Review: Apple Inc. iPod touch (Third-Generation) | iLounge

Review

Review: Apple Inc. iPod touch (Third-Generation)

B+
Recommended

Company: Apple Computer

Website: www.Apple.com

Model: iPod touch (third-generation)

Price: $299 (32GB), $399 (64GB)

Compatible: PC/Mac

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Jeremy Horwitz

Due to the significant similarities between the third-generation iPod touch and its 2008 predecessor, and the fact that the 2008 model has not been discontinued, we have added the full text of the review below to our prior second-generation iPod touch review, for those who want to get the complete picture of how the devices work, and relate to one another. If you’re interested solely in learning about the new features of the late 2009 iPod touch, the review below covers all the details.

Under different circumstances, calling the “late 2009” iPod touch (32GB/$299, 64GB/$399) a true “third-generation” model would be easier: a look inside its casing reveals a place for a camera that, despite photographic evidence to the contrary, never made it into the final product due to last-minute technical problems. Instead, what Apple has released for the holidays is something closer to an “enhanced second-generation” model, with new hardware mostly hidden inside, some modestly updated software, higher storage capacities for the dollar, and once again, the potential for additional functionality to be unlocked in a paid software update next year. The resulting product is unquestionably better than its predecessor, though it leaves lingering questions as to whether or when its full potential will be unlocked.

Since the core functionality of the new iPod touch is the same as the late 2008 model, we will be adding this update to our prior second-generation iPod touch review, highlighting all of the major changes, and explaining our updated ratings. In short, despite the absence of a camera, the current iPod touch lineup is at least as compelling as last year’s, due in substantial part to the ascendance of the App Store as a resource for all but unlimited, inexpensive game and application releases. At a time when the iPod classic is a dead-end for everything save storage capacity, the iPod shuffle has nothing going for it save size, and the iPod nano is a solid compromise alternative with comparatively limited video, gaming, and app capabilities, the touch has become the smartest overall way to get into the iPod family, assuming you’re willing to pay and accept a larger enclosure to enjoy its benefits.

What’s Changed: The Cosmetics and Pack-Ins

Apart from a single, minor external change, there is no way to tell the latest iPod touch from its predecessor—a fact that may cause some confusion for those wondering which 32GB model they’re purchasing. The minor change is this: engraving.

The back of the late 2008 iPod touch has four lines of engraved text, which sit between an “8GB,” “16GB,” or “32GB” badge and a collection of electronic certification logos. The engraved text starts with a serial number and ends with the words “All rights reserved.” By comparison, the back of the late 2009 32GB and 64GB iPod touch models has a noticeably smaller “32GB” or “64GB” badge, and only two lines of engraved text before those logos. The text starts with the phrase “Designed by Apple in California” and ends with the serial number. Otherwise, the units are indistinguishable from one another when their screens are turned off.

One other difference we noted is one that may or may not hold up throughout the lifespan of this particular model: screen color tint. On pure or mostly white screens, the late 2008 iPod touch has a slightly yellow tint, while the late 2009 model is closer to neutral white, but with a slight pink tint, nearly identical to the display in the iPhone 3GS. The newer touch model has a very modestly more shallow off-center viewing angle than its predecessor before it begins to create “negative blacks,” a problem that seriously impacted first-generation iPod touch screens but was virtually remedied in the subsequent model. For that reason, we would not characterize the new screen as definitively better, but we do prefer its color balance. Viewed directly on center, or even somewhat off-center, the new iPod touch’s screen is bright, colorful, and exceptionally watchable for videos and games; it remains the iPod family’s very best standalone display, and easy to watch entire movies on assuming that you’re willing to hold it or buy a stand to keep it upright.

Another difference is in pack-ins. Unlike its predecessor, the new iPod touch includes Apple’s Earphones with Remote and Mic, which are also packed in with the iPhone 3GS. Like the 3GS version and models that have been shipping since mid-2009, the iPod touch’s Earphones include a hard plastic headphone plug shell that is thinner and more slippery than the prior, thicker soft rubber coating shown in our earlier review. Otherwise, they look, sound, and work the same, providing two volume buttons, a multi-function play/pause/track skip central button, and a microphone that can be used for voice recording and other purposes. While this accessory also works with the late 2008 iPod touch—not the original iPod touch—it can do a little more with the new model, as noted below under What’s Changed: The Software.

