Friday, October 12, 2012

iPod Touch: Fifth Generation

Just a quick assessment of the new iPod Touch, Fifth Generation.  This isn’t by any means a full review… but rather a few thoughts based on initial impressions having used it for a couple hours, as compared to the fourth generation model.


The 5th Generation iPod Touch (hereafter referred to as the “5G”) has been updated with a dual core processor which is fundamentally faster than the processor in the 4G’s single core processor.  This is roughly the same upgrade Apple made going from the iPhone 4 to the iPhone 4S.  So it feels quite a bit snappier.  Which is great because with iOS 5 and iOS 6, the fourth gen model could get stuck and feel sluggish quite a bit of the time. A very welcome change.


The 4th Gen model had a screen that was technically a Retina display, but it was a lower quality screen than that of the iPhone 4/4S, which used a more expensive IPS panel.  It had significant color shift issues, and a poor contrast ratio when viewing off-angle, with everything appearing washed out because of the high amount of background light being added to everything.  The 5G fixes this, and it comes with a very good LCD… the same LCD used in the iPhone 5, actually.  Contrast and color accuracy improvements are quite noticeable.  Still not as good as an OLED screen, but definitely a huge upgrade.

The other big change is that the 5G moves to a 16x9 aspect screen instead of the 3x2 screen used on all previous iOS devices.  Aside from the ones provided by Apple with the iPod, few apps have been updated to take advantage of the extra screen space.  Apps which have not been updated look a little strange, as you can clearly see the black bars above and below the app’s user interface.  It’s especially strange because the iPod’s regular status bar (which shows the iPod name, WiFi status, battery charge, etc.) actually shifts downward, leaving an awkward, visible blank space above it.  Many apps will be updated over time to support 16x9, but there are a lot of apps which have been effectively abandoned by the developers that won’t ever get updated.

For me the nicest effect of the aspect ratio change was one I hadn’t anticipated, and that is the ability to have 16 apps in a folder instead of the previous limit of 12.  I had always been frustrated by the previous limitation, and adding an additional 4 slots is actually much more significant than the numeric difference alone would indicate.

With all of that said, I am still finding the physical width of the screen to be a big limitation.  I still hate the on-screen keyboard because the keys are so darn tiny.  iOS’s text prediction does help quite a bit when doing English text entry, but password entry is still difficult and frustrating.  I wish that when Apple made the screen taller that they had made it a little wider as well.  My phone has a 4.3” screen, so it isn’t much larger than the iPod’s, but the tiny difference in width makes a huge difference in the usability of the on-screen keyboard.  Apple is making a big deal of the fact that the screen is still the same width as it was before, but I find it to be more of a hindrance than a help.  I’ve never had any trouble reaching anything on my phone’s screen with my thumb, so in my mind Apple’s argument for maintaining the same screen width is effectively moot.

One complaint I have (and I have this with practically all 16x9 devices—phones, tablets, etc.) is that a 16x9 screen is just too wide an aspect when used in landscape mode.  Any graphical elements fixed at the top/bottom of the screen take up too much of a percentage of the screen’s height in landscape mode.  By the time you have the status bar at the top of the screen, and bring up the on-screen keyboard, there is very little space leftover for any other actual content.  The only devices I’ve seen that even attempt to work around this are Windows Phones, which only display the status bar at the top of the screen when you swipe downward to request it, and leave the bottom on-screen elements at the physical bottom rather than virtual bottom when rotating into landscape mode.  (Rotating a Windows Phone to landscape does rotate buttons at the bottom of the screen 90 degrees, but they stay in-place on the screen, optimizing use of the wide nature of the screen.  It’s a slick way of handling the problem.)  It’s especially frustrating on apps not optimized for 16x9 screens, as 18% of the screen is completely wasted on black bars while the rest of the screen gets very crowded very quickly.


The 5G touch gets Siri, which the 4th Gen model did not have, even with the iOS 6 upgrade.  Like all speech-control features on all devices, I find it to be of limited use.  It’s fine if you just want to check the weather, or create a reminder for yourself, but because apps can’t interface with Siri you’re limited to the capabilities that Apple has provided to Siri without the option of expansion.  I much prefer the approach that Microsoft is using with their voice features in Windows Phone 8, which allows app developers to add their own commands and responses.  So if the phone doesn’t know how to handle a voice command, you at least have the option of installing an app that does.

