4 Months with the iPod Touch

My iPod Touch in my hand, held above a black office chair.

On the eve of Apple’s expected announcement of the 2nd gen iPhone, the launch of the applications store, and a host of other rumored tidbits, I thought I’d address the iPhone’s less famous sister device. The gadget blogs and Apple rumor sites have been in a frenzy over this year’s iPhone-centric WWDC. Other companies would pay to have this kind of foaming, fanatical conjecture about single features of their devices. In addition to the better data capabilities of the new iPhone (3G), the rollout of true enterprise software support will make the iPhone a true player in the PDA phone market.

Unfortunately, the iPhone is AT&T-exclusive until 2012. This was the biggest roadblock for me even considering one. So when Apple announced the iPod Touch, designed for those who want an iPhone minus the phone, I was unable to resist. Well, actually, I did resist for a while. But once Blackbird was born, my need for a PDA to keep schedules straight became undeniable. After expressing my determination to Alisa and accepting the associated brownie point withdrawal, I gave in to the long-suppressed urge and bought the product I’d been longing for ever since I wrestled with my Palm Vx in OS 9: an Apple-centric PDA.

So, for those of you wondering about the Touch, here are some thoughts formed during my own experience with it over the last four months. There are a lot of reviews out there from critics and pundits, who had advance access, playing with the device (or the iPhone) for a week or so. But what really matters is how a device stands up to real life and real-world expectations. Hence my “late” review. There’s no question about whether I’m a big Apple fan or not, but in the end my preferences are all about my goals and whether a given device helps or hinders me in attaining them. Given all of the hype and silly fanboy arguing (mainly about iPhone vs. Blackberry), it’s hard to be objective, so consider this a statement made not from a seat of authority, but from a position of experience. Hopefully, this will give you a bit of clarity before the next Apple-yte PR frenzy over the next few weeks.

For context, it’s good to note that I sync my 8 GB Touch with a 15″ PowerBook G4 (1.5GHz), currently running Mac OS X (10.4.11). Many of the impressions here also apply to the iPhone, but I didn’t take the time to label each one. I recommend checking out Apple.com tomorrow evening to get the latest news on each device.


A New Platform

Let’s be clear about one thing right away: I’ve never gotten as much gratification and utility out of a PDA as I have from the Touch. From the first time I used it until I sat down to write this, it’s been the best user experience I’ve ever had on a portable device. The most succinct way to describe my experience with the Touch is that when criticizing it, I measure the experiences against comparable ones on full-featured computers rather than other mobile devices. It’s been said that the iPhone and Touch are the first pillars in Apple’s creation of a mobile wifi platform, a class of devices that will (they hope) consume the current mobile market. Having seen this first generation of technology, I believe it.

The entire Touch experience is built on Apple’s multi-touch interface, which handles like no other device I’ve ever used, and already has imitators lined up to compete with it (including the exciting and potentially more important Google Android).

The most exciting aspect of the Touch, for me, isn’t just the pleasurable organic responsiveness of the multi-touch screen, it’s that the Touch itself has only two physical buttons: Home Screen and Sleep/Power. This changes the nature of electronic devices, and is a triumphant manifestation of Apple’s (i.e., Steve Jobs’) software-centric philosophy. Apple has always maintained that their first priority is making great software. The hardware exists to run it and act as the user’s point of physical interaction (hence their push for absolute control over their hardware). The multi-touch technology takes away many of the limitations of physical elements such as the thumb wheel or pearl of a blackberry, or the stylus of other PDAs. And because the screen differentiates multiple points of contact, as well as gestures, the limitations of a single interaction are loosened up dramatically. Developers have the pieces for building some of the most intuitive and elegant interfaces on these devices.

But the multi-touch interface brings its own quirks, and requires some getting used to after the initial shine of simplicity. For instance, an errant finger, or an absentminded touch will trigger the interface, as the screen is touch-sensitive, not pressure sensitive. If you grip the Touch too fully around the edges, you can accidentally trigger elements, particularly on web pages. If you put a finger down on a page, then lift off after deciding not to scroll, you may trigger a link or button that you weren’t even thinking about. It’s a different way of thinking that has occasionally leapt ahead of me.

Another wrinkle comes from the combination of a non-physical interface and using the human body as the input device. Put simply: fingers come in different sizes and with different levels of control. I have a pretty easy time poking compact buttons and small links, but others may find their error rate higher than my own. The Touch is pretty good at detecting intent (this is actually a variable you can adjust), but all feedback is visual, so it’s easy to drift out of alignment with the interface and not realize it until you’ve skipped a full key off of the target.

But all-in-all, I’ve found the Touch interface to be an ideal method of interaction, as well as an enjoyable one.

