Summertime is in full swing, and you’ve got the inkling to get the hell out of Dodge. Not surprisingly your friends do too, which is when you all decide to go on a road trip. Maybe it’s just an hour out of town to the cottage, maybe it’s an epic cross-continent trek that will generate mountains of embarrassing stories for all parties involved. The point is, rubber’s hitting the pavement, and as a tech-savvy road warrior, you’ve got to be equipped. There’s a plethora of mobile apps, accessories, and services that can help you ride in style, and even save the day in a pinch.
Rev your engines, boys and girls, and charge up ‘dem phones. Here are some of the smartphone essentials for the classic summer roadtrip.
Look ma, no hands
Safety first, kids. If you want to be able to use your phone while your eyes are on the road, you’ve got to make sure you’re doing it safely with the right hands-free equipment. For basic stuff like calls from buddies in the motorcade, you’ll want a quality Bluetooth headset. The Aliph Jawbone family tends to get good reviews, and even offers a cool iPhone app for sending short voice messages to groups of friends. The Plantronics Voyager Pro series is well-known too, and can whisper turn-by-turn directions into your ear. Even once your roadtrip is over, it’ll have lots of functionality back in the office. Whichever headset you pick up, be sure to check the advertised battery life and keep it in mind versus how long your trip is. Keeping your phone charged for the duration isn’t too hard, but the Bluetooth headset can be a bit trickier if you intend on keeping it on your ear. If you’re not a fan of having something strapped to your head for hours at a go, you can always get a Bluetooth visor mount that offers similar functionality.
There’s also solid smartphone software available for anything more complicated the handling calls. The first thing that comes to mind is Vlingo. Not only does its InCar feature for Android read aloud incoming texts and e-mails, but it also lets you launch into navigation without having to touch a single button – just say “Hey, Vlingo” and it’s ready to take a command. Nuance also has their apps, available for Android, iPhone, and BlackBerry, which handle stuff like web searches, dictating messages, and even translating foreign languages for when you cross the border.
Most phones already have some core hands-free functions baked in, so it’s best that you set up your shortcut keys and get familiar with the format before your big trip. The best systems will adapt and learn your speech patterns, so take some time to use hands-free features even when you normally wouldn’t just to train your phone.
If your phone is going to be a big part of the roadtrip, it needs to be easily accessible for those times hands-free just won’t cut it. Many manufacturers, like Motorola, sell custom-built car kits that fit your phone perfectly, while others are adjustable and can handle any rectangular slab of technology. There are also a variety of position layouts, depending on your driving style; you can get suction mounts that stick to the windshield, weighted ones that sit on the dash, clip ones that catch onto air vents, or lower ones that sit in cup holders or are anchored under seats. The dock doesn’t just have to be a seat for your phone, either – it can also double up as a charging station and FM transmitter. If you’re opting for a bigger screen , there are tablet car mounts available.
iGrip and Arkon are two popular names in the field, and offer mounts in all sorts of configurations for many popular phones. If you’re in a car full of smartphone geeks, you could go for this kind of crazy three-way car mount. Just remember, that even with the perfect mount, you should be using your phone hands-free whenever possible.
Setting the tone
To really get into the roadtrip mood, you’re going to need some music, be it heavy-duty, pedal-to-the-metal rock, or some whimsical folk, or anything in between. Your phone can be an invaluable hub for controlling the atmosphere of the ride, so it’s important that you’ve got everything prepared well beforehand. First, you’ll need a way to get the music from your phone out to the car’s stereo system. There are external speaker accessories out there, but there’s not much point in using them in the car. If you’ve got an older car, you can get a cheap tape deck adapter that plugs into your phone’s standard 3.5mm headphone jack. Newer cars will have a direct line-in you can use. Failing either of those options, you’ll need to move to FM transmission, which is sometimes built right into phones or Bluetooth accessories. You’ll take a hit in sound quality, and it can be a bit of a hassle to set up at first, but it’s often the only way to go. Adapters are cheap, and plug right into your handset’s headphone jack. Just set the accessory to whatever frequency you want pump your music out to, and tune your car radio to the same station. While you’re moving, local stations might get in the way, and you’ll have to change things around, so I always prefer the wired solution when available. The only accessory I’ve used in this category is the BlackBerry Bluetooth Visor mount, and it has worked admirably handling both calls and music on any smartphone.
Once you’ve got your phone connected to the car’s sound system, you’ve got to decide how you’re accessing music on your phone. Most manufacturers will have some kind of desktop software for sideloading music to the local memory. If you want to get a sampling of tastes from your passengers, get them to bring a microSD memory card loaded with their favourite tunes, and you can swap out on a whim. How you get your music is entirely your business, but most platforms have legal music stores that are tightly integrated with the device, and often let you download full tracks over Wi-Fi. Obviously the iPhone has iTunes, which will have the best selection available. The Amazon music store is available for both BlackBerry and Android, which sells DRM-free MP3s, but there are plenty of other third party options available.
