Editors' note, August 18, 2009: Rumors strongly suggest that a new line of iPods will be unveiled early in September of this year. For those considering the purchase of an iPod, we recommend holding off until these new models become available. Check out CNET's iPod Central for all iPod news updates.
As the less-gifted sibling of Apple's celebrated iPhone, the iPod Touch has had to work hard to prove itself. Now in its second generation, Apple has finally given the iPod Touch a chance to shine by lowering its price (an 8GB model now runs $229), improving the hardware, and practically doubling the features from last year's original model.Design
Apple's updates to the iPod Touch's design are subtle, but the hardware has definitely changed for the better. A slim volume switch now graces the left edge of the Touch, making it easier to make quick volume adjustments. The chromed steel back of the second-generation iPod Touch now mimics the rounded design of the iPhone 3G, giving the device a slimmer profile at its edges. Whether psychological or by design, the second-generation iPod Touch feels less fragile than last year's model and makes the plastic enclosure of the iPhone 3G feel cheap by comparison.
Minor improvements aside, the second-generation iPod Touch hardware is largely unchanged. Both the first- and second-generation iPod Touch share the same dimensions (4.3 inches by 2.4 inches by 0.31 inch), same glass-covered screen (3.5 inch), and same arrangement of headphone jack, dock connector, sleep button, and home button.
Priced at $229 (8GB), $299 (16GB), and $399 (32GB), the second-generation iPod Touch still commands a fairly high price compared with other MP3 players with similar capacities. When you weigh the price of the iPod Touch against its features, however, the device becomes much more attractive. Out of the box, the second-generation iPod Touch includes an amazing music player, podcast support, video playback (including iTunes rentals and a YouTube player), a Safari Web browser, photo viewer, an e-mail reader (compatible with Outlook, Exchange, MobileMe, Gmail, Yahoo, AOL, or any POP e-mail service), an integrated Wi-Fi iTunes music store, and a host of smaller utilities (weather, calendar, maps, stocks, notes, voice memos, clock, contacts, and calculator). Provided you can become proficient with its touch-screen keyboard, the iPod Touch is more pocket PC than MP3 player.
As of version 3.0 of Apple's iPhone and iPod Touch firmware, the device's stock features are just the beginning. An iTunes App Store, accessible from your computer or directly from the iPod Touch, lets users download and install thousands of applications, including Internet radio players, games, voice recorders, and social-networking tools. You can also extend the capabilities of the iPod Touch using third-party "Made for iPod" hardware accessories such as AV docks, external battery packs, and speaker systems.
The second-generation of the iPod Touch also introduces Apple's new Genius feature, which lets you create an instant 25-song playlists based on the musical characteristics of a single song. The Genius feature is easy to use, and the results are fun, provided your music collection holds enough songs to make interesting connections. You can create and save Genius playlists directly onto your iPod Touch, and with automatic syncing enabled in iTunes you can also transfer them back to your computer. Oddly, the Touch's Genius feature won't work if you haven't enabled Genius on your computer's iTunes software. If you find iTunes' Genius feature too demanding on your computer's resources or too invasive of your privacy (the feature reports your listening habits to Apple), then you'll need to live without the feature on your iPod as well.
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.