Saturday, April 4, 2009

Apple iPod Touch (Review)


Apple's new iPod Touch is a little confusing. It looks just like an iPhone, but it's not a phone and it lacks other iPhone features, such as a camera and Bluetooth. And, while the iPod Touch neither looks nor acts anything like a traditional iPod – and offers only a tenth the capacity of a similar-sized iPod Classic – it does perform iPod functions, and that's how Apple positions it.

Perhaps the most confusing element is the iPod Touch's wireless feature. Obviously aimed at selling iTunes content, WiFi incidentally provides Web access via a special version of Safari and a YouTube application, but email is conspicuously absent.

What we have here is an odd duck, a hybrid. It can't replace an iPhone as a integrated combination of camera, phone and media player, and it can't replace an iPod Nano as a tiny music player or an iPod Classic holding 160 GB of material. More than anything else, it probably serves best as an introduction to Apple's revolutionary new "multi-touch" user interface.

This introduction will cost you $299 (for an 8GB model), or $399 for the 16GB version that was the only model in stock when we bought ours.

The Package

With Apple's usual packaging panache, the iPod Touch is presented to the new owner in an elegant black bed, under which are stored its accessories: standard white Apple earbuds (sans foam covers), a USB-dock cable (non-locking), a white adapter bezel (for a dock) and a soft black polishing cloth.

The iPod Touch has a glossy, black face, just like the iPhone, but it has a shiny chrome back instead of the iPhone's softer brushed surface. The iPod Touch is surprisingly heavy for its size - presumably due to use of glass for the display and dense packaging internally.

Apple's printed "manual" is minimalist in the extreme, and you'll want to get a more helpful "Features Guide" that Apple offers as a PDF download. (We have been unable to find any detailed developer information for either the iPod Touch or the iPhone.)

We also found an odd item in the box constructed of clear plastic that remained a mystery for a while... until we finally realized that it serves as a stand for the iPod Touch. (Unfortunately, there's no room for the USB-dock cable under the stand, although that's not an issue if the iPod is oriented horizontally).

There are only two controls on the device: a sleep/power switch and a Home button. Every other element of the device must be controlled by its multi-touch screen, and there is no remote control. The only external interfaces are a standard iPod dock connector and the mini-stereo jack, which, thankfully, is compatible with standard, 3.5mm mini-stereo plugs (in sharp contrast to the iPhone's inhospitable jack design). Wireless connectivity is provided by an 802.11b/g transceiver, and it handles standard wireless security protocols: WEP, WPA and WPA2.

Like the iPhone, the iPod Touch provides a 480-by-320-pixel screen that makes photos, videos and interface elements look very good. And you can view video on the iPod Touch at arm's length that should be at least as clear and detailed as viewing a 24-inch TV across the room (since the closer device could be putting at least as big an image on your retina, given the geometry involved). A variety of audio and video formats is supported, and iTunes handles transfers from your Mac.

In fact, the iPod Touch is nothing but a pretty brick until it's connected to iTunes 7.4 or later and taken through an initialization process that requires your electronic acceptance of Apple's legal terms and additional electronic activity. (And the iPod Touch refused to work with Mac OS X 10.4.9 at all, insisting that Mac OS X 10.4.10 be installed before it could be initialized and used.)

Apple does not supply an audio/video output cable with the iPod Touch for playback on a television system, and we have not yet tested this, but the company says:

You can connect iPod Touch to your TV and watch your videos on the larger screen. Use the Apple Component AV Cable, Apple Composite AV Cable, or other iPod Touch-compatible cable. You can also use these cables with the Apple Universal Dock, available separately, to connect iPod Touch to your TV. (The Apple Universal Dock includes a remote, which allows you to control playback from a distance.)

User Interface

If you have an iPhone, there's little reason to get an iPod Touch, which offers far less at a similar price (apart from AT&T's charges). If you don't buy an iPhone, however, the iPod Touch is your only ticket to the multi-touch experience, which we expect to play large in Apple's future, and you might be able to justify the purchase on that basis alone.

What's stunning about multi-touch (which is apparently patented, proprietary and under Apple's sole control) is its dynamic, visual physicality - that is, it's a visual interface that acts like real-world objects that have mass and inertia and which you can "toss" around with a flick of your finger.

As we saw the Mac's graphical interface spread to the whole world of computing starting in the 1980's, we expect to see this advanced dynamic interface far more widespread in the future. So, what is it, anyway?

As implemented on the iPod Touch (and iPhone), the multi-touch interface starts with a single button, which turns on the device and takes you to its "Home" screen. From here, you select various settings and applications with a touch of your finger, and you can push a Home button to return to this starting point. If you're playing music, it will continue to play as you navigate around the device's virtual world (although it stops suddenly if you remove the stereo plug from the jack).

