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My shirt-pocket iPad

February 19, 2010—OK, Apple's iPad tablet is official. Apple fanatics can stop hyperventilating and start drooling, since it won't ship until late March. And the rest of us can get back to our normal lives.

Hey, it's a nice item—very nice. This article by Rob Foster, "On iPads, Grandmas and Game-changing," sums it up best. If you think computers could be easier to use (and I sure do!)—or if you know someone else who does—I urge you to read it.

my pocket computer

But the iPad won't ship for a couple of months yet, and I'm not convinced I need one (though my technophobic 84-year-old father certainly could use one). Meanwhile, I'd like to talk about the tablet computer I already own. It cost me a fraction of what an iPad would, and for me it's a lot more useful, because it lives in my shirt pocket and goes everywhere I go. It's the iPad's little brother, the iPod Touch. (Everything I say here also applies to the iPhone, by the way.)

"iPod? Tablet computer?" I hear you asking. "I thought iPods were for playing music." Well, they were, for the first few years. That's what I do with my other iPods—the old one that's mounted on my overcab bedroom ceiling and serves as my nighttime music source; the iPod Video that holds my entire music collection; and the iPod Shuffle that I clip to my jacket when I walk for exercise. But the iPod Touch is something else again. Yes, it can play music and videos, but that's not what I bought it for. I bought it as a handheld computer, and it has turned out to be a device that I can't imagine living without.

I'm tempted to list the 100+ programs on my iPod Touch. Their sheer variety and usefulness are really remarkable! But here's a better idea: suppose I tell you how I use the iPod Touch in the course of a typical day. I'll include links to screenshots of the programs I mention—we call them "apps"—and I encourage you to click on each link as you read, just so you can see what these apps look like. (Because your computer's screen doesn't match the iPod Touch's super-fine 166 dpi resolution, the screenshots look a bit smaller on the iPod than you'll see them here... but they're just as sharp.)

Oh, and one more thing: I've prepared a separate page that lists all the programs mentioned here, with links to their product pages... so if you see something that sounds interesting, you can easily get yourself a copy that way.

5:00 a.m.—A lilting marimba melody wakes me up. I rarely use the iPod as an alarm clock (hey, I'm retired), but this morning I'm planning to photograph the Bosque del Apache wildlife refuge at sunrise, so I need to get up before dawn. How did I know when sunrise would occur? The "Darkness" app told me it would be at 6:48 this morning. (This 99¢ app is indispensable for landscape and wildlife photographers.)


5:15 a.m.—A quick look at the Weather app yields good news: there should be just enough clouds to make a colorful sunrise. I check my route with the Maps app, and note that I can get there before sunrise if I hurry. Maps (really Google Maps) is such a pleasure to use on the iPod Touch: I can quickly zoom in or out by simply spreading or pinching two fingers together on the touchscreen, and scroll by pushing the screen in any direction with a finger. (If this were an iPhone, I could even use it as a GPS to navigate my way to Bosque del Apache... but my iPod Touch lacks GPS capability.)

6:00 a.m.—I'm on my way, driving up I-25 in the dark. To stay alert, I listen to chapter 5 of Mark Twain's "Roughing It," using the Audiobook Player app, which gives me access to more than 2,300 free audiobooks on the LibriVox website. The iPod sounds great playing through my car stereo system.

6:45 a.m.—Setting up my tripod and camera in the predawn gloom, I use a flashlight app to provide light—red, so as not to mess up my night vision. Turning a $190 handheld computer into a red flashlight may sound bizarre, but heck, why not? I always have the iPod Touch with me, and the MyFlash app was free.

8:00 a.m.—Half an hour of fast shooting as the light changed almost second by second has yielded some good shots. I won't be sure until I see them on my computer's screen, of course... but with the brilliant reds and oranges of this sunrise, it would be almost impossible not to get some spectacular images. Now I'm sitting in my car at a Sonic drive-in, munching a breakfast burrito while I review my images on the camera's LCD. Just for the heck of it, I look up the nutritional values of a Sonic burrito. Whoa! Look at that sodium content—1,140 milligrams! Good thing I rarely eat out; a steady diet of these things would be murder on my blood pressure.


12:15 p.m.—Back home, I took an hour's nap to make up for getting up so early. Now it's time to head over to the laundromat. Loading the clothes into the washer, I set the iPod's timer for 35 minutes. Long ago, I tried doing this with my digital watch (before I retired and stopped wearing a watch!), but it's such a pain to set an alarm using three tiny buttons that have to be pressed in just the right sequence. With the iPod Touch, a flick of the finger spins the nice big dial and a touch stops it, so it's a cinch to set any time I want.

