October 31st, 2009
So far, our household has resisted any piece of the iPhone onslaught. Yes, I carry an iPod Classic, but that’s different.
Terah’s old Palm m100 is becoming a problem. The platform is dead, and the desktop sync drivers for it are decaying rapidly in every operating system. Not only that, but we would really like to be able to share calendars between us. Terah doesn’t need a phone or a mobile data plan.
After thinking about it a bit and getting some advice, we decided to get her the $200 8GB iPod Touch. And it arrived Friday.
I’ve used portable devices plenty before. I had my share of PalmOS devices: III, V, Clie; an HP 200LX DOS-based … err … netbook; a Zaurus; and an N810.
The first thing that struck me about the iPod Touch was beauty — no surprise there. The interface exuded an air of stability, like it wasn’t going to just crash when something went wrong. It felt solid and well-planned. Physically, it’s thin. Really thin. That’s perhaps the most impressive thing about it of all.
Sometimes the GUI masked underlying performance issues. For instance, it may take awhile to draw a web page. On the N810, you get to watch as different bits of the screen appear. On the iPod Touch, you sit there staring at a white screen with a spinning wheel for awhile, and then suddenly poof, the webpage is there. I’d have to say the Apple approach feels better.
Terah and I decided to sync with Google Calendar, and that setup was easy and well-done on the iPod Touch — easier than on the Blackberry with Google’s own app, in fact. The only question was that Contacts was a bit counter-intuitive; select the Google account and nothing shows up, but everything is there under the generic “Contacts” bucket. The Calendar worked very well, even properly handling meetings and invitations.
The mail app works well, though it takes a long — very long — time to scroll through a lengthy email to get to the attachment at the bottom. There’s no “go to bottom of message” feature that I could see, and my idea of pinching the screen to make the text tiny to make scrolling faster didn’t work.
The mail setup, though, is a complete and utter pain. There is no way anybody that doesn’t know a lot of details about SSL certs could have made this work. When you add a mail account, it requires you to have an IMAP and SMTP server defined. It would like to use SSL/TLS with these, which is great. But if it can’t validate the cert, it pops up a dialog box asking if you want to continue. You can say yes, but it just sits there for a couple of minutes and then fails with a mysterious error. I had to put my cert up on a webserver, point Safari at it, and install the cert to the device before it would talk to it. That solved IMAP.
SMTP was another matter too. Strangely, on the initial account setup, there is no way to put in the port number for SMTP server. Yet it won’t save your account until it can connect to one. Of course, most ISPs block the smtp port, so this was bound to fail. Finally I pointed it at a server on my local network temporarily, then went in and edited the account to point it to the real server with the second non-25 port it listens on for just such situations.
Safari works really well. It’s probably the best mobile browser I’ve seen yet (I haven’t seen Android or Palm Pre yet.) It is far better than the N810 browser, both in terms of speed and in terms of ability to reformat pages to fit the device. The “tabbed” browsing is a lot faster switching than the N810’s separate windows, and nicer too.
The app store essentially lived up to my expectations. It was very easy to use, and obviously a closed proprietary ecosystem. The free apps that existed there mostly were adware. I looked for a Jabber client, and wasn’t happy with any option. Some of them required Apple Push Notifications, with a complex network of two servers between the device and the Jabber server. No thanks to that invasion of privacy.
And that brings me to the topic of weird limitations. iPod Touch apps, in general, can’t run in the background. You exit Safari, and when you get back in, it’s reloading that webpage. Now many apps are good at remembering their state, but this feels very PalmOS to me.
You can’t use the iPod Touch — at all — until you first sync it with iTunes. That is incredibly weird. The device has Wifi, people. Plus, why should I have to “register” it with Apple anyhow?
And then there’s the lack of a file manager, or anything like it. I can’t scp a file from my computer to the iPod Touch like I can my N810, nor the other way ’round. It is generally unclear how much of the 8GB is in use, and by what.
Terah needs a password-keeping program. There are several in the app store. I’d really like one that uses Bruce Schneier’s standard Password Safe format — which is supported on just about any platform you care to name. Couldn’t find one. Even if I could, I guess it wouldn’t do me any good, since you can’t copy the file to a PC anyhow. Sigh.
Overall, Terah is very excited with the device, and I must admit to being so too. Its faster web browser means it’s probably a good replacement for the N810 — especially if you want a calendar, which the N810 completely lacks. It makes an excellent PDA, perhaps the first PDA I’ve seen that equals the usability of the old PalmOS. On the other hand, it isn’t really a power user’s device. There are a lot of surprising limitations and missing features that competing devices have had for years.