Category Archive: iPod Touch Tips

Jun 20

iPod Touch Review: ByLine – An Excellent RSS Reader

bylineiconOK, so I now have to retract part of what I said in my last article about RSS readers. There is an excellent RSS reader on AppStore called Byline that so far, does exactly what I want in a news reader for my iPod Touch.

Byline is like many RSS readers, but this one really does understand how to be effective on an iPod Touch. For example, my iPod Touch is is not always connected online. I purposely turn off networking when I’m not in range to extend my battery. How many online applications have you launched that display an error message telling you that the network is not available? Well, duh, I turned it off. Why tell me something I already know? Byline elegantly ghosts the sync icon when you’re offline and makes it active when connected. It’s just done right.

And now, the great part: Byline optionally caches images for offline use! No longer do I feel cheated by not having always-on connectivity. Yes, it does take some to download all the images, but with multiple news feeds each having dozens and dozens of articles, it’s actually pretty quick.

The formatting is typical, and the inclusion if the images really rounds it out. Probably the only down side to this is that it requires setting up the feeds in Google Reader. At first, I was somewhat hesitant to go down this path, because this means that there is really no way to just add an ad-hoc feed, but realistically, I rarely want to do this anyway, so it’s not really an issue. Byline’s settings are located in the iPod Touch’s main Settings page, so you have to exit the application to get to it. I wish applications would be consistent with this. But once you set the settings, you rarely need to revisit them.

So the bottom line is that Byline provides an excellent news reading experience online or offline. It caches and displays images very nicely, so you don’t feel cheated by not being connected. So wherever I am, I always have something to read to kill some time.

Highly recommended!

Pros: Solid interface, ability to cache images for offline viewing, no annoying errors when not online, logical interface, very customizable.

Cons: Byline requires setting up your feeds in Google Reader. This is not really negative overall, it does eliminates the ability to add an ad-hoc RSS feed on the fly.

Tip: Your RSS feeds must reside in a folder. While you can put multiple RSS feeds in the same folder, if your article is not in any folder, it ill not display in ByLine.

Permanent link to this article: http://jimstips.com/ipod-touch-tips/ipod-touch-review-byline-an-excellent-rss-reader

Aug 28

iPod Touch Tip #6: RSS Readers Still Missing The Mark

 Having quick and easy access to information is one of the strong points of the iPhone and the iPod Touch. With their online capabilities, the Internet is at your fingertips, and just about any piece of information is just a few taps away. One group of applications that provides news information is the “RSS Reader” category. These programs provide news feeds in a (typically) organized and concise manner, allowing you to catch up news from your favorite sites wherever you are. But what if you are not online? What if an iPhone user is on a subway or in an area that has marginal or no coverage. What about an iPod Touch user who is not within range of a WiFi connection? Providing offline access to RSS feeds is a worthy endeavor, and AppStore has a dozen or so RSS readers that may fit your needs, however they all currently miss the mark in providing a complete offline reading experience. Read on to find out why….

All of the RSS Reader apps in AppStore provide pretty much the same content, however their method of presentation and execution spans a wide spectrum. Some apps require a network connection to display anything. With these apps, news feeds are loaded in real-time so you are always up-to-date, however if you are offline, you simply will not see any content. (I personally question this approach as I may as well just use a decent WebApp.) Others provide excellent offline reading capabilities with articles organized by feed, folders, date, etc.

The feature set is growing in this line of apps. Some have lots of eye candy (at least one uses the CoverFlow concept in presenting the feed list) and some provide synchronization to online accounts such as Google Reader and NewsGator ensuring that regardless of how you access these accounts, they will always be up-to-date. But despite the host of features and ease-of-use, there’s still one key feature that is missing from every application in this category: The ability to pre-fetch and cache embedded images within articles.

As an iPod Touch user, I don’t always have network connectivity, so offline functionality is essential. AppStore applications like WeDict, Acro Bible, and Bookshelf, and Jailbreak applications like Wiki2Touch provide incredible acces to amazing content that is always available online or offline. As of this writing, every RSS reader in AppStore lacks the ability to provide full offline content–both article text and associated embedded images. There are excellent applications that provide an intuitive, fast, and comprehensive reading experience, but if you want to see embeded images in articles, you must be online, or you must have at least viewed the article once while online. Omitting the images removes a significant part of the reading experience.

