The Writers Workbench
by Robert J. Elisberg

REACH OUT AND iTOUCH SOMEONE

May, 2008

Apple releases new iPods almost faster than rabbits turn out offspring.  This is both good and bad.  New and improved tech is always good, but it risks leaving what customers bought a year ago in the dust.  One thing that stays the same, though, is the venerable iTunes.  And so the latest and the venerable join hands in brotherhood.  Or whatever.

iPOD TOUCH

Unlike other iPod entries, the iPod touch is worlds different than its kin. In fact, its closest relative is the iPhone, with pretty much an identical interface. It doesn't have a phone, camera, microphone and is thinner, but otherwise that's largely what you're getting.

As such, it has much going for it that's absolutely wonderful. And a few things that are the opposite. Overall, it's quite impressive, just not perfect.

The basics first. The touch is a Flash device and respectably small, halfway between the 5G/Classic and the Nano. It's about 4x2.5” and just .3” thick, and weighs only 4 ounces. The screen is an impressively-large 3.5” and extremely bright (more on the screen later). It has built-in WiFi networking and a rechargeable lithium battery rated to run 22 hours for music, and 5 hours for video.

Flash players have far smaller capacity than hard drive devices - the hard drive-based iPod Classic, for instance, is available up to 160 GB, letting most people run their entire music library, countless videos and probably a NASA moon shot. The touch was introduced in two incarnations of 8 and 16 gigabyte, but it's now added one with a 32 GB, whopping by Flash-players standards. (Equaled only by the Creative Zen.) That's obviously far-less than a hard drive, but huge for most purposes. It won't come inexpensively: the touch ranges from $300-$500. But you're getting more than a music player. You're getting all the applications. More on that later, too.

It's impossible to address the iPod touch without first mentioning its multi-touch interface. For most of the world, this is referred to as The Cool Factor. I'm far less interested in how cool something is than how it works. “Cool” can wear off after a short while and when the next cooler thing comes along. To be clear, this is cool - but it's important to look beyond it and look at the work it actually functions.

With touch technology, you can easily drag around icons on the Home screen with your finger, so the ones you frequently use are more convenient. There is also a “dock” to drag your most-used apps. And you can create additional Home screens to move applications onto their own page or for adding new apps. (A Home button always returns you to the main screen, wherever you are on the touch. This is the only button on the touch for dealing with material.) To move icons, just hold your finger on any application until they all start to “wiggle,” and then the screen is “live” for you to adjust.

When playing music or videos, or controlling any of the apps, it's all handled directly on the screen. The traditional iPod Click Wheel is gone. To scroll, just drag a finger on the screen. You can re-size photos by “pinching” them with two fingers. It's all fast, convenient and reasonably intuitive, and fun, too. It also is not without its issues -

With a Click Wheel (or hardware button controls on other players), you can stick your MP3 player in a pocket and operate the volume, pause or fast-forwarding by the feel of buttons. That's no longer the case here; you have to look directly at the touch to see what you're doing. The only workaround is to get a remote control - but it will have to be one with its own pass-through earphone jack, because otherwise the device will block the jack in the touch. Also, if you're accessing other features of the touch while listening to music, there's no way to pause or lower the volume - or access any music options - without maneuvering back to Now Playing screen. Finally, you have to be oddly careful - not only can any mere accidental touch of the screen access controls, but because the iPod is impacted by the heat of a touch, you can get results from unexpected avenues. For instance, sticking the iPod touch in a pocket face-side towards my skin, the music playing would occasionally jump around when walking. Simply turning the face outward resolved the problem.

The other obvious issue is that when you're controlling everything by touching the screen, it's going to get fingerprints all over it, or worse if your fingers are greasy or messy. So, you have to be careful about that and wipe the screen regularly. None of this is to say a touchscreen isn't easy and good to use, just that it's important to be aware of the downside that exists.

As for that screen itself, it's wonderful. Bright, crisp and clear - easy to read even in the sunlight, something rarely the case with MP3 players, including iPods. And with an added wrinkle, if you turn the touch horizontally, the screen flips and becomes widescreen. This is a wonderful benefit when watching a video, accessing the web, looking at photos or scrolling through your album collection. Movies and video play back very respectably smoothly and fluid.

And yes, there's a downside. It seems temperamental. There were times it wouldn't flip, or would flip unexpectedly in certain positions. More problematic are the times it wouldn't flip back. It was easy to resolve this - hitting the Home button and then re-selecting “Albums” or going to wherever you were. It's pretty fast, just an occasional annoyance. But an annoyance.

