Kamis, 08 Januari 2009

Apple iPod touch 16 GB (2nd Generation)

One year ago I purchased the 16GB original iPod Touch. At that time, I found that even though it had some flaws, the over-all package made it one of the best iPods available. Now, one year later, Apple has released the next generation Touch. I've now had it for a few days, and here's what I found: the second gen iPod Touch is a marked improvement over the the first gen, and comes even closer to perfection. Keeping this in mind, this review will show one big, and a number of smaller shortcomings. It may also be difficult to justify upgrading from the 1st to 2nd gen unless you simply must have one of the few hardware improvements, and can live with the fact that you may have to re-purchase some of your accessories.

Size and Dimensions
The iPod Touch now sports a more rounded design on the back, making it look slightly thinner and more like the iPhone than the original did (it is not really thinner than it's predecessor, just looks that way). Unfortunately, the back plate is still made from stainless steel, and this plate attacts fingerprints and scratches almost magically. After one year of near-constant use the backplate of my first gen Touch looks a bit like a wild etch-a-sketch (I carry the Touch in my pocket). Interestingly, the glass on the front appears (after one year of heavy use) to be absolutely scratch-resistant. It's the backside (that also carries the custom engraving) that quickly becomes blemished. I would have preferred a brushed metal/aluminium backplate. I had to look it up, but the new Touch is slightly lighter (a few grams) - but it looks thinner (thanks to the tapered edge design). The rounded edges make it fit my palm slightly better, making it feel just right (to be honest, the original Touch was already very, very good in this respect). Other than that the outside dimensions exactly match that of the original Touch. The most visible change from the front is that the steel from the backplate now frames the glass much like it did on the original iPhone.

Touch Screen and Controls
The screen is simply gorgeous. It's bright, crisp, has great contrast, and can adapt it's brightness to the ambient light. In direct sunlight, much like it's predecessor it becomes difficult to read correctly. In shade it's perfectly readable -- a feat considering how bright a display has to be to achieve that. Color temperature of the display has shifted slightly downwards (or, to sound less pompuous: the display's colors have shifted slightly from a blueish to a golden tinge, something you wouldn't notice unless you have the two devices side by side).

The touch screen is very responsive, and as I stated before, absolutely scratch-resistant. Surviving a full year in my pocket along with metallic objects such as my keys is a testament to it's durability (looking at the stainles steel backside is a constant reminder just how badly it could have been scratched). As with the original Touch, the same problems occur when you try to control the device 'blind' (i.e. while it is in your pocket): without looking at it, you simply can't. Fortunately, Apple has addressed the most important drawback with this design: a hardware volume control. The screen's resolution remains at 480x320, which is very good (certainly better than my iPod Classic's). Interestingly, I've found out that ripping videos to this resolution does not necessarily yield noticeably better results than for the iPod classic's (320x240) screen, so I now rip to that resolution, conserving some memory.

iPod / iTunes
After one year of owning the original Touch I have to remind myself that this device originally is an iPod -- or rather a digital music player. As it turns out, although I also use it for music playing, this function has more and more been relegated to a background task -- a task, nontheless, that it handles really well. The coverflow, browsing and display functionality has evolved nicely from the original (1.0 and 2.0) versions, and are still the best in the market. The interface improvements support nice touches such as displaying a song's lyrics on single tap, bringing up the volume/cue controls on double-tap of the home button, an alphabetic slide rule when browsing titles, etc. Still missing is a search function, though. And, especially in light of the gorgeous display capabilities and the recent addition of a new visualitzer (in additional to the existing ones in iTunes), I would have loved to see a visualizer on the Touch as well. The biggest (and in my oppinion delibarate (as in spiteful)) omission is this: you still can't enable 'hard drive mode', i.e. use the Touch as a mass storage device. The biggest boon is improved battery life.

Video is crisp (still no contrast control, though), and audio playback is just as you expect (again: I'm no audiophile. I'm absolutely happy with most player's audio capabilities). Again I'm not using the Apple-provided white and quite sub-par headphones. I'm using separately purchased ones. New for the second gen is a built-in speaker. Audio quality here is not actually terrible, but close. The sound is tinny, weak, and just somehow comes out of the iPod (mono, of course). I believe that the addition of the speaker has a specific reason different from HiFi: it makes playing games on the Touch without headphones so much more enjoyable. But for listening to music I would prefer headphones or active speakers. To be honest, I prefer not listening to music from that speaker.

iTunes integration is top-notch as before. Some sort of bug-fix now has made data backup much faster, and both iTunes and the Touch now sport a new kind of smart playlist that is called 'Genius'. Initially, I wasn't impressed by this feature. Although iTunes 8 has had this feature I regarded it primarily as a well executed new way to sell song and hence didn't use it. On my iPod, however (which only carries a subset of my library due to memory contraints), this feature literally rocks. On my first day alone it had me re-discover five songs I never knew I had (much less liked).

