Sunday, September 28, 2008

Notes from the Field: iPod Touch 2G

Three weeks ago I gave into my lust for gadgets once again and picked up a 32GB iPod Touch 2G from a local Apple store (Mall at Millenia). I've spent only a few hours each day (at the very most) setting things up, adding songs and other content and just using it as a device. No attempt to hack into the Touch (although I've Googled a bit looking for the state of iPhone/Touch version 2.1.1 jailbreak). I spent $400 on this little jewel, and so far I haven't regretted it. This is in stark contrast to my experience with the Nokia 770. Here, in no particular order, are my experiences to date. Where possible I contrast and compare this with the 770.
  • Display - The display is the first feature you experience when you turn the device on. The resolution is 480 by 320 (landscape) resolution. By contrast, the 770 (and N800 and N810) are 800 by 480. While the aspect ratios vary slightly between the two, the big difference is in resolution footprint: the 770 is obviously larger than the Touch by 2.5 times. And there's no denying that the 770 display is a beautiful and rich display, especially considering that the 770 is now two years old.

    Putting both devices side-by-side and looking at a website, you can see immediately that the 770 rendering is superior to the Touch, especially with small text. However, the Touch has a few features that considerably mitigate the problem with reading small text on the display, which I'll get to when describing the user interface and the Safari web browser. But if there is a single shining 770 feature it's the display. Even after two years, the 770 display remains the gold standard.

  • User Interface - The Touch's UI is one of the best I've ever worked with on a compact device. A lot of thoughtful engineering has gone into the UI and it shows. One blessed feature: I don't need a stylus to work the interface. I can use my fat greasy fingers. And therein lies one big problem with a finger display, the collection of finger grease and dirt on the display from said fat greasy fingers. The Touch packaging comes with a wipe to keep the display clean, and I'm looking for a stick-on cover to protect the display and keep finger smearing to a minimum.

    The Nokia's UI, in stark contrast, uses a metaphor strongly based on existing desktop environments. That is you have drop-down menus, nested many levels deep, and the device requires you to use a stylus in order to invoke and then make a selection. The UI on the 770 (and descendants) certainly looks pretty, but once you get past the bling and work with it over time, the shine quickly wears away with the multiple steps required to perform any task. The Touch's UI is quick and easy and a joy to work with.

    Another feature I quickly came to appreciate (and marvel at as well) is the devices ability to automatically orient the display to portrait or landscape depending on the Touch's physical orientation. This makes reading pages of text (web pages or ebooks) so convenient, and it helps to minimize the issue of the screen size vs. font size. The 770, unfortunately, was fixed to landscape, except for the very few games (such as Tetris) that put the device in portrait mode for operation.

  • Performance - As I said the UI is easy and fast. And when I say fast I mean fast. I've installed a number other applications and they seem to execute as fast as the bundled apps. Each and every application, bar none, executes nearly instantly when selected. Within one to two seconds the application has finished initializing and is ready to perform its given task. This is in stark contrast to the 770, which has never been particularly fast regardless of the OS version installed, and I installed each and every one released.

  • Web Browser - The Safari web browser, based on Webkit, is one of the best embedded browsers I've ever used, if not the best. It won't run Flash or Java content, but it seems to render everything else, and it renders it quit speedily. By contrast the definition of slow on the 770 is the built-in Opera web browser. What's more, the Opera browser, while it will attempt to render Flash can't render Java, and Flash makes the Opera browser either hang or crash. So for all practical purposes Opera can't render Flash.

    Because of the lower resolution of the Touch's screen compared with the 770's, Safari does a poor job of rendering small text, especially if you're looking a the full webpage on its screen. But Safari via the UI has a powerful feature; double-touch zoom. Just double touch on a section of text on the web page and the text is zoomed to fit the width of the screen. This feature works best when the Touch is in landscape mode, and makes reading news and other text quite pleasant, as pleasant as the 770. Yes, the 770 has zoom as well via a set of switches at the top of the device to zoom in and out, but that's a general zoom feature. The Touch assumes that the section of text you double tapped is the section you want to zoom to, and it does that, pushing all other content "out of the way". Double tapping the same section zooms back out again. And to scroll around is so simple; you just use one finger to flick either up-and-down or back-and-forth horizontally to navigate. And this feature of zooming in and out seems to be available as a system feature, with the notable exception of Stanza, the ebook reader, and it has a reasonable alternative.

    And finally, Safari is rock stable compared to the 770's version of Opera. Towards the end of my use of the 770, there wasn't a web site I could go to that wouldn't crash Opera, or worse yet, crash the 770 back to a full reset and boot. I've managed to find one site that can crash Safari; Webmonkey. Safari will attempt to load an entire page off the site, then freeze, then crash back to the main panel. But that's all. Yes, it's annoying, but considering all the Touch's other capabilities, and the fact Safari is pretty much stable most everywhere else, and what I've suffered with everything else, then I can certainly cut Safari some slack and wait for an update or two.

  • Multi-media - The strongest feature of the iPod Touch is its multi-media support. It flawlessly plays audio and video; all my MP3s, movies I've ripped on Linux, video podcasts, movie trailers, and YouTube; and it renders text quite well, especially ebooks using Stanza. And one other very nice feature I never really knew I missed until I heard it - breakless MP3 playback between songs, especially album tracks where one song leads directly into another without silence between the two. I know it's a feature that's been there for quite some time on other iPods, but it's just one of a host of little quality touches that make the iPod stand out in a crowded field. The 770, by contrast, performed reasonably when playing back audio. But it never played any video of any significance, and trying to transcode video to play adequately on the 770 was a royal PITA. There is a touch of irony in the fact that it's easier to transcode movies to play on the iPod using ffmpeg tools on Linux that it was to try the same for the 770.

  • Third-party Applications - I'm going to disregard the storm that's been raging with regards to Apple's SDK NDA and how it allows (or not) applications on its App Store. I want to comment, but I've already written enough on this post as it is. What I will say is I find too much junk and not enough of value, and sometimes I question the price of many of the applications, especially those headed north of USD$20. I have spent the grand total of $0.99, for Koi Pond, and I purchased it because I saw it demonstrated on an iPhone. Koi Pond is a great demonstration of the features and capabilities of this platform, and I personally found it worth the buck I paid for it. All other applications I've loaded on my Touch are free and/or 'lite' and include Weather Bug, Movies, and Stanza. I've even downloaded and then removed applications, specifically games, when I quickly hit the end. So far I use Stanza to read many ebooks, mostly classics that seem to fill its 'shelves' (notable exception; Cory Doctorow, certainly worth reading). The App Store is limited but functional, and I can't think of any reason to make it more complex; if I need to really look for something then there's iTunes on my Windows notebook for that. I'll talk about the applications in greater detail another time.
Overall I find that the iPod Touch 2G is the best hand-held computer I've ever owned, and I've owned many such as the Handspring Visor Prism, Dell's Axim X5, a Palm Tungsten, and finally the Nokia 770. It's a great balance of size, capability, and long battery life. Not only would I purchase it again, but I won't hesitate to purchase any future generations of this superb little machine.

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