iPhone/iPod Touch first impressions

(slathers butter on roasted crow; makes it go down easier)

(For the purposes of this post, I’m going to consider the iPhone and iPod Touch to be basically the same thing. I know they’re not, believe me, and I find myself missing 3G daily on the Touch, but the user experience for most things is pretty much the same between the two if you have WiFi, so I’m calling it good.)

(Enough with the parentheticals already and get on with it.)

As I mentioned before, I recently bought an iPod Touch. My reasons for stepping foot in the Apple ecosystem were many.

  • Too many applications I wanted to use (Life Balance, Stanza, Kindle) were only available for the iPhone, not Windows Mobile
  • I wanted to go back to a two-device solution (PDA and phone versus smartphone) so incoming calls wouldn’t interrupt podcasts/audiobooks
  • TV shows I wanted to watch, like ABC’s “Castle” were only available through iTunes
  • It’s so very pretty
  • Target (pronounced tar-ZHAY around here) had a great deal on the 8GB model
  • Windows Mobile on my Touch Pro was PISSING ME OFF

That last one probably should be weighted moreso than the others.

So I did it, I took the plunge. What do I think?

I think those folks at Apple might be on to something. Seriously, this is gonna be big.

What?

Okay, first, let’s take a look at my set up. I got the 8GB instead of the 16 or 32 because a) this is a “test run” of sorts to see if I want to move up to the iPhone, and b) I’m cheap. Or frugal. No, pretty much just cheap. Anyway, I got the 8GB version, but with no expectation whatsoever that I’d put all my music and video on it. Apple doesn’t make an iPod that big.

The second generation Touch has WiFi, but no (activated) Bluetooth. It has a Bluetooth radio, but no software to drive it. This will be “fixed” by the 3.0 firmware coming this summer, so I’ll have Bluetooth then. For now WiFi is adequate. I get around the lack of 3G by carrying a hotspot with me everywhere I go. Really. I use a program on my Touch Pro (and yes, I recognize the irony in buying an iPod because I’m sick of WM only to find that a feature of my WM device is all that makes the iPod actually useful, shaddup) called WMWiFiRouter to turn my Touch Pro into a hotspot. It takes my 3G EVDO connection and provides ad-hoc WiFi access to it, so as far as my Touch knows, I just have a regular hotspot that… follows me around. Hey, it works.

The iPod Touch is essentially a PDA, the successor to the Newton. In fact, anyone who used late-stage PalmOS PDAs like the TX or LifeDrive will find it a familiar experience. The home screen is a grid of icons, you use one app at a time (with minor exceptions for things like music) and get back to the launcher by pressing the home button again. In a lot of ways, I think the iPod Touch is what Palm was shooting for with the LifeDrive, but they just didn’t execute on it. The iPhone adds a 3G radio so you’re not tied to hotspots, GPS and a camera. Oh, and it can make phone calls, like anyone actually talks anymore.

First impressions

Holy crap, this thing is thin. The front of it is a solid sheet of optical-grade glass. The back, which tapers around to the screen so there almost aren’t any sides, really, is polished stainless steel. This thing has already hockey pucked, screen down, across parking lot asphalt (I’m used to A2DP headphones, not being physically tethered to the device) and the screen remains scratchless. Very impressed with the build quality, is what I’m saying.

Seeing the Apple lock screen in person tells me how good a copy S2U2 for Windows Mobile really is. This is the only place your wallpaper shows on the device but it does the job and it’s easy to get past while also keeping the device from pocket launching applications.

Once you get the device unlocked, you’re treated to the Springboard, the Apple homescreen. See if this sound familiar. You have a grid of program icons against a solid color background. You have four assigned to a row of “buttons” at the bottom that never change. And it’s called Springboard, the name of the expansion slot on the Handspring Visor. Why hasn’t Palm sued Apple for patent infringement?

