Backstage at iLounge is the combined blog of our editors, featuring casual and often only loosely iPod-, iPhone- or iPad-related discussions that our readers may enjoy. Founded in July, 2004, Backstage has served as a launching pad for stories that later appear on the main site, and as a place to discuss portable phones, games, computers, and accessories. Visit Backstage Archives for past stories, and bookmark backstage.ilounge.com for new ones.
By Jesse Hollington | 09.01.10 | 190 comments
As you’re probably aware by now, Apple unveiled a new iPod touch earlier today which, among other things, brings a second device into the FaceTime family. When FaceTime was introduced on the iPhone 4 earlier this year, Apple chose to integrate it with the built-in Phone app, a logical choice considering how the company wants to present it as just another type of phone call. Apple also used users’ actual cellular phone numbers from the iPhone 4 to register devices with its FaceTime servers and allow users to place calls to each other.
The problem, of course, is that the iPod touch has no Phone app nor an actual phone number to register with the FaceTime network. Contrary to a suspicious rumor that claimed Apple would add a VoIP Phone application to the iPod touch, Apple instead added a new standalone FaceTime app to the iPod touch specifically for handling FaceTime calls. It now simply uses the user’s e-mail address to identify them on the FaceTime network, a change that has already been discovered in the iOS 4.1 betas. iPhone users who want to call iPod touch users can simply select their e-mail address to initiate a FaceTime call, although you’ll need to upgrade to iOS 4.1 on your iPhone in order to do so.
iPod touch users will also apparently need an Apple ID to actually register their e-mail addresses with the FaceTime network, but it’s not clear whether this will happen transparently as it does on the iPhone or whether the user will need to complete some type of sign-in process.
Updated: For more detailed information on setting up and troubleshooting FaceTime, please check out our new Complete Guide to FaceTime.
By Jeremy Horwitz | 09.01.10 | 146 comments
Yup, it’s official: the new iPod touch got a rear camera, but it’s not an iPhone 4-quality 5-megapixel shooter, an iPhone 3GS-quality 3-megapixel version, or even an iPhone-quality 2-megapixel version. Instead, it’s just shy of 0.7 megapixels, with 960x720 still resolution, outputting 720p videos at 1280x720. So don’t expect to toss out your point-and-shoot pocket camera—or an iPhone 4—for the iPod touch. This camera’s just for the kiddies.
The front camera? 640x480 VGA, like the iPhone 4’s.
By Jeremy Horwitz | 09.01.10 | 11 comments
So here are a handful of details we’ve heard from a couple of solid sources regarding the fourth-generation iPod touch, which we believe to be accurate:
* The Sleep/Wake button has shifted from the top left of the device over to the top right, mimicing its placement on the iPhone family.
* The camera is below the Sleep/Wake button, with a microphone pinhole off to its right.
* Volume buttons appear to be separate from one another rather than one piece, but stay in the same general position as in the second- and third-generation iPod touch models, as do the Dock Connector port and headphone port on bottom.
* It is slightly thinner than the second- and third-generation iPod touch. The rear casing has corner and side radiuses that are, as we previously noted, MacBook Pro lid-like, and the center does not bulge, so it can rest flat on a table like the first-generation iPod touch. What used to be a soft curve of the rear shell that wrapped around to surround the front glass is gone.
Here is some stuff that we’ve been hearing but not posting over the last week because it has remained really sketchy—note that we are not making any claims as to its accuracy.
* Claim: Apple wants to give the iPod touch an optional 3G cellular data feature and has readied a second version with a micro SIM slot like the iPad with Wi-Fi + 3G. According to a new and untested source, who is mirroring speculation we’ve heard from others, Apple wants to make the iPod touch an iPhone without cellular voice service.
* Claim: Apple is giving the iPod touch a built-in VoIP phone application for both voice and FaceTime video calling. We received screenshots purporting to show the iPod touch “Phone” application and its settings features, running on a Retina Display no less, but they appeared to have been Photoshopped, and a number of little details led us to question the claims. While Apple’s plans to add FaceTime software, a microphone, and camera to the iPod touch 4G are locks at this point, and iOS 4’s background support for VoIP makes this feature entirely possible in any device running the OS, it would be exceptionally bold for the company to offer a full-fledged Phone application—complete with Voicemail, Call Forwarding, and Call Waiting—as a bonus for iPod touch users.
