Big Island smartphone apps are a relatively new product. The latest trend in travel guides is the emergence of inexpensive (sometimes free) apps for smartphones and mobile devices like Apple's iPhone, iPad and iPod and the extensive lineup of phones using Google's Android operating system. The number of apps out there has sky rocketed and there are dozens of Big Island apps that range from free ad supported apps to pay apps in the $5-10 range. Some of these are very worthwhile and others are basically useless and a waste of time.
A good Big Island smartphone app should be more than just a pocket version of information that can be found in travel books or websites. For example, if I just wanted some quick info on Mauna Kea, there's Wikipedia for that. Or, if I want to read reviews of restaurants near my location, there's Yelp! for that. And if I need driving directions, there's Google Maps for that.
So, if I'm going to pay for a Big Island smartphone app, it really needs to have some features that provide something I can't get for free somewhere else—or at least make these things so incredibly convenient to have in one place that it's worth the price.
The problem with apps is that, if you don't like you're purchase, you're out of luck. There's no refunds and the publisher and the seller have already cashed your check so to speak. That's why app reviews have become so essential to this marketplace. All an app needs to have is a nice logo and some good looking screen shots to attract your attention. If you buy it and it's cumbersome, gimmicky, buggy or flawed in some other way—too bad, no refunds.
There are only a couple of Big Island smartphone apps worthy of their price tag. I've used all of the apps listed here (and many others) and found these ones to be a good value.
Of the many pay apps out there, there are just a few that are really worth spending money on. Both of these great pay apps are available only on iOS (no Android version yet), so they'll work on an iPhone, iPad or iPod Touch.
If you've read my thoughts on Big Island travel guidebooks, you know that I'm a big fan of Hawaii The Big Island Revealed (known by locals and savvy Hawaii travelers simply as "the blue book"). It should come as no surprise that, when they decided to make a companion smartphone app for the book, they hit it out of the park and raised the bar on Big Island apps.
This app contains great information on virtually every imaginable point of interest for all kinds of travelers, but it is not just a little pocket encyclopedia of the Big Island. Because of its fantastic built in maps and GPS features, it is really a very handy tool (almost indispensable, I would say) to have with you as you travel around the island. Basically, the app is one big zoomable map that is very elegantly designed and easy to navigate. You just tap anywhere on the map to see a list of points of interest nearby. Then, if you click on one of those points of interest, you'll get a description and other essential info. Finally, from any description page you can precisely locate that particular point of interest on the map and navigate to it.
The user interface of this app is very intuitive and easy to use. No clunky navigation through complex menus here. Alternatives to navigating content via the map itself include searching for a specific location or browsing the guidebook by category and region (restaurants, beaches, etc.).
A big plus is that the maps are built into the app so you don't have to rely on cellular data, which is good because some areas of the Big Island don't get great cell service and international visitors can avoid data roaming charges. The map and GPS features alone are worth the price of the app and the thoroughly researched and well written content carried over from the book version make this app the perfect travel companion.
Useful For: Pocket guide with navigation
Best Feature: Built in maps and GPS functionality
Available For: iOS Only
This app includes a comprehensive directory of Big Island sites and attractions with a well made video overview of each one entry. It's useful for pre-vacation brainstorming and for getting a good preview of Big Island sites. It's also useful as a sort of "pocket tour guide" while you're on the Big Island. In that respect, it kind of reminds me of these audio sets you use at museums to give you a self-guided tour. If you're more of a visual person, this could be a good app for you because you get to see videos of what a written tour guide only tells you about in words and pictures.
Don't buy this app for the map features, they are disappointing. Rather than helping you locate your position using built in maps, this app simply gives you the GPS coordinates that you can punch into a standalone GPS device or send over to your Google Maps app for driving directions. This process is clunky at best.
Finally, this Big Island app has a little feature that it's proud of that points out and reviews public bathrooms available near the sites it features.
Useful For: Pre-vacation planning, pocket video "tour guide"
Best Feature: Well made video clips that give an overview of each spot or attraction
Available For: iOS Only
Most of the free Big Island smartphone apps available for free are pretty lousy (but hey, the price is right). Free apps tend to be ad supported, feel overly commercial and are often out of date. That being said, there area couple of free Big Island apps worth downloading. Unlike the iOS-only pay apps above, these free Big Island smartphone apps are available for Android too.
This free app is a well designed little companion to Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. It doesn't have much information that you can't get elsewhere but it does package a lot of useful information into one place. The maps are embedded Google Maps that require an internet connection but the app also include an image of the park's own map that you get in the brochure when you drive in. The fast facts at your fingertips that this app provides—like having up to date information on special presentations, museum hours, etc.—make it a useful download. A special kids section also features some information specifically aimed at younger visitors (think, something to keep them busy on the two hour drive from Kona).
Purpose: Overview and up to date information on the Hawaii Volcanoes National Park
Best Feature: Essential park info including schedules, etc.
Here's another free app that might interest some visitors. This is not a travel guide at all, rather a mobile reader app for some free issues of Big Island Traveler magazine. The content is basically the kind of stuff you'll find in the free seat pocket airline magazines with articles like "The Origins of Surfing" and "Local Lingo." Nothing exceptional here but browsing a few articles at the airport might get you in a Big Island mood.
Purpose: Free articles from back issues of Hawaii travel magazines
Best Feature: It's pretty basic, just the back issues of magazines