I`ve never particularly cared for the iPhone`s built-in iPod app. It`s great at playing music, sorting it, letting you make on-the-fly playlists and doing that cool Cover Flow thing. It`s a whole lot more interesting to look at than the iPod I had in 2005, that`s for sure.
But the one thing that hangs me up about the iPhone`s music player is its control layout. It has small touchscreen buttons, and the volume control is the only thing that gives you any kind of tactile feedback. It`s the only control you can feel out with your fingertips and use without having to look at the screen, unless you`re so used to handling the phone that you can pull off a no-look track select.
That layout`s just fine if you`re sitting on a couch, in a plane, or in any kind of situation in which you`re free to hold the device in front of your face and look at it. But when I listen to music, I`m often doing something else -- running, cycling, driving, etc. Sometimes the phone is tucked away in an armband. That keeps it more secure than stuffing it in your pocket when you`re out for a jog, but have you ever tried to stare at the outside of your shoulder while running?
What`s more, armbands sometimes cover the volume controls. And the Shake to Shuffle feature? While running? I can barely make it stay on a track for longer than 60 seconds while on a bicycle.
The solutions are simple: Listen on something with physical buttons, like the iPod shuffle, which holds less music. Or try an app like CarTunes, which makes use of the phone`s screen to let you control music with swipes and taps, rather than precise button-presses.
Judging by the name, CarTunes` developers seem to have targeted their app at people who like to hook their iPhones up to their car stereos. And CarTunes really does give you easier control over your music when your eyes need to remain on the road. But it`s really a more convenient way to control your music anywhere, whether the phone`s on your dashboard or strapped to your arm or waist.
CarTunes draws music from the same library the regular iPod app does, so there`s no special loading procedure that has to be done in the App menu on iTunes. Just load your songs as you normally would.
The first time you start CarTunes, you`ll get a quick tutorial on what a few of the various swipe and tap gestures do. If you forget, that`s OK -- almost all of this stuff is customizable.
The first song you hear will be whatever was last playing in your iPod app. If you have nothing on hold there, you`ll need to bring up the iPod app and start playing something. In fact, if you ever want to find a specific song based on artist, song name, album or any of the usual categories, you`ll need to flip over to iPod to get it, then switch back to CarTunes to get back to the swipe controls. The app isn`t so much about making it easier to find a specific song. Its purpose is to make cruising through a playlist easier when you`re not looking at the screen.
However, CarTunes does give you the ability to make an in-app playlist. If you want all the songs on your iPhone to show up there, just add them all to the playlist, and you won`t have to do any more back-switching.
Once you have all your songs in order, you`ll see where CarTunes really shines. The simplest command is to tap the screen -- anywhere on the screen -- to play or pause. If you swipe upward with one finger, you`ll get a menu of features, including the gesture control panel.
Various gestures can be activated or deactivated. Side swipes will take you to the next track on the list. Or not -- you can turn it off if you don`t like that one. Likewise for the Double-Tap Next and Triple-Tap Previous options. You can even reverse the direction of swipes if you`re more comfortable going left to right than right to left to get to the next song.
Volume can be controlled with gestures too, which is especially convenient if your iPhone is being kept in an armband. With the standard control, every time you press and hold your finger to the screen for a second, a volume knob will appear. Draw a circle clockwise or counterclockwise to adjust up or down. Or you can control simply by swiping upwards or downwards. Note that if you activate the one-finger version of this control, you`ll need to swipe upward with two fingers to get back to the menu. I`d have figured that out much sooner if I`d tapped the info icon on each option.
Two- and three-fingered taps can be assigned a lot of different things: Skip 30 seconds forward or back, shuffle the playlist, mute, bring up the playlist and more.
Whatever gesture combination is most comfortable, you can set it, learn it, and quickly master the art of no-look iPod control.
CarTunes` menu screen has more options. For one thing, Themes will let you choose the song info you want to see with each tune and the font it`s written in. Details concerning the progress bar and album artwork can also be adjusted.
Finally, the Advanced guide lets you toggle auto-dim and decide whether you want it to override the iPhone`s Auto-Lock function. That`s an important one -- having to do the slide-and-PIN maneuver every time you leave it alone for five minutes would defeat the purpose of the app. Auto-Lock can be disengaged in the iPhone`s Settings menu, but it`s nice to have it running only when this app is in play. Just be careful that you don`t lose the phone while it`s on.
The Advanced menu also covers toggles for functions like Play on Launch, Pause on Exit, and Gesture Vibrations.
One thing I`d like to see in CarTunes, though, is an orientation lock. The app works in both portrait and landscape mode, and an "up swipe" in one orientation might be a "left swipe" in the other. When you`re swinging your arms or holding them out in front of you to grasp handlebars, it`s not always clear which orientation the phone might happen to be in.
For now, though, it`s easy enough to lock an iPhone into portrait mode by double-tapping home, swiping left to right to see the music controls, and tapping the circle-and-arrow button on the left.
CarTunes might not add fingertip-pleasing controls to your iPhone, but it succeeds in making music playback easier to control. And it`s great to be able to customize the gesture control scheme.
The app may have been made with driving in mind, but those who strap on their iPhones to do anything physically active will probably appreciate it as well.