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Confessions of an iPod touch Convert

I thought I’d steal Joe Kissell’s idea and write an article on my conversion to the iPod touch (see “Confessions of an iPhone Convert,” 2008-09-17). My usage needs were different from Joe’s so I went with the iPod touch instead of the iPhone. Since I have to use a work-provided BlackBerry for phone and email, I wanted to see if the iPod touch would prove more capable than other PDA-type gadgets I’ve relied on for other various tasks.

The second-generation iPod touch gains several features over the original model. The addition of physical volume buttons on the left side is the most visible change, but Apple also added a speaker and voice recording feature (the latter requires purchase of headphones that support it). These additions bring the second-generation iPod touch closer to the iPhone 3G, with the exception of the iPhone 3G’s phone, cellular data network, Bluetooth, GPS, camera, and – on the plus side – 2-year contract with AT&T (see “Apple Reveals New iPod nano and Updated iPod touch”, 2008-09-09).

I’ve used a number of these devices over the last several years, including a BlackBerry 8830 from Verizon, a 60 GB iPod video, and, until I burned out its CPU, a Palm Zire 72. I didn’t bother replacing the out-of-warranty Palm because it died right when my job gave me the BlackBerry, which offered most of the same functionality.

Each device provided several functions I enjoy having at my fingertips. Other than the BlackBerry email, none of the functions are vital to my job or day-to-day productivity. The iPod video was obviously my media player. Until I got the BlackBerry, the Zire was my Web browser, ebook reader, small games machine, digital camera, and briefly, my calendar. The BlackBerry took over most of those functions, although I’ve never used it to read ebooks.

On 09-Sep-08, when Apple announced the second-generation iPod touch and dropped the prices on all models, I debated whether it was worth replacing the iPod video with the new iPod touch. At the time my iPod video held over 5,200 songs and 29 TV episodes (mostly Looney Tunes because they’re short and I can watch them over and over again without getting tired of them). I also had several games I’d purchased via iTunes before the App Store existed.

Pros and Cons — At first glance, the iPod touch posed several big problems for me. The 32 GB model still cost more than I wanted to pay even after the $100 price cut, and going with the 16 GB model would be a severe drop in storage space. Also, the games I bought wouldn’t move over to the iPod touch. My BlackBerry already had access to the Web and also had some games on it. It can play music and video as well, but I had only a 1 GB microSD card, which wasn’t sufficient for a decent music collection (the largest microSD card I’ve found is 8 GB, not enough space for me to consider giving up my iPod).

Fortunately, the iPod touch also boasts many advantages over these other devices. It has a larger screen than the others, and a higher video resolution. The iPod touch also has a lot more games available, many taking advantage of its better graphics and accelerometer. Its Wi-Fi support enables faster Internet access than the BlackBerry’s EVDO cell data connections. Finally, the iPod touch supports several applications that I really wanted, including James Thomson’s PCalc (despite being able to learn to use a mouse left- or right-handed, I am apparently incapable of learning to use a non-RPN calculator), the Iconfactory’s Twitterrific,
and Apple’s Remote app for controlling iTunes and the Apple TV.

Despite those pros, the iPod touch’s small storage space still bugged me, so I reviewed how I used my iPod video. I realized that I rarely synced the iPod. I have a charger at work and would just plug the iPod into that while listening to music. Because I seldom synced, my calendars were always out of date and I was constantly reminded about events I’d already changed or deleted on the Mac. I also lacked music that I’d purchased in the months since the last sync. Most importantly, I found that I was listening to the same playlists over and over, despite having a vast library on the iPod video’s hard drive. In the end, I decided – or perhaps convinced myself – that the iPod touch’s limited capacity would force me to sync more frequently,
thus rotating my music more often, maintaining calendars in a useful way, and keeping me up-to-date on recently purchased music and video.

Viewing the storage limitation in a positive light finally convinced me that I would benefit from replacing the functionality of the BlackBerry/iPod video combination with an iPod touch, so I ordered one.

Once my iPod touch arrived, I immediately linked it to iTunes, bought or downloaded several apps I wanted to try, and was off and running. So how does my new toy compare to the BlackBerry 8830, the iPod video, and, where relevant, the Palm Zire 72?

Display — The iPod touch screen is beautiful. I’ve been impressed with how small type can be and yet still be readable to my eyes. When I traveled with the iPod video, I used a portable DVD player with a built-in iPod dock to enlarge the image to a viewable size. I don’t need to use that DVD player with the iPod touch; on a recent business trip I found watching both movies and TV shows directly on the device to be acceptable.

