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.]
If you thought you knew what Apple was planning for its first widescreen video iPod, you were sort of right, sort of wrong. Surprising the millions of people who expected the company to add a hard disk and remove the cell phone from its iPhone design, the new iPod touch does remove the cell phone, but continues to use flash memory — now 8GB ($299) or 16GB ($399) of it. The good news is that both versions sport an 8mm thick enclosure that’s even thinner than the iPhone, and continue to include the Wi-Fi (802.11b/g) functionality found in the iPhone, enabling you to — for the first time ever — browse the Internet from an iPod, as well as access Wi-Fi hotspots to download music directly to the iPod from the new iTunes Wi-Fi Music Store. In essence, iPod touch is a stripped-down iPhone that shares many of the same applications but adds only two major new features to the formula: video output to a TV, and the option of extra storage capacity. One color is available — black — and the headphone port has interestingly been moved to the device’s bottom. We’ll be updating this piece with additional details and photos shortly. New! Watch our video of the iPod touch interface here!
Apple has proved capable of near-miraculous things. The original iPod changed the world’s perception of digital music by demonstrating the value of a cutting-edge 1.8” hard drive and a simple, intuitive user interface. iPod minis became must-haves thanks to even smaller drives, colored enclosures, and lower prices. Then, iPod nanos went “impossibly thin” by discarding hard drives altogether, eventually becoming the ideal “take it everywhere” iPod. Every sequel was a smarter evolution of what came before, at roughly the same or lower prices.
iPod touch ($299/8GB, $399/16GB) departs from that path. Rather than growing in performance from the company’s previously-released fifth-generation iPod or more recent iPod classic, the iPod touch is actually a devolution of Apple’s much-discussed iPhone, which showed how an iPod might look with a 3.5” widescreen video display, multi-touch-sensitive interface, and numerous wireless communication features. To create iPod touch, Apple reused many of iPhone’s components—the reason touch is the first product with an iPod name to have a bigger footprint than the 2001 original—but trimmed out enough to differentiate the devices and leave the iPod version noticeably thinner. It also omits iPhone’s most onerous limitation: iPod touch requires no lengthy cell phone contract, and is thereby intended to appeal to users in countries where iPhones aren’t officially available.
Unfortunately, by the past standards of a company that has proudly released products disruptive enough to threaten cannibalization or premature discontinuation of their recent predecessors, the iPod touch is not a truly great new device. In fact, iPod touch feels as if it was designed quite specifically not to threaten Apple’s recent cell phone initiative, putting the future of the 110-million-selling iPod family at the mercy of the 1-million-selling iPhone. Given that it exists first and foremost to serve as a better-than-iPod classic widescreen video player, it’s surprising that it steps backwards from iPhone in all regards: there’s no other way to explain Apple’s decision to combine a large video screen with a small battery, limited storage capacity, and an interface that looks and feels so stripped-down by comparison.
Despite its positive traits—particularly a wireless antenna that has the potential to transform the iPod media experience as people know it—we can’t help but feel considerably less enthusiastic about the iPod touch than we would ever have expected. Though some users will be thrilled to have the ability to play with iPhone-like media and web features at a lower-than-iPhone cost, a less impressive screen and cheaper-feeling design touches render iPod touch less the rightful heir to the full-sized iPod’s storied legacy than a quick fix for those who can’t wait for Apple to release something better—the first iPod in six years that has rated below our general recommendation. Our comprehensive review, complete with numerous photographs, test results, and videos, continues below. Because of the length of each section, we have included new Executive Summaries to help you skip quickly through the pages if you don’t care to read all the details.
iPod touch Unboxed: The Hardware and its Pack-Ins
Executive Summary: Like other iPods, iPod touch is sold with minimal pack-ins, which are interesting only because of a new, simple clear plastic video stand, and Apple’s omission of the dock and wall charger included with iPhone. Certain industrial design decisions seem to intentionally render iPod touch less impressive than the iPhone, particularly on its back; Apple compensates for this, and its larger-than-any-past-iPod footprint, with surprising thinness, but reverts to an easily scratchable mirrored back casing. You can see a video showing off both devices here.
As noted in our review of the iPod classic, Apple’s iPod boxes now come in two flavors: clear plastic for the least expensive models, and thick black cardboard for the more expensive ones. iPod touch, like the iPod classic and iPhone before it, arrives in a cardboard container, this time with the image of an musician named Corinne Bailey Rae on the front; one side of the box shows the iPod touch’s slim profile, while the flip side has the product’s name in silver foil, and the top and bottom both use silver foil to show its storage capacities. The back contains text, UPC, Apple Part and serial numbers.
