When details of the iPhone’s UK launch were unveiled at a special press event in London last month, Apple CEO Steve Jobs and O2 UK boss Matthew Key both had to field a question about the recently announced iPod Touch. Since the Touch has many of the iPhone’s key features — multi-touch interface, widescreen display, mobile browser, WiFi support — and would go on sale in the UK before the iPhone, would it not eat into iPhone sales?
“You always know Apple will be on the front foot”, replied Key to the amusement of reporters, since O2 wouldn’t have been privy to Apple’s plans for an iPod Touch before they decided to go into partnership. The Touch and iPhone are “a different segment of the market”, argued Key, and both will sell well.
“One is a phone, one isn’t. One has email, one doesn’t”, explained Jobs. Then, exercising his famous Reality Distortion Field, he went on to claim that the iPod Touch would actually help drive iPhone sales, as people who experience the cut-down functionality of the Touch will realize that with the iPhone “they can have it all.”
After months of iPhone-envy from across the pond, and in light of the iPod Touch’s UK release, I made the decision that I didn’t want or rather need it all. At least not yet, anyway.
Just over two weeks ago my 16 GB iPod Touch arrived. Here are my initial impressions and why I opted for a Touch over an iPhone.
A video-capable iPod
Although previous iPods were capable of playing back video, I consider the iPhone to be the first true video iPod because of its large “wide-screen” display. To that end, the subsequently released iPod Touch is indistinguishable from the iPhone, and since video-playback (mainly podcasts) was a priority, for this purpose, the Touch would do just fine.
Used as a portable video device, my experience with the Touch has been nearly flawless, albeit with a few caveats. The most obvious being the lack of DivX or xVid support; instead video files must use specific MPEG4 or H.264 settings. To make this manageable, I’ve been using Handbrake (Mac, Windows and Linux) to rip DVDs to my iPod, and iSquint (Mac-only) to convert DivX videos to an iPod-compatible format.
Video files take up a lot more storage than music, and since the iPod Touch uses solid state memory it only comes in 8GB or 16GB versions, priced accordingly. Even though 16GB won’t be sufficient for some people, the iPhone is even more limited (8GB-only), which was a major consideration when opting for a Touch.
I quite like my existing phone
Despite Apple CEO Steve Jobs’ assertion that nobody likes their cell phone, I’m quite fond of mine — a Nokia e61. Prior to my Nokia, I used a Treo 650, which, in many respects, I liked even more. Both handsets feature a full QWERTY thumb-board, and for the most part can be operated one-handed. The Nokia e61 also features WiFi support and a very capable web browser (based on Apple’s own WebKit source code).
The iPhone lacks a thumb-board — instead a virtual keyboard is provided — and the multi-touch interface often requires the use of two hands: one to support the device, and the other hand to manipulate the screen.
Additionally, I have my Nokia e61 set up to work seamlessly with mobile versions of Gmail and Google Reader, my two main productivity apps. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.
The iPhone’s lack of 3G
If you’re going to have a mobile Internet device, especially in the UK, 3G support is a given. WiFi connections here are far from ubiquitous, and with carriers spending billions to build out 3G cell networks a few years ago, it seems almost criminal to launch an iPhone in the UK without 3G support — another reason to stick with my 3G-based Nokia e61, and opt to carry an additional device in the iPod Touch.
Despite its large and bright screen, as well as WiFi capability, I’ve found the battery life on the iPod Touch to be excellent. Having said that, I’m skeptical of any device’s ability to juggle the demands of cell-phone usage, web surfing and media playback — which is what the iPhone has to contend with. As Jobs himself is fond of saying, you don’t want your cell phone to give up just because you’ve watched too much video.
The multi-touch UI
Perhaps the most compelling reason to switch to an iPhone is to get your hands on the device’s multi-touch interface. In a product demo, Apple’s new UI has the “wow” factor but how will it stand up in everyday use? Since the iPod Touch runs the very same UI, I wouldn’t need to sign a new cell phone contract, just to find out.
For the most part, the multi-touch UI raises the bar significantly. I’ve seen people pick up the iPod Touch for the first time and navigate the device with virtually no learning curve. This is practically unheard of for a device that offers as much functionality as the Touch. However, I’m not convinced that its the “multi” (gestures) aspect of the touchscreen UI that makes it so intuitive, but rather just good usability in general, with clear and consistently labeled buttons and the minimum of on-screen options (usually just one) offered at any one time.
The Safari web browser
Another reason I considered purchasing an iPhone was to test first-hand the device’s version of Apple’s Safari web browser, especially with the launch of so many iPhone-optimized web applications. Again, the iPod Touch, to my surprise and delight, carries the same browser, and along with it, access to all those gorgeous web apps.
Hacking the iPod Touch
Having seen the iPhone “jail breaked” to run third-party applications, I knew the same would happen to the Touch — and indeed it has. While it’s dangerous to buy any device based on future software updates or hacks, I’m convinced that the best is yet to come for the iPhone and iPod Touch. With news that Apple will release a full SDK for both devices in February, this is now a certainty.
Although I’d never argue that the iPhone makes for a bad purchase (50% of Web 2.0 Summit attendees can’t be wrong, can they?), for me personally, the iPod Touch made more sense — and I’m generally very pleased with my decision.
Of note, one potential deal breaker for those considering switching to an iPhone in the UK, is the terms and conditions associated with O2’s inclusive data usage plan. The iPhone contract claims “unlimited” mobile Internet data, and access to WiFi hotspots through The Cloud. However, in this case, “unlimited” could mean a measly 200MB of data on O2’s network, and 60 hours of WiFi access, per-month.