iPod touch Review

If the iPhone is three products rolled into one – an iPod, a mobile phone and a ‘breakthrough’ internet device – then the iPod touch is two products: the iPod and breakthrough internet communications device. Just forget about the ‘phone’ bit.

Crucially though, it costs just £199 for the equivalent 8GB of storage that the iPhone offers (or you can pay £269, the same price as the iPhone, and get 16GB of storage). More importantly, you don’t have to take out the £35-£55 per month, 18-month contract, required to own an iPhone. So overall, you will save somewhere between £700 and £1,059 by purchasing an iPod touch rather than an iPhone.

Now, depending on whether you have a ‘glass half full’ or ‘half empty’ mentality, the iPod touch is either a widescreen, touch-screen iPod on WiFi steroids; or it’s an iPhone with a hefty chunk of the functionality stripped out.

Because you don’t get the phone part, there are no calls, SMS or voicemail. Obviously, there are also no ringtones, microphone or built-in speaker. The iPod touch also lacks the widgets (Stock Reports, Weather Reports, Google Maps) and the Notes functionality of the iPhone. Also noticeable by its absence is the 2mp camera. Understandably the proximity sensor (used to tell when the device is being held close to your head) has been removed. Although the Accelerometer that gauges whether it is being held vertically or horizontally is still present.

But perhaps the biggest loss is the removal of the built-in Mail browser, so even though you have WiFi you can’t set up an email account. Both iCal and Address Book are present on the device, but you can’t add entries to either on the iPod touch – it merely syncs them with your computer via iTunes. These last two are particularly galling because, as software features, there is no cost to including them and the removal is purely to separate the iPod touch from the iPhone.

Hang on though, if all this is sounding incredibly negative, before you put in an order for an iPhone consider what you get with the iPod touch. The iPod touch possesses the iPhone’s stunning widescreen display, which is perfect for video playback; the stunning multi-touch interface for browsing your music and video clips; plus the WiFi connection featuring the much acclaimed ‘full version’ of Safari, and access to the entire YouTube catalogue (which covers pretty much every music video you can think of plus a wealth of other clips). There are also some interesting web applications designed for the iPhone; and on top of this a few built-in applications such as Calendar, Address Book, World Clock and a calculator.

Hands on

Of course, aside from the applications and feature-set, it is the much-touted ‘multi-touch’ interface that is the iPod touch’s star attraction. Finally ditching the scroll wheel that became the iPod’s defining feature, the iPod touch really does feel like a new machine. The device sports two buttons, a lock/unlock button at the top and a home button at the bottom of the screen.

From there on in you’re using the on-screen buttons to navigate the device. Look closely and you’ll notice that the buttons have been re-arranged from the iPhone with iTunes and Photos moving down to the bottom bar, while Safari has been pushed up to the main screen with the applications (presumably emphasising the device’s emphasis on music, video and photos rather than communication).

At the bottom you now have buttons for Playlists, Artists, Songs, Albums and – confusingly – More (which takes you to a selection of Audiobooks, Compilations, Composers, Genres and Podcasts). Interestingly, the More button also enables an ‘Edit’ option in the top left which enables you to adjust the default music buttons (Playlists, Artists, Songs and Albums – we replaced Playlists with Podcasts, for example).

Selecting an option then brings up a list which you can scroll up or down with a flick of the finger. This is possibly the most elegant aspect of the iPod touch, the way in which scrolling through music is fluid and natural, coming to a slow halt rather than stopping abruptly. To the right of each list (of songs, artists, albums etc) sits the entire alphabet, enabling you to skip straight to items in that area. Selecting sub-menu items brings up a back-arrow in the top left, while in the top right sits the ‘Now Playing’ icon.

Of course, all of this assumes that you’re holding the iPod touch vertically; flip it on its side and you’ll instantly enter CoverFlow mode, which shows all of your album covers. Select one to flip it round and see the track listing.