Apart from the iPod touch itself, which sits in a black plastic tray inside the box, wrapped in two sheets of protective film, most of the box contents are the same as the iPod classic’s or iPhone’s. In addition to two Apple stickers, a Quick Start guide, and a booklet full of warnings, there’s a pair of 2006-vintage microphone-less iPod Earphones, a new iPhone-style USB cable, a black screen cleaning cloth like the iPhone’s, this time stamped “iPod,” and a Universal Dock Adapter for use with Universal Dock accessories. The adapter is numbered 14, for those keeping count.
There’s also an odd little piece of clear plastic that isn’t described on the box or the included Quick Start guide. Once you strip off all the protective film that covers it, you’ll discover that you can use it as a horizontal viewing stand for the iPod touch while it’s playing back videos. It provides fine support for the reclining device when placed underneath, rather than on the touch’s side, where it is unstable.
Cosmetically, the iPod touch is a mixed bag, though its face is attractive enough that you might ignore the junk in its trunk. Viewed from the front, it can most easily be described as an iPhone without the chrome front bezel, replaced here by matte charcoal black aluminum similar to the front of the latest iPod nano. Apple’s removal of the chrome unquestionably makes iPod touch’s face less scratchable, but it will be a matter of personal preference as to whether you prefer the newer, darker look, or the more luxurious accenting of the iPhone. We think Apple got it right the first time, and knew as much: iPod touch was designed to look less expensive, and succeeds.
Like the new iPod nano, the matte metal continues past iPod touch’s face to its bottom, where it surrounds a centrally-located Dock Connector and a right-mounted headphone port; thankfully, it’s not recessed like the iPhone’s, and works with any earphones you might have. Unlike the nano, there’s no Hold switch on the bottom; instead, iPod touch has a black Sleep/Wake button on its top left side, similar to the one on the top right side of the iPhone, which also serves as a power on button. Finally, iPod touch and iPhone share the same jet black frame for their glass-covered 3.5” widescreen displays and plastic-coated Home buttons; touch’s Home button is a little smaller than iPhone’s, but equally usable.
As was the case with the iPhone, iPod touch has a footprint that’s not precisely the same as past full-sized iPods, but the shape’s pretty familiar. Though the 2.4” width stays the same as all hard disk-based iPods since the 2001 first-generation model, iPod touch grows 0.2 inches taller than all of these models, for a 4.3” height. That’s 0.2 inches shorter than the 4.5” tall iPhone, but still not short enough to fit properly in certain closed dock iPod accessories such as Altec Lansing’s inMotion iM7.
Putting temporarily aside our feelings about its wisdom, iPod touch’s single most impressive design feature is its thinness. Regardless of whether you like anything else about the device’s cosmetics, the fact that it’s only 0.31 inches thick—8 millimeters—is an immediate attention-grabber. Sure, the iPod nano is thinner at only 6.5 millimeters, but iPod touch feels very close; slimmer than the 10.5 millimeter 80GB iPod classic and the 11.6 millimeter iPhone. Similarly, its 4.2-ounce weight is under both the 4.8-ounce iPhone and 4.9-ounce 80GB iPod classic.
Its least impressive feature is its back shell. Apple’s iPhone casing design very deftly managed to fit multiple wireless antennas and a camera within an enclosure that looked great, and thanks to an unpolished, resilient finish, didn’t unduly attract scratches. Lacking iPhone’s camera, cell phone antenna, and apparently the Bluetooth antenna as well, iPod touch’s back casing had less to manage, and yet isn’t as impressively designed. It has one odd black plastic upper corner for the Wi-Fi antenna—better than a stub, but not as clean as the iPhone’s bottom panel—and a highly scratch-attractive mirrored finish. If the facial proportions of the new iPod nano suggested that Apple was willing to compromise beauty for functionality, iPod touch’s back proves that point, and then some.
A Few Notes on New Technologies Inside, and Absent
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”, 480×320-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.
Comparative Battery, Capacity, and Transfer Rate Details
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.
Mostly an iPod: iTunes Synchronization & Accessory Compatibility
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.
Performance as an iPod: Music, Video, and Photos
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 320×320-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.
Wi-Fi: Safari, YouTube, and the iTunes Wi-Fi Music Store, Nothing More
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.
Extras: Calendar, Contacts, Clock, Calculator
Executive Summary: Standalone applications familiar to iPod and iPhone users have returned on iPod touch in their more iPhone-like, evolved forms, albeit with fewer editing features and lower-quality sound effects. Users will enjoy the ability to edit contacts and re-synchronize them to their computers, but wonder why they cannot do the same with their calendars, an unnecessary and not especially comprehensible Apple product differentiation.
There’s little to say about the iPod touch’s helper applications, which are almost identical to the same-named iPhone programs: they’re nice visual improvements on ones previously available for iPods, but generally missing small things from the iPhone versions.
