Review: Apple iPod touch (8GB/16GB/32GB)
Pros: Apple’s first iPod-branded device with a widescreen display, wireless Wi-Fi antenna, and icon-based touchscreen interface, offered at a lower price than the company’s same-capacity iPhone. Includes iPhone-style music, video, photo, and web browsing features, plus updated versions of several classic iPod applications, plus wireless access to the iTunes Store for audio downloads. Offers longer audio and video run times than last year’s models, in a surprisingly thin package.
Cons: Feels less like a flagship iPod than an intentionally stripped down iPhone, with diminished cosmetics, interface and features. Noticeably downgraded screen exhibits problems such as inverted blacks and dead pixels, which detract from video viewing experience, while shorter battery life, lower storage capacity, longer transfer times, and less impressive audio quality make it a surprisingly so-so alternative to the less expensive iPod classic. Neither Apple’s best portable video or audio device; also lacks games. Continues iPhone’s overly expensive battery replacement program, despite using less powerful battery.
[Editor’s Notes: On January 29, 2008, we added a new section to the last page of this review, detailing Apple’s release of a $20 software upgrade for the iPod touch, containing five applications (Mail, Maps, Stocks, Weather and Notes) previously reserved only for iPhone users. On February 5, 2008, Apple released a 32GB version of the iPod touch at a $499 price point, without changing the device’s other features or dimensions. Due in part to screen quality concerns that were raised in our original review, found in multiple early units we’ve tested, and never fully addressed by Apple, our rating of the iPod touch has remained unchanged since it was originally issued in September, 2007.]
Executive Summary: iPod touch is a stripped-down iPhone, with a similar (but not identical) display and icon-heavy touchscreen interface, one wireless antenna, and some of iPhone’s applications. The iPod functionality is preserved and modestly enhanced with video-out functionality. In addition to the previously mentioned missing pack-ins, you also lose iPhone’s camera, phone functionality, built-in speakers, built-in microphone, side volume controls, superior screen, superior battery, larger suite of applications, and Bluetooth wireless feature. You can see a video showing off both devices’ applications here.
If you’ve been following the hundreds of iPhone details that occupied months of attention earlier this year, nothing inside the iPod touch will surprise you: it’s the same device, minus features. But it’s worth reiterating some of the novelties iPhone introduced that managed to survive the slenderizing process, and pointing out the important ones that didn’t.
Most notably, iPod touch still contains a 3.5”, 480x320-pixel widescreen display with a multi-touch-sensitive covering. Unlike any prior iPod, this display lets you access music, videos, photos, and programs using a main menu with touch-sensitive icons rather than just lines of text; you use your fingers to touch the icons rather than scrolling through menus with a Click Wheel. Each icon represents a separate feature or “application” on the iPod touch, which other than being less numerous and slightly less fully-equipped than the ones on iPhone, are basically identical.
iPod touch has only two physical buttons. One is the aforementioned Wake/Sleep button on top, which turns on and off the screen, and doubles as a power on/off switch. The other is the Home button on its face, which serves to bring you back to the main menu from wherever else you might be in iPod touch’s interface. Since Apple has removed the volume buttons from iPod touch that were found on iPhone’s left side, double-tapping the Home button brings up those controls, plus track and play/pause buttons, on any one of iPod touch’s screens. Holding Home down for several seconds forces the currently viewed application to quit, and holding both Home and Wake/Sleep forces the iPod touch to reset.
iPod touch includes two types of sensors that have never been in an iPod before: an accelerometer, which enables the device to detect when it’s been rotated from an upright position into a widescreen one, and a brightness sensor, while allows the screen to brighten and dim automatically based on ambient light conditions. Both sensors work just as they’re supposed to, so you don’t have to fidget with the screen to make it look right; however, you can turn off the automatic brightness adjustment if you prefer and make manual adjustments.
The iPhone introduced three great audio-specific features that had never been included in an iPod: an integrated speaker that could play music or other audio when headphones weren’t attached, a built-in microphone, and side-mounted volume controls you could access without having to activate the screen or step through menus. None of these features have survived to iPod touch, most regrettably the speaker, which made it possible to quickly enjoy music or videos without earphones. Nor has iPhone’s rear-mounted camera, which takes surprisingly great pictures, or its packed-in dock or wall charger. You’ll need to add pictures and, other than the included USB cable, provide standalone charging and docking solutions on your own.
iPod touch still contains the iPhone’s 802.11b/g-compatible Wi-Fi functionality, which when coupled with Apple’s built-in Safari browser enables you to connect to web sites, YouTube, and now a wireless version of the iTunes Store without using your computer—assuming you have access to a home or office wireless network, or another wireless hotspot. Apple has preserved and enhanced iPhone’s on-screen keyboard so that you can enter web addresses and search terms for YouTube and the iTunes Store, as well as contact information, now even with characters from non-English languages.
However, Apple has either removed or completely disabled Bluetooth in the iPod touch, a feature which—like the iPhone’s Wi-Fi—is hugely underutilized in the earlier device. Other companies have used Bluetooth or Wi-Fi to stream audio and video content directly to or from a portable device and a computer, another portable device, or a dedicated listening accessory, but Apple has offered no such functionality with iPhone, and shows no signs of doing so with iPod touch.
More obviously, iPod touch also entirely loses the iPhone’s much better than expected GSM/EDGE cell phone features, as well as a number of applications and features which at least sometimes relied upon them. You can synchronize and edit contacts, but not send or receive e-mail to them, or create editable notes; you can view YouTube, but not send your favorite clips to friends; and you can browse the web, but not get one-touch access to stocks, weather, Google maps, or text messaging.
iPod touch only gains one thing that’s currently absent from iPhone: video out. Consequently, you’ll be able to dock iPod touch in certain Apple-authorized video docks and watch its video content on a connected TV. For both physical and electronic reasons, you cannot use iPod touch with most of the portable video displays and docks previously released. There have been numerous clues that iPhone possesses the same hardware video-out capability, but Apple has disabled it; it remains to be seen whether this will change in the future.
From a software standpoint, Apple’s approach to preserving and omitting iPhone features is only partially understandable, and seems to have been decided in a rush, with certain features unexpectedly cut from the iPhone’s software even after iPod touch’s manual was written. You can tell how hastily iPod touch’s feature set was developed from some of its on-screen displays, which still say “iPhone” rather than “iPod touch;” like the manuals, we’d expect that Apple will clean up these references at some future date. We’ll have to stay tuned to see how the device evolves—or doesn’t—in the future.