Of course, if you’re not interested in getting nickeled-and-dimed, you can always go with a subscription-based streaming service. The nice thing about apps like Pandora is that it can dynamically generate a playlist and help everyone discover music that nobody would have necessarily brought with them. If you want to get more hands-on with and collaborate with friends on putting together the ultimate roadtrip setlist, Grooveshark is a good choice, but it’s tricky getting the mobile app since it’s been booted out of most official storefronts. The good ones, like Slacker or Rdio, will offer offline caching so your roadtrip playlist is available on your device even when you’re outside of wireless coverage. You could also go with the remote storage locker to get the best of both worlds. Stuff like Google Music, Amazon Cloud Player, and mSpot give you plenty of room to upload your music, and you can download tracks to your phone on demand.
Those are some options for music, but don’t forgot about podcasts or even full movies. The same audio set-up can by helpful in enjoying those kinds of content too, though you might want to stick with headphones if the goal is to shut up a noisy back-seat driver.
The right set of wheels
This might be an awfully big purchase to be considering for a summer road trip, but if you’re renting and you’ve got the option, some cars are quite friendly with smartphones, and can cut out the need for amassing an armory of accessories. By having Bluetooth connectivity built right into the car, calls can be shunted out to the stereo speakers, and you take calls without the need for a headset thanks to embedded microphones. That same Bluetooth channel can be used to play music stored on (or streamed from) your phone. The real fancy rides will have turn-by-turn GPS directions built into a secondary dash display. This kind of thing is still relatively new, so you’ll only find it on recently-made cars, which means it may take some hunting to find a rental place that has them available.
The one system I have the most experience with is Ford Sync, which is very app-friendly. For example, when paired up with your phone and playing music from Pandora, you can use the hands-free system to thumbs-up or thumbs-down the current track, in addition to usual commands, like pausing and playing, and handling calls. BMW’s ConnectedDrive is in the same ballpark, but it can read incoming e-mails from a BlackBerry, and is doing some cool stuff with GPS navigation.
Having a car with a comprehensive smart system can cover a lot of bases at once, and save you the hassle of figuring out individual solutions for a bunch of car-related problems.
When your phone’s being used to give GPS directions, take calls over Bluetooth, and stream music, you’re going to run out of juice quick. Luckily, your car has a big ol’ battery that can keep it going into the wee hours with something as simple as a lighter adapter. Of course, that battery can always die, so it’s prudent to keep a spare battery or a manual wind-up charger like the SideWinder in the glove compartment for emergencies. Alternatively, you can quietly soak up some solar power with the right accessory if you’re going to be driving in sunny conditions anyway. If you figure you’ll need some extra life while outside of the car, Seidio offers extended batteries for most devices – just be ready to take the extra bulk.
Beyond additional hardware, there’s a lot of stuff you can do to keep your battery lasting as long as possible. If you’re not using them, turning off GPS, Wi-Fi, and Bluetooth are no-brainers. You’ll also want to turn off push notifications and sync where applicable. Remember that apps running in the background can quietly gobble up battery life too, so make sure that’s all cleared up. Mobile screens are a big contributor to battery drain, so make sure brightness is set to its lowest and the idle timeout is set to a short duration.
You gotta know where you’re going right? Smartphones have pretty much wiped out the need for dedicated personal navigation devices, and many solutions are completely free. If you’ve got an Android phone, Google Navigation will give you turn-by-turn directions all the way to your destination, along with all of the usual helpful search options. Google Maps is available without the voice help on other platforms, but if you really need that nice robot lady to talk you through directions, cheap GPS services are usually available through your carrier. It’s worth poking around for a solution that’s free though; TeleNav, a company that traditionally powers carrier services, has even buckled under the pressure from Google Navigation, and launched a free iPhone version of their service.
There’s plenty of stuff between where you are an where you’re going, and there are plenty of apps available to keep you in tuned to what’s around. Gas stations will be a frequent stop, and both Poynt and GasBuddy can help you pick your next pit-stop.
Wish you were here
What’s the point of going anywhere if you can’t brag about it to friends? A text message taunting the poor saps back at work is sometimes good enough, but if you want to really document your journey, grab a blogging app from WordPress or Tumblr to lock those moments in history. If you want to get really specific, you can go with a service like GPSed, which tracks and records your trip’s progress on a map, and let’s you upload geotagged pictures along the way. Pictures are a great way to capture new and exciting scenery along your route, and if you’ve got a good camera on your phone, you’ll probably want to do a lot of sharing. Facebook and Flickr are the obvious destinations, but getting plugged in to Panoramio is the ideal way of keeping that location data intact and prominent. You can also go with Instagram if you want to give once-in-a-lifetime moments the classic treatment.
Whatever you’re driving, there’s always a chance your car can hit unexpected trouble. Maybe you’ve overestimated the staying power of ol’ faithful, and planned a trip longer than she can handle, or maybe an especially hot stretch of road popped a tire. Whatever the case, merely having a phone can reduce headaches all around, and even get your crew back on track. AAA has an app for Android and iPhone that can give you quick access to roadside assistance. There are a few apps available to walk you through basic repair steps that you could do yourself on the side of the road. In case you need a new car quickly, most major rental outlets have mobile apps now, including Hertz and Budget.
Hopefully this gave you enough gas to make your summer roadtrip a success, but maybe you’ve discovered a few car-related smartphone tricks of your own. Feel free to leave some in the comments!