With the second generation of its benchmark-setting iPod Touch, Apple has managed to move the gold standard in personal music players yet another notch forward. Though existing touch owners may not find the list of upgrades compelling enough to spur a pricy upgrade, shoppers looking for the most well-rounded, sleek and capable PMP on the market will find the second generation iPod Touch close to perfection.
Features and Design
While the iPod Touch is consistently mistaken for its flagship big brother, the iPhone, the second-generation version moves a bit further away from the ubiquitous handset with a more rounded back that generates the illusion of feeling even thinner, despite similar dimensions. Even more importantly for the iPod’s intended audience of fashion-conscious hipsters in skinny jeans, the new shape helps smooth out the unsightly pocket bulge created by the old, more geometric shape. The chrome rear of the phone also reaches around the front side, creating a shiny lip running around the edge, rather than the old beveled black one.
Media capabilities remain relatively unchanged in the new version. It will play MP3, AAC and other audio formats, and display video and photos on its massive 3.5-inch, 480 by 320 pixel display. Apple currently produces three variants: an 8GB version for $229, a 16GB for $299, and a 32GB for $399.
Although you won’t catch Apple marketing the Touch as anything other than an all-out entertainment machine, in truth its feature set places it quite close to that now-antiquated device, the PDA, in organizational and productivity abilities. Besides built-in Wi-Fi and a competent browser, there’s a notepad, scientific calculator, Google maps app, stock viewer, weather and more, plus infinite expandability via Apple’s viable App Store. In short, it offers far more than most other PMPs.
Perhaps the only feature visibly lacking from such an otherwise well-equipped machine would be Bluetooth. Granted, its Wi-Fi connectivity makes it possible to wirelessly download (and stream) data much the same way as you might with Bluetooth, but it serves as no substitute for connecting wireless headphones.
Ports and Controls
Contrary to Apple’s usual button extermination routine, the company has actually populated the iPod Touch with more buttons the second time around. While the first-gen Touch had only a power button and home button, Apple added discrete volume rockers to the newest version, making it easier to adjust on the fly without first unlocking the display. It’s a welcome addition for adjusting volume in your pocket, but we wish the company could find a classier solution than the sharp-edged cookie-cutter buttons it ended up using.
Although Apple’s decision to locate the headphone jack on the iPod in the bottom right seems nonsensical, we actually didn’t find much on an issue with it after learning to put it into pockets upside down, so that the connector faces up. Unfortunately, the unsealed nature of the ports also seems to demand this special treatment: both the data and headphone jacks on our model immediately started collecting pocket lint in their cavernous depths after just a few trips placed carelessly into a pocket right-side up.
Image Courtesy of Apple
Software and Operating System
Navigation with Apple’s iPhone-bred touch operating system remains the smoothest, cleanest and most intuitive we’ve seen from a personal media player. While Apple hasn’t significantly revamped it for the second version, we still feel compelled to comment on that most important feature which earns the player its consistent accolades.
The home screen offers one-click access to all of the player’s most important features, from music and video to calculators and the browser, through squarish icons. Users can create new pages of icons (accessible with a slide of the finger to the right or left) and rearrange existing ones merely by holding icons down and dragging them around. Navigating deeper into menus is accomplished by simply touching buttons and icons, and moving backward always occurs using the exterior home button. After one trip around the operating system, even novice users should have no problem finding everything they need, and adjusting to taste.
Though many touch screens leave much to be desired in terms of sensitivity, Apple’s capacitive touch screen responds immediately to even delicate touches, and allows the use of two fingers to pinch the screen for zooming and unzooming. Combine this with its smooth animations and programmed inertia (lists continue scrolling for a period after you let go of them), and you have a touch interface that’s not only usable, it’s downright amusing.
Not many personal media players bother to include an exterior speaker – usually because quality suffers so much that they’re barely usable. We’ve seen some exceptions, like the one on Nokia’s 5610 XpressMusic, a PMP/phone, but Apple’s iPod Touch speaker (new to this generation) falls well short of even that relatively low target. Music sounds so atrocious and tinny, even at medium levels, that we would just assume not to listen to it at all.
Fortunately, the earphones Apple provides are above-par for the course, with solid materials, a comfortable design, and respectable audio reproduction. We’ve still heard better bass and sound isolation from other players though, like the pair Creative provides with its Zen X-Fi 16GB.
For an equalizer, Apple provides an enormous list of preconfigured options ranging from “vocal booster” and “rock” to more eclectic options like “spoken word.” Unfortunately, there’s no option for actually tweaking any of these settings, which seemed like an unnecessary concession to user friendliness to us, since the hardware is clearly capable of much more. When a $60 SanDisk player with a handful of buttons can give us a five-band EQ, a $229 multitouch unit from Apple could at least offer a few sliders.
Another adjustability quirk: the lowest setting on the volume isn’t all that low. Rather than the smooth gradient between blasting and complete silence found on many other players, the adjustment on the Touch cuts off well before zero, leaving very few choices when setting your music to play quietly. If you’re looking to listen at a level where you can still carry on a conversation with others, for instance, the Touch may you listening at volumes far louder than you would like.
One of Apple’s biggest claims with the launch of the second-gen iPod came from its extended battery life. The company says it will deliver 36 hours of life when playing music alone, or 6 hours when playing video. By contrast, the last version was only rated for 20 hours of music. While these numbers came quite close to what we actually experienced, two major factors should be noted: Wi-Fi and display brightness. Running the display on high brightness, or surfing the Web, will both grate down batteries much faster.
For the most part, Wi-Fi on the Touch functioned transparently, connecting quickly and without the hiccups sometimes associated with hammering out a Wi-Fi connection on a notebook. However, reception left much to be desired, with many weaker networks simply not appearing on the iPod’s list. Most networks in this range delivered poor, if any, connectivity on other devices, so in some sense nothing was lost. But we missed the ability to at least see them and attempt to get better signal by moving around. On a device as portable as the Touch, trolling for Wi-Fi on foot is a real option when you’re in a pinch, so being able to see networks on the fringe of working would be a real benefit.
Apple’s refinements to the iPod Touch make it one of the slickest, most impressive media players on the market today. At $229 for even the smallest 8GB version, you’re still paying a pretty premium for Apple’s name and trademark engineering, but it shines through in the user experience and overall build quality. The improvements Apple has made since the first version don’t justify an upgrade for existing users, but we heartily recommend it for buyers seeking one of the most deservedly respected players on the market.
• Outstanding build quality
• Intuitive user interface
• Superb audio and video playback
• Many included extras
• Unlimited expandability via App Store
• Doesn’t see weak Wi-Fi networks
• Needs a better equalizer
• No Bluetooth