A few, natural gestures are all you need to manipulate the user interface, starting with a simple touch: Touch an icon on the Home screen to launch an application or choose your settings. Touch to select a list item. Touch and slide a control to adjust a value. Touch an input box to open a virtual keyboard, where you touch the keys with your fingertip to type.

A built-in, dictionary helps the virtual keyboard attempt to correct typing errors, but you can override corrections with an "X" button. We had no real problem using the keyboard, but it feels rather clumsy and slow compared with a regular computer keyboard that's many times larger than the iPod Touch — simply the result of mapping gross ancient technology (the typewriter) onto a tiny modern device. (Somehow, we think that there must be a better way to write on a computer, but we haven't seen it yet.)

Apart from text entry, Multi-Touch is smooth and elegant. With a long list, or a series of photos, or a stack of CoverFlow albums, you can flick and toss the virtual object, which has mass and drag and feels uncannily natural. This sort of interface makes the traditional Mac scrollbar seem clumsy by comparison.

While it's remarkably easy to use multi-touch without any study, you probably wouldn't hit on the "pinch" gesture right away. A simple way of zooming in and out, it's also very natural once you see it.

You can expect some gasps from people to whom you're demonstrating the interface for the first time. It's simply nothing like any traditional user interface, and it's immediately appealing.

All that said, however, it does take a little while to fully understand the iPod Touch's virtual world. You'll have to learn where various controls are located and exactly how they act. For example, clicking on a movie display screen brings movie controls into view. Clicking again hides them. There's an "X" in Safari that cancels the current URL and lets you type a new one from scratch. Safari's History locations are stored within the Bookmarks list. There are differences in design/interface among the various iPod Touch applications (and, of course, great differences between those and other iPods or desktop Macs).

One thing that's a little confusing at first is how the iPod Touch operates differently depending on its orientation to gravity, sensed by an internal accelerometer. In the music player, for example, you get a CoverFlow interface with the iPod Touch horizontally, and you have to turn it vertically to get a list of selections and controls such as Shuffle and Volume. The music player will adjust for either horizontal orientation but won't flip the interface right side up if you hold the device upside-down vertically.

The home page doesn't rotate if you turn the iPod to a horizontal orientation, nor do lists. But you can turn the iPod Touch in any orientation at all, and photos will rotate to remain right-side up. By contrast, the movie player doesn't rotate the image at all - it's always horizontal, and it will be upside down when the Home button is on your left.

This is all great fun, but you may sometimes feel that the navigational pathways are not quite optimal. Say you're listening to music while surfing the Web, and you need to pause or turn down the volume quickly. There's no pause or volume button on this device - you have to work your way through its virtual world.

In this case, you have to exit Safari, back to the Home page, select Music, turn the device vertically to get the appropriate view and then slide the virtual slider or touch the pause icon, and then go back again to the Home page, again select Safari and, hopefully, find yourself back where you started, quite a few steps later. That's the downside of the iPhone's radical removal of buttons.

[Joshua Blevins subsequently sent us this great tip: Double-clicking the home button will bring up a dialog box from anywhere in the iPod Touch's interface to allow you to pause/play and adjust the volume. This worked well while in Safari, but, oddly, it doesn't work in CoverFlow mode for the music player, where you must still flip the iPod Touch to a vertical orientation to access the volume control.]


It was a bit disppointing after opening the iPod Touch box to find that it was useless until connected to iTunes. More disappointment followed when we found that we could not even initialize via iTunes without first installing Mac OS X 10.4.10 (which we'd avoided after a really remarkable disaster weeks ago). Finally, we also had to update iTunes to the latest version, before it would consider talking with the iPod Touch.

So, a few hours later, we were finally ready to initialize the cute little device. With all the appropriate software installation completed, we launched iTunes to be greeted with a legal document in electronic form that we had to "sign" before proceeding. (This was getting rather tedious by now.)

All that done, we were finally able to configure the iPod Touch and copy over some iTunes and Aperture content to it. The device is owned by iTunes (which probably should have been obvious by this point), and you can't simply copy files to it or use it as a backup device, as you could with other iPods from the Finder's desktop. In fact, we know of no way to communicate between a computer and the iPod Touch outside of iTunes, which seems proprietary and limiting. (And iTunes only communicates over the USB-dock cable; it's not smart enough to use WiFi to connect with the iPod Touch.)

