Correction to This Article
This article about smartphone applications incorrectly said that the UrbanSpoon program for iPhones covers only major cities. A recent update added coverage for other U.S. locations.

New Cellphone Apps Help You Find Your Way Around Town

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By Rob Pegoraro
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, December 21, 2008

Few things say "bewildered tourist" like standing on a sidewalk, guidebook in hand, as you scan the surroundings for a decent restaurant. But if you're peering at the screen of a cellphone instead? Why, you look like you're just sending a text message, even if you're still seeking dining advice, in this case with a free phone program that finds nearby attractions.

The kind of software that lets you pull off that trick dates to two recent developments. First, phones learned to find themselves (by GPS or by computing distances to transmitter towers); then wireless carriers let other people write software for their phones (giving users an alternative to the carriers' own $10-a-month navigation services).

The most widely used program of this sort is Google Maps (http://google.com/gmm), available for BlackBerry, Windows Mobile and Palm phones. In most cases, it quickly fixes your location and can then find nearby businesses by category ("restaurant") or name ("Arnaud's"). On some phones, it also provides Street View panoramas showing what you'd see from a given stretch of sidewalk.

Google Maps doesn't report much about what people think of the places it finds, but many newer location-aware applications can, most of them available on Apple's iPhone via its App Store icon.

Start with Yelp, which provides an immense database of user-contributed reviews of restaurants, bars, stores and much else. ("Yelpers" can be remarkably loquacious about subway stations.) But its lengthy restaurant listings need more filtering options, and its locals-first advice can leave you guessing about hotels.

The plainer, perhaps more practical iWant simply lists the closest options in such travel-relevant categories as hotels, drugstores and banks. Where lets you choose from multiple review sources (Yelp included) as you pan around a map.

For looking up restaurants alone, UrbanSpoon links to multiple online reviews and offers the giggle-inducing option of shaking the iPhone like a Magic 8 Ball to get a random suggestion. But it covers only major cities; for example, this past summer my wife and I made great use of it in Portland, Ore., but not in the town of Hood River, to the east.

OpenTable has similar coverage limits but also lets you see which places have tables free, then book one online. (Note: The Post's Going Out Guide competes with many of these apps but covers just the Washington area.)

This fun isn't confined to the iPhone. Google's new Android phone software, running on the T-Mobile G1, allows for the same sort of programs, accessible via its "Market" icon. The best example of its potential so far is a smart little program called Wikitude.

That program draws on articles from Wikitravel, a vast user-written guide modeled on Wikipedia, but guides you to this advice through the G1's camera. Select its "View in Cam" option, point the camera in the desired direction and it "annotates" the scene in front of you by labeling any local landmarks onscreen. This guidance goes beyond museums and monuments to cover geographic and historical tidbits. For example, on a street corner in Arlington, Wikitude pointed the way not just to Arlington Cemetery and the Pentagon but also to nearby neighborhoods and ruins of Civil War forts.


© 2008 The Washington Post Company

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