Newton Reborn: Reviewing the iPod Touch

image by moparx on Flickr

In 1993, six years of research and development culminated in the release of the first Newton MessagePad, and, while handheld computing devices had been on the market for some years by them, the release of the Newton popularized the term personal digital assistant (PDA). The MessagePad left a mark in history, so much so that Newton is still a popularly recognized name – both for its successes and for its failures. It was Apple’s first big push into the realm of handheld computing, and it’s a push that ended in 1998 with the return of Steve Jobs to Apple. Ending Newton was perhaps one of his most infamous and controversial decisions at the time, and rumors ran for years that the Newton would return in some form. But it never did.

Then came iOS.

In many ways, iPhone and iPod touch are a modern realization of what Apple put forth with the original Newton devices; but they have decades of technology improvement to help them succeed where the MessagePad floundered. At a fraction of the size (the original Message Pad was nearly the size of a Kindle Fire), the iPod touch can take the vision of Newton to a whole new level, and the iPhone adds yet other facets to the vision of handheld computing – perpetual connectivity and instant communication. It is through this perspective I use my iPod touch. It is not a media player that can do a bunch of other great stuff; rather, it is a personal productivity device that also happens to play music and movies.

The iOS Experience

iOS 5 is nearly an ideal operating system for a small screen. Everything is very compact, yet nothing feels cramped; and the built-in apps make the most of the small space without cluttering or overcomplicating things. Every icon and button seems perfectly shaped and sized for finger taps, and the entire system is very smooth and responsive. After experiencing numerous Android phones (all running Gingerbread, admittedly), I found iOS to be a far superior experience in terms of touch response and visual aesthetics.

The first experience anyone will have with iOS is the Home screen. All app icons are spaced nicely in a loose 4 x 4 grid with slightly more vertical than horizontal space. App icons can either sit on the top level of the Home screen (which is what I prefer), or you can group them into folders. Folders and apps have distinct drop shadows behind them, clearly separating them from the background and keeping them visible even against similarly colored wallpapers. Note, though, that you can only put twelve apps in a folder, probably so folder contents don’t scroll off the screen. You can have as few or as many Home screens as you’d like, and I have several, each dividing my apps into categories. One tap of the Home button will return you to the main screen.

The Home screen is not without flaws, though. Row upon row of app icons can get very cluttered very fast, and the linen-backed folders are unpleasant to look at in quantity. iOS users have been calling out for Apple to rethink the Home screen for a while now, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see it receive a facelift in the near future. The appeal of the customizability of Android’s Home screen – particularly on larger screens – is hard to deny. Some apps act like widgets when you launch them, Stocks and Weather particularly come to mind, but they are still simply apps. I imagine the designers and engineers in Cupertino are taking note regarding the limitations of their launcher, and I wonder if iOS 6 will bring any changes this summer.

Music and Other Media

Media consumption is at the heart of the iPod’s history. From the beginning, the iPod has been, first and foremost, a music player. Later generations added photos and videos, and some games were even available for the later clickwheel models. It comes as something of a surprise then to see how little Apple emphasizes the music and video aspects of the iPod touch when compared to its gaming and social networking features.

That said, the iPod touch is a capable media device. Its tiny built-in speaker is even capapble of a surprising amount of sound, though I wouldn’t recommend watching Iron Man with that speaker. Headphones are a must. The video and music apps are straightforward enough, and it can play back 720p video without a problem. The Retina Display renders high quality video very crisply, and album art looks great too.

I have to admit that may favorite use for the iPod touch is as a photo album. I keep more photos on my device than anything else, and all of the images look great. Photo management is very no-nonsense. (Sadly, iPhoto is not available for the iPod touch.) Everything stays easy to find and navigate, and Photo Stream ensures my latest pictures are on the device before I think about it. If all you’re going to use an iPod touch for is music, video, and images, you’ll come away very satisfied with the experience.

Using Apple’s Apps

Apple’s default apps are very functional and will serve most users perfectly well. Reminders easily handles your to-do list while syncing those items with the Calendar. Mail handles all of my accounts easily and even syncs up with my Exchange account at work, and Messages is a simple and capable IM client. Pretty much everything you’d expect the device to have is there when you launch it. Yes, you can find more capable apps in the App Store if you like, and I have replaced many of Apple’s default apps with third-party programs, but Apple’s supplied apps will serve the majority of users perfectly well.

