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Monday, September 17, 2007, 05:00 am PT (08:00 am ET)

An in-depth iPod Touch review


What's Missing on the Touch

That brings up what is one of the biggest deficiencies of the Touch: there's no Mail. Of course, one can still use Safari to check email using a webmail client, but the biggest problem of going without Mail is that — on the iPhone — it serves as the only method users have for putting files on the device. While you can't copy over PDFs or graphics or Word documents to the iPhone, you can copy all of them to the Drafts folder of an IMAP mailbox, or simply mail them to yourself, and have them on the device. Mail is the iPhone's only accessible file system, as described in the article "Using iPhone: File and iTunes Sync Via USB, Wireless, and Over the Air."

Because it lacks the iPhone's Mail, the Touch can't be used to open any documents or graphics apart from those hosted on the web. If you have a web server, you can copy documents to it and find them in Safari, but that's a bit complex for many non-technical users who might want to reference a system map or time table or read a PDF ebook; unless the Touch is in range of a WiFi signal, there's absolutely no way to do anything but listen to music and play videos. Of course, that's also the intended purpose of an iPod.

If you're looking for something beyond a music and video player, the Touch is going to present some artificial and frustrating barriers. As an iPod, it's great. It's simple but sophisticated, and the 16 GB model allows you to store twice as much music and videos compared to the largest iPhone. It's also beautiful that it provides a full browser, making it harder to weep about not being able to bring along one's own scrap of information to read. The WiFi store makes it easy and fun to find music anywhere, at least anywhere with an available network signal.

A Frustration for 'iPhone Without the Phone' Seekers

However, the iPod Touch doesn't go beyond playing local content or browsing the web. There's limited PDA features, no communications features such as email or instant message chat, and no way to load up documents for later review, no way to take notes or snap photos, and no slick Google Maps client. To do any of those things, you'll need an iPhone. If Apple were only selling the Touch to users who could buy iPhones, such an arbitrary product differentiation would make more sense.

Unfortunately, there are a lot of overseas users who can't get the iPhone, and lots of US users who are either tied into a contract or can't buy an iPhone for other reasons. The best they can do is get a Touch, and Apple's marketing is preventing them from being able to really use the technology that's already available. Even worse, the Touch and iPhone have enough to keep them unique already.

Clearly, Apple wants customers to buy the iPhone. However, the iPhone already offers enough hardware features to entice many potential Touch buyers. Why thwart remaining Touch sales over limited software features? A case could be made that WiFi-only Touch wouldn't make a great Mail client, because it wouldn't deliver messages outside of a hotspot. But by that logic, it also won't make a great web browser or a great WiFi Store client.

The Touch as an iPod

The Touch is an amazing device, executed with brilliant hardware design and borrowing much of the iPhone's slick software. I can't really fault the Touch for not being something it isn't trying to be. If it were billed as a PDA or an "iPhone without the phone," I'd have to give it a fair to poor rating. But it isn't, it being sold as an iPod that also does web and photos.

That being the case, I can criticize the Touch for not delivering parity with the other recent iPods in three areas: the Nano and Classic deliver a nicer stopwatch with lap time logging, and they also offer a nice photo presentation mode when doing video output; it's not yet clear that the Touch matches the same video output features. The Touch also lacks any type of remote control. If Apple insists that the Touch is really an iPod and not an iPhone, then the Touch should at least deliver the features expected across the iPod line.

Outside of that irritating limitation, the Touch is a remarkably thin media player that delivers impressive video and audio features, surfs the web, displays photo albums, and even offers to put your photos and video on TV and allows you to shop for music online, two features that haven't yet made it to the iPhone.

For the features expected of an iPod, the Touch delivers on everything apart from the hard drive capacity of the iPod Classic line. Being Flash RAM based makes it faster and considerably thinner, but also currently limits it to 16GB, which is enough to hold several movies an thousands of songs, but not an entire music library. Being able to jump on the web or the WiFi store gives it a big jump in features over the existing iPods, introducing a luxury high end for Apple's lineup of media players. Just don't expect it to be an iPhone without the phone, because it most certainly isn't.

For more information on why Apple is moving to Flash RAM over hard drive based iPods, compare the iPod classic review.
For a feature comparison with the thin new video capable Nano, see the 3G iPod nano review.
For a detailed look at iPhone features that are largely identical to the Touch, see the iPhone review.

Rating 4 out of 5
4-stars


Pros
  • Scratch resistant metal face and glass screen.
  • Ultra thin, but solid construction.
  • Excellent media playback features.
  • Rich Internet experience with mobile Safari.
  • Very nice Photo library browser.

Cons
  • Lacks the new iPod stopwatch and photo slideshow polish.
  • Polished metal back will scuff up quickly without a cover.
  • No remote control feature.
  • Missing potential PDA features.


Where to buy

iPod Touch 8GB - Apple
iPod Touch 16GB - Apple
iPod Touch 8GB - Amazon
iPod Touch 16GB - Amazon