iPod touch

Published: September 30, 2007. Filed under: Meta, Misc, Usability.

When Steve Jobs announced the iPod touch at the beginning of the month, I knew I wanted one: it looked like the perfect little device for my assorted mobile needs. I spent a week or so thinking it over, then placed an order, and Friday morning as I was stepping out of the shower a FedEx delivery guy rang my doorbell to deliver it. I’ve spent the last couple of days playing with it, and so far I’m quite happy. What follows are my observations, which may or may not be useful to anyone else.

What I wanted

Before I dive in too deeply, I should probably stop and cover the things I wanted out of my shiny new toy, because they’re extremely relevant to my enjoyment of it; if your wants or needs diverge wildly from this list, the iPod touch may not be for you.

First and foremost, I wanted a nicer interface. I already had a 30GB fifth-generation iPod (the “iPod video”), and on the whole I liked it, except for the scroll wheel. I can certainly appreciate the cleanliness and simplicity of the scroll wheel, but it just didn’t work all that well for me; I’m the sort of indecisive person who’s endlessly jumping from album to album or artist to artist, and even with cleverly-arranged playlists that can be quite a chore and — more importantly — quite time-consuming on a traditional iPod. The “multi-touch” interface, on the other hand, is extremely convenient for me: I can go slinging quickly through my music, either in list view or in Cover Flow, and quickly get to exactly what I want. I would have been happy with just about anything which made this easier, and the touch interface really nails this.

On a similar note, I wanted something that didn’t have a hard drive. My hunt-and-peck listening habits caused the hard drive in my older iPod to spin up on a near-constant basis, with drastic effects on the usable battery life; when traveling, I’d consider myself lucky if I got through a single flight without running the battery all the way down. The iPod touch’s flash memory does mean there’s less storage space available, but it also removes the gigantic battery drain of spinning platters, which makes it a win for me.

I also wanted a bigger screen; being able to play video on something that fits in my pocket is a huge win for traveling or any situation where I have to sit mostly idle for an extended period of time, but the screen on the original iPod video was really too small to be effective and that kept me from really exploiting the video features. The much larger screen on the iPod touch is just about the ideal size for my notion of portable video.

And lastly, I really wanted to have a decent mobile Internet device. I’ve got a phone which has (pretty decent) Internet connectivity, but the best thing going on it is Opera Mini. Now, Opera Mini is a fine small-screen browser and I love the hell out of it, but I’ve been longing for a more fully-featured browser for quite a while now and Mobile Safari really hits the sweet spot for that. If Apple didn’t announce an “iPhone without the phone” device any time this year I’d have gotten all cozy with Nokia, because they’ve got the whole “Internet in your pocket” thing down cold.

I should also note that there were several things I either didn’t want, or didn’t care about, and which accordingly influenced my decision to buy:

In fact, a lot of the extras on the iPod touch are things I can live without: I don’t use calendaring applications, GMail already knows who my contacts are, I’ve got a watch (and a clock on my phone) to help me tell time and, though I occasionally watch videos on YouTube, I don’t do so often enough for it to be an important feature. The calculator is kind of handy, though.

First impressions

Apple tends to do a good “out of the box” experience: both of the Apple laptops I’ve used and all of the iPods I’ve owned have just worked straight away. And iPods tend to come fully- or mostly-charged, which makes it easy to hit the ground running. The iPod touch is no exception; I got it out of the box, plugged it into my laptop, and iTunes immediately recognized it, asked a couple questions and started syncing music for me. My only gripe about this process is that syncing any significant amount of data over USB is dog-ass slow. Memo to Apple: I’ve got a FireWire port on my laptop. You put it there, remember? And since the amount of music I can fit into your iPods grows with each new generation, the bandwidth thing is kind of important. I even promise I’ll buy a special cable with an iPod connector on the other end, just let me use something faster already.

Other than the initial hurdle of getting music and a little exploratory video onto the thing, my first day with the iPod touch went swimmingly well. It picked up the wireless network in my apartment, and all of my neighbors’ networks too (including my all-time favorite SSID, “2 GAYS & A GOTH”. I don’t know who that is, exactly, but when I meet them I want to congratulate them). Mobile Safari is very nice; the zooming is smart (in multiple ways), and I didn’t have any problems with the touch-screen keyboard.

The touch interface is smooth and comes naturally even without a manual, which is good because the iPod touch doesn’t come with a manual; you get a quick start guide, and a pointer to a full manual online.