On the downside, the Touch still does not support playlist groups, which is a constant annoyance to me. I'm also disappointed to see that the Touch still can't synch wirelessly, nor can it be used to access shared playlists (other than downloading them, of course). An application in the App store offers this functionality, albeit only for non-DRM'd titles, proving the point that this is possible.

Images (from iPhoto) can also be synched to the Touch, and nothing is more fun than showing off your iPod's capabilities using a nice picture and 'pinch' and 'swipe'. Interestingly (or rather: unfortunately), iTunes appears to down-sample large images to a smaller resolution, probably to conserve memory. This may make sense, but I would like to be able to have more control over this feature (i.e. decide myself what the image's resolution on the iPod should be).

Accessories - the Big Bad Ugly
Unfortunately, Apple has changed the pin-out (*again*) for the iPod connector. As a result, some 'made for iPod' accessories either don't work, or don't work fully any more. For example, my Altec Lansing active speakers can't charge the Touch any more (it was able to charge the 1st gen Touch). This is truly, truly annoying as you don't know if your iPod works with your 'made for iPod' devices any longer, and makes purchasing new accessories a game of chance. My car has a (hideously expensive) iPod integration that luckily still works (including re-charging). Still, the iPod connector compatibility (or lack thereof) is becoming a big mess. Just imagine you want to buy an accessory for your kid or friend, and too late find out that it does not work with it.

WiFi / Internet
A year ago I purchased an iPod, and got a fully integrated web accesory kit. As it turned out, the addition of WiFi and full internet access is a killer feature to me. The web browser (a mobile version of Safari) is very capable. Much has been said about the fact that Mobile Safari does not support Flash. This is annoying if you visit sites that use it. The pinch/slide gesture-based interface works so well that I regularely use the Touch for normal web surfing. The general experience has increased over the past few month, no doubt in no small amounts due to the fact that many sites have beed re-designed with the iPhone in mind. Since the Touch's browser is exactly the same, it inherits the benefit. WiFi speed is good (although it still uses the 802.11b/g, not the n variant) - and mostly depends on the hotspot you are connected to. It remembers the hotspots it has connected to (much like a laptop would), and can also connect using WPA. There are other Web enabled applications that come with the iPod (Maps, which can pinpoint your location by the position of hotspots close to you), Stocks, YouTube, and Weather, which are nice, but remarkable. WiFi reception range is average, but definitely below that of some PC laptops.

Then, the Touch also comes with Mail, Calendar and Adressboock, and these do become killer fieatures, especially when coupled with an Exchange server or (as Apple would prefer) MobileMe. Mail supports 'push' technology, meaning that (almost) as soon an there is an incoming mail (and your Touch is connected to a hotspot), you are notified by a little discreep 'bleep'. Reading emails, including mails with rich content works very well. Composing any but the shortes emails, on the other hand, is bothersome, verging on annoying due to the small virtual keyboard). Still, simply being able to do this makes all the difference. Live Calender updates have saved my bacon a few times already, as you do not have to remember to actively synch your iPod after you have made a change to the calender.

Integration with Exchange (at the point of writing) remains a tad spotty, with no messages appearing for s few hours, and then suddenly many appearing at once (I initially suspected a configuration issue on the Exchange Server, but this appears not to be the case). Depending upon how you configure MobileMe on your Mac, the results are similar to what you can expect from Exchange (with the difference, of course, that Apple is running the servers for you). Unfortunately, MobileMe currently does not synch your Notes.

Nicely executed is the integrated iTunes store. While possibly just another mechanism to generate sales, I simply love the fact that if I hear or remember a song, I can almost always instantly purchase it and have it on my touch within seconds. Songs purchased on the Touch synchronize back to your main library in iTunes (into a rather silly 'Purchased on Touch' playlist). If a download has to discontinue because the network connection was lost (or for any other reasons), it will continue as soon as the connection to the Internet is restored.

Interestingly, the touch sports (I'm a sucker for lame puns) the required hardware to connect to the 'Nike + iPod' sports accessories built-in (i.e. you do not have to connect the dongle). I say interestingly because these devices utilize the bluetooth frequency band, yet the Touch does not support bluetooth devices (headphones, mikes, car integration and printers come to mind). Since I use a shuffle for work-out, this is not a must-have feature for me.

Applications/App Store
If Mail, Calendar and Browser are killer apps, Apple has added another killer feature to the Touch (and iPhone) that expands the device's usability (and customizability) by orders of magnitude: the App store. In appearance similar to the iTunes Store, here you can choose from literally hundrets of applictions (of greatly varying quality, though), purchase and install them instantly. Prices run from free to roughly 10 USD (there are some more expensive titles, but the majority are priced at a couple of USD). The apps are presented in three different ways ('featured', 'top', browse by category), plus you have the ability to search for keywords.

