Apple iPod Touch
2007's Top Products Apple may be keen to tout the Touch's 3.5in display, but the first thing you notice about the new iPod is how thin it is. Front to back it measures 8mm - on paper not as thin as the 6.5mm thick iPod Nano, but you'd never really know unless you measured them both. The point is, the Touch is supremely skinny.
It's hard to describe the Touch without constantly referring to the iPhone, so closely do the two resemble each other. The Touch's display is surrounded by black plastic, and both screen and bezel do indeed appear to be protected by a sheet of glass. Below the screen is the Home button, and bordering the player is gunmetal-grey edging onto which the iPod-standard chrome-look backplate clips.
Apple's iPod Touch: iPhone-inspired
The top left corner of the Touch's backplate has been cut away to make room for a plastic cover that allows Wi-Fi signals to pass through. The wireless window on the iPhone is larger, but it covers the bottom tenth of the backplate, so it's somehow less conspicuous than the one on the Touch.
The Touch has the same user interface as the iPhone, though Apple's rearranged the icons into a more appropriate order for an iPod. At the bottom of the screen is the player's Mac OS X-style Dock, this time rendered as transparent sheet reflecting the icons that are sitting on it: Music, Videos, Photos and iTunes, the latter for the download store.
Above them, at the top of the screen, are the other applications: Safari, YouTube, Calendar, Contacts, Clock, Calculator and Settings. Contacts is new, providing the same access to your address book that the iPhone's Phone app does. Despite the Touch's wireless connectivity, the iPhone's useful Weather app isn't present. Worse, there's no Mail either.
Sleek and svelte
Nor is there the ability to add Contacts and enter new appointments into the Calendar. In that sense, the Touch is more akin to the old Palm Pilot that more recent PDAs - it's a device for taking your personal information with you rather than a data-entry tool. And it's no different from past iPods that have been sync'd with contact details and diaries.
The Music, Movies and Photos applications operate just like their iPhone equivalents - there, Movies and Music are combined into a single app, iPod. The default Playlists, Artists, Songs, Albums and More tabs can be rearranged and changed - maybe you'd rather have Podcasts listed than Playlists, for example.
From album art...
Rotating the Touch through 90° pops up the iTunes-derived Cover Flow, and you can flick through the album covers on display quickly - the animation is smooth and lag-free. Tapping an album rotates the cover to reveal a track listing - click on the one you want to start playing it, or tap elsewhere on the screen to go back to Cover Flow. Rotating the Touch back presents the cover of the album you've selected with easily reachable play/pause, track skip and volume controls. A button at the top right flips the cover round to reveal the track listing - as this happens the track list button itself rotates into a tiny album art icon.
Tap anywhere else on the album cover and a bar appears showing you how long the current track's been playing and how long there is to go, along with a progress bar that you can shuttle along by dragging a blue blob - just like adjusting the volume.
...to Cover Flow, at the flick of a wrist
The Video app works broadly the same way, just with fewer list options and video playback fixed in landscape mode no matter how you hold the player. This makes sense, because you want to maximise the viewing area. Tapping the screen brings up the playback controls, and you can double-tap to switch between fitting the video to the screen's horizontal dimensions - so you get black bars above and below the picture - and its height, so the picture fills the screen, but you may lose a bit off either end. Videos encoded in a 4:3 ratio are not stretched to fit, but appear with black bars to the sides.
Full control video
Some early users in the US complained about the quality of the Touch's display, in particular the way darker areas of the picture appeared brighter than they should have. A duff batch of screens or an endemic fault? It's hard to say, but we found the display eminently watchable and we didn't experience any problems with it, whether we were watching videos we'd sync'd over with iTunes or content accessed through the YouTube app.
All the iPhone's gestures are present: flick your finger to whizz through lists and hop from one photo to the next in Photos. Again, rotate the Touch to display a landscape image in the correct orientation, and back again for portrait shots. Put two fingers together on the screen then draw them apart to zoom into the image, or pinch them together again to zoom back out.
All these operations are executed smoothly, giving the Touch a truly interactive feel. You don't press a button and wait for something to happen - all this works in real time.
Buy songs without a computer... almost
Zooming in and out is crucial with Safari, which brings web browsing to the music player. You'll need to be connected to a Wi-Fi basestation or hotspot, but when you are browsing it's as fast as it is on the desktop. Each page is initially displayed as a large thumbnail - rotate the Touch to get a slightly bigger view as the page is redrawn to fit the now wider screen - and you can zoom in as you wish, or double-tap to auto-fit a column to the screen's width. Just tap and drag to scroll around the page, scroll bars appearing when you place your finger on the screen to help you navigate.
