When the iPod touch came out, at first it looked like it was essentially an iPhone, but without the phone — cool enough if you didn’t need a phone. On closer examination, though, it seemed it wasn’t quite. For one thing, the iPhone’s Mail client had been inexplicably left out, even though the iPod touch had WiFi and a web browser — you could use web mail via Safari if you were desperate, but it wasn’t like having a “real” mail client. For another, the weather widget wasn’t there, and nor, for no good reason anyone could ascertain, was the notes app.
At the Macworld Expo, Steve Jobs announced that all that was going to change. Thanks to a simple software update, the iPod touch would have all the features of the iPhone — except, of course, for the phone. What’s more, it would even have the features that he had just added to the iPhone, such as customisable Home screens and a Map application with “pseudo GPS”. You had to be happy. Except, of course, that the iPhone update was free, and the iPod touch update meant dipping into your wallet.
Steve Jobs isn’t accustomed to the sound of disgruntled customers in an Expo keynote, but there it was.
Now that the dust has settled and I’m back from San Francisco, I thought I’d take the plunge, lay down my money (yes, I paid out of my very own pocket) and take the new software for a spin. Is it worth $25? Only one way to find out.
You’ve got Mail. The first thing I did was set up the Mail client. Before you can do this, the iPod touch wants to know it’s going to be able to connect to the internet, so I had to get it onto my local network. This is pretty easy, except of course that I live next to a block of flats and there’s at least one sneaky bandwidth thief over there, so I’ve got a 63-digit password on my network. Entering a 63-digit password on the iPod touch’s virtual keyboard is a trial, but at least I only have to do it once. And it’s probably not a problem for any of you, with sensible-length passwords on your networks.
Once it’s found a network, the Mail client offers Yahoo! and GMail and .Mac, for you to connect to — as well as AOL, but who uses that? It also offers “Other” by which you can manually set it up to look at, for example, your office e-mail. Since I already use my BlackBerry to check office mail, I set up the iPod to look for my .Mac mail. This was a snap, and once done the interface is clear and easily usable. I wish there were an option to select multiple messages for deletion, but I couldn’t find one. Nor could I locate a “Mark as Read” option, though I’m sure it must be there somewhere. if there’s an easy way to search your email I couldn’t find it, but since this is meant as an easy way to check messages on the go rather than an archive of your mail I don’t thin that’s a huge problem.
You can, of course, set up multiple e-mail accounts as well, by going to the Settings option on the main screen. If you do so, you simply choose which account you want to view when you start the Mail application (there’s no way to view all your messages from multiple accounts in one big happy inbox.
You are here. The other biggie for me is the improved Maps application. I like Google Maps for how easy it is to ask for directions from an arbitrary point A to an arbitrary point B — not all mapping applications can do that, or at least not easily. The neat trick with this one is that it cleverly uses WiFi to figure out where you are, without the need for GPS. It’s actually a little unnerving — if this little device knows exactly where I physically am, then the Powers That Be must also be able to work it out. If, you know, they’re interested.
Unnerving or not, it’s surprisingly accurate. Not as good as real GPS, but good enough for getting your bearings and finding your way around. And it’s better than the Google Maps application on my BlackBerry, which uses mobile phone towers to triangulate my position. Plus, the larger screen on the iPod means that the Hybrid view, which mixes satellite and map views, superimposing street names on a photographic image, is much more effective.
I’m yet to find a handheld GPS unit that I liked enough to pay for it. Adding the almost-GPS to an iPod touch for $25 is a pretty fair price in and of itself.
And the rest. The other three additions to the iPod touch’s armoury — weather and stocks widgets, and a notes app — will either be useful to you or they won’t. None of them seem the kind of thing you would pay for, so probably best not to think too much about them when calculating whether this update is worth the cash. In any case, they all work well enough, and do what you would expect them to do. The only question mark is why they were ever excluded from the iPod touch in the first place.
As well as the applications, you also gain some extra functionality in the iPod touch, in the form of multiple Home screens and the ability to customise the positions of the icons on the Home screen. These are handyish features, and will become more so when the iPhone SDK (which will also alow developers to write programs for the iPod touch) is relased in February. At that point you may find yourself with enough icons to worry about ergonomic placement of them. For now, a second Home screen is a nice place to hide the Stocks widget.
Australian Macworld’s buying advice. So, is it worth the price? For me, yes. Because I like the mapping application and I like having a proper mail client with my accounts already set up. Those two apps make the iPod touch more like a second PDA, complementing the functionality of my BlackBerry. Plus it’s a great media player, but that’s not the issue for this review.
For free it would have been an obvious thing to add this functionality to your iPod touch. At $25, it’s something to stop and think about. But not for long.