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Editors' note, June 23, 2010: With the release of iOS4 (a free upgrade for iPod Touch users) Apple has added several improvements to the iPod Touch user interface and to core features, such as Mail, Music, Safari, Calendar, and Spotlight search. For a detailed list of these improvements, read CNET's full iOS4 review.
Now in its third year, Apple's iPod Touch has evolved so many features and uses beyond media playback that we're not really sure what to call it anymore. Some flock to the Touch for its first-class mobile Web browser and e-mail support, while others see it primarily as a portable gaming device, and some still pick it up for good old-fashioned music and video playback. No matter how you choose to define the iPod Touch, Apple's third-generation version has arrived, flaunting 8GB, 32GB, and 64GB capacities priced respectively at $199, $299, and $399. Its hardware design hasn't changed dramatically from the model we reviewed in 2008, but neither has its status as the world's most feature-packed portable media player.
For better or worse, the first thing we noticed about the third-generation iPod Touch is how unchanged it looks. Side by side with the second-generation iPod Touch, you'd be hard-pressed to find a way to distinguish the two models from each other. Aside from minor differences in the etching on the back of the Touch, the second- and third-generation models are spitting images of each other
Just like its phone-wielding sibling, the iPhone, the iPod Touch is a touch-screen device with a glass-covered 3.5-inch screen that sports a 480x320-pixel resolution. In spite of its touch-screen interface, Apple includes a few physical buttons, including a slim volume control on the left edge, a hold switch on the top, and a home button on the face of the player, placed below the screen. The bottom edge of the Touch includes the same universal dock port and 3.5-millimeter headphone jack as previous models, piercing the otherwise unbroken expanse of chromed steel that wraps around the back and edges of the device.
The shape and dimensions of the Touch also remain unchanged (4.3 inches tall by 2.4 inches wide 0.33 inch thick), defined by a flat-glass front set inside a curved steel backing that feels natural in the hand but makes the iPod a little wobbly when you set it down on a table. Packaged with the Touch is an Apple universal dock connector USB cable, a pair of white earbuds that include a microphone and remote control on the cable, and a molded universal dock insert to use with any charging or speaker accessories.
Out of the box, the third-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 iTunes Store for music and video downloads, and a host of smaller utilities (weather, calendar, maps, stocks, notes, voice memos, clock, contacts, and calculator). Provided become proficient with its touch-screen keyboard, the iPod Touch is more pocket PC than an MP3 player.
With version 4 of Apples iPhone and iPod Touch firmware, the device's stock features are just the starting point of apps available. An iTunes App Store, accessible from the computer or directly from the iPod Touch, lets you 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.
Apple first introduced its Genius playlist feature with the second-generation iPod Touch, letting you create instant 25-song playlists based on the musical characteristics of a single song. The Genius playlist feature is still here on the third-generation version, giving you an easy and fun way to generate playlists, provided their music collection holds enough songs to make interesting connections. You can create and save Genius playlists directly onto the iPod Touch, and with automatic syncing enabled in iTunes, you can also transfer them back to your computer.
With the third-generation of the Touch, Apple broadened the scope of Genius selections to include App Store recommendations and extended, genre-based playlists called Genius Mixes. After clicking on the App Store icon found on the main menu, you'll find Genius App picks in a separate "Genius" tab giving you a list of recommendations based on previous app purchases you've made. Genius Mixes are intuitively located in the iPod's Music menu, located by default in the lower submenu strip across the bottom, along with selections for artist, songs, playlists, and more. If you're the kind of person who typically listens to music by hitting shuffle, you might enjoy the way Genius Mixes provide a more curated and genre-specific selection of tunes with a minimum of effort. Those who are more deliberate about their music selections always have the option of knocking the feature into the "more" section and replacing it with a more useful menu item (podcasts, audiobooks, and so on).
Oddly, the Touch's Genius Playlist and Mixes features won't work if you haven't enabled Genius on your computer's iTunes software. If you find iTunes' Genius features 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 features on your iPod as well.
Not every member of the third-generation iPod Touch family is created equally. Essentially, the 8GB iPod Touch model is still running on second-generation hardware that uses a slower processor than the 32GB and 64GB models and lacks support for new features such as multitasking, Voice Control, OpenGL graphic support, Bluetooth keyboards, home screen background images, and advanced accessibility features. As we've already seen with the first-generation Touch, future updates to the iPod firmware may bring features that only the latest hardware will support. Obviously, the 8GB model's $199 price tag makes it attractive to prospective buyers, but be aware that the lower price comes at the cost of performance and a few worthwhile features.
Are you confused about what features are available on the 8GB Touch compared with the 32GB and 64GB versions? So were we. For the record, iOS4 features such as home screen folders, e-mail threading, iBooks support, and spell check are available on all versions of the third-generation iPod Touch. Multitasking, Voice Control, Bluetooth keyboards, and home screen background images, however, are a few of the features we've found so far that can only be found on the 32GB and 64GB Touch models (or iPhone 3GS and iPhone 4). In the next few paragraphs, we'll dive into these features a little more to see if they're worthwhile.