It may be the applications that make the iPod touch stand out, even more than the “Cool Factor.” Among many, these include WiFi features like the Safari browser for surfing the Web, an email client, direct viewing of YouTube videos, maps (identifying your location via a WiFi connection and getting directions to other destinations), and weather and stock reports, and you can even download songs from iTunes - along with photos, contacts, calendar and a respectable notepad with keyboard. And, of course, music. In short, the iPod touch is as much a limited Personal Information Manager, indeed a miniscule-notebook, as it is a music player.

But music is its core, so let's look there first. With simple touch selections, you can select between Albums, Songs, Artists and Playlists, as well as other options with the More key. For convenient searching, there's a “scroll alphabet” running vertically, which let's you jump to a letter quickly. There's also a “Cover Flow” search, like the same feature in iTunes: the screen switches to horizontal view, and you can flip through a collection cover art - it looks very nice and is easy, though more fun than overly practical. Also, this is one of the places that I've found the screen sticking when in horizontal view.

When a song is playing, controls appear on the bottom for playback and volume. You can view song information in either of two modes. One is a simple list of songs with their running time. The other is a more graphic view - this lest you tap the screen to bring up a bar with additional play-options: how much time is left, fast-scrolling to zip through a selection, repeat play and shuffle.

There are a few issues here, none problematic, but one noteworthy. One issue is that it's not possible to make the “play-option” bar a default and always have it there. If you leave the screen, it disappears and must be re-selected. Also, to use the fast-scrolling, even the smallest finger will cover the drag bar, making it difficult to pin-point where you want to scroll to. (Instead of looking at the bar, it's better to watch the time changing.)

But the biggest issue is the cover art graphic. This takes up two-thirds of the screen. If there's no art available, you simply get a huge, gray music icon - wasting space. Even if there is cover art, it'll take up the same two-thirds of the screen, providing the exact same cover art information song after song after song. What this means is that there's little space available for the information you're actually interested in - the song that's playing. It's left to a tiny space at the top, and in gray on black (honest), making it even harder to read. It's possible that the reasoning is that this provided more room to display lyrics, but that's something so rarely used, compared to basic song information. Ultimately, with so much of the screen wasted (and looking boring and ugly if there's no cover art), it gets infuriating, and you wonder what Apple was thinking.

There is a feature that will display lyrics if they're available automatically.  Just tap on the cover art. If you added any information manually into iTunes - such as lyrics that weren't automatically available, additional singer details, song information or anything, the same tap will bring that up.

Moving on to the other apps. Several of these take advantage of WiFi connectivity when you're near a wireless hotspot. (Advice: when you're not using WiFi, turn it off, since it will drain battery power. It's simple to do - select “Settings” on the Home screen, choose WiFi, and then “Off.”)

The Safari browser works quite well, and lets you surf the web (within reason). The image will be small, but a double-tap of the screen enlarges it. You can create bookmarks and even save webpages to the Home screen for easy access. If you have to enter data, a keyboard pops up - chubby fingers will have a more difficult time than other folk, but the “keys” are bigger than many on smart phones, so it works fairly well.

(You can also import your favorite bookmarks, syncing them through iTunes, although if you use the Firefox browser, this option won't work.)

The Email feature is a toss of the coin. On the one hand, I had no problem receiving email, and typing response. It was a breeze and wonderful. Know that there's no syncing with your home account, so anything you send will not be saved there. On the other hand, that might not be as big an issue because - you might not be able to send your email, period. Many servers won't permit this, in part for protective spam reasons, and so the iPod touch can't connect to those outgoing servers. (This is true for some smart phones, as well, with those same servers. It's not just an iPod issue.) I had a horrible time getting my service provider to work - and it's not a tiny fly-by-night, it's Mindspring, which is basically Earthlink. Even calls to Apple support got bewildered results. However, Apple tech support is unrelenting (the second person at least; the first dropped the ball completely), and eventually the problem was resolved, so hats off to them for that. Know that you can always at least use the web-based email feature of your account with Safari, so email is available. (And that may actually save your sent emails on your regular account.)

The Contact and Calendar feature syncs with Microsoft Outlook, as well as several other PIMs. As with all syncing to the device, it's done through iTunes. The features are very effective and, as noted previously, make the iPod touch serve almost as a full-featured PIM.

You'll never want to use the iPod touch as a reliable word processor, but the keyboard will let you to a respectable job when in Notes mode. You're stuck with any notes you write remaining on the touch, with one exception - if you have a server that allows for sending email, you can email notes to yourself, which you can later print out.

