Filming location for spaghetti westerns in Almería, Spain

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© 1987-2016
Scott Larson

Building façade in Cannes, France

In and out of touch

Well, I finally arrived at the place where the vast majority of the world has already long been.

No, I am not talking about the opinion that Quentin Tarantino is some kind of friggin’ genius. I’m talking about the fact that Apple has taken over the world. Of course, leave it to me to come to this conclusion at the very moment that Apple has gotten its first real batch of bad (or, at least, less than positive) publicity since as long as the media can remember—which, of course, works out to about three months. Their new iPhones seem to have a rare bit of inelegant design insofar as concerns the antenna. Somehow this amounts to stop-the-presses stuff among tech journalists.

Anyway, every so often I have shared what gadgets I have been using because I think that that would be at least as interesting to people as what movies I like or don’t like. (Insert your own snide comment here.) These have included my (once) cherished Archos 605 WiFi (for listening to and watching media and surfing the web very portably) and my much appreciated Sony PRS-505 e-reader. The former was my tool of choice for listening to or watching podcasts while on the go, and the latter was my compact solution to always having something to read (books or periodicals or individual articles I had electronically clipped) wherever I went. They were particularly useful while attending film festivals because, having a short attention span, I need to be listening to something while walking from one venue to another and because, for the same reason, it is handy to have something to read while sitting in a cinema waiting for the movie to start or while scarfing junk food at some fine chain establishment. This need to constantly inform/entertain/amuse myself meant that I have always walked around with a bag full of gadgets and accessories. In addition to my e-reader and my media player, I would need eyeglasses (to be able to read), a book light (to be able to read in darkened cinemas) plus other various paraphernalia. I always felt like one of those street people hauling around all their world possessions everywhere they go.

But then I finally broke down and got an Apple iPod Touch. I could have just as well gotten an iPhone (since the iTouch is essentially an iPhone without the phone bit), but I didn’t. I am not ready to make that leap yet. I can only take so much convergence at a time. What I was not prepared for was how many things the iTouch did better than my old gadgets. Connecting to the internet (usually via my home WiFi network) was instantaneous, a major improvement over the several steps and delays and retries required by the Archos. In fairness, Archos have come out with several new products since the 605 WiFi model, and any or all of those could well work as well or as better than the Apple product. But once I find a product I like, I tend to be loyal, and the iTouch has now earned my loyalty.

Not only is it a great little machine for browsing the web, there are plenty of third-party apps that have freed me from the tether of a USB cable in getting podcasts to listen to. I can download podcasts directly to the iTouch, which means I can get my NPR and BBC fix first thing in the morning without having to fire up the PC first. And live streams are much more hassle free than with my old Archos. But let me be clear. I am not trashing Archos here. Their product was great for the moment in which I discovered it. It’s not a fair comparison to put it up a much newer product from Apple. All I am doing here is praising the iTouch.

The biggest surprise was that this little gadget would take over a lot of the reading I had been doing on the Sony PRS-505. I had heard of people using iPods as e-readers, but I was skeptical. Surely the screen was too small for comfortable reading of texts of any length. But reading on the iTouch is surprisingly comfortable and satisfying. The resolution is sharp enough and the scrolling is easy enough that it doesn’t matter that the screen size is roughly that of a pack of cigarettes. Moreover, when reading periodicals, it really makes a difference to see art and photos in full color. And since the device is backlit, ambient lighting is not an issue. While waiting for a movie to start, I can read away even if the lights are completely shut off in the auditorium. In an extra bonus (which has more to do with my surgeon than with Steve Jobs), I don’t even need glasses—because of having my cataracts removed. What this all means is that, during the recent Galway Film Fleadh, I was able to get by during the whole day without a bag. The iTouch fit conveniently in a pocket, and the only other thing I needed to carry with it were ear buds for when I wanted to listen to podcasts while wandering the streets of Galway. Okay, I still carried a bag, but only because I was given a cool official Film Fleadh bag and need to show it off. But all I had in it was my official glossy Film Fleadh program and a jacket for those times when I emerged from a cinema into pouring rain. I feel liberated just knowing though that, if we ever get a reliable stretch of good weather, I could go around without a bag.

I am not throwing the Sony e-reader into the dustbin. It is still a good way to read longer books—especially ones that are in a copy-protected digital format. If there is anything that makes the Archos worth keeping around, it is the fact that it has the handy capacity to play the raw files copied directly from a movie DVD (.VOD files), making it very handy for those cases where you would like to watch a movie or TV show or other video on a small screen. You can, of course, get any video over to the iPod as well, although with a bit of extra effort, i.e. by buying it from iTunes or, with even more time and effort, ripping a DVD and converting the files to .mp4 files.

What I have not changed about my reading habits is the use of the great (and constantly improving) program Calibre (created and maintained by a genius named Kovid Goyal). It conveniently pulls down online editions of my favorite newspapers, magazines, blogs and other web sites and puts them in a structured e-reader-readable format. You can of course read, say, The New York Times on an iTouch by simply using the New York Times app. But Calibre is a convenient way of capturing a whole issue and reading it without worrying about whether you are in range of a reliable WiFi connection. The Stanza app (Lexcycle, Inc.) on the iTouch is handy for reading these files. For articles and publications I obtain in PDF format, the GoodReader app ( does the trick.

As it happens, Apple’s vaunted iPad is (finally) going to be available in Ireland tomorrow. When it was first released in the States, I had a feeling this would something I would really want. What I didn’t expect was that the (relatively) humble iTouch would fulfill so many of the hopes and expectations I had for the iPad. Sure, the iPad screen is bigger and you can do more real computing things on it. But the iTouch has what I really want from a media device and e-reader. It is compact enough to carry around in pocket. If I were to get an iPad, would I not be back to really having to carry around that bag—even in fine weather? And deal with cinemas (like the Eye in Galway) which refuse to let you bring bags into the cinema with you because they suspect you are sneaking in (reasonably priced) candy and soft drinks?

Bottom line: At this moment, I don’t think I need an iPad. But that could change when someone I know gets one and I get to touch it with my own fingers.

-S.L., 22 July 2010

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