Yesterday I visited my local Apple store for the very first time. I’d gone there with the intention of buying two of the new 16GB iPod touch media players. In the end I walked out empty handed.
OK, to begin with I should probably explain why this was my first trip to an Apple retail store. There are two reasons really. The first is that my local Apple store isn’t really all that local since it’s a good four to five hour round trip, and secondly, what does a guy who spends most of his time on PCs need at the Apple store?
The thing that struck me as different about the Apple store is just how much kit they have out for customers (and potential customers) to play with. I was at the store to look at iPods but even I couldn’t resist having a play with an iMac (that new ultra-thin aluminum keyboard is not only a thing of beauty but it’s a lot more comfortable and ergonomic than it looks) and the Mac Pro is certainly worth a look by anyone looking for an all-in-one video editing solution. If I’d been shopping on the ZDNet company credit card I’d have needed a team of Sherpas to help me carry the boxes to my car (I‘d also probably need a bigger car) but unfortunately I don’t have a company credit card, which is probably a good thing all round. Anyway, I was there to look at iPods.
The 3rd gen iPod nano
The first iPod that I got some hands on time with was the new iPod nano. I already own a 2nd gen iPod nano and in my opinion that’s a fantastic bit of kit. It’s not perfect, but it comes close. I’ve been highly critical of the 3rd gen iPod nano since they came out a few weeks ago. Part of the problem is that I just can’t get over how darn ugly they look, but I’ve also been concerned that a 2–inch screen is just too small. Having handled it I can say with all honesty that I still don’t like it. The 3rd gen nano actually feels like a flat stone eroded smooth in the hand (or an oddly-shaped cookie) and the design actually grows on you after a few minutes of use. The shell feels solid yet strangely organic in the hand and the small size doesn’t make the click-wheel too difficult to use. Don’t dismiss it based on how it looks.
But the new nano isn’t for me. To start with, I still think that the screen is too small for photos and video. Sure, the colors are bright and the detail is good, but that still doesn’t change the fact that it’s a 2–inch screen. Put an iPod nano and an iPod classic side-by-side and you instantly appreciate the extra half-inch of screen real estate on the classic. Another problem I found with the new nanos is that the click-wheel is nowhere near as easy to use as the one on my 2nd gen nano. The click-wheel on the nanos that I have feels fluid and easy to use, but the click-wheel on all the 3rd gen nanos I tried (and I tried five or six) feels clunky and nowhere near as sensitive. Combine this with a menu that feels slow and cover flow that flows like molasses through a straw and you have a device that I just can’t bond with. To top it off, it offers no more extra storage space compared to my existing black 2nd gen nano.
To be perfectly honest, when I handled the new nano I got the feeling that it’s a device full of compromises. The screen is a compromise, the video playback is a compromise, and the new interface is a compromise. I can see why Apple made the progression that it did, I’m just not sure that the nano is as good as it could be. But give it credit where credit is due, at the price point, it’s about as good a player as you can get.
The iPod classic
The next iPod that I had some hands-on time with was the iPod classic. It’s odd but I’ve never had the desire to buy a hard drive-based iPod. The new iPod classic has everything that I though a portable media player would need – bags of storage, decent battery life, usable screen – but put that all together and for some inexplicable reason I just don’t feel moved to buying one. However, the new iPod classic is, without a doubt, a marvel of engineering. To be able to cram 160GB, a battery capable of delivering 40 hours of music playback and a 2.5–inch display into a box that measures 4.1 x 2.4 x 0.53–inches and weighs a shade under 6 ounces is unbelievable. When holding an iPod classic I was well aware that I was holding a box that was literally crammed with technology.
What’s interesting is that after having the opportunity to handle and use the iPod classic for a few minutes, when I went back to the iPod nano I could see nothing but the faults. The screen on the iPod classic is small but it works, while the one on the nano is just small. The interface on the classic is basic, and at times a little sparse, but it does the job, while on the nano it feels slow and inadequate. Cover flow on the classic is silky smooth and a pleasure to use, while on the nano it’s a chore. After being exposed to the iPod classic, I now didn’t just not like the 3rd gen nano, it made me angry.
The iPod touch
Finally, I got some hands on time with the gadget that I’d come to see – the iPod touch. Photos and video of the iPod touch really don’t prepare you for seeing it for the first time. Switched off and sitting in the dock it looks like a miniature version of the black monolith from 2001: A Space Odyssey (if it played Also sprach Zarathustra each time it was fired up, it could complete the image). Switch it on and the jet black screen instantly comes to life and the iPod touch is ready to use.
What really struck me about the iPod touch is just how intuitive and easy to use it is. I’ve used more than my fair share of portable device (ranging from PDAs to GPS receivers) and the thing that almost all have in common is that in order to get the most out of them you have to learn how to use it properly and do things the way it wants you to do it. The iPod touch is completely different. Rather than being something that you have to learn to use, it seems to be designed intuitively from the ground up. It’s a device that really is hard to fault.
Part of what makes the iPod touch so pleasing to use is the feeling that Apple hasn’t cut corners to deliver a cheap device. The touch is obviously built so that it’s powerful enough to cope with the operating system because at no time do you feel that it’s slow or sluggish in carrying out an operating. The screen is luxuriously large, the touch sensitivity spot on, and the fit and finish what you might expect of a luxury car (think BMW or Mercedes) or expensive watch (Omega or Rolex).
I was also surprised by the screen. Sure, it picks up smudges easily but these don’t affect viewing pleasure as much as I expected. Also, unlike other portable device the iPod touch doesn’t have a raised bezel around the screen, so a wipe actually removes the accumulated muck rather than forcing it into the edge of the bezel. Nice.
If I was going to nitpick at the iPod touch I’d have to bring up small issues. For example, take the browser. Safari on a small device isn’t the utter disaster that Internet Explorer is on Windows Mobile, but it’s also nowhere near as good as Opera. In fact, when it comes to rendering web pages on a small screen, Opera has everyone else beaten hands down. But, on the iPod touch you’re stuck with Safari, which is OK, but it’s not as good as Opera. Another nitpick would be what initially feels like a sluggishness on the part of the accelerometer that changes the screen display from portrait to landscape and back again. I guess if this was too sensitive then it would be a pain to use, but I feel that a few milliseconds of extra responsiveness would be nice.
Also, I was worried that the “negative black” screen issue reported by a few iPod touch owners was a widespread issue. All the iPod touch devices that I looked at checked out just fine.
So why didn’t I buy a pair of iPod touches? Simple, after phoning up earlier and being reassured of plenty of stock, by the time I got there all the stock was sold. I’d been told on the phone that I couldn’t reserve a pair but once I got there (and introduced myself) that changed and that next time I should ask to speak to the manager and have what I want put on one side. Next time I’ll know (Did I just say “next time?” Does that mean that I’ll be making a regular thing of visiting Apple stores?). The folks there are friendly and enthusiastic, and the place has a great vibe, something that’s usually lacking in the modern retail experience.
So I walked out empty handed. But I’ll be back … after all, there's a nice sushi place close by!
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