But Apple has known to be bold. And what would look like a slap in the face to cellular voice providers really would be offset by customers’ new demands for cellular data plans, plus VoIP’s roughly 1.3MB per minute data drain on whatever cellular data plan you pick. Common limited 250MB data plans would offer under 200 minutes of calling per month, with around 1500 minutes for a 2GB plan, assuming you did nothing else with the services. Video calling with FaceTime—assuming it was allowed over a given 3G network—would eat four or five times as much data. The aforementioned untested source claims Apple will host the VoIP servers, an extension of the matchmaking servers it’s already using for FaceTime.
The images above are some of the ones we received and, as noted, are of questionable veracity. In any case, we’ll know more this afternoon.
By Jeremy Horwitz | 08.31.10 | 3 comments
Just a really quick sketch for those who may still be having trouble visualizing what the new mini touchscreen iPod nano-shuffle-micro might look like.
Though the radiuses are pretty close here, the real thing’s surely going to be a little different. Expect less metal around the screen, the Dock Connector to be centered below the screen with the headphone port off to its right, and the top to have some nice iPhone 4-style buttons. We’re expecting a clip on back, coming from the right side of the chassis rather than the left like the second-generation shuffle, and like the third-generation shuffle, a little smaller than the rest of the iPod’s back surface. The aluminum will most likely wrap around the top and bottom of the device a la the iPhone 4 and third-generation iPod shuffle; the clip and part of the rear housing would come off for professional servicing purposes, but a plastic core is always a possibility.
One interesting issue: there’s no real room for a camera there. So what’s going to justify a nano-riffic price tag? Hmmmm. A squintable Retina Display? A two-finger multi-touch control system? Wi-Fi, with most of the setup work handled through iTunes since there’s no room for a real keyboard there? New and charmingly short dancing silhouettes? We’ll see tomorrow.
By Jeremy Horwitz | 08.30.10 | 11 comments
Brief thought: Apple introduced the iPod touch name back in 2007 to distinguish the sole touchscreen-based model in its iPod lineup from other devices that were Click Wheel- (iPod classic/nano) and button- (iPod shuffle) based. What happens when there’s a low-end touchscreen iPod in the family—is the iPod touch name really necessary any more? Apple axed “photo” from iPod photo when it “merged” the iPod and iPod photo lines some years ago, and surely wouldn’t hesitate to do the same thing for the iPod touch at some point—particularly when the touchscreen feature has trickled down to another model. A return to the classic iPod name would be easy enough, given that there’s no confusing it at this point with the well-worn “iPod classic” moniker.
Also, even if no one’s quite sure whether to call the shuffle-like iPod nano “the sixth-generation iPod nano,” the “fourth-generation shuffle,” the “third-generation iPod mini,” or the “first-generation iPod micro,” we all know a couple of things. First, Apple’s not going to call a touchscreen iPod nano the “iPod touch nano.” Second, an iPod stops being a “shuffle” if it gets a screen… right?... which means that either “nano” or a new name for the tiny device seems likely.
We think that the iPod name game is going to be an interesting part of the Apple event this week. What do you think?
By Jeremy Horwitz | 08.27.10 | 1 comment
We’ve recently heard some interesting thoughts from well-informed people regarding the next-generation Apple TV and iPod shufflenano (err, iPod micro), and though they are purely speculation, we wanted to share them with you.
Between the sequential departures of three key iPod and iPhone chiefs—Jon Rubenstein, Tony Fadell, and then Mark Papermaster—and the internally unexpected wildfire success of the App Store, Apple has been in a state of flux regarding the correct direction to take the iPod family. At one point, the iPod lineup just made sense: an iPod for all your music, a smaller iPod for the gym, and an even smaller one for Walmart and ultra price-conscious customers, particularly outside the U.S. But over time, the nano’s price dropped, and Apple stopped caring about putting 100,000 songs (or, more realistically, your entire media library) in your pocket.