We could gush on about the wonders of the interface – which is, admittedly, truly stunning – but we will also balance this by saying that it’s not as intuitive as the original iPod click-wheel model. It takes more explaining to a newcomer than the classic ‘wheel for up and down; select with this button; go back with this button’ that sums up other iPods.

There are also other niggles, such as the slider used in songs and videos, which lacks the accuracy of the scroll wheel. But, on the whole, it’s infinitely more impressive than spinning the wheel and – once you get the hang of it – it’s easier to find and select songs than before. We certainly wouldn’t want to go back to the wheel now that we’ve used the multi-touch interface.

Video view
With a screen this size, video was high on our list of features to test out. We have heard complaints of some iPod touch units (particularly the ones with Corinne Bailey Rae, such as ours) having troublesome screens: either knocking out the shadows in black areas, or having too much contrast. However, an update from Apple seemed to fix these errors and we are happy to write them off as a faulty early run rather than an ongoing problem.

The video aspect of the iPod touch was – for us – a thoroughly enjoyable experience. The screen is large and the 480 x 320 display (163ppi) is crisp and clear. Playback is smooth and syncing through iTunes simple. Watching videos on the screen is a glorious affair.

It’s not all plain sailing though. The same problems that bedevilled the Apple TV now apply to the iPod touch. There’s a general lack of video content available on the iTunes store and, although we now do have videos to buy, they are mostly the dregs of American television (That 70s Show, Genie In The House and Night Stalker, anybody?) Of course, it’s all subjective but only Desperate Housewives, Lost and Grey’s Anatomy seem to make any sense to us, and even then not at the ludicrous £1.89 per episode that Apple is charging.

While on the iPod 5G this wasn’t really an issue (mostly because the screen was so small that video playback remained, for most people, a little-used novelty). Users of the iPod touch may soon find themselves in the shady world of downloading BitTorrents, converting DivX videos into Apple’s H-264 format and ripping DVDs with HandBrake (http://handbrake.m0k.org) to MPEGs (again, playable with the iPod touch). Apple could make all of this a lot easier by including DivX playback (through the XviD CODEC now used in QuickTime), but seems to be holding out – we presume because of pressure from the film and television industry.

It makes more sense to invest in a recording device, such as one of Elgato’s EyeTV range. You can then use this to record directly into iTunes before importing the end result into your iPod touch.

The WiFi experience
After the widescreen video and multi-touch interface, the big news with the iPod touch is the addition of WiFi. Unlike Microsoft’s Zune, which uses WiFi to sync with your computer and share music with other Zune owners, the WiFi on the iPod touch has three more innovative uses: Safari web browsing, YouTube playback, and to provide access to the iTunes Store.

Having the full Safari web browser on your iPod is possibly the most exciting and – as it turns out, useful – function of the iPod touch. Ostensibly the Safari browser has been placed on the device to enable you to log on to password-protected services such as The Cloud, T-Mobile, and the wide variety of hotel-based WiFi zones that use a web page interface to log on. Thus enabling you to access the iTunes Store and YouTube when away from your home WiFi network. When you’re at home, incidentally, logging on really couldn’t be easier – it works in a very similar way to AirPort on the Mac.

The Safari web browser has all the same functionality as the iPhone, so – like the iPhone – it is a breakthrough internet device as well as an iPod. Words can’t really convey how much better Safari is on the iPod touch (or iPhone) than on any other mobile device we’ve ever seen. You can pinch two fingers to zoom in or out, and double-tap to zoom into a page element (such as a picture or area of text). Text entry for URLs or text entry boxes is via the same keyboard that comes up on the iPhone, and there’s also a very nice touch for drop-down menus – these now appear as larger separate menus that you can scroll through in much the same was as you do for music.

However, we’re at pains to point out that Safari on the iPod touch isn’t the full-on experience that Apple would have you believe. The iPhone ads say: “This is not a watered down version of the internet; or the mobile version of the internet.” But it clearly is – for starters the web browser is marked as Safari 3 Mobile (www.selfseo.com/browser_details).