Now I do realize that syncing dozens, if not hundreds of images could amount to a much longer sync session, but that’s a tradeoff I would welcome if I could have offline access to all of the content. So here is my plea to all developers of RSS Reader applications for the iPhone/iPod Touch: Please add the option to pre-fetch and cache embeded images for offline reading. And to stand out ahead of the competition, provide more granular control so that the user can really tailor what gets updated. For example, let the user toggle pre-fetching on a feed-by-feed basis. Have a setting to only pre-fetch images for the n-number of articles or articles received within the last n-days, etc.

Most of the current AppStore RSS Readers are very well thought-out, well executed, and provide great information both online and offline. Just don’t stop short when the user goes offline.

Permanent link to this article: http://jimstips.com/ipod-touch-tips/ipod-touch-tip-6-rss-readers-still-missing-the-mark

Mar 06

iPod Touch Review: Belkin Silicone Skin Case

Belkin Silicone CaseI’m always looking for decent cases for the devices I carry, and I have found another case for the iPod Touch that I just love. The Belkin Silicone Skin Case is a molded case made of silicone rubber that stretches to fit snugly around the iPod Touch. It provides cut-outs for the screen, top power button, brightness sensor, Universal Connector, and headphones. There is also a recessed portion over the front Home button giving it a great look and nice tactile feel. The case nicely protects the chrome back from scratches, and it provides the iPod Touch with a great grip. It only adds just a fraction of an inch to the overall size, so your iPod Touch remains slim and sleek.

This case is simple, yet elegant in design, but like similar “skin” cases it does not provide any protection for the screen, so a modest screen protector is included. (I personally use some left-over Palm PDA screen protectors, though the supplied protector will work just fine.) This setup makes the iPodtTouch very “front-pocketeble”, and I am much more likely to regularly carry it with me because of the small size and confidence in the protection. After all, what’s the point of having a device that contains your favorite content if it is too bulky to take with you? Currently, this is my case of choice.

Permanent link to this article: http://jimstips.com/ipod-touch-tips/ipod-touch-review-belkin-silicone-skin-case

Mar 06

iPod Touch Tip #5: Quick Keyboard Entry Tips

iPod Touch Keyboard

Text entry on the iPod Touch's on-screen keyboard is surprisingly easy, but sometimes, it can be tedious to enter numbers, symbols, or special characters. But did you know that there are a few "shortcuts" that you can use to make this kind of entry quicker and easier? Read on for some tips on "shifting" letters, inserting numbers, symbols, and International characters, and making a quick entry correction….

Quick Shift

While typing on the Alphabetic keyboard, press and hold the Shift key, then slide your finger over to the letter you want to shift then release. The letter will be shifted.

Quick Number and Symbol Entry

While typing letters on the Alphabetic keyboard, sometimes you want to quickly insert a number or a symbol such as a comma or period. Just press and hold the Symbol/Number key (.?123) then slide your finger over to the symbol or number you want to insert then release your finger. The symbol or number will then be inserted and the keyboard will revert back to the Alphabetic keyboard for you to continue typing.

International Characters

If you want to enter special letter characters such as those with an accent or grave, press and hold the Alphabetic key you want to accent and a popup showing all the available choices will display. Slide your finger over to the desired choice, release, and the special character will be inserted.

Quick Correction

While typing, if you find that you have entered an incorrect letter but have not yet released the key, you can always slide your finger over to the correct character and then release. The correct character will be inserted.

I hope you find this tip useful in improving your keyboard entry!

Permanent link to this article: http://jimstips.com/ipod-touch-tips/ipod-touch-tip-5-quick-keyboard-entry-tips

Mar 03

iPod Touch Review: Wikpedia on your iPod Touch!