The laser-focus and clear successions of the product line became a little fuzzy, with the iPod classic left to stagnate and the shuffle becoming sort of crazy while the nano got every conceivable feature except for the kitchen sink. At the same time, the iPod touch was a wildcard, starting as “training wheels for the iPhone” with limited software, a dicey screen, and little storage space at high prices. Then Apple started cleaning it up until it made sense, even famously trying but failing last year to give it a rear camera to match the nano. Thanks to the App Store and its pricing, the omission didn’t stop its momentum. iPod sales have flagged over the past couple of years, but they’re still awesome by almost any absolute standard, and touchscreen iPods have been doing better since Apple fixed the hardware and software problems with the original iPod touch.
Our sources are speculating that this year’s iPod lineup is going to resolve some of the long-standing “family” issues we’ve all been witnessing for a while. The iPod touch will be made more compelling with photo, video, and FaceTime features that will vault it ahead of last year’s iPod nano. That iPod shufflenano/micro thing would become a $99 or $149 option, letting Apple pitch “the most affordable touchscreen iPod yet,” and giving it a way to run “micro apps” like, say, a new version of Apple’s conspicuously not-recently-updated Remote for Apple TV. This way, you could get your $99 next-gen Apple TV, but to use it, you’d really need an iPhone, iPod touch, iPad, or new Apple-branded $99 remote control that also just happens to do other stuff. Huge win for sales of iOS devices.
Again, all speculation. But worth considering in the lead-up to the unveiling.
By Charles Starrett | 08.27.10 | 3 comments
As any iPad owner with an iPhone 3GS, iPhone 4, or third-generation iPod touch knows, it’s been a long two months since the release of iOS 4. Every satisfying double-click to multitask or glance at a unified mailbox on Apple’s pocket devices only serves as a reminder of the iPad software’s shortcomings. So nearly six months after Apple promised a Fall delivery of iOS 4 for iPad, and with a great opportunity coming up next week to talk about it, where do we stand in terms of progress? Seemingly not so close to the finish line.
Every time Apple releases a major iOS update, it provides developers with multiple beta versions of both the new software and tools for testing applications, usually giving old and new apps alike roughly three months to get ready before a public release. If Apple is to follow a similar schedule for the iPad’s build of iOS, and actually release an iPad iOS 4.x SDK next week—something that’s possible but hasn’t been widely discussed—that still means we, as consumers, might not see 4.x on our iPads until December. There’s an outside possibility that even a late 2010 release might not be in the cards; Apple could hold off until iOS 4.2, which might come a year after the original iPad introduction… right in line with the targeted release date of the iPad mini.
Even if you put aside multitasking, mail, and the other quality-of-life features iOS 4.0 would bring to the iPad, note that some developers—such as the makers of the iPad DJ app Mixr—have been waiting on the arrival of the updated software before moving forward with development of new, more advanced apps, and the number of titles that are iOS 4.0-only and thus refuse to even install on the iPad (or show up in its version of the App Store) has been climbing. It’s time for Apple to let iPad owners know when they’ll be able to run iOS 4 apps, and receive the other useful benefits of the latest operating system.
By Jeremy Horwitz | 08.26.10 | 17 comments
According to a source who would have reason to know, the fourth-generation iPod touch is changing back shapes—sorry, readers who have been posting with love for the dome-like curved iPod touch 2G/3G back, but that’s going away. And it’s not going to be glass like the iPhone 4, for all of you folks who were fearing accidental shatters like the ones we’ve heard Apple Stores are continuing to see on a daily basis. The new shape is…
Familiar. Think of the top of a MacBook Pro, only smaller, which is to say flat rather than curved at the center—closer to the look of the first-generation iPod touch’s back, only with modifications. The rear camera is there, but there is still some question as to whether what’s next to it will be a LED flash like the one in the iPhone 4, or a microphone like the one next to the video camera of the iPod nano. We’ve been told to expect a microphone rather than a flash, with a continuation of the bottom-mounted headphone port and Dock Connector port.
And we’re continuing to hear from sources that the little touchscreen device—the one with the sub-2-inch screen—is being thought of as a nano rather than a shuffle, even though it doesn’t make much sense to us. We’ll know more soon enough.
