The future of the iPod, the death of the classic (September 21st, 2007)
Product Manufacturer: Apple
- Best iPod yet for photos and videos.
- The iTunes Wi-Fi Music Store is a great addition to the iPod line.
- Slim design with solid battery life.
- Unnecessarily prone to smudges and scratches.
- Contact and e-mail features have been stripped for no reason.
- Display has relatively shallow viewing angles.
Anyone who has seen an iPhone will understand the basic concept behind the design of the iPod touch: a 3.5-inch touchscreen, a home button on the front, and a sleep/wake button on the top. Nonetheless, the actual, physical differences between the communicator and the media player are actually quite stark in practice. For one, the touch is almost startlingly thin; this should be a boon to pockets everywhere, as most of Apple's full-size players to date have often been a tight fit for smaller pockets and smaller users. The construction feels solid and would be unlikely to snap -- though it would certainly be reckless to stuff the touch into a back pocket, and the sides provide a less-than-perfect surface for gripping the player.
Apple's near-obsession with thin products, however, has already created problems for the touch that didn't exist for its cellphone. Notably, the hardware volume control is gone; while this was virtually a necessity for the iPhone, the feature would have been appreciated on the iPod touch for turning down a loud song without having to remove the player from a pocket or activating the energy-hungry screen. The headphone jack has also been moved to the bottom, which guarantees that a listener will hold the touch right side up but also prevents easily tapping the sleep/wake button.
Without explanation, Apple has also reverted to a chromed back for the iPod instead of the anodized aluminum of the iPhone. This may be meant to link the touch with the iPod line's traditional look, but it creates unnecessary problems with keeping the player clean and unharmed; while we thankfully avoided scratching the back, it should now be much easier to do so. Fingerprints and other smudges now appear very quickly on the back as well as the front. These are easily removed with the bundled polishing cloth, but the effort required should not have been necessary.
interface changes to the iPhone
The multi-touch interface has been the centerpiece of the iPhone, in spite of some quirks, and suffice it to say that the iPod touch's success rides heavily on this feature. In my time spent with the touch, the controls were at least as effective for dedicated music playback as they were for the iPhone's casual use. Picking a song or video, or zooming into a photo, was just as quick and even enjoyable when flicking through a large list. It may also be faster; scrolling to a particular album or artist is much easier by tapping the first letter than scrolling rapidly and hoping for an accurate stop. Cover Flow remains at its most useful and responsive here, though frequent shuffle mode and podcast listeners will be better off with the more functional list format.
One important addition is a new shortcut to music controls. It's now possible to double-tap the home button to jump directly to play, pause, and skip controls whenever audio is playing, even if the screen is initially turned off. This does not completely erase complaints about the interface -- controlling tracks by feel is still impossible, and missteps happen -- but it does render the device much easier to justify for runners and others who might prefer not to expose their $400 device any longer than necessary. An impending update to the iPhone should give it the same option.
Not all the changes are welcome, though. It quickly becomes apparent that Apple has stripped features from the iPhone design even if they would have functioned properly on the Wi-Fi access of the iPod touch. E-mail, for example, has been completely removed; also gone is the ability to add new calendar entries, which is all the more unusual since Apple would have had to put more effort into modifying the code than to just leave it alone. To obviously cripple certain useful software features seems spurious, and a potential deal-breaker for those who cannot buy an iPhone but were hoping for a device that could at least double as a pocket computer.
media playback quality, the display issue, and battery life
Whatever Apple may have changed in software, audio quality appears to be as good as the better iPods from recent years. While few devices should match the unusually high quality of the first-generation iPod shuffle or Creative's better ZEN players, the iPod touch is certainly strong enough to reveal the finer details in a track provided the song file and the earphones are both up to par. I used a combination of 256-kilobit AAC files with Shure E2C in-canal earphones, and an eclectic mix of songs revealed bass and treble as well as a fifth-generation iPod. The pack-in earbuds Apple supplies are no different than before and will probably be left in their wrapper by most anyone who can afford to replace them with a reasonably improved set.
Video playback at the 3.5-inch screen size is completely new to the iPod, however, and is simply a treat for anyone used to the 2.5-inch iPod screen of other players. Whether they come from the iTunes Store, a personal library, or YouTube, clips are sharp and play extremely smoothly as long as the source itself is clean. In fact, it would be quite easy to recommend the touch to nearly anyone who expects to watch a large amount of video, even if it leaves little room for anything else.
