5 iPhone/iPod Touch apps for Seoulites

Tuesday, December 15, 2009 | |


My iPod Touch is never more than five feet away from me, 24/7. It sleeps next to me and wakes me up in the morning as my alarm clock, lets me listen to The Current (in podcast form) on my walk to work, retrieves my email in my pocket while I teach, acts as an RSS news reader on my breaks, and, back at home, is a wireless sound card for my computer (the onboard speaker jack is quite noisy). When I'm out and about, it's my navigator (and has paid for itself many times by getting me to where I needed to be in the middle of the night when I'd have been lost otherwise), my subway map, my Korean dictionary and phrasebook, and lets me carry my Flickr photostream in my pocket to thrust upon anyone who has the misfortune of meeting me and asking me what I do. (One night, one of my coworkers, after seeing someone fall prey to this routine, asked me if I'd ever considered being an Apple sales rep. Why, as a matter of fact, I told him, yes, in college, I had applied to be an Apple campus rep, but never heard back.) Additionally, for most of the past six months, whenever a Korean I would meet would see it, it would provoke a considerable amount of interest--although the iPod Touch is available, it's not exactly ubiquitous, either, given the established mp3/media player market in Korea. The iPhone wasn't even available; its release was held up for years by Korea's strict protectionist policies to shield the domestic cell phone market from competition.

But no longer. The iPhone was just released in Korea a couple weeks ago, following months of intense anticipation in which the consumer demand for the iPhone became so great that Korea's parliament intervened on behalf of Apple, passing a bill repealing some of those measures, specifically to clear the way for the iPhone. Now, it appears that Apple has blown the Korean smartphone market wide open and Samsung and LG are scrambling to make up lost ground. Already you see iPhones all over the place, replacing their Korean equivalents, PSPs, and Nintendo DSs in the hands of hunched-over people in subways, coffee shops, and bars everywhere. Hell, one of my coworkers found one lying on the ground the other day; he's gonna take it to Yongsan to have it unlocked.

Although the iPod Touch has been available in Korean for years now, resulting in a robust Korean App Store with offerings from all the major internet portals like Daum and Naver, the iPhone launch has spurred it on, with many of them offering updates. I have by no means a comprehensive knowledge of them, but I've tried my fair share and thought I'd post some of the more useful ones for anyone who might happen to be coming to Seoul in the near future...

iKorway Korean Subway 1. iKorway Korean Subway
A subway map app is perhaps the most essential of essential apps--every cell phone sold in Korea comes with one built in which covers every subway system in the nation. The first hit for the search "korean subway" in the US App Store will bring you to the $2.99 Subway In Korea app, which seems to be on the iPod of just about every expat I meet--but don't get that one. The more obscurely named iKorway Korean Subway (search for the entire name, or follow the link above) is the one you want--it's the one I see popping up on my Korean friends' iPhones--apparently it's the most popular in the Korean App Store. And for good reason: this one is by far the most functional (and clocks in at 197 MB--compared to the 1 MB footprint of Subway in Korea). In case you're wondering why you might ever want a 200 MB subway map, this wonderful app will not only map out the shortest route for you with a travel time estimate (which is the limit of Subway in Korea's capabilities), it has the complete timetable of the entire Seoul Metro system, giving you the exact times of the next trains leaving from your starting station, and perfect for checking on the last train home at night; it even tells you which subway car to get on for the shortest walking distance at your transfer station, matching the functionality of the most capable cell phone subway apps available. Additionally, iKorway has maps of the layout and exits of every subway station and lets you add your own notes for each station's profile.

iKorway just got an update to its 3.0 version and now includes support for the iPhone/iPod built-in location services (it will automatically find the nearest subway station to you), sports an improved English translation for the core subway functionality, and also adds bus timetables for departures from any of the subway stations (although here, like the bus system itself, everything is listed in Korean).

By far the most comprehensive subway app--and at its normal price of $2.99, is the same as the woefully outclassed Subway in Korea. As it happens, it's currently on sale for $0.99.

Subway in Korea Lite 1a. Subway in Korea Lite
The one downside of iKorway is that it's slow to start up, slow to scroll, and occasionally unstable. If you're pulling into a station and the announcement comes over the intercom while you're not really paying attention and suddenly you just need to check a map quick to make sure that you're not supposed to get off here at Yaksu but Oksu two stops down, the free, lite version of Subway in Korea is just that--no routing capabilities, but quick to load.

