A few weeks ago I got my hands on two 16GB iPod touch devices. Having spent a lot of hands on time with these devices it's time for a comprehensive review.
The iPod touch was for me the first Apple device to come out when I eagerly awaited the release day. I wanted one as soon as Steve Jobs announced it and was disappointed to find out that I'd have to wait a few weeks for it to be released. I found the idea of an ultra-portable media player that had WiFi capability and a built-in browser a very attractive package indeed. I even made a pilgrimage to my nearest Apple store to try to pick one up when they got stock in and was upset to find when I got there that they were all sold.
Anyway, eventually (with a little help from my wife and Amazon) I got my hands on them. I eagerly unwrapped them (forget the whole unboxing porn thing) and hooked them up to a couple of PCs to charge up and within an hour both were showing full charge.
Initial thoughts ... and a problem
What struck me about the iPod touch once I'd freed it from the packaging was how small it is. OK, it's not as small as the nano but nonetheless it's Despite being small and light, it feels surprisingly ruggedquite portable and easy to slip into a pocket. It's also very light, weighing in at 4.2oz (120g). But despite being small and light, it feels surprisingly rugged and I don't feel the need to continually worry about whether it's safe or not. Having the rigidity of that glass screen seems to make all the difference.
When I tried hooking them up to iTunes I had my first problem. I could get one to work just fine, but the other was playing up. However, the problem wasn't with the iPod but with the USB hub built in to the front of that PC. It's fine with every other device but it just doesn’t like the iPod touch and will drop the connection between the iPod and the PC within seconds of trying to sync. Lesson #1: If you're having problems with the iPod, try a different USB port, preferably at the back (because some out front USB ports don’t connect directly to the motherboard in the same way).
The iPod touch in action
With both iPods loaded up with audio, it was time to use them. The redesigned iPod interface is, in my opinion, very nice but a little rough round the edges. For example, take Coverflow for viewing album covers. I like this feature a lot but why it is only available when the iPod is in landscape mode? Given that Apple have crammed Coverflow onto the new nanos, surely the screen of the touch is big enough? Another aspect of the interface that bothers me is how tiny some of the onscreen buttons and controls are. I do feel that in switching from the clickwheel over to a touchscreen Apple has given too much thought to style and not enough to function. I was perfectly happy using my nano without having to look at the screen while I did it (unless I was looking for a particular track) but with the iPod touch I feel that my eyeballs have to be on the screen the whole time while I'm using it. For example, with the nano it was easy to adjust the volume from inside my jacket pocket, say on a crowded train platform where I’d rather not advertise what valuables I’m carrying. There's zero chance of doing this with the touch. If you’re going to use an iPod touch you have to be prepared to put it on display, so I won’t be retiring the nano any time soon (sorry kids won’t be getting Daddy’s old nano yet awhile).
On the plus side, the screen is a joy to use and clear as anything. In fact, compared to the cheap and nasty screens on most devices, the screen on the touch is like ice cream for the eyes. I've left everything on the default settings and I never feel that the screen is too dark or too bright. Also, if you have thousands of tracks on your iPod, the touch makes finding the ones you want a lot easier.
OK, enough about the old features, let's look at some of the new features, starting with the web browser. The mobile version of Safari shipped on the iPod touch manages to be both one of the high points and low points of the device. The browser does a great job of displaying most web pages and the pinch action used to zoom in and out is very intuitive, but the browser is also very much a work in progress (or so I hope) and lacks a number of features critical to a browser - such as a password manager and a Flash plug-in. Also, while you can have multiple pages open in the browser there’s currently no way to open a link in a new window. If you already use the Safari browser on the desktop or notebook, be prepared to be disappointed when you start using Safari on the touch. I’m not a huge fan of Safari on the Mac OS or Windows, but somehow Apple has managed to make Safari on the iPod even worse. The pages are not cached so go out of wifi range and even pages you have already viewed are inaccessible.
If you already use the Safari browser on the desktop or notebook, be prepared to be disappointedThe bugs don't help either. For example, Apple have included a built-in magnifier for the address bar (press and hold your finger in the address bar to get it up), unfortunately, more often than not the text that you want isn't shown in the magnified area and is off the screen at the top, and even when the text is displayed, you realize that it's not an awful lot bigger. Another bug that annoys me is that visited links are the same color as unvisited links, a gaff that's so basic there's no excuse for it. Apple could have done a lot better here and chose for one reason or another not to, and as a result the user experience falls pretty far short of what it should be.
An application that I've made use of a lot over the past few weeks is the YouTube app. I was never a big fan of YouTube and I've probably watched more videos on the iPod that I ever did on the PC. It's quick and easy to use. But again, this feature is incomplete and buggy. For example, there's no way for regular YouTube users to log in, and there’s no way to distinguish unviewed videos from viewed ones. You can't rate videos and you can't comment. Again, limitations imposed by Apple make the experience very one way. Again, I can but hope that things improve.
The interface is also far too locked down for my liking. You can't seem to change or customize anything of importance. For a company that continually berated Microsoft for locking users into a single way of working, it's somewhat hypocritical of Apple now to be doing the same.
As for the other applications - calendar, contacts, clock and calculator - well, there's not much there that's caught my eye. There’s stacks of untapped potential, but that's it I'm afraid. The iPod touch is in serious need of good applications. Left up to Apple, I think that the iPod touch will be obsolete before we see anything impressive, so that leaves open source and commercial apps. I hope that after Apple releases an SDK that good apps will follow.
