Google were clever enough to create an entire Operating System for mobile devices, known as Android. It can be installed on many different devices and because of its openness, you can install some amazing programs – the best of which have been written by Google themselves. These are not new silly games, but very useful ways to use the amazing technology at your fingertips.
In the video below, you can see me demonstrate some of the coolest apps, and how they can seriously help travellers and those wanting to get by in a local language. All of these apps are free downloads for Android devices.
In more detail:
Goggles uses the camera of your smartphone and searches for the results on the Internet. It sounds so simple and yet the potential for travellers are limitless:
- Use its image to text conversion to be able to read signs/menus you don't understand (via Google translate). It recognises fact that there is text in the image and even the language it is written in automatically. This is much quicker than typing it in using a tiny keyboard interface.
- Find out what the name of the landmark you are looking at is and read up more about it (on Wikipedia etc.) When I'm new in a city, sometimes I'd like to know what this amazing thing I'm looking at is without searching through a guidebook for the right page.
- Find out how good the book/wine/other product is. Since it recognises logos and other visual queues, you can read reviews etc. before you buy.
This is the best of having the Internet in your pocket – it's like asking Google to look at what you want information about, rather than writing it. It's incredible to have this power in your hand. Forget flying cars, Google Goggles makes me feel like I'm really in the 21st century.
Voice recognition in instant Google searches
One thing I absolutely hate doing on my phone is writing. It's possible to do it with the tiny touch-keyboard, but awkward. That's why Android's integrated (and very accurate) voice recognition changes this entirely. It's quicker to simply speak an SMS rather than write it out. But this isn't where the real value comes in:
Instant answers on voiced-google searches. I'm not talking about your typical Google searches – although these are just as handy too. Google actually has some searches that give you an answer immediately (without clicking through to the results). This is cool enough as it is searching on your computer, but on a mobile phone when you are out, this saved time makes this feature one of the handiest ones. Here are some examples:
- Currency conversion. Try it on your computer: search for 400 Argentine pesos in dollars or whatever currencies you wish to change (always [number] [currency 1] in [currency 2]) into Google and you'll get the up-to-date answer immediately. You can see me demonstrate this in the video with Hungarian forints. I have been using this converter a lot to see precisely what something is costing me.
- Other conversions. Apparently there are some countries in the world that still use the backward measuring system of feet/pounds/miles/Fahrenheit and all sorts of weird units. If you want to convert to the metric system (or vice versa) then just say it!
- Calculations. Type 324 multiplied by 14 (or whatever) into Google and you'll get the results! This is excellent because it is based on how we naturally say it (no symbols required). So just ask your phone to calculate something for you.
- Definitions. Just say “define [word]” and it will tell you what it means.
- Time around the world. Say (or type if you are on your computer) Time [city] to see what time it is there right now. Useful if you are going to make an international call and are not sure if it's too early/late.
- Weather. Just say/type weather [city] to get a several day forecast.
- Flight info. Say/type a flight number to see what time it is due to arrive, e.g. Easyjet 4627.
All of these are Google searches that work just as well on computers, but have more potential when no more click-throughs are necessary, and make them handy tools to have on the go. Google have taken it a step further and made many of the phone's other features voice-activated, so you can just say that you want directions to a particular place and it will come up on the map based on your current GPS location. Google explain many examples of that here.
Google Translate from voice to voice
This one is quite handy for situations where you need to say something spontaneous that isn't covered by your phrasebook and your level of the language is still quite weak. Just say it to your phone and your phone will say it in the target language!
Of course, this is limited by Google Translate's efficiency, but for the basics it does a pretty good job at giving useful translations. The voice rendering in major languages like Spanish, French, German and English is very clear. It is also available in other less popular languages, including Hungarian, and is just about understandable in that but still sounds very robotic.
It can never replace the need to learn the local language, but it can be a useful boost – you can listen to the phrase rendered in the target language and try to repeat it yourself instead of showing the phone to a confused local.
Since Android is just an operating system (not a phone), you can buy many phones that come with it pre-installed. The most powerful ones are currently from HTC, but there are other manufacturers that support Android. This means that you can pick your phone based on your budget and hardware requirements but still install many of these cool apps.
It also means you can get a phone that is already unlocked – this makes a huge difference for travellers. Using the apps I did in the video regularly would amount to very expensive data roaming charges if you had to stick to one SIM card. Instead, I buy a new SIM card as soon as I arrive in a country and find out if there are any interesting data set-ups for it.
In Budapest I'm paying €13/$17 a month for 3GB of data on a pre-paid SIM card, that is also my simple SMS/calling number (Android also allow for easy tethering, so I can plug my phone into my laptop and use my 3G Internet on the go without buying a separate USB key for the laptop). There are also cheaper 100MB or 500MB monthly options in Hungary if you don't use it much. I find this quite cheap, but locked Apple devices don't let you do break free from who you bought it with.
The interface itself is extremely customisable and most of the coolest apps are completely free. I use my phone to study on the go using Anki for SRS studying. I also found some excellent free dictionaries, although a bookmark to mobile-phone enhanced websites (Sztaki for Hungarian) can go on my main screen if I want to know a good translation of a word.
I have enhanced fluentin3months.com so that it is easier to read on mobile screens, since I am noticing how much this helps when other websites do it.
Lastly, file transfer is way superior to Apple. There are no complex processes to go through or bulky programs like iTunes – I just connect my phone to a computer via USB, drag the files over and then open them. I have been reading ePubs and PDF books (usually with grammar points I need to study) and opening audio to listen to on the go much quicker than the annoying workarounds I had to do when I had an iPhone.
Anyone who has met me in recent months has seen how cool I think Android is. Many have suggested that I'm secretly working for Google, but I promise – I genuinely do like it! Apple have had their day, and did a good job in setting high standards for others to compete with, but the coolest smartphones are now cheaper, more open, and way more useful.
If you've used Android yourself, or have any thoughts on the features mentioned here, let us know in the comments below!