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: Though Apple doesn’t currently make the most of the hardware, the addition of a Wi-Fi (802.11b/g) antenna to the iPod will be a potent new weapon in Apple’s arsenal against competitors. Between its dead-simple setup, Safari web browser, YouTube video player and wireless access to the iTunes Store, the iPod touch could easily evolve into a powerful bed- or couch-friendly tool for new music discovery and purchasing. It’s limited only by the fact that users of the feature are most likely to be accessing it in the same places that they’re already using wireless computers with less limited features. You can see a video of the iTunes Wi-Fi Music Store here.
From an iPod user’s perspective, the iPod touch’s biggest feature gain over prior iPods—apart from the screen and interface—is its new 802.11b or 802.11g wireless network-compatible Wi-Fi antenna. Just as with the iPhone, iPod touch’s Wi-Fi functionality provides access to two types of applications: Apple’s Safari web browser, and other purpose-specific programs that are whittled down versions of more sophisticated web sites or computer programs.
Turning on Wi-Fi is simple. In the iPod touch settings menu, you select Wi-Fi, pick your preferred network from a list, and enter the password. As with iPhone, iPod touch figures out the 802.11b or g network’s security protocol and other necessary settings without any work on your part—unless you’ve set up the network to require an additional level of manual configuration—and within seconds, you’re ready to start checking out web pages, YouTube content, and the iTunes Wi-Fi Music Store. A three-bar network strength monitor on the top left of the screen lets you know that Wi-Fi is on, and whether you’re in danger of losing your connection to the network.
As with its music, video, and photo features, iPod touch’s web-based applications are highly similar to the ones on the iPhone. Safari provides a browsing experience that, apart from its lack of support for Flash content, is extremely impressive for a portable device. Pages that have been developed specifically for iPhone and iPod touch Safari are especially easy to use and enjoy, though many—games and mobile productivity applications—aren’t as compelling when you can only access them from the same Wi-Fi network your computer’s already on.
When browsing sites that haven’t been optimized for the iPhone and iPod touch screen, the same zooming, panning, and screen rotation tools available in the Photo program work to expand and contract full-sized web pages in Safari, and you can have multiple pages open at once, access secure sites, and enter text—URLs, Google/Yahoo searches, or otherwise—through a pop-up on-screen keyboard. iTunes automatically syncs your browser’s bookmarks to iPod touch at your request, eliminating your need to use the keyboard for anything but text entry; taps on links will guide you through the web. Thanks to its new international settings, iPod touch also eases foreign-language text entry with predictive foreign dictionaries, enabling non-English-speaking users to select words after typing only a couple of letters.
Having used Safari on iPhone, our biggest complaint has been its instability—crashes are unfortunately quite frequent, and it will then need to reload all of the previously opened pages it remembers. Our testing of the feature on iPod touch suggests that Apple has improved that stability somewhat, and is continuing to work on making pages more stable. An odd new settings menu option called Developer enables advanced users to trace errors generated when they’re running their own web pages through iPod touch—not the sort of thing Apple typically exposes to its end users, but interesting nonetheless.
As with iPhone, YouTube allows you to browse an ever-increasing subset of the popular video sharing site’s content, enabling you to enjoy free videos whenever a wireless network is nearby. Nothing has changed on iPod touch for YouTube, save for the absence of its “Share” feature to e-mail favorite clips to friends, and unfortunately, YouTube is still not making all of its newest clips available to iPod touch and iPhone users. Apple has even left a “This video does not currently support iPhone” message in the YouTube application, which appears when you try to click on incompatible YouTube videos from within Safari.
Our views on the third iPod touch Wi-Fi application, Apple’s iTunes Wi-Fi Music Store, are generally positive. As a sole justification for the included Wi-Fi antenna, iTunes would have been weak—“we’ve conveniently added a way for you to buy more stuff from us.” But in tandem with Safari and YouTube, the iTunes Wi-Fi Music Store has the potential to be the third pillar of a powerful music discovery and purchasing service, enabling a user to find popular or unpopular songs, preview them through the Store or YouTube, research the artist or album through Safari, and then make a purchase on the spot.
When you press the iTunes button on the iPod touch’s main screen, you open a stripped-down version of the music portion of the iTunes Store, complete with a search engine—again using predictive text, here in English, too—to locate artists, albums, and songs you might want to download. Videos, even music videos, are not searchable or downloadable by the iPod touch. Assuming that you’ve set up an iTunes Store account already, iPod touch knows your account and billing information, and sits ready to help you make purchases. Each purchase requires you to enter your account’s password, keeping the device from becoming a lucky thief’s music ATM.
Songs are presented individually with 99-cent or $1.29 buy now buttons, based on your computer-set preference for iTunes or iTunes Plus tracks, and you can click on tracks twice to download them directly from the network to the iPod touch’s free space. You can’t zoom in on pages, click on an artist’s name to see her entire catalog, or find related music as easily as on a computer’s version of iTunes, but there is a way—typically, through Search—to get to any music in the Store that you might want to buy.
Once a track is purchased, you can see its downloading status in a Downloads menu—typically only briefly as Wi-Fi transfers the files rapidly—and then the track’s sitting in a Purchased playlist on iPod touch. It’s playable instantly with album art, as are full albums, though their included digital booklets and videos are for some reason not downloaded alongside them. Instead, when you return to your computer’s iTunes, the booklet will download there, and your iPod touch’s downloaded contents are supposed to be force-synchronized back to your iTunes library.
In our test of the Wi-Fi Music Store with an album by comedian Lisa Lampanelli, which contained 14 tracks and included a video, we had no problem whatsoever downloading all of the tracks to iPod touch, or listening to them immediately. But when it was time to get the video and transfer the tracks back to our test computer, iTunes failed: the “Accessing iTunes Store” message came up, sat around, then brought up an “network connection” error message. The video didn’t arrive, and not only did the songs didn’t transfer back to our machine, but they couldn’t even be seen by the computer. We worked around the problem by turning on automatic synchronization in iTunes, erasing the rest of our content from the iPod touch, and re-syncing the device to get the files to transfer to iTunes. Then, we forced the video to download through the iTunes “Your Account” screen. Apple will surely fix these sorts of bugs, but they marred what was otherwise a positive purchasing experience.
While we liked the basics of how the Wi-Fi Music Store operates—apart from the lack of video and other content—and we found Safari and YouTube to be nice companions, especially for music research, we can’t help but feel that Apple hasn’t done the sorts of things with the wireless hardware that people have been asking for. AirPort Express or Apple TV-like audio and video streaming are nowhere to be found, nor are wireless music sharing or accessories such as headphones. Similarly, though the prospect of buying iTunes content directly from the iPod is nice, the fact remains that most users’ Wi-Fi access is at home, or in another place where they have a computer. Wireless iTunes access is far better suited to video downloads for Apple TV than audio downloads to an iPod or iPhone; we’ll see whether Apple rolls that out in the future.
Apple has acknowledged the limited availability of iPod-friendly public Wi-Fi by signing a deal with Starbucks, which conceivably could host paying iPod touch customers right away with its T-Mobile pay-as-you-go Hotspots. Since few people would ever pay to access such Hotspots with an iPod or iPhone, however, the deal calls for Starbucks to add free iTunes Wi-Fi Store access to its huge fleet of restaurants on a city-by-city basis, a process that will start slowly in late 2007 and continue through 2009. This falls into the “nice announcement, ask us how we like it when we live someplace it’s available—maybe next year” category, and really isn’t a substitute for, say, iPod wireless headphones we could actually use right now.