Pros: A substantial improvement to 2007’s polarizing original iPod touch, featuring better screen and audio quality, superior battery performance, and lower prices for previously offered storage capacities. New enclosure looks and feels better in the hand than its predecessor, and adds both volume buttons and an integrated, decent speaker for easier listening. Incorporates hardware and software support for the Nike + iPod Sensor, lacking only support for Nike’s wireless remote control, as well as limited support for upcoming microphone accessories. Continues to include all of the software and hardware features found in the prior iPod touch, with only one exception, enabling users to enjoy music, videos, games, web browsing and email, as well as numerous downloadable applications. Much faster transfer speeds than prior model. New 32GB and 64GB models offer faster processors and enhanced graphics capabilities, as well as new Voice Control and Accessibility features.
Cons: Low storage capacities relative to hard disk-based iPods continue to force users to choose between the smaller-screened and more capacious iPod classic or the bigger-screened and more versatile iPod touch. While improved, battery life is still not comparable to Apple’s best prior iPod classic. No longer supports FireWire charging accessories, rendering the device unable to be recharged by some popular past iPod docks, speakers, and car kits, and video-out to an external display can only be unlocked by overpriced cables or relatively new docking accessories. Though hardware is now microphone-compatible, device currently lacks software support for microphone accessories, and recording software developed for the iPhone does not work. Software updates may add to device’s actual cost of ownership.
Redesigned from the original iPod touch, the second-generation iPod touch ($229/8GB, $299/16GB, $399/32GB) features a newly curved polished metal back that continues to the device’s front, forming a chrome bezel rather than the charcoal-colored one on the original model; the new curved shape is similar to the iPhone 3G, but noticeably thicker. New volume buttons have been added to the device’s side, while a speaker has been built-in to allow non-audiophile audio playback without headphones. Nike + iPod Sport Kit support is now integrated into the iPod touch; there is no need for a receiver, however, it’s unclear whether older Sensors will work with the new device. Other features of the prior iPod touch have been preserved, including capacities, while prices have dropped: the 8GB model falls $70 while the 16GB and 32GB models fall $100 each. All three capacities ship with iPod touch system software 2.1, which now includes support for voice recording on the touch when connected to Apple’s new optional $29 microphone-equipped headset. We’ll have more on the second-generation iPod touch soon; you can see our video of the second-generation iPod touch here.
In 2007, Apple released three substantially new iPods: the biscuit-shaped third-generation iPod nano (iLounge Rating: A), the metal-faced iPod classic (iLounge Rating: B+), and the phoneless iPhone called iPod touch (iLounge Rating: B-). This year, Apple has updated all three models with new features that range from trivial to important, generally improving each while boosting storage capacity for the dollar. Our review of the second-generation iPod touch (8GB/$199
$229, 16GB/$299, 32GB/$399
) covers all of the key changes and details you want to know about. We’ve also posted a video walkthrough of the interface for those who may be interested.
Over the past seven years that we’ve been writing about iPods, there’s never been a model as polarizing as the original iPod touch. As Apple’s first multi-touch, widescreen iPod, the first-generation device offered certain features and potential that really excited users. It was the first iPod to include an 802.11b/g wireless antenna, enabling the device to not only play music and videos from its own library, but also to surf the web with a Safari web browser and purchase music wirelessly from the iTunes Store. But its potential was crippled by disappointingly high prices, low storage capacities, screen issues, and comparatively weak battery life. iPhone owners and fans of high-capacity iPods pilloried the device; even Apple CEO Steve Jobs surprisingly described it as “training wheels for the iPhone” only days after its announcement.
After initial sales apparently didn’t meet expectations, Apple started to rehabilitate the iPod touch. Applications that had deliberately been left out from the iPhone were added back in, unfortunately in the form of a $20 software update. The company started to pitch the iPod touch as a breakthrough “mainstream Wi-Fi mobile platform,” and later, after another $10 software update, began to highlight its potential as an affordable gaming device. Early adopters complained that Apple’s policy of paid upgrades had fleeced them, but the new software was pre-installed at no charge on newly shipped touch units, undeniably growing the appeal of the device to new customers.
Still, it was obvious that software fixes weren’t enough. With only 8GB of storage capacity at a $299 price, the iPod touch seemed underequipped and overpriced when compared to the newer “$199” 8GB and “$299” 16GB iPhone 3G. It still lacked for a lot of the iPhone’s functionality. And neither its audio nor its video quality was up to Apple’s highest levels of performance.