The Photo mode shines with the touch. You transfer pictures through iTunes, which is an easy process, though with a few limitations in choosing which folders on your hard drive you want to sync with. Once they're on your device, the image is gorgeous, and being able to view them in widescreen and enlarged is a pleasure. As mentioned, you can change the size of a photo by “pinching” it. Hitting a key will let them play as a slideshow, and it's simple to turn any photo into wallpaper for the touch.

You can configure most things through the Settings icon. I increased the default time for keeping the screen on because when it darkens (saving battery power), it also locks the player. Locking is basically a good thing because - being a touch device - this protects you from accidentally accessing some key. But because I rarely found myself doing that, and because when you “wake up” the iPod, you also have to unlock it every time, I preferred to use a tiny bit of extra battery power for the sake of convenience. Besides, it has a long battery life, and you can recharge it any old time. And further, you can also manually lock the iPod whenever you want, using an On-Off/Lock button on the top. It's worth noting that even if you've locked the touch, you are able to still play music and can bring up playback controls by tapping the Home key twice.

(One oddity. When the touch is locked, you bring it up by tapping the Home key. But if you don't unlock it within 10 seconds, it goes dark again.)

You shut down the player by holding down the On/Off key for a couple seconds, and then when the Shutdown message pops up, you just drag it over. Hold the same key down for a few seconds to boot it up.

There are a few other issues to be aware of with the iPod touch. The earphone jack is at the bottom, which is not the most convenient location, particularly for a device that easily fits in a pocket. That means you either have to put it in upside down (and keep inverting it every time you want to look at it - or risk bending the earphone connection. Happily many plugs are built with a protective, connecting “L” tab, so this isn't a problem. The iPod earphone is not one of those, however.

Also, the touch doesn't allow accessories to send data to a device. This means than any voice recorder add-on you might already have (or want to get) won't work.

And the iPod line still doesn't have a built-in FM tuner. Add-on FM devices will work, however.

One final issue: the iPod touch was temperamental about synching. At first, it didn't want to play nice with my USB port, but that got resolved. And then, periodically, I would get an error message that it wasn't able to synch to my “iPhone.” To be fair, that might be related to some tests I made using the cord for a different iPod, which the touch didn't seem to like. Most of the time, it synched fine.


iTUNES

Which brings us to iTunes. The iPod player is only part of the iPodlian adventure, being intricately integrated into the iTunes software (which is how you organize material and import it onto your device). Currently version 7.6, iTunes also serves as a playback application. In a perfect world, I wish there was a way in iTunes to play a single song without it jumping to the next, but that's the way an iPod works, as well.

You use iTunes to automatically or manually manage music files in its Library. Manual gives better personal control, but it also runs a greater risk of screwing things up. The software is best set-up to run on automatic.

Finding selections in iTunes is very fast, either by direct typing (jumping to the selection by first letter) or the more robust Search feature. A nice touch is the browse button, which opens a panel at the top and lists all your material by genre, artist and album.

Using the “Get Info” feature, iTunes will let you enter any information, such as lyrics. (As noted above, these will be imported into other versions of iPods, but not the touch.)

Though podcasts may be the most ear-opening feature of digital media today, it can be a challenging experience - tracking them down, importing and more. But iTunes and the iPod work beautifully together, making the potentially-numbing process surprisingly easy, down to managing schedules. Podcasts are all found in the iStore, which is simply a link from within iTunes. Handling podcasts is designed for the iTunes-iPod combination, so it's fluid - for podcasts you find outside the iStore (on the Web), the process is more involved, but not difficult. Podcasts can also be played directly from within iTunes.

The iPod and iTunes are wonderfully designed together. When certain problems crop up, though, that interconnected design is also part of the reason. Being from Apple, which is founded on proprietary settings for ease of use, its philosophy tends to carry over here. While generally being terrifically easy, that also means that if you want to do things differently, you're often unable to.

(How proprietary is the company? When earlier reviewing the iPod 5G, I spoke with an Apple representative about finding out where on my own hard disk “album cover art” is downloaded from iTunes. I was told that it was a hidden folder, and “It doesn't seem like it's going to be possible to get that information for you.” Hey, y'know, it's on my computer, and I want to know.)

The iPod and iTunes are designed for single songs, not albums. As such, when you rip a CD into the iTune Library, it doesn't create folders for each album, but rather associates each song with “Tags.” (Tags are identifiers for artist, composer, genre and such). That makes for easy browsing - but long iTunes lists. It's effective, but can be a bit wearying on the eyes. This isn't an issue on the iPod, where everything is deeply-organized.