Wikipedia on the iPod TouchArguably, one of the greatest current contributions to the Internet is Wikipedia, a solid encyclopedic resource for general knowledge of topics spanning literally millions of articles. Though the accuracy of some of its articles is questionable, overall, Wikipedia does an excellent job of presenting generally reliable content. A point of note that any researcher, student, or general Internet user should know, is that because of its susceptibility to error and vandalism, Wikipedia, should not be used as a difinitive research resource, it should be considered a great starting point for researching a topic.)

Like searching on Google, Wikipedia is fast and intuitive to use. On the iPod Touch, the Safari Web browser renders Wikipedia pages very well. But accessing Wikipedia from the iPod Touch has one major drawback: you must be online. Recently, however, there have been several sfforts to provide Wikipedia content in an offline format. This article covers two such offerings:

Wikipedia.app

Wiki2Touch  (My Pick!)

I review what I like about them, what I dislike, and which I like best, so read on for a full review of these two applications….

Generally speaking, offline Wikipedia implementaions require several components to work including a huge data file containing the text content of Wikipedia’s articles, some supporting files, and an application that handles the searching and displaying of the article content. Fortunately, getting Wikipedia’s data isn’t that difficult because Wikipedia makes this English languave data readily available in the form of a downloadable XML file. (If you require foreign versions, a number of foreign languages are available as well.) Currently, the data weighs in at about 3GB, so it may take a while to download the data. But downloading this 3GB+ file is just the start. You then need to convert the file into a format that the offline applications can manage. Fortunately, this is not a difficult process–time-consuming, but not difficult.

Wikipedia.app

The first application in this review is Wikipedia.app . This was the first offline implementation I tried, and it was simply amazing! It provided quick access to almost all Wikipedia text content. Entering search after search revealed just how much data could be packed onto an iPod Touch.

Unfortunately, Wikipedia.app is not without its issues as it’s not too hard to crash the application, particularly when following links from redirects. There are some simple workarounds, but this is still a drawback. The display is very simple, providing a nice scrollable display, but that’s about it. There are no bells and whistles, so if you are looking for a small, lean application, this is it.

On the positive side, Wikipedia.app gave me my first taste of using Wiklipedia offline, and it provided adequate access to its articles. Searching was quick, and the display layout, while spartan, looked great. Many articles include internal links referencing other articles, so tapping any of the links displays that new article. Other than the occasional crash, it did work well.

Another positive is in setup. Setting up Wikipedia.app was very straight forward. The first thing you need is the Wikipedia text data. Wikipedia.app provides a large pre-built data file that weighs in at just over 2GB in size. It’s an English language snapshot of Wikipedia text content from October, 2007–a few other lanugage versions are also available. Instructions are provided to manually build a more recent version, but the currently available version is fairly recent, so using the pre-built file makes isntallation much easier. You also need to download some supporting files and the Wikipedia.app application. Installation was as simple as downloading everything (which took a while because of the size), uploading everything to the iPod Touch, setting some file permissions, and restarting Springboard. It was very easy.

Once set up, you end up with a new icon on your Home page that launches a simple Search application. Enter your search text, and Wikipedia.app displays results in real-time as you type. This is great, because you get immediate feedback. Tapping any of the results will do wone of two things: Display the article, or display a redrect page. In most cases, tapping the redirect will either display the article, or display a new redirect. Occasionally, this crashes.

Here is the Wikipedia.app start page:
Wikipedia.app Start page

Here is the results page that displays results as you type:
Wikipedia.app Results Page

Here is an example of a rendered article:
Wikipedia.app Article Page

The articles display in a nice scrollable page with embeded internal links, and there is a button at the top to take you back to the search page. And at the top of the search page is a button to take upi back to the last-viewed article. There is no history, so if you follow internal links, going back will take you to the search page. And when you exit and relaunch the application, no history is saved.

I’d love to see the Wikipedia.app program be stabilized and some features added, but for now, it works well enough. Features I’d like to see added include saving search result history, retention of articles between sessions, and the ability to save “favorite” articles for quick reference. Despite its quirks, it’s an excellent solution.

