I'm writing this article on my laptop in a hotel room, having just attended the last day of TechRepublic Live 2011 in Louisville, KY. I had a great time, and when my husband and I left home, life was made a little easier by my Android phone and all the great apps that come in especially handy when I'm in traveling mode. Attending conferences is a common occurrence for IT pros, so I thought I'd share my thoughts about the apps that can get you through a whirlwind week with minimal hassle. All of these apps either come pre-installed on most Android phones or are available in the Android Market unless otherwise noted.
Ready to fly
Getting there -- to the airport, on time -- isn't just half the journey; it can make the difference between whether you get to go on the journey at all. So, I started out by checking the status of our flight with my American Airlines app. Sure, I could just use the phone's browser and go to the web site, but the app makes it a lot quicker and easier. Other airlines have similar apps that will show you, with a touch or two, whether your plane is on time and the number of your departure gate. You can even check in via your phone and create a mobile boarding pass, which saves time when you get to the airport.
Beat the TrafficWe were happy to see no delays, so as we set out for the airport (a 45-minute drive across the Dallas metroplex in typical traffic conditions), I checked my Beat The Traffic app to find out whether there were accidents, construction delays, or other impediments along our route that we needed to avoid. It provides a map of the area -- based either on your current location (determined by GPS) or any city you enter in the search field -- with flags indicating potential traffic problems, as shown in Figure 1. Figure 1
Avoid traffic jams with the Beat the Traffic app.
It showed a slowdown on one segment of the freeway, so we exited and went around that. Otherwise, the way was clear and, thanks in part to the app, we arrived at the airport half an hour earlier than expected.
The waiting game
At the airport, we had extra time so I used the built-in e-mail client to check in with my cousin, who was house- and pet-sitting for us, and to catch up on a few business messages that had come in. Whereas the phone admittedly isn't the best tool for composing and replying in depth to email, it's a far more convenient way to quickly read through them while sitting in a cramped bank of seats at the gate without opening up the laptop and trying to balance it on your knees. I also wrote to friends at our destination to let them know we were on track to get there on time and communicated with a few of my fellow conference attendees via the Facebook app.
Up in the airAs soon as the flight attendant announced that it was okay to use approved electronic devices, I fired up the Kindle app and relaxed with my novel for a while (shown in Figure 2). Figure 2
Reading ebooks with the Kindle app for Android.
I use both it and the Nook app for almost all of my fiction reading these days, and there's no need to commit to one or the other; because you can install the free apps on your phone and enjoy books from both Amazon and Barnes and Noble. I reviewed these (along with the Sony Reader and Apple's iBooks) in a previous post, "Comparing the top four ereader apps."Thanks to my phone getting us to the airport early, we'd snagged first class upgrades, which includes that yummy little bowl of warm nuts and grilled chicken salad for lunch. I track my calorie count somewhat obsessively, and it's easy to do -- even on an airplane -- with the MyFitnessPal app, which has a huge database that lists almost every common food you can think of. I also wrote a full review of MyFitnessPal in a previous Geekend post. We got lucky and got a plane with Go-Go inflight Wi-Fi, so when I got an e-mail message requesting that I do a quick rewrite of a short piece I'd submitted the day before, I was able to edit the attached Word doc with QuickOffice Pro (shown in Figure 3). Figure 3
Editing Word docs with QuickOffice.
Now, granted, I didn't do it on my phone, since it's a bit of a pain to type that much on the small keyboard (although I have done so before in a pinch, and Swype makes it at least doable, if not fun). Instead, I used my Android tablet. Unlike the rest of the apps I've mentioned so far, QuickOffice Pro isn't free. In fact, at $14.99 USD, it's relatively expensive for an Android app, but it's well worth the price, because it lets you create and edit Word, Excel, and PowerPoint files in Android. I reviewed it and other office productivity apps for various smartphone platforms in a previous post.
If all you need to do is view documents, there are a number of free apps for that. Some will also do limited editing, such as ThinkFree Mobile.
On the road againWhen we arrived in Louisville and collected our baggage, the next step was to rent a car. Some of the popular car rental companies have an app for that. For example, with the Hertz app, you can make reservations online, find the location of the nearest rental office (even if it's in Albania), and review, modify, or cancel your reservation (see Figure 4). You can also check in online, and there are even special deals offered for Android users. Figure 4
Renting a car with the Hertz app.