(If you like neat and clean listing on your computer, be sure that “compilation” has been automatically checked in the “Get Info” properties. Sometimes, the software won't recognize an album as a compilation of songs - considering instead that “compilations” be only songs from different albums. The problem is that it will create a morass of individual song listings on your hard drive. It's simple though to just check the box. This gives an indication of the song-centric inclination of iTunes.)

If you want to import songs from elsewhere on your hard disk, rather than the default music folder, the proprietary nature of iTunes kicks in again. It dearly wants everything in its own directory. It's not difficult to import, but you have to manually find each item. Other players and software will often let you name folders to “watch” and whenever you add a song there, they'll automatically update themselves.

Importing cover art of an album will display when a song from that album plays. It's a very nice feature - though iTunes will do a full search all of your albums each time you check, rather than allow you to select an individual album to look for.


…and what iThink

So, stick with the iPod you know? Change? Get another MP3 player completely? What in the world is a self-respecting person to do?

Overall, the iPod touch is wonderful. More than just a music player, it combines so many great and truly useful features together - most notably Internet browsing, email (if not through the proprietary mode, then at least the Safari browser), contact and calendar information, and notes. And that doesn't even mention the many other impressive applications. Being a Flash-player, there's no hard disk to worry about when exercising. And it's generally a pleasure to use.

For pure music playing, however, I think I prefer traditional button or Click Wheel controls. There are fewer issues to deal with. But because of the wonderful brightness of the screen and its convenient PIM-like features and Internet WiFi options, I tend to find myself grabbing for the touch more often than others when going out.

(For watching videos, 32 GB certainly works, though the smaller incarnations will be of far-less value, but if videos are your main interest, the capacity of a 160 GB iPod Classic or Archos 705 leave it in the dust.)

The Cool Factor is a non-issue. The touchscreen works great for the most part, yet for some uses it's flawed. Appreciate what's good about it, but don't get awed by “cool” as A Concept. What matters with any device is how it works, particularly for your own, personal interests.

And depending on what a person's needs and interests are, there's plenty to be said for the more traditional iPod Classic, Nano or similar Apple flavors - or other products, like the Microsoft Zune or Creative Zen, for that matter. The most problematic iPod touch issues for some people will be the smaller capacity than for a hard drive-based device - the lack of a Click Wheel/button controls- and the higher cost. The inconvenient placement of the earphone jack, and inability to use the touch as a voice recorder may be smaller considerations for some. The other issues mentioned early are more personal, not make-or-break matters. (Even the inexplicable, wasted, music screen space.)

Know too that if you're specifically looking for a 32 GB Flash player, the aforementioned Creative Zen retails for $200 less than the iPod touch. But to be fair, it's an apples-and-oranges situation (no pun intended), and no direct comparison is intended. The iPod touch is meant to be more than a 32 GB Flash music player - it will virtually replace your PIM and give you WiFi access to the Internet and email and more.


TWW

  • There are several new entries in the low-cost Ultra Mobile PC (UMPC) market, like the Asus Eee PC. On a slightly higher, more professional end come HP's 2133 Mini-Note PC. This is a 9-inch notebook laptop, weighing just 2-1/2 pounds, that runs on Windows (for $600) or Linux (for $500), and comes with a 120 GB hard drive, 2 GB of RAM, a Webcam and Bluetooth. It has a solid, magnesium alloy case, unlike the more plastic ones of its competitors. Of most note, though, is that is has managed to have nearly full-size keys. It is untested for the column. One caveat: Intel is coming out soon with a new processor for small devices such as this, the Atom CPU, which is believed to have strong processing power, and the 2133 Mini-Note does not use it.
  • Here's a tip for users of Microsoft Word. When doing searches in documents, don't forget that you can use Wildcards. After accessing the “Find” box, select the “More” button.” Then, under Search Options, click in the “Use Wildcards” box. The two most common Wildcards are an asterisk, which replaces any number of letters (“p*t” could find “pat” or “pilot”), or a question mark, which focuses your search and replaces only a single letter. (“he?l” could find “heel” or “heal.”) You can also select the pull-down “Special” button, and select your Wildcard from there.

Note: The Writers Guild of America, West neither implicitly nor explicitly endorses opinions or attitudes expressed in this article.

Copyright 2008, Robert J. Elisberg. All rights reserved.

Robert J. Elisberg has written about computers for such publications as C/NET, PC Games, CD-ROM Today, Yahoo! Internet Life, E! Online and Hollywood Screenwriter. He also writes writes a regular column for the Huffington Post. A screenwriter, he served for five years as a member of the WGA, West Web site editorial board and Editorial Advisory Committee.