Thus, the second-generation iPod touch has emerged with a number of substantial changes, and it hasn’t lost anything—except as noted on page six—that was found in its predecessor. Physically redesigned, the new model is lighter and feels thinner than before, sports a nicer chrome front bezel, and packs both an internal speaker and side-mounted volume control buttons, just like the iPhone. Audio, video, and battery upgrades at least partially remedy concerns we had about its predecessor, while surprising new features—Nike + iPod Sport Kit and external microphone support—have been added to broaden its appeal to accessory users. Additionally, though storage capacities have stayed the same, their prices have dropped by $70-$100, making the device a much smarter buy than the first iPod touch. Our comprehensive review of the new model discusses all of these details, and many more; read on for what’s new, what’s old, and many illustrative photos.
[Editor’s Note: On September 9, 2009, Apple introduced a physically identical “Late 2009” iPod touch model that has been variously described as the “third-generation” or “new” iPod touch, replacing the prior mid-range and high-end iPod touch units with higher-capacity, faster versions at the same price points. These models, the 32GB ($299) and 64GB ($399) iPod touch, were reviewed by iLounge on September 13, 2009. Apple also dropped the price of the second-generation 8GB model to $199. As such, we have added a tenth page to this review dealing exclusively with the new models and explaining our updated ratings.]
Packaging, Pack-ins, and Physical Characteristics
Unlike the original 8GB iPod touch, which sold for $299 and came in a deluxe cardboard box, the second-generation 8GB iPod touch sells for $229 and ships in a transparent hard plastic container that’s nearly identical to the ones used for the iPod nano and iPod shuffle. This box is interesting for only one reason: it’s the first to place a sticker on the front of the iPod, letting the buyer know what the device looks like with the screen turned on. Apple’s packaging doesn’t become any fancier as you step up to the $299 16GB model or the $399 32GB model, marking the first time that the company has sold iPods this expensive in see-through plastic boxes; frankly, we don’t mind.
The new iPod touch’s pack-ins are very similar to the first version’s, dropping only slightly in number and quality. Preserved are the pair of Apple earphones, USB-to-Dock Connector cable, and Universal Dock Adapter from before, though the Adapter is now version 16, and features updated curves. Apple now includes a thinner, cheaper-feeling screen cleaning cloth rather than the thick, suede-like one that comes with iPhones, and no longer includes the small plastic stand that held the original touch on a recline for video viewing. Most users won’t mind the stand’s omission, given that similar parts come with many iPod cases, but it would have been nice for Apple to keep it anyway.
Two Apple logo stickers, a safety and warranty booklet, and full color Quick Start pamphlet are also in the package. As with all iPods sold over the past couple of years, you’ll need to download iTunes from Apple’s web site in order to actually use the device in any way, as that media synchronization software is required but not included in the package. iTunes 8 or later is required for the second-generation iPod touch.
Significant changes have transformed the original iPod touch’s shape in entirely positive ways. You still get the same glass face and a 3.5-inch, 480×320 resolution display, front Home button, top Sleep/Wake button, bottom Dock Connector and headphone ports—all in virtually identical spaces—but now there are also tiny black left-mounted volume controls like the ones on the iPhone, only thinner, and a redesigned back casing. The volume controls are easy to use, as is the Home button, which is no longer recessed slightly under the front glass surface and consequently is easier to touch.
Most notable about the new back shell isn’t its continued use of scratch-attractive polished metal, but rather a few changes that were designed to make the device look slimmer. To create the illusion of thinness—the new model is actually a half millimeter thicker at maximum than the prior one—the second-generation touch’s back now tapers from a 0.33” (8.5mm) thick center to thinner, soft edges that wrap around the face to form a chrome bezel, replacing the separate charcoal-colored matte black bezel of the first iPod touch. This particular set of design decisions make the new iPod touch look and feel better in your hand than its predecessor; its soft corners even help it feel nicer than the smaller, thinner fourth-generation iPod nano.
The 4.3” (110mm) height and 2.4” (61.8mm) width are identical from the first iPod touch to the second, but between a slight decrease in the weight—4.2 ounces to 4.05 ounces—and those tapered side edges, most users will have a hard time believing that it’s thicker at any point than the first iPod touch. It’s an especially stark difference from this to the iPhone 3G; there’s even more of a gap in their sizes than there was between the original iPhone and iPod touch. Note also that there are no differences in size, thickness, or weight between the 8GB, 16GB, or 32GB models of the iPod touch; unlike last year’s iPod classic, they have the same batteries and general parts inside, save for their different memory chip capacities.
One big surprise about the new iPod touch is the manner in which Apple has integrated a speaker into the casing. Unlike the iPhone, which has special metal vents for both its bottom speaker and microphone, the iPod touch has no apparent perforations at all for speaker ventilation. Instead, the speaker performs somewhat like a NXT flat-panel design, radiating through the unit’s metal back surface and bottom ports. We discuss the speaker more fully on page four of this review.
