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: As a music, video, and photo device, iPod touch is similar to the iPhone, but not quite as good. It has a superb interface for playing back and navigating music—the iPod family’s best ever—but its audio quality is a step behind the less expensive iPod classic’s. Video playback is almost identical to the iPhone’s, but hampered noticeably by iPod touch’s lower-quality screen. The photo experience is steps above any other iPod, with zooming, rotating, and superior thumbnail browsing, though the iPod 5G’s larger suite of transition effects are gone, and on-TV slideshows now require expensive video cables. You can see a video of both devices’ music and photo interfaces here.
Back in January, Apple CEO Steve Jobs referred to the iPhone as the company’s “best iPod ever,” and as it turned out, he’s still right: other than capacity differences and its restricted video-out functionality, there’s nothing the iPod touch has that iPhone lacks in the iPod department. Featuring the same audio (MP3, AAC, WAV, Audible, Apple Lossless) and video (MP4/H.264) format support as iPod classic and nano 3G, iPod touch’s major step forward over past iPods is the media interface it borrows from iPhone, with the following key features.
The new Now Playing screen: Populated with roughly 320x320-pixel album art in the center, iPod touch makes the simple act of listening to music more visual than ever. Track, play/pause, and volume controls appear at the bottom of the screen, with artist, song, and album details in small text above the artwork. Tapping once brings up a scrubber to change your position in the song, plus shuffle and repeat icons; tapping twice flips over the album cover to show stars for rating the track, and other song titles from the album that can be selected non-sequentially.
Cover Flow: In addition to iPod-style scrolling lists of names and titles that can be accessed with flicks or drags of your finger against the screen, turning iPod touch on its side brings up album covers for individual songs that can be scrolled through and selected at will. This mode, Cover Flow, is a much-improved version of the same-named feature built into iTunes, and works just like the iPhone.
The only conspicuously absent iPod classic/nano feature from iPod touch is, ironically, search: even with the ability to call up an on-screen keyboard in other iPod touch applications, you can’t type in letters to find related media content on the device. Part of this is because touch’s scrolling audio lists have alphabetical letters on their right sides, enabling you to point to any letter and arrive there instantly, and part of it is likely because the device’s limited storage capacity—like iPhone—doesn’t leave as much room for long lists of music if you’ve stored videos and photos on board, too. Still, some people might like a cross-media search feature, particularly one that could save results as bookmarks for later reference.
That brings us to audio quality. Two and a half years ago, when certain audiophiles were praising the original iPod shuffle as the best-sounding iPod in the family, Apple surprised some users by agreeing: audio quality was, a company representative explained, a “moving target,” and with that shuffle as a gold standard, the goal would be to bring other members of the family up to that level. Since then, a lot has changed: Apple did improve the sound of the subsequently-released fifth-generation iPod and iPod nanos, and it noticeably reduced the overall quality of second-generation iPod shuffles. Though they didn’t demonstrate that Apple was willing to guarantee superb quality all the way up the line, the changes made sense: pay more, get better sound.
Apple’s near-simultaneous release of the iPod classic and the iPod touch has changed the equation once again. The less expensive iPod classic now boasts Apple’s best-sounding audio: when used with even premium earphones, the classic’s sound is comparatively cleaner, and has hints of additional bass and treble relative to the iPod touch. Songs with strong bass growl a little more, and with the right earphones, they also have greater apparent depth, thanks in part to the treble, while a noticeable hiss in the iPod touch’s signal adds to a sense that the music is a tiny bit flatter in the midrange. The hiss is only a hair more evident than in the fifth-generation iPod, which appears to have been based on either the same or a very similar audio chip, and otherwise shares iPod touch’s signature.
The good news in all of this is that average users will almost certainly never notice iPod touch’s hiss, as it’s only detectible with good earphones, and touch’s sound is almost identical to the nearly unobjectionable 5G. That said, we’d advise serious listeners to consider iPod classic a smarter choice, not just because of its cleaner sound, but also because it’s less expensive and offers far more storage capacity to take advantage of good earphones.
There’s only one difference in the way videos are handled on iPod touch from the way they’re handled on iPhone: iPod touch has its own Videos icon on its main screen, rather than buried one level below an all-purpose iPod media icon. Once that icon has been selected, the display is the same, combining movies, TV shows, and other video content into one segregated list with small icons and bare details to help you make your selection.
Battery performance aside, the video playback experience is almost the same on iPod touch as it is on iPhone, which is to say generally better in most regards than on a fifth-generation iPod, iPod classic, or iPod nano. In addition to packing twice the actual pixel-level detail of all three of those devices, iPod touch’s screen is an inch wider on the diagonal, and a widescreen rather than a 4:3 TV-style display. Overlays don’t crowd the video, as they do on the iPod classic and nano, and you still have the iPhone-inspired ability to instantly toggle between widescreen or cropped full-screen presentation of content.
iPod touch’s screen colors (top) don’t look as good as iPhone’s (bottom) when viewed off-angle
All video is watched on iPod touch’s side, rather than when it’s standing upright, and pausing, skipping through, or adjusting the volume is as simple as tapping once on the screen to bring up those controls, then again to make them disappear. Our one and only complaint about this feature, common to the iPhone, is that scrubbing—choosing your place in the video—is unnecessarily difficult thanks to a hair-fine cursor that you can’t control with any precision. A magnifying glass feature, as with text editing, would help this a lot.
Dark colors tend to invert on iPod touch’s screen; the video shown in iTunes (above) looks very different on touch
Video suffers relative to the iPhone in two ways. First, their screens aren’t the same, and though iPod touch’s screen contrast initially seems a bit better, with darker blacks, it turns out that the blacks go negative, creating a shimmering effect in dark spots, especially when they’re viewed on the wrong angle. The iPod touch screen’s optimal viewing angle is fairly shallow, as well, making the screen look washed out when viewed from the side. These weren’t problems on recent hard disk-based iPods, or on the iPhone, and there still aren’t contrast or color controls to help you correct the deficiencies. One of our two purchased iPod touch units also had two dead or stuck pixels on its screen, which were noticeable whenever the screen went black.
In this closer crop of the above screen, you can see the shadow of her head on his chest, inverting rather than darkening it
iPod touch’s photo functionality is generally a major improvement over all other iPods, but a little short of the iPhone’s performance. Once again, you can select from a list of all of the separate albums that iTunes has synchronized from iPhoto, Photoshop Elements, Aperture, or a My Pictures folder, and iPod touch will show you a collection of twenty thumbnails at a time, scrolling smoothly to the next 20 with every finger swipe, and opening a picture into full-screen mode with a tap.
You can zoom in on any picture by putting two fingers on the screen and expanding them, zoom out by pinching two fingers together, and rotate the picture by turning iPod touch on its side. Flicks left or right scroll through pictures, and a tap on the bottom of the screen will either start a slideshow—complete with one of 5 limited transition effects, like iPhone’s—or let you choose the current photo as your Home screen’s background image, scaled and positioned to your liking.
Gone are your abilities to e-mail photos, add them to a .Mac web photo gallery, or take new photos with a built in camera, as iPod touch once again isn’t designed to serve as a creation or communication device, but rather almost exclusively as a player.