Review: iPod touch
At a Glance
[ EDITOR’S NOTE: Not long after this review’s publication, Apple released a software update for the iPod touch. This update had enough impact on the final rating to warrant an additional review, which you can find here. ]
After much speculation that a “phone-less” iPhone held a prominent spot on Apple’s “To Do” whiteboard, Apple released what many anticipated would be such a device in the form of the iPod touch, an iPod that shares most of the iPhone’s multimedia features and a small subset of its communications tools. Yet it bears the iPod name rather than allying itself with the iPhone. As an iPod touch its main mission remains media.
For some expecting a hybrid of the iPod and iPhone, the touch will come as a disappointment. But even without skewed expectations, the iPod touch is an imperfect player—offering a somewhat arbitrary feature set, no physical or remote controls for adjusting volume or controlling the player, very restricted video output capabilities, and, at best, an under-whelming display (and, at worst, one that’s virtually unwatchable when viewing dark video).
The is-and-isn’t iPhone
While iPod it may be, the form-factor, interface, and underlying architecture demand that the touch be compared to the iPhone rather than a “traditional” iPod such as the new iPod classic and third-generation (3G) iPod nano. Like the iPhone, the iPod touch has a 3.5-inch (diagonally measured) glass touch-screen display—one that offers a resolution of 480-by-320 pixels and a pixel density at 163 pixesl-per-inch (ppi). (At one time, Apple’s tech specs suggested that the iPhone had a lesser pixel density of 160 ppi, but those specifications have been changed to say that the two devices sport the same pixel density.) Rather than scrolling around the interface, you tap, pinch, and swipe, just as you do with an iPhone. You launch applications from a Home screen, and you turn the device on and off or put it to sleep with a switch mounted on the top of the iPod.
The audio port is located at the bottom of the player next to the dock connector port and—thank goodness—it isn’t recessed. Unlike with the iPhone, which bears a recessed audio port on the top of the phone, you can use the plug from any pair of third-party headphones without the need for an adapter.
Apple’s iPod touch
Also unlike the iPhone, the iPod touch has no physical volume buttons, which is a problem. iPod owners are accustomed to adjusting volume and moving forward or back a track without having to retrieve the player from their pocket. Without buttons and no support for a remote control, this is impossible with the iPod touch. Bad enough that the white earbuds let the world know that you’ve got some kind of iPod in your pocket on an unsavory subway. Worse is displaying that iPod to the world when you need to turn down the volume.
Giving credit where it’s due, Apple did provide a simple way to return to the Now Playing screen from anywhere in the interface. Just press the Home button twice in rapid succession, and a screen appears showing the title of the currently playing song along with a volume slider, Next, and Previous buttons, and an offer to close the window or move to the Now Playing screen.
Both devices include Wi-Fi, but their ability to take advantage of it varies. Each includes the Safari Web browser and YouTube application, but the touch lacks the iPhone’s Mail, Stocks, Maps, and Weather applications.
The iPod touch offers a separate Contacts application, whereas the iPhone puts Contacts in the Phone area of the device. Outside of this difference, the two versions of Contacts work similarly. You can create and edit contacts on each device. And when you tap a URL in a contact, Safari launches and takes you to that address. Of course, tapping phone, address, and e-mail fields within a contact does nothing on the iPod touch, as it lacks applications for taking advantage of those items.
Both devices include a Calendar application, but only the iPhone lets you create events. With the iPod touch you must create events on your computer and then move them to the iPod when you sync it. And yes, it does seem odd that you can enter and edit contacts on the iPod touch but not events.
The two Photos applications are also quite similar. Because the iPod touch lacks a camera, you’ll find no Camera Roll entry on the iPod. And as the iPod has no e-mail client, you’ll find no option for e-mailing photos or sending photos to a .Mac Web Gallery (which works by e-mailing photos to a special .Mac address). Although the Photos application doesn’t offer a command for assigning pictures to contacts (as you can with the iPhone), you can do this in the Contacts application by selecting a contact, tapping Edit, tapping the Photo field, and choosing a photo from the Photo Albums screen that appears.
You won’t find a Notes application on the iPod touch, which is another oddity, not only because the iPhone has it, but also because earlier iPods include a Notes feature. Games are missing as well as is the ability to record via a third-party microphone. And while you can manually manage media with the iPod touch (something you can’t do with an iPhone), there’s no Disk Mode for the touch, meaning you can’t use it as a hard drive as you can other iPods.
iPod and iPhone media parity
Once you enter the iPod area of the touch, you’ll find the experience nearly indistinguishable from the iPhone. Turn the iPod touch to landscape view and up pops Cover Flow. Flick to move through your collection of album covers and tap on a cover to see any tracks on that album that the touch holds. Tap a track title to begin playing the track. Rotate the iPod to portrait orientation and the Now Playing screen appears. Here’s where you can adjust volume, switch on shuffle or repeat, and drag the playhead to move back or forward in the track.
In areas of the iPod interface other than the Now Playing screen, you’ll see Playlists, Artists, and Songs buttons at the bottom of the screen, placed exactly as they are on the iPhone. Because the iPod touch has a separate Videos application that can be accessed from the Home screen (the iPhone places a Videos button in the iPod area), you’ll find an Albums entry at the bottom of the touch’s screen when using the iPod functions. Tap More, and you’ll see the Audiobooks, Compilations, Composers, Genres, and Podcasts entries. Tap an entry to view its contents.
