Thursday, 11 October 2007

Getting in touch with the cheap iPod

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We managed to get our hands on Apple’s new cheap iPod Touch hot off the shelf to put it to the test. Here’s how it fared.
POSSIBLY the most hyped about product in recent history, the Apple iPhone, generally got rave reviews with most agreeing that though its revolutionary multi-touch interface and music player was great, it was a little lacking as a phone (for example, there is no MMS support).
Well, rip out the phone from the iPhone and what do you get? The cheap iPod Touch of course.
You might at this juncture think that you’re getting an “iPhone lite” and you’d be right, but there are actually some advantages of keeping the phone out of the device but we’ll get into that a little later. First, lets look at its form factor.
It is widely advertised and shown in Apple videos that the cheap iPod Touch is “just 8mm thin” but nothing will prepare you for how thin is actually is when you hold it in your hand.
This thing is actually thinner than a regular CD case! And I know this because I measured it with my trusty Vernier Caliper which confirmed that the cheap iPod Touch is indeed 8mm thin all the way whereas a CD case is about 9mm.
The casing is made of polished (and scratch-attracting) stainless steel on the back while the front is taken up by a glass surface.
Bundled with the cheap iPod Touch is a USB sync/charge cable, a pair of earphones and a small plastic stand for propping the cheap iPod up on the table when you want hands-free viewing.
This little plastic stand is probably the first thing that you’ll lose – I’ve misplaced mine a couple of times – not helped by the fact that is is made of completely clear plastic which blends in with any background.
There are two versions of the cheap iPod Touch – both are identical in every way except that one comes with 8GB of storage space while the other comes with 16GB.
The experienceEven if you’ve seen the videos of the iPhone and cheap iPod Touch online, I guarantee that you’ll still be wowed by the whole multi-touch interface when you actually try it – it’s THAT cool.
And it’s not just the way you can zoom or how the screen automatically rotates to suit your orientation, but it’s actually how smooth all the animation is – the home screen icons scatter out of the way when you launch an application; CoverFlow smoothly transitions between albums; and webpages scroll and zoom with an incredible smoothness not seen in any Windows Mobile device.
Apple has completely done away with the scroll wheel and buttons of previous cheap iPods and has gone minimalist with just one physical button on the front of the Touch.
Instead, it comes with sensors that detect finger input and the whole interface is driven by a combination of tapping, flicking and pinching.
Pinching? Well, for example, when you’re viewing photos, you can “pinch out” (put thumb and forefinger together and slowly spread them apart) to zoom in to a photo and “pinch in” to zoom out of a photo – all very intuitive.
Turn the cheap iPod sideways and in most modes (except video and the home screen) it will also orientate the screen to suit.
Additionally, in music mode, turning the cheap iPod Touch sideways will launch the Cover Flow mode where you can flick through a list of album cover art as if you were flicking through a real album collection.
The cheap iPod Touch’s forte of course is in music as well as video playback. In this respect, it does not disappoint and features the same excellent multi-touch and orientation-sensing interface as the iPhone.
Just like all cheap iPods, music support is limited to AAC (and protected AAC), MP3, AIFF, WAV, Apple Lossless and Audible books and only H.264 and MPEG-4 video (with a maximum resolution of 640 x 480pixels) is supported – which means that some videos may have to be converted to fit the cheap iPod Touch.
Sound quality is pretty good and seems better than the older generation cheap iPod I tested a while back.
My 8GB version had a very nice and bright screen with none of the “film negative” effects reported in certain early batches.
In any case, the problem has apparently been fixed in the recent v1.1.1 firmware update available on iTunes.
ApplicationsWhat applications do you get with the cheap iPod Touch? Well more than you get with a regular cheap iPod but less than the iPhone.
The cheap iPod Touch is bundled with ten applications, namely the Safari web browser, a YouTube application, Calendar, Contacts, Clock, Calculator, Music player, Videos, Photos and the iTunes application.
This being a music-centric device, the cheap iPod Touch is missing a few applications included on the iPhone – the SMS application, E-mail, Notes, the stock market gadget and GoogleMaps are all missing.
While we won’t or don’t need most of the applications mentioned, the lack of the E-mail and Notes application will be sorely missed – hopefully Apple will decide at a future date to add them to the cheap iPod Touch.
Thankfully the Calendar and Contacts applications are still included, but here’s the thing – you can add new contacts and edit them on the device itself, but you cannot add to nor edit a Calendar item.
The strange thing is that Calendar item editing is available on the iPhone, so not including it on the cheap iPod Touch seems a little illogical to me, notwithstanding the device’s emphasis on music and video playback.
What you do get is the YouTube gadget, the clock and the wonderful picture viewing application that is the same as the iPhone.
Oh yes, you also get the iTunes music store application, but unfortunately, since we can’t actually buy music from the iTunes store in Malaysia, the application only limits you to searching for and previewing songs.
Saying that you can’t install applications on the cheap iPod Touch (and the iPhone for that matter) is correct but not strictly accurate – you can actually run a number of web applications thanks to Safari’s support of Ajax, which is similar to Adobe Flash.
These web applications work while you are in the browser and are there as long as you don’t close down the webpage itself, which could be as long as you want thanks to Safari’s ability to maintain the last open page even if you fire up and use another application in the meantime.
This may be a little limiting but it does however, give you the option, of say, having an instant messaging client running on the browser.
SafariSafari on the cheap iPod Touch is so interesting that it deserves a whole section of its own.
Apple’s Safari on the cheap iPod Touch is, in my opinion, the best implementation of a mobile web browser in any mobile device so far.