Staying Connected

The biggest drawback to the Touch comes from two big limitations, one of which will become irrelevant on Monday, so let’s focus on the second: it’s not a phone. The Touch lacks a data connection that taps into cellular networks, so you can’t rely on ‘always on’ online data access. However, the Touch has wifi capabilities, so any open wifi network is fair game. Once on a wifi network, data-based services such as web browsing and email are fully available. In both of these areas, the Touch is fantastic.

On the email front, I’ve got multiple Gmail accounts set up using IMAP through Apple’s Mail, which was very easy. I won’t bury you with details, except to say that it’s the best mobile email I’ve used yet. From the interface to the typeface, I prefer it. But there are three key features I miss. First is email threading, which Gmail does very well and I’ve come to prefer over the traditional list of individual emails. You can get threaded emails on Google’s iPhone-centric version of Gmail via Safari (the web browser), but it has other flaws that make it unusable in my opinion. The second is a lack of any ability to copy and paste. This is actually a system-wide omission that I find very annoying. I understand that it would be a complicated thing, but it’s just unacceptable to me that this is missing. This is a UI problem that Apple needs to solve. The multi-touch interface makes it hard to achieve, but I’m sure there’s a way. To get around this issue, Apple allows you to access an “Email this link” function in Safari, but the downside is that you can only include one link per email. Workable, but hardly ideal. The third is a broader issue but boils down to multiple attachments being unfeasible, because the Touch does not store files to a desktop or directory that you can navigate. You can’t download a PDF, then navigate to that PDF as a file on your Touch later on. It’s associated with the email you received it in, and can’t be separated. This is the kind of feature that isn’t a big deal until you need it. Then you just wonder why they didn’t try to make it work. We’ll see what happens at the WWDC tomorrow.

Other than these annoyances, it’s a smart system that works well with my email client. One crucial element in this is the multi-touch keyboard, a feature I’m very happy with. Some people, particularly those with big fingers or a love of the Blackberry thumb board, chafe at the thought of a keyboard with no physical feedback. I have no experience with the full Blackberry keyboard. For me, the Touch keyboard blows the double-tap Pearl and multi-tap cell phone keyboards right out of the water. Plus, there’s no stress on your thumbs. All it takes is a light tap, and the keyboard registers your input. The interface is full of subtle methods for adding accents and confirming that you’re hitting the right keys. I’m very impressed.

On top of this, Apple has designed a predictive text system that puts all others I’ve used to shame. I have always hated the predictive text of cell phones and other devices, as they’re confusing and often wrong, creating more problems than solutions. I shut them all off. Whereas on the Touch, the predictive text is a device-saving feature. I think the keyboard would have been unworkable if the OS weren’t so damn good at predicting my typing and made it so easy to kill an incorrect prediction. Combine this with other little optimizations, such as a double spacebar tap for a period followed by a space to end your sentences, and my typing just flies. It’s not as good as a full-size keyboard, but I’m perfectly happy writing lengthy emails on my Touch. And re-inserting the cursor in text is very easy, as you can place your finger where you want the cursor, and a magnifying circle appears, showing you precisely where the cursor rests. This is so much easier and faster than having to use the damn Pearl to scroll around, I don’t ever want to go back.

But the fundamental reason I got the Touch was for the address book and calendar. Fortunately, these apps are both clean and easy to use. Plus, they sync with Address Book and iCal on my Mac, so I have backups as well as the ability to key in entries with a full keyboard.

Calendar is a great mobile calendar app. Appointments are easy to set up and the alarm will give you a nudge at the chosen interval leading up to the event. It lacks some of the features of iCal, including labels for different calendars (such as Home, Work, Baby, etc.) and fully customizable alert times, but it’s quick and easy to use. I can enter appointments while on the phone and in a meeting with no problems or delays.

Address Book is nicely integrated with mail, offering a nice auto-complete option that narrows a list of possible contacts as you enter an email address or name, as well as allowing you to bounce into Address Book to pick a contact directly. It lacks a search function, which is just silly, but that complaint will be gone with the 2.0 software update.

These two apps, combined with the Mail app, make the Touch exactly what I was looking for in a PDA that truly works with my Mac. While these apps are great, they are arguably not much more robust or flexible than any other competing app on other devices, once you look past the interface. Where the Touch really shines is the web. Or, more specifically, the multi-touch version of Safari, Apple’s web browser. Safari on the Touch is a work of inspired minds. Designed to accommodate the web as you see it on your PC or Mac, instead of mashing it into an ugly, ridiculous version of itself like most devices do, web browsing on the Touch is so good, I’ll often pick it up instead of taking my laptop downstairs with me.

