You’re in a new city, either in a car or on foot. It could be that you’re on a business trip, or maybe you’re on vacation with your family, including your kids. You didn’t want to take a half-ton of paper maps with you when you’ve got an Android smartphone that can show you a satellite map of where you’re standing. But the satellite map alone is limited what it can do to help you grapple with your new surroundings. In this roundup, we’ll take a look at seven special purpose apps. If you download these apps off of Google Play, you’ll be able to easily find necessities like a parking lot, a gas station, public transportation routes, a restaurant that serves up your favorite cuisine, interesting events in the local area, and even nearby bathrooms.
One of the things I like to do when I’m away from home, in a city I don’t know by heart, is to get lost (thus making my readers’ dreams come true). Sometimes I’ve gone to an unknown town just to park the car, take a walk down a street, and discover where I end up. I’ve introduced myself to people and learned about lives in a different corner of the world. I’ve shared dinner with folks over a counter, talked about the similarities and differences in our jobs, shared some joy and some grief. You might even say that I’ve been a bit like the novelist John Steinbeck, but without the dog.
When smartphones first started including maps around eight years ago, I reviewed Google’s first iteration of its Maps app for walking around town. It suggested foot routes from place to place in Los Angeles that would run through people’s back yards, over their front porches, and even across non-existent bridges. It’s funny to remember that, back then, I stirred up a crowd of people watching me walk down sidewalks and pull up walking routes on my BlackBerry.
Google Maps has improved by several generations over the last eight years, and the crowd has fully transformed from onlookers into users. Now, mapping functionality is leveraged by other apps for providing specialized services — features that the Maps app by itself may not provide.
This article examines seven such apps for Android phones. Some are paid versions, but none cost more than $2.00 each. Specifically, we’ll explore these apps: Best Parking, My Car Locator, HopStop, GasBuddy, EventBrite, OpenTable, and Bathroom Scout Pro.
Here’s an example of a simple app that goes beyond what Google Maps provides. If you’re scouting a major metropolitan area (sorry, Checotah, Oklahoma) for parking facilities, you don’t just want to know where they are. You’d like to know how much you’re likely to pay to park there, especially for the duration of the parking. Knowing that, you’d be better able to select where you want to go.
Best Parking shows you, on its map, how much you would pay for each parking location in its catalog. The input panel is straightforward and nothing to brag about –which is fine when you’re playing to a small display and an index finger. Best Parking’s embellishments look almost like weather radar, with bright yellow flags denoting cheaper locations, gradating through orange toward red as they become pricier.
This app is far from perfect, though. For one thing, it’s limited with respect to the areas you can search. Its database knows specific landmarks and neighborhoods within a given city. Once you select a city (only major US metro areas are listed), you can have the app search your current location (which the app should have known to begin with, otherwise, why select a city?) or look for a particular known neighborhood or landmark, or search for parking near a particular address. The lists of such neighborhoods and landmarks are surprisingly small.
This might lead you to search using an address, and that leads us to the second biggest defect. Best Parking’s database is limited in that that it can’t show you parking places from everywhere in the country. Car lots near airports are replete with numerous entries, which will help if you?re looking to save a few dollars before leaving your car to take a flight. But not every landmark is located near the center of town or an airport, and when you search elsewhere, Best Parking displays a cryptic excuse saying it can’t find parking areas perhaps because you’re zoomed in too close your chosen address. When you try to zoom out, you can’t, so you’re left befuddled and a bit disgruntled.
Even these isn’t the biggest problem, though. In the first day of my tests, even though my eyes tell me I clearly live in Indianapolis, my list of local landmarks (Randolph Street? Millennium Station?) was from Chicago. On the second day, however, my landmarks and neighborhoods were from Indianapolis. This type of problem isn’t limited to Best Parking, of course. For example, there are weather apps which, depending on where I travel in town, often insist I’ve jumped through a hole in the space/time continuum and entered Iowa.
All that said, Best Parking can be of help. When you tap one of the colored flags, you see precisely the name of the lot, precisely what you?ll pay for the time you designated, and get a link to Google Maps if you need driving directions. The app could benefit from more of a social component; right now, users are offered coupons for correcting its database, but there isn’t more incentive to participate than that.
My Car Locator
My wife might say this app is the reason I own a smartphone. Decades ago, a comedian mocked up a car with an intense electromagnet so that, when he parked it, his compass (along with every compass on Earth) could lead him back to it.
My Car Locator is essentially this, only without the electromagnetic pole sticking out of your trunk. When you park your car, you tell it you’ve parked by tapping the “P” button on its map panel. At this point, an internal timer starts. Not only does the app remember the GPS location you’re at, but the time you started parking in case you’re on the meter. So technically the app doesn’t track your vehicle, but rather the place where you said you last left it. (The former function would be great for tracking a stolen vehicle, but that’s for another app.)
