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. Historically, our CNET Labs test results find that audio rating of the Touch falls on the conservative side (we squeezed 38 hours from the previous model).
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. That said, previous tests arrived at 5.8 hours of total (albeit intermittent) video playback.
Once CNET Labs have completed testing on this latest iPod Touch model, we'll update this review with the battery life results.
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.