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Apple iPod Touch 

Apple were arguably late to the MP3 market - but when they got there, they certainly made an impact. Five generations on and the original distinctive iPod family were joined by the 'Touch', sporting many of the same features but in a significantly different package.
Apple iPod Touch
click to enlarge

The iPod Touch arrives in a fairly small package, sporting John Lennon on the front. Inside the box you'll find the device itself, Apples hallmark white headphones, white USB cable, a docking adaptor to allow the Touch form factor to work with the existing range of iPod accessories, a cleaning cloth and a tiny perspex stand.

What's it do

Most people are familiar with the iPod history as a music player. Things have of course moved on and the entire current range, with the exception of the Shuffle, for obvious reasons (no screen!) also now play video and are more properly described as 'multi-media players'.

As the top of the range in terms of features, the Touch is actually a full blown computer running a cut down version of the same operating system used on Apple computers. This allows features such as: audio/video playback; WiFi (wireless) network access; Web browser; email; photo-album along with a number of 'productivity' applications such as calculator, clock, YouTube, maps and address book.

The iPod Touch is available with 8, 16 or 32G bytes of solid-state flash memory.

Gorgeous screen

Naturally the first thing that strikes you when you lift the player from the box is it's look and feel. It's a very sleek slab of technology. From the front, without power almost black, and from the back a shiny chrome that's now common across the range. Like other iPods there's enough weight to make it feel substantial.

The central focus of this iPod over others in the range is the screen. Switch it on and the 3.5", 480x320 pixel screen springs to life. You'll not be disappointed! A higher resolution than the Sony PSP coupled with a physically smaller display leads to very bright clear images allowing it to be usable even in fairly bright daylight (sitting in the shade of a tree watching video was no problem).

A clever little feature enables the Touch to detect when you move the screen from upright (portrait) to side-ways (landscape) and automatically rotate and scale the image you're looking at. This works on a number of applications, although not on video playback.

As well as clicking on buttons, the touch sensitive screen has been used to implement a 'zoom in/out' feature by pinching your fingers against the screen. This looks very good and is so easy to use you wonder why others didn't do this before.

Touchy Feely

The most obvious characteristic is of course the touch screen, and the (almost) complete lack of physical buttons. There are two controls other than the screen. The first is the 'home' button, marked with a square just below the screen that takes you directly to the top-level menu. The other is a small press button on the top edge to put the system into standby or to shut down.

Everything else is done through the touch screen.

In many ways this is quite effective. Visual buttons allow you to start applications and scrolling through lists even long lists is a easy. It reminds be very much of my now ancient Palm V organiser. There are some issues however.

Firstly - the screen is touch sensitive - yes - but it won't work with a stylus or other pointing instrument - only with fingers. Not a problem for clicking big buttons - but try entering text using the 'touch' qwerty keyboard. My fingers are quite small but the buttons are still smaller than my finger. Tapping out text was quite error-prone and fairly slow. Even attempting to accurate move a slider to move through a video playback was somewhat cumbersome and far from being easy. The lack of any hand-writing recognition software is a pity - the Palm could do this 10 years ago.

Apple iPod Touch home menu
click to enlarge

Secondly - this is not a product to exercise with. Having had the company of an iPod touch on several runs I have yet to be able to use the controls without first stopping. If you're after a friendly media player for exercise stick with something like the iPod Nano or Shuffle.

Video playback

Playback quality is excellent as you'd expect. I've transcoded several DVDs into iPod format using Nero and the results have been very good. Bear in mind that the default resolution in the iPod profile on Nero is too small - override the resolution to 480x320. Telling Nero to compress 45-60 minutes of video into 256M bytes gave sufficient quality and allows around four hours of video per giga-byte of memory. You can easily store an entire TV series in memory for use on your travels.

The battery gives 5 hours of video playback. Unfortunately you can't disable the video and just listen to the audio track (something I'd have liked to have done).

Wireless network (IEEE 802.11b/g WiFi)

Built in wireless opens a whole raft of Internet applications for your iPod, although right now the software does not take full advantages of the opportunities.

I had no problems configuring wireless access to my encrypted home network. Once configured the Safari web-browser operated flawlessly. The Touch user interface allowed very easy site navigation. The display shows the whole web-page with text usually far to small to see - but a simple 'pinch' action or a finger tap has the system zooming into the area you want to read.