Video navigation and playback are just as similar on the iPod touch and iPhone. Tap the Videos button on the iPod’s Home screen, and you’ll see your videos broken into categories including Movies, TV Shows, Music Videos, and Podcasts. With the TV Shows and Podcasts areas, you’ll be told how many episodes of a particular title are on the iPod—
Macworld Video (3 Episodes), for example.
Tap a video to begin playing it. Unlike with the iPhone, which always plays video from wherever you last left off, the iPod touch includes an option for selecting whether the video plays from the beginning or from where you last stopped. In this setting, you’ll also find a TV Out option in the iPod touch’s Video settings. (The iPhone currently doesn’t support Video Out.) Regrettably, the iPod touch can output video only via new $49 Apple video composite or component cables (available around the end of September). Old accessories that support video output from an iPod don’t work with the touch.
Given that one of the main reasons for purchasing an iPod touch is to watch videos on its relatively expansive screen, it’s unfortunate that video and photos don’t look as good as they could. Macworld purchased two iPod touches. The one I reviewed displayed video that was noticeably darker than that of my iPhone. For example, dark scenes in the classic Roman Polanski film, Chinatown, were really dark—lacking detail that the iPhone nicely detailed. The display also had a yellower cast than the iPhone. Dark images in photo albums similarly lacked detail.
With brightness pushed all the way up on an iPhone (left) and iPod touch (right), it’s clear that the iPhone has the brighter display.
The other iPod touch was far worse. Dark portions of video were extremely dark, with lighter areas completely blown out as if someone had cranked the contrast too high. Regrettably, the iPod touch has no contrast control, just brightness, so there’s no fix for this problem other than returning it to Apple in the hope of getting one without the problem. We’re not the only ones affected by this issue. Others have reported similarproblems with their iPod touches.
Touching the iPod’s killer app
While some may be distressed at the apparent hobbling of the iPod touch’s Wi-Fi capabilities, Wi-Fi was included with this iPod largely for a single reason—music purchasing. The iPod touch includes a new iTunes icon on the Home screen for doing just that. Tap it while connected via Wi-Fi, and you’re taken to the iTunes Wi-Fi Music Store. Here you can browse featured music as well as Top Ten selections in a variety of genres. Tap the Search button and you can use the iPod’s keyboard to search for music at The Store. (You can’t obtain videos, audiobooks, or podcasts from the Wi-Fi store.)
The iTunes Wi-Fi Music Store worked quite well in my tests. I previewed Wi-Fi Music Store files both with fast and slow Wi-Fi networks. With fast networks it took very little time for the store’s interface to appear and to preview and download tracks. On a slower network, previews took a little longer to load but, once loaded, played without interruption. I attempted to download an album when on a particularly slow network and managed to get half the tracks before I had to leave the area. After I returned home, the touch automatically logged onto my network and completed the download.
Once you download tracks, you can listen to them immediately—they appear in a Purchased playlist found in the iPod’s Playlists screen. When you next sync the iPod, the purchased tracks are automatically downloaded to your computer. You can download your purchased tracks to another computer, though they won’t download automatically (as the iPod automatically downloads tracks only to the computer it’s currently linked to). To do so just select the iPod in iTunes' Source list, and choose Transfer Purchase From iPod touch , where iPod touch is the name you've assigned to the iPod.
I really enjoyed the freedom of previewing and purchasing music on the go. Being able to pull music from the ether is terrific and something I plan to do a lot in the future.
Getting a charge out of it
Apple rates the iPod touch’s battery charge at 22 continuous hours of music playback and five hours of video playback. By way of comparison Apple suggests the iPhone will get 24 hours of music playback and seven hours of video playback from that single charge. It’s fairly typical that Apple underestimates the amount of playtime you’ll get from a single charge. In our first audio battery test, this wasn’t the case. My 16GB iPod touch played audio continuously for 22 hours and 41 minutes. We’re continuing to test audio as well as video play times both with Wi-Fi switched on and off. We’ll report the results when we have them.
After spending a couple of months with the iPhone, it’s hard to pick up the iPod touch and not think about what could have been. If only video looked as good on the touch as it does on the iPhone. If only Apple had compromised on the iPod’s sleek lines to add a couple of unobtrusive volume buttons (or offered a headset that included remote controls). If only the whole iPod-as-PIM-concept had been thought through to the point where both contacts and calendar events could be entered on the iPod. If only I could use my old video accessories with my new iPod.
Among my list of concerns only one is a deal-killer—the quality of the video. Yes, the iPhone-like interface is impressive. Yes, being able to surf the Web and purchase music while on the move is incredibly convenient. But the iPod touch was created with video in mind and this is the one area where it can’t shortchange its owner. Let’s hope that, with the next product run (or, better yet, the divine power of a firmware update), the touch will provide the same glorious video as the iPhone. The resulting device won’t be perfect, but it will be a vital step in the right direction.
[ Senior Editor Christopher Breen writes the iPod Blog and is the author of The iPod and iTunes Pocket Guide, second edition (Peachpit Press, 2007). ]
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