The screens of both the Zire and the BlackBerry pale in comparison to the iPod touch screen’s level of clarity. Neither uses anti-aliasing for text, rendering the text on the iPod touch noticeably more readable in comparison, something I appreciate when reading ebooks on the iPod touch (more on that shortly).

Navigation — The iPod touch’s approach to navigation is overwhelmingly better than that in either the BlackBerry or the Zire. Even when using single-finger navigation the iPod touch beats the stylus-driven Zire. Scrolling with the Zire is pretty typical for small electronic devices: you use the stylus to slide the scroll bar up or down, and when you reach the bottom of the screen, you move the stylus back up to the top to continue scrolling. It works, but it’s clumsy at best.

Navigation on the BlackBerry is horrible. It has a small trackball, but it tracks directly, lacking the acceleration approach used by the Mac (where the distance the pointer moves increases with the speed of trackball motion). Scrolling while reading text is reasonable, but getting back to the top of a long page after reaching the end is painful. Many apps have keyboard shortcuts, but they aren’t standardized and can thus be difficult to discover and remember.

In comparison, with the iPod touch, you can flick a finger on the screen to “throw” the screen in the direction of your flick. The screen scrolls with inertia, as if it has weight, scrolling slower and slower until it stops. Flick again to scroll some more, or press down with your finger to halt scrolling immediately. In many applications, you can also tap the bar at the top of the screen to jump to the top of the document. It’s amazing how intuitive this is and how quickly you can move around within long documents. I’m doubly amazed at how terrible the same behavior is when scrolling long lists on the Apple TV via remote control; I guess this behavior really works only on a device that you’re manipulating directly.

Even after short use, it’s hard to live without multi-touch zooming and navigating. If there is free Wi-Fi around, the iPod touch is my first choice for navigating the Web when out and about. My only issue with its interface is that it very infrequently fails to register that I’ve touched the screen (or thinks I’m touching it somewhere there isn’t anything touchable). This mostly happens when I’m trying to tap links on Web pages or Twitterrific messages.

Character Input — The Palm Zire uses Graffiti for character input (it also has a virtual keyboard although it must be used with the stylus). Graffiti is a modified handwriting method that reduces most characters to a single stroke that largely resembles the character you want. Special strokes are also available to delete the previous character, enter spaces and line breaks, and so on.

Graffiti on the Palm is a decent input system, but not without its quirks. For instance, I never mastered the K character stroke due to having spent many years writing the K in my name a certain way. But Graffiti’s main problem for me is that you draw each character in the same spot, switching sides of the input area to enter numbers instead of letters. I had trouble training myself to avoid writing across the screen. The Palm also works only with a stylus. I lost three of them while using the Zire, something that was especially annoying while traveling without a spare.

The iPod touch eschews the stylus and Graffiti-like writing in favor of a virtual keyboard with a word guessing feature that enables you to avoid correcting many mistakes as you type. It’s passable, but not great. I’ve been using it for only a few weeks now, so it may grow on me, but at the moment I don’t much like it. It’s too easy to hit wrong characters, and the word guesser assumes you want to use its guess instead of what you typed. This latter behavior is particularly frustrating if you work in an industry where you use a lot of jargon that isn’t in the dictionary, or if you type a lot of cuss words that Apple left out of its dictionary. I work in the IT industry so I do both.

RIM touts the BlackBerry’s physical keyboard as a major selling point, and they’re correct to do so. Responding to email messages is much easier on the BlackBerry than on either the iPod or Zire. I wouldn’t want to write a book, or even this article, on a BlackBerry, but I have to correct mistakes far less often on the BlackBerry than on the iPod touch. Of course, the keyboard takes up space that could be used for a significantly larger screen, which is the tradeoff. It’s also possible that Apple could tweak the iPod touch’s virtual keyboard software to eliminate the BlackBerry’s keyboard advantage.

Applications — Although the overall system has been somewhat marred by boneheaded moves on Apple’s part as to what it will and won’t accept, the App Store remains the easiest method I’ve found for purchasing and installing apps on a PDA. It’s easy to find apps, and there are many (sometimes too many in any given category) to choose from. And in fact, the ease of finding and purchasing apps means that I did it, whereas I’ve stuck largely with included apps on previous PDAs.

I have downloaded some free games for my BlackBerry, but I couldn’t tell you where I got them or how I found them. The Opera Web browser was an easy install on the BlackBerry, but I had to know to go to Opera’s site to get it.