One of the first things we wanted to try was connecting to the Internet, something no iPod we owned before could do. This went well, painlessly configuring and connecting to an AirPort 802.11n base station using a WPA2 password. A neat status display shows name, signal strength and open/locked status for any networks within range. We launched the mini-Safari browser provided and began surfing. It worked. We later connected to a WEP-protected wireless network in a coffee shop, which also worked fine. WiFi configuration seems quite flexible with a number of choices for IP address and routing, name service, proxies, etc.

Buying iTunes didn't seem immediately compelling, as we already have a large collection of music and weren't sitting at a Starbucks, so we started exploring the iPod Touch's collection of preference settings as a way of exploring its functionality.

One item of immediate interest was "Auto-Lock", which had become rather annoying by "locking" the screen every minute, so that we had to slide a virtual slider before doing anything else. This delay can be set as long as 5 minutes or set to "Never." Another option lets you assign a 4-digit passcode to prevent access to the system by unauthorized people. (Restoring/resetting the iPod Touch should zap the password and again provide access, though probably at the cost of lost content - we didn't try it.)

There is a setting for screen brightness that offers "auto-brightness" using a built-in light sensor to reduce brightness and save battery power when ambient light is low. Other preferences choose a "wallpaper" image and control keyboard operation, date and time and language choice. Beyond this are settings for music (including EQ and volume controls), video (closed captioning, NTSC/PAL output and widescreen mode), photo slideshows (transition type and time, repeat and shuffle), Safari (cookies, JavaScript, plug-ins off/on, pop-up blocking, clear history/cookies and search: Google/Yahoo). An option buried "below the fold" in Safari preferences enables Debug Console.

On the Mac side, you have a variety of options in iTunes for selecting and synchronizing data (mostly from the Mac to the iPod Touch. You can select photo albums from Aperture or iPhoto or select a folder of photos, and you can select from the usual audio and video content in iTunes to push down to the iPod Touch. There are options to allow or disable sychronization of Contacts (two-way, including deletion), Calendar items (push-only to iPod Touch) and Safari bookmarks (two-way).

When we did get around to buying a sample song on the iPod Touch, it worked OK - you have to type in your AppleID password (but iTunes apparently sucks your AppleID out of your Mac automatically). The small-screen interface felt a little constrained vs. using iTunes on our Mac, but we could search and preview and, of course, make that purchase.

At the next synchronization, iTunes uploads music to your Mac that you purchased on the iPod Touch, placing it in a new iTunes list named "Purchased on iPodname."

By design, the iPod Touch offers a fixed set of options and applications with limited Mac integration, which is solely via iTunes. It is first and foremost a media playback and purchasing platform, clearly not a real PDA (personal digital assistant), obviously not a regular computer, and definitely not a full-fledged, desktop-level Web client. This is a fancy iPod featuring wireless purchasing and light surfing, standard iPod USB downloading and very limited synchronization back to your Mac.


We won't dig into all the details of the iPod Touch's applications - a subset of the iPhone's - but we can take a brief tour around the virtual block.

iTunes Wi-Fi Store

On the iPod Touch, the iTunes store shows "featured" and "top ten" musical selections, as well as genre categories and a search box. As on the Mac, you can preview selections for 30 seconds before buying.

To our surprise, Apple is not selling any video content on the iPod Touch's Wi-Fi music store (although you can download videos from your Mac), nor are games available for purchase. And the iPod Touch has no access to Internet radio, as your Mac does, despite its wireless connection.

Photo Player

The photo browser may be our favorite iPod Touch application. It opens to the albums you've downloaded, and you see an array of thumbnail images when you choose an album. From there, you can play a slideshow or touch an individual photo to open it. The images look great on the iPod Touch screen.

Flicking and pinching work well for displaying and exploring the photos, which rotate to stay right-side up, no matter how you orient the iPod Touch. Touching an image brings up controls for the slideshow and a button for returning to the chosen album. (The controls don't rotate with the photos, though – they're always oriented vertically like the Home page.)

Video Player

The video player seems a little simpler by comparison, but it works well enough. Again, you touch a video screen to show or hide playback controls (and they automatically hide themselves after a few seconds, too.) There's a volume slider with Pause/Play, plus buttons for shuttling forward or back. You also can touch and drag a slider at the top to navigate to different locations in the video.

Music Player

The music player has two distinct modes: CoverFlow and List views. CoverFlow is very album oriented and more limiting – you can't even control volume in this orientation, which you get whenever the iPod Touch is horizontal. You can, however, click on an album to get a song list, then choose one song or another by touching it, and a button on the lower left lets you pause and resume playback. The lack of volume control in this mode seems odd.