Calendar synchronizes iCal or Outlook calendar data, presents it in list, week, or month views on the screen, and keeps you informed about major upcoming events with on-date dots. Unlike the iPhone, you can’t edit events on iPod touch—a disabled iPhone feature that made little sense to us, or to our readers—but the feature’s still better than Calendar on any other iPod model.
Contacts synchronizes Address Book, Microsoft/Outlook, or Yahoo contacts to the iPhone for review. Surprisingly, you can edit contact data on the iPod touch, including adding photos to your contacts from the collection you have in Photos, but you can’t do much with the contacts thereafter, such as actually contacting the people on your list through e-mail or the phone. You can click on any web URL you’ve stored for a contact, and if you’re on Wi-Fi, Safari will go automatically to that web page.
Clock still contains world clocks, alarms, a stopwatch, and a timer. They all work just like the features of the iPhone, and much the same as on the latest iPod classic and nano models. The only major difference is that the alarm tones aren’t based on ringtones, and now play through the iPod touch’s micro clicker speaker rather than through the iPhone’s nicer actual speaker. These tones—Checkmate, Jump, Time Passing, Time’s Up, and Up Down—are all simple beeps, and it would be generous to call them anything but annoying.
Finally, Calculator is just like the one on iPhone—a handy feature when you’re out and about and just need a quick way to compute tips, your bank deposits, or whatever else you may need. Oddly, all that’s different is its main menu icon; when Calculator is opened, it looks just like the iPhone’s calculator.
Settings, International Appeal & Keyboards
Executive Summary: With the exception of added iPod silhouette wallpaper and a surprising collection of new international features, iPod touch’s settings and keyboards are very similar to the iPhone’s, and therefore generally similar to past and current iPods. It also preserves the secret iPod Hi-Fi and authenticated Speaker settings found on past iPods.
iPod touch’s Settings menus are basically the same as those on iPhone, only fewer in number: the list is now initially comprised of Wi-Fi, Brightness (for the screen), General, Music, Video, Photos, Safari, and Contacts. There are only a few really interesting points in these menus, as noted below.
Like the iPhone, iPod touch offers you the ability—for the first time on an iPod—to pick your own wallpaper as a start-up and “Hold” screen. Though the feature is limited by iPod touch’s lack of an integrated camera, you can pick any image from your synchronized photo collection, or certain built-in pictures, moving and scaling it to your liking before setting the final position. Apple has included nine iPod silhouette images and 19 other photos or pieces of art to choose from.
In addition to the iPhone’s past settings, Apple has added a new “International” menu to the General settings list, allowing you to change iPod touch’s language and activate a wide variety of foreign language-specific keyboards. The standard US English keyboard we’ve previously seen is activated by default, with separate on/off options for UK English, French, German, Japanese, Dutch, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, Danish, Finnish, Norwegian Bokmal, Swedish and Polish. You can also switch the entire user interface language to these languages, plus Chinese and Korean, resulting in updated text for everything from the main menu icons to other text-only menu options, to the settings themselves. Finally, iPod touch lets you change the “region format” of date, time, and phone data as preferred in various countries around the world.
Settings familiar from past iPods are also included. Date and time are gimmes, as are the passcode-based screen lock feature, the option to turn clicker sound effects on, off, or only on for the headphone port. You also still get the iTunes-specific sound check, audiobook speed toggle, a bunch of equalizer presets, and the headphone port-capping volume limit feature. Under video, you can choose to start playing where you left off, or at the video’s start, turn on or off closed captioning if it’s included in a video, and set two TV out switches: widescreen on or off, and signal to the widely-used NTSC or PAL standards.
With the exception of the International options, little has changed from the iPhone’s on-screen keyboard to iPod touch’s. As before, iPod touch’s on-screen keyboard will require around a week of adjustment for those with larger fingers. In the two and a half months since iPhone’s release, we have not come to prefer the keyboard to a physical one, and do not consider it nearly equivalent to a Danger Sidekick for text entry. It is a fine option for what it is, but not as precise as we’d prefer it to be.
Apple has added only one major feature for US English typists: a keyboard shortcut option that lets two spaces automatically become the characters period and space (. ) for faster typing. It’s appreciated, if less necessary here than on the e-mail-ready iPhone. On iPod touch, the keyboard comes in handy mostly when you want to search YouTube or the iTunes Wi-Fi Music Store, and if you dare to try and enter data onto Safari web pages; because of Safari’s instability on iPhone, we haven’t used it as much as we’d hoped for more complex data entry.
The only other Settings menu options iPod touch has are almost secrets: iPod Hi-Fi and Speakers. Unlike past iPods, which display these options as new main menu choices when iPod Hi-Fi or certain speakers such as Bowers and Wilkins’ Zeppelin are connected, iPod touch hides them under Settings—a change introduced in iPhone. Like the equalizer/EQ feature of the iPod, these options enable you to make speaker-specific adjustments to bass or treble levels, and disappear immediately once the speakers have been disconnected.