Once you walk away, the map shows where you are and where the car is. And yes, there’s a big freakin’ compass pointing the general direction you’d need to point yourself to find your car again. You might need a moment to reacquaint yourself with the fact that the arrow here is aligned with you, not the map. So while the screenshot above might look wrong, keep in mind, at the time it was pointing to where my car was located on the planet, not the map.
By default, My Car Locator shows the latest Google satellite map, which often depicts cars that were parked when the picture was taken. This will confuse some people who expect this map to be live, but for their benefit, there’s an option to switch to an atlas-style map.
If there’s one tiny deficiency with this app, it’s not really the developer’s fault but rather a problem with how high these satellites fly these days. You see, if your car is parked in a garage, the overhead map can’t exactly tell you what level it’s on. My Car Locator addresses this little issue with a little “document” button that lets you write a note to yourself, like “Third Floor.” This matters most in a major city where, almost every day, you park in a different spot in three-dimensional space. Some big city natives would say, if you have to leave a note anyway, why not use Evernote? For me, I need the big freakin’ compass, especially in a really large town where all of the parking garages tend to look alike.
The best way I know to sample the real flavor of a town, to get a feel for its inhabitants and its neighborhoods, is to plan a day trip and take the bus. For me, people have always been more interesting than technology. That said, people tend to be the worst source for information on how to get around by bus. Even when they direct you to the right pamphlets, their maps are frequently wrong, and remembering all the reasons people tell you as to why they’re wrong requires an app.
HopStop is a good first attempt at addressing this basic need. Its simple purpose is to show you all your options for getting from one place in a metropolitan city to another, and perhaps back again, without your own car. (One reason I’d be without mine is because I forgot where I parked it.)
While Google Maps can show you walking directions between two points that always assume you’ll be on foot, HopStop correlates all the various possibilities for bus routes, and train and subway stops that can get you to where you want to be in a reasonable amount of time. It estimates the time from point to point, including the intersections where busses are known to stop, and the various stops along subway routes. It also estimates the time you’ll take on foot traversing from stop to stop, including in a subway station. The result is a series of choices for fully mapped routes.
In cases where you may end up being marooned at a stop in the dead of night without a way out until the next morning, for instance, HopStop moves to Plan B. It shows you the taxi services available in the area, estimates what it will cost for being driven to your destination, and gives you buttons for calling their dispatch offices.
On a weekend before a big conference when I’m in a new city, I’ll often use public transportation just to wander around town. I will use HopStop because having all my options in front of me will save me hours of time ferreting out what those options actually are.
All of this said, HopStop (for now) has a few deficiencies, which cast many of its estimates in substantial doubt. Nearby landmarks are not always where or what the app thinks they are. In my tests, during the same hour that Best Parking showed me only landmarks in Chicago, so did HopStop.
Moreover, HopStop can get linear distances between points completely wrong. As a result, its time estimates can be all over the map. Also in my tests, I had HopStop estimate the times for routes with which I was already familiar. For a route between my current location and a particular shopping mall (whose address I had to input manually, because once again, the app had incorrect data as to its location) the first leg of the HopStop’s fastest suggested route would have required me to run on foot three miles in four minutes. Another suggested route in that same query said that I instead walk to a numbered bus stop and wait 37 minutes, which should be easy since, according to the app, the stop was only a mile away. In actuality, I was standing 20 feet from that bus stop.
When I’m on a road trip, I often plan my interim motel stops to be within rock-throwing distance of a service station with a) the most reasonably priced gas, b) a fridge likely to include Dr. Pepper. Without that last item… talk about me being lost.
GasBuddy’s premise is straightforward: Its map shows you the service stations in the vicinity of a given point, and what you’re likely to pay per gallon for each grade of fuel.
While you can enter the “given point” as text, the most unpretentious front end in the world lets you tap “Find Gas Near Me” and see all fuel stops within about a four-mile radius.
The accuracy of the prices here depends on the industriousness of GasBuddy’s users, and here is where the premise meets its single biggest challenge: competition. GasBuddy relies on users to correct its price list whenever it ends up being wrong.
The fact that this is easy enough to do stands as testament to the fact that it needs to be done often for the database to be valuable. So GasBuddy needs a strong social component, and it does offer coupon-style incentives for being a participant.
It’ll be an uphill battle, though, to compete with new rivalry from Waze. This very popular driving assistance app, which estimates traffic times based on real-time input from drivers’ phones as they move through traffic, now also includes gas station locations and prices.
Since Waze is more general purpose, it will always have a broader base of users. Because of that, Waze’s incentive system and rewards program will be stronger, so users likely to report an accident or a cop gauging speeds on the side of the road, will be more likely to update gas prices as well.
