31 December 2008

The iPod Touch: Yes, It Is All That

My parents gave my wife and I an iPod Touch for Christmas. I've been jonesing for one, but if I'd known how utterly cool they were, I would have done something rash months ago. Yes, I know, I know, I was just arguing a couple of weeks ago that iPods are not all that. What can I say. I've been Touched.

But in fact, an iPod Touch is not just a DAP, a lowly audio player. Sure it plays audio and it sounds good. It sounds almost as good as my incredible $14 Sansa Clip, which is saying something. But I can't imagine anyone buying it just to play music. It has much more in common with my Dash smartphone than my Clip. It is, of course, just an iPhone minus the phone. That makes it part PDA, part PMP (personal media player), part netbook, and a whole lot of eye candy. But why exactly am I geeking out?

Wireless: I got a Dell PDA several years ago that did wireless, and it blew my mind. For about 10 minutes. Then I realized it was too slow and the screen too small for it to be really usable. Same with my Dash. But the Touch has a screen just large enough to effectively browse, even if you have to squint a bit at tiny type. And the new 2G's faster 533MHz processor kicks things along pretty snappily. But one question: Where's the wireless sync?

Apps: The built-in apps are not that great, given the Touch's typical uses. They're leftovers from the iPhone. But I've just started sampling some 3rd-party apps and they some hold real promise. The most important one to me is a good reader, and Stanza is far better than any reader I have used on my other devices. I'm just waiting for a proper Adobe Reader for pdfs, which must be in the works. Even if it's no Kindle, the Touch is still a highly usable palmtop e-book reader. And games rock. Again, the Touch is no PSP, but already it is proving to be a fairly competent gaming platform. I'm this close to getting SimCity . . .

iTunes Store: I hate the iTunes software, I hate DRM-managed music, but the iTunes store is brilliant. I'll still never buy music from Apple, but they sure make it easy. I will buy applications and videos, and wow is that easy too. But what really rules are podcasts—no other player is even half as easy to catch podcasts with. As I've said before, Apple owns the market first and foremost because of iTunes, and it is very well integrated into the Touch.

Movies: Again, the large screen and snappy CPU make this a very capable movie player. It leaves my iPod Video in the dust. I fully expect to watch movies on this baby, and enjoy them. That, for me, is epochal.

Oh yeah, music: Cover flow and album art is gorgeous. The interface is slick. The sound is good, almost even great. It falls short of the warmth, roundness and detail of the Sansas, and has nothing like the Sony's booty, but it may just sound as good as any iPod ever made.

So, movies, books, music and a capable web browser, all in a device the size of a calculator. What's not to like? I'll pick at just three nits.

First, I'm disappointed that Apple has not done more to take advantage of the 2G Touch's great power and graphics during playback. No VU meters, no AV plugins, nothing but static album art, if your album has it. (If not, you get a homely stock logo screen.) This may be a powersaving measure, but you're idleing a racecar. I'm sure some 3rd party will amp this up if Apple doesn't.

Second, Apple really sticks it to you for storage. The $70 jump from 8gb to 16gb is a racket, given that an 8gb SD card is $15 retail. Really, I just flat want a microSD slot, like the Sansas and most smartphones. But Apple is effectively marketing from a monopoly, so it will never happen.

Finally, the Touch is brilliant for stationary listening, but its design just does not work well for active use, since you have to be looking at it to change tracks, etc. Apple went part way in addressing this problem when they added the external volume control to the 2G Touch. But inherent design limitations will always make it a less than ideal player for on-the-move listening. But for that they'll sell you a Nano or Shuffle.

I could grumble more, but that does not change the fact that the Touch is a watershed product. Again Apple breaks out with a product that almost creates a new segment. With the price drop, it owns its price point. They'll sell a zillion. I just can't wait to see what they come up with next.

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