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: Despite the fact that iPod touch is Apple’s most expensive iPod, it offers less battery life than the $149 iPod nano, and far less than Apple’s latest hard disk-based iPods. Apple’s post-warranty battery replacement plan for iPod touch is unusually expensive by iPod standards, as well. Between its low storage capacities and its slow transfer speeds, iPod touch takes a longer time than any other iPod to reload with music and movies, and more frequently requires such reloading if you hope to make best use of its video screen.
iPod touch’s most distinctive characteristic—its thinness—is also the one that makes us the most concerned about Apple’s future plans for the family. From generation to generation, past iPods have started thick and gotten thinner. If that’s going to happen with future editions of the iPod touch, we’ll be the first to ask Apple to reverse course: the most expensive iPod video player needs the battery power and storage capacity to make the most of its screen, and in both regards, it’s obvious that iPod touch has been starved to the bone.
The best way we can explain iPod touch’s battery performance is to note that it’s outperformed on both video and audio run time by every screened iPod currently on the market, including the iPod nano, as well as the iPhone. During our first test of its battery, the iPod touch played back test iTunes Store videos for a meager 4 hours and 30 minutes, falling more than an hour short of the iPod nano, two hours short of the 80GB iPod classic, three hours short of the iPhone, and five hours short of the 160GB iPod classic. This was with both the iPod touch’s and the iPhone’s wireless features turned entirely off; leaving them on will only reduce those times further.
We were so surprised by this result that we repeated the test two more times with the same content on two different iPod touch units, and the results were different. These times, video played for between 4 hours and 10 minutes or 4 hours and 30 minutes before playback stopped abruptly; iPod touch was stopping playback when the battery was running low. Eventually, both units went on to play video for 5 hours and 30 or 40 minutes. Our table’s 5:05* number is an average of our best and worst testing results; it remains to be seen whether updated firmware will enhance the continuous runtime.
With a Wi-Fi-disabled audio run time of 28 hours and 30 minutes, iPod touch’s music run time was much better than its video performance—and solid enough that no one will complain. Assuming you keep its Wi-Fi antenna disabled, it’s surely better on pure run time than the best of last year’s discontinued iPods, which played for 24 hours before expiring. But it’s still not up to the levels of this year’s less expensive iPods, or the iPhone. It runs for almost 2 hours less than the new iPod nano, nearly 8 hours less than the 80GB iPod classic, and nearly 30 hours less than the 160GB iPod classic. Used purely as a music player, the iPhone blew right past its run time, too, with over 10 hours of extra run time. Of course, both the iPod touch and iPhone are meant to be used with their wireless features turned on, and their screens enjoyed rather than turned down, so these numbers are on the high side: expect real-world performance to be lower.
Adding further salt to this wound is Apple’s Out-of-Warranty Battery Replacement Program for the iPod touch, which—unlike the merely upsetting $66 charge for other iPods—requires you to pay Apple the same staggering $88 you’d pay to replace the iPhone’s battery. As with the iPhone, Apple hasn’t brought this price increase to the attention of iPod customers, who will no doubt be shocked when their batteries need replacement. Hopefully by then there will be more reasonably priced third-party solutions.
If iPod touch lags a step behind Apple’s full-sized iPods in battery life, it’s far further behind even last year’s models in capacity. Bear in mind that Apple hasn’t offered a 20GB iPod since 2005—prior to the release of the first video-ready iPod, which shipped with 30GB at the prior model’s $299 price. By contrast, the $299 version of iPod touch ships with a stated 8GB capacity—the same as the $199 iPod nano—and actually gives you only 7.08GB of usable storage space, versus 7.24GB on an 8GB iPhone, and 7.41GB on an 8GB nano. For $399, you get a stated 16GB capacity, only 14.8GB of which is usable—under one-tenth the space of the $349 160GB iPod classic. Part of each device’s missing Gigabyte or so is due to formatting; the other part is due to Apple’s OS X operating system, which eats up a chunk of the space you’d otherwise use for media storage.
Though some people may disagree on this point—particularly those who have grown accustomed to shoehorning small pieces of their larger iTunes Libraries into prior low-capacity iPods—we very strongly agree with the majority of our readers that the iPod touch’s current storage capacities are simply inadequate, and a major strike against the device’s recommendability. Like the iPhone, the iPod touch will require any virtually any user with a video library to strategize what really does and doesn’t need to be carried around at all times—an approach that’s contrary to the “your library in your pocket” approach pioneered by the iPod family. With two-hour movies consuming nearly 1.5GB of storage space, it goes without saying that the standard iPod touch will hold only two films and a 1,000-song library, running out of space for other types of content. You’ll have to decide whether this type of experience is worth the price of admission, but in our view, it’s not: Apple clearly should have used a hard drive with more capacity for the dollar, and a better battery, and charged commensurately.
There’s another issue with touch’s flash storage; it takes a comparatively long time to fill and re-fill. It took 17 minutes and 15 seconds to transfer our standard 5GB test playlist to the iPod touch in our first test—so long that we ran it again, and saw the time drop only by one minute. This same test took under 6 minutes on the 80GB iPod classic, under 8 minutes on the 160GB iPod classic, and 8 and a half minutes on the iPod nano. iPod touch took about twice as long to transfer the same files as the nano; it was roughly as slow as the iPhone. Since you can expect to be re-loading videos on to it with some frequency, be aware that you can’t just sync and run—the process will require you to sit for a while.
Overall, the iPod touch isn’t too impressive when it comes to battery performance, storage capacity, or transfer times. In our view, there’s something very wrong when an $199 iPod nano runs longer, has more usable storage capacity, and transfers files faster than a $299 widescreen iPod. It’s not that the iPod nano’s an overachiever—it’s just that iPod touch is too thin and too slow for its own good.