If you find yourself dazzled by the Web, video and music capabilities of Apple's iPhone but can't stomach the contract commitment, the iPod touch might be just what you're looking for.
Offered in 8GB (£199) and 16GB (£269) capacities from the Apple store -- delivered by the end of September -- the iPod touch is a premium-priced device with an attractive set of features for a midsize portable video player. Still, the touch's limited storage capacity makes it a difficult choice when held up to higher capacity products like the iPod classic or Archos 605 WiFi.
The touch measures a slim and pocketable 62 by 110 by 8mm, with an all-metal-and-glass design that feels as expensive as it looks. Because nothing will ruin a portable video player faster than a gouge across its screen, we're happy to see that the face of the iPod touch uses the same scratch-resistant glass found on the iPhone.
Most users will still want to buy a protective case, however, since the touch feels a little fragile and the back is covered with the glossy, scratch-prone, smudge-loving chrome exterior common to most iPods.
There are only two physical buttons on the touch: a button on the face of the player used for calling up the main menu and a screen deactivation button found on the top-left edge of the case. The touch is controlled largely using an icon-based touchscreen navigation menu nearly identical to the iPhone's but with greater emphasis placed on music, photo and video playback.
The two design details that distinguish the iPod touch from the iPhone are the headphone jack and volume controls. While the iPhone surprised us with its difficult, recessed headphone jack, the 3.5mm headphone jack on the iPod touch runs flush with the case and accepts any standard minijack headphone connection.
In the absence of dedicated volume control buttons, the touch gives users the ability to bring up an onscreen volume slider by double-clicking the main menu button. The same volume screen offers controls for playing, pausing and skipping through tracks.
When it comes down to it, the iPod touch's most unique selling point is not its feature set but its interface. You can find products that offer more features, as well as higher quality audio and video performance but you won't find any other product that can match the feeling you get using the iPod touch interface.
In the absence of jetpacks or flying cars, the futuristic novelty of zooming photos with a pinch of the finger or flying through your music collection in Cover Flow is difficult to quantify into a bullet point but it is probably the most justifiable reason to invest in the touch.
The iPod touch draws 99 per cent of its features from the iPhone. While iPhone owners have zero incentive for buying the touch, the rest of us now have a way to get our hands on many of the iPhone's features without a costly O2 contract.
The bad news is that the iPod touch does away with more than just the iPhone's phone capabilities -- it also gives up POP/IMAP email, built-in speakers, microphone, camera, Bluetooth and a handful of widget applications such as stock monitoring and weather forecasting.
Remaining features such as a Safari Web browser, YouTube video portal, photo viewer, music player, video player and iTunes Wi-Fi Music Store still place the iPod touch on the cutting edge for portable video players, however. In fact, at the time of this writing, the only product that can even compete with the iPod touch's combination of a Wi-Fi-enabled Web browser, wireless music store, widescreen video playback, photo viewer and audio player is the Archos 605 WiFi.
One of the few notable features that put the iPod touch ahead of the iPhone is the ability to output video and photos to a television using an optional Apple AV cable, Universal Dock or qualifying third-party video accessory.
Another advantage the iPod touch offers over the iPhone is the ability to manually manage music and video content in lieu of setting up automatic content syncing rules within iTunes. We are a little disappointed that the iPod touch is the only iPod that does not support a generic USB storage mode but we doubt many users will be upset by this.
Audio format support is unchanged from previous iPods. The touch supports standard and purchased AAC, as well as MP3, Audible, WAV, AIFF and Apple Lossless. Video format support is likewise unaltered from the H.264/MP4 files playable on 5G iPods, as well as the third-generation iPod nano and the iPod classic. The touch supports video resolutions up to 640x480 pixels at 30 frames per second.
Minus a few features, the Safari Web browser found on the
iPod touch is more or less the same great browser found on the iPhone. For
instance, without the iPhone's email application or phone capabilities, email
addresses and phone numbers found on Web pages will no longer launch email or dialling
Web-based email, such as Gmail or Yahoo mail, work fine in Safari, but without the ability to copy and paste text, manually entering in email addresses found on the Web can be frustrating. Just like Safari on the iPhone, Flash-based Web objects are still disabled, including embedded video players and music players.
We'd love to see embedded Flash support in the otherwise fabulous browser. Whether video content from sites like DailyMotion or Viddler or music from Web radio sites like Pandora or Slacker, embedded Flash media content is a big part of the Internet media experience.
Despite these few limitations, using Safari on a small mobile device like the iPod touch is still fun and useful. The intelligent touchscreen keyboard and multiple browser window management are a big plus.
Both the iPod touch and iPhone allow users to browse, preview, purchase and
download music from the new iTunes Wi-Fi music store, which will open in the UK in time for the launch of the touch. The store is limited
strictly to music downloads -- no movies, TV shows, podcasts or games -- at
least, not yet. You'll have to hop onto 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 seemed to work without any kinks when we tried it in the US. Even interrupted downloads picked up once a Wi-Fi connection is re-established.
Complaining about the iPod touch's lack of FM radio or voice-recording
features feels like complaining about a Porsche's lack of cup holders. Still,
there are some missing features on the iPod touch that we would have enjoyed.
Putting aside the touch's sleek design, futuristic interface and innovative feature set, the quality of its audio and video playback rank only slightly above average. The iPod touch reportedly uses the same audio chipset as the iPhone, but a different one to the iPod classic. The touch offers good audio quality, but not the stellar audio we were hoping for in an expensive product.
The audio issue is compounded by Apple's long-standing history of preventing iPod users from defining their own custom EQ settings. Apple's 20 built-in equalisation presets are handy but there's just no substitute for rolling your own five-band EQ curve. With the touch's emphasis on video playback, it would have been especially useful to have a surround-sound emulation effect similar to the Cowon A2's or Sony NWZ-S610's.
We've heard some complaints about the iPod touch's video performance but we found the overall quality to be good. Viewing angles are less than great, producing some colour and contrast shifting from even slight tilting. We also found that the glossy glass screen kicks back a lot of glare. Still, despite the common complaints, the touch is unquestionably the most video-worthy iPod yet.
With a battery life rated at 22 hours for music playback and five hours for video, the touch should offer more than enough time to get through a few flights or a roundtrip commute.
We think the iPod touch is a great product with lots to offer, but its premium price tag and limited capacity should give some shoppers pause. And while we're being picky, we also want the iPhone's notepad application, iTunes game support and stereo Bluetooth transmission. The ability to use the touch as an external storage drive like the iPod nano and iPod classic would also be a plus.
Don't assume that Apple's most expensive iPod is the best solution for your needs. If you're planning on watching a lot of video, high-capacity products such as the iPod classic or Archos 605 WiFi will allow you to load entire seasons of your favourite TV shows.
Also bear in mind that if you're not around an available Wi-Fi network, features such as the Safari Web browser, iTunes Wi-Fi Music Store and YouTube video portal won't mean much at all. While the iPod touch may not be the slam dunk we were hoping for, it is an unquestionably cool product that continues Apple's legacy of sleek, innovative design.
Available from AdvancedMP3Players.
Additional editing by Shannon Doubleday