What about the Web apps that are available? There are online applications that you access via an active WiFi connections and are displayed in the browser. I've taken a look at what's on offer and come away disappointed. There are quite a few apps to check out, but most are poor quality and border on useless. There are a few half-decent games but that's about it. Everything feels a little rough and reminds me of DHTML web sites from the late 1990s.
Gripes – Games and keyboard
One big gripe is the lack of onboard games. If you find yourself out of wifi coverage then there’s nothing to do with your iPod touch beyond thumbing through your photos. The iPod nano had several onboard games that even though they were fiddly and hard to see on the tiny screen, they were nonetheless something to do in those niggly bored moments.
Before I finish talking about the software, I feel that I should mention the software keyboard that the iPod touch and the iPhone is famous/infamous for. My experience with the keyboard on the iPod touch ranges from The virtual keys are too small and the when the keyboard is combined with my “hot dog” fingersabysmal to atrocious. The virtual keys are too small and the when the keyboard is combined with my “hot dog” fingers, the experience is far from a pretty one. Mistakes are very common and fixing them frustrating (cursor keys would be useful). On top of that I find the predictive feature a major letdown as all it ever offered me are stupid suggestions – and once you’ve typed it once the predicted word tends to stick so it changes what you typed to the same stupid suggestion every time. The keyboard on the iPhone is exactly the same in this respect. After weeks of using the iPod touch I don't feel that things are getting any better either. Luckily, you don't make much use on of it on the iPod touch.
Typing in passwords is especially excruciating because the characters you type are obfuscated and there’s no option to reveal them. And to make matters worse the visual feedback for the screen keyboard shows you only the capital letter of the key you pressed, so typing in a mixture of upper and lower case characters in a strong password of an encrypted wifi connection is tortuous to say the least.
Coming to the hardware, I'm again torn because some aspects of the device are simply brilliant, while others aren't. The touchscreen is excellent and an absolute pleasure to use. When it comes to screens currently fitted to mobile devices, the iPod touch and the iPhone are without rival. But just as a chain is only as strong as its weakest link, hardware is only as good as the poorest part. The weakest link in the iPod touch chain is the battery. Apple say that you can expect 22 hours of audio playback and 5 hours of video, but I'd say that in reality you get closer to 17 hours of audio and 4 hours of video playback on a single charge. If you have WiFi on then this falls dramatically to something like 14 hours for audio and 3 hours for video. Start using the WiFi connection and things get worse. I'd say that you get about 2.5 hours of web browsing and maybe as little as 1.5 - 2 hours of YouTube usage out of a single charge. I'm sometimes charging my battery two or three times a day and this makes me seriously worry about how long it'll last before it needs to be replaced. I don’t know how Apple came up with the battery figures posted on the website because I can’t come anywhere near to them. Maybe I’m doing something different, maybe between the test being done and the device going into mass production something changed, or maybe Apple just ran the test while the touch was laying on a bed of four-leaf clovers … but whatever the reason I just can’t get anywhere near the 22 hour/5 hour figure quoted.
The device is also a smudge and scratch magnet. The touchscreen is robust and resists scratches but the metal case at the back isn't, and the finish being far less durable than that of the nano (the shiny finish on the iPod touch is a lot prettier but also a lot more fragile than the finish of the metal parts of the iPhone). The cleaning cloth is a nice touch and does initially wipe off most of the dirt off the screen, but once it becomes saturated with gunk it just moves around the grease about the screen. The cleanest you'll ever see your iPod touch is when you take it out of the box.
All this sounds like I’m very critical of the iPod touch, and perhaps that’s a little unfair on the device, after all, it is still quite new and does suffer from the “1st gen blues,” but that’s no excuse. The problem with the iPod touch (and the iPhone I fear) is that Apple are promising a platform but in reality delivering something which is far less than that. It feels like Apple is forgetting what works. Here’s a company that fought hard to make Macs and the Mac OS relevant (partly by adding a dash of cool and style to things, partly by making computer ownership easier, partly by concentrating on reliability instead of broad hardware and software support, and partly by bundling useful applications such iLife with new Macs). But when it comes to the iPod touch and the iPhone, all this is put on one side because there devices will sell on hype alone. The iPod touch is still waiting for that reason to be relevant. I have a 7 year old HP iPAQ that will do 90% of what the iPod touch can do, and about a couple hundred more besides. Sure, I’ve had to upgrade it, add more hardware and buy software, but I don’t care because I recognize that the iPAQ is a platform. The touch is not a platform but a convergence device, and it suffers from the same affliction that plagues 95% of other convergence devices on the market – a lack of flexibility.
The touch is not a platform but a convergence device, and it suffers from the same affliction that plagues 95% of other convergence devices on the market – a lack of flexibilityBut, despite all its downsides, I do love my iPod touch. It's far from perfect but it is very useful nonetheless. The 8GB boost in capacity from what I’m used to on the iPod nano is much welcomed (especially since I carry a lot of audio books around) and the web browser is also very useful, despite all its shortcomings. And that’s the catch with the iPod touch (and undoubtedly, the iPhone). The more you use it, the more the device grows on you. I still notice its faults (and spot new ones regularly) but none of them really halt you in your tracks, so you’re still getting more and more hooked.
I expect third party applications will start to appear for the iPod touch (and the iPhone) pretty soon once the SDK is released and these will breathe new excitement into the iPod touch and hopefully make it even more of a mobile web platform than it is.
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