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The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Travel & Indulgence - ROBERT BE­VAN

I AM­not kind to guide­books. I will scrib­ble notes all over the pages and, if my lug­gage is get­ting heavy, rip out use­less chap­ters and dis­card them in the ho­tel bin.

It is hardly tear­ing tele­phone di­rec­to­ries in two but it takes a cer­tain strength of will to treat books this way.

In our weight-con­scious age — and no­body is more weight­con­scious than an air­line — guide­books can feel like an un­nec­es­sar­ily heavy lux­ury. Sales of printed guides have dropped while those for smart­phone and tablet apps have risen. Lonely Planet says sales of its City Guide apps have in­creased by 25 per cent over an 18-month pe­riod.

Why lug around a South-East Asia on a Shoe­string brick in your back­pack when you can slip it dig­i­tally into your pocket? Apps also cater for niche mar­kets so if you want, say, an ar­chi­tec­ture tour of Rio de Janeiro or a guide to the state mu­se­ums of Montreal, you can down­load the de­tails. Such apps can also be rapidly re­freshed with the lat­est in­for­ma­tion in­stead of wait­ing for the next print edition and, as an in­ci­den­tal bonus, can di­rect you to the near­est loo or cafe en route to your des­ti­na­tion.

There are draw­backs to travel tech­nol­ogy, how­ever. While whole books can be down­loaded to a phone be­fore you leave home, their most clever func­tions, such as GPS map­ping, can be used over­seas only if you are pre­pared for stiff roam­ing charges. Apps are also very plat­form de­pen­dent and what you buy for one de­vice will rarely work on an­other. Black­Berry choices are not par­tic­u­larly juicy.

Many travel apps come free, apart from the e-book ver­sions of the es­tab­lished pa­per guides. Some have no vis­i­ble means of sup­port. Take Art Guides, a se­ries of fine-arts scene round-ups for two dozen cities that cost noth­ing to down­load and carry no ad­ver­tis­ing. You do, how­ever, get what you pay for. They are fine for a gen­er­al­ist but even a cur­sory glance at, say, the Mel­bourne app re­veals slightly wob­bly con­tent that could ir­ri­tate afi­ciona­dos.

In­tel­lec­tual weight can be lost when phys­i­cal weight is an is­sue. Too many cul­tural apps are skimpy with ac­tual in­for­ma­tion and even then you have to nav­i­gate di­aphanous lay­ers of stylish use­less­ness to get to the point. They are not an open book.

A good search fa­cil­ity is also es­sen­tial on a travel app and too many fail that test (de­pend­ing on which plat­form you are us­ing). What you get out of a travel app is only as good as what went in, with many mu­seum and gallery apps the prod­uct of their mar­ket­ing de­part­ments rather than of cu­ra­to­rial knowl­edge.

It is true that some ter­rific travel tools ex­ist — from trans­la­tors and cab fare es­ti­ma­tors to on­line itin­er­ary plan­ners such as Plan­ner or Tripo­matic — and less depth can be fine for brief busi­ness trips.

Apps can even be po­etic: Blank Ways, by young de­signer and cy­clist Tom Loois (tom­loois.com), records streets where you’d never ven­ture when route-plan­ning, re­mind­ing you what you may be miss­ing in a city on those roads less trav­elled.

And if the huge choice is still not enough, it is rel­a­tively easy to cre­ate your own with Ap­pMakr (ap­pmakr.com).

Ul­ti­mately, though, for­mat is ev­ery­thing. A phone screen can be too small to browse and the iPad is un­wieldy for street use. A Kin­dle may be just right size-wise but is prim­i­tive func­tion­ally. And any size is use­less if you are try­ing to charge (elec­tri­cally) up a re­mote moun­tain­side.

While the best guide­book apps al­low a cer­tain amount of high­light­ing and an­no­tat­ing, for now I will stick to pa­per. Just as long as I am al­lowed to treat it mean, slather it in Post-It notes and draw a red felt-tip A-to-B line across a city map. Not rec­om­mended, how­ever, on your av­er­age iPhone screen. Robert Be­van’s Cul­tural Tourist col­umn reg­u­larly ap­pears in T&I.

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