12:20 p.m.—The timer frees me from the need to watch the clock or the washing machine... so rather than sit in an uncomfortable plastic chair in the laundromat, I retire to my car, where I can listen to music while I read a book. There's a widespread myth that iPods can't multitask, but in fact they do it very nicely. A horn concerto plays while I turn the pages of P.G. Wodehouse's "Murder at the Excelsior," a free ebook from Project Gutenberg. The app I'm using to read it, Eucalyptus, is one of the more expensive programs on my iPod—I paid ten whole dollars for it!—but it gives me the best reading experience I've ever had with an ebook. It's better than my Sony PRS-505 Reader, much better than my friends' Kindles, and better than Amazon's free Kindle For iPhone app (which I also have). True, the screen is small, but I can enlarge the text by spreading two fingers on the screen, just as I enlarged the Google maps. And when I swipe my finger across the screen to turn a page, the animation is so realistic it's hard to believe I'm not looking at real paper.

12:55 p.m.—The wash is in the dryer, and I've just discovered an open Wi-Fi network (easy to do with the WifiTrak app), so I think I'll check my email. It's mostly spam, as usual, but there are a couple of messages from friends, so I send brief replies. The iPod Touch's onscreen keyboard is good, considering its size—in fact, a surprising number of reviewers have said it's superior to the physical keyboard of a Palm Pre or Google Android phone—but even with predictive shortcuts and spelling correction, it probably isn't something you'd want to type a long letter on.

After answering mail, I fire up the Mobile Safari browser and poke around the web a bit. It's not as much fun looking at sites on a small screen, but the iPod Touch has features such as "double-tap to magnify" that make it at least tolerable, and pages render very nicely—unlike the crippled browsers on Kindles and cell phones (other than the iPhone). The only exception is that Flash content doesn't load, but who needs to see annoying animated banner ads? Like many of my friends, I have Flash content blocked on my Mac, thanks to ClickToFlash, so it doesn't bother me at all that Flash doesn't load on my iPod Touch. If I want to look at YouTube videos on the iPod, Apple's YouTube app lets me do it without Flash.

1:30 p.m.—On the way home from the laundromat, I stop at Walmart to pick up some groceries. I keep my shopping list on my iPod Touch. It's always in my shirt pocket, so I can add things whenever I think of them, instead of having to wait until I get hold of a pencil and paper.

After filling my cart, I get stuck in a slow-moving checkout line. When this used to happen, I'd get annoyed and fidgety with nothing to do. But now I just pull the iPod Touch out of my pocket and read a chapter of a favorite book. For an inveterate reader like me, the satisfaction of knowing that I have several dozen books in my shirt pocket at all times is hard to overestimate!


2:50 p.m.—Along with groceries, I picked up a small frame at Walmart... just the right size for a mini-poster I've been meaning to put up. The iHandy Carpenter app makes it easy to level the frame on my wall by turning my iPod Touch into a super-sensitive carpenter's level. (It can also serve as a circular level, plumb bob, ruler, or protractor.)

You may ask "Why use an expensive piece of electronics as a level when you could buy an ordinary level for a couple of bucks?" Well, I have an ordinary level—in a drawer with my tools. But I have the iPod Touch in my shirt pocket. Which is handier? You guessed it!

5:30 p.m.—I've gone through this morning's photos. As usual, I've thrown away nine out of ten images, but there are some "keepers" that I'm really happy with. (Tip: if you want to become a better photographer, become a ruthless editor! Throw out any image that isn't excellent, even if that means throwing out most of what you shoot. When you show the results to your friends, their estimates of your talent will jump by several notches.)

Now it's time to sync my iPod Touch with my computer, so I can show those photos to my friends. The iPod Touch comes with a very nice photo gallery app that includes a slideshow feature that dissolves from one image to the next. If a photo is in "landscape format"—wider than it is tall—I can just flip the iPod Touch to horizontal, and the image will rotate and fill the screen. Most programs orient themselves automatically when the iPod is rotated.

To sync the iPod, I just plug it in. It comes with a USB cable, but I like to use my Belkin dock. As soon as I set it in the cradle, it automatically begins to match up its data with what's on my computer. What gets synchronized? Well, my address book, my email account info, my browser bookmarks, my music, my iPod applications, my notes, my calendar, my photos, and lots more. It all happens without any effort on my part, and copies are stored on the computer in case I lose my iPod. Oh, and while the iPod is plugged in, it's also charging its battery. The battery's good for about 4.5 hours of continuous use, but in practice it lasts me all day with no trouble.