One stand-out app is Safari. I’ve tried numerous iOS browsers, and I keep coming back to iOS’s default browser. It handles tabs well on the small screen, renders pages quickly and accurately, scrolls smoothly, and zooms in and out with ease. I’ve caught myself with eight or more tabs open without the browser stuttering at all. Safari set the bar among mobile systems, and it is still the best mobile browser I’ve used. It really makes iOS devices stand out among their peers if you do much browsing.

If I have any complaint about Apple’s default apps, it’s a fascination with skeuomorphism to the detriment of aesthetics. To an extent, applications emulating real world counterparts can lower the barrier to entry, but Apple’s designers are inconsistent with their implementations and sometimes even include interface elements that look like they should do something – but they don’t. With the Calculator app, skeuomorphic design makes sense; the blatant use of leather in apps like Reminders and Find My Friends, though, can be more distracting than helpful. And don’t even get me started on Game Center. Perhaps, like the brushed metal interfaces of last decade, this trend is just a temporary diversion for Apple.

Some apps associated with iOS are not actually included. Find My Friends, iBooks, and iTunes U are all separate downloads. Find My Friends is capable enough for stalking friends and family, but, if you are already familiar with Path or Foursquare, you may find its limitations (and leather interface) annoying. iBooks is a wonderful e-reader/PDF manager, but I can’t really recommend it for the iPod touch as it runs very slowly, and iTunes U stands out as a very capable way to access numerous courses from various schools. It even includes syllabi, an assignment manager, and notebooks for each of your courses. Oddly enough, it runs much more smoothly than iBooks even though it looks virtually identical.

On the theme of reading, Newsstand also works well for magazine subscriptions, though the actual issues’ file sizes can become cumbersomely large. Many magazines have free issues you can download with the option of purchasing back issues as well as subscription plans. My only real issue with Newsstand is that you can’t pop it into a folder – it being a folder itself. Oddly enough, each magazine is treated like a separate app and will individually appear in the application switcher right alongside the icon for Newsstand.

Finally, none of this would mean anything if trying to type was unpleasant, but the iOS keyboard is very accurate and fast. First, you should turn auto-correction off (unless you want potentially disastrous hilarity to ensue). Even with my large thumbs, I make very few errors, and the magnifying glass for placing the cursor makes corrections easy, if a bit slow. I really thought I would dislike typing on the iPod touch, but I find the experience surprisingly tolerable. I won’t be blogging on the soft keyboard anytime soon, but I haven’t minded posting a few tweets or composing short emails. It works very well.

Notifications, Multitasking, and Sync

Let me be clear from the beginning: I do not like notifications in general. Perhaps my early years as a Windows user turned me off of them thanks to the task bar perpetually popping unnecessary messages in front of whatever I was doing. Therefore, I may not be the best person to review the way iOS handles notifications. In fact, I turn most of them off. Nothing is allowed to pop up in the middle of the screen or even descend from the top. I keep everything hidden in the notification center and on the lock screen, so I’m only pestered by them when I want to be. Perhaps that’s what I like best about iOS notifications – the ability to hide them away.

Multitasking in iOS is limited and accomplished through some specific background tasks. Audio, local and push notifications, and location services can all run while other apps are active. If you switch apps while completing a task, the busy app has a given amount of time (usually ten minutes) to complete the task before being cleared from memory. All apps are suspended in memory when you switch from one to another, and the first four to five icons you see in the application switcher are usually still stored in the system memory, unless it’s been ten or more minutes since you switched apps.

iOS perpetually quick saves everything you do, so, even if an app is forced to quit and clear memory, chances are you will be able to relaunch the app exactly where you left off. iOS is very conservative when it comes to memory management, and it’s probably one of the reasons the system, as a whole, is so responsive. It’s a very different approach from Android, that takes a more desktop-like approach to memory management, and it comes with its own unique tradeoffs. The benefits in battery life and overall performance, however, are worth the minor inconveniences.

Syncing is very easy if you have iTunes and an iTunes account, but it’s slow. Fortunately, thanks to iCloud, I do very little syncing. My iPod is a self-contained machine, and I let iCloud manage music, document, and photo syncing. All my apps are backed up in iTunes on my Mac, but that also happens automatically through my iTunes account without me having to plug the iPod into the computer. Syncing iPods has always been easy but painful. Thanks to iCloud, the painful part is all but gone.

