If you own a first-generation iPod Touch, you can spend $10 to upgrade its firmware to include many of the software capabilities (including Genius playlists) found on the second-generation model. There are a few features, however, that you're only going to get on the second-generation Touch: a built-in speaker, Nike+ support, and headphone jack microphone input. The speaker included on the second-generation iPod Touch isn't visible from the outside and its sound quality is far from spectacular. Despite its poor quality, the addition of a speaker makes it easier to play games or listen to your morning podcasts without hunting down your headphones. We're also happy to see the inclusion of Nike+ functionality considering the popularity of MP3 players as workout companions. And if you're interested in making voice memos, an investment in a compatible iPod microphone headset will allow you to make voice recordings directly to the iPod Touch, using Apple's Voice Memo feature (OS 3.0 required) or a compatible third-party app.
We're still disappointed that the iPod Touch still can't stream Flash video or audio content through its Safari browser; however, many of the Web's more popular content providers are working around the problem by creating specific App Store applications for their content (Pandora Radio and vSnax video are prime examples). We also can't help but crave the camera and GPS capabilities included on the Touch's close relative, the iPhone 3G. With any luck, a third-party manufacturer will step in with some clever accessories.
Both the iPod Touch and iPhone let users browse, preview, purchase, and download content from the new iTunes Wi-Fi store. You'll have to hop onto an available Wi-Fi Internet connection to take advantage of the wireless music store, but once connected, you can search for any artist, album, or song in the iTunes music catalog, as well as movies, TV shows, music videos, audiobooks, podcasts, and iTunes U educational content. Store purchases require you to enter your iTunes password as a security measure. Once the download is complete, the audio or video is immediately available to listen to and will transfer to your computer's iTunes music library the next time you sync the device. The feature seems to work without any kinks. Even interrupted downloads pick up once a Wi-Fi connection is reestablished.
Having handled our share of touch-screen iPod and iPhone imitators this past year, we've yet to find a product that measures up to the responsiveness of Apple's multitouch technology. Granted, some Web-based applications need a few seconds to warm up, but the majority of the features on the iPod Touch react with an uncanny immediacy and fluidness. Small things such as album cover art that flips over to reveal track listings, menus that scroll with artificial momentum, and photos that resize with a pinch of your fingers, all illustrate an attention to detail not offered by the iPod's competitors.
For reasons known only to Apple, the obsessive detail poured into the iPod's design doesn't translate into audio performance. The barrage of sound enhancement settings packed into MP3 players from Sony, Cowon, and Samsung, are in stark contrast to the unchanged and marginally useful list of EQ presets included on the iPod. That said, the balanced and smooth audio quality of the iPod Touch is likely to satisfy the majority of listeners, despite the limited scope of its audio control. Like all iPods, the second-generation iPod Touch supports playback for MP3, AAC (including protected files), Audible, WAV, AIFF, and Apple Lossless. There's still no support for WMA music files, but you can always convert your WMA tracks to MP3 within Apple's iTunes software.
The stereo Bluetooth (A2DP) audio streaming capability included with the OS 3.0 upgrade is one of the iPod's most long-awaited features. Pairing the iPod Touch with Bluetooth accessories such as stereo headsets, speaker systems, or car stereos is quite simple, and a record of previously paired devices is stored in the iPod's Settings menu. The audio quality and wireless range (about 30 feet) using Bluetooth is about what you'd expect from most portable Bluetooth devices, and we're happy to see that the audio from video playback and apps are transmitted over Bluetooth just as easily as music playback. We are disappointed, though, that Apple chose not to fully implement the Bluetooth AVRCP control standard, which would allow you to remotely control audio playback using other AVRCP-compatible devices. Curiously, support for play/pause control over AVRCP is included, while other AVRCP controls (skip, volume) are not offered. Users should also note that keeping Bluetooth active on the iPod Touch will take a toll on battery life.
If you are looking for a way to take video on-the-go, the iPod Touch has a lot to offer. You can load the iPod Touch with video podcasts, TV shows, and iTunes movie rentals, or watch endless amounts of free video clips using the included YouTube widget. Viewing angles on the second-generation iPod Touch seem better than the previous model, while color balance and brightness seem about the same.
Apple rates the new iPod Touch at 36 hours for music (up from the first-generation's 22 hours) and 6 hours of video (up from 5 hours). Our CNET Labs found the second-generation iPod Touch realistically capable of 38 hours of music playback when Wi-Fi is turned off, or 35 hours with Wi-Fi turned on.
Video battery life test results for the iPod Touch are harder to nail down, because of the product's unique auto-brightness sensor and battery management features. Bearing this in mind, our lab team tested the iPod Touch with Wi-Fi switched off, screen brightness set at half, and the auto-brightness sensor deactivated, and reached around 4.5 hours of video playback before the screen went to sleep. After waking the screen and resuming the video, the iPod Touch made it to 5 hours before giving its first low battery warning. Then, after tolerating a few more low battery messages and narcoleptic screens, the labs team finally clawed their way to about 5.8 total hours of video playback.
The iTunes factor
Before you run off to buy an iPod Touch, consider this caveat: those who use the Touch (or any iPod) will be required to install and use iTunes. No other piece of software has equaled iTunes in both praise and scorn from CNET's users. Some argue that iTunes is a top-notch media library tool and online music store, while others become infuriated by the software's insatiable demand for system resources and frequent updates.
Whatever side of the iTunes debate you take, know that iTunes 8 is a mandatory install for the second-generation iPod Touch. If you haven't used iTunes before or haven't upgraded the software in a while, we strongly recommend giving the new software a spin before committing to a new iPod.
Is it worth the upgrade?
We think the second-generation iPod Touch is one of the best iPod's ever made. Inside and out, the iPod Touch is in a league of its own in the world of portable entertainment. If you have an old, worn-out iPod, and you're ready to upgrade, we think the second-generation iPod Touch should be your first consideration.
That said, if you already own an iPhone or an original iPod Touch, it would be hard to justify buying the second-generation Touch. Also, if all you really want is a no-frills portable music player, the iPod Touch is probably overkill.