October 9, 2007

Impressions of the iPod touch

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In a recent blog entry, I mentioned that I was ditching my Creative Zen Vision M for the new Apple iPod touch. I’ve finally been able to acquire this device at Radio Shack, not the Cornell Store as previously anticipated. According to Cornell Store staff, Apple is delaying the shipment by 3 weeks. But anyhow, this does not matter, as I’m now happy to bring you my impressions and review of the Apple iPod touch. This is the first of a two-part series. This part contains my impressions of the device, after approximately 12 hours of use.

The packaging is well-designed. The box is compact, conveying that the device is also compact. The life-size glamour pictures on the front and side of the box also facilitate this purpose. Upon opening the box, I was first greeted by the beautiful face of the iPod Touch. The enclosure design and aesthetics are certainly above any other portable media player that I’ve ever seen. The best word that I can use to describe it is ‘fluid’. Also included in the box are, of course, the earphones, the USB2 cable, the manuals, and also a cloth for cleaning the screen, a piece of plastic that turned out to be the stand, and another piece of plastic that turned out to be the universal dock adapter. These two pieces of plastic were puzzling because the manual makes no mention of them. For people who have never owned an Apple portable media player, I would expect similar confusion. Thankfully, I inquired an Apple-savvy friend and he cleared this up for me. The package also contains two Apple stickers, but I’m not about to exclaim “I worship Steve Jobs” to the world just yet.

[img_assist|nid=25060|title=iPod touch|desc=|link=node|align=left|width=0|height=]

Upon first powering it on, the iPod touch will ask you to connect it to iTunes, where you can assign it a name and apply updates. iTunes detected that my unit came with the new 1.1.1 firmware already loaded, so you can expect the same. The screen is crisp and is free of the defect that afflicted some of the first shipments. The battery came pre-charged, so I could immediately begin playing with it.

Of course, the touch feature that I’m most excited about is Wi-Fi. The first thing I did was connect to my home network through the settings menu. It was great to see that the touch supports the WPA2 encryption scheme, and the virtual keyboard displayed for all text-entry fields works well. One limitation that I immediately noticed and should really be fixed, however, is that while the virtual keyboard is active, the display will refuse to rotate to orient itself correctly. You must back out of the keyboard, tilt the device, then re-enter the keyboard screen. This is true for all instances of the virtual keyboard, and is a severe annoyance because I prefer the larger keys shown in the landscape orientation. Also, while the screen can tilt to either side, it cannot orient itself to be upside-down. This is not a big deal, but unless there is a design rationale or gyroscope limitation that explains this restriction, it simply does not feel complete. The Wi-Fi is flawless, but I still think text-entry is a bit awkward.

[img_assist|nid=25061|title=iPod touch|desc=|link=node|align=left|width=|height=0]

The touch runs a mobile version of Apple’s Safari web browser. It has flash and file uploading and downloading disabled, but everything else works as expected. The iPhone versions of Facebook and Meebo work very well. Even Cornell WebMail works, though an iPhone-specific interface would be welcome. Javascript-intensive websites such as iGoogle lag heavily, though, so the browser needs some work in that respect. The display renders text clearly and smoothly. In case the text is too small, you can zoom-in using a 2-finger touch movement, or double-tap to focus on a block of text. The virtual keyboard rotation issue, as mentioned before, still manifests itself here. Minor annoyances aside, though, Safari was certainly the prime factor in the touch’s appeal to me.

Then, I came to the classic iPod portion of this device: music and video. The amount of usable space on the 8GB touch is exactly 7.27GB. For a portable media player of this size, the storage space is actually decently large. A quick division indicates that the 16GB touch has a premium of $12.50/GB over the 8GB touch, which is simply too expensive for me (though considering it is flash memory, the premium is not outrageous). The music library interface is a refined, touch-scrollable hybrid with cover flow displayed when the player is oriented horizontally. The audio quality is great, even through the included earphones, which seem to have improved from past generations of iPods. If the player is oriented vertically during playback, the screen displays gorgeous high-resolution album art (though iTunes really needs to expand their library – a quarter of my library is without album art). The video playback quality is also very good, but the interface lacks the ability to adjust brightness, contrast, and gamma independently. Still, the size of the screen is a true luxury, and finally makes video comfortable to watch. Overall, I consider the touch the best iPod yet.

My experience with the new iPod touch has been more than pleasant, without a single showstopper. The verdict? A success story. guTech highly recommends this portable media player. The next part in this series will detail my thoughts after a lengthier time of use, as well as extensibility options. If you have any specific issues that you would like covered, please leave a comment or send me an e-mail.

Zheng Gu is a Sun blogger. He can be contacted at blogs@cornellsun.com.