What’s Changed: The Hardware

Over the past year, Apple has turned its iPod touch releases into opportunities to cash in twice on hardware changes: once when it sells the device with specifically identified new features, and then again when it offers a paid $10 “software update” that unlocks previously undisclosed capabilities. For the new iPod touch, Apple has promised only two specific hardware changes: “up to 50 percent faster performance” and “support for even better graphics with OpenGL ES 2.0.” Though the company doesn’t discuss the specifics of its components in iPod or iPhone devices, this has been accomplished by a replacement of the prior model’s CPU and graphics processor with newer, faster parts, upping the device’s clock speed to approximately 800MHz and adding new special effects to its graphics arsenal.

For users, these abstract changes do have concrete, though not exactly critical consequences. Install the same game on the old and new iPod touch models and you will notice a difference in loading times. The new iPod touch is faster at loading titles, especially big ones, where the difference can amount to several seconds—you can be starting to play a game on the new model while the old one is still loading up. It’s even faster at loading than the iPhone 3GS, which was itself faster than the old iPod touch, a performance boost that is also manifested in slightly zippier transitions from Home screen to Home screen.

iPod touch 3G versus iPod touch 2G:

Loading aside, the new model’s impact on game performance varies a lot from title to title, even on ones that push the prior iPod touch’s graphics hardware. In the case of Ngmoco’s Star Defense, which we tested on the iPhone 3GS and prior-generation iPhone model, the game both loads faster and benefits from a slightly better frame rate—greater speed and smoothness as you’re rotating around the 3-D planets it presents on screen. Firemint’s Real Racing, another title we’ve tested on multiple platforms, has noticeable improvements in load times but less obvious benefits in frame rates; the difference between the late 2008 and late 2009 iPod touches is marginal at best. And id Software’s Doom Resurrection has an initially faster load time but no apparent difference in frame rates between the devices; once you get into each game, the playing portions look and feel the same.

iPod touch 3G versus iPhone 3GS:

That having been said, the new iPod touch is the second Apple pocket device to include hardware support for OpenGL ES 2.0, a newer graphics technology that debuted in the iPhone 3GS. OpenGL ES 2.0 gives developers the ability to use programmable “shaders” to create more impressive and realistic looking visual effects than the first two iPod touch and first two iPhone models were capable of generating. The upside of this new feature is that future games will look better on the new iPod touch and iPhone 3GS than on earlier models; the downside is that only a handful of games, and then mostly mediocre ones, have been released with support for the new graphics feature. As of the date of this review, one wouldn’t even install on the new iPod touch.

Eurocenter’s Adrenaline Golf Online is an example of a title that works on all of these models, offering superior, shader-assisted graphic performance on the iPhone 3GS and new iPod touch while falling back to the less advanced capabilities of older iPod touch and iPhone models. Load Adrenaline on the new and old iPod touch and you’ll notice that the new touch loads the game faster, and then displays reflective water effects that aren’t found on the old one. But in a sign that it hasn’t yet been optimized for the new iPod touch, the frame rate—the smoothness of changes to the polygonal graphics—is actually a little lower on the new model, and the same game actually loads faster on the iPhone 3GS, the only title we’ve seen to do that. This is not a reflection of the touch’s performance, but rather, a sign that games will need to be optimized by their developers to do more than just load faster on the new model. Give interested developers a few months and the performance curve should be pretty stable: old iPhone, iPhone 3G, and iPod touch hardware will continue to be slower than the late 2008 iPod touch, which will lag behind and have fewer cool special effects than the iPhone 3GS, which will lag modestly behind the new iPod touch.

There are also a couple of undisclosed hardware changes in the new iPod touch that may or may not be unlocked in a later software update. A teardown has revealed that the 802.11 Wi-Fi chip inside the new model is capable of not only its currently unlocked 802.11b and g wireless standards, but also the faster 802.11n standard. Users with 802.11n-only home networks, including us, would love to be able to stop maintaining slower, 802.11g-friendly networks for slower Wi-Fi devices like the touch; for now, the touch’s ability to use 802.11n networks is locked. Additionally, the hardware also has the locked capability of both receiving and transmitting FM radio, which means that the new iPod touch could conceivably serve as an FM radio receiver like the fifth-generation iPod nano, and even broadcast its own content wirelessly to car stereos and other FM radios. Unfortunately, 802.11n, FM receiving, and FM transmitting are all unsupported by the current iPod touch system software (3.1.1), so they’ll only work if and when Apple releases a software update for the touch, most likely for $5 or $10. History suggests that this won’t happen, if at all, until the middle of 2010.

