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.
We're also happy to see the inclusion of Nike+ functionality considering the popularity of MP3 players as workout companions. And if you're interested in making voice memos, an investment in a compatible iPod microphone headset (due out in October) will allow you to make voice recordings directly to the iPod touch, provided that third-party developers begin creating voice applications specific to it.
We're disappointed that the new version still can't stream Flash video or audio content through its Safari browser. Many of the Web's more popular content providers are working around the problem, however, by creating specific App Store applications for their content. We also can't help but crave the camera and GPS capabilities included on the touch's close relative, the iPhone 3G. With any luck, a third-party manufacturer will step in with some clever accessories.
Both the iPod touch and iPhone allow users to browse, preview, purchase and download music from the new iTunes Wi-Fi music store. The store is limited strictly to music downloads -- no movies, TV shows, podcasts or games -- at least not yet. You'll have to hop on to an available Wi-Fi Internet connection to take advantage of the wireless music store, but once connected, you can search for any artist, album or song in the iTunes catalogue, as well as browse by genre, top sellers, featured artists and new releases.
Store purchases require you to enter your iTunes password as a security measure. Once the download is complete, the song is immediately available to listen to and will transfer to your computer's iTunes music library the next time you sync the device. The feature seems to work without any kinks -- even interrupted downloads pick up once a Wi-Fi connection is re-established.
Before you run off to buy one, consider this caveat: those who use this or any iPod will be required to install and use iTunes. No other piece of software has equalled iTunes in both praise and scorn from CNET's users. Some argue that iTunes is a top-notch media library tool and online music store, while others become infuriated by the software's insatiable demand for system resources and frequent updates.
Whatever side of the iTunes debate you take, know that iTunes 8 is a mandatory install for the second-generation iPod touch. If you haven't used iTunes before or haven't upgraded the software in a while, we strongly recommend giving the new software a spin before committing to a new iPod.
Having handled our share of touchscreen iPod and iPhone imitators this past year, we've yet to find a product that measures up to the responsiveness of Apple's multitouch technology.
Granted, some Web-based applications need a few seconds to warm up, but the majority of the features on this iPod touch react with an uncanny immediacy and fluidity. Small things such as album cover art that flips over to reveal track listings, menus that scroll with artificial momentum and photos that resize with a pinch of your fingers, all illustrate an attention to detail not offered by the iPod's competitors.
For reasons known only to Apple, the obsessive detail poured into the iPod's design doesn't translate into audio performance. The barrage of sound-enhancement settings packed into MP3 players from Sony, Cowon and Samsung are in stark contrast to the unchanged and marginally useful list of equaliser presets included on the iPod. That said, the balanced and smooth audio quality of the iPod touch is likely to satisfy the majority of listeners, despite the limited scope of its audio control.
As with all iPods, the second-generation model supports playback for MP3, AAC (including protected files), Audible, WAV, AIFF and Apple Lossless. There's still no support for WMA music files, but you can always convert your WMA tracks to MP3 within Apple's iTunes software.
If you're looking for a way to take video on-the-go, the touch has plenty to offer. You can load it with video podcasts, TV programmes and iTunes movie rentals, or watch endless amounts of free video clips using the included YouTube widget. Viewing angles seem better than the previous model, while colour balance and brightness seem about the same.
Apple rates the new iPod touch at 36 hours for music (up from the first-gen's 22 hours) and 6 hours of video (unchanged), although mileage will vary based on screen brightness and Wi-Fi usage. Historically, Apple's iPod battery estimates tend to be conservative.
We think the second-generation iPod touch is one of the best iPods ever made. Inside and out, it's in a league of its own in the world of portable entertainment. If you have an old, worn-out iPod and you're ready to upgrade, we think this new model should be your first consideration.
That said, if you already own an iPhone or an original iPod touch, it would be hard to justify buying the second-generation version. Also, if all you really want is a no-frills portable music player, upgrading is probably overkill.
Edited by Marian Smith