By Jeremy Horwitz | 08.25.10 | 11 comments
File this under “pure speculation” and “food for thought,” emphasizing “pure speculation.” Because it seems like no one* outside of Apple knows for sure what the bodies of the next-generation iPods are going to look like, apart from the iPod touch screen assembly, and there has been almost no buzz on what the components are going to be in the new iPod nano.
So, that aside, there’s been talk for two years now that Apple’s next step down from the 3.5” touchscreen of the iPhone and iPod touch would be a 2.8” display. There were photos of a supposed iPhone mini touchscreen assembly that never materialized in a product and—as noted at the time—might never do so. In the intervening years, the App Store’s roaring success made the thought of a smaller screen and different form factor a little dicey. But since June, there are now three totally different iOS device resolutions and two screen sizes, with a third apparently on the way. Apple wouldn’t have to fear splitting the App Store market again, because there are so many apps and well over 100 million devices out there. To be totally realistic, no one’s catching up with Apple any time soon.
So a 2.8” screened miniature iPod touch with 480x320 resolution wouldn’t be a huge leap of faith at this point, and the fact that there are still little chirps here and there about 2.8” and 3” screened iPods has had us curious. We did a little measuring to compare a hypothetical design against the fifth-generation iPod nano and came up with the image you see here, using plausible assumptions, showing a couple of interesting things. First, the device would be a bit wider than the current nano because of the screen, but not much taller, even if the Home button was around the same size as the ones on full-sized iPod touches and had around the same space to breathe. The loss of screen space would be noticeable but not terrible, leading more to a question of whether Apple would just shrink the existing iOS home screen or crop it with fewer icons—the squinty size of Home screen text would seem to suggest the latter, though games and other apps could be updated on an individual basis with larger buttons where necessary. It would work—at least as well as with the iPad, only in the opposite direction. You can debate whether Click Wheel or touch is the right interface for a device like the nano, what the correct physical size is for a device that fits the nano’s target markets (athletes/kids/etc), and so on, but that’s roughly what a 2.8” touch device would look like dimensionally. Shave down the screen and the rest of the device can obviously get smaller. Will it show up this year? Next year? Never? We don’t know yet.
An interesting comment regarding the continually rumored iOS refresh of the Apple TV (or, maybe iTV) comes from our own Charles Starrett, who says: “The more I think about it, I get the feeling that a $99 Apple TV might require an iOS device to serve as a remote—positioning it as an add-on to the iPod touch, iPhone, or iPad you already have, as opposed to being a standalone device, could actually boost sales. There seem to be too many missing pieces for it to actually be running iOS, be capable of running apps—as in, playing games—and still use a traditional remote. And if they have a shiny new iOS-based iPod nano that they can sell you for another $99 should you not already have an iOS device, it makes even more sense. The message: all of our media devices are now running the same OS, and use (basically) the same interface.”
Again, just food for thought. A $99 iPod nano with touch is probably too much for Apple to pull off this year. Maybe if it had a smaller-screened touchscreen device. But the idea of an Apple TV or iTV as an “iOS accessory” for the 100-million-plus iPhone/iPod touch/iPad owners—and the next 100 million that will follow sooner rather than later? Sort of like AirPort Express as a Mac accessory, only with video? Yeah. That makes some sense. To us. Share your thoughts in the comments section below.
(* = Well… There might be one or two people.)
By Jeremy Horwitz | 08.24.10 | 3 comments
In the video game industry, companies with huge promotional budgets routinely design special boxes and goodies to show off their new products to the media. But very few iPod, iPhone, or iPad developers have ever jazzed up new releases to show them off, and fewer still have come up with ways of doing so that don’t seem like attempts at bribery. Speck Products this week found the right side of the promotional line, coming up with a novel way to publicize its line of AT&T-exclusive CandyShell and Fitted Cases for iPhone 4: it assembled a faux fruit crate—amusingly orange-themed, rather than apple—with each of the exclusive cases wrapped in the sort of styrofoam packing wrappers used by high-end fruit retailers such as Harry and David.
