Thursday, December 23, 2010

iStuff.

So I was a latecomer to the whole iPod thing, being gifted a third generation iPod Nano almost two years ago. I like it; it's not big and bulky, and yet videos are totally watchable on the crisp little 2" screen, should the urge strike you. What I mostly used it for was listening to music in the car, connected by its umbilical to the head unit in the dash.

I noticed the evolution of the iPod Nano had turned it into a seriously handy little Swiss army knife of a gizmo by its fifth iteration: It had added a radio and a video camera and a microphone and so on. I thought it might be a worthwhile upgrade, but I wasn't really unhappy with the one I had. The video camera might be neat if I needed to take a picture of something while driving, but...

Then Apple forced my hand. They announced the newest version of the Nano this fall, and it had lost video recording and playback which, while disappointing, was no dealbreaker. But they had also fitted it up with a teeny 1.5" multitouch display, and that made it completely useless for me.

Let me make a little digression: Younger readers might not realize this, but domestic American automobiles used to have a singular triumph of ergonomic engineering: The headlight switch. In pretty much every American car, by whatever maker, was a round knob on the dashboard just to the left of the steering wheel. Pulling it out one click turned on the parking lights and pulling it out all the way turned on the headlights. Rotating it clockwise brightened the instrument panel lights and turning it all the way clockwise turned on the overhead dome light. Genius. It could be operated totally by feel and it worked the same way in your car, your drunk friend's car, or a rental car on a dark and rainy night far from home. Random agglomerations of buttons and rotary switches placed anywhere the styling department could find room are no improvement.

The iPod's click wheel is like this. With audible and tactile feedback, I can skip songs, go back, fiddle with the volume or whatever, all without having to take my eyes off the road to select menus or read screens. Because the iPod has a long side and a short side, I don't even need to look down to see how it's oriented in my hand to know which part of the click wheel is the "top".

The newest Nano has none of this, and I don't think it's any kind of improvement in the car audio role for which I use my iPod. Now if I wanted to upgrade, I was going to need to either shop used or find New Old Stock, and if I wanted a good one, I'd better get cracking. It was quickly apparent that I was not the only one who felt this way, as used 5th Gen Nanos rapidly started selling for as much or more than new 6th Gen units on Amazon. I wound up getting a factory refurb directly from Apple, since apparently they hadn't gotten the word on the desirability of the older units and were selling them for less than the new ones.

It arrived, a 16GB black unit, and it is handier than a pocket on a shirt. Not much bigger than a stick of gum and it holds thousands of songs, takes home movies, and can play back TV episodes. Neat. And I can operate it without taking my eyes off the road.

26 comments:

Joe in PNG said...

And that great little switch had a nice, clear little lable in plain old printed English: Headlight. Now, it's some sort of symbol somewhere on the stalk... or maybe the side of the dash...

I mean, isn't there a reason we got away from hieroglyphics?

Tam said...

Interestingly, while all the other 3-series Bimmers had a little cluster of buttons and rotary switches, the Zed Drei has the classic chromed pull-knob. I heart that feature so much.

og said...

I was discussing wiht the IT guy at my office yesterday: My phone, which is a crappy one, can record and play back music, can surf and play videos, can store thousands of songs, can act as a calculator, notebook, tape recorder, can be used to create spreadsheets, WP docs, view PDF's, and they give them away with 2 year contracts. There's more computer there than my first five computers put together, and it's basically disposable- nobody would bother to fix it if it died. Now the makers have to find ways to jam in more features in hopes they can find a feature that new users find indispensable. I think they have probably moved over the edge of the new feature event horizon, until such times as it can be used to squeeze out 35 9mm rounds.

Jim said...

I wonder why they'd give up a perfectly good tactile experience like that? "Hey, lets screw the blind people!"

Then again, never attribute to malice what likely stems from an acute case of teh dumb.

Jim

Newbius said...

The kids out in the wild will ask: "what is this 'clockwise' and 'counter-clockwise' that she speaks of"? The less articulate among them will just stare blankly...

Tam said...

Don't even get me started on the ergonomic idiocy of replacing the "Off/On/Volume" knob with up to a half-dozen tiny, identical chiclets...

Sevesteen said...