English Korean English Dictionary 2. English Korean English Dictionary
This somewhat redundantly-named dictionary app from a developer named ClickGamer doesn't seem promising, but at $1.99, it's the best app I've found in its price zone--the ones from more reputable reference publishers are in the neighborhood of $16 or more. It, too, just got a major update to coincide with the iPhone launch. It's most useful when going from Korean to English, with lots of usage examples and phrases for each Korean word. English to Korean is less so--it gives you a myriad of possible Korean words with no guidance on which is the appropriate word choice for your context. Still, if you just need to get one word or concept across to your taxi driver, just showing him the screen with all the possibilities is usually good enough.

For a 10-day stay, or so, highly recommended.

3. Maps
Yeah, the native Google Maps app that comes on it. Even on an iPod without the iPhone's GPS chip, the position triangulation by wifi works quite well all over Seoul and is usually accurate to within half a block or better. Since it caches the map data, including the wifi network location database, if you map out the area you're going to be in ahead of time, you won't need to connect to any wifi once you're there--it will triangulate your position from the cache. Notably absent from the app, however, is any Street View data.

?? ?? - Daum Maps 3a. Daum Maps / ??? ?? - Naver Map 3b. Naver Map
Daum and Naver are the top Korean search portals, and both have their own Maps application. Although they have English descriptions on the App Store info page, neither of them currently appear to have English translations. They're not terribly hard to figure out, though, even with no Korean knowledge, as their UI cribs heavily from the native Maps app. I pretty much only keep Daum Maps around for its Road View (로드뷰)--the equivalent of Google Street View, which isn't available through the native Maps app. I don't use Naver Map much, either, but one function that does stand out is that it allows you to manually select entire areas to cache and lets you store and manage these saved areas from within the app itself. The native Maps app only caches at whatever zoom level you happen to browse at; thus, scrolling around a large area at high zoom in order to cache it can be a tedious process. It'd be great if Apple were to add this feature...


??? ???? ? Wingbus Seoul Restaurant 4. Wingbus Seoul Restaurant (윙버스 서울맛집)
Owned by Naver, Wingbus is like a Korean version of Yelp, a social, user-driven site for ranking and reviewing restaurants, shops, and hotels. This neat app lets you download the restaurant reviews and profiles for Seoul by neighboorhood for offline viewing. All the reviews are in Korean, but if you don't do that, you can still browse the pictures, see the star rankings, and, if you're online, see location in Naver Map.


iKorail 5. iKorail
The national railway's oneline ticket searching and booking is, like nearly all Korean sites involving any forms or transactions, full of ActiveX controls that render it useless on Macs, let alone Mobile Safari. iKorail won't let you book any tickets, but at least lets you search for a train and will tell you if there are any seats available on it.


Edit: This app was working a couple months ago when I last used it; now it doesn't seem to be. Not sure if it's a temporary thing...

Honorable Mentions
Lonely Planet Korean Phrasebook Lonely Planet Korean Phrasebook / Lonely Planet Seoul City Guide Lonely Planet Seoul City Guide
Although these are admirable attempts to condense the best Korean phrasebook and Seoul guidebook around into iPhone form, I also own the print versions, and sadly, the apps are quite inferior to them in both form and content.

The phrasebook app was especially disappointing for me, as it focuses on including recordings of each phrase at the expense of including only a tiny fraction of the phrases in the print edition, and none of its excellent primer on the grammar and syntax of the language. As I already knew how to pronounce the Korean script, the app didn't end up being very useful for me.

The guidebook app is a bit better, as it includes nearly all of the content of the print version, but fails to take advantage of the electronic format to make it easily browsable. The best part is the built-in map, which integrates with the native Maps app location services and lets you instantly see your location and the attractions nearest to you. However, the detailed listings of attractions aren't available from within the area summaries--it might mention a neat-sounding place in passing, but instead of providing a link to its detailed profile within the text, it will force you to switch to the the index to search for it, or find it on the map. It's much more convenient to flip through the pages of the printed guidebook.

Also, at $9.99 for the phrasebook app and $15.99 for the guidebook app, they're actually more expensive than their printed counterparts at Amazon. Hopefully, Lonely Planet will improve upon them for their next edition--the phrasebook is convenient but just needs the rest of the content, and the guidebook has the content but just needs a UI overhaul.

Definitely get the printed phrasebook before you leave, though. It's a lifesaver, and you can learn the alphabet and some grammar on the flight over.

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smochs said...

this post is awesome! now i just need to get an itouch. ~lol~

Alshain said...

You won't regret it! Not in this city!

Anonymous said...

Great post! Just got an iPod touch for X-mas and was looking for ways to use it here in Korea.