House finch

5:35 p.m.—The sync only took a couple of minutes. While it was going on, I got an email from my friend Paul with a lovely photo of a bird, taken from his kitchen window. We both wonder what kind of bird it is, so I pull up iBird Explorer on my iPod Touch. It doesn't take long to narrow down the characteristics and learn that it's a House Finch. iBird has photos, a description, a map of the bird's range, and a crystal-clear recording of its song which drives my cat Alix crazy. Better yet, it lists other birds with similar-sounding songs, so I can listen and compare. It's the best field guide I've ever seen. Of course the Peterson and Audubon guides are also available for the iPod Touch and iPhone, but for birds, I like this one.

6:00 p.m.—I decide to kill a little time before supper with a game or two. There are tens of thousands of games for the iPod Touch and iPhone, but I'm not a diehard gamer, so I only have a few: Labyrinth, Galactic Gunner, Skee Ball, Wings, and Aera. Most of the games use the iPod's tilt sensitivity, letting you drive or fly by tilting the display in your hand. I like flight simulations, and that's what Aera is: you fly a stubby 1930s-style biplane through hoops, shooting at aerial targets. I'm not very good at it—I don't play often enough—but I like zooming the little red and white plane through the three-dimensional landscape.

7:30 p.m.—The sun's down, I've had my supper, and looking outside, I see the sky is exceptionally clear. I love the southwestern state parks, because the skies are big and unobstructed, and the dry air and lack of city lights make for excellent seeing. I decide to get out my little Celestron C90 telescope and do a little stargazing. I have several astronomy apps, but the easiest one for an amateur like me is Grand Tour, so I bring it up on the iPod Touch's screen. Its "What's Up?" feature tells me what planets I can expect to see at this particular location, date and time.

What's up?

Looks as if Saturn's too close to the horizon for good viewing, but Mars and the moon should be clearly visible. Stepping outside with my scope and tripod, I can see both in the sky. I focus on the moon first, because it's an easy target for my little scope. The free Moon Globe app helps me refresh my memory of the major craters.

Then I turn the scope toward the east and search for Mars. It's there, but my little 90mm scope can't show much more than a fuzzy reddish blob. So I go indoors and satisfy my curiosity with Grand Tour's main feature: a navigable three dimensional universe, essentially a 3-D orrery, that lets me get as close to Mars as I like. In fact, Grand Tour lets me zoom in within a few miles of the moon Phobos, with the mother planet's rusty surface in the background. What's cool is that Grand Tour shows all the planets exactly where they are right now.

9:00 p.m.—It's been a long day, and I think I'll turn in early. I've pulled the iPod Touch out of my shirt pocket a dozen or more times today for one reason or another, but I've barely scratched the surface of what it can do. I have more than a hundred programs on this slim 3/8"-thick device. (By the way, mine is the cheapest model available—only 8 GB—but it still has plenty of room.) In addition to the benefits I've mentioned, here are a few more things they provide: my address book (automatically synced with the one on my computer), regular and scientific calculators (with nice BIG keys and readouts!), a 230,000-entry dictionary, a tide clock, quick access to Wikipedia, an extensive first aid guide, a pocket nursing reference, complete data on more than 5,000 prescription drugs, a pocket reference guide to Lazy Daze motorhomes that I created myself, area code and ZIP code directories, a rhyming dictionary, a guide to Escapees RV parks, a periodic table of the elements, a 53-language translator, several ebook readers, including Kindle (yes—I carry a Kindle in my shirt pocket!), a reference Bible, a copy of the US Constitution, access to the Internet Movie database, a voice memo recorder, a painting program, the ability to watch movies (downloaded or converted from DVDs), access to YouTube...

Those are just a few of the applications I've installed on my iPod Touch. Apple's slogan "There's an app for that" really is true. With more than 700,000 apps available, there's almost nothing this little gadget can't do. And most of the apps I just mentioned were free (like the dictionary and the weather program) or very inexpensive (like the 99¢ area code directory and the similarly priced audio book player). I didn't pay more than ten bucks for anything.