Overall, the Apple homescreen does the job, but it’s hardly ideal. Even the ancient Palm had categories for apps, Windows Mobile has folders. On the iPod/iPhone, you have screens, labeled by helpful nondescript dots. I try to keep everything on each Springboard screen related around a central theme, PIM stuff on the first screen, media on the second, etc. but this is really hard to keep straight. And there’s no way to sort them alphabetically, so I’m not sure how people with eight screens of icons keep straight what is where. The new 3.0 firmware due this summer will add a little Spotlight magnifying glass in front of the first dot, making it pretty easy to narrow down what you’re looking for by typing. Really looking forward to that, hoping it’s as fast and intuitive as Initiate on PalmOS. For now, though, the Apple homescreen is barely contained chaos. But it’s pretty, so I guess all is forgiven.

The device comes with both calendar and contacts apps, and they work, but are nothing special. I’m kind of annoyed that the calendar app doesn’t use the little numeric badge over it’s icon to tell you how many appointments you have today, the way so many other apps do. These may have been revolutionary when they came out, but there are so many more functional rip-offs on other platforms now that it’s all kind of meh. Notably missing is a tasks application. I guess folks in Cupertino just do stuff when they get around to it. Me, I need a to do list. Fortunately there are lots of options in the App Store.

A lot has been said about Safari Mobile as the end all, be all of mobile browsing. I don’t know about that, but there are some things about it I do really like. Rendering speed is okay, and I got used to the pinch-to-zoom thing really quickly. What I really like is how Safari handles multiple tabs. Basically you tap an icon on the toolbar and you see snapshots of each page you have open lined up horizontally against a gray, neutral background. You can drag back and forth to switch between them, or tap the little red X in the upper left corner of each to close it. This reminds me a lot of webOS’s card system for multitasking, which just goes to show Apple had a good UI for running application management already and could have used this system-wide had they really wanted to.

The other thing I really like about Safari is that because the iPhone is so bloody popular, a lot of websites have iPhone-optimized sites that work basically like little applications (think Palm’s webOS apps written in HTML5, CSS and JavaScript, but not running locally on the device). You can treat these as though they were local apps. Tap the bookmark button and you have the option to either bookmark the link in Safari or create a homescreen shortcut to it in Springboard. If you choose the latter, you get a nice icon on your homescreen that looks and acts just like a local application as long as you have internet access when you tap it. And since Safari supports multiple tabs, it doesn’t replace what you were doing in your browser, something that always bugged me about using web apps in Blazer on my Treo.

Not everything about Safari is so nice, though. It doesn’t reflow text at any zoom size the way Opera, Skyfire and other Windows Mobile browsers do, so you better be able to read relatively small text or be ready for a lot of back and forth scrolling if a site you’re reading has fairly wide columns. This is one of those “our way or the highway” decisions that still really irks me about Apple.

The music app and the iTunes music store work really well on this device, and as well they should; it is an iPod, after all. Control and playback is easy, and coverflow is actually kind of cool on the device’s wide touchscreen. And I love that I can doubletap the home button to bring up a little media control window in any app without quitting the app (come on, Apple, open up multitasking for the rest of us). But honestly what I’m most impressed with is how it handles podcasts.

You have to subscribe to podcasts in iTunes on the desktop, though you can access them ad hoc in the music store if you tap on a “Subscribe in iTunes” link in Safari. The device keeps track of your listening position in every podcast, and even displays a little pie chart in list views to give you an idea of how far you’re into each file. From each podcast listing, you can get more episodes over WiFi without having to sync with your desktop. And while you’re listening, double tapping the album art will bring up a scrollable, translucent panel with the shownotes. I really liked BeyondPod on Windows Mobile, but this is definitely the way to listen to podcasts.

I don’t have much to say about photos and videos on the device. The photo viewer is pretty bare bones, and frankly inferior to Windows Mobile offerings like HTC Album. About all I really use it for is setting my lockscreen wallpaper (which, btw, is replaced by album art of anything you’re currently listening to). The video app is also pretty spartan, but the playback quality is excellent. I’ve bought a few episodes of ABC’s “Castle” from iTunes on my desktop to watch on the iPod and they look amazing, just as good as TV. And at over 600MB for a 43 minute episode, it should. Sheesh. I can see why the 8GB model is the low end.

