The iPhone 5 and Long Term Travel

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Walking towards my new favourite coffee shop for my morning croissant and cappuccino, Apple’s latest buds sitting in my ears providing a new depth and richness to the voices of Dan Benjamin and John Siracusa, I catch myself running my fingers over the slate black back of our new iPhone 5, enjoying the device’s very presence in my pocket.

Initially, I’m a little embarrassed. There are people I know who will be snorting derisively into their keyboards as they read this and I hear their cynical voices in my head using phrases like “fanboy”, “Kool-Aid”, and “cult”.

After all, it’s just a phone.

Appreciation of Beauty

iPhone 5

Photo by Apple

But it’s ‘just a phone’ in the same way that the Empire State is ‘just a building’, or the Saturn V is ‘just a rocket’, or the sun going down over a palm-lined beach is ‘just a sunset’.

Reducing an object or an experience down to its component parts in such a way is an erosion of our subjective experience, a way of glossing over the depths of appreciation that we are capable of.

As slow travellers, we are deliberately seeking out the passionate producers and service providers. We are looking for the people that care deeply about the things they do, that know in their hearts that nothing is ‘just’ anything and want us to see the small slice of our exciting world the way they see it.

To the horror of the Slow movement, I would put Apple in this category.


It’s true that we are not huge fans of lots of stuff. We have pared the things we own down to the absolute bare minimum and travel with carry on baggage (which we highly recommend). However, some people believe that this means that we don’t like stuff which is not the case at all.

The thing is, we don’t like stuff for its own sake. Our stuff has to serve a purpose—it has to earn its keep in our bags—but, when it does, we want the very best. We want stuff that’s reliable, well built, and easy to use.

For the first three years of our journey, we have done just fine without a phone. Two years ago, we picked up an iPod Touch and it showed us that having a mobile computing device in our pockets can be incredibly useful. Recently, however, we have really begun to feel the limitations of that device. Relying solely on WiFi can be a pain and prevents us from getting out into more rural locations, the still camera on the Touch was awful (I believe it’s been improved for the current generation), and it lacked true GPS and geotagging.

It was time for an upgrade.

The iPhone 5

Apple’s latest iPhone is a marvel. It is a wonder of design and engineering. It’s solid without being heavy, well constructed without being over-designed, and powerful but still very easy to use. It’s got the very capable A6 processor and 1GB of RAM making it fast and responsive, and despite the larger 4” widescreen display, it’s 30 grams lighter than the 4S.

We bought an unlocked iPhone 5 when we were last in the UK and we would recommend this to anyone considering getting a smartphone for travel. With an unlocked phone, you can simply pick up a local prepaid SIM card in whatever country you find yourself.

The Flaws

I say “simply”, but unfortunately the biggest problem for us is that Apple’s relentless pursuit of the industrial minimalist ideal means that they keep making the damn SIM cards smaller—trying to find one of these tiny little chips in some of the countries we plan to go to may well be impossible.

It does raise the question of how difficult this smartphone will be to manage as a long term traveller or digital nomad and we’ll keep you posted on how this goes as we haven’t actually picked up a SIM yet.

On the software side, you’ve probably heard the issues surrounding Maps. This has been a headache for Apple and, whatever the reasons were (no one knows exactly why the agreement with Google came to an end, though as with anything Apple there is endless rumour and speculation), the latest version of Maps is a huge step back—so much so that Tim Cook was forced to apologise for it and, recently, the head of Maps was fired.

In England, the US, and here in Mexico it’s been great. The 3D view is fun in the cities that support it, the app is fast and the directions have been accurate.

Unfortunately, in Egypt and Jordan, it repeatedly showed our location as the middle of the ocean. When it did put us on dry land, roads were incomplete or missing altogether. The web version of Google Maps did not have these issues.

The app itself is solid, so the problem is purely a data issue and, as such, will get better with time and use but, unfortunately for Apple, Google has almost a decade’s head start on them and has been willing to brute force their way to get to the data with their hundreds of little cars and attached cameras, so it may well be some time before Maps is ready to truly shine.

The Great

Chilaquiles at La Ceiba in Playa del Carmen.

Chilaquiles at La Ceiba in Playa del Carmen. Taken with our iPhone 5.

Every so often, I’ll be using a piece of technology and will get a buzz from feeling like the future is finally here. Siri is that technology.

The idea of talking to your computer the way you would talk to another person and having it respond intelligently is something that, according to science fiction, is supposed to happen hundreds of years from now. Yet here it is, in 2012.

Setting reminders and timers, looking up film times, finding the nearest coffee shop, emailing someone: all of these requests, using a variety of syntactical constructions, have worked flawlessly. There is still a long way to go—natural language processing is a massively difficult problem to solve—but if they keep on this path, it has the potential to completely revolutionise how we interact with our phones and our computers in general.

The camera is very capable and it’s now better at low light than ever before, which makes taking food snaps easy. The integration with the GPS can be really handy for the long term traveller—when we were out searching for apartments, we would snap photos of For Rent signs which would then be tagged with their exact locations. We could then later examine the maps and remind ourselves of which phone number related to which apartment block.

The camera has also finally given us the ability to get truly involved in Instagram. The iPod Touch we were using before had such a low quality stills camera that it just couldn’t cut it but you can now finally follow us on Instagram.

My New Outboard Brain

The value of any new technology lies in its ability to make things easier or more efficient and already the iPhone is an integrated part of my life. I have adapted the GTD methodology for a more digital world but an integral part of this is the concept of ubiquitous capture, and note syncing between Byword on the iPhone and NVAlt via Dropbox provides this reliably and consistently.

Of course, we would be remiss not to mention our own upcoming app, Trail Wallet, which we use daily to quickly and easily track our expenses, avoiding the need to hold on to receipts or try to remember every tiny purchase we make in the course of a day. Trail Wallet will be in the App store in the next few weeks—you can sign up to our Voyage Travel Apps newsletter or like our Facebook page to be kept up to date.

The location-based triggers in the Reminders app is a fantastic use of GPS technology, using your location to provide more context-based reminders instead of the traditional (and somewhat arbitrary) temporally based ones. You want to be reminded to pick up milk only when you’re at the grocery store.

Contacts and calendar sync seamlessly via iCloud (which has gotten a lot faster and much more reliable than when it was first released) and their integration with Siri makes getting thoughts recorded a breeze, freeing up time and headspace to get on with enjoying everything that this lifestyle has to offer.

Which is the whole point.

After all, it’s ‘just a life’.

Are you planning your next travel adventure? See our Travel Resources page for our favourite tools and gear to help you plan the perfect trip. 

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