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    Need a new PDA? Consider the iPod Touch

    by  Alan Zisman (c) 2007 First published in Business in Vancouver December 11-17, 2007; issue 946
    High Tech Office column

    For the fourth year in a row, sales of PDAs are down. At least that’s true when looking at traditional PDAs: handheld computing devices, typically running Palm or Mobile Windows and lacking phones. To a large extent PDAs are being replaced by mobile phones, whether traditional cellphones or more powerful so-called smart phones. Any of these let users store address books, calendars and task lists, which is what most PDA users did.

    If you already have a mobile phone you’re happy with, but want more capabilities, Apple has recently provided a look at a device with the potential for picking up where the traditional PDA left off. No, not the company’s massively-hyped iPhone, still not available in Canada as I write.

    Available locally, but not getting anywhere near the attention is the company’s newest entry into its iPod media player product lineup: the iPod Touch. Available in eight gigabyte ($329) and 16 gigabyte ($440) models, the Touch is in many ways a sibling of the iPhone. It shares that model’s large high-resolution colour touch screen, its innovative and easy-to-use interface, and a similar design, packed into an even slimmer and lighter housing. (Unfortunately, in common with other iPods, it has an easily scratched shiny steel back, rather than the iPhone’s brushed metal case.)

    With traditional eight-gigabyte iPod Nano models listing for $219, it’s natural to wonder what makes the extra expense worthwhile. Some of the extra value comes from the large LCD display, making it much easier to watch video content on the Touch. But the biggest bonus is that the Touch (like the iPhone) has built-in WiFi. As a result, when near a standard wireless network, Touch users have web browser access. I use Google’s services for e-mail and for storing my contact list and calendar; that means full access to those services. Alternatively, it can be set to sync with calendar and address book applications stored on the user’s computer, always available.

    And as with the iPhone, there’s a version of its Safari browser on the Touch, delivering the best web interface of any mobile device. Not a mini-browser that can go to only a limited number of sites as on many cellphones. Not a “mobile” browser, la Blackberry, Treo and other smart phones, that displays web pages one column at a time. Safari displays a tiny view of the entire web page, with just a few finger movements making it easy to zoom and scroll. Lacking any physical keys, the Touch pops up a virtual keyboard whenever text input is needed, like when you click in the browser’s address or search fields. The virtual keyboard is easy to use, the equal of the mini-keyboards built into typical smart phones.

    Missing is support for Flash animations and other streaming audio or video. That’s surprising because the Touch and iPhone come with dedicated YouTube applications, which do a very good job of displaying these popular Flash-based videos. (And which allow users to access any YouTube content, unlike the limited access offered by some mobile providers.)

    Unlike the iPhone, the Touch lacks a built-in camera, sound input, speaker and the ability to use it as a portable hard drive. As with the iPhone, Apple is busily engaged in battles to limit third party abilities to add applications. This battle has swung back and forth in the months since both products were released; hackers announce methods to “jailbreak” the devices, opening them up to add-on software. Soon after, Apple releases a firmware upgrade that locks the devices back up and disables the additional software. A few days or weeks later, developers release a new technique to open the devices back up. Currently, I’m unable to load additional applications on mine, but I’ve seen software ranging from e-book readers to dictionaries, to utilities to use it as a carpenter’s level or a flashlight.

    Eventually, I suspect Apple will give up the fight, opening the iPod Touch and iPhone platforms. Even before that happens, with its already excellent WiFi Internet access, music and video media player functions, and calendar and contact capabilities, there’s a business case for making the new iPod your next PDA. •

Alan Zisman is a Vancouver educator, writer, and computer specialist. He can be reached at E-mail Alan

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