I didn’t install many applications on the Zire, in part because Palm apps suffer from needing to support too many widely divergent devices. For example, some apps are black and white at low resolution only because they were written for earlier versions of the Palm. Palm apps were also difficult to find and tended to be expensive. A quick Google search reveals several Web sites dedicated to listing and selling Palm software, but they suffer from being Web sites, and oddly, are laid out for computer browsing rather than browsing from a Palm – probably because you can’t install software from the Palm Web browser. In contrast, Apple’s dedicated App Store application provides the instant gratification of buying and installing an app, even
while away from your computer. Palm apps are also more expensive than iPhone/iPod touch versions. Bejeweled 2 for my iPod touch from PopCap Games costs only $7.99, but the Palm version from Astraware will set you back $19.95.

Mail, Contacts, and Calendars — The Palm’s contact and calendar capabilities are a nightmare. To be fair, the nightmare mainly comes in syncing and in attempting to work with multiple accounts. I initially thought the Palm would be a good way to keep my contacts and calendars from work and home with me at all times. Unfortunately, due to discrepancies in functionality (I seem to remember serious issues surrounding repeating events), attempting to merge everything together resulted in a huge mess of duplicate or missing entries.

A quick search through TidBITS Talk uncovers a number of people having problems syncing Palms with Macs. The best solution seems to be to use The Missing Sync from Mark/Space, but I never actually got that far. I gave up syncing with my Mac at home and just synced with my Windows machine at work so I could rely on the Zire to remind me of upcoming meetings. I did sync home calendars with the iPod video, but my infrequent syncing meant the alarms were often out of date.

The BlackBerry is considered the gold standard for dealing with enterprise mail, contacts, and calendars. It did a splendid job with my Exchange email account at work, but I couldn’t get it to work with my home IMAP server. (It doesn’t appear to like that my home server is accessible only via the IMAP SSL TCP port rather than the standard IMAP port.) Since the BlackBerry was provided to me by work, I wasn’t all that comfortable tying it to my home server anyway, so I gave up after an hour of trying.

The iPod touch’s mail and calendar capabilities are impressive. With little effort, I was able to set up three accounts: MobileMe, my home IMAP server, and my Exchange account at work. The iPod touch handles Microsoft Exchange email via an
encrypted connection to our Exchange 2007 Outlook Web Server. IMAP setup was equally painless, merely requiring I accept the self-signed SSL certificate I use on that server, and MobileMe was, as expected, easy as well.

I wirelessly sync all my calendars and contacts, work and home, to the iPod touch and it does a good job of keeping them isolated from each other. No more nightmares of merged calendars causing numerous duplicates. The only limitations I’ve found are that you can’t sync subscription calendars wirelessly or sync wirelessly with iTunes. John Gruber of Daring Fireball wrote a lengthy essay on calendar syncing that’s worth reading.

External Speaker — When the second-generation iPod touch was first announced, Apple made a big deal about adding a speaker. Initially, this feature seemed like a minor addition to me, but now I can see why so many complained about the first-generation model lacking this feature. Put simply, it makes it possible to listen to a YouTube video or podcast without plugging in earbuds. The quality isn’t great – you wouldn’t want to use it to listen to music – but it’s good enough.

The first-generation iPod touch did have a speaker, but it could play only the beeps and boops of timed alarms. Unfortunately, for alarm use the speaker’s volume is barely adequate. I can hear it in my pocket most times but not if there is a lot of background noise. On trips I use my BlackBerry alarm for an alarm clock instead of the iPod because I worry that I would sleep through the lower volume iPod alarm. A vibrate option – much as the iPhone has – would be a welcome addition.

Voice Recording — The other major new feature in the second-generation iPod touch is the capability to record from a microphone. Although I’ve never particularly wanted to use voice recording, many people find it useful. To record, however, the iPod touch requires an external microphone that’s not included in the package. Apple announced in-ear headphones that include a remote control and microphone for the voice recorder but hasn’t yet shipped them. The iPhone headset would probably work, but it has regular iPod ear buds which won’t stay in my ears, so I’m still waiting for the release of the new headsets. Once they are available, there are a variety
of voice recording apps for the iPhone that should work on the iPod touch as well.

Many PDAs offer voice recording capabilities, including the Palm Zire, which has a built-in microphone and a designated Record button so you don’t have to go into an app and then begin recording. The few times I tried recording on the Zire, it worked as expected.

