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Just Shy Of Perfection
on September 15, 2009
This review could be summerd up in a short sentence: You are looking at the current killer appliance for personal entertainment. But I never, ever, do short reviews... So here's the long story. Grab a cup of coffee, as this review answers questions you never knew existed.
I have to admit that there have been few items that have captured and kept my enthusiasm for as long as the iPod Touch. Two years ago, I purchased the original Touch, last year I upgraded to the 32 GB, and now I have the 64GB version. Was the upgrade worth it? And what are the things yet to be imroved? Because even though the Touch is close to perfection, there are still many small things that can be improved.
Physically, the new (64GB) Touch is identical to it's 2nd generation brethren. It's polished crome backplate is slightly curved, making it fit your palm perfectly. As before, the fact that it's made from polished chrome will guarantee that it attracts fingerprints and scratches almost magically. I'm no friend of any kind of protective covers, and my last (32GB) Touch had to live in my pocket with my keys, coins, and other stuff I threw in with it. After a year, the backplate did pick up a lot of scratches, and I expect that the 64GB to fare no better. Personally, I would have preferred a brushed finish for the backplate. This may have caused problems with the readability of the customized engraving that Apple applies to the Touch on the backplate for no additional charge (a nice 'touch' that becomes increasingly important as the Touch becomes more ubiquitious). This custom engraving you can only get if you order the Touch through Apple (it's also not available in the Apple Stores).
The front plate is made from one of the most impressive glass enhancements I've ever seen. After a year of heavy abuse, my old Touch's glass front has not a single scratch - not one. I don't know how Apple does it, but this is really impressive. Remember, I don't use any protective covers or films. The screen itself is brilliant, bright, and can easily be read outside, wich is a feat in itself. The Touch has an ambient light sensor, so it can dim the screen when the surroundings are darker.
This time around, the screen's color temperature has remained unchanged (the 2G shifted all colors from a blueish to a more golden tinge). Movie playback is simply astonishing. The image is crisp, and the on-screen controls natural. Again, there are niceties such as double-tapping the screen to change aspect ratio, or placing bookmarks etc. You still can't set a movie's contrast, but beyond that small issue, movie playback is perfect. Viewing movies on the Touch simply works great, but personally I think that the screen is too small to watch a full movie. Last week, I tried watching a TV episode while on a plane enroute to Hamburg (a 75 minute flight), but quickly decided against it, opting instead to play a game of 'Luxor'. Somehow I prefer a larger screen for consuming video, while I have no problems doing something interactive on it. Still, video plays great on the Touch.
Button and interface lay-out has remained the same from the last generation: volume controls on the left side, top holds the 'exit/on' button, buttom has dock and phones connectors, and the front holds the single home button. There is one thing that can be improved here: I would have preferred the audio connector to be on top (or either side), as the current configuration precludes the use of many applications (e.g. News- and eBook readers) when you want to place it upright -- for example in the Gym. Some apps do use the accelerometers and can be used positioning the Touch upside down, though.
The built-in speaker is unchanged from the last version. It's weak, tinny, mono, produces horrible sound, has no volume to speak of -- and yet it's one of the best additions to the Touch (the original didn't have it, the 2nd gen did). It simply makes casual gaming so much more fun. I don't care about the bad sound quality, I just love the fact that it's there.
The signatory white earphones that Apple sells with the Touch may look good, but I don't like them. In my ears they are too uncomfortable. Since I'm no audiophile, I can't comment on their audio quality other than that it's good enough for me. Anyway, I replaced them with my favorite non-Apple version. The hitch here is that Apple now delivers the 64 GB (and 32 GB) with earphones that sport a built-in mic and remote. And my head phones don't have that. While the remote is nothing much to write home about (the way it works is just too complex), the mic works well, and has just the right fidelity to pick out voice over the background noise. So, for now, I keep the white buds with me in case I want to use the IP-telephony capabilities.
Battery life appears to have been reduced somewhat from the 2nd gen - at least on paper. During the past few days the new 3rd gen Touch certainly performed as well as or even better than my 2nd gen - but then again, that one's battery is already one year old. One fact that I've become very fond of is the quick-charge ability, which works really well.