In the vertical music player mode, you do get volume control, along with transport controls like you see in the video player. There are two sub-modes, which provide for setting ratings (0 to 5 stars) and for choosing songs from a vertical list that has "Shuffle" as the top-most choice.

Safari Mobile

Safari on the iPod Touch isn't the same as Safari on your Mac. Most notably, it lacks Flash and support for Java applets. An Apple document lists limitations:


A special YouTube application seems a slightly odd choice for the iPod Touch's limited palette, but it does offer a variety of content and leverages interface elements used elsewhere in the device. Playback controls echo those in the video player but there are also bookmarks and history, as in Safari Mobile, plus feature selections and search, as in the iTunes store. In our limited testing, we encountered occasional stutter/pauses during playback, despite having a fast Internet connection, but we didn't spend enough time to analyze the glitches thoroughly.

Desk Accessories

Rounding out the iPod Touch suite are a simple Calculator and a neat World Clock (supporting multiple time zones), which also includes a Stopwatch, Timer and Alarm, plus Calendar and Contacts applications that download data via iTunes from your Address Book and iCal.

Contacts can be added and deleted, and those changes are synchronized by iTunes back to your Mac. The calendar, inexplicably, is incapable of adding events. And there's no note-taking application at all.

Performance and Compatibility

Following disappointments with the iPhone, we were delighted to find the iPod Touch compatible with standard 3.5mm stereo plugs and with some accessories that the iPhone rejected: a Monster FM converter and Apple's own iPod Hi-Fi speaker system. MacInTouch readers report that the camera connector is incompatible, and we hope to shake out compatibility status for other accessories over time, but it appears that the iPod Touch is at least more accessory-friendly than the iPhone.

We looked at two areas of performance for the iPod Touch: audio performance (since it is an iPod) and overall performance of the user interface and applications.

The biggest disappointment with audio was the mediocre sound quality of the included ear buds. They simply don't meet our standards for anything but casual listening, and we'd quickly replace them with something better. While we like our Shure E3c in-ear phones, they are obviously too expensive to bundle with an iPod, but one can certainly get better fidelity than Apple provides for a reasonable price.

We were also disappointed to hear noticeable amplifier noise in the audio circuitry. It's not bad enough to cause much trouble when music is playing, but it does diminish the carefully-wrought impression of quality that Apple products strive to produce.

This noise was obvious with the volume turned all the way up in the music player or video player in pause mode, and it diminished when we moved the volume slider to the left to reduce volume/amplification. It was especially obvious with the Shure E3c phones, which block out ambient noise.

By comparison, our original 4GB Nano was noticeably quieter, but a video iPod had about the same noise level. Again, it shouldn't affect listening much - not nearly as much as the cheesy Apple earphones - but it could definitely be better. Apart from these issues, audio quality seemed just fine with a good set of headphones on a variety of musical selections in our limited testing.

In interface performance, we had no problems with the iPod Touch. The interface and the applications felt responsive, and we encountered no sloggy slowdowns (apart from the usual Web issues). We expect that the flash memory design helps performance while keeping battery life reasonable. We didn't do a battery-drain test, but informal use indicated that you should get quite a few hours of playback before it needs recharging. The one issue we encountered was that the battery drained when we had the iPod Touch connected to a dual-core Power Mac G5 that was in sleep mode.


If you're a typical MacInTouch reader with some spare cash, and you don't have or want an iPhone (perhaps because you don't like AT&T), you should probably run out and buy an iPod Touch – just for its innovation and the experience of exploring its capabilities. We really think that multi-touch is going to be a big deal in the future, and the cost isn't too extravagent right now. We'd probably opt for the cheaper 8GB model, since it can't serve as an extra file-storage device, unless you're sure that you really need 8 GB of extra storage for music, photos and videos. But that's not the point of this product – if you want lots of storage, get an iPod Classic.

If you're an iPhone owner, we can't see any reason to get an iPod Touch for yourself. Sure, it has a better headphone jack, but it's missing a whole lot that the iPhone provides, and it's only one third of the triumvirate of camera, cellphone and media player that the iPhone integrates in one device.

If you're carrying a separate cell phone, and perhaps an additional camera, then an iPod Nano is a lot lighter and tinier to fit into your pocket for the same musical capability as an iPod Touch, which really wants a pocket of its own.

Buy the iPod Touch as an early ticket for exploring the future of Internet-connected user interfaces, and as a fun toy and media player. It may eventually prove useful as an organizer and Web client, but those capabilities are still in development. For hard-core business productivity, a more traditional organizer will probably remain the preferred choice for a little longer (although our long-term bet is on multi-touch-type devices). And don't hesitate to let us know what you think if you buy an iPod Touch: how you use it, and how well it works for you.

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