Wiki2Touch

Wiki2Touch takes a different approach in implementation. You still have a huge article data file, but instead of using a custom client application to search and display the articles, it includes a local Web server application that runs in the background, providing access to the local data directly from Safari. When you point Safari to the local Web server address, it displays a Wikipedia search page. Entering a search request searches the local Wikipedia data file and returns the article results in a nicely-formatted, iPod Touch-friendly page. It’s quick and reliable, and if a result is not found or a link is broken, you simply get an “Article not found” error page–no crashes, no hassels.

Setup is not quite as easy as with Wikipedia.app because you must build the indexed data file yourself. While this may sound daunting, it’s actually very easy–it just takes lots of time. And one advantage to manually building the file is that you can build it using the latest snapshot ensuring that your data will be as current as Wikipedia provides. To build the file, you first have to download the 3GB+ XML data file from Wikipedia. Depending on the speed of yout Internet connection, this could take a while. Next, download the Wiki2Touch program distribution. It’s a small package, so it will be a quick download. You then build the “articles.bin” data file (the actual data file that will be uploaded to your iPod Touch) from the downloaded Wikipedia XML data using a simple “indexer” application. (For Windows users, the process is done by issuing a single DOS command.) The indexer.exe program converts and repackages the XML data into a format usable by the Wiki2Touch se
rver application.

When indexer.exe completes, you upload the new data file and the application files to your iPod Touch (this can take a long time over WiFi) set some file permissions, restart Springboard, launch the Wiki2Touch app, start the server, launch Safari, then point Safari to http://127.0.0.1:8080/index.html. If everything went as expected, you should see a nice Wikipedia search page.

Using Safari to access the local Wikipedia data has several advantages over Wikipedia.app. Because articles are displayed through Safari, you use Safari’s User Interface features such as zooming and screen rotation to your advantage. This makes reading articles more consistent with reading other Web-based content. Second, if you enter s search request that does not find any results, or if a link or redirect happens to be bad, you simply get an “Article not found” error instead of a potential crash. And because articles are returned by Wiki2Touch as a “valid” URL within Safari, you can use Safari’s history, Bookmark, and Web Clip features to better manage and organize your searches and search results. (Oh, and get this: if you have the Wiki2Touch server running, and have WiFi turned on, PC’s on your local network can connect to your Wiki2Touch server via a Web Browser to your iPod Touch and submit queries! While this might potentially cause some security concerns, it’s still pretty cool.)

This is the “start” page:
Wiki2Touch Start page

This is an example of the real-time search page that displays search results as you type:
Wiki2Touch Search

This is the resullting article. Note that though there is no image displayed, it is formatted to accommodate images:

Wiki2Touch Article page

A potential drawback to Wiki2Touch is that overall, you will be using up to 50% more memory (3GB+ compared to 2GB+) than with Wikipedia.app. If you are using an 8GB iPod Touch and want to also carry lots of music and video with you, you may be out of luck. But for me, it’s not an issue, because I’m using my iPod Touch more as a PDA than a media player. You just may need to make some choioces to prioritize what content gets loaded.

Conclusion

So which do I recommend? They are both great implementations, but in the end, I have to recommend using Wiki2Touch. For a quick install and easy-to-use offline access, Wikipedia.app shines. Though it’s not without its quirks, and it occasionally crashes, it was simple to install, and it provided the content I was looking for. On the other hand, while Wiki2Touch required more up-front time to get things set up, once installed, it was so easy and stable to use. And the fact that it leverages Safari’s additional features makes it stand out as my offline Wikipedia search tool of choice.

In either case, once you get the taste of having Wikipedia articles accessible and available anywhere, any time, you begin to see just how exciting this really is. Being able to have pocketable, offline access to Wikipedia content alone, for me, justifies what I paid for my iPod Touch.

Permanent link to this article: http://jimstips.com/ipod-touch-tips/ipod-touch-review-wikpedia-on-your-ipod-touch

Mar 03

iPod Touch Tip #4: Backing Up Web Clips

Web Clips on your iPod Touch's Home Page are very handy, but if you accidentally delete one, how do you get it back? Well, you can't. When you create a Web Clip, consider also creating a corresponding Bookmark in Safari. This way, should you ever accidentally delete your Web Clip, you will have an easy way to get it back. Bookmarks can also be optionally synced through iTunes providing additional backup.

