Sunday, August 31, 2008

Why is the mobile YouTube app so slow?

(As an aside, I'll use the term ‘mobile’ in place of ‘iPhone and iPod touch’. Seems reasonable.)

The built-in YouTube application on my iPod touch seems inexplicably slow. Sure, it's loading the videos over WiFi, but so is my MacBook Pro. And decreasing the distance to the base station doesn't help—it's dog-slow if I sit the iPod on top of the Time Machine. Videos seem to load over several multiples of their duration. A two minute video takes five minutes or more to fully download. What's the issue here? Encoding formats and a slower processor on the mobile device? (That is, is it decoding on-the-fly during download, and is the decoding incredibly CPU-intensive?) I just don't think WiFi is the rate-limiting step here.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

iPod touch as PDA: two week review

Two weeks ago, I bought an iPod touch with the intention of using it as a PDA. On the whole, it's working out well so far. Here are some observations:
  1. WiFi works well. Silently joining known networks is the right way to do it—the Palm TX was always obsessed with telling me what it was doing. Having said that, and despite Internode's pretty decent-looking coverage list, I've found WiFi reception in Adelaide to be somewhat sporadic. Presumably the range from any of those locations is limited. Despite a hotspot listed at 33 King William Street, for example, I can tell you that reception just over the street outside the National Australia Bank Building, at 28 King William Street, is feeble. There's no denying that it would be nice to have the additional 3G coverage of the iPhone.
  2. I'm still not quite sure what to conclude about battery life. It's clearly modest at best, and watching video gives it a real hammering. I think even in the absence of any significant video habit, I would still want to be charging it daily. Not surprisingly, audio is nowhere near as taxing, and the display can be turned off while using it as a conventional iPod.
  3. The Calendar and Contacts applications are significantly better than their Palm TX equivalents. (There's no real surprise there—the TX is a 3-year-old device.) I can't really fault them. They both do what they're supposed to do. Syncing via MobileMe works in both directions.
  4. Mobile Safari is pretty much the gold standard of mobile browsers at the moment. It's that good.
  5. The Mail client is a let-down. It feels like a decent version 0.5 of some kind of much better mail client. There are just too many basic features either done incorrectly, or lacking altogether, to call it anything other than rudimentary:
    • It top-posts on replies. This is a completely inexcusable, Outlook Express-level misfeature.
    • There's no mechanism for selecting a block of text, and hence...
    • There's no way to delete large chunks of text other than sitting there with a finger on the delete key for minutes at a time.
    These problems combined mean it takes quite some effort to not look like a moron when replying to email. Additionally, it would be good to be able to either unsubscribe from, or at least ‘forget the contents of’ nominated IMAP mail folders. I have some folders into which I directly pipe mailing list subscriptions, for example. While I delete a lot of the individual messages, I also save hundreds of them. As far as I can tell, if I open one of these folders using the iPod's mail client, I'm going to start accumulating copies of these saved messages on the iPod, even if I don't download more than the default first 50. I could be wrong here—I need to look into it further.

The interim verdict is this: the iPod touch seems to be quite feasible as a PDA.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

iCal events and time zones

I was in Melbourne last weekend. I had entered an event in iCal for the flight home while I was still in Adelaide, and I had not enabled time zone support in iCal. Of course, on arriving in Melbourne, the first thing I did was to update the system time zone to reflect local time—and consequently the departure time of my return flight was pushed back half an hour. I noticed this when I was looking at a hard copy of the flight details with about two hours to spare. I made the flight. And I've enabled time zone support in iCal.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

iPod touch as PDA

As I've described elsewhere, I've been a Palm fan since the Palm IIIx was state of the art. Via the Zire 71, I've had a Palm TX for just over a couple of years. The Missing Sync has made the TX a viable PDA for an OS X desktop, but it's looking a bit tired.

The release of the iPhone 3G in Australia has been an enormous let-down. While I really like the idea of owning an iPhone, and while I've proven myself willing to be reamed by Apple, I'm just not ready to be dual-reamed by both Apple and, say, Telstra. 3G data plans in Australia are nothing short of utterly ridiculous. Several people suggested to me that I look at the iPod touch instead. This was an idea that, initially, I didn't take seriously, mostly because one of those people was Stephen White, and I hate it when Steve's right. In any case, last weekend I did the customary amount of pre-gadget-purchase research on the issue (none), and went out and bought an iPod touch.

It's a nice looking device. The screen is large. At 480×320 pixels, it apparently has the same count as the Palm TX, though that's where the similarity ends. For one thing, the pitch on the iPod is smaller, squeezing them into about half an inch less real estate. The display is brighter, the colour is better. Every thing you've heard about the screen on the iPhone and the iPod touch is true. Many applications (though not all) can be viewed in both portrait and landscape mode, and switching between them is a simple matter of turning the device itself. (A notable exception, as far as I can tell, is the Mail application. I'd really like to be able to read mail in landscape mode.)

Coming from a stylus-based touch screen, the iPod's direct-touch interface is interesting. To be honest, I was skeptical—I assumed it would be hopeless, way too easy to fat-finger everything. Of course, it's not. It works very well. The hot point of a given touch is just the centre of your fat finger. The device seems to get it right pretty much all of the time. Typing is tedious (though, again, significantly more accurate than I thought it would be), but I think the ‘virtual-keyboard vs hardware-keyboard’ debate is largely moot—typing on any miniature keyboard is excruciating.

I am yet to put it through any normal day's use, but as far as I can see, reports of poor battery life seem to be well-founded. I can't see it getting through more than a day of even medium-level use. It will need a recharge at least daily.

Connectivity is via USB cable and WiFi, there's no Bluetooth. I must admit, I really liked cable-less syncing of the Palm TX, but I just can't put the lack of Bluetooth in deal-breaker territory. A proportion of syncing (contacts, calendars and mail) can be done over WiFi anyway, assuming there's a MobileMe subscription. Frankly, that's good enough for me. I'm just pleased to be putting the overpriced fee to some additional use.

I have made some tentative visits to the iTunes App Store. There seems to be a lot of junk. I downloaded Apple's Remote app, and it is as neat as people keep exclaiming. Beyond that, there's a slew of the kind of standard rubbish you see for every mobile platform (for the love of god, who's out there converting all those units?). I used the Palm TX for three main tasks, and I think the iPod touch is going to cover most of it:
  • Diary. The built-in Calendar app, syncing seamlessly with iCal, far surpasses the Palm.
  • Contacts. Again, the built-in Contacts app, syncing seamlessly with Address Book, has this covered.
  • Password storage. We start to hit a rough spot here. I was using a free product called Keyring on the TX. I have no doubt there is a password storage application already available for the iPod, probably several. But it's going to need a partner on the desktop, because I'm not going to type all the information in by hand more than once again. Further, I've got some additional passwords stored in Yojimbo, so ideally I want an iPod version of that (not happening in the near future), or at least something that can share Yojimbo's password data. For now, I'm just going to move from Keyring to Yojimbo on the desktop.
Finally, I very much want to check out OmniFocus for iPhone, as I make extensive use of OmniFocus on the desktop. Obviously the idea is to have the application on the iPod sync with the desktop database, but “Sync requires OmniFocus 1.1, currently pre-release...”. I did enough beta-testing for Omni Group during the OmniFocus open beta. I just don't have a good feeling about letting a pre-release 1.1 loose on my (fairly large) OmniFocus database. So I plan to sit this one out until the real 1.1 release.