Where did all these apps come from? Well, about a dozen of them were included with the unit when I bought it. The rest came from Apple's "App Store," a part of iTunes (free for both Macs and Windows PCs). For example, suppose I want a field guide to western birds. I go to the App Store and search for 'field guide'. I get 43 hits, and pick the one that looks most promising. After reading its description and reviews, I click "Buy App" (or "Free App"—a lot of the programs are free). Buy appAnd the next time I plug my iPod into my computer, the program is automagically installed for me, as well as being backed up on the computer. One click to purchase and install a program. It doesn't get any easier that that.

Remember, all the apps I've just mentioned are listed on the page "A few of my favorite things," with links to their App Store product pages.

I mentioned at the beginning of this article that the iPhone runs all the same programs as the iPod Touch. And of course in addition to my iPod Touch, I carry a cell phone—a small, cheap Motorola model. So why didn't I get an iPhone and combine the two devices into one? Three little letters: AT&T. In the US, all iPhones were initially tied to AT&T's network, which is not one of the best. In fact, if you live in New York or San Francisco, it's one of the worst. And if you travel out in the more scenic parts of the country, as I and many RVers do, it just doesn't exist in a lot of places.

Update: as soon as the iPhone became available for Verizon in 2011, I grabbed one. It does everything my iPod Touch did, plus lots more, thanks to its built-in GPS, excellent still and HD video cameras, and ultra-high-resolution "Retina" screen. All my iPod Touch apps transferred over just fine—I didn't have to buy any new software.


And what about the iPad? Is it just a big iPod Touch? Sure—if you believe that a swimming pool is just a big bathtub. The iPad's large screen and exceptional battery life put it in a class of its own, but it does share many advantages with its smaller cousins. For example, almost all of the 200,000+ iPhone/iPod Touch apps will run on the iPad without modification. In fact, if I bought an iPad, all the software I already own—the scores of useful apps I've just been telling you about—would automatically install and run on it. I wouldn't have to buy new copies of anything.

But the iPad has a lot more going for it than a bigger screen. It comes with Apple software that's written to take full advantage of its features, and there will soon be a great deal more. For example, Apple is offering an iPad version of its iWork suite—the MS Word-compatible word processor Pages, the Excel-compatible spreadsheet Numbers, and the PowerPoint-compatible presentation software Keynote—for $30. Microsoft is talking about bringing the MS Office suite to the iPad. IBM's Lotus division plans to have Notes and the other Lotus apps running on the iPad "as soon as possible." And those are just the big guys. Thousands of iPhone/iPod Touch software developers are working on enhanced iPad versions of their popular apps.

My hunch is that the iPad will prove to be a big hit. Because it lets you do the things most folks want to do without the complications of using a "traditional" Mac or PC, it will appeal to people who just don't want the hassle of regular computers. You may find it hard to believe there are many of those people—after all, you're reading this on a regular computer, and of course I'm writing it on one. But the iPad isn't primarily aimed at us. It's aimed at a whole new group of users... and I know they're out there, because I see them struggling to figure out their Macs and PCs. "I downloaded a file, but now I don't know where it is!" "My son says I have spyware... what can I do about it?" Problems like those just don't arise on an iPhone, iPod Touch, or iPad. There's no hierachical file system, no folders to navigate... and certainly no spyware, adware, worms, or viruses. There are a lot of people who will pay money not to have to deal with any of that.

I think the iPad will do quite well, no matter how the techno-geeks may sneer at it.* Remember that Rob Foster article I mentioned at the beginning of this page? If you didn't read it then, go read it now. (And if you already have an iPad, you might want to look at the nice quilted case my friend Holly has designed for it.)

But that's speculation for the future. Meanwhile, I already have a tablet computer in my shirt pocket, and I love it!

* Update: They're not sneering any more. As of late 2013, Apple has sold more than 200 million iPads, with the third-generation model selling three million units in its first three days on the market. The iPad Mini sold out in twenty minutes! Meanwhile, laptop sales are stagnant, netbooks are dead in the water, and PC sales are in decline (although Mac sales are sharply up)... and other companies' attempts to bring competing tablets to market (e.g., Microsoft's Surface, RIM's PlayBook, HP's TouchPad) have failed disastrously. Even Amazon's bargain-priced Kindle Fire tablet has failed to take away the iPad's commanding market share. I bought a Fire to try out, but ended up selling it after a month. It just had too many rough edges and not enough useful features.

I bought an iPad 2 in the spring of 2011, and it has proven so useful for everything from keeping up with the news to watching movies to maintaining this website that I gave away my laptop two years ago. I've since upgraded to an iPad Air and (my favorite) a Retina iPad Mini. See this page for my favorite iPad apps and accessories.

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