I won’t go on about the specifics too much, but one feature that deserves a bit of attention is the multi-touch zooming for the web. My problem with going online via mobile devices is the weird, broken, text-based-but-not version of the web as we now know it. The Touch doesn’t do that. It takes you online with a regular browser and looks at regular web pages. However, on a small device, you need the ability to isolate and zoom in on a particular area of a page to bring it up to a legible size. The Touch presents two methods for zooming. The first is the pinch/spread method, involving two fingers on the glass, spread to zoom in and pinched to zoom out. This is fine, but it isn’t particularly precise when you’re zooming in past a certain degree. Apple overcame this with a double-tap zoom that doesn’t zoom in where you tap, it zooms in on the structural element that you’ve double-tapped. It must be HTML aware (or some variation). The first time I did it I was thrown, but now I rely on it. Double-tap a column and the viewable area will zoom to the edges of the column. Double-tap an image and the same thing occurs. It’s pretty reliable. Occasionally it is either thrown by some exotic code, or is just not as robust as it appears. Either way, it works exactly like you expect 8 out of 10 times, leaving the pinch/spread method for the other two.

Right now, besides the lack of copy-pasting, the biggest problem with the taking the Touch online is the lack of Flash support. This is a complex subject involving a mix of technological and political conjecture. But for you and me it means one thing: lots of missing content. No portable PDA-like devices feature full Flash support, so Apple’s not losing the battle, but Flash is a big part of the web and lacking support for it means that significant sections of the web are missing. Apple ameliorated this gap by adding a custom YouTube application that kicks in whenever a YouTube link is activated. However, this ignores the in-line YouTube movies that don’t provide any link to the YouTube page, as the link is in the Flash. Again, not a deal breaker for me, but certainly an annoyance that should be addressed in the future, be it through deal-making or technology upgrading. This is one area where a software upgrade may not be enough to bring functionality.

Odds and Ends

There are a number of other apps for the Touch, but once Apple opens up the 3rd Party Apps store, it really won’t matter. The whole playing field will open up, and I’m sure they’ll all be updated or made obsolete. Currently, the Weather app is the same as the weather widget. The Notes app is fine, but not robust. The Maps application is a impressive bit of software and is probably a life-saver on the iPhone (hard to get wifi on the road with the Touch). The customizable Home Screen is a great feature, particularly once we can fill it with apps we’ve purchased. The ability to drop web bookmarks on the Home Screen as buttons is pretty great, too.

The music, photo, and video functions of the Touch are solid, with lots of elegant navigational elements. The 3.5″ screen at 163 ppi is very nice, and its high resolution mitigates the effects of a using a small screen. However, the Touch falls short of the actual click wheel iPods when it comes to, well, being an iPod. While it can do some very cool stuff, the wheel is the best interface I’ve seen for navigating one’s music. The circular design allows you to scroll as much or as little as you want without breaking your movement. A vertical or horizontal list forces you to continually move, reposition, repeat, effectively doubling your efforts while slowing you down. The interface makes up for it in other ways, to be sure, but the iPod was built on that click wheel interface. I hope they at least create a touch version.

Initially, I was very frustrated with how long it took to access the music controls until I found out that double-clicking the Home Screen button will take you to an instant music interface, even on a locked Touch. Not the most intuitive solution, and it still won’t allow you to blind-navigate, but they did address the issue.

Generally speaking, this is the Apple way. On more than one occasion, all I had to do was think “OK, what’s the logical way to solve this problem?” and that was usually it. Another example is scrolling on web pages. Because all scrolling is done with your fingers, a long web page can become a real hassle on the way back up. Their solution is a single tap on the system bar across the top of the screen: it will rocket you back to the top of the page. I can’t tell you how many web pages I scrolled up and up and up until I thought to try this trick.

In the End

I could go on and on (which Alisa will vouch for), but I won’t. Devices with high-resolution multi-touch screens are a new class of device, in my eyes, and I suspect that Apple simply fired off the starting pistol a bit quicker than the rest. The Touch is a great device that fulfills my needs very elegantly and allows me to take care of email, scheduling, surfing the web, and other compact tasks while keeping one hand free, with minimal concessions to the device’s limitations. The Touch has its problems, some very small (the Now Playing button is fugly and cramped), to the annoyingly persistent (Safari crashes and recovers very elegantly, which is good as it does so every few days, sometimes more. PDFs with unsupported but embedded fonts will not display properly at all.), to the befuddlingly aggravating (Why can’t I download, store and access documents? Why can’t I copy and paste?), to the worrisome (something is wonky with syncing tracks from the wireless iTunes store, and I’ve lost music because of it). But in spite of these problems, I’m happy with the Touch. 95% of the time, it’s doing exactly what I want in an elegant way, and is 100% Mac-compatible. Unfortunately, I have no experience with the PC side of things when it comes to the Touch, but if it’s anything like the Mac experience it’s worth the price.

Ultimately, the Touch and the iPhone are about possibilities. With a virtual interface and an active 3rd party developer community (and given the market share, I expect one), the future of these devices excites me. I will be working hard to keep my wallet from opening tomorrow.