While we really like the changes that Apple has made to the new iPod touch’s body and packaging, there’s one thing that still sticks out like a sore thumb, and that’s the device’s Wi-Fi antenna cover. Still made out of black plastic, this cover no longer forms an odd corner of the touch’s otherwise metal rear surface, but instead is a small pill-shaped compartment floating in the same general area. The original iPhone got the antenna cover design right; as much as it’s otherwise improved, the iPod touch continues to look a bit odd from the back.
What’s New Inside: Nike + iPod Support
Three of the most noteworthy additions to the new iPod touch have been heavily requested by readers: true Nike + iPod Sport Kit support, a miniature speaker to let users enjoy music, movies, and games without the need for headphones, and microphone support. Without question, Apple’s choice to add all three of these features to the iPod touch will thrill most users, though they each come with modest caveats.
While Apple could easily have added support to the original iPod touch—or the iPod classic, iPhone, or iPhone 3G—for the Nike + iPod Sport Kit Receiver and Sensor combination, it chose not to do so for reasons that remain unclear. Instead, the company appears to have included a special chip in the iPod touch that would normally be used for Bluetooth functionality, but here has been repurposed to communicate directly and solely with the shoe-mounted Nike + iPod Sensor. As such, you can buy a $29 Nike + iPod Sport Kit, but you won’t need the Receiver; the Sensor can now be purchased alone for $19.
The iPod touch version of the Nike + iPod interface isn’t exactly the same as the iPod nano’s, but it’s close. There’s a main screen with basic, time, distance, calorie, and calibration options, plus tabs on the bottom of the screen for your past workouts and history. A separate settings screen is found under Settings, letting you turn the Nike icon on or off, select a PowerSong, pair the Sensor, and lock the on-screen displays into horizontal or vertical screen formats if you prefer.
One notable omission from the Nike + iPod interface for iPod touch is the absence of apparent support for wireless remote controls, such as Nike’s Amp+ Watch, which are capable of pausing playback, changing controls, and changing volume levels while you run. As such, you’ll need to interact solely with the touch’s integrated volume buttons and on-screen track controls to handle music, which is a little less convenient than the nano’s Click Wheel-based interface, but not awful.
Apple also enables you to hit the Home button in the middle of a workout to use other applications, placing an iPhone-like “Touch to Return to Workout” bar near the top of the screen with a number indicating your workout’s progress. Your current connection to the Nike + Sensor is also indicated by a plus sign that’s wedged between the play and battery icons in the upper right corner of the screen. While all of this looks a little nicer than the third-generation iPod nano’s Nike+ menus, we prefer the streamlined design and remote compatibility of the fourth-generation nano, and hope that Apple updates this feature for Amp+ compatibility—and possibly flashier graphics—soon.
What’s New Inside: A Speaker, and Microphone Support
That brings us to the second-generation iPod touch’s speaker. Though Apple CEO Steve Jobs almost apologized for this part when he announced it, telling people not to expect an audiophile-quality listening experience, only knuckleheads would seriously criticize this addition to the device. By contrast with the iPhones, which served as convenient—if power-hungry—portable gaming and video devices even in the absence of headphones, the original iPod touch was useful only if you carried around something cabled for listening.
While it’s a little unfortunate that the iPod touch’s speaker isn’t in the same league’s as the iPhone 3G’s, or even the original iPhone’s, the fact that the iPod touch is the first iPod ever to include a speaker for music and video is a major plus for the product line. Notably, it does not use traditional ventilation, and amazingly doesn’t introduce new holes into the iPod touch’s casing. We initially guessed that the speaker breathed through the bottom Dock Connector and/or headphone ports, but when they’re blocked, audio still can be heard: as it turns out, Apple is using the metal back surface of the iPod touch as a speaker, sort of like an NXT flat panel audio system. At maximum volume, you can feel the slightest hint of vibration in the back, but at lower volumes, it’s not evident, and it doesn’t appear to impact touchscreen or other use of the device, either.
Sonically, the speaker is capable of roughly half the volume of the iPhone 3G speaker, and has less bass body; as expected, it’s not a phenomenal listening device. But in a quiet room, you won’t have a problem hearing music, the audio portion of videos, or in-game sound effects. Just don’t expect to use the speaker on a subway or airplane; besides the hate you’d generate from fellow passengers, you’ll find the volume only marginally higher than the ambient noise level in these noisy moving vehicles. Those expecting to use the iPod touch as a Wi-Fi speakerphone may find themselves disappointed.
It’s also worth noting that the second-generation iPod touch, like the fourth-generation iPod nano and second-generation iPod classic, now includes the ability to work with external microphones—at least, certain external microphones. The $50-$70 Dock Connector microphones that worked with the iPod classic and iPod nano unfortunately continue to bring up an unsupported accessory dialogue box, but headphone port-based microphones—such as the one integrated into the iPhone’s headset, and a new pair of $29 Apple Earphones with Remote and Mic that have not yet been released—do not.
