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.