Most critically the browser doesn’t possess Flash, so you can rule out watching video clips embedded in sites. It also seems to struggle with some of the more advanced Web 2.0 sites. We found it had trouble with Google Reader, Google Calendar, Google Docs (the latter loads but fails to enable your text entry). Finally – but most criminally – the .Mac website itself doesn’t work properly. Consequently you can’t check your .Mac mail account, which makes the lack of a Mail app even more galling. Apple really should have synced .Mac and the touch before the new iPod launched.

Critically, many sites are now setting up iPhone- (and therefore iPod touch) ready versions of their sites. We notice that Facebook and Amazon have been quick off the mark and both sites act more like dedicated applications than web sites – so hats off to them. Digg has recently revealed a dedicated iPhone site, and we can’t imagine Google being a slouch in this area.

However, the fact that sites are having to recode their interfaces for the iPhone/iPod touch interface does somewhat give the lie to Apple’s claim that this is “the full version of the internet”.

In short: while the Safari mobile web browser hasn’t descended from the heavens to be the complete web experience on the move we are all praying for, it remains the best mobile web experience there is. And not having to pay £35 per month for it on the iPhone makes the iPod touch a particularly compelling purchase.

Finally we come to the iTunes Store itself. You can now go online and purchase songs directly from the iPod touch. These are then downloaded to the device, and uploaded to your computer when you next sync. There are only three options: ‘Featured’, ‘Top Tens’ and ‘Search’ (a fourth button marked ‘Downloads’ takes you to a download manager). We’re in two minds about the iTunes store on your iPod. On the one hand it’s great if you’re on the move and want to quickly grab a song you’ve heard; but on the other hand the experience is so limited compared to the iTunes on your desktop as to be almost meaningless. Unless you know exactly what you want (or if it’s on one of Apple’s Top Ten or Featured listings) you’re unlikely to come across it. It lacks the ‘virtual store’ feel that iTunes has; where you can browse around, look for other people’s opinions and playlists. It also lacks the podcast subscription service (although you can still subscribe on iTunes at home), which we think is a crying shame. It is, however, functional for individual purchases – if you know what you want you can easily buy it.

The music experience
Oddly enough, possibly the most awkward aspect of the iPod is when you stop watching videos or playing around on the internet and start using it as a general music player. Despite the superb audio quality and the touch screen ‘wow factor’, the iPod touch requires more of your attention than the old iPod, and it is trickier to use especially when you’re walking around. There’s really no way to use this music player one-handed, and doing quick selections (different track, volume adjust) involves removing the player from your pocket, clicking the unlock button, moving the slider to actually unlock the phone, and making the selection (which itself can be one or more clicks and slides depending on what you want to do).

Add to this the fact that several times we didn’t really want to get the iPod touch out in public for fear of attracting too much attention and it is fair to say it is crying out for a remote control on the earphones.

Our complaints are few and far between: storage size is clearly an issue, the lack of a Mail application seems needlessly stingy and an earphone remote control would be welcome. But none of these things would stand in the way of the Macworld UK team and a purchasing decision.

OUR VERDICT

We would argue that at £199 for the 8GB model, the iPod touch is better value than the iPhone. Certainly with the iPhone lacking that all-important 3G functionality that many people crave, it may be wise to go for an iPod touch now, and wait for Apple to develop a second generation of iPhone before investing the extra money in one.

Having said that, the removal of the built-in speaker, earphone remote control, and Mail application ensure that the iPod touch remains significantly beneath the iPhone in terms of functionality. Even before you consider the ability you have to make calls and send SMS messages with the iPhone.

No matter which way you shake it, the iPod touch will always be an iPhone with the important phone bits missing. And if you purchase the iPod touch instead of an iPhone, you'll always know that you compromised and bought the second-best device. However, you will have saved a lot of money in the process, so can at least reassure yourself that you are 'wise' and 'prudent' rather than foolhardy.

We'd splash out and buy the iPhone instead.

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