Yes, there are lots of browsers for mobile devices (Internet Explorer mobile and Opera for various operating systems come to mind) but the cheap iPod Touch’s Safari is possibly the most well-thought out browser for a handheld I’ve ever seen.
Instead of reformatting pages by stacking columns or stripping away content to fit in the small screen, Safari does it by loading the entire page in the screen, graphics, formatting and style intact.
Of course text other than headings are practically unreadable at this level of zoom, but Safari’s ace is the unique zoom in-zoom-out paradigm of viewing a webpage – double tap on any column you see on the page and Safari will zoom in so that the width of the column fits nicely on the screen. Double tap again and the screen zooms back out to the full webpage.
You can also alternatively use Apple’s “pinch-in and pinch-out” method to zoom in and out of pages though I feel that double-tapping is still the best since the browser will choose the correct zoom level to auto-fit into the available space.
This double-tap and pinching zoom function is what makes the whole browsing experience an absolute dream – I have to say I have never felt so comfortable browsing webpages on a small screen than with the cheap iPod Touch.
Maximising spaceHowever, what impresses me most about the cheap iPod Touch’s browser is the subtle things – Apple has really thought about how to properly maximise the limited space available on the screen by having, for example, the address bar attached to the top off the webpage itself rather than as a fixed toolbar at the top of screen.
This way, the address bar is always there, but disappears out of the way as you scroll down a page.
Need another example? Well, instead of a tabbed window system for opening multiple browser windows like most desktop versions, Safari on the cheap iPod Touch has a dedicated button that, when tapped, will show you a side-scrolling thumbnail list of your open webpages – this is an incredibly elegant way of saving just a teeny bit of space that would have been taken up by tabs.
Oh yes, if you rotate the screen sideways, Safari will also follow suit, allowing you to view your webpage in landscape mode.
However, great as it is, Safari isn’t perfect – for one thing, Safari does not support Flash nor Java (but does support JavaScript), which are increasingly popular in webpages these days.
For another, there are a few bugs still. For example, the browser would occasionally become confused and not accept any taps on some buttons on webpages.
Other than Flash support, however, these bugs are relatively minor and can be fixed in a future firmware update.
I did a number of tests on webpages and other than Java- or Flash-heavy pages, I had no problems opening and logging in to webpages, including banking sites like Maybank2U, Public Bank and Citibank.
WiFi is also pretty good and supports WEP, WPA, WPA2 authentication – I had no problems connecting to my home router with WPA-TKIP security and various other free WiFi access points around Kuala Lumpur.
The keyboardOkay, the part that has a bit of a learning curve with the cheap iPod Touch (and the iPhone) is the keyboard. It’s a software QWERTY keyboard that pops up when you have to enter text.
Like everyone who first uses it, I found it a bit difficult to type fast, since I initially tried to correctly aim for a key and would sometimes miss it as I tried to type faster.
However, I discovered after a couple of days that you don’t have to correctly hit a key – instead what you should do is just hit the general area where the key is situated and then trust the autocorrect feature (by tapping the space bar) to fix it.
Amazingly, the autocorrect feature is very accurate at predicting what word you’re trying to type – I’d say it’s about 99% correct – and can even correctly guess that when I type something like “tebdeal” that I in fact meant “general.” Yes this is a real-world example!
Once I learned to trust the autocorrect feature, my typing speed went up to about 40 words-per-minute, which is actually pretty good, since my typing speed on a real full-sized keyboard is about 53 words-per-minute.
As for battery life, Apple’s claim is that the cheap iPod Touch will last for 22 hours playing music and five hours straight playing movies and I have to say that, based on our tests, the claim is pretty close.
I didn’t have the patience to test out playing music for 22 hours, but I did play movies and it lasted as long as advertised.
I also sat down for a few hours just surfing on the Touch and playing music and found that it lasts for about five hours of heavy surfing as well as the occasional YouTube video.
ConclusionOkay, here goes – while you’d think that stripping out the phone from the iPhone and giving you the cheap iPod Touch is a step backwards, it’s actually not quite like that.
You see it’s a matter of classification, I think. The iPhone is actually lacking many phone features common nowadays on all phones, and it’s strange to call it a smartphone in this sense.
However, strip that out and call it an cheap iPod, then this makes it the best portable media player ever made – after all what other media player offers you WiFi with an excellent browser (and in some countries, the ability to buy and download music directly on the device), all wrapped in a sleek and incredibly slim package?
Furthermore, since you don’t expect an cheap iPod to edit documents, surf or even perform any PDA-like functions, the cheap iPod Touch actually exceeds this expectation.
The single most important addition is Safari, and with it, you have access to web-based e-mail, calendars, and even some Ajax applications which does bring back some of the features that Apple took out of the iPhone to give you the Touch.
Conclusion? The cheap iPod Touch is great – so good in fact, that I went out and got me a free cheap iPod Touch - ‘Nuff said.
Pros: Slim and sexy form factor, wonderful user interface, great web browser.
Cons: Lacking certain applications and can’t install new ones except via Safari.
cheap iPod Touch(Apple Computer)Portable media playerSupported formats: MP3, AAC, protected AAC, Apple lossless, WAV, AIFF, H.264 video (up to 640 x 480 pixels), MPEG-4 videoStorage: 8GBInterface: USB2.0Battery: Built-in Lithium-ionOther features: Multi-touch display, WiFi, Safari browser, YouTube, iTunes music store, calendar, calculator, contacts, photo viewer, alarm clock.Bundled accessories: earphones, USB sync and charge cableDimensions: 110 x 61.8 x 8 mmWeight: 120gPrice: RM1,339 (8GB), RM1,739 (16GB)Website:

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