Apple has some work to do with iPod touch

I’m an iPhone fan who can’t get an AT&T signal at home, so I was hoping the iPod Touch would be the perfect compromise. Based on its specs (Wi-Fi, mobile Safari, the Multi-touch interface, and twice the iPhone’s storage capacity at 16GB), it sure looks like it would be. But I’ve been testing a US$399 16GB iPod Touch for a couple of days now, and based on a number of hardware and software issues I’ve encountered, it looks like Apple still has some work to do.

Don’t get me wrong, the Touch is an amazing piece of technology. Mobile Safari is the best portable Web browser around, Cover Flow works great on a device with limited storage capacity, and the new iTunes Wi-Fi Music Store is extremely slick for a first generation product. But in these first two days, I’ve run into a screen anomaly that makes dark movies scenes difficult to watch, software bugs that halt music playback when browsing pages in Safari, and an issue that harms sound quality on many in-ear headphones.

If Apple can work out most of those kinks, it will have produced the first portable video player I’d actually want to own. Until they do, I’d recommend taking a wait-and-see approach with the Touch.

The iPhone slims down
Run down a list of the iPhone’s features, and you’ll find that almost everything has made it over to the iPod Touch. The Touch is available in both 8GB and 16GB capacities. At .31 inches deep, it’s substantially thinner than the iPhone, but it’s got the same 802.11b/g wireless support. It also features a 3.5-inch Multi-touch screen with 480-by-320-pixel resolution. The single button on its face brings up the main menu, and a small button on top turns the device on and off.

The only missing bits of hardware are the phone (plus the mic and speakers that go with it), the camera, and the physical volume buttons and locking switch on the side. The non-standard headset jack that prevents you from plugging most headphones directly into the iPhone is gone as well–your normal headphones will fit just fine.

The touch works just like the iPhone, too. We’ve spent plenty of time dissecting how that device works, so I won’t dig deeply into it here. The tap, scroll, and pinch gestures that make the iPhone a joy to use work just as well on the Touch.

Music highs (and one low)
The iPod Touch’s beautiful interface and large, attractive screen help make it easily the most fun media player I’ve ever tested. Cover Flow, Apple’s unique touch-based interface for flipping through the albums on your player, performs much better on the Touch than on the Nano or the Classic. Album art loads efficiently enough that it’s nearly impossible to outrun the player and end up with the dreaded gray placeholder graphics while the player catches up.

I’ve always been a fan of music players that can hold my entire library, so the Touch was more attractive to me as a mobile video player and Web browser. But the Touch’s limited capacity forced me to come up with some new ways to listen to music, and after awhile I was having a blast adapting to the smaller confines and the Touch’s interface. I’ve loaded my test unit with a library-wide best of playlist, along with some classic discs and the last 20 or so albums I’ve ripped. My favorite new trick: I’ll put the best of playlist on shuffle and let that play until I hear something I haven’t heard in a while. When I do, a quick tap of the album’s track listing lets me go back and listen to that disc.

Apple’s new iTunes Wi-Fi Music store works great as well. Its search function updates while you type, helping you drill down to the correct artist, album, or song title with a minimum of typing. Provided you have an iTunes Music Store account, you can purchase songs directly from the device using the Touch’s Wi-Fi connection. (This feature is now available to iPhone users as well.) Tracks download as quickly as your ‘Net connection can manage, and are immediately playable. The next time you sync the player, those songs will be downloaded to your PC’s music library.

Much like the iPhone, the iPod Touch sounds similar to a last-generation iPod Nano. That’s not bad for a flash-based MP3 player, but there’s a critical difference between the sound of the touch and any of the Nanos I’ve tested. As noted in our first impressions on Friday, the Touch doesn’t play so well with many high-end in-ear headphones I’ve tested. The problem goes away if I use an attenuator (a tiny adapter that shipped with my Ultimate Ears 5 Pros), but I’d prefer not to have to plug an adapter into the player if at all possible.

The dark-scene video blues
As I mentioned, I’d really like to use the Touch primarily as a portable video player. One of my favorite features of the iPhone is playing videos on its gorgeous 3.5-inch screen. With the iPod Touch supporting up to 640-by-480-resolution videos in both H.264 and MPEG-4 compression, I was all set to load up some movies from the iTunes store and start watching.

Unfortunately the 16GB unit I picked up at the San Francisco Apple store has a display problem that makes many dark scenes almost unwatchable. Video looks reversed out in dark areas, creating a very distracting negative effect. Several other users have reported the same problem on Apple’s forums, so I know I’m not alone, but other posters have mentioned that their displays work just fine. Perhaps this defect is confined to a small portion of Apple’s initial iPod touch shipment and those of us experiencing the problem will be able to get replacements.

Safari, apps, and some rough edges
Thankfully those display woes don’t distract from viewing most Web pages in Safari, which remains the best mobile Web browser I’ve ever seen. For the most part, it works great on the iPod Touch, except when you try to multitask.

If you start up some music and tap your way over to Safari for some Wi-Fi-enabled Web surfing, you may encounter problems. If I opened up a complex page or a second tab, the Touch would often stop playing music, forcing me to go out to the main screen, tap over into music, and start it up again. I’ve also experienced the occasional crash after loading up three or more pages. I’d bet that these problems will be fixed in a future firmware update, but until they are they’re two more reasons this player feels a little rushed to market.

Not all of the iPhone’s apps made it to the iPod Touch. I can begin to see the rationale for omitting the Mail and Google Maps applications–both would work better with the iPhone’s always-on data connection–but why leave off the Notes app or the Weather and Stock widgets? The implementation of the Calendar app is also a bit confusing: While you can sync events from your PC’s calendar, you can’t edit them on the Touch or add new events.

Overall grade: Incomplete
We’ll update this review shortly with results from our objective audio and battery life tests. (Apple rates the Touch as good for 22 hours of audio playback and 5 hours of video). I also hope that by the time we update, Apple will have responded to our questions about the Safari and screen issues I experienced.

Until then, the Touch remains a bit of an enigma. It’s a beautifully designed player that’s incredibly fun to use. If Apple can resolve these initial quality control issues, I’d gladly recommend it to anyone looking for a mobile video player, a portable Web browser, or a high-class way to cart around the highlights from your music library.

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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