While it isn’t really an issue, I have noticed that the Siri voice sounds very metallic and mechanical for the first little while after using a new device or new voice (or device which has recently been upgraded to iOS 6).  It seems to resolve itself within a couple hours, but it is a little weird that the voice quality changes.  Personally, I prefer the Australian voice for Siri over the one used in the United States and Canada.  I don’t think most people realize that you can change the voice that can be used.  Just throwing that out there.

While I’m on the subject, I still find it awkward for people to try to talk to their devices.  The technology is still quite poor in its implementation, as every variation still has a very limited vocabulary, and every one of them has a lot of trouble dealing with any background noise.  Few of the voice control/input implementations actually work very well outside of a quite room at home.  I’ve only found them to be of benefit (and limited benefit at that) for sending texts and emails while driving.  Anything else still requires interaction with the screen, and a great deal of patience. 

Bottom line, Siri is a silly feature to me.  And its best use is entertaining oneself with its often hilarious interpretations of your request.  While generally better, the offerings from Microsoft and Google are still generally laughable.  We’ve still got a LONG way to go. We are a world away from being able to have a conversation with our electronics, and Siri only serves to highlight those limitations.


Anybody who has read more than a few posts on my blog knows how much I hate the earbuds that have come with iOS devices.  They are absolutely awful.  I'm really glad that Apple has addressed this by creating the Earpods, because the new earphones are MUCH, MUCH better.  They’re not great, but the sound quality is leagues better than what was offered previously.  They’re also infinitely more comfortable than the older models, but they do still have a tendency to fall out of my ears much too easily.  Just tilting my head to one side virtually guarantees that they’ll fall right out.

The sound quality gets much better if you use your fingers to firmly hold the earpods in the ears, but nobody is going to do that.  A better seal in the ears would not only improve the sound quality, but make them stay in place better.

I won’t ultimately end up using the Earpods for listening to music – I have several pairs of professional in-ear monitors that have infinitely better sound quality, but I’m really glad that Apple isn’t subjecting the public to such terrible earphones any longer.  These are definitely among the better included-in-the-box earphones I’ve ever heard.


The 5G gets what is essentially the same camera as the iPhone 4 on the back, and a significant improvement in the front-facing camera.  While I probably won’t use either one, it’s nice that the considerable imperfections of the previous model have been addressed.  The replacement cameras are much better.  The HDR and Panorama features even made it into this version.  Nice touch.  No cell phone (or MP3 player) camera is a real replacement for a real point-and-shoot camera, but the improvement is welcome.  The previous versions weren’t so bad that they weren’t even worth consideration of being used.


The 5G is noticeably lighter than the 4th Gen model.  And it is thinner too.  But my favorite aspect of the 5G is the disappearance of the shiny back.  All previous full-sized iPods had that awful shiny metal back on them that got scratched practically from being exposed to the Earth’s atmosphere.  You couldn’t put the device in a pocket, even by itself, without it being scratched.  It was terrible.  So I’m happy to report that the new, matte aluminum back, is infinitely better in that department.  It’s too early to say just how resilient it is to scratching, but I may be able to get away without putting some sort of protection on it.  Which is a good thing.  I prefer my electronic devices to be naked, as most cases, holders, etc. add much too much bulk for my tastes.  I’ve sort of settled on adding Zagg’s InvibleShields and Skins to most of my Apple devices, which is a compromise I can deal with.  They add almost no bulk to the devices while adding a degree of protection against scratches, at the expense of slightly distorted images and a grippy rubber texture.  In the case of the iPad, adding a bit of grip is welcome because of its weight and slippery-ness, but I don’t love that texture on something as light as the iPod Touch.  To each his/her own, though.

Lightning Connector

Like the iPhone 5, the 5G Touch switches to the Lightning connector instead of the ubiquitous Dock connector.  The new connector is tiny!  Much smaller than it seems in pictures.  And it does seem a lot sturdier than other connectors.  The fact that there is no “correct” orientation of the connector is a bonus, but not really a big deal either way.

