iTouch by Fred Thorlin

I have been a Palm, Handspring and Treo user for over a decade.  I keep up with the latest models; I currently have a Treo 680 combination cell phone, web surfer, PIM, music player, camera and open entertainment platform.  But its age is showing.  It just doesn’t satisfy my techno-lust anymore and Palm isn’t offering anything newer.  I decided to replace it with either a PocketPC or an iPhone.

Looking at available PocketPC options revealed negligible cool factors. The current models are both large and heavy or have minuscule screens.  Microsoft has apparently squeezed Windows into a smaller form factor than initially intended.  The result is a slow device trying to do too much.

Come with me to the dark side, the Apple store.  I had never seriously considered buying an Apple product before. Somehow they just don’t seem like very macho devices.  But I knew deep down I wanted an iPhone.  After doing a bit of research on the Internet, I had just a few questions. I had even installed iTunes on one of my PCs. Upon entering the store I was approached by an associate.  After a few questions, and some follow-up research, I learned the iPhone has no support for an external keyboard, even though it supports wireless connections. The PC support software is a kludge (a kludge is an inelegant solution to a problem using unrelated parts cobbled together.)  iTunes does a good job of organizing music and enabling its purchase.  Video handling is just okay.  Additional components become available when an Apple device is connected to the PC running iTunes, specifically, the crude component for moving pictures to the device.  The iPhone display is huge and bright; I expected it to be supported better. Phone support is non-existent in iTunes, you have to use Microsoft Outlook to synchronize that information. My relationship with Outlook is strained at best.

The dark side was looking dark.  Another associate suggested the iTouch.  What’s that?  The iTouch, also known as the iPod touch, is essentially an iPhone without the cell phone, without the camera, without the external speaker and without the contract.  It is also thinner and lighter than the iPhone, yet it still can surf the web using Wi-Fi with a slightly larger and higher resolution screen!  It won’t replace my Treo, but also it won’t add to my phone bill since it uses Wi-Fi only. Just like pocket GPSs, you buy it and use it without monthly charges. The idea initially struck me as strange but I got used to it.  I bought an iTouch.

imageHaving used it for a while, I have learned some good and bad about the unit.  All of the iPhone eye candy is there.  The big screen definitely improves web surfing to sites not specifically designed for small screens, which is to say, most of them.  Surfing the web from my Treo was like looking at the pages through a straw. This, combined with its dial-up transfer speed, caused me to stop surfing with it long ago.  The iTouch 480x320 display is huge for a pocket device.  Images appear sharp at the 163 pixels per inch resolution. Taking advantage of the 3:2 aspect ratio is greatly facilitated by the iTouch automatically detecting its orientation and rotating the web page appropriately.  Scaling web pages up or down is smoothly accomplished by pinching the surface of the screen; this technique is also available in the photo viewer and the map reader applications.  Very useful.  Very cool.

I read many web postings about the impracticality of the iPhone’s glass keyboard. I like it. The keyboard only appears on the display when it is needed, thus allowing a larger display when the keyboard isn’t needed. When using the keyboard the key you have chosen is displayed on a pop-up; this allows you to slide your finger to the intended character since the character isn’t entered until you lift your finger from the glass. Clever as it is you still wouldn’t consider writing a document as long as this on it, which I frequently do on my Treo.  The absence of a clipboard feature is also serious handicap. As with the iPhone, the iTouch has no external keyboard support.  The screen is huge and bright, but in sunlight it is unreadable.  The sound is outstanding, but there is no external speaker.

The mail application works well except there is no option for keeping messages on your mail server.  As a consequence of this, large messages and messages containing unsupported features, such as animated GIFs, can’t be viewed and need to be forwarded to a place where they can be read.

The Maps application provides smooth access to Google Earth.  Google, YouTube and Weather also have custom applications included on the iTouch.  The Stocks application accepts a substantial list of symbols and offers quotes and charts, from daily to annual, for each of them… as long as you have an active Wi-Fi connection.

The need for a Wi-Fi connection takes a little getting used to. You should have a wireless router installed at home if you buy this device, period. Do not plan on using any of the wireless applications while riding in a car.  You will see that there are a lot of Wi-Fi points, but you won’t be able to make a connection before you are out of range.  Further, the vast majority of access points you discover will require a password, which the iTouch will remember if you enter them.  OTOH, shopping centers, bookstores and several other places of commerce, as well as a few cities, provide free Wi-Fi access points.

You can download all of the music and videos from the iTunes store.  However, iTouch does not support any of the iPhone games!  An update to the software is expected in late June 2008, e.g. June 45th.  It is expected to include game support for iTouch.  Developers should look at to get an indication of what changes and capabilities are forthcoming when the iPhone/iTouch platform is opened up to third party developers at that time.  I am confident that an external keyboard will also be forthcoming.  I hope a new integrated supporting desktop application, like the Palm’s, and a means of retaining mail on the server will also appear.

If I wasn’t clear, the iTouch is an awesome device that I am happy to have purchased.  It looks great and operates smoothly.  The desktop support is, currently, just functional.  All of the issues can be fixed with software updates and those are expected in the near future.