Friday, July 06, 2007

The iPhone's iPod

The iPhone has been called the best iPod that Apple has ever made. My experience thus far says yes and no. There are many ways it leaps ahead, but a couple where it also lags behind my 4th-gen 40GB iPod (aside from the obvious disk capacity).

The Good

I'd say that simply due to the larger screen, moving around in playlists is easier, or at least more friendly.

Turning on repeat or shuffle mode is a lot easier. Tap once to bring up the progress indicator, and the repeat and shuffle buttons are right there. That beats the heck out of Menu-ing your way up to the top level -> settings -> repeat -> all -> currently playing.

I really don't care about cover flow, but I do enjoy flicking through the list view. The letters down the side of the screen make it significantly faster to locate songs or artists higher in the alphabet. What used to require a crapload of spinning on the click wheel is now just a tap and possibly a couple flicks away. It's so easy that I really wish I had room for my entire library on here like I did with the iPod.

The Bad

I live by Smart Playlists. I have playlists for podcasts, playlists based on play counts, based on ratings, and so on. The ones based on play count generally are of the "show me what I haven't listened to yet" variety. If I'm at my computer and listening to iTunes, upon completion of a song in one of these playlists, the song will instantly disappear from the list. My iPod has been hit-or-miss on this, and I haven't figured out the pattern. I noticed that the playlists on the iPod would occasionally reorganize themselves, and it took me longer than it should have to realize that it was paying attention to the Smart Playlist rules. Even when other people were telling me it wasn't possible, the iPod was doing it. It's not a live update like iTunes does. You have to go to another playlist, then back to the first one to see the changes. Basically, it updates every time you go into a playlist. The hit-or-miss part is that the iPod periodically quits doing this. I don't know if it is related to a reset/reboot, or complete restorations, or what. I know it is capable since I've witnessed it, but the updating has not been working for the last few weeks. The iPhone has not given me any reason to believe it is even capable. It definitely doesn't do live updating, and I haven't yet been able to make the re-enter-the-playlist trick work either. For as much computing power as I'm holding in my hand, I find this to be disappointing. I believe this would be a simple software fix, I just hope they do it.

The Ugly

I think Apple went a smidge to far in the minimalist department. Before I realized that the buttons on the side of the phone were for volume, I went looking for a volume control while playing music. I didn't find it, yet it turns out it was right under my nose. The problem? It isn't labeled. While looking at the regular screen for playing music, you've got the play button, fwd/rwd buttons, and a slider. Accustomed to my iPod, I assumed the slider was the progress indicator for the song, since that's the default view on that device. You figure out pretty quickly what it is when you go to drag-fast-forward a song and blow your headphones off. Is there any reason for this to not have a label of some kind? There is plenty of room. Put the word "Volume" under the slider. Or, put a symbol for mute on one end, and a symbol for full volume on the other end. Where is the harm?

The kicker is that Apple understands this. Tap on the screen to bring up the actual progress indicator. There is another slider control. It looks exactly like the volume one only smaller. On the left side is time into the track, on the right side is time remaining on the track. They even made room for the repeat and shuffle buttons on either end. Curiously, they felt this was the appropriate place for the counter of tracks in the playlist, but it is also poorly labeled. I'm looking at "2 of 5" right now. If I didn't know going in how many songs were in the playlist, I could easily confuse that for the song's rating, since I know from previous iPod experience that it is based on a 5-star system. I would say that the track counter belongs in the top row under the artist and title. So in this case, I could make the argument that Apple crammed too many pieces of information to go along with the slider, but for the volume they didn't include enough.

And that brings me to the ratings. I don't really rate podcasts, so I'm not using the rating system as much as I used to, but I still do rate songs and have numerous playlists keyed off of the rating. So I was eager to start rating some things. I already mentioned the play controls and the volume slider. There is a button to go back, and a button that looks like a list of some kind. Already mentioned tapping to bring up the progress indicator and repeat controls. Nothing at first glance to indicate that it even cares about ratings. On a whim I tapped the list button. I'm not even sure what to call this listing. The playlist I'm currently listening to has 5 items in it. The podcast I'm specifically listening to has 4 distinct tracks. I'm looking at 4 items, so I suppose this must be some kind of album view. The first time I looked at this view, I didn't realize it contained the rating. I saw 5 dots across the top that I assumed were just some kind of decoration. I don't know why I was expecting decoration, but there was nothing about the dots that said "Ratings" to me. I bet if I was looking at something that already had ratings, it would have been obvious, but for unrated content, it leaves a lot to be desired. Would it have killed them to put the word "Rating" in there? The other thing I don't like about this view is that I'm looking at more than one track, presumably the entire album. So what am I rating? Through experimentation, I have determined that I am indeed only rating the current track, and that's good. But I can see this being easily misunderstood for rating an entire album.

The good news about ratings is that I can now rate podcasts, something iTunes allows but for whatever reason the iPod did not. The main reason I don't rate podcasts isn't that I don't want to, but I didn't have the option. I have to rethink my workflow (since this isn't actually work, I am officially coining the term "playflow").

The Changes

I primarily listen to music while at work. I have some giant goofy headphones that do a pretty good job of drowning out ambient noise, and also do a better job than earbuds of alerting other people to the fact that I can't hear them. When people walk up to talk to me, I see them coming, and reach over and press the play/pause button on my iPod. If they leave quickly enough, I reach over and hit play again and continue on my merry way. If they stay long enough for the iPod to go to sleep, I will have to click once to wake it up, then again to start playing.

Enter the iPhone. Because of the recessed headphone connector (more on that in a later post), I can't use my giant goofy headphones right now. So I've been using the Apple-supplied earbuds. Although I don't like earbuds as a general rule, I do like the clicker/mic that it has. When someone walks up to me, I click, song stops. If they walk away quickly enough, I click again, song resumes. Excellent! But I've noticed that the song doesn't always resume. So I have to push the wake up button, slide to unlock, and then I can click. Annoying.

Sooner or later I will get an adapter so I can return to my regular headphones. No clicker there. So I will have to push, slide, play/pause each time. Very annoying. I did read about an adapter that has a clicker, but it also has a mic that I don't need, and costs $40, which is almost half of what I paid for the headphones in the first place. So, um, no. I suppose I could set a longer time before the iPhone locks itself, but then that defeats the purpose if I have to suddenly get up and throw it in my pocket and walk away.

The Solution

Just to summarize what I want:
  • Smart Playlists should update in real time
  • Put labels of some kind on the volume slider
  • Move the playlist counter to the top of the screen
  • Put the ratings on same tap-to-appear panel as the progress indicator
  • Clicker/mic should always allow play/pause function (give me a preference to do this in case not everyone agrees), regardless of un/locked state of the iPhone

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