping app uses Google Maps and is very similar to what you will find on the iPhone. So long as you stick to major roads, you shouldn’t have to worry too much about the GPS leading you astray.

If you do not have an internet connection you can still use the map. Just create your route before you get in the car and have an internet connection. Then zoom in and follow the route you will be taking so those parts of the map are in the cache of the iPad. The map software will cache map images in the order of whatever was viewed most recently. The cache isn’t huge so don’t view anything other than your route once you’ve made it.

Favorite Apps:

  • Google Earth: Google Earth for the iPad is great, however you have to be connected to the internet to make it work. It is great if you want to show people places you’ve been or where you are going.
  • MotionX GPS: I also use this app on my iPhone. The MotionX GPS gives you most of the features in a dedicated GPS but with the added benefits of being able to see a map. You can get exact latitude and longitude data and well as track where you’ve been.

Reading

Kindle for iPadDespite everything else I mention in this post, the #1 thing I use my iPad for is reading. I read a lot. During the first 3.5 years of traveling I had a big problem with books. They are heavy and English language books can be very expensive in most countries. I often found myself shipping books back to the US which is not very efficient.

No only has the iPad solved the problem of traveling with books, I now find myself reading more than I did before. eBooks are cheaper and easier to get than print books. I’m basically carrying an entire English language book store with me when I have my iPad.

There are several bookstores you can choose from. I have been buying my books from the Amazon Kindle store. They have a much better selection than Apple does on the iBook store. Likewise, I haven’t bothered to check the Barnes & Noble Nook reader. I downloaded the app to take a look, but it seemed designed for the iPhone not the iPad. The nice part of using the Kindle app is that anything you buy can also be read on a Kindle reader at no extra charge.

I’m also able to do a fair amount of offline reading with Byline, which is my preferred iPad RSS reader. Unlike other RSS readers, Byline will cache your feeds for offline viewing. Unfortunately, this doesn’t do much if the feeds you follow aren’t full text feeds.

The biggest downside to using the iPad as a book reader is battery life. Because the screen is an LCD screen, the battery life for book reading isn’t much longer than it is for watching a movie. It is basically showing a white screen the entire time you are reading which requires the most power.

With the iBook application you can also easily read PDF files. Just drag the pdf to the books section of iTunes and it will show up in the iBook application the next time you synch.

I should also note that I haven’t really used may electronic versions of guidebooks. I have a few on my iPad that I was given but I seldom use them as a reference. Your milage may vary.

Tip: If you are reading a book on the iPad, put it in airplane mode and turn the brightness of the screen down to whatever is tolerable. This will maximize your battery life.

Games

Osmos for iPadBe honest with yourself. If you get an iPad, you are going to install games on it.

When you are traveling you often have to kill large chunks of time. Some of the games for the iPad are outstanding. Two of my favorites are Osmos and Civilization Revolution.

Osmos is an incredibly addictive game which could only exist on the iPad. It would make no sense on any other platform. Civilization Revolution is a massively scaled down version of the Civilization game you might be familiar with on the desktop. I can easily kill an entire domestic flight playing a game of Civilization.

I’m not going to go into too much detail on games because everyone has their favorites, but don’t ignore them when making the decision to get an iPad.

Media

Netflix for iPadThere might be some debate on the Kindle vs the iPad as an ebook reader, but there is no question that the iPad is probably the best mobile platform for viewing video. I am able to watch streaming movies with the Netflix app and there are a host of movies to buy or rent from the iTunes store.

I purchased an iPad for my mother for Christmas and she has taken to watching movies on Netflix as well. It really is a great device for watching video.

There are two big downsides to Netflix on the iPad: 1) it doesn’t work if you are outside of the United States, and 2) there are a lot of movies which are not available for streaming. I can verify that you can purchase and download movies from anywhere in the world if you have a US iTunes account, however.

Audio on the iPad is not much different than what you will experience on an iPhone. You have access to your iTunes library as well as the iTunes store. One difference is the quality of the external speaker. The speaker on the iPad really isn’t that bad considering how small it is. It is good enough to provide music for me if I am taking a shower or working when I don’t want to wear headphones.

Before I started traveling I had to pack up my life and put it in storage. By weight and volume, the majority of the stuff I owned was books, movies and music. We have reached a point where all of that can be condensed into a tiny space and carried with us wherever we go. Amazing.

Content Creation

As a blogger, much of what I do involves writing or photo editing. I do not do either of them on my iPad. It is fine for sending out tweets, replying to email or updating Facebook. I have never written a blog post nor have I edited a photo taken on my SLR with the iPad. I could do it, but it just wasn’t designed as a tool for content creation.

Whenever I travel now I bring my iPad and my laptop. Some may see this as overkill but I use them for very different purposes. I treat my laptop as a mobile desktop computer. When I get in a hotel room I will unpack my laptop and leave it locked in the room for most of my stay. My iPad is what I will take to dinner to read or what I will take out of my bag at the airport.

Steve Jobs in an interview talked about the differences between trucks and cars and how most people don’t need trucks. The difference between tablet devices and those with keyboards is like the difference between a truck and a car. A truck is for doing work and so it as desktop or laptop computer.

The iPad is great at what it does, but if you try to use it for any sort of large scale content creation I think you will be disappointed.

Kids

I don’t have kids, but my assistant Amy does. When I purchased my iPad2 I gave my older iPad to her. Her kids took to it immediately. Here is what she has to say about traveling with kids and an iPad:

I have two preschoolers, and they are in love with our iPad. The first thing I considered when we got the iPad was how great it would be for entertaining them while we were traveling. That could not be more true! Unlike the iPod Touch we had previously, they can realistically share it and watch a movie together. And if one falls asleep or is otherwise engaged, the other is able to play one of the multitude of age appropriate games we’ve loaded onto it. But it’s not all about filling their time while traveling. My daughter, age four, uses several educational applications that teach her the basics of math and reading in very dynamic ways. Both of my children grew up around technology, but the iPad is extremely easy for them to navigate themselves. My two year old successfully uses it on his own without any help – very important when they are in the backseat of a car on a trip and you are not. It’s also highly durable. I’ve cringed after several drops onto our tile floor, but so far it has held up well. I highly recommend it to parents, especially those that travel.

Tip: Check out the site from my This Week In Travel co-host Jen Leo: Best Kids Apps.

Summary

There is an argument to be made for the iPad being the greatest travel gadget ever made. Its portability and versatility are unrivaled in any other device I can think of.

If you are going on an extended trip and are not worried about writing long articles, then you might just be better off taking an iPad over a laptop. If you are only traveling for short periods of time, such as a weekend, you might be better off with just an iPad.

If you are going on a long term trip with the intent to do work while you are on the road, I’d recommend bringing a laptop in addition to an iPad.

It doesn’t do everything, but it does a helluva lot.

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