Amar Sagoo

19 July 2006

The Non-Wheel iPod

Whenever you see the rumoured next-generation video iPod mentioned, the expected features always include a huge screen covering the front of the device and a “virtual”, touch-screen-based click wheel.

I may be missing something here, but what exactly would be the point of that? The reason the iPod has a scroll wheel is to make scrolling easier on a device that doesn’t allow more direct manipulation of screen content. If you had a touch screen, the grounds for having a scroll wheel would disappear, and you could just use a scroll bar, right? A scroll bar would allow scrolling directly to any point in a list and would involve less (and less awkward) physical movement.

Also, if you had such a nonsensical, virtual scroll wheel, you’d be waving your thumb around over the contents of the screen all the time, which doesn’t sound like a clever idea. Of course, you could dedicate a section of the screen for this wheel, but wouldn’t you rather use that space to make the list taller?

So I think either the creative minds behind the rumour sites didn’t think this one through properly, or the creative minds at Apple are making some rather silly decisions. Let’s hope it’s the former.


  1. Personally, I can't think of a better method of navigation on a small device. If I want to scroll through a long list, I want fluid movement. I don't want to move a scroll bar with lift-drag vertical motion and I certainly don't want to have to reposition my thumb top and bottom of the unit.

    A virtual click wheel obviously allows for a larger screen - which is never a bad thing - and provides continuity with the existing models.

    I'm not keen on touch sensors, I like real, textured buttons but the new iPods work pretty well in the pocket. I think added usability on a virtual click wheel would include choice selection with a click in the navigation ring (instead of having to lift your finger and click the centre button) and retaining the click by making the entire fascia depress (like the mighty mouse).

  2. A scroll bar shouldn't require lifting and dragging motion; once you've "grabbed" it by pressing/touching it, you can keep scrolling through or jumping to parts of the list by moving your finger vertically without lifting it.

    However, as you pointed out, having to traverse that vertical distance with your thumb could be a problem on a hand-held device, because you'll want to use only one hand for both holding it and scrolling. I hadn't thought of that.

    Another problem would be the resolution of the scroll bar, because you may not be able to scroll with line-by-line accuracy.

    So I guess neither solution is ideal. Although I'm still sure that this technique could improve the scroll-wheel method.

  3. I was thinking of the vertical touch sensor on the creative and olympus players (admittedly more intuitive for volume control).

    One thing that always bugs me about scrolling with a Palm device is that it's on the 'right' side. I'm a left-handed mutant, so it irks me.

  4. The iPod has been about no moving parts. A virtual touch screen scroll bar would indicate that you merely lean or pressure your thumb in the direction to raise or lower volume or scroll. No more moving the other hand or finger and shifting the holding. The natural holding in the palm and controling with the one hand would seem essential. I believe, looking at the patent designs, that the unit would be able to be preferenced for a left or right-handed person just like the regular full-sized display screens Apple have built.

  5. Good call! Now that we're seeing what the iPhone's (and presumably future iPods') interface looks like, it's a no-brainer that the wheel is gone.

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