Monday, December 28, 2009

Christmas Gadget Review: iPod Touch 2G

Mrs. Φ gave me a iPod Touch (2nd Generation, 16GB) for Christmas.

I'm not really a gadget guy by contemporary standards. I've hadn't owned an mp3 player. I don't own a GPS. I'm still using the same Razr v3c from almost five years ago. The Razr has a 1.3MP digital camera sans flash; it's the only digital camera I own. My Verizon cell phone plan is voice only, although I occasionally send text messages a $.30 per. Obviously, I've never owned an iPhone, Blackberry, or any of its multitude of cousin devices.

But now I own a Touch.


The Touch has a feature that triangulates between "known Wi-Fi hotspots" to find the user's location. In a GPS world, this must be dumbest idea to have ever been invented. It turns out that there aren't many known Wi-Fi hotspots, so location information is spotty.  It tracks pretty well in Φ’s lily-white little burg, but drops out on the way to work.  It’s performance is often inconsistent. On the way to work on Monday, the nav stopped locating me about two miles from my house, and didn't reacquire my location until I arrived at work. And yet on the way home, the Touch found my location almost as soon as I got off the interstate, giving me over a mile of additional location data.

An added aggravation is that the map utility that came with the Touch (Goggle maps, apparently) doesn't actually store maps on the Touch.  If the user plots a route and steps through it, those steps are saved temporarily in the map cache, where they remain for the duration of that session; otherwise, the user must have an ongoing Wi-Fi connection to use the maps. Which means even if you can triangulate your position from Wi-Fi hotspots, you must be connected to one of those spots to keep receiving map information.

For $75, a company called Orange Gadgets will sell you the iGPS360, a GPS module that plugs into the Touch and feeds it GPS information.  But now that Best Buy has discounted its GPS receivers, it seems a smarter move to get a stand-alone GPS with a bigger screen and built-in maps.

Parenthetically, it’s easy to get spoiled by Google’s adjustable-resolution, multi-layered map content.


The browsing experience isn’t bad.  It isn’t particularly intuitive (indeed, I had already downloaded another browser from iTunes before I figured out that “Safari” is the name of the pre-installed browser), but the screen resolution is 480x320, which makes reading from the 3x2 inch screen much easier than I had anticipated.  It turns out that many (though not all) websites have a “lightweight” format that automatically loads when they detect a connection with an iPod.  But even a full-sized webpage can be read if necessary.


Google Reader is very user-friendly in the iPod format, but blog reading is exactly the kind of content that I would want to download and then read at my leisure without having to worry about ongoing Wi-Fi access.  ITunes has other RSS readers that supposedly allow posts to be downloaded and saved if you establish a RSS account with their online service, but I haven’t tested those applications yet.


Although music and, more recently, movies have always been the heart and soul of the iPod’s functionality, the iTunes software, which manages the Touch when it is connected to a PC, doesn’t have any software to reformat  DVDs to the iPod format.  I’ve been using DVDFab Decryptor 6 during its free 30-day trial.  This process works, but it is time consuming:  reformatting a feature-length movie takes close to an hour.  (By the way, when DVDFab sets the output file resolution to something other than 480x360, it’s to keep the movie’s aspect ratio, not because it doesn’t know what the Touch’s resolution is.

In practice, this process isn’t really practical for grown-ups.  There are very few movies I will sit through more than once, even movies I like, and if I’m going to go to the trouble of reformatting a DVD, I might as well watch the movie right then.  Children’s movies make more sense, so I put in the time to reformat our Pixar collection and upload it to the Touch for our next road trip.

For about the price of a DVD, you can buy a movie from the iTunes website, and download it either to your PC or directly to the Touch.  iTunes also rents the movies for $3.99 (not all titles are immediately available for rent), but this can be frustrating for those of us already paying for Netflix (which I also got for Christmas).  But Netflix’s instant play feature (and Hulu’s, and Google video) are not accessible from the iPod, their content being blocked by Apple, which is in the business of selling and renting movies.  (Yeah, I know:  it’s all about Flash player not being written for the iPod . . . but you know why that is!)  YouTube is available in its lightweight version; however, most of the commercial content (e.g. music videos) isn’t there, since Apple is also in the business of selling music videos.

On a positive note, the iTunes store has a lot of free content if you are interested in watching academic lectures and so forth.  And the public library website has a lot of eBooks and audiobooks that are iPod compatible (although I haven’t tested this feature).  Supposedly, you can “check out” the content in such a way that what you download automatically erases itself after the check out period.


Most of the functionality most sorely missed in the Touch (GPS, flash camera) is available on the iPhone, but the iPhone requires, not just AT&T’s cell service, but it’s data plan as well.  I’m pretty sure that package will run you $1000 per year.  So for a device that doesn’t require cell service or a data plan, the Touch isn’t a bad deal.

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