The situation is fuzzier with the BlackBerry 8830. Supposedly, it can do voice recording, but I can’t seem to figure out how to do it. I don’t know if Verizon removed the capability (so as to force users to pay for a separate recording service), or if I’m just missing the functionality in an application I have. While trying to find the answer I found that RIM had released a firmware update that added voice recording capabilities to many of the BlackBerry models. The update is free; however, your provider must allow you to install it. This is one of the many provider lock-ins that drives me crazy in the mobile phone market. Fortunately, Apple has retained full control over iPhone software, instead of allowing AT&T to set the rules.

Ebooks — Reading ebooks was one of my favorite uses of the Palm Zire and I’ve missed it since my Palm went belly up. The BlackBerry screen is just too small for prolonged reading sessions. On the Palm, I used Plucker to read free ebooks from the Baen Free Library and Project Gutenberg. I found the desktop side of Plucker, used to download and convert content to the Plucker format, to be wildly confusing, but the reader on the Palm was nice and simple. It supported the basic functionality I expect from an ebook reader: a library that can hold many documents, adjustable text
sizes and colors, and bookmarks in multiple books at a time.

Prior to the 2.0 software release for the iPhone/iPod touch, Adam wrote an open letter to Steve Jobs commenting on how ebooks were overlooked on the iPhone and iPod touch (see “Open Letter to Steve Jobs: In Support of an iPod Reader,” 2008-01-01). He was right then and the situation hasn’t improved significantly, but with the addition of the App Store some third parties are trying rectify the problem with dedicated ebook reading software. A number of ebook apps are available now, and I’ve been playing with two of them: the $9.99 Bookshelf from Zachary Bedell, and the free Stanza from Lexcycle.

The two apps offer similar functionality but differ in user interface and document formats supported. Bookshelf supports the Plucker-formatted documents I still have from my Palm reading days, while Stanza supports the Kindle format. Stanza also supports PDF, but removes images and formatting which, for most of my PDFs, including my Take Control ebooks, makes them unreadable. Bookshelf doesn’t support PDF at all, so when I want to read a PDF I use another app or email it to myself. Even using a PDF viewer that maintains formatting doesn’t make PDFs easy to use on the iPhone, because most PDFs are designed for 8.5″ x 11″ pages, which require lots of side-to-side scrolling.

[The email attachment trick is a simple way to get our Take Control PDFs onto the iPod touch or iPhone. When you click an attachment to open it on the iPod touch, it displays the PDF. As Kevin says, it’s not an ideal display, but if you switch to landscape mode and zoom in just enough to eliminate the right and left margins, the text should be readable. -Adam]

Bookshelf uses a scrolling format for displaying text. It offers auto-scrolling, as did Plucker on the Palm, but I don’t particularly like the feature. In contrast, Stanza uses a page-at-a-time format, wherein it divides the screen into zones: a tap on the left goes back a page, and a tap on the right goes to the next page. A tap in the center brings up Stanza’s options. I find I prefer the scrolling method for one-handed reading. Neither app supports zooming text with pinching motions on the multi-touch screen; instead you must go into options and manually select a larger font size.

Neither app synchronizes via iTunes but instead relies on a program on your Mac for loading new titles. Bookshelf’s desktop program can make entire folders available to the iPod touch, whereas Stanza’s desktop reader lets you send only individual documents to the iPod touch. You can also download ebooks directly within the Stanza app on the iPod touch.

Overall, I prefer Bookshelf, but I’m not sure its few advantages are worth $9.99 more than the free Stanza. So while many of Adam’s criticisms about the lack of a good ebook solution for the iPod touch still apply, the iPod touch ends up being about as good an ebook reader as the Palm Zire, with better text rendering.

Summary — Overall, I’ve found the purchase of the iPod touch as a PDA to be well worth the money. I ended up with a better media player than the iPod video, and I gained easy access to apps that are significant improvements over my BlackBerry and Palm applications. I did give up instant access to 5,000 songs, but I’ve found that I don’t miss it, since more-frequent syncing means that I can rotate the set of music I store on the iPod touch more frequently than I ever did on the iPod video.

Although the iPod touch comes out well ahead of the BlackBerry, Palm Zire 72, and iPod video as a PDA, the comparison isn’t quite so clear cut for those considering replacing a BlackBerry with an iPhone. Leaving aside any unanswerable (for this article) questions of cellular reception and battery life, the major difference comes down to how much typing would be necessary, since for me at least, typing on the iPhone’s virtual keyboard is slower and less accurate than on the BlackBerry’s physical keyboard. If Apple were to open up the iPhone to Bluetooth external keyboards for typing longer email messages and notes, I would have no qualms recommending the iPhone over the BlackBerry in almost every situation.

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