Two colorful new versions of Fitted were in the box, both more “fun” and “summery” than the standard collection of mature fabric-backed cases; there were also three exclusive CandyShell variations, and the classic black and gray CandyShell that’s available elsewhere. Speck experiments with lots of colors and patterns for all of its cases, picking only a handful for widespread release and leaving many sitting in its labs—a deal like this clearly gives AT&T some interesting options, especially the black and pink CandyShell, that might appeal to fashion-conscious female customers.
Also interesting: going along with the orange theme, Speck included a “flip and tumble” portable shopping bag that can be compacted into a soft orange-shaped ball for easy storage and unfurled as needed. “Because comparing Apples to oranges is impossible,” explains Speck, “we’ve given you both to enjoy.” Cute. And a smart way to promote an exclusive case partnership that would have been very easy to miss otherwise.
By Jeremy Horwitz | 08.18.10 | 30 comments
The good news: my “early hands-on” left open the possibility that the initially good accessory could come to feel great, and it did. One week into using the Magic Trackpad, it became a completely comfortable replacement for a comparable desktop mouse (specifically Apple’s solid Magic Mouse, which I’d liked but not loved before getting the Trackpad), and when I hit the two-week mark, I was ready to say that I wouldn’t give up the Magic Trackpad for a mouse again. The act of calibrating the Magic Trackpad properly for the screen size of your computer is the point at which you start to appreciate how viable it is as a mouse replacement, and though finger- rather than laser-precision may be an issue for some people, it hasn’t been a problem for me at all. Between the complete access to multi-touch gestures, including ones left out of the Magic Mouse, and the fact that I can achieve the same use of my computer without the footprint of a mouse pad, I’m sold, locked in, and very happy with this accessory. It’s become a “pry it from my cold, dead hands” add-on for my Mac, which is exactly what I hoped for when I made the purchase.
The bad news: yeah, about that battery life thing. I popped in a fully charged set of Apple’s rechargeable batteries on August 3, the day the Apple Battery Charger arrived, which is to say it’s been nearly 15 days since I started with a 100% Trackpad Battery Level. Today, it’s at 14% percent, which means I might get three or four more days out of these batteries before they need to be swapped and recharged. Even by Magic Mouse standards, 20-day battery life* sucks. Based on early testing noted in the comments to the original Trackpad article, it looked like the higher-capacity disposable batteries included with the Magic Trackpad would have lasted for three months before needing to be thrown away and replaced, but the rechargeables are running down at a rate that seems disproportionately and suspiciously high. In any case, since I regularly use a wired Apple keyboard, I would seriously prefer to just pop a USB cable from a wired Magic Trackpad into the spare USB port on the keyboard’s side. But Apple doesn’t make a wired Magic Trackpad. I wish the company’s growing team of magicians would conjure one up, because as fun as battery swaps with coin-operated swirled metal compartments may be, I could do without them. You probably could, too.
(* = Battery life will, of course, depend on how much you use your computer, how efficiently Apple’s software manages the power of its accessories, and the type of batteries you’re using. Since I’m using Apple’s hardware, software, and batteries at this point, there’s really no excuse for short run times except that wireless accessories eat batteries when you actually use them—which I do for eight or nine hours each work day, five or six days a week. My machine’s on a 10-minute automatic sleep timer. You’ll get longer battery life if you use your machine less and turn it off properly when it’s not in use.)
By Jeremy Horwitz | 08.04.10 | 92 comments
Take this report with the requisite grains of salt, but here’s what we’ve heard about the upcoming late 2010/early 2011 iPod, iPhone, and iPad lineups from a highly reliable source. If you remember our exclusive first details on the iPad, iPod nano 4G and 5G, you’ll know that our sources’ accuracy level is very high but not perfect, which is about as good as can be expected given the nature of Apple-related leaks. (Except for ones posted by the always impressive John Gruber, who appears to be getting pre-release information directly from Apple.)
1. New iPods. Apple apparently has three new iPods ready to go as early as this month, or as late as September. One is the new iPod nano, one is the new iPod touch, and the third one is a question mark, but may be a small (1.7”) touchscreen replacement for the iPod shuffle. There’s also continued chatter about a three-inch touchscreen that could make its way into an iPod, shaving half an inch off the diagonal of the current iPod touch.
