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Goodbye PDA, Hello iPod?
Can a new iPod actually function as a PDA replacement?

by Terrie Miller
05/05/2003

A few months ago, I heard someone mention the iPod's ability to store and synchronize contacts and events with the Mac OS X Address Book and iCal applications. I was intrigued. While I love my PDA, I use it almost exclusively to look up contacts, events, and short notes. I rarely use it for input (unless you count playing MineHunt while waiting in line). Slowly but surely an inner voice started trying to convince me that I really needed a cool and wonderful MP3 player as a replacement for my perfectly good PDA.

Though it required some patience waiting on new models, that voice finally won out. I'm the proud owner of one of the new, beautiful 10-Gig iPods that use version 2.0 of the iPod firmware. And I've been trying out the PDA features to decide if that inner voice was right.

Addresses and iCal

Getting your contacts and calendar onto the iPod is easy. iSync automatically recognizes the iPod as a device and gives you several options:

Screen shot.
iSync lets you choose which Address book and iCal items to synch.

You can pick and choose among the calendars to synchronize--a nice feature if there are calendars you access infrequently. Oddly enough, you can choose either all contacts or one group of contacts, but you can't choose multiple groups; and if you choose "All Contacts", your groups are not included, although the contacts within them are. I use groups in Address Book for categories like family, work, businesses, etc., and it would faster to browse the iPod for individual addresses if I could choose a group first and drill down from there.

The photos below will give you a feel for how the interface to contacts and calendars works. First, here's how the calendar interface drills down to an individual event:

Photo of iPod screen.
1. Select the calendar.

Photo of iPod screen.
2. The month view appears--select day.

Photo of iPod screen.
3. Events for the day are listed.

Photo of iPod screen.
4. Select an event for details.

Viewing calendars on the iPod can be slow. Sometimes you'll need to wait for items to be displayed once you've selected them. Also, don't expect to see your to-do list here: apparently to-do items from iCal don't synch, although I've heard some reports that manually copying your calendars over to the iPod disk makes them viewable (until the next synch).

Here's what the contacts interface looks like:

Photo of iPod screen.
1. Select contact from the list.

Photo of iPod screen.
2. Contact details appear.

By default, the contacts will appear sorted by first name, and listed "firstname lastname". However, in the iPod settings menu you can change this to sort by last name, and/or to display as "lastname, firstname". You can't, however, change the sort order on the fly while you're viewing the list.

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Using your iPod as a Hard Disk

Using the iPod as a hard disk isn't new, but it's worth a mention because it's such a useful feature (and it's necessary for using text notes).

You'll need to set your iPod preferences so that the device can be used as a hard disk. But first you'll need to find your iPod preferences, something I didn't find very intuitive. iPod preferences are actually found in iTunes, but not in the preferences menu. With the iPod connected, select it in the iTunes source list, and look at the bottom of your iTunes window: you'll see a small iPod-ish icon for "Display Options for Player". Click on that, and select "Enable Firewire Disk Usage".

Screen shot.
Enabling your iPod to be used as a hard disk is done through iTunes -- the iPod must be connected and must be selected under the iTunes "Source" list.

When you enable this option, you'll need to eject your iPod before disconnecting it from your computer, much the same way you eject a connected camera or similar device; for details, see this knowledge base article.

Once enabled, you'll see your iPod in the Finder and can browse it like any other disk.

Text Notes

Before you can use the text notes feature, there are two things you should do:

In its simplest form, you can simply drag text files into the Notes directory on your iPod. When using the iPod, just use the Extras > Notes to view your notes. Notes of up to 4kb can be stored on the iPod; if your file is bigger than 4kb, it will be truncated.

I find that sometimes the list of notes did not appear on the iPod: if I press "Menu" to back up again and reselect Notes, the list pops right up. Between this and the slow calendar response, it seems likely that some software updates may be coming--or at least needed--in the near future.

Enabling the Script Menu utilities
The Script Menu is installed with Mac OS X 10.2, but to use the iPod scripts from Apple, you'll need to activate it, if you haven't already. Just open your Applications folder, find the AppleScript folder, and double-click on the ScriptMenu.menu folder icon (or drag it to menu bar).

