Saturday, March 27, 2010

A Palm user tries to convert to the iPod touch

I finally bought an iPod touch. I had wanted one for two years. I really started to want one last year, when Apple started allowing developers to write applications for the iPhone OS. With the release of the 3.0 version of the iPhone OS, it had seemed that there was finally enough functionality to allow the iPod touch to serve as my primary PDA.

First reactions: Even though I had seen it before and played with it in stores, the actual experience of owning a device with such an amazing and cool-looking interface has exceeded my expectations.

Something about many of the apps available from the iTunes Store sort of immediately turned me off though. Lots of them have a desperate commercial aura that I associate with Windows shareware programs. Many of the free programs are prominently labelled as "FREE" or "LITE" and some have ads in them. It's usually apparent after running a program whether it feels right. Since I prefer using open source programs, the iPhone apps scene, where everyone has to pay $100 annually to have their programs available to be bought or downloaded, feels kind of constrained.

Fortunately there are exceptions. The programs I list below (in particular, Instapaper and Simplenote) have great interfaces and are a joy to use.

A comparison of Palm and iPhone programs for a few functions.

Function: General purpose maps
Palm program: Mapopolis
iPhone equivalent: offmaps
Comments: offmaps is much cheaper (though this is thanks to the OpenStreetMaps initiative for free map data), but it can't search for streets without an Internet connection. Also it frequently doesn't have the amount of cached detail that I had hoped it would have. I'll bet there's a better maps program out there, but I haven't found it yet.

Function: GPS turn-by-turn navigation
Palm program: TomTom
iPhone equivalent: TomTom? Navigon?
Comments: Prices are comparable, but for the iPod touch user, it's still not clear whether any GPS software will interface with an external Bluetooth GPS (which was the norm for the Palm). It seems like the only official way of doing it is to pay TomTom $200 ($100 for the GPS which interfaces to the iPod, and $100 for the software).
Advantage: Palm*

Function: Offline web page reading
Palm program: Plucker
iPhone equivalent: Instapaper
Comments: Plucker is free. Equivalent Instapaper functionality costs a few bucks. Also, since I had built my own plucking script, it was convenient to pluck both web pages and HTML and text pages on my computer. Instapaper only works for things that are already online. But Instapaper allows me to mark things for offline reading from any computer. (Actually Instapaper does give you an e-mail address that you can send an e-mail to, and the contents will show up in your list of things to read. However, the Instapaper interface shifted a little after I wrote this review. The new version of the app wasn't quite as fast, and the main new features seemed to be sharing/"liking"-oriented. Ultimately, in mid-2012, the app just unexpectedly stopped synching new content. I tried to redownload everything, but in the process I lost all articles that I had already downloaded (never to be recovered). The reason? The Instapaper servers had been modified to work with a still newer version of Instapaper, but this version would not run on my (admittedly older) iPod touch. That is, the developer broke my version of the app because he decided that he only wanted to support iOS 5 (which was being used by the vast majority of users). [This should perhaps not surprise me as this is also the developer who made all of his users change their usernames from short names that they had chosen to e-mail addresses.] So the alternative functioning app that I found that fulfills the same function is Readability. It loads terribly slowly and timed out on synching one huge text file, but it is otherwise fine. End of rant. )
Advantage: Palm

PDF reading is definitely superior on the iPod touch (I recommend buying GoodReader), but for some reason it's not convenient enough that I have gotten into the habit of reading PDFs on it.

Address book functionality is adequate on both.

Overall, in terms of PDA functions, it's kind of a draw. I've now owned the iPod touch for six months. I have my Address Book information on it. I use it regularly for reading web pages downloaded through Instapaper.

The killer feature of the iPod touch is the iPod features themselves. I use it for listening to podcasts and music all the time. The convenient and automatic syncing of stuff to the iPod and its intuitive interface are the key features that make it so much better than any competing products that I have played with. The Palm was never even close to a decent mp3 player. Combined with the iPod touch's better battery life (the Palm is a color model), this is the reason that I stopped carrying the Palm in favor of the iPod touch.

I sync text files over to the iPod touch using Simplenote, but it has to be done manually. (I could easily automate syncing from the computer to the Simplenote web site, but in order to sync text files with the iPod touch, one must run the Simplenote program while the iPod has an Internet connection.) With the Palm, I had it set up so that everything would sync pretty much automatically. Instapaper has the same syncing problem. One advantage to Simplenote though is that the syncing works in both directions without any contemplation on my part so I can take notes on the iPod touch and sync them back to my computer as well as going the other way (whereas on my Palm, I pretty much just synced from the Palm to my computer). In truth, I am not using the text files feature so much on the iPod.

I'm starting to experience gadgetlust again. I want to have something that I can carry around that I can modify... like something that could run Perl or Python scripts. This is forbidden on the iPod touch. A cheap Android device looks slightly appealing. Unfortunately the unlocked phones are still quite expensive.

There are a lot of cool programs for the iPod touch (the Dropbox client, Google Earth, Pandora). Basically, for Internet functionality the iPod touch blows away the Palm, but for the few things I want to do on a regular basis (other than listen to audio files) - read text files, read downloaded web pages, look at offline maps, turn-by-turn navigation - the Palm is actually still as good or better. Maybe this is because I acquired this functionality over years of fiddling with things and finding the right software. Presumably I will find (and pay for) better software for some functions on the iPod touch, but whether I will be able to tinker as much and optimize some otherwise suboptimal features, remains to be seen.

* UPDATE: The new Mapquest iPhone app may improve map capabilities for the iPhone Touch significantly. (Back to the footnote pointer)

ANOTHER UPDATE: It turns out that it is possible to use HTML5 and Javascript to program "web apps" which are almost as good as a regular iPhone App (mainly lacking the ability to access iPhone sensors). It is possible to save these apps to your device and use them even when offline. This may counteract some of my above criticisms of the iPhone.

UPDATE 3: A collection of iPhone web apps, with reviews, can be found at OpenAppMkt. However, it's unclear how well they work. I tried PieGuy (a Pac-Man-like game) on my second generation iPod touch, and it didn't work at all. I also recall Checklist as being wonky, behaving OK sometimes, but then losing its state at other times. Your mileage may vary.
UPDATE 4: This post is now largely of historical value as the abilities and variety of iOS apps have continued to improve and workarounds have been devised to address problems. (Though it is still as of 2012 necessary to actually open the SimpleNote app while the device has an Internet connection in order to make it sync.)