2. New iPad. A seven-inch-screened version of the iPad is substantially finished and will be ready for announcement either later this year or early in 2011. Apple has been prototyping devices with screens of this size for a long time—quite possibly predating the original iPhone.
3. New iPhone. According to our source—and we have to say that we find this part hard to believe—Apple is pushing up the release date of the fifth-generation iPhone to early 2011 (as soon as January) because of the antenna issues with the iPhone 4. It’s unknown whether this will be a repackaging of iPhone 4 components in a different shell or something more substantial. We reiterate: it’s hard to believe. But as with so many seemingly far-fetched early reports, it’s not impossible.
4. iPhone 4 Bumpers, Generations 0 and 2. To reduce the cost of the current iPhone 4 Case Program, the company is currently working on a less expensive all-silicone version of the Bumper to give away after September. Our source says that the original, unreleased version of Bumper had more hard plastic than the final version, and claims that Apple was considering giving Bumpers away with every iPhone 4 before deciding to take its chances with the bare device. The question is whether the Bumpers were originally intended for glass protection or antenna coverage, and why Apple developed them in the first place.
The comments section below is ready for your speculation and inevitable debates. For giggles, go back and take a look at the comments on the iPad, iPod nano 4G and 5G to see what people said before they were announced.
By Jeremy Horwitz | 08.03.10 | 4 comments
Hey! It’s the new $29 Apple Battery Charger! The one introduced last week alongside the Magic Trackpad, enabling AA cell users to stop buying disposable batteries for 10 years*—once every two or so months, if you’re a Magic Mouse user—in favor of swapping between these six silver rechargeable beauties.
Click on the title or the Read More link for more pictures and details.
By Jeremy Horwitz | 07.29.10 | 17 comments
Last week, we posted a look at the iPhone 4 cases Apple is offering for free to users—one case per iPhone, unless you bought one or more Bumper cases from Apple before the giveaway began. Today, we updated our iPhone 4 Case Program - Best + Worst Picks article to provide additional photographs and details on some of the case picks, and we also wanted to answer a few e-mailed reader questions here.
“Which in your opinion is the most visually striking? I love how the iPhone looks without a case, but want some protection. I am torn between the Griffin Etch and the Speck PixelSkin. I’d welcome your thoughts since you’ve seen them in person.”
In all honesty, the question of what’s most visually striking is very personal—what works for some people doesn’t for others. We would call the Griffin Motif, Griffin Reveal Etch, Speck Fitted, and Speck PixelSkin HD equally attractive cases, but they’re all different: Motif’s translucent gray plastic and rear diamond pattern are both eye-catching but deliberately a little understated, which we really like, while Reveal Etch’s faux carbon fiber panel looks better than what we’d expected after trying lots of faux carbon fiber cases in the past. Speck’s Fitted is one of very few cases that have successfully brought fabric into playthrough iPhone designs, and the company’s fabric patterns are always nice, while PixelSkin HD is a very sharp, clean redesign of the prior PixelSkins that has the grippiest texture of the bunch and a distinctive mixing of glossy and matte textures. If we had to pick just one on looks, PixelSkin HD would probably be it, but all of these four picks look very good to great.
“I would be concerned about access to the data port without having to remove the case, relative bulkiness of the case… ease of operating the volume controls, sleep button, and mute switch. Sure, many of these are subjective and even so, a relative ranking would be tremendously useful to the three million of us who are applying for these cases over the next month.”
As we’ve shifted away from case reviews over the past couple of years—due incidentally to reader requests that we do so—we’ve tried to add lots of additional photos to our case galleries so that users who are interested in the minutia of case performance can focus in on those details visually. One thing that we try to do in the brief preview text is to provide a sense of the big uh-ohs we’ve discovered, which are most commonly related to the port and camera cut-outs. Cases without built-in button covers tend to have bigger “ease of operation” issues if the button holes are small; we only note problems with the covered buttons if the covers are designed really poorly.
Regarding bulk, all of the third-party cases save for the Incase Snap Cases are in the same general category of thickness, adding 2-3 millimeters per covered surface. The Snap Cases are engineered to be thinner shells, while Apple’s Bumpers bulge out just a little more than the others.
