Apple 2G iPod Touch
The world's best music player, net tablet, handheld games console?
Review We like the iPod Touch. It's not the only portable device with a touchscreen control system, but the way that Apple has employed the technology is clever.
We can spend hours idly flicking our finger across the screen, watching the pretty album artwork slide back and forth.
And that business of ‘pinching’ your fingers to zoom in and out on photos is nothing short of inspired. It gives the iPod Touch a responsiveness that makes it feel almost organic, rather than just being an inert lump of plastic sitting in the palm of your hand.
Apple's 2G iPod Touch: cheaper and thinner than before
So we were intrigued by the rumours of an updated iPod Touch that were circulating earlier this month, just prior to Steve Jobs’ unveiling of the new iPod range. In the end, many people were disappointed by what they saw as a relatively minor upgrade. However, reading between the lines, there’s a clear strategic shift going on in the way that Apple markets the iPod Touch, even if the hardware itself hasn’t changed very much.
The most welcome change actually came in the form of price cuts for all three models. Prices for the iPod Touch now start at £169 for the 8GB model, with the 16GB and 32GB models costing £219 and £289, respectively. The iPod Touch is still the most expensive model in the iPod range – and slightly more expensive than rivals such as the Archos 605 – but bringing the 8GB model down from £199 to £169 makes it seem more affordable and less of a luxury item.
It also narrows the price gap between the iPod nano and the iPod Touch, potentially sidelining the once-mighty iPod Classic as a niche product for the relatively small number of people who need the Classic’s much larger 120GB storage capacity.
The basic design of the iPod Touch is virtually unchanged. There are some minor modifications to the hardware, but it’s certainly not the sort of redesign that the iPod Nano  has received. The key feature, of course, is the screen – unchanged at 3.5 inches diagonally - with the accelerometer motion-sensor that allows you to rotate the iPod and use the screen in either widescreen or upright ‘portrait’ modes.
To be fair, the screen doesn’t really need to be changed – the 480 x 320 resolution provides very good image quality for video playback, and we’ve felt quite comfortable watching full-length films on the iPod Touch on some long train rides. Some reviews have commented that the screen has a pronounced yellow cast to it, but we honestly can’t say we noticed this, either on video playback, browsing through photos, or simply looking at the text in the various menu screens.
Looks and feels skinnier than it is
The 802.11g Wi-Fi capabilities are unchanged too, though at some point Apple may have to step up to 802.11n if it wants you to start streaming video downloads over the internet. The cheap little Apple earphones are also the same, with their somewhat anaemic audio output, although Apple will be releasing an optional set of ‘upgrade’ headphones soon, complete with a microphone for the voice-recording feature that is built into all the new iPods. The new earphones will include separate woofers and tweeters for improved sound quality, but they’ll cost £55 so you might want to look elsewhere for a cheaper alternative, unless you specifically want the microphone and voice recording option.
The size of the screen and the need to maintain compatibility with existing iPod speaker systems and accessories means that the dimensions of the iPod Touch are pretty much fixed. Even so, Apple has been able to shave about half a millimetre off the thickness of the device this time around. It now measures just 8.5mm at the thickest point, but thanks to the way the back of the case curves, it feels much, much thinner than its predecessor, an illusion enhanced by the shiny chrome-like backplate.
Put it alongside a first-gen iPhone, for instance, and the new Touch seems positive wasp-waisted by comparison.
Apple has managed to increase the battery life too, providing up to 36 hours for music playback and the best part of six hours for video playback.
Apple says that the most popular request from users for the iPod Touch was for an external volume control, rather than having to use the touchscreen controls to adjust the sound level. So, the new model now has two small buttons on the left side of the casing for just that. Now you can adjust the volume without taking the Touch out of your pocket, so this is a convenient addition even if it’s not exactly the most innovative idea that Apple has ever come up with.
The other new hardware feature – which left us somewhat baffled at first – is the inclusion of a small speaker. This is located beside the dock connector on the base of the unit, as it is on the iPhone, so that the sound comes out of the dock connector slot. We’ve had a listen to this new speaker and, to be blunt, it’s not very good. In fact, it’s rather poor. You can’t really use it to listen to music properly, or even to the dialog on TV shows or films.
It was quite noticeable that Apple CEO Steve Jobs did point out during his launch speech that the speaker was only for "the casual user", and when Mr Showbiz himself tries to play down a new feature then you know that you shouldn’t expect too much from it. So that left us wondering why Apple even bothered to include such a mediocre little speaker in such a sophisticated device. And then we saw the new ad for the iPod Touch and the penny dropped.
He shoots - he scores
The new iPod Touch is a tentative attempt at grabbing a little piece of the hand-held games console market, and the little speaker is there just to emit a few beeps and bleeps so that you can whip it out and get an instant gaming fix without having to unravel a set of earphones. Just take a look at the ad on Apple’s web site – it focuses almost completely on the games that are available for the iPod Touch and merely shows the briefest flash of album artwork on the screen to remind everyone that this is a music player too.
This actually makes sense. The larger screen of the iPod Touch was originally intended intended for watching video, but the market for portable video players and video downloads still hasn’t really taken off in the same way as the market for music downloads - which, incidentally, has just seen the iTunes Store become the largest single music retailer in the US. This means that there’s not yet a critical mass of people willing to pay extra for the large screen of the iPod Touch just so that they can watch videos on it.
Ready to take on the Nintendo DS and Sony PSP?
On the other hand, Apple suddenly finds itself awash in games. One of the unexpected side effects of the success of the iPhone is that there’s been a rush of games released for the iPhone that use its touchscreen and accelerometer as the control system for the game – tilting the screen from side to side to turn a car or to roll a dice, for instance. Games developers that have hardly given a second thought to Apple’s Mac computers in the past are now rushing to release games for the iPhone.
But while the iPhone ties you in to hefty monthly payments on the O2 network contract, the iPod Touch can play all those iPhone games – as it has the same touchscreen and accelerometer – without the expensive contract. That leaves you free to download games galore at pocket-money prices, such as Crash Bandicoot, Super Monkey Ball and even some quite sophisticated 3D games such as Elite Racing and Real Football 2009. Apple won’t want to go directly head-to-head with the Nintendo DS console or Sony’s Playstation Portable – which are both cheaper than even the 8GB iPod Touch – but gaming might be a way to steal a few sales away from rival music players such as Archos or Microsoft’s Zune.
Whether that’s a wise decision remains to be seen, but there’s no doubt that the iPod Touch is still a pretty impressive gadget. It’s obviously overkill if all you want is a compact and affordable MP3 player – in which case the new iPod Nano or the iPod Shuffle  is the one you want. However, the combination of the 3.5in screen, video and music playback, gaming, wireless internet and touchscreen controls make the iPod Touch one of the most powerful and versatile handheld devices currently available.