Nonetheless, some potential users will want to hold off on their purchases based on some early reports of dodgy screen quality: at least a few iPod touch units have been plagued by poor performance in dark scenes that can produce a strange inversion effect similar to a film negative. Apple has pledged to fix these units but may need some time to weed out the flawed units from the batch. My test sample was free of this issue, but did show obvious color shifts to blue or orange at moderately sharp viewing angles. This could pose a problem for multiple viewers, so the touch may be better for catching up on TV shows on a subway commute than a family gathering.
Run times are virtually equal to Apple's stated claims. In playing music, I netted almost exactly 21 hours of continuous playback with the touch despite higher-quality songs, a few minutes of Wi-Fi use, and several checks on the iPod's status with the display. The official 22 hours should easily be possible using 128-kilobit songs and leaving Wi-Fi off for the entire period. Time did not allow for a test of video playback, though the very slow drain while we tested suggests that claims of five hours are realistic.
the iTunes Wi-Fi Store and the effect of Internet access
What may be the real game-changer for the iPod touch is not its touchscreen as much as it is wireless access to iTunes. Aside from a long delay the first time we accessed the site, the iTunes Wi-Fi Music Store really is as seamless as one could expect from any handheld. Browsing is simple, and on a good connection samples will play instantly while full downloads complete quickly. Audiobooks, playlist-based content like iMix, and reviews are off-limits in the current version, however. This is partly compensated by a much appreciated live search feature that has yet to reach even the computer version of iTunes. In many situations, you need only type the first few letters of an artist or a song before you find the right link. Apple clearly hopes that iPod touch (and iPhone) users will be enamored with the store and buy songs on impulse at the coffee shop or a friend's house; we think that hope is well-placed, even if the concept may be years away from the mainstream consciousness.
The effect of general Internet access is almost as important. Whether web browsing will truly take off remains to be seen: not every iPod user needs to update a MySpace page from their media player. Even so, it means that users who want to quickly check webmail can do so on a run without carrying a premium smartphone. YouTube is also surprisingly helpful as a way of filling the gaps in a small video library, though its usefulness is dampened somewhat without the EDGE cellular access of the iPhone.
final words: the future of the iPod
If embraced strictly for its basic concept, there would be no question that the iPod touch is clearly sounding the death knell for the traditional full-size iPod as we know it. Any media player with a large amount of storage should have an interface that can play any format with at least as much grace as music. With only a few exceptions, the iPod touch does this in style. It also signals the end of the player as an island. There have been players with Wi-Fi before, such as the Archos 605 Wi-Fi or Microsoft's Zune, but none of them have made networks and the Internet as useful as the iPod touch does right now. We can only hope that Apple is willing to accept that the touch deserves the same Internet features as the iPhone and that support eventually comes for WiMAX or another "4G" mobile Internet technology that would let users hop online from anywhere.
From a hardware perspective, though, it becomes apparent that Apple is allowing its preference for aesthetics and its perpetual optimism about technology to gain the upper hand. Like the first-generation iPod nano, Apple has stepped back from some smart decisions in favor of meeting some arbitrary goals: when the iPhone was given an aluminum shell and hardware volume controls that were arguably useful, pulling them out appears to be a question of hitting the 8mm thickness mark for its own sake. Also, the choice to move to flash memory is potentially premature. There are convincing technical arguments for durability and responsiveness, but for many users the prospect of spending $399 for 16GB (or $299 for 8GB) is simply too much to stomach when a $349 iPod classic with a spinning hard disk will offer ten times the storage. Audiophiles with whole collections encoded in lossless formats will want to look elsewhere.
That said, after days of use it feels virtually necessary to give the iPod touch a solid four-star rating. As much as it occupies an uncomfortable gap between the iPod classic and the iPhone, this is the best iPod yet for photos and videos, a well-executed first wireless iPod, and a very capable music player. The touch is undoubtedly going to take over from the classic within the next few years, and makes for a superb alternative to the iPhone in countries where the latter just cannot be an option. Apple just needs to be sure that its storage and hardware quality measure up when the iPod classic finally fades away.