Although the 'signal to noise' ratio isn't that great (there are quite a lot of useless or awfully executed applications), there are some jaw-droppingly good apps that truly enhance your Touch. Among the first to mention is Apple's own (free) 'Remote' app, which allows you to remote-control iTunes on your Mac or Apple TV - with real-time full visual feedback, and full search capability (allegedly, it is also a real boon for Apple TV users, as it provides a virtual keyboard as input means. Not having Apple TV, I can't comment on this). Then there is an application that allows you to stream all your music (well, the unprotecte at least) to your Touch - over the Internet to wherever you are (interestingly, this App was not produced by Apple).

Greatly enhancing the Touch's usability are eBook readers (the Touch is almost perfect for rading books, giving you that 'Star Trek' info pad feeling) as well as off-line news readers. Another important category are applications that enable you to easily transfer (and view) files from your Mac/PC to the Touch. I would have expected Apple to integrate this feature into iTunes (perhaps rudimentary support for PDF), but third party providers are more than happy to bridge this gap for you. And for the geeks there are VNC and SSH clients that finally allow them to control their server cluster using an iPod.

For those who want radio, there are lots of offerings for IP radios. Of course this means that your iPod must remain in range of a hotspot to use this feature. Mine does, so I alos now have radio -- and re-discovered just why I never missed it. I'm simply not a radio guy, I guess. I do know that many people miss it, and wish apple had gone the last mile and also added an FM tuner.

Two Apps I'm sure that will arrive soon at the App store is due to another addition to the Touch: support for extenal microphones. Apple's hi-end earphones have both a remote and mike built in, and are said to be compatible with the 2nd (and only 2nd) gen Touch. Audio note pads, and VoIP apps (a la Skype) that allows phone functionality over WiFi are sure to follow soon (note: I have seen these apps available in the US stores; sadly they are not yet available here in Switzerland Also, I interpret Apple's docs that the 2nd gen Touch supports external microphones, as they have not yet shipped the combined mike/remote headphones to me).

And then there are games. They currently are the biggest category of all applications. The Touch, with it's integrated accelerometer, 480x320 color screen and touch interface makes a nice gaming device, and developers have come up with some truly fun and innovative games ('Toy Bot' may serve as a great example). Apple may have realized that this is becoming an increasingly important aspect of the Touch: the Gen 2 device sports a speaker that makes little sense - except to improve the gaming experience (believe me: playing an accelerometer-based game with headphones on can be verry little fun when it gets exciting). And improving the experience it does. The Touch is ill suited for classic 'control pad' based games (e.g. Tetris, Pac Man), and most of their Touch adaptations suffer accordingly. Other games, however, adapt nicely to touch/accelerometer input (Monkey Ball, Crash Cart etc), or are a natural fit (Labyrinth, Sudoku, Solitair, Othello)

Super-geeks can also download the iPhone/Touch SDK and create their own applications. This is not for the faint of heart, as you first download a few gigabytes (Apple's XCode development environment), and then will have to code in Objective-C (an extension to standard C) and use the Cocoa framework. Plus, you'll need a Mac to do so. The environment is actually very good, and includes an iPhone simulator to test your software before deployment.

I should mention that most of the improvements (with the exception of the hardware upgrades: mike support, built-in nike support, volume buttons and battery life) can be had for free on your 1st gen Touch (if you have the 2.0 Update), or a couple of bucks if you havn't upgraded yet. Unless you (like me) want the larger memory (my first gen only has 16GB), the decision to upgrade to 2nd gen may be difficult.

The 2nd generation iPod Touch is an almost perfect device. It combines top-notch video/audio, world-class UI, great casual gaming, hundrets of apps, and full access to the Internet into a single, beautiful package. To sum it up neatly: Untouchable. Well -- almost. It has one big flaw if you have invested in accessories: it may not be compatible with them, as Apple has changed the iPod connector pin-out (again). With those reservations, I recommend the Touch to anyone. Also great: owners of the 1st gen Touch can get most of these goodies with a simple, inexpensive software upgrade.

+ great display
+ good audio
+ gesture-based interface
+ accelerometer for controls
+ great integration with your music library (via iTunes)
+ long battery life
+ wireless music store
+ wireless App store (killer feature)
+ Speaker for gaming
+ Mail, Calendar and Address book with Push
+ WiFi Internet (killer feature)
+ Remote App (free) for your PC/Mac's iTunes/AppleTV
+ SDK freely available for anyone
+ Microphone and remote support
+ Nike + iPod without dongle

- incompatibility with 'made for iPod' devices (bad, bad, bad)
- stainless steel backplate (fingerprints and scratches easily)
- no wireless synching
- no wireless playback of streamed iTunes content (an Appstore application can stream unprotected content, though)
- no visualizer
- no search function
- no playlist groups (why, oh why?)
- no GPS nor FM radio
- Notes not synched with MobileMe
- no hard drive mode
- no synching documents (except third party Apps)
- downsampling of photos
- currently tops out at 32GB (would have preferred 64)
- no bluetooth

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