Screen shot.
Once you activate the Script Menu, its icon will appear in your menu bar. See AppleScript in Mac OS X for full details -- this little utility can also launch Perl and Shell scripts, in addition to AppleScript scripts.

Then download the iPod scripts library; just copy the iPod folder into the Home > Library > Scripts directory (go ahead and create the directory if it doesn't already exist). Now you'll see an "iPod" choice in the Script Menu:

Screen shot.
The iPod options will now appear on the menu.

To create a note, make sure your iPod is connected as a hard disk and then copy the text for the note to the clipboard (you can select the text from any application it happens to be in). Then use the "Clipboard to Note" item on your Script Menu. You'll be prompted for a title for your note, and it will be created with that title as a filename in the "Notes" directory of your iPod.

Photo of the iPod screen.
A simple text note on the iPod.

More than Just Plain Text

The notes functionality of the iPod has some other interesting features. It actually supports a subset of html tags, including linking to other notes or even songs. Supported html tags include <p></p>, <br> and <a href>. I tried <b> and <i> tags, but they don't appear to be supported. The XHTML-correct <br /> is not supported. It displays the code rather than inserting a line break.

Here's an example of some markup within a note:

<p>To create a note, copy the text for the note to the clipboard (you can select the text from any application it happens to be in), and then use the "Clipboard to Note" item on your Script Menu.</p>

<p><a href="Instructions">View the more instructions here</a>.</p>

In this example, the link to "Instructions" will take the reader to the note of that same name. Links are underlined when displayed on the iPod, and followed by pressing the "select" button. If there are multiple links, the scroll wheel can be used to move between them.

Song linking can include using filters to create temporary playlists of songs. An example from the Apple documentation is

<a href="ipod:music?genre=rock&artist=Brian Eno">Combo</a>

For more juicy details, see the iPod Note Reader User Guide (a PDF file) from the iPod section of the Apple Developer Connection.

No Input? That Might Change...

Perhaps the biggest barrier to using an iPod as a PDA is the lack of any way to input any data while you're on the move and away from your computer. But it's possible that this may change...soon.

As first reported on iPoding, the iPod's diagnostic mode reveals a recording feature, and you can actually try it out now:

  1. Hold down the "Menu" and "Play/Pause" buttons (the two center buttons in the top row) until the Apple logo appears.
  2. Press and hold down, in this order, the center button (inside the dial) and then "Previous" and "Next" (the two outside buttons in the top row). The Apple logo disappears--release buttons and you'll hear a chirp and see a "reverse" logo before the diagnostics menu appears.
  3. Use the "Next" button to scroll thru the choices until you reach "J. Record".
  4. Press the center button (inside the dial) and you'll see "Recorder"--have your left headphone ready to use as a microphone.
  5. When you see "BEGIN" in the menu, start talking into the headphone for about 6 seconds.
  6. When the time is over, you'll see "DONE". Press the center button to play back your recording.
  7. Press Play/Pause to return to the diagnostic menu
  8. I'm not sure of the proper way to exit diagnostic mode, but I found that I can press and hold "Menu" and "Play/Pause" again until the Apple Logo appears, and then release it and wait a few seconds to be returned to your iPod's usual main menu

Of course, this doesn't seem to be good for anything yet. I haven't been able to find any sound files stored on the device so that I can retrieve a short voice memo. But it appears that the capability for such a feature exists, so it's an exciting possibility for the future.

So Is it Time to Retire the PDA?

As usual, it depends. If you use your PDA for more than small notes, contacts and calendaring, or if you do frequent input using your PDA, the PDA-like features of the iPod are going to seem anemic at best.

If you mainly use your PDA as a look-up device for contacts, events, and a small amount of other information, the iPod may be all you need. I really like the readability that's been packed into the small screen area. I find it easier to read than the larger characters on my PDA. Navigating the address book would be easier with support for groups, and it would be nice to have a way to create notes on the computer and then have them synch to the iPod later, without having to have the iPod connected to create a note.

The iPod certainly has some distance to go if it's ever to become a full-featured PDA replacement (and that may not be the plan, after all). But for my money and pocket space, I think this is going to be just the ticket. I may have to figure out how to sell something on eBay next.

Terrie Miller likes to work on articles while listening to the Pretenders.


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