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Desert showdown: the Vegas Mate app vs. Frommer's paper guide

David Winograd

A number of weeks ago we went on a vacation to Las Vegas, and I was curious to see if an app can replace a traditional tour book. I picked the most respected tour book I knew, Frommer's Las Vegas 2009 by Mary Herczog; and an iPhone/iPod touch app called Vegas Mate [iTunes Link] which trucks on years of experience and data from an established Las Vegas review site.

The Vegas Mate app sells for $4.99 and is almost wonderful. It provides a wealth of immediate information. From the Concierge button you can get current Las Vegas news. It's always interesting to read what's going on behind the glitz. There's a listing of all the events and shows, along with where and when they are playing.

The Nearby button uses the GPS function to give you a listing of the hotels, restaurants and activities with the closest ones displayed first.

Tapping the Hotels button gives you a list of hotels on or off the Strip or a full listing. Tapping on a hotel brings up a screen with information including basic cost, the nearest Monorail station and a fairly useless map with stick pins representing what's around, but no walking directions. Squeeze the screen and you'll get a lot of real estate on the map, but the unmarked stick pins didn't seem remotely useful.

What was useful was a history of each hotel, a live phone number, and a listing of all the restaurants in the hotel. Tap on one and it'll tell you if the place is open, a few paragraphs about each, a phone number and sometimes even a menu (which can take quite awhile to load using 3G). The most valuable part to me was user ratings of just about everything.

Since has been around for years, users post reviews and those show up in the app. This was useful since we found that the Criss Angel show was rated poorly by most all reviewers. We had advance tickets and the consensus was right on the money. We also found that the new house show at the Mirage, Terry Fator, who won the TV show 'America's Got Talent,' was terrific; although we had never heard of him, we bit, and it was one of the best shows we saw all week. This is very very good stuff.

Tapping on the Restaurant button delivers an alphabetical listing with a useful red or green symbol telling you whether the place is open or closed in real time. You can filter restaurants by cost from $ to $$$$$ which is just a rough indication, since there is no legend accompanying the dollar signs. Other information includes listings of shows and nightlife.

Update: An earlier version of this post noted that the app states that "most of the MGM/Mirage board are about to be indicted for insider trading." Further research pointed out that the information contained in the statement is three years out of date, so we have removed the offending statement. Our apologies to the MGM Mirage hotel and casino for this error.

The organization and interface are admirable. it's quite easy to find whatever you're looking for with two or three taps, and the fit and finish of the app is quite good.

If you are to depend upon something like this app, the information had better be current and the reviews should be well organized. Unfortunately that's not always the case, or at least it wasn't when I used it. It told me a restaurant was open when it was closed forever. A restaurant that was open 24 hours was often shown as closed. There is a function to report errors and the next day I received an email response telling me they knew all about it -- but the app wasn't updated. Many user reviews were disorganized, with some entries appearing a number of times in succession. Overall, it was about 95% accurate, but the remaining 5% can destroy an evening. Either you can trust it, making it amazingly valuable, or not trust it, reducing its worth. Since we returned from Vegas the app was updated and now allows the developers to make on-the-fly changes without re-submitting the app for revision approval.

A day after the new revision, the bad information I noted was still bad, but a week or so later, the closed restaurant was gone, as were most duplicate reviews. They are working on it and I'm sure by the time we go back next year it will be dependable. In light of the changes I've seen in just a few weeks, I can recommend it with slight reservations. It's great to be out, come up with an idea and get information on the spot, which can always be confirmed with a phone call. It also goes in your pocket which a tour book doesn't.

So can it replace the Frommer book? That depends upon how much you know about Las Vegas. Vegas Mate won't recommend hotels or restaurants. It won't alert you to the best shows in town, unless you have a pretty good idea already, and that's where the book comes in handy. A new visitor needs an overview of what to look for, where to stay, what are the good restaurants, etc. The book is chock full of comparisons and tips. It provides the basic information that new visitors will need. However, the problem is that it's a book (and one with an atrocious index at that).

Although it's the guide for 2009, it was written in the summer of 2008 and just isn't current. It surmised that Danny Gans (now deceased) would be the headline act at the Wynn Hotel and intimated that Michael Jackson could be the house act at the Hilton. I'm sure that this was the best information at the time of writing, but a book is a book. It mentioned shows that had closed and didn't cover some new ones. You get the idea. The other problem is that being a book, and one that won't fit in your pocket, you really don't want to have to carry it around everywhere.

I would recommend new visitors buying both; seasoned Vegas visitors don't need the book but do need the app.

For all its faults, the app saved lots of time, provided on the spot information, and the benefit of reading visitor reviews was terrific. The Criss Angel show displayed thirty-three short reviews, mostly pans, leading to a one bell out of five rating. The Terry Fator show had seven great reviews with only one giving it four bells instead of five (which strangely led to an aggregate of four bells). There is a lot to be gained from the experiences of the hive mind, as anyone who is up close and personal with will tell you. We go to Las Vegas annually, and the Vegas Mate app made our last trip more enjoyable along with giving us more options than ever before. Now we know where you can find a great Jewish deli open at 4 am.

Here are some screenshots from the Vegas Mate app.

Gallery: Vegas Mate | 7 Photos

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