It had been my original intention here to talk about an app called Eventity, which purports to show the venues for major events in metropolitan areas on its map. At the time of our tests, though, the app was malfunctioning. The map simply would not bring up a single event for any city in this country. Hopefully we can come back to it when this problem is resolved.
In its place, I found Eventbrite which, although it has a map component, is more editorially oriented. For major metropolitan areas, Eventbrite presents a blog-like scroll of events, with the occasional paragraph for really big ones like concerts or conventions. When you find something you?re interested in, the map shows you where it is, and you can either switch to Google Maps (or HopStop, or Waze) to get you to that location, or tap “Get Tickets” to make reservations.
What’s nice about Eventbrite, in comparison to what Eventity is supposed to be, is that you can find minor events as well. Great cities are comprised not just of concerts and conventions but book club meetings, library fundraisers, and poetry readings. With considerable human effort, and without aid from an obvious social component, Eventbrite compiles a surprisingly comprehensive list of both big and little things going on in town.
Because there’s so much going on, the complete list for a city like New York or Chicago will be stupendous. It’s here where I can imagine a tourist not necessarily wanting to see a Coldplay concert sharing the same list with free cancer screenings. A categorical breakdown would be nice in this circumstance, but I can only imagine that this would add more burden to whomever is compiling these lists in the first place.
Still, it’s difficult for me to fully fathom how many superb small events I’ve missed in my travels simply because they were two miles away instead of one, and the local paper or the concierge downstairs didn’t know about them. Eventbrite will certainly expand my options.
There’s not much “testing” with OpenTable that I haven’t already done. I’m happy to say I’ve been an OpenTable member for over two years and have come to rely on it. Even in a town I know like the back of my hand (wait, what’s that on the back of my hand?) OpenTable lets me see what’s available in my area at any given time, shows me the inside of each restaurant as well as detailing its cuisine, gives me strong recommendations from its many users as to quality and service, and finally shows me where the restaurant is located.
The temptation here might have been to present a single, Best Parking-style map, flagging every single location where there’s an open table for the given time, and color each flag according to price. Honestly, that’s not what a restaurant connoisseur actually needs, and OpenTable doesn?t present it. I still date my wife, and will continue to do so until the Earth is swallowed by the Sun. When I’m planning a date, it’s not because I want the first “open table” I can find, cuisine be darned. Despite its title, OpenTable searches for what you want first, and then proceeds to where.
By “what,” I mean menu. I want to see what a restaurant serves, and then I want to know what diners thought of it. This resolves the issue of quality, which is foremost in my mind as well as in those of the typical OpenTable user. If you’re wanting food fast, you’re more likely to want fast food — in which case, you?d be more satisfied with an app like Poynt.
The social component of OpenTable is as strong as for any single-purpose app I’ve ever used, including Waze. When I want to experiment and explore, most of the time, the reviews steer me right. I’ve added new reviews for places I love, and one or two for those that need immediate fumigation. My two negative experiences with using OpenTable were all resolved with the aid of the app itself. Once the restaurant failed to reserve a table at the time I specified. It was because the maitre d’ failed to check the OpenTable list. A different restaurant failed to cook a steak to order even after the second time. On both occasions, my communicating these facts to OpenTable led to the restaurant managers being told of my experiences directly by OpenTable.
And even though I also complained personally and directly both times, it was the OpenTable communiques to management that got their attention moreso than my personal presence. They’re that important.
For any given month, OpenTable is among the three non-Google Android apps I use most often. It’s more than an app; it’s a service platform. The best apps aren’t just those that use maps. They’re the ones that tie in maps with people and with their community. I love to learn more about where I am, but moreover, I love to learn about the people I’m with. When an app separates me from people, I stop using it. When it brings me closer, I rely on it.
Bathroom Scout Pro
If you’ve ever taken kids to an outdoor, public place with you — especially little ones — you know the drill. You scout out the best place to be that’s within no more than 50 yards of a bathroom.
Bathroom Scout Pro offers something that Google Maps severely lacks. If you were to run a search for “public bathroom” within a given area, Google Maps might show you a handful of spots within a 50-mile radius, including companies that distribute port-a-potties for public venues.
In contrast, BSP has a catalog of real public restroom locations for major metropolitan areas, and it can bring up Google’s street map photos to help you memorize what they look like. This way, you don’t actually need to be using the phone to make use of the app.
Assuming a future version is down the road, it would be more helpful to have details about the facilities themselves. Are they “family” restrooms? Do they have changing tables? Are they handicapped-accessible? Although the list view does show you the name of the building where each restroom is, it could be showing you more about each facility. A stronger social component would encourage users to submit such information. Maybe they could be rewarded for doing so… although I can’t imagine a reward quite yet that’s in the bathroom genre. I’m still thinking.