Conclusions & January 2008 Software Upgrade
In the six-year history of the iPod family—and our publication—we have never before issued a limited recommendation to an iPod. Even the iPod shuffle, which we viewed as stunningly minimalist and a weak value for the dollar relative to its screened iPod mini, iPod nano, and iPod counterparts, seemed worthwhile from day one because of its small size and low entry price point, and its brothers have generally continued to get better and better over time.
iPod touch is different. Demand for a “video iPod” started years ago, and the contours of the product consumers wanted was obvious: a big, detailed screen, a hard drive, and a good battery. Apple’s initial response, the fifth-generation iPod, was widely viewed as a compromised step down that path, but not the breakthrough people truly wanted; consequently, demand for a “true video iPod” continued to build, and was openly acknowledged by Apple during its January, 2007 announcement of the iPhone.
But rather than using certain of the iPhone’s components as a starting point for an even better iPod, Apple decided to downgrade them, creating an iPod that now sits in the cell phone industry’s shadow rather than pointing the way forward, or serving the greater capacity and performance needs of iPod buyers. And those downgrades are numerous: you don’t just lose a cell phone by buying iPod touch instead of a comparable-capacity iPhone; you lose the dock, charger, camera, external speaker, microphone, battery life, screen quality, resilient back casing, Bluetooth, and several applications. Try to read that list aloud without taking a breath. You gain only a limited video-out feature, and a few millimeters of thinness, which we’d gladly have traded for superior performance.
As with every iPod model it has released since 2004, we have no doubt whatsoever that Apple will sell plenty of iPod touch hardware, and that this model will be of particular interest to users overseas without access to iPhones—hence its newly robust support for foreign languages and keyboards. Our limited recommendation is largely directed at such people, as well as those in iPhone-supplied countries who simply cannot wait for something better to emerge.
That said, we cannot in good conscience generally recommend the iPod touch to all of our readers. The essential elements of the “true video iPod” we and others have been waiting for are obvious—an iPhone-matching screen with iPod classic-matching capacity and battery life—but between its so-so screen, limited storage and below-nano battery life, iPod touch doesn’t equal or surpass the best portable products Apple has released this year. If you need similar storage space and don’t need a big video screen, get an iPod nano. If audio quality and capacity are important to you, buy an iPod classic. And if you’re a video fan, consider an iPhone if it’s available in your country, or save your money. Wait until Apple (or someone else) gets the “true video iPod” formula right. We sincerely hope that it will be sooner rather than later.
Updated January 29, 2008: the “iPod touch January Software Upgrade”
In late 2007, Apple announced that it would enable third-party developers to create iPod touch and iPhone applications, presumably to be sold through the iTunes Store, with development to commence in February of 2008. Following Apple CEO Steve Jobs’ January, 2008 keynote speech at Macworld Expo in San Francisco, Apple released two updates to the iPod touch: version 1.1.3 of its Software, enabling the viewing of rented iTunes movies and rearrangement of Home screen icons, as well as a separate application package called the “iPod touch January Software Upgrade,” containing the first collection of new programs for the iPod touch.
Unlike past iPod software upgrades, which have been made available to past buyers at no charge, the iPod touch Upgrade sells for $20 and includes five applications already available to iPhone users: Mail, Maps, Weather, Stocks, and Notes. Starting in mid-January, new iPod touch customers received the applications pre-installed on their devices without any need to pay the $20 fee.
These five applications are virtually identical to the latest ones found on the iPhone, with small exceptions. Keyboards in the iPod touch versions by default show international keyboard toggling, unless you go into your International and Keyboard settings, and the Maps application has a substantially diminished Locate Me/location finder feature relative to the iPhone’s, which uses both cell phone towers and Wi-Fi hotspots to determine your location. The iPod touch uses only Wi-Fi and frequently cannot automatically determine your location at all. Otherwise, the applications are the same. Photos of all five are shown here.
As a postscript to this review, iLounge is currently on its fourth iPod touch unit, having replaced two previous units because of screen problems, and one due to a failed firmware update that rendered the device fully inoperable and incapable of recovery. None of the units has removed the screen issues we noted in our review, or dramatically improved iPod touch’s audio or battery performance. Consequently, though these new applications add additional value for new iPod touch buyers, and might otherwise have merited revision of our rating, we continue to feel that our original rating of the device is merited based on Apple’s failure to address the continued technical issues the device has experienced.
Company and Price
Company: Apple Computer
Model: iPod touch
Price: $299/8GB, $399/16GB, $499/32GB