A good night's sleep
When you're going to be doing a presentation first thing in the morning, the last thing you want is to be kept awake all night. Unfortunately, it's often difficult for me to get to sleep in a hotel room. There are always odd noises -- people talking as they walk down the hall, the TV in the room next door, the elevator, cars on the street outside. In the past, there have been times when I've even resorted to bringing my own small fan to generate noise, which took up lots of valuable space in a bag.Thanks to modern technology, I don't have to do that anymore. I just turned to Android Market to find a white noise app and discovered that there were several available. The first one I downloaded worked fine for a while, and then it inexplicably stopped working. I looked for another and found Relax and Sleep, which worked great (and kept working). It let me choose from a number of different sounds, including air conditioner, large fan, summer rain, seagulls, and many more. It even lets you combine sounds, so I could fall asleep to the sound of rain falling while the air conditioner ran. The volume is plenty sufficient to drown out other noises. I plugged the phone into A/C so it wouldn't run the battery down and got a good night's sleep in preparation for my talk the next morning. It also has an alarm function to ensure that you wake up on time. Figure 5 shows the interface. Figure 5
Generating white noise with Relax and Sleep app.
Keeping it short
I didn't use the phone to display my slide show, although I'd love to be able to do that (and don't doubt that I'll eventually be able to get full functionality with all the animations and transitions on a phone). But I did use it to keep me from going overtime. I simply set the built-in alarm for five minutes before I wanted to end the presentation, put it on silent/vibrate, and let it tell me when I was close to the end. That way, I didn't have to worry about losing track of time and annoying my audience.
Sharing the love
Once my own presentation was over, I was able to sit back and enjoy the rest of the conference as an attendee. However, there were many TR members who didn't get to come, and quite a few of them were my friends or followers on various social networks, so I didn't just sit passively and listen. I used my phone and tablet to share the experience with them.
To get the information out to several venues at once, I used TweetDeck to provide a brief announcement of each speaker and topic. Then I used the phone's camera to share the visual experience by uploading the photos instantly to Facebook and Google+. It's great to be able to do that in real time, instead of having to wait until you get back to your hotel room at night to transfer photos to your laptop in order to send them.
Taking notesWhen I go to a conference, I like to make a lot of notes so I'll remember what I learned. Android devices make that easy, with a plethora of ways to take text, handwritten, or audio notes. I used the tablet for this, too, since the larger keyboard works better for text. Evernote is one of the best and most popular apps for taking notes, and I used it for quick notes to help me remember key points from the presentations and discussions. I especially like that it syncs the notes across all my devices, including my Windows computers, and lets me create both text and voice/audio notes. Figure 6
Taking notes with Evernote.
At a conference like TR Live, the information you get from the speakers' formal presentations are only half the reason for going. The contacts you make by networking with the attendees can be of equal or even greater value. I love being able to enter a person's name, email address, phone number, mailing address, or whatever other personal info they choose to give me, right into my digital database through the People app on my phone -- and I know it will be copied to my Exchange server, so I won't have to worry about losing a business card or piece of paper. If someone does give me the information in print format, I put it into the phone as soon as I get back to the hotel room.
Some folks judge a conference not by the speakers or meeting rooms or even the quality of the food and drinks served during breaks, but by the after-hours activities. Even if there are no organized dinners or parties, you'll probably be going out to eat or doing some sight-seeing on your own -- and when you're in an unfamiliar town, you need a way to find out where the good restaurants, bars, museums, or other entertainment venues are. Remember when you had to rely on the phone book or the "city guide" magazine in your hotel room? One problem with that was that the information was sometimes out of date. You might drive across town to find that the restaurant in question had closed down months ago.Android phones generally come with the Places app installed, which you can use to look up different categories of places. For restaurants, I also like the Urban Spoon app that lets you pick the type of food (seafood, Italian, Japanese, steak, etc.) and the geographic area, plus it shows how reviewers have rated each eating establishment.
Out and about
Once you find a restaurant that sounds good, you have to get there. If you're using taxis, no problem -- the cab driver will presumably know the way. If you have a rental car and need to drive yourself, you could pay an extra daily fee to get one with a GPS, or you could just use Google Navigation on your Android phone. I've found it to be at least as good as most standalone GPS units and generally better because its maps are constantly updated. I've thrown away my old GPS and use my phone exclusively for navigation now. Unlike the standalone unit, it rarely gets me lost.
SummaryLooking back, I realize just how much I depend on my mobile devices to get me through a trip -- and I probably used other apps that I'm forgetting about because they've become such a routine part of my life. For example, when we left our car in the parking garage at DFW, I used the QuickNotes app to jot down the row/level so we could find it when we got back. In the olden days, I'd have written it on a piece of paper, which I might or might not have been able to find when I needed it.
My phone is always there, always with me. As Near Field Communications (NFC) technology is deployed and gets the kinks worked out, I'll probably also use my phone to buy dinners and souvenirs. I have mixed feelings about that, but there's no denying that my phone makes my life easier in a multitude of ways -- especially when I'm traveling.
Debra Littlejohn Shinder, MCSE, MVP is a technology consultant, trainer, and writer who has authored a number of books on computer operating systems, networking, and security. Deb is a tech editor, developmental editor, and contributor to over 20 additional books on subjects such as the Windows 2000 and Windows 2003 MCSE exams, CompTIA Security+ exam, and TruSecure's ICSA certification.