As someone who has never really invested into devices that use the Dock connector (just a handful of USB cables), this doesn’t really bother me.  But it could be a big deal for anyone who has.  Other than dumb speakers, it seems that compatibility with old devices using the Apple’s Dock adapter is quite poor, so you could very well find that if you have a dock connector for your car stereo, clock radio, etc., that it just won’t work.  And the adapter does create a certain level of awkwardness.

iOS 6

The 4G Touch does indeed receive the 6th version of iOS, theoretically giving it many of the features of the 5G model.  Because of both hardware limitations and deliberate coding decisions by Apple, though, not some features aren’t available.  None are huge, but it is worth noting.  Most prevalent are the Flyover view in Maps, Siri, and a few features of the camera.  None are a deal breaker, or are necessarily worth buying a new device to gain them.  But if you happen to be in the market for a new player, it is probably worth getting the new model vs. the older one.


Apple has made a lot of welcome changes to the 5th Generation model of the iPod Touch.  The gap between it and its parallel-generation iPhone is shrinking, and this makes it a definite viable alternative for someone who wants to participate in the Apple ecosystem without signing an expensive cell phone contract.  At this point the only meaningful difference between the iPod Touch and the iPhone is the ability to make phone calls and send text messages, with even that limitation gone if you only interact with people using Apple devices. 

Is the new model good enough that I will switch from my Zune HD to the iPod Touch as my primary music player?  No way.  Apple still hasn’t addressed my complaints with the player software on the device – in some ways they’ve even made it worse by moving the podcast features into an awful new, separate app. The music (and particularly podcast) features of the Zune are still heads and shoulders over anything the Apple has to offer.  And surprisingly, even though the Zune HD is three years old now, its interface is still faster than the iPod’s.  Not to mention that the Zune software is in an entirely different league than iTunes in every way possible.  The Zune’s audio hardware is still superior to Apple’s, with a noticeably mellower, less distorted, and more accurate and pleasing sound… particularly on high quality headphones.  Apple doesn’t seem to care to address this, as the audio hardware in the latest iPods and iPhones remains unchanged from at least the three prior generations.  I guess if it’s good enough for the masses, it’s good enough for Apple.  It’s a real shame that the Zune HD never quite caught on, because it is an awesome product – one of the best that has ever come out of Microsoft.

I don’t expect that others will be quite as picky as me when it comes to audio quality, and that access to the variety of apps in Apple’s App Store will trump at least the audio quality shortcomings, and probably even the horribleness of iTunes.  (Some of this will hopefully be addressed in iTunes 11 (due shortly), but I don’t have any faith in that particular group of programmers at Apple – it has always been bad and for the most part just gotten worse over time.)  And most people probably aren’t even acutely aware of how mediocre the music player on iOS really is, as they’ve never even used anything else.  So in that particular case at least, ignorance is bliss.

But for anyone looking at an iPod Touch, there isn’t really any reason other than price (or maybe Dock connector compatibility) to not get the newest version of the product.  It’s a nice upgrade.

Monday, October 1, 2012

Should I Wait for Windows 8?

Window 8 becomes available in retail in just a little less than 4 weeks.  With computers still shipping with Windows 7 until then, and most vendors not automatically covering the $15 upgrade charge, does it make sense to buy a Windows 7 computer now, or wait a few weeks and get on with Windows 8 from the factory?

I’ve been using Windows 8 a bit here and there since the first preview release nearly a year ago, and I was given access to the final release version of Windows 8 back in August.  So I’ve had a little time with it now and have had a chance to formulate an opinion on it based on actual hands-on time rather than just by reading articles on the Internet.  I haven’t used it as my primary operating system, but I have spent quite a few hours with it.

So instead of making you read a long drawn-out article that covers every little change that has been made, let’s just get down to brass tacks.  Should you wait for a computer running Windows 8?  Let me answer that question with two of my own: Does the computer you are looking at buying have a touch screen?  And would you be happy running a tablet-style interface?  If the answer to either of these is “No” then sticking with Window 7 is likely your better option at this point in time.

But isn’t Windows 8 supposed to be the latest and greatest version of Windows?  Isn’t Microsoft betting the farm on it?  Yes, and yes.  And while they changes they have made give them the opportunity to provide the best experience on a tablet device, they’ve really sacrificed ease-of-use on computers that are still going to be used primarily with a mouse and keyboard.  The user interface they’ve created is just awkward with traditional input devices, even if it is very well designed for touch-friendly devices.