The built-in wireless connectivity is really nice, with astonishingly well executed integration. The touch does all it's wireless networking over WiFi and Bluetooth. WiFi works really well (especially here in Switzerland where Hotspots are particularely dense), and Bluetooth integration (which I tried on the 3rd gen for the first time) is flawless. WiFi reception (range) lags somewhat behind that of a Wintel laptop (no doubt due to the metal backplate) and is pretty much on par with that of a 15" Macbook Pro (which is also somewhat lacking in WiFi reception range). WiFi is still the 'g' variant though [interestingly enough, the built-in hardware does support 11n, but so far Apple has chosen not to activate it, presumably to conserve battery. This is interesting also from the fact that in the 2G Touch, Apple initially included Bluetooth capabilities, but only activated it with a later OS release. Perhaps the same can be expected for 11n]. Bluetooth now also works with headphones and BT-based car integration kits (works well in mine). I would have loved to try out BT-based printing from the Calender or Addressbook app, but hit a snag: it appears no Touch app supports printing...
There is some hardware that I expected, or whished that it was included in the Touch - especially as (some) of them are now present on other iPods:
No camera. I was somewhat ambivalent about this. No camera means no pictures and/or movies. But it also means that I can keep handling it rough, as I do not have to worry abou the lens. Also, I don't have to worry about taking it to the Gym (my Gym has very strict rules towards camera-equipped items). All things being equal, the addition of a camera (still and/or video) would have been nice, but I don't miss it much (truth be told, I yet have to use the camera on my mobile phone).
Unfortunately, there is also no built-in mic. This is much a more significant omission than having no camera. The Touch is a first class audio voice recorder and (more importantly for me) a first class Skype client. There are third party solutions for this (a mini-micro that directly plugs into the headphone connector), but if the touch had a built-in mike, it would make using world-class applications like Shazam (and Skype) so much easier
Likewise, there is no compass, nor a GPS receiver present in the touch. I understand that these are left out to better differentiate the Touch from the iPhone, but I would have welcomed them in the top-of-the-line (64GB) version of the iPod.
And, finally, there is no radio receiver. I'm definitely not a radio man, as I next to never listen to it. Still, some people do (as the ton of nicely selling IP radio applications shows), and anyway, the Nano has it now - even with a nice Tivoesque pause feature! Why not the Touch? Strange design choice.
iPod & iTunes
The original iPod's strength was the sheer brilliant ease of use - and the touch-based interface represented a mile-stone in improving on that. To date there simply is no better multimedia interface than that of the Touch/iPhone. It's natural after just a few seconds. It's drop-dead beautiful, with muted highlights, and cleverly accentuated by small (if flashy) animations that convey the different metaphors of the interface (e.g. the rubber-banded bouncing when you reach the end of a playlist). Like no interface before you can instantly use it to accomplish even complex tasks with just the flick of a finger. Using it is sheer, unadulterated fun. The 'Coverflow' album browsing may be one of the least useful, but it's definitely the most natural (and fun) way to flip though you music. And it is jaw-droppingly well executed (note: when you use coverflow you should make sure that you have installed the all cover art from any music you did not purchase from the iTunes Store).
At the base of all iPod music playing is the Playlist, and using playlist on the Touch is a joy. The interface whileplaying is also mature, offering niceties such as displaying a song's lyrics on a single tap, along with singularily simple controls for repeat and shuffle play. Unfortunately, this playlist feature also still has one of the most glaring shortcomings: the Touch is unable to play playlist groups. I usually group a small bunch of songs into very short playlist (e.g. '10 best Springsteen'), and then mix these playlist into larger ones by simply dropping a playlist into a group. Although iTunes supports this, all versions of the Touch have stubbornly refused to do that.
Also somewhat strangely missing on the Touch is the ability to search for an Artist or music title. Considering the fact that more than 10'000 songs fit onto the device the need for an ability to search for something would seem obvious (note: the Touch *does* have a global search function, which will also turn up songs - along with contacts and mails that match your search phrase. Having to leave the iPod app simply to look for a song is against everything Apple's ease of use is about, and it's not what I would expect). And while we are at it, I'd love the ability to also search the lyrics, but that would be the icing on the cake.