To create a Bookmark from a Web Clip, simply launch your Web Clip, tap the "+" button and select "Add Bookmark".

To create a Web Clip from a Bookmark, launch Safari, select the Bookmark, let the page load, and then tap the "+" button and select "Save to Home page".

An added benefit of maintaining Web Clips as Bookmarks is that you now have access to Web Clip pages right from within Safari instead of having to exit Safari to the Home page and selecting the Web Clip. I like to store these Web Clip Bookmarks in a "Web Clips" folder in my Bookmarks, but you can organize them however you want.

Permanent link to this article: http://jimstips.com/ipod-touch-tips/ipod-touch-tip-4-backing-up-web-clips

Mar 03

iPod Touch Tip #3: Safari Screen Rotation

Here's a simple, yet not always intuitive tip. Have you ever been using Safari while lying down in bed or on a couch? You get comfortable, and as you tilt your iPod Touch, does the screen auto-rotate the wrong way? You then go through the delecate balancing act of finding that "sweet spot" just before it rotates, then you cock your head uncomfortably, just to view Safari in widescreen mode? Well, the solution is so simple, if you follow Apple's intuitive UD design. Because the iPod Touch only rotates 90° in either direction, once it is rotated, it will not rotate further. So when rotating yout iPod Touch, simply rotate it in direction you are lying. For example, if you lye down on your right side, rotate it clockwise. If you turn over to your left side, rotate it counter-clockwise.

Permanent link to this article: http://jimstips.com/ipod-touch-tips/ipod-touch-tip-3-safari-screen-rotation

Mar 03

iPod Touch Review: Griffin Elan Convertible Case

Griffin Elan ConvertibleLike any PDA or pocket-sized electronic device, the iPod Touch is prone to scratches and dings, so on eof the first accessories you should consider is a case to protect it. Cases come in all sizes and shapes, so what is best for you is a very personal and subjective decision. I found the Griffin Elan Convertible case at my local Circuit City, and I find it to be a solid choice for the money. Read on for a full review….

The Griffin Elan Convertible Case is a sleek leather case that houses the iPod Touch. It has a removable flip-over cover and a removable belt-clip it provides excellent screen and body protection.

Griffin Elan Convertible Case

The inside of the case is lined with what feels like suede, providing soft, scratch-free protection of the screen, while also slightly gripping the device in place. There are cutouts for the Home button, the Universal Connector, Headphones, and the auto-brightness sensor, and the top poer button is accessible.

The flip-over cover has two small magnets that keep the case closed, and the cover is removable. Reversing the cover provides a sort of "stand" arrangement. The belt-clip is removable also. Given the size of the iPod Touch, I personally prefer to carry it in my pocket instead of on my belt. (Lowers the Geek Factor a bit.) The looks and protection of this case does come at a small price in that it just about doubles the thickness of the iPod Touch, but not too much to the length and width. Still,l it's very compact overall compared to other PDA cases I've used.

One word of note about carrying this or any similar device is that I never carry these in my back pocket. To me, it's just too risky. But with this case, the iPod Touch is very "front-pocketable", and if you carry change or keys in the same pocket, you really don't need to worry as the protection is great.

My only real complaint, and it is minor, is that over time, leather stretches, so my iPod Touch didn't seem to be gripped as tightly as it was when the case was new. It did slide a bit, but it wasn't a problem, and I never felt like it would inadvertently slip out.

Overall, the Griffin Elan Convertible Case provides compact, nice-looking protection for yout iPod Touch. Though at present, I am using a different case, I still highly recommended this one. It is a great-looking case with great features at a price that won't break the bank.

Permanent link to this article: http://jimstips.com/ipod-touch-tips/ipod-touch-review-griffin-elan-convertible-case

Feb 26

iPod Touch Tip #2: Using Google Maps Routes Offline

The Google Maps application included in the "January Update" apps has a very nice offline feature: Routing. While connected to WiFi, Tap the "Directions" button, and enter the starting location and then the ending location of your desired route. Maps will then download the route data and store it for offline use. All route-point information including zoomed-in maps immediately surrounding each route point is downloaded. Once completed (ie: the progress "spinner" stops) you can shut off WiFi, and the route information will be retained to use offline. Read on for more details on how to use this useful feature….