Acquiring Stuff

There are four major venus for adding apps, music, books, and videos to your iOS device. Apps are acquired through the App Store. Music and video come from separate iTunes stores, and books can be purchased in the iBooks store. Each of these stores is contained in its respective app, but they all look strikingly similar. I’ve discovered that, as long as you know what you want, browsing Apple’s stores is very easy. Discovering new and exciting apps can be a bit more problematic.

If you use a third party media app, like Amazon’s Kindle reader, chances are you won’t have direct access to that app’s store. It’s a bummer, but it’s seldom tough to get your purchased content onto the iPod. Various video and music streaming services are also available as alternatives to Apple’s offerings.

Software Wrapup

I could probably write another two thousand words on iOS and still be missing features. It’s a very robust and mature mobile operating system. It set the standard for touch-based computing before anyone thought it would catch on. It still has some rough edges, and some of Apple’s business decisions are unpalatable, but iOS is as popular and ubiquitous as it is for a reason. The system is simply great. If I had to choose between an iOS device and anything else on the market, iOS would come out on top every time.

The Hardware

Where iOS represents the culmination of Apple’s work in mobile computing, the iPod touch’s hardware is a blast from the past. It is extremely thin and light, but it is very underpowered when compared to Apple’s other iOS devices. It utilizes a single core A4 processor as opposed to the dual core A5 in the current iPhone. Storage starts at 8 GB instead of 16 GB, and it only has 256 MB of system memory (compared to 512 MB in the iPhone 4S and 1 GB in the new iPad). The performance hit is noticeable too.

iBooks and GarageBand are extremely sluggish, with launch times hovering around twenty to thirty seconds. Many games are also slow to launch (yet still faster than the Kindle Fire in my tests), and the keyboard can even be unresponsive at times. The system is too modest, and the low end model comes with too little storage. It takes no time to fill 8 GB. Better that it should have 16 GB like the other low-end iOS devices.

The camera is frightful. It captures decent video, if somewhat noisy in quality, but still images are worthless. The camera is 0.7 megapixels. There’s just no point in trying to capture a shot with it. That Apple includes the ability to take still shots at all is almost insulting. The iPad can take competent shots; the iPhone 4S takes very nice photos; why does the iPod touch get the short end of the stick here?

All complaints aside, the hardware is sturdy. I’ve dropped the iPod more than a few times now, and the glass on front has taken only one scratch. The back is fairly scuffed, but is easily protected with a small case. The Home button is perfectly recessed, making it nearly impossible to accidentally activate the device, and it feels very solid in my hand. Despite the meager tech specs, this does not feel like a cheap device.

The greatest feature is the screen. With a pixel density double most similar devices, the screen stuns. Images and text render beautifully without a single visible pixel in sight. Colors are bright and vibrant. Reading is very pleasant. Even video stands out nicely on the minuscule screen. It makes my MacBook Air’s screen look positively archaic by comparison.

Conclusion

The iPod touch contains both the best and the worst of Apple’s iOS devices. The build quality is great. The screen is amazing, and iOS is a beautiful and smooth operating system. Still, the device’s sluggishness and the poor camera mar the experience. It’s not a bad device by any stretch of the imagination, and it still feels more responsive than many inexpensive Android devices on the market; it just falls short of the high standard Apple’s other iOS devices set. If you want a small iOS device and you can afford a data plan, get an inexpensive iPhone. Even the previous generation iPhone 4 will give you faster performance, more storage, and a better camera.

If you are set on getting an iPod touch, throw in the extra $100, and get the 32 GB model. The 8 GB fills up far to quickly, and that very slight premium nets you four times the storage capacity. By the time you pay for a 64 GB model, you’re at the same price as an iPad 2. The 32 GB iPod touch is the sweet spot.

As far as the future goes, it’s hard to tell what’s in store for the iPod touch. Rumors persist that a 7-inch iPad is on the horizon, and, if true, it will undoubtedly hover close to the iPod’s price. The last iPod touch refresh saw no hardware updates – only the addition of a white model – so we’ve no gone almost two years without a real update to the device. With the exception of the Galaxy Player, nothing else is available quite like the iPod touch, but it’s unclear if this is a niche Apple wishes to continue to pursue.

Given the opportunity, would I buy my iPod touch over? Yes. I like it. The only difference would be that I would get the 32 GB model. Despite its flaws, I find it extremely useful, and it’s become an essential part of my daily routines. Yes, I’d still recommend an iPhone first, but, if you want a capable handheld computer without the burden of a data plan, then you can’t go wrong with an iPod touch.

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