I've got a Sansa Fuze that lives in my car. Small, with physical controls--If I'm remembering the Nano correctly, very similar in size and concept. Woot.com has them for under $30 for a 4 gig once every month or two.

I don't bother much with the controls--it sits in the ashtray and acts like a decent radio station, starting right where it left off when it gets power again.

aczarnowski said...

One thing about the Outback we picked up a while ago that was instantly obvious on our first night drive was that the headlight controls were WTF?! My wife mostly drives it so every time I get behind the wheel I need to go through a pre-flight check to make sure I remember what all the knobs, buttons, switches, flashing lights and gauges do for me. Then, invariably, the damn wipers come on as we approach dusk and swearing commences.

All that to say "I hear ya." More != Better in many, many cases.

Anonymous said...

"More better" is the phrase we use to describe products that have been improved to the point of being unusable. "Oh look! They made it more better!"

There seems to be 3 sources for this: sales department who just wants to have a longer feature list, young designers without sufficient breadth of experience to know a bad idea when it pops up, and infatuation with new technology (it often takes a few years for designers to figure out optimal uses)

samsam von virginia

perlhaqr said...

I suspect part of the reason they moved away from those headlight knobs you reminisce about was packaging restraints in the dashboard. They dealt with the dash lights via a great big rotary rheostat. They get pretty warm at times.

Of course, they could probably make a switch unit that mimicked that functionality but was all digital crap and whatnot somewhere else.

Thanks for letting me know it's finally time to get off my bum and buy an iPod, if I can find one of those gen 5 units.

Freddyboomboom said...

I've got an older (square) iPod Shuffle I picked up when the really skinny ones came out, 'cause I wanted to get one but didn't like the size and controls of the "new" one.

I see that the latest iPod Shuffle is back to the square with the controls back on the face of it, so maybe other folks didn't like the skinny one either...

Fred said...

I've actually run into kids (student coworkers) who did not know how to use that type of light switch in a vehicle. They honestly could not find the light switch. I think I died a little each time.

Conversely, I picked up an 80GB Classic a few years back. I put it off for years, not wanting to be one of "those people" with the white chords constantly sticking out of my ears, but I quickly learned to love it. It has every bit of music I own on it, and a handful of movies (nothing better than Rambo on a 8 hour car ride), and good ear buds actually help isolate me from the mindless chatter at the coffee shop, something great for trying to study or write with minimal distractions.

Don Meaker said...

When thinking about ergonomics and cars, remember that the go switch is right next to the stop switch, both are placed outside the view of the operator, and you operate them with feet. It takes years to learn how to do that well, and you have to slightly relearn when you get a new or rental car. Puts the Toyota acceleration problems into perspective.

Dr. Coyote said...

Well that didn't take long. I saw your post this morning, checked the apple site, but was running late for work -- "I'll order one as soon as I get home." Yeah, right. And they're on "buy it now" for $209 over at ebay.

Old Windways said...

The first car I ever owned was a 1977 Mercedes (not exactly the norm for a kid born in the mid 1980's), and it had the traditional left hand headlight knob. I remember being asked in Drivers Ed class by the instructor where the headlight switch was and being told that I was wrong. Apparently everyone had switched to the stalk mounted ones by the time the late 90's rolled around and had no idea what I was talking about.

As far as iPods go, when I bought my first generation Nano, it was already old tech, so I got it refurbished from Apple for cheap(er). My only complaint is that after my hard plastic case broke while running this spring, I realized no one makes accessories for my perfectly functional, but apparently obsolete 4 year old music player.

Candidus said...

Never mind the headlight knob; what I really miss is the foot-actuated high-beam switch.

Will said...

"Never mind the headlight knob; what I really miss is the foot-actuated high-beam switch."

Exactly! It had one function, and worked the same in all vehicles. Now, the multi-function stalks don't work the same, have other features you can inadvertently activate, and may even have other stalks close by to really liven up your drive!(Benz cruise control)

Anyone remember the foot switch for the starter? ;)

Anonymous said...

OMG I hadn't thought of that time of headlight switch in years. Just got a new to me truck and I am still brighting people with my light when all I want to do is wash the windshield.

