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: Unlike iPhone, iTunes treats iPod touch almost entirely like a standard iPod: you can still manually manage audio and video content, synchronizing photos, contact information, and calendars through separate tabs. However, iPod touch is the first iPod to lack “Disk Mode,” so you cannot easily store files on it like a disk drive, and its iPod accessory compatibility is even more spotty than the recently-released iPod classic and iPod nano. Thankfully, it is more car accessory-compatible than the iPhone, but it lacks support for voice recorders, the iPod Radio Remote, and other previously supported accessories. It is also a surprising step behind the iPod classic and iPod nano in video-out support, lacking 480p output capabilities.
Ever since the release of the iPod shuffle in early 2005, experts and casual iPod users alike have been scratching their heads over a fairly simple question: “What is an iPod?”—or stated differently, “At what point can Apple take enough away from a device that it stops being an iPod?”
Relative to the iPod shuffle, which lost the screen, Click Wheel, and much more from its older brother iPod mini, iPod touch loses comparatively little. For instance, iTunes synchronization is still classic iPod-style: if you manually manage the iPod touch, you can still drag and drop songs, videos, TV shows, and podcasts directly from the iTunes Library into its storage space, rather than being forced to synchronize playlists full of content or use special tabs, as you are with iPhone and Apple TV. You can also still play content directly from the iPod touch back through the connected computer’s screen and speakers, too. Photos, contacts, and calendars still require synchronization through separate iTunes screens, as they always have.
Access to that content is almost the same on the iPod touch as it is on the iPhone. As described in the next section, Apple makes all your audio, video, and photo content available in scrollable menus that look much like the ones on last year’s video iPods and this year’s iPod classic and nano models. Just like the iPhone, it then improves upon those menus. You lose little from past iPods, or the iPhone, with the iPod touch.
One surprise is that, unlike all other iPods released to date, iPod touch can’t be used for Disk Mode. In what we believe to be the start of a trend, Apple doesn’t allow the iPod touch to be used as a mass storage device, so the only way it will generally communicate with your PC or Mac is through iTunes. You can’t see it as a disk drive in Windows or the Mac OS Finder, so you can’t otherwise drop files onto it, or pull them off. With such modest storage space, this might appear to make some sense, but even the 512MB iPod shuffle could store files—why not the iPod touch?
Two small surprises are the loss of Notes and games. Apple released the original Notes application for black and white iPods, enabling them to display simple text documents, then added hyperlinking, image and sound linking, and eventually video linking as well. Then for iPhone, it changed Notes, allowing you to create your own short text documents with the on-screen keyboard, and either mail them or store them on the device. iPod touch doesn’t have either version of Notes, which might seem like a small loss given the inclusion of Safari for web browsing, but it does mean that you can’t access language translation tools such as those developed by Talking Panda or Wuhan Venus unless you’re near a Wi-Fi network, which is an unnecessary bummer. Similarly, though iPod touch can play Safari browser-based games, it doesn’t support downloadable titles that can be played away from a wireless network. Apple could easily add both Notes and games to iPod touch in the future, but has made no commitment to do so.
There’s one thing that you gain relative to the iPhone, and lose relative to past iPods: video-out. Like color iPod 4G and 5G models, Apple has enabled the iPod touch to perform video both on its own screen and on a connected video display, though it has—as with the new iPod classic and iPod nano—locked this video output feature so that you can’t take advantage of it unless you buy new Apple-authorized video accessories. Unfortunately, this means that iPod touch won’t work in any of the portable video display docks that were previously released under the Made for iPod program, and there’s another surprise: iPod touch’s top output capabilities are actually less impressive than both iPod classic’s and nano’s. Whereas the cheaper models can display 480p or 576p signals through a component video cable, iPod touch only displays at 480i or 576i. This is only an improvement over past iPod models.
Non-video accessories we have tested so far appear to be more compatible with the iPod touch than with the iPhone, but not as compatible as with the iPod classic and nano. Though there were still some remaining combination car charging and audio kits that were hassled by the iPhone, they now work properly with iPod touch. Similarly, speaker systems and docks that previously caused the iPhone to bring up a “turn off the wireless antennas” nag screen no longer have this message on iPod touch. They sound better, too, as touch doesn’t have a cell phone antenna to generate screeching TDMA signaling noises—one of the reasons the iPhone needs all-new, shielded speakers.
Other accessories are a crap shoot. FM transmitters and other devices that relied upon on-iPod screen displays for menu interaction generally do not work properly here, as with iPhone, but ones with built-in screens generally do. Any device that treated an iPod like a mass storage device, such as the iPod Camera Connector, won’t work on iPod touch. That includes voice recorders that work on the fifth-generation iPod and iPod classic, second- and third-generation iPod nanos; they do not work on iPod touch. And somewhat inexplicably, the iPod Radio Remote does not work with the iPod touch, either. It comes up as an unsupported accessory, just as it does with the iPhone.
In sum, the iPod touch may be an “iPod” by the general standards of the word, but it only adds further confusion to the iPod accessory pool: there’s no longer a line above which certain accessories are guaranteed to work or fail, but rather, because of repeated mid-production revisions to products, a huge mess that can only be sorted out by the companies that make the accessories—or better yet, Apple itself. If you need something that’s guaranteed to work completely with iPod touch, our advice is to check the manufacturer’s web site, then follow up your research with their customer service representatives; if you can’t get an accurate or timely answer, look elsewhere.