Unfortunately, we were unable to get voice recording applications we’ve previously reviewed for the iPhone OS to work on the new iPod touch, and the device does not appear to have any voice memo application of its own for this purpose. It’s unclear whether the old apps will be updated to offer support for these new microphone accessories, or whether Apple will release a 2.2 software update for the iPod touch with a Voice Memos feature of its own. We’d bet that both will happen, and probably within the next month or two.
Comparative Battery Test Results and Software Updates
Apart from screen quality issues, the original iPod touch’s biggest deficiencies were in storage capacity and battery life: users were expected to pay $299 for a device with as little storage as an iPod nano, and even less run time for audio and video playback. This year, Apple has somewhat remedied these issues, and though the results don’t break the iPod family records set by last year’s 160GB iPod classic, the new iPod touch does better than before.
Last year, Apple promised that the iPod touch would play audio for 22 hours, with actual performance of 28 and a half hours. This year, Apple promised 36 hours of audio, and actually delivered more: at 50% volume, the second-generation touch ran for 39 hours and 46 minutes. These numbers place the new touch in the same league as last year’s 80GB iPod classic, and above the 30-hour performance we saw on the new iPod nano; we’re currently running a battery test on the new 120GB classic model and will update this article to show which one did better.
This much-improved audio runtime obscures a more modest change to the video runtime. Last year, Apple promised 5 hours of video on the iPod touch, and in our tests, the device alternated between falling 30 minutes short or just measuring 5 minutes above that mark. For the second-generation iPod touch, Apple promises 6 hours of video play time. In our testing with the Wi-Fi antenna turned off and minimal device interaction, the second-generation iPod touch ran for 5 hours and 41 minutes of video playback, set on 50% brightness and 50% volume with the same two iTunes Store videos that we’d used for last year’s tests. We also ran identical tests on the new iPod nano, which ran for a little under 5 hours each time. The iPod touch’s performance is an hour below the run time of last year’s 80GB iPod classic, and around four hours below the performance of the 160GB classic. Interestingly, while it’s more than two hours short of today’s 120GB iPod classic in video runtime, it’s only a couple of hours behind in audio.
While extended video playback time may not be critical for all users, it’s worth mentioning that the multi-function iPod touch also eats more battery life when its Wi-Fi antenna is on, when it’s working with the Nike + iPod system, and when it’s running third-party applications such as games. Though every Apple improvement in run time is appreciated, the iPod touch really needs longer video and game run time if it’s going to become a serious competitor to handheld game devices from the Nintendo’s and Sony’s of the world.
It bears mention that Apple continues to update all of its iPods with new software that can have positive or negative effects on battery life, so the numbers we report above may well change a little over time. On a related note, the second-generation iPod touch has not gained the new accessibility features added to the fourth-generation iPod nano for vision- or hearing-disabled users: there aren’t menu options for font size adjustment or spoken voice prompting, but then, there are questions as to how such features would be useful in a touchscreen-based iPod. Similarly, the touch has not gained the audio crossfade feature that the new nano received. While these features and others could easily be added by Apple in a future software update, there are no guarantees that they will be, and if past history is any guide, there may well be a charge for these updates. As users clearly hate being charged for every little thing that gets changed in these devices, we’d strongly prefer to see Apple go back to the free-of-charge point release update model that it has used for other iPod and Mac OS software releases, as well as for the iPhone and iPhone 3G.
iTunes Synchronization, Capacities + Accessory Compatibility
For years, we have tracked the speeds at which various iPods synchronize with iTunes under real-world conditions, and have performed tests on both the new iPod touch and the new iPod nano to see how quickly they can be filled with data. In our test environment, it took exactly 2 minutes for 1GB of mixed music and video files to transfer to the new iPod touch, versus 3 minutes and 31 seconds for the same files on the original iPod touch, and 1 minute and 29 seconds for the iPod nano.
In other words, though the new touch isn’t as fast at transferring files as the nano—and can slow down even more when you’re syncing mixed types of files such as applications and photos—it’s nearly twice as fast as the slowpoke original iPod touch. You can expect that completely filling the 7.1GB of usable space on a second-generation 8GB iPod touch will take roughly 14 minutes, versus 29 minutes for the 14.5GB of usable space on an 16GB iPod touch, and around 59 minutes for the 29.6GB of usable space on a 32GB iPod touch; older computers, and those with hugely shared USB hubs, may well take longer. Note also that the amounts of usable space will vary based on the version of the iPhone OS system software installed.
These positive transfer results are offset by a disappointing change to the iPod touch’s accessory compatibility: like the iPhone 3G and fourth-generation iPod nano, the second-generation iPod touch no longer supports charging from a collection of past iPod accessories, notably including Apple’s iPod Hi-Fi and Bose’s SoundDock, which used an unpublicized but widely adopted charging technology called FireWire charging.