What’s Changed: The Software

Though the second-generation iPod touch was originally released with version 2.0 of the iPhone OS, both that model and the newer one currently run version 3.1.1 of Apple’s iPhone OS, which keeps them almost in lockstep in software features. We have exhaustively detailed the changes Apple made from version 2.0 to 3.0 in our Complete Guide to iPhone OS 3.0, and the subsequent changes from 3.0 to 3.1 in Instant Expert: Secrets and Features of iPhone OS 3.1. In brief, the new software activated a Bluetooth feature capable of stereo audio streaming and iPod-to-iPod/iPhone wireless game playing, a Voice Memos application for voice recording with connected external microphones, a system-wide Spotlight search feature, Google Street View for Maps, and widescreen keyboards for virtually every keyboard-capable application. The iPod touch can also serve as a remote control and keyboard for Apple TV, amongst many other features enabled by downloadable applications.

The new iPod touch does gain two iPhone 3GS-specific software features that are not supported on the earlier second-generation iPod touch model. First is Voice Control, which enables the user to hold down the included Earphones’ central button—not the touch’s own Home button—to activate a mode that lets you speak commands such as “Play Songs By The Beatles” or “Shuffle,” and have the iPod touch automatically follow those commands. As with the iPhone 3GS, though Voice Control isn’t perfect at analyzing voice commands, and will initially appear to be pretty terrible if you don’t follow the required syntax, it does do a very good job when you speak the commands properly. Obviously, the “dial” commands found on the iPhone 3GS have been removed here, and though the prior iPod touch models have also received 3.1.1 software updates, they do not support Voice Control.

Another feature is Accessibility, which provides screen color-inverting, magnification, and VoiceOver reading of on-screen text for those who are visually disabled, as well as a Mono Audio downmixing mode for those with hearing in only one ear, merging left- and right- channel audio into both headphones. The omission of this feature from prior iPod touch and iPhone models continues to be a disappointment to us, and there are elements of its performance—particularly the facts that triple-clicking the Home button can activate either color inversion or VoiceOver but not magnification, and that inversion may actually make the Home screens less readable while improving everything else—that will not totally satisfy those who need help seeing the device’s tiny pixels. Imperfect though it may be, Accessibility is on balance a welcome addition to the iPod touch family.

Notably, one minor new iPhone 3GS specific feature that we really like, the “Battery Percentage” option, is not available on the new iPod touch. This feature enables very precise measurement of remaining battery power, which is useful both for managing real-world use of the device and for performance testing. Our hope is that this feature winds up in a near-term software update.

What’s Changed: Battery Life

When Apple released the second-generation touch, it made considerable improvements to the earlier model’s battery life, The first-generation touch promised 22 hours of audio time, delivering 28.5, and 5 hours of video time, which it matched; the second-generation promised 36 hours of audio time and delivered 39.75, and 6 hours of video, delivering 5 hours and 41 minutes. These were major improvements, and unusually, Apple retreated a little from them for the late 2009 iPod touch: only 30 hours of audio were promised, alongside the same 6 hours of video. This was worrisome, and we expected that the new model would underperform its predecessor.

During our testing, the new iPod touch ran a looping playlist of test 640x480 videos for 7 hours and 52 minutes before expiring, a two-hour boost over the prior version that put this model in the same league as last year’s iPhone 3G and the 120GB iPod classic for video playback—with Wi-Fi off. By comparison, when we ran an audio runtime test with Wi-Fi on—the way Apple measures it—the new touch ran for 30 hours and 20 minutes before expiring, just surpassing the company’s 30-hour promise. Oddly, we found that Apple has changed its performance estimate for the second-generation iPod touch to claim the same 30 hours. In any case, the device does match or outperform the company’s claims when used purely for media playback purposes, and when Wi-Fi was turned off, audio run time jumped by 2 hours and 4 minutes to 32 hours, 24 minutes.

With the iPod touch, however, it must be noted that “pure media playback” may not represent the standard usage model, at least, for audio. As noted, our iPod touch testing assumption is to disable Wi-Fi during video playback, because there’s no way to browse the web, send e-mails, or play games while watching a video; leaving the Wi-Fi antenna on does little more than keep checking your email and Push Notifications while you’re doing something else, and generally won’t be something you do when watching videos in a plane, train, or car. Audio is a different story; put music on and you can still use all of the iPod touch’s other features except for video playback. These features will drain power simultaneously with the iPod music player, as will the use of the Bluetooth and/or Wi-Fi antennas, often considerably reducing the battery life. Apple doesn’t publish multi-function battery life estimates for a number of reasons, but it suffices to say that the more you try to do with the iPod touch at once, the faster you’ll need to recharge the battery.