Speaking of iTunes on the desktop, this is also a mixed bag, and possibly the weak link in the Apple ecosystem. Syncing is very picky, especially about photos, and doesn’t tell you what went wrong or what file caused the problem when there is one. It just bombs out with a cryptic error message. I thought Microsoft had the market cornered on those. At least it doesn’t say PC LOAD LETTER. I don’t think I could take that. It also doesn’t seem to be bright enough to either use the hidden jpeg files Microsoft puts in folders for album art or download said album art from it’s own music store. Each file you buy from the iTunes Music Store has album art embedded in the file itself, so it will display on just about anything, which I like, but for CDs you rip you have to go to Amazon, drag the album art to your desktop and then drag it again into iTunes manually for each CD. Lame. I should also note that Windows Media Player 12 in Windows 7 can play Apple’s new unrestricted AAC Plus .m4a files flawlessly.

Okay, that’s probably too much for one post already. I’ll cover the App Store in another post, along with my favorite apps and why other platforms copying the app store itself might not be enough.

8 thoughts on “iPhone/iPod Touch first impressions”

  1. Welcome to the ranks of the iPod Touch elite! 😉

    Your experiences are just about the same as mine. While I love my iPod Touch I just wouldn’t feel right in using it alone. As a phone I don’t think it would be ideal because you can’t have multiple apps open.

    Anyway, one point; you can right click on the blank album cover in your music list in the desktop iTunes and have the option to download the album art. No need to go fishing on your own.

    Good post!

  2. Jeff

    If/when you go iPhone, do the jailbreak. This, in the minimum, gets you the ability to change the icons, the background (black is only cool for a little while) and add PDA Net to tether.

    Use an app called File Magic to carry docs around. Of course there’s eReader and Kindle, but also an app called Stanza for e-books.

    If you jailbreak you can add an app called categories which consolidates apps into categories (obviously) for better organization..

    iPhone 3.0 will add a2dp and cut/paste.
    Slingplayer and Docs to Go are due any day now.

    Cheers!

    I cant believe you are considering Apple. I’m going to check hell for ice tonight…

  3. It was like $220 with a $25 Target gift card. I was (just barely) bright enough to swap that for a $25 iTunes gift card on the way out of the store.

    I probably could have found a better price online, but I wouldn’t have gotten the instant gratification of veering off the highway on the way to work to buy it and be back on the road in 5 minutes. w00t!

    Safety Tip: Do NOT try to get the iPod Touch out of its packaging while driving, as this may void, well, you.

  4. Darren, I tried and tried to get iTunes to download the album art on their own. I really wish that feature worked.

    I’m also curious what solution you fellow Touchers (maybe not an ideal moniker) have for cord management. I’ve already ruined a pair of earbuds by getting into my tiny clown car Neon with the iPod in my pocket, bending the headphone plug.

  5. Rob, well aware of Stanza. In fact its lack on Windows Mobile (Seriously, people, if you can build Windows apps in .NET, how hard could it possibly be to port them to .NET on Windows Mobile? I’m looking at you, too, LlamaGraphics.) was one of the key things that tipped me over to the iPod/iPhone.

    As for docs, I have a work around for that that seems to work brilliantly for editing documents on the iPhone, on my locked down work PC and on both my laptop and desktop. More to follow.

  6. Very good write-up (I would expect nothing less from you). You are up to two devices and you know that I am too (iphone, Kindle). Because I can put my own matters on the Kindle (with Amazon’s help) I take it pretty much everywhere. I am, as you also know, an iphone fan, and I would recommend when you start your examination of apps that you look at PocketInformant which is the first serious PIM for the iphone/itouch. I would not jailbreak (I am sure you know more about this than I do) for at least two reasons: when the OS is updated you have to re-jailbreak, and that brings up a second (and major) problem, namely that if there is a problem you have do a hard reset (with all the apps I have installed, that makes for a terrible headache). What I like most of all about the iphone is the accelerometer which allows me to use all sorts of location-based apps (many of them free). Safari is not perfect which is why I installed SwiftBrowser which makes it easier to have pages open and gives a full-page view. I am anxious to read your evaluations of apps.

  7. Jeff,

    Are you curious to compare and contrast the Palm Pre when it’s available RSN? Or, is there something you know well enough already to have lead you to the iTouch at this time?

    Thanks.

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