There’s no way to assemble an exhaustive list of all of the accessories that used FireWire charging rather than Apple’s subsequently preferred standard, USB charging, but it suffices to say that a number of old iPod speakers, car accessories, and docks won’t charge the new iPod touch. They trigger one of two dialog screens that alert you that the iPod has detected an attached charger, but cannot actually charge from it. These accessories will still generally perform properly for any feature other than recharging, and most add-ons released—not sold—in the past two years will work without any issue at all. Of course, Apple’s included USB cable still charges the iPod touch when connected to any USB 2.0 port-equipped computer.
As we noted with the release of the iPhone 3G, Apple alerted developers to this change quite some time ago, so the only people who will be surprised will be the many users with incompatible accessories, including some high-end car kits. Thankfully, it doesn’t disable most accessories entirely, but it’s yet another example of a communications disconnect between Apple’s “Made For iPod” program and the customers who have relied upon it to purchase add-ons.
Music, Video, YouTube and Photos Features and Performance
Most of the second-generation iPod touch’s features are identical to those of the first-generation model, but there have been changes in both the hardware and the iPhone OS 2.1 software since our prior review. In this and the next section of this review, we look at all of the device’s past features and applications, including how they’re impacted by changes to the new touch’s screen and audio output.
Music: iPod touch’s Music feature is a modestly enhanced update to the audio half of the iPod application that originally shipped with iPhones in late June, 2007. You use a finger to scroll through tabbed lists of Playlists, Artists, Songs, Albums, or other categories of music, selecting tracks from menus that are substantially white with occasional thumbnails of album artwork. Flipping the iPod touch on its side brings up a scrolling Cover Flow view of your library with large album covers, instead.
The only “major” new software feature here is Genius, which is accessed by selecting a song, touching its album artwork while playing, and then pressing an atom-shaped icon. This feature brings up a list of similar songs in your collection to the one you’ve selected, and lets you create a playlist from the automatically selected songs. As with the iPod nano version, we found that it worked fine, but it doesn’t strike us as an especially compelling feature; we prefer using an application on the iPod touch such as Pandora, which plays similar, Internet-streamed music we don’t already have.
There is one big audio change, and that’s the iPod touch’s sound chip. Months ago, long-time iPod audio chip supplier Wolfson Micro made clear—with minimal discretion—that its chips were not going to be included in either the upcoming iPod nano or iPod touch refreshes, which were then unknown. Lo and behold, the new devices arrived, and both of them sound like the Wolfson-chipless 2007 iPod classic—they’re cleaner, with a nearly non-existent static noise floor that’s as well-suited to audiophile-grade earphones as free pack-ins. That’s really good news for those who hope to use the iPod touch with better headphones; to our ears, this version is a big step up over the prior touch.
Videos: iPod touch’s Videos application is the other half of the iPhone’s iPod feature, and remains functionally identical, starting by displaying a combined list of your movies, TV shows, music videos, and video podcasts for selection and playback. The same two video formats, MPEG-4 and H.264, are supported, and the new iPod touch apparently still does not play back higher-definition video than 640×480 files.
Apple has partially addressed one of the most bothersome issues with the original iPod touch: at least on the two units we’ve tested, the screen quality is superior overall for viewing videos. Viewed on maximum brightness at the exact same viewing angles, the new screen is a little brighter and displays more color detail than its predecessor’s, while not suffering from the severe “negative black” problem that we saw in a number of first-generation iPod touch units, causing dark colors to become almost reflective, washing out detail in the process.
On the flip side, the second-generation iPod touch screen now has a slight yellow tint that was first seen in the iPhone 3G, and wasn’t present on the original iPod touch. Every white menu on the device, including those in the Settings menu and third-party applications, looks decidedly light yellow and comparatively unattractive. Though this issue isn’t obvious when you see a single iPod touch without comparing it to other Apple devices, we prefer the white balance on the first iPod touch, and really think that there should be a setting to adjust the screen to the user’s preferred color temperature.
On a final video-related note, Apple’s worst iPod decision of 2007 lives on in the second-generation iPod touch: the TV-out feature is still locked, requiring users to purchase either an overpriced authentication chip-based video cable or a similarly expensive docking device if they want to watch iPod-stored videos on an external display. This unpublicized change to the iPod family, which broke accessories and infuriated users, was never explained by Apple; it continues to render the new iPod touch incompatible with many popular video add-ons released prior to September 2007.
YouTube: Built upon the Videos application, YouTube includes a number of tabs that let you find and play back popular, featured, bookmarked, or specific videos on Google’s video sharing service. Other than the continued growth of the YouTube library, including the surprising amount of adult-themed content now found on the iPod-formatted YouTube menus, it has not changed in any major way from the prior versions.