After 30 minutes of playing the graphically-demanding game Doom Resurrection on the third-generation iPod touch, running at 50% brightness and 50% speaker volume, a third-party application called Battery Life claimed that 15% of the battery had been consumed—in other words, the battery would be completely drained in less than 3.5 hours of playing this game. An exactly identical test of the same levels and the same settings on the second-generation iPod touch led to a claim that 10% was consumed, questionable because the application only provides updates in 5% increments; if accurate, however, this would suggest that the second-generation iPod touch could run the same game for roughly 5 hours before dying. Our suspicion is that the two units are more similar than that, but in any case, playing games and using some other apps will unquestionably cut your battery life by a greater margin than watching movies or listening to music.

What Hasn’t Changed (For Now): Audio, Video, and Nike + iPod

Three core things that haven’t changed much in the new iPod touch are its audio, video, and the Nike + iPod application. Though there are plenty of other things that also have remained the same between models, we point these items out for specific reasons.

Audio: As noted in last year’s review of the second-generation iPod touch, a major improvement in sound quality was achieved when Apple changed audio chips—the audio chip was “cleaner, with a nearly non-existent static noise floor that’s as well-suited to audiophile-grade earphones as free pack-ins.” The same is true for this year’s model; using very high-end multi-driver earphones, we couldn’t detect any difference between the two iPod touches when listening carefully to the latest audiophile-polished remastered Beatles albums, amongst other tracks, and this is a great thing; independent of all of its other abilities, the new iPod touch remains an excellent audio player. Its integrated speaker has not changed in any apparent way from the one in the prior version; it is capable of letting you hear audio up close, and works adequately for game playing and video viewing, but does not perform music with great volume or fidelity.

Video: Once again, the new iPod touch has the ability to display videos on its own 3.5” display, or on an external television screen when connected up using overpriced Apple and third-party video cables, as well as certain other accessories with video-out functionality. The iPod touch models look the same when outputting to a TV, and continue to enforce the same restrictions on files: 640x480-maximum MPEG-4 or H.264 videos, nothing larger except when using certain anamorphic encoding tricks. That having been said, the iPhone 3GS has already been discovered to be capable of outputting high-definition video at resolutions of up to 1080p, and as the new iPod touch has equivalent or superior graphics capabilities, the possibility of a future Apple software-based unlock for higher-resolution video support is there.

Nike + iPod: Despite changes to the fifth-generation iPod nano that saw it gain an integrated pedometer to calculate the user’s footsteps, and support for an as-yet-unannounced Nike+ accessory called the Heart Rate Monitor, the new iPod touch hasn’t gained either feature; it remains capable of linking to Nike’s $19 Nike+ Sensor to track your movement as you run, and can also be used with Nike wireless remote control wristwatches for purposes of music playback control. It’s unclear as to whether Heart Rate Monitor support will appear in an Apple software update, but it’s certainly possible. Moreover, the iPod touch’s support for numerous non-Nike fitness applications guarantees that it is capable of doing more out of the box than the iPod nano.

iPhone 3GS Versus the New iPod touch: A Few Thoughts

Though we prefer to compare iPods to iPods, an obvious question that many users will ask in light of the “$99” iPhone 3G and “$199” iPhone 3GS is how the new iPod touch models stack up, and what we’d recommend purchasing given the choice between an iPhone or an iPod touch. In short, here are the differences between the new iPod touch and both current-model iPhones.

Communications Features: Obviously, both the iPhone 3G and iPhone 3GS include cellular phones for telephone calling, absent from the iPod touch. We are big fans of the phone capabilities of the iPhone 3G and 3GS; our editors live in places where dropped calls are extremely rare, coverage is great, and call quality is uniformly comparable to land lines. In major metropolitan areas, this is not always the case. Tethering, or the ability of the iPhone 3G and 3GS to serve as modems for computers, is not yet supported by AT&T in the United States, but is available outside of the country for an additional fee. Both the phone and tethering capabilities make the iPhone a potentially stronger pick for those who need such features and are willing to pay for them. By comparison, we consider SMS and MMS messaging to be all but irrelevant in an age of instant messaging and e-mail, but some may feel otherwise.

Mapping Capabilities: Without additional software, the iPhone 3G and 3GS can both serve as powerful mapping devices, though separate apps unfortunately continue to be required in order to turn them into automated turn-by-turn driving tools. Both have GPS chips, missing from the iPod touch, which only roughly approximates your current location intermittently using Wi-Fi signals for triangulation. The iPhone 3GS includes a magnetometer, or compass, which roughly determines the device’s magnetic orientation to assist in GPS calculations; the iPod touch and iPhone 3G do not have this feature.

Camera Functionality: The iPod touch was supposed to receive at least a video camera in 2009, but did not, leaving the iPhone 3G and 3GS as better options for those who want to snap photos—and in the case of 3GS, record videos—without using separate devices. Though you could buy an excellent camera or camcorder with the money you’d save in buying an iPod touch instead of either data plan-required iPhone, you wouldn’t be able to send the pictures or videos directly from the camera to the Internet as you can with the iPhone.