Unlike a number of advance models which generated well-read reviews, my touch doesn’t have any display issues; dark areas are clear and crisp, and comparison with an iPhone didn’t reveal any noticeable differences.

The battery life is pretty good; I can get a full day’s use of music and Internet out of a charge, with a bit left over. And since the screen is already doing all sorts of interesting things all the time and there’s no hard drive on board, video playback doesn’t noticeably drain it any more quickly than other applications (as opposed to my older iPod, where video doubled as an easy way to completely run the battery down).

The newer-style earbuds Apple is shipping these days are pretty nice; they feel a bit more comfortable in the ear, and I think I’ll be able to tolerate them more easily when I need to use them (at work or on airplanes, I use a pair of powered noise-canceling headphones). And it’s nice to see Apple learned from the mistake of the iPhone’s headphone jack and didn’t recess it again; cutting bits away from a headphone plug is not something I plan to do for sake of compatibility with a music player.

The iTunes Wi-Fi Music Store, aside from being a mouthful of a name, really isn’t all that compelling; it’s lacking the two features from the desktop vesion that I actually use — recommendations and the “power browse” — and I don’t find myself in a lot of situations where I need to buy a song or album right this minute. Plus, Amazon’s (DRM-free) store has — so far — everything I’ve wanted to buy, and is probably going to get the majority of my music-buying dollars going forward.

Bugs

I expected going in that there’d be at least a couple of issues; first-generation models of anything are a toss-up at best, and Apple’s track record with the first revisions of new products is a shining example of that. In three days of pretty heavy use, though, I’ve only run into two problems:

  1. Until the first time I’d power-cycled it (completely off, then on again), the music interface would occasionally crash. It does recover more gracefully than previous iPods, though; where before you’d get a shiny paperweight and have to know or locate the secret incantation to hard-reboot the device back into a functioning state (hold down the menu portion of the wheel and the center button together for several seconds), the iPod touch simply stops momentarily, then kicks right back to the home screen. A full reboot of the device immediately cleared this up.
  2. After a non-trivial sync (in my case, anything over a couple gigabytes’ worth of music), album art has a tendency to get screwed up; some artwork will go missing from the iPod, and some will end up attached to entirely the wrong files. The only solution I’ve found for this so far is to do a complete wipe, restore and re-sync. Which is fairly annoying, because it takes a while. Have I mentioned that USB syncing is slow? I’ve been on a maple farm in Québec in late winter, and I’ve seen the sap flowing out of the trees. That’s faster than USB syncing. At any rate, I’ll be keeping an eye on this Apple Support thread to see if there’s a better solution.

Other than these two issues, though, I’ve had a remarkably smooth experience so far.

Things I’ve found useful

The iPod touch comes with Apple’s auto-adjusting screen brightness “feature” enabled by default. This is the first thing I turn off on a new Apple laptop, and it’s the first thing I turned off on my iPod touch. Having the screen appear to flicker as it constantly adjusts itself in variable lighting is just too damned annoying, so turn it off and manually crank the brightness (which is set pretty high by default) down to a level that won’t drain your battery.

Run, don’t walk, over to Leaflets. I liked this well enough when I didn’t have a device it targeted, but on the iPod touch (and, I assume, also on the iPhone) it’s a powerhouse of an application. Even if all it provided was the list of iPhone/iPod-touch-friendly sites and applications, it’d still be incredibly useful. But it also provides shiny interfaces to most of the sites and applications I actually use, plus a feed reader. It’s the must-have web application for this platform.

I’m a moderate Twitter user, so PocketTweets is nice. Plus they seem to get some things right on the backend; according to their documentation, they don’t store your Twitter credentials server-side.

Unless you plan to actually use the alarms and timers, turn off the sound effects. It’s nice that they’re there, especially when you’re first adjusting to the keyboard, but after a while you don’t need them anymore and they can get annoying.

Read the online manual; though most of the features are immediately obvious or otherwise discoverable, the manual covers a few you might not pick up on otherwise.

Conclusions

Overall, I’m happy. Of the two bugs I’ve run into, one is gone and the other already has some promising leads in the support forum. Everything else has just worked, and the feature set is a really good fit with what I want in a portable media/Internet device. If you’re looking for something in that niche, I’d recommend you find a store that’s selling the iPod touch and play with a demo unit; it’s a pretty sweet little gadget.