Photos: iPod touch’s Photos feature begins with the ability to display photographs that were synchronized to its database using iTunes, a feature that has existed within the iPod family since the fourth-generation iPod (iPod photo) in 2004. There are still only five simple transition effects, and a grid-style display that lets you see 20 thumbnails on screen at once, selecting each photograph to be zoomed in or rotated to whatever the screen’s current orientation may be. You can select any photograph as your Sleep/Wake screen background wallpaper, e-mail a picture, or assign it to a contact in your database.
Since version 2.0 of the iPhone OS, you can now take screenshots using the Sleep/Wake and Home buttons in tandem, as well as grabbing images from Safari by holding your finger down on them, and view those pictures in a Saved Photos folder. These pictures can be transferred to a photo application such as iPhoto for viewing and editing.
Other iPod touch Features and Applications
Apart from bug fixes, iPhone OS 2.1 has changed very few of the other applications and features found in the prior iPod touch software release. The following list enumerates all of the other pre-installed applications and their recent important changes, if any.
Safari: This web browser enables you to view and interact with virtually any major web page on the Internet—except those using Adobe Flash Player or comparable plug-ins. Though it has waxed and waned in stability with every new version of the iPhone OS, its current version on the iPhone OS 2.1 iPod touch is sturdy and does a good job of displaying web pages in either horizontal or vertical format. On-screen keyboards appear in each orientation when you need to input text, and bookmarks are transferred automatically from your computer to the device.
We tested the old and new iPod touches side-by-side in 802.11g web browsing to see if either one loaded sites appreciably faster or slower. They didn’t, though the second-generation iPod touch occasionally seemed to have a very slight (one second or less) speed advantage on large pages.
Mail: Based upon the iPhone’s Mail application, this one provides POP3 or IMAP access to virtually any type of e-mail account you may have, as well as Microsoft Exchange or Apple MobileMe servers, and lets you both receive and send e-mails from multiple accounts. This application is useful for casual browsing of e-mail when you’re away from a computer, but between the on-screen keyboard and its lack of sophisticated folder and junk mail management, it’s neither a good replacement for a computer-based e-mail program nor for a device with a pressure-sensitive keyboard.
iTunes Store: Added to the iPhone and iPod touch in an early software revision, the iTunes Store lets you buy music—not videos—from Apple’s 8-million-song library. Songs transfer wirelessly to the iPod touch without the need for a computer’s iTunes application as the conduit, and transfer back into your iTunes library during synchronization. Purchases are handled with credit card information stored in your Store account.
App Store: Added to the iPhone and iPod touch in software version 2.0, the App Store lets you download free and paid applications from the applications section of the iTunes Store. Since the iPod touch uses a Wi-Fi connection, you can download applications of any size to this device without using a computer’s iTunes as a conduit; again, backups take place when you synchronize the iPod. Applications have been widely criticized as buggy and unstable, in part due to poor application programming and in part due to the iPhone’s buggy OS; the latest iPhone OS is more stable than before, but still not perfect.
Calendar, Contacts, Notes: These old iPod carryovers store information you’ve compiled on planned events, people you know, and things that you find noteworthy. They have not received major updates since their release, but all three are editable on the iPod touch with an on-screen keyboard—editing and Notes were added belatedly after the first-generation iPod touch was released.
Stocks, Weather, Calculator, Clock: These applications provide widget-like stock and weather tracking functionality, as well as an on-screen calculator and world clocks. The only major change here came months ago in Calculator, which now includes both vertical and horizontal (scientific) calculators.
Maps: Though it hasn’t seen huge improvements since version 2.0 of the iPhone OS was released, Maps includes a location finder that uses Wi-Fi signal information to roughly triangulate your location, as well as a directions feature that works roughly as well as the iPhone’s, minus the more expensive device’s GPS functionality. You can see satellite or roadmap views of locations around the world, zoom in or out to your heart’s content, and get driving directions to or from any location, including addresses in your Contacts list. You can also use Maps to lookup phone numbers and addresses of nearby businesses, which is often more convenient than using Google in Safari.
Settings: A master settings menu for all of the iPhone OS and third-party applications provides individual menus for certain programs and combined menus for others. There’s nothing remarkable or new in the iPod touch second-generation Settings menu, except for the presence of the Nike + iPod settings mentioned above, which includes an option to turn the icon on or off. We’d like to see this icon off-feature in more of the device’s menus; having the choice to separate music and videos would be great, as would be the option to turn off each of the iPod touch or iPhone’s individual icons save for Phone.
Downloadable Applications: Discussed in great detail on iLounge already, iPhone OS 2.0’s ability to download and run third-party applications radically expands the iPod touch’s ability to serve as a miniature computer or game-playing device. You can read much more about the most popular and noteworthy iPhone OS applications in our iPhone Gems articles.