What is present, and what continues to amaze me is a function that I initially dismissed as some way to sell song: Genius Playlists. What it does is that given a song it finds other songs you already possess that would play nicely together. Since I have lots of songs (else I wouldn't be purchasing the 64GB), this feature has helped me to get an incredible amount of additional joy out of my music. There are lots of gems hidden that mass of music I never knew I owned. Of course, if you want to, Genius will also recommend songs you don't have but can buy right now on iTunes. That, of course, is the 'sell song' angle. But at least it's incredibly well executed (and yes, I've used it)
The 64GB now also supports voice recognition - and I'm sure it's a marvel of technology. But (much like the auto-correction system for text) it mostly only works in English. If you have set your system to German, you must pronounce english band names as they would be read aloud by a german-only speaker. Do it once, and everyone in the room stares at you. You'll never do it again. Plus, due to the greater complexity of the german language (I am german speaking), the commands only work half the time. A nice idea, and a boon while driving or typing. But *only* when set to english.
Rounding out the audiovisual feature set is the Touch's photo presentation ability, really showcasing the touch-based gesture interface. It was the pinch and flick gesture that originally sold me on the Touch, and it still does today. On the Mac, iTunes ties into iPhoto's image management, greatly facilitating the task of sorting out which images to synch to your iPod (on windows, this task is slightly more pedestrian, as you'll have to manually manage the 'My Pictures' folder). A strange quirk, though, is that during synch iTunes seems to downsample your images to a (to me unknown, but definitely) smaller size. Since I'm a photo nut (shooting with DSLR) this 'feature' annoys me somewhat, as iTunes currently does not provide any means to control the downsampling of photos.
The success of the original iPod has left some competitors scratching their heads, while it is blindingly obvious to most users: the tight, seamless integration with iTunes. Now in version 9, iTunes has become somewhat complex and not always that intuitive to use. It now also tries to manage Photos and Movies as well as Music and Applications. But iTunes is still very easy to use, and synchronizing the iPod Touch with iTunes is quick and simple. A small disappointment is the fact that you still can't synchronize your Touch wirelessly, and that it still refuses to mount as an external disk. Another disappointment is that although iTunes now allows you to share your music over the net with multiple Macs, it can't stream your Music to the Touch (A small, brilliant app from the AppStore can do this for you, though).
And while we are speaking of iTunes - there is one feature that I'd love to have on the Touch: the visualizer. iTunes' visualizer is really beautiful, and I would have loved the same functionality on my Touch.
While by itself the iPod Touch is an impressive and fun device, it comes into real swing when connected to the internet. The always-on nature and graceful handling of connection drops make the Touch one of the best internet devices I've used to day. The included Safari internet browser performs great - unless you try to load Flash-based content, which is not supported. The email client works great for receiving and viewing mail. Writing anything but the shortest of email is annoying, as the Touch is simply too small for comfortably entering any significant amount of text. Calendar and Address Book are well executed (even if entering a new date and merging multiple calenders is slightly more convoluted than necessary). Mail, Calendar and Addressbook can (if you have that service available) synch live to either mobile me (which Apple loves to sell you) or Exchange (which your employer loves to force on you) through a feature that is very similar to 'push' notification. In the past, using Exchange has been somewhat spotty, and mobile Me has had it's own share of problems. All in all, though both work nice, and exceedingly quick. You do need to be in range of a hotspot for this to function, though. Somewhat disappointing is the fact that notes are not synched. Another nice addition is 'Voice Memos' which is an audio recorder. Had the Touch an internal mic, this app would have been even better...