The only other iPhone 4-specific issues we would raise for your consideration are the camera and speakerphone holes. Certain cases with tightly-tailored keyhole-shaped camera and flash holes may under some conditions have photography issues when the flash is used; Griffin actually reengineered the standard version of Reflect after its initial release because of such problems. We haven’t had problems with Reveal Etch, possibly because the rear material of the case is opaque. Additionally, cases with pill-shaped individual holes for the bottom speaker and microphone might exhibit audio issues during speakerphone calls, so more open-bottomed designs (such as Griffin’s Motif and Speck’s Fitted) will likely wind up being safer over time.
“How do you think [Apple’s program] is going to affect other case makers selling product into retail where the devices are sold?”
Our gut feeling is that it’s going to hurt companies whose products are overly similar to the designs on offer, while forcing others to market more aggressively to get their unique designs into users’ hands. Many readers have told us that the iPhone 4 Case Program selections wouldn’t be their first choices, but would work well as backups or alternatives. Others seem to be really pleased with the choices, and our view is that Apple is offering some bona-fide winners, though it seems to have selected specific cases primarily because they were available in large quantities, quickly. More distinctive cases will continue to be of interest to iPhone users, particularly when the Case Program ends in September. SwitchEasy’s Colors (below) are just one example of cases with unique looks and a lot of value for very aggressive prices.
Companies looking to distinguish themselves from Apple can do so by (a) packing in good screen film with their cases, (b) offering separate, good screen film, and (c) having cases available immediately while Apple’s 3-8 week waiting period exists. Those who merely try to mimic what Apple has done with Bumpers, or offer me-too versions of the cases that are part of the giveaway, will have problems—particularly if and when surges of unopened giveaway cases hit eBay and other reseller venues.
By Jeremy Horwitz | 07.28.10 | 11 comments
I am smack dab in the center of Apple’s target demographic for the just-released Magic Trackpad—a MacBook Pro user for years, huge fan of Apple’s trackpads, and a consistent purchaser of Apple’s desktop mice. Note that I used the word “purchaser” rather than “lover” for that last one. I loved the one-button Apple (“Pro”) Mouse, but was less thrilled by its subsequent replacements: I was a day one purchaser and rapid abandoner of the Mighty Mouse, as well as a day one purchaser who just sorta learned to live with the Magic Mouse. Apple makes beautiful mice and great trackpads, but hasn’t made a truly great mouse in a while. So a desktop-ready trackpad just made sense when the first pictures of the Magic Trackpad leaked out of China. Unlike Wacom’s earlier multi-touch tablets for Macs, the Magic Trackpad looked perfect—elegant, metallic, and big. I waited nearly two months after that leak for it to actually be introduced, then bought it the day it went on sale. For $69. That’s a lot of money, and $20 more than the basic Wacom Bamboo Touch, but basically par by Apple pointing device standards. It’s arguably worth the investment if the experience is great.
So how is it? My initial reaction is that it has the potential to become great, which is incidentally how I felt about the Magic Mouse after spending some time with it. The Magic Mouse is Apple’s best-looking mouse, ever. As a one-button solution, if you’re okay with the low profile and modest hand adjustment you need to go through to accommodate it, it might even come close to greatness. Except that the batteries need to be replaced all the time, which is ridiculous. And the multi-touch surface on top doesn’t really support gestures I care about, while the inertial scrolling still creates major problems with applications I use, such as Adobe’s Photoshop and InDesign. It’s a gorgeous mouse with software issues that never seemed to get fixed.
On paper, the Magic Trackpad was supposed to solve all that. It’s a bigger version of the MacBook Pro trackpad that I love—except for the occasional errant right button clicks that happen because there’s no dedicated right button on the uniform, matte glass surface. Did I mention that I love that glass surface? It feels great, looks great, and so should be even better on the Magic Trackpad because there’s more of it. Apple built the Trackpad to exactly match the height and depth of the Apple Wireless Keyboard—not the wired version, which I use daily and think is even better than Apple’s mice. In concept, the big Magic Trackpad should have enough space for dedicated left and right button surfaces, so no more errors, right?