There’s a simple way to sum up our thoughts on the second-generation iPod touch: if Apple had released this device at these prices last year, we would have been thrilled. Virtually all of the first-generation model’s functional issues have been addressed—at least, partially—and the new version looks, feels, and sounds considerably better than its predecessor. While it is not a complete substitute for an iPhone thanks to its lack of phone, GPS, and camera features, the new iPod touch is a completely worthy alternative for users who just don’t need that added functionality; considering how expensive and troubled 3G data services have been for many iPhone 3G users, we’re inclined to say that the second-generation iPod touch is currently a smarter buy than the iPhone 3G overall, at least in some countries and regions.
Having said that, the second-generation iPod touch still isn’t the ideal widescreen iPod many people been waiting years to purchase: Apple’s continued obsession with thinness, and its refusal to pair a hard disk with the 3.5” display, force users once again to choose between the video-friendly storage capacity of an iPod classic or the eye-friendly screen size of an iPod touch. It’s both astonishing and aggravating that Apple continues to sell movies, TV shows, and games that are increasing in resolution and size, but doesn’t make a single pocket device that can hold and display them without constant, time-consuming re-synchronization. Is a thicker hard-drive version of the touch, comparable in size to last year’s 160GB iPod classic, really so difficult to release as a stop-gap measure?
Until flash memory prices fall, or Apple decides to give its fans the hard-drive based touch device they’ve been asking for, users will be forced to pick between the iPod touch and iPod classic. Thanks to the new iPod touch’s better pricing, screen, battery life, and audio quality, that choice has just become a lot more difficult—unlike last year, we think that the choice between these options is now a draw, as they’re both B+ products and worthy of our strong general recommendation. Once again, the big question is whether serious video fans will be able to wait another year for the inevitably superior successor.
Updated: The Late 2009 32GB/64GB iPod touch
Under different circumstances, calling the “late 2009” iPod touch (32GB/$299, 64GB/$399) a true “third-generation” model would be easier: a look inside its casing reveals a place for a camera that, despite photographic evidence to the contrary, never made it into the final product due to last-minute technical problems. Instead, what Apple has released for the holidays is something closer to an “enhanced second-generation” model, with new hardware mostly hidden inside, some modestly updated software, higher storage capacities for the dollar, and once again, the potential for additional functionality to be unlocked in a paid software update next year. The resulting product is unquestionably better than its predecessor, though it leaves lingering questions as to whether or when its full potential will be unlocked.
Since the core functionality of the new iPod touch is the same as the late 2008 model, we will be adding this update to our prior second-generation iPod touch review, highlighting all of the major changes, and explaining our updated ratings. In short, despite the absence of a camera, the current iPod touch lineup is at least as compelling as last year’s, due in substantial part to the ascendance of the App Store as a resource for all but unlimited, inexpensive game and application releases. At a time when the iPod classic is a dead-end for everything save storage capacity, the iPod shuffle has nothing going for it save size, and the iPod nano is a solid compromise alternative with comparatively limited video, gaming, and app capabilities, the touch has become the smartest overall way to get into the iPod family, assuming you’re willing to pay and accept a larger enclosure to enjoy its benefits.
What’s Changed: The Cosmetics and Pack-Ins
Apart from a single, minor external change, there is no way to tell the latest iPod touch from its predecessor—a fact that may cause some confusion for those wondering which 32GB model they’re purchasing. The minor change is this: engraving.
The back of the late 2008 iPod touch has four lines of engraved text, which sit between an “8GB,” “16GB,” or “32GB” badge and a collection of electronic certification logos. The engraved text starts with a serial number and ends with the words “All rights reserved.” By comparison, the back of the late 2009 32GB and 64GB iPod touch models has a noticeably smaller “32GB” or “64GB” badge, and only two lines of engraved text before those logos. The text starts with the phrase “Designed by Apple in California” and ends with the serial number. Otherwise, the units are indistinguishable from one another when their screens are turned off.
One other difference we noted is one that may or may not hold up throughout the lifespan of this particular model: screen color tint. On pure or mostly white screens, the late 2008 iPod touch has a slightly yellow tint, while the late 2009 model is closer to neutral white, but with a slight pink tint, nearly identical to the display in the iPhone 3GS. The newer touch model has a very modestly more shallow off-center viewing angle than its predecessor before it begins to create “negative blacks,” a problem that seriously impacted first-generation iPod touch screens but was virtually remedied in the subsequent model. For that reason, we would not characterize the new screen as definitively better, but we do prefer its color balance. Viewed directly on center, or even somewhat off-center, the new iPod touch’s screen is bright, colorful, and exceptionally watchable for videos and games; it remains the iPod family’s very best standalone display, and easy to watch entire movies on assuming that you’re willing to hold it or buy a stand to keep it upright.