As if touch-screen control wasn't futuristic enough, the iPod Touch now includes the capability to control playback using voice commands. To activate this feature, you'll need to press and hold the headphone remote control button until the Voice Control screen appears. Using the microphone built into the included pair of earbuds, you can call out a song, artist name, album, or playlist, and the iPod will interpret your commands and play the request. Playback features such as shuffle, skip, play, and pause can also be controlled using voice commands, but it feels a little unnecessary, since the earbud remote control is available to perform these functions without making you look like a crazy person. One of the coolest uses of the technology is the capability to engage the Genius playlist function by saying "Play more songs like this," letting you steer your listening experience without taking the iPod out of your pocket.
We found Voice Control to be consistently accurate when it came to basic commands, such as "play," "next song," "shuffle," and so on. You do run into some trouble calling up artists with funky names or funky spellings (too bad, P!NK), but that's to be expected. Overall, Voice Control is a fun feature to have, and even more fun to show off. We wish Apple had thought of an easy way to let you to Voice Control while the Touch is plugged into a car stereo aux input, but we've no doubt that third-party manufacturers will solve the problem with special cables or in-car charging docks.
Touch-screen devices present a unique challenge to users with visual impairment. By digging into the General settings of the 32GB or 64GB third-generation iPod Touch, users can now enable features such as screen zooming, white/black reversal, mono audio, home button triple-click, an automatic text reader that will read everything from e-mails to entire Web pages, and a VoiceOver feature that offers spoken feedback of menus and any item selected by touch (apps launch with double-clicks in this mode). For users who have otherwise felt locked out of the iPod Touch and apps experience, the inclusion of these relatively deep accessibility controls is certainly an advantage over previous models of the iPod Touch, and a promising direction for touch-screen devices, generally.
iTunes on the go
Both the iPod Touch and iPhone let you 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 re-established.
When it comes to touch-screen performance and menu usability, few devices can rival Apple's iPod Touch and iPhone. In fact, during our reviews of the first two generations of the Touch, no competitor even came close to matching the easy, fluid, and snappy operation of Apple's capacitive touch screen and user interface. This time around, however, competition from Sony, Samsung, and, most notably, Microsoft, has narrowed the gap when it comes to touch-screen speed and interface design.
To maintain its edge, Apple is pushing the speed barrier where users feel it most: gaming. With a promised 50 percent increase in processor power and a new OpenGL graphic processing system, the load time and responsiveness of games on the third-generation Touch have been quickened dramatically. A game of Spore that took 14 seconds to load on our second-generation Touch, launched in just 8 seconds on the third-generation model. If games are your distraction of choice on the iPod Touch, the improved speed and graphics capabilities of the 32GB or 64GB third-generation models are certainly the way to go.
Unfortunately, as much as Apple seems inspired to push the limits of processor speed and video game graphics rendering, the attention it pays to audio quality and sound enhancement is at a standstill. The arsenal of sound enhancement settings packed into MP3 players from Sony, Cowon, and Samsung, lay 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 third-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 let you 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. You should also note that keeping Bluetooth active on the iPod Touch will take a toll on its battery life.
If you are looking for a way to take video on the go, the iPod Touch may just be your new best friend. 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 or other third-party video applications. The viewing angles weren't quite as generous on the third-generation Touch as our second-generation model, but it's not worth us raising a stink over. Whatever diminishment you may notice in viewing angles is made up for in what we perceived as a noticeable improvement to color balance and contrast. During testing, the 32GB third-generation Touch presented a cooler, more natural color balance than the second-generation Touch, and it seemed less prone to washing out at higher brightness settings.
Apple has reined in its battery life estimates a bit from the previous generation, possibly because of the increased demands of the faster processor or the inclusion of new technologies such as Bluetooth. What was once a 36-hour rating for music playback has been whittled down to 30 hours. Video playback estimates, however, have held steady at 6 hours. CNET Labs' test results achieved an average of 34.5 hours of continuous music playback, which is down slightly from the 38 hours of music playback we pulled from the previous generation of the iPod Touch.
Video battery life is a tough one to test for the Touch or iPhone, since the player has built-in provisions to interrupt video playback when the battery becomes low, requiring us to pick up video playback several times to gauge the full measure of video battery drain. Fortunately, the 8.3 hours of video playback our CNET Labs team achieved with the third-generation iPod Touch means you'll be seeing those low battery warnings less often than Apple's conservative estimates would lead you to believe.
The iTunes factor
If you're considering buying an iPod for the first time, we always feel that it's worthwhile to remind people that Apple's iTunes software is a required installation for your computer. The software is free and available for both Mac and Windows computers, and we encourage potential iPod owners to become familiar with the software ahead of time to ensure that it works well for you and your computer. To learn more about iTunes, we recommend checking out Download.com's latest review and any user feedback associated with it.
Worth the upgrade?
We think the second-generation iPod Touch is one of the best iPods 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 third-generation iPod Touch should be your first consideration. That said, if you already own an iPhone or a second-generation iPod Touch, it would be hard to justify buying the third-generation Touch unless you find that the improved processing speed, Voice Control, or accessibility features of the 32GB and 64GB models are particularly compelling.
Also, be aware if you're jumping to the iPod Touch from an older MP3 player with basic capabilities, you may be in for a technological overload. If your needs are simple and features such as e-mail, Internet, and games all seem like overkill, you may be better served by a straight-ahead media player like the iPod Nano.