As the less-gifted sibling of Apple's celebrated iPhone, the iPod touch has had to work hard to prove itself. Now in its second generation, Apple has finally given the iPod touch a chance to shine by lowering its price (an 8GB model now costs £169), improving the hardware and practically doubling the features from last year's original model.
Apple's updates to the iPod touch's design are subtle, but the hardware has definitely changed for the better. A slim volume switch now graces the left edge, making it easier to adjust the volume quickly. The chromed steel back now mimics the rounded design of the iPhone 3G, giving the device a slimmer profile at its edges. Whether psychological or by design, the second-generation iPod touch feels less fragile than last year's model and makes the plastic enclosure of the iPhone 3G feel cheap by comparison.
Minor improvements aside, the hardware is largely unchanged. Both the first- and second-generation iPod touch share the same dimensions (104mm by 62mm by 11mm), same glass-covered 89mm (3.5-inch) screen and same arrangement of headphone jack, dock connector, sleep button and home button.
Priced at £169 (8GB), £219 (16GB) and £289 (32GB), the second-generation iPod touch still commands a fairly high price compared with other MP3 players with similar capacities. When you weigh the price against its features, however, the device becomes much more attractive.
Out of the box, the new touch includes an amazing music player, podcast support, video playback (including iTunes rentals and a YouTube player), a Safari Web browser, photo viewer, an email reader (compatible with Outlook, Exchange, MobileMe, Gmail, Yahoo, AOL or any POP email service), an integrated Wi-Fi music store and a host of smaller utilities (weather, calendar, maps, stocks, notes, clock, contacts and calculator). Provided you can become proficient with its touchscreen keyboard, the iPod touch is more pocket PC than MP3 player.
As of version 2.0 of Apple's iPhone and iPod touch firmware, the device's standard features are just the beginning. The new iTunes App Store, accessible from your computer or directly from the iPod touch, allows users to download and install thousands of applications, including Internet radio players, games, voice recorders and social-networking tools. You can also extend its capabilities by using third-party 'Made for iPod' hardware accessories such as Bluetooth transmitters, audio/video docks, external battery packs and speaker systems.
The second-generation touch also introduces Apple's new Genius feature, which lets you create an instant 25-song playlist based on the musical characteristics of a single song. The Genius feature is easy to use, and the results are fun, provided your music collection holds enough songs to make interesting connections. You can create and save Genius playlists directly onto your iPod touch, and with automatic syncing enabled in iTunes you can also transfer them back to your computer.
Oddly, the touch's Genius feature won't work if you haven't enabled Genius on your computer's iTunes software. If you find iTunes' Genius feature too demanding on your computer's resources or too invasive of your privacy (the feature reports your listening habits to Apple), then you'll need to live without the feature on your iPod as well.
If you own a first-generation iPod touch, you can upgrade its firmware to include all of the software capabilities (including Genius playlists) found on the second-generation model. There are three features, however, that you're only going to get on the second-generation model: a built-in speaker, Nike+ support and headphone jack microphone input. The speaker included on the second-generation touch isn't visible from the outside and its sound quality is far from spectacular. Despite its poor quality, the addition of a speaker makes it easier to play games or listen to your morning podcasts without hunting down your headphones.