Another difference is in pack-ins. Unlike its predecessor, the new iPod touch includes Apple’s Earphones with Remote and Mic, which are also packed in with the iPhone 3GS. Like the 3GS version and models that have been shipping since mid-2009, the iPod touch’s Earphones include a hard plastic headphone plug shell that is thinner and more slippery than the prior, thicker soft rubber coating shown in our earlier review. Otherwise, they look, sound, and work the same, providing two volume buttons, a multi-function play/pause/track skip central button, and a microphone that can be used for voice recording and other purposes. While this accessory also works with the late 2008 iPod touch—not the original iPod touch—it can do a little more with the new model, as noted below under What’s Changed: The Software.
What’s Changed: The Hardware
Over the past year, Apple has turned its iPod touch releases into opportunities to cash in twice on hardware changes: once when it sells the device with specifically identified new features, and then again when it offers a paid $10 “software update” that unlocks previously undisclosed capabilities. For the new iPod touch, Apple has promised only two specific hardware changes: “up to 50 percent faster performance” and “support for even better graphics with OpenGL ES 2.0.” Though the company doesn’t discuss the specifics of its components in iPod or iPhone devices, this has been accomplished by a replacement of the prior model’s CPU and graphics processor with newer, faster parts, upping the device’s clock speed to approximately 800MHz and adding new special effects to its graphics arsenal.
For users, these abstract changes do have concrete, though not exactly critical consequences. Install the same game on the old and new iPod touch models and you will notice a difference in loading times. The new iPod touch is faster at loading titles, especially big ones, where the difference can amount to several seconds—you can be starting to play a game on the new model while the old one is still loading up. It’s even faster at loading than the iPhone 3GS, which was itself faster than the old iPod touch, a performance boost that is also manifested in slightly zippier transitions from Home screen to Home screen.
iPod touch 3G versus iPod touch 2G:
Loading aside, the new model’s impact on game performance varies a lot from title to title, even on ones that push the prior iPod touch’s graphics hardware. In the case of Ngmoco’s Star Defense, which we tested on the iPhone 3GS and prior-generation iPhone model, the game both loads faster and benefits from a slightly better frame rate—greater speed and smoothness as you’re rotating around the 3-D planets it presents on screen. Firemint’s Real Racing, another title we’ve tested on multiple platforms, has noticeable improvements in load times but less obvious benefits in frame rates; the difference between the late 2008 and late 2009 iPod touches is marginal at best. And id Software’s Doom Resurrection has an initially faster load time but no apparent difference in frame rates between the devices; once you get into each game, the playing portions look and feel the same.
iPod touch 3G versus iPhone 3GS:
That having been said, the new iPod touch is the second Apple pocket device to include hardware support for OpenGL ES 2.0, a newer graphics technology that debuted in the iPhone 3GS. OpenGL ES 2.0 gives developers the ability to use programmable “shaders” to create more impressive and realistic looking visual effects than the first two iPod touch and first two iPhone models were capable of generating. The upside of this new feature is that future games will look better on the new iPod touch and iPhone 3GS than on earlier models; the downside is that only a handful of games, and then mostly mediocre ones, have been released with support for the new graphics feature. As of the date of this review, one wouldn’t even install on the new iPod touch.
Eurocenter’s Adrenaline Golf Online is an example of a title that works on all of these models, offering superior, shader-assisted graphic performance on the iPhone 3GS and new iPod touch while falling back to the less advanced capabilities of older iPod touch and iPhone models. Load Adrenaline on the new and old iPod touch and you’ll notice that the new touch loads the game faster, and then displays reflective water effects that aren’t found on the old one. But in a sign that it hasn’t yet been optimized for the new iPod touch, the frame rate—the smoothness of changes to the polygonal graphics—is actually a little lower on the new model, and the same game actually loads faster on the iPhone 3GS, the only title we’ve seen to do that. This is not a reflection of the touch’s performance, but rather, a sign that games will need to be optimized by their developers to do more than just load faster on the new model. Give interested developers a few months and the performance curve should be pretty stable: old iPhone, iPhone 3G, and iPod touch hardware will continue to be slower than the late 2008 iPod touch, which will lag behind and have fewer cool special effects than the iPhone 3GS, which will lag modestly behind the new iPod touch.
There are also a couple of undisclosed hardware changes in the new iPod touch that may or may not be unlocked in a later software update. A teardown has revealed that the 802.11 Wi-Fi chip inside the new model is capable of not only its currently unlocked 802.11b and g wireless standards, but also the faster 802.11n standard. Users with 802.11n-only home networks, including us, would love to be able to stop maintaining slower, 802.11g-friendly networks for slower Wi-Fi devices like the touch; for now, the touch’s ability to use 802.11n networks is locked.