Maps displays the route's Overview of a zoomed-out map showing pins at the starting and ending points and the route drawn between the pins. Here is an example of a generic route from Chicago to Detroit:

iPod Touch - Google Maps Routes

Tapping the "Start" button in the upper right of the screen will zoom you in to the first route-point map display the route-point directions. It's animated very nicely, looks great, and is easy to read and follow. The Start button is then replaced by left and right arrows that will step you forward and backward through the route. At each route-point, the zoomed-in map is displayed with the route-point's text. Here are two examples of steps along the route:

iPod Touch - Google Maps Route

iPod Touch - Google Maps Route

If you want a test-only view of the route, just tap the "eyeball" icon on the lower left. This "peels" the screen up revealing more options:

iPod Touch - Google Maps Route

Tap "List" button. All of the route points will display in text with the current point number highlighted. Doing a "flick" gesture will scroll you through the route, and tapping any of the route-points will take you directly to the map view of that point. While in the List view, tapping the "eyeball" icon and then the "Map" button will take you back to the Map view of the last viewed route-point. here is an example of the List view showing the fill route text:

.Ipod Touch - Google Maps Route

Understand that there are two things to watchout for when using routes: First, Maps only retains one route offline, so you cannot manage multiple routes while offline. And second, if you initiate any searches or try to change anything, you will likely lose the stored route, so be careful if you are relying on the route, and are not near WiFi.

Permanent link to this article: http://jimstips.com/ipod-touch-tips/ipod-touch-tip-2-using-google-maps-routes-offline

Feb 26

iPod Touch News: Software Development Kit (SDK)

Apple announced that in February 2008, they would release a Software Development Kit (SDK) enabling third-party developers to create applications for the iPhone and iPod Touch. Many people are placing a lot of hope into this tool. As of this writing, it appears that its release will be delayed until March, 2008. Read on to see my take on what the SDK may or may not bring….

On one hand, I am very excited that the availability of the SDK could potentially provide some excellent and useful applications. Opening up application development to third-party developers could potentially rival the literally thousands of applications released for PalmOS PDA's.

But on the other hand, I have several concerns or questions:

1. Because the applications will be distributed exclusively through iTunes, it is currently unclear what applications will cost. My guess is that it will probably follow a pattern similar to PalmGear with free, shareware, and commercial offerings, but it is also likely that Apple will always want their cut, so we may not actually see any free applicaitons.

2. The SDK will obviously provide the ability to develop and distribute onboard applications, but it is unclear if the SDK will also allow syncing data with the new applications which, in my opinion, is essential. For example, I would like to see an eBook reader application be developed, but to work, you would need to be able to sync various file types through iTunes. Being able to sync data will open up many capabilities, but it depends on what Apple provides.

3. What will be the "approval" process to accept applications? Who or how will applications be approved for distribution through iTunes?

4. Finally, what will be the cost of the SDK? Will it be free, or will it cost? Amd what about the "digital signatures" required for control and distribution through iTunes? Will these be free as well? If it costs anything to develop applications, the pricing will need to be so as not to price out small, hobbyist developers. Unless, of course, that is Apple's intention.

Time will tell as to how this plays out.

In the mean time, I'm craving a number of software updates or additions, so here is my current wish list in no particular order:

  • Calendar application that syncs with Google Calendar over WiFi and through iTunes
  • Notes application that syncs with Google Notes over WiFi
  • ToDo application that integrates with Calendar
  • Bible Reader application
  • eBook Reader that syncs documents (.txt, .html, .pdf, Word, excel, and Palm DOC) through iTunes
  • Calculator that is more comperhensive
  • Offline RSS reader
  • Application to simply toggle WiFi on or off from the Dock
  • Ability in Safari to "save" pages for offline reading

Permanent link to this article: http://jimstips.com/ipod-touch-tips/ipod-touch-news-software-development-kit-sdk

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