Everything Else: The iPod touch and iPhone 3GS both include Nike + iPod support, while the iPhone 3G does not. In terms of raw processing horsepower, the iPod touch bests both the iPhone 3GS and the iPhone 3G, a difference which will lead to marginally better-looking graphics on future touch games than 3GS games, but significantly better graphics on both the touch and 3GS than the iPhone 3G. Finally, there’s the price difference; once you buy the iPod touch, you needn’t spend another dime unless you want more apps or updated Apple system software, but both iPhones carry two-year, $30 per month data service contract obligations on top of however many minutes of talk time you purchase. You can decide for yourself whether these expenses are justified by the features; as iPhone users, we generally believe that they are, but not everyone can afford these prices.

Conclusions

When the second-generation iPod touch was released last year, it was on the fine edge of our high recommendation: Apple had fixed so many of the issues with the first-generation model that the biggest thing holding us back from greater enthusiasm was the second-generation’s weak storage capacity for the dollar. At $229, the 8GB touch commanded an $80 premium over an 8GB iPod nano, yet was too weakly equipped in capacity to hold the music, videos, and apps that would inevitably come to be in the typical user’s library. At its new price of $199, the prior 8GB model’s premium has dropped to only $50, and though the capacity remains too low, it’s easier to recommend as a great starter iPod for younger users, and represents a far better value for its price than an iPod nano of comparable capacity. This isn’t to say that the nano lacks for advantages, particularly the video camera and smaller size, but the value of more games and apps, the bigger screen, Wi-Fi, and numerous integrated computer-like features—Safari web, e-mail, Google Maps, and direct iTunes/App Store access—make the touch an even more valuable device in almost every way. At its current pricing, even in the absence of enhanced functionality, the 8GB iPod touch is worthy of our high recommendation. For the time being, the fact that it’s not as fast as the newer iPod touch is trivial; months from now, with proper software, the more expensive model’s superior capabilities may matter more.

That brings us to the late 2009 iPod touch. There is no question in our minds that something went wrong this year at Apple, and that a camera—possibly more—wound up excluded at the last minute from a device that could certainly have become more capable. Moreover, Apple’s continued tick-tock policy of releasing iPod touches and then subsequently charging for later software upgrades to unlock the hardware they have inside has become nothing short of annoying; readers have made clear that they feel they’re being ripped off, even though numerous non-hardware-specific improvements are offered at the same time. In any case, the fact that the new model ships with new hardware that isn’t being properly exploited by Apple or third-party software—except for faster loading times—is not a huge draw at this point in time; like the company’s Snow Leopard operating system, the new iPod touch is being pitched largely on the promise of better things to come in the future, and the added storage space you’ll gain. Had the new touch arrived with more of its capabilities unlocked at the start, it would have merited more excitement and a high recommendation, without question.

Having said that, the new $299 and $399 iPod touches do represent better values than last year’s models. The 32GB version will give most users more than enough space to keep a lot of music, a bunch of videos, and quite a few apps or games handy, and the 64GB version has inched one step closer to the magic 128GB storage capacity we’ve been waiting for since the first-generation iPod touch arrived on the scene in 2007. As attractive as the 8GB model might be to price-conscious users, the 64GB version will unquestionably entice many—not all—of those who have been holding off on transitioning from a hard disk-based iPod or iPod classic because of storage concerns. Should Apple do the right thing and boost capacities again next year, the need for the iPod classic will be all but gone, and we won’t shed a tear.

For the time being, Apple’s late 2009 iPod lineup has two clear standout products—the iPod nano and iPod touch—with the classic and shuffle falling behind them to varying degrees. Though we really like the iPhone 3G and iPhone 3GS, particularly because of their integrated cameras and near-anywhere access to the Internet, the extra $700+ they require in data service plans is a non-trivial expense that only some users will be willing to tolerate in exchange for their extra features. If we were voting with our own pocketbooks and preferences, and in need of buying something right now, we’d pick the iPhone 3GS or a late 2009 iPod touch over any other iPod, even though the lower prices of the prior iPod touch and new iPod nano will surely make them bigger sellers. On the other hand, we wouldn’t blame anyone for wanting to wait and see what happens next; the new iPod touch has a lot more under the hood than is currently apparent, and like its predecessor, will truly come into its own when better software is released to exploit its capabilities.

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Editors' Note: iLounge only reviews products in "final" form, but many companies now change their offerings - sometimes several times - after our reviews have been published. This iLounge article provides more information on this practice, known as revving.

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