Well, that depends. In one of those classically “huh?” Apple engineering decisions that will take a little time to fully appreciate or curse (see, e.g., the now-discontinued Mighty Mouse’s scroll ball), Magic Trackpad’s button—and it does appear to be a button, singular—is actually underneath the unit in the form of two gray rubber dots that would otherwise just be keeping the thing in place on a flat surface. If you’re using the Magic Trackpad on a totally uniform desk, and most people probably will, that’s no problem: clicking on the surface works and feels just like it does on a MacBook, more sensitive at the bottom than the top. On my particular desk, though, which just happens to have a grid of holes that are oddly sized to perfectly fit the ones on the Trackpad’s bottom, the clicks won’t register at all if the Trackpad’s sitting or shifted to the wrong space. Most of the time, I use my computers and accessories just like anyone else, but because my desk’s a little unusual, this is one of the rare situations where that’s not the case. Solution: slide Magic Trackpad further down my desk where there’s less wrist support. There, it works without issues. Unless I push it upwards, or the pads collect dirt like the Mighty Mouse’s scroll ball. Again, it’ll take a little time to know whether this happens; I’m betting that it won’t.
The other surprise of Magic Trackpad is that the larger touch surface isn’t yet translating into more accurate control over my computer. It might look square from a distance, but the surface is actually a little over 5 inches wide and around 4.3 inches deep, with an extra near inch for the twin AA battery compartment in the back. That’s more than enough room to extend past my centered fingers on either side, while providing adequate room for multi-finger gesturing, two-finger scrolling, and so on. Unfortunately, Apple still doesn’t offer the sort of touch surface user customization that would make the most of this trackpad. I’ve set the System Preferences panel to recognize right clicks as “bottom right corner”—one of only two choices (“bottom left corner”) Apple offers. Five inches turns out to be quite a distance for fingers to travel just to make a right click. Using the MacBook’s former “two-finger tap/click” gesture tends to introduce accidental right clicks into my workflow with some frequency. It’s here on Magic Trackpad and causes the same errors. I’ve turned it off for now.
Back when the Magic Mouse was released, my hope was that Apple would update the drivers with better gesture support, hopefully adding an expert user mode that offered precise control over what portion of the top surface would be recognized as a right click—or just a “left side means left click, right means right click” feature. That never happened. Apple released the Magic Mouse, offered a bugfix that was supposed to stop nasty-quick battery drain, and then left it alone. A third-party tool or two came out and demonstrated that the Magic Mouse’s surface was a really sophisticated sensor that could be programmed to do a lot more, or just work better. Apple hasn’t taken up that cause.
For the past several years, Apple has been using a problem analysis methodology that essentially relies upon users to complain—loudly and in great numbers—before the company will consider the possibility that something’s not right with one of its products. These days, Apple resolves problems only when people (a) report them in huge numbers through Mac OS X’s or iTunes’ bug reporting tools, or (b) call into AppleCare at a rate of, say, 0.55% of the entire userbase while simultaneously picketing Consumer Reports’ offices. Apple surely hasn’t received enough bug reports to reach the conclusion that some users aren’t totally thrilled with the way its mice or trackpad buttons work, because there’s no bug reporting tool for errant button clicks. And it takes a lot of bad clicks before someone’s going to waste the time to call AppleCare only to be told that there’s no known problem.
The same thing could well wind up happening with the Magic Trackpad. Unless there’s a semi-fixable and widely documented problem like the Magic Mouse’s quick-draining battery, the Trackpad extension might not be updated for a while, and its multi-touch surface might wind up being underutilized, like the Magic Mouse’s. That would be a shame, as it has so much potential.
But with two-finger right-clicking disabled, it’s also working pretty well right now as a mouse alternative. We’ll see how much enjoyment I get out of it over the next couple of months, and whether battery swaps are as necessary as they’ve remained with the Magic Mouse. I’m guessing and hoping the Magic Trackpad will be better—if Apple’s new $29 rechargeable battery kit is mandatory, that’ll be a real bummer. And I’m also assuming that I’ll adjust enough to using the Magic Trackpad that the small initial issues will fade quickly from memory. I want to love it. With a little time and adjustment, say nothing of an Apple software update, perhaps I will.