I may need to contact you for a 4 hour block of instruction on how to manipulate the clickwheel by feel. With these meathooks I am always going by what I want.

Merry Christmas to all

Tam said...

Candidus,

"Never mind the headlight knob; what I really miss is the foot-actuated high-beam switch."

I'm torn on that one, driving a manual transmission automobile.

Sevesteen said...

My first car had a foot-operated windshield washer--I stepped on a rubber bulb to force water through the washers. If I stepped hard enough, I could wash the back window, or the window of the car behind me.

Anonymous said...

The first car I drove on the road was a 14 year old '59 VW bug, smae age as me. Not legal but you could get away with it in rural PA. It had the pull out headlight switch, and I think it had the footswitch dimmer, but what I do recall was the total lack of a gas gauge. It had an L shaped rod in the middle of the firewall that you'd flip to the left with your toe when you ran out of gas, switching to the reserve talk like a bike.
Don't forget to flip it back when you fill it up!

Phil

Jake (formerly Riposte3) said...

Honestly, I didn't even like what they did with the third gen nano. Really, the form factor of the first generation was ideal for a device that size - just right to hold on to and manipulate the controls while still being small enough to carry everywhere easily.

The new design has it's good points (it makes a nice watch), but they need to keep the old form factor, too.

staghounds said...

I'm always afraid I'll break one of those stalk things.

Dr. StrangeGun said...

Tiny truck separated the light functions into a rotary knob for the light, a thumbwheel for the dash brightness, and a button for the dome. Only hitch is it's somewhat pointless anyways as it's got the DRL system and automatically turns the lights on anyways. I've driven home at night and realized I'd forgotten to turn the lights on... it did it for me.

Makes flipping the lights as a signal horrible though, you can't turn the lights off at night without disabling the auto system, which you do by pressing the dome button twice rapidly and waiting for the "dinnng". PITA.

The shadow has the classic knob, and I appreciate it greatly.

The Lincoln Mark V I had as my first car had the knob... but was ruined in it's own special 1979 hi-tech way. Big chrome knob functioned as normal, with an extra position for some light configuration I don't recall. But around it were two rings, one for the lights-on sensitivity and one for the automatic dimming sensitivity. But on the floor, too close to the hi-beam switch IMHO, were also two other buttons. They were "Seek Up" and "Seek Down" for the digital (in 1979!) FM stereo. Took a while before my footwork was certain enough that I'd not accidentally change the station on the radio while continuing to blind the poor oncoming sap with twin 7" sealed beam brightness.

The Daewoo had the stalk, and I didn't mind. Pretty standard layout, the end of the stalk twisted for lights, had a ring for the dash bright, and pulled for flash or hi/lo. It was solid enough I didn't mind, and very well labelled and visible, and tactile at that (the ring stood proud and was knurled, and the knob on the stalk had a fin for work by feel).

Dr. StrangeGun said...

BTW, I wouldn't mind horribly having a car with a triple of toggle switches, Brit style... *click* parking lights, *click* low beams, *click* high beams. No illusions, no fancy labeling, each function is either on or off. Said car would probably follow with a dash rheostat on that side, then on the other side a bank of switches for Main 12V bus, fuel pump, starter, cabin fan, fan rheostat, and a couple of momentaries for the windows. Why? Because I'd likely be wiring this myself, and want to make it simple, rugged, and repairable.

Conversely, said home-built is probably also going to have a main power bus (possibly 120VAC at that) and a smaller control bus running solid state relays at the device points. 120VAC would mean a couple half-bridges and some big capacitors would be perfect charging for ~100V or so worth of batteries and so on, and the entire basis for the vehicle's power system would be a single small 120V generator head direct-mounted to the crankshaft with would also serve as a starter. Believe BMW's done the most work on systems like that, actually, though also IIRC they wanted to use 70VDC.

Anonymous said...

I doubt anyone will see this, at this late date, but just in case...

Like Dr. Coyote, I waited until I got home to try to order a refurbished 5th gen Nano, and they were out of stock. Bummer, since trying to manipulate the iPod Touch I already have, while driving, is a definate no-no, and the wheel on the older nano sounded like a good solution.

Well, they're back in stock as of this post. So apparently they go in-and-out of stock; going back to check now and again pays off.