For those not familiar with what I’m talking about, Windows 8 completely ditches the Start menu that we’ve become used to since it first appeared in Windows 95 just over 17 years ago.  If you’re used to launching your software from the Start menu, you’re in for a real shock as you discover that your precious Start menu is completely gone, being replaced by an entire Start Screen with very large tiles to start your applications.  Even on a large, high-resolution monitor, you’ll only see a few dozen tiles at best.  On a smaller screen, you’ll have to scroll horizontally to find anything that doesn’t in the initial view.  And scrolling is kind of a problem… the only way to scroll efficiently on the keyboard is with the Page Up/Page Down keys (which many laptops have now abandoned), and the mouse’s scroll wheel doesn’t scroll horizontally either.  So you have to use the scrollbar at the bottom of the screen, which is a little awkward. 

Once you’ve started a traditional Windows app, the way to get back to the Start screen to launch another just isn’t apparent.  There is absolutely no visual indication on-screen for how to get back.  Only if you know to move the mouse down to the very bottom left corner of the screen can you figure out how to get back to the Start Screen from the desktop.  It’s mind boggling to me that something so necessary to efficiently use the computer has no button or other visible way on-screen to get to it.  You’ll get used to it, but it seems weird to me that Microsoft didn’t provide even a single button to navigate to the most important part of its interface.  Odd choice.

The good news is that once you’ve gotten used to the strange new interface, that Windows 8 is very fast.  There is as much of a speed improvement going to Windows 8 from Windows 7 as there was going from Vista to 7.  Yep.  It’s just that much faster.  One one of my computers, running an SSD, I was able to get Windows 8 to boot in under two seconds.  I’m not talking about waking from a sleep mode of some kind, I’m talking about a full reboot.  Once the computer got past its system check screens, and the Windows 8 logo first appeared, the login screen was visible and fully usable in under two seconds.  Most computers won’t see that kind of performance, but boot times in less than 10 seconds will be common.

Microsoft has also done a great deal to speed up performance in third party software as well.  They’ve completely revamped all of the graphics code, so everything draws on-screen much faster than it has in the past.  They’ve also done a lot of work to temporarily shut down (or at least pause) programs that run in the background so they don’t slow you down in the software that you’re actually using.  They’ve also dramatically cut back on the number of programs that have to run on the computer in the background for Windows to provide all of its standard functionality… there has been a lot of simplification and consolidation to make sure that everything you need is still there, but that it runs more efficiently.  As a result, your computer will run faster under Windows 8 than it ever has before, and that computers will perform better with less memory (RAM) than they have in the past.

The other nice thing that Microsoft has done is to drastically reduce the price of Windows 8 as compared to previous versions.  If you already have a computer running Windows XP, Windows Vista, or Windows 7, the upgrade price is just $40.  If you purchase(d) a computer after June of this year, the upgrade is $15.  So if you do decide to go with Windows 8, at least it won’t cost you that much.

Bottom Line

So bottom line is… if you’re comfortable with Windows 7 and don’t want to struggle with a completely new user interface, and you aren’t going to be running it on a tablet anyway… and the computer you’re looking at buying is already plenty fast, I’d skip Windows 8… at least for now.  You could always pay the $15 to buy a license for it, but not actually install it just yet. 

As for me, I’ll be keeping one computer around with Windows 8 so I can test my software on it, but other than that I don’t plan to upgrade any of them, and I don’t have any plans to buy a computer with Windows 8 on it.

The other thing to be aware of is the new Windows RT tablets that will be available at Windows 8 launch.  It’s important to know that Windows RT is not Windows 8, and these devices cannot run traditional Windows software.  They can ONLY run Windows RT apps (sometimes also called Windows 8-style apps), so you’re talking about a completely new investment in software, very little of which will be available for a little while yet.  Try thinking of Windows RT as “Not Windows” because it doesn’t even remotely resemble the Windows you are used to.  The software you already own won’t work on it no matter how hard you try.  If you need to run Windows software on a new tablet/computer, Windows 7/8 are your ONLY options.

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