Next to the 'productivity' or 'PDA' suite (Mail, Calendar, Contacts) the touch comes with some other nice (but somewhat dull) apps (e.g. Maps, Stocks, YouTube) and two killer Apps: iTunes and App Store. While the former gives you instant access to all songs and movies that are currently available on iTunes (Warning: that, plus the incredible 'Shazam' can lead to unintented gross music spending), the latter (App Store) gives you equal instant access to an incredible number of applications that you can instantly download and use. The quality of applications on the App Store is quite uneven, and tends to cluster around some rather puerile topics (as a veritable, uh, heap, of Fart applications proves). That being said, there are a number of jaw-droppingly good applications that are able to utilize the touch interface (and other capabilities such as accelerometer) in new and surprising ways. Just to name a few are the aforementioned 'Shazam' that can identify a song being played and instantly link to iTunes (you have to see it in action to believe it), Flight Control, where you manage an airport by drawing the flight path for each plane, Bloomberg that provides stock information in an exhaustive way, and Wemlin that shows an up-to-date timetable for when the next tram arrives at my station. No matter what, there probably is an application that supports you with it.
And then there are games. Apple had quickly recognized that the Touch represents an immensely attractive and powerful game platform. Performance, screen, connectivity and control capabilities make it the ideal casual gaming platform. Accordingly, games represent by far the largest category in the App store. While inevitably there are some truly awfully executed, or simply dull games, the majority of the available games are at least somewhat entertaining, while some rival and exceed those that can be had for thrice the price on dedicated gaming platforms.
In the past, my Touch quickly filled up with app after app that I simply couldn't live without any more, and an unforseen limitation of the Touch's design surfaced: app management. Applications are arranged as icons on a 4x4 grid per page, with multiple pages that you can flick left and right to navigate. Unfortunately, re-arranging apps, although possible (and quite ingeniously implemented) is still a chore. Apple has done the right thing, and integrated a much nicer app manager into the (PC/Mac) iTunes application.
The iPod Touch, although seen by some as the 'iPhone's smaller sibling' was always either as nible as the phone, or even faster. The new, 3rd gen Touch is said to be 'up to 50% faster' than the previous generation. To be honest, I'm not sure that I see that speed improvent translate to much performance increase. That may be due to the fact that my Touch seldom maxes out on processor throughput or (for example when browsing) that WiFi bandwidth is the limiting factor. Some apps appear to be 'snappier' during start-up (smaller apps) or execution (games, mostly), but all in all, the Touch pretty much seems to be as fast as the last generation. This leads me to believe that the real bottleneck is it's internal execution memory (i.e. not the 64 GB storage, but processor memory), and ony applications that are specifically written to take advantage of new technology (e.g. OpenGL ES). Or in other words: the overall speed has not been improved that much.
So you want to be a geek? Already are? You can write your own applications for the Touch if you like. I've taken the plunge and downloaded the SDK. Note that you can download the SDK and develop for the Touch/iPhone without actually owning one. The development system comes with a iPhone simulator that you can use to test your applications without downloading them unto an actual device (it does have some limitations: for example, the accelerometers are not simulated, and you have no indication of the true execution speed). Well, you do need a Mac for this (although it can be a few years old). The SDK is impressive - overwhelming even if you are not used to Mac programming (and almost prohibitively complex if you are not used to frameworks like Cocoa and object-oriented programming). Still, crunching out your first (very basic) appliction is surprisingly easy, and if you roll that way, you'll get addicted quickly.
It's the killer personal entertainment device. Buy it. You know you want it -- especially if you have read this far. If you have the 2nd gen iPod, you may need to ask yourself if the slight speed bump and the additional storage is worth the hefty price tag. To me it was, but your mileage may vary.
+ world class touch/gesture interface
+ best iPod audiovisual experience around (music, video, photos)
+ killer feature: app store and application availability
+ killer feature: internet integration (browsing and push technology)
+ great movie playback
+ really good casual gaming device
+ slightly improved speed (allegedly, only for some games)
+ great integration with mobile me (calender, mail sync) or Exchange
+ really good SDK if you are geeky enough to roll your own apps
- no built-in mic (headphones do have them)
- polished chrome backplate (I would have preferred a brushed finish)
- no gps, camera, compass
- no radio (nano has it?)
- no sync of notes, no wireless sync of music/movies
- spotty voice recognition in languages other than english
- no control over downsampling of photos
- no search function for music inside the iPod app
- no visualizer