Safari is a joy to use and turns the Touch into a fully-fledged web tablet that's actually rather better than many handheld web browsing gadgets designed specifically for that task. We found it great for doing quick news checks and Wikipedia look-ups while were spudding out on the sofa after a hard day's work. There are times when you don't want to fire up your computer to look something up online, and the Touch provides a great way to do it. And not a hint of the compromises mobile phone and PDA browsers make.
As we noted, there's no email app on the Touch, but webmail accounts can easily be checked using Safari. Still, we'd have preferred Mail to be present, the better to deal with attachments and the like.
If wireless internet access is essential for web browsing, that goes double for the iTunes Music Store app. It works as well as the desktop iTunes, and there's even a Search tab so you can track down songs and albums that aren't being promoted by Apple in the Featured tab or favoured by other buyers and listed in the Top Songs tab.
Buying's easy - you can sample songs then tap the price to initiate a download. Your iTunes Music Store account details are transferred by iTunes to your Touch, but only once you've already 'proved' your identity by signing in using the desktop app. And you'll still need to enter your password on the device to authorise a purchase. Songs downloaded to the device are copied to your computer the next time you sync your Touch. You can also use iTunes to re-acquired aborted downloads to the Touch, but thankfully we didn't need to try this.
No room for a hard drive?
For many, the Touch's big handicap is its storage capacity, causing plenty of punters to demand a hard drive version. We actually found the 8GB and 16GB capacities quite decent given the need to keep the price affordable - for early adopters and gadget nuts, anyway. Flash memory isn't cheap, and you wouldn't get a device this thin if it had a hard drive in it.
Don't forget that for many, many consumers 4GB is still the sweet spot for a music player, providing enough capacity for a decent selection of songs. Chuck in a further 8GB and you've got room for a good selection of videos too. We tend to listen to a given album a fair few times, but a video we'll watch much less regularly. So we don't need to keep stacks of videos with us all the time. Instead, we load them up as and when we want them. For us, 8GB is a good capacity, and while 16GB would be nice, we don't feel the need to pay extra for it.
And you get a free wireless internet tablet into the bargain. We can't overstate how good the Touch is at this. They're not fully comparable, but we'd rather have, say, an iPod Touch than a Nokia N800, which costs much the same but has much less memory - though it is expandable - doesn't work as smoothly and has inferior media playback apps.
Ideal for surfing?
The only thing we'd want off the N800 on the Touch as an instant messaging client. Apple should be lambasted for limiting the ability to load third-party apps on the Touch, and we can only hope it plans to start offering software add-ons via iTunes. That'd be a great way to kick off a shareware community for the player.
Register Hardware isn't an audiophile website, so we approached the Touch's sound quality from a typical consumer pick-up-and-go point of view. We didn't find the Touch to be any worse than past iPods, though you'll certainly get better sound quality through more expensive, third-party earphones, but that's true of almost every portable media player under the sun. We did notice more background noise than we'd would have liked - our ideal level is none at all, to be precise - but it's not sufficient to intrude onto a soundtrack, even during quiet passages. Apple loses points for this, but we've heard a lot worse.
It also loses points for putting the earphone socket on the bottom of the device. This worked for the first- and second-generation Nanos because if you wore the player around your neck, with the earphones uppermost, it ensured the player was the right way up when you lifted it up to look at the screen, perhaps to choose a new track. You're not going to want to carry the Touch that way and, worse, it makes it hard to remove the dock cable when you've got the earphones plugged in.
The iPhone has a pair of volume keys on the side, and we found we'd have liked these on the Touch too. They're not there because other iPods don't have them either. What other iPods do have is a clickwheel which allows you to adjust the volume without having to take the player out of your pocket or bag. The iPhone's keys have the same result. Not so the Touch, which you have to bring out in full view of all and sundry, disable the screen lock then adjust the volume slider. For those of us living in metropolitan environments, that's just not discreet enough.
One light stand
Finally, we found Apple's claim that the Touch will play music for a continuous 22 hours to be spot on. Video playback is rated at five hours per charge.
Register Hardware wasn't excited by the new iPod Nano and the iPod Classic, but we like the iPod Touch. It's not perfect - the price is too high, and there are some niggles about its interaction with iTunes. But you can't help but be wowed by its graphical bravura, decent-size video playback and - joy upon joy - high-speed handheld web browsing. Got an iPod already? Buy the cheaper Touch and use it solely for surfing.