WiFi also allows direct access to the iTunes media store from Apple if you're interested in buying music on-line rather than ripping your own CDs.

There are some disappointments with wireless. There is no built in or plug-in support for real-media format and so audio streams from the BBC are not playable. There's also no way to listen to Internet radio stations generally. I hope that subsequent software revisions will fix this.

There is also no way to wirelessly access your computer - you can't for instance access a library of MP3 tracks held on your computer.

Finally, while the choice of WiFi is great for Internet access arguably more useful on a media player would have been Bluetooth. No Bluetooth means no access to the growing range of Bluetooth stereo headsets. Maybe a desire to differentiate the iPod Touch from the iPhone has lead to this omission, or just the association of Bluetooth as a phone technology led to the omission.

There is at least one Bluetooth 'dongle' for the iPod family, an example being the Jabra A125s, but it's a pity not to have it built in.

iTunes

Apples iTunes application and on-line store is still the only way to get music and video onto your iPod from an existing PC/Mac collection. With the Touch you can access the store and purchase music directly across the Internet.

Even if you have no intention of buying anything from iTunes, you are still required to register on-line before you'll be able to use your iPod. Registration includes various intrusive questions that should really not need to be answered just to use a machine you've paid for. The questions are not optional - so I chose to lie.

Why is it acceptable for a company to demand personal information before providing access to a piece of equipment you've already paid for?

In use iTunes is an adequate media organiser. The default configuration attempts to synchronise your entire music collection to your iPod. Reasonable maybe for the hard-disk iPods, but not necessarily for a smaller device. Manual synchronisation is much more sensible.

The iTunes interface still has no real concept of a hierarchy of music. Almost every other application I've seen allows you to step down through a tree, but the iTunes interface shows all tracks in a big flat list.

One much mentioned feature of the iPod family is the ability to flick through albums visually using the cover art. Unfortunately this requires a full iTunes store account including credit card, despite there being no charge for art work that I could tell. Again something that should not be required!

Apple iPod Touch Solitaire game
click to enlarge

Software flexibility

The iPod touch is much more that a media player - and much more of a general purpose - but small - computer. This potential is not currently harnessed by the software that Apple ship with the product - but more official software will follow, both from Apple and from third parties. For those that don't want to wait it's trivial to 'open' up the operating system to allow you to load existing third party applications. Unlike Sony with their PSP, Apple appears (currently!) to be making very little attempt to prevent people from doing this - a very sensible decision. The early success of the Palm operating system and it's ability to withstand Microsoft for so long was in no small part due to support from third party enthusiasts writing excellent applications. Palm encouraged such developments - I hope Apple will take a similar open approach.

It does however seem that Apple are being tempted to create a revenue stream from 'applications' by providing in future downloads from an iTunes like store. Will Apple resist the money grabbing temptation to 'protect' the operating system against third party software? Who knows - but we can hope.

For now, opening an iPod touch is trivial. Opening my own iPod Touch was very easy and I know have an array of very good games on the machine - a number of which take very good advantage of the touch screen. The photo shows a cool game of solitaire where you literally drag the cards around.

Summary

The iPod Touch is a very nice media player. For those wishing to watch video this is the media player from the Apple range to choose. The biggest screen with the brightest display.

Don't choose this if your main use will be during exercise - the touch screen just isn't suitable for sweaty fingers and is cumbersome enough that I found I had to stop running before I could make it do anything. Also the larger your fingers the more frustrating you'll find the touch interface.

Underlying the iPod Touch though is a full operating system - so the potential goes way beyond the software included in the current release. Official third party developers should be making applications available soon. 'Jail-breaking' your iPod opens you up to a wealth of free software applications.

As something to keep you (or the kids) entertained on the move then this is a great product with only a few niggles. Price wise you of course pay the Apple 'fashion' premium. The 16G model is available for £245.99 including shipping from Amazon. For comparison, the Sony 16G Video Walkman (reviewed here) is available for only £185, includes decent headphones and has Bluetooth (no WiFi though, and the screen isn't as good!).

Technical details of the whole iPod Touch family are available on the following link from Apple :

http://store.apple.com/uk/browse/home/shop_ipod/family/ipod_touch

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