Technology

The iPod Touch Fails to Wow


1018_ipodtouch
Editor's Rating: star rating

Apple's newest iPod adds wireless downloads and Web access, but sacrifices some of the very things that have made the iPhone and other iPods so popular

Apple Chief Executive Steve Jobs typically ends his public appearances by unveiling some innovative product that's sure to stir a frenzy. The iPod Touch isn't that device—at least not yet.

Although it's a great incremental addition to the iPod lineup, the Touch seems mostly an interim gesture. It strikes me as a way to tide over would-be iPhone owners who were turned off by the need to sign a cellular contract with AT&T (T), even if they only wanted to use Wi-Fi on that device.

Don't get me wrong. The Touch—like virtually every Apple (AAPL) product coming out of Cupertino, Calif., these days—is a beautiful device. Relieved of cellular and Bluetooth radios, the Touch is thinner and, at 4.2 oz., half an ounce lighter than the iPhone. It shares the same sleek scratch-resistant glass screen and metal finish.

Pod Peeves

Judged against its iPod peers, however, I was surprised to find the Touch lacks some of the intuitive, user-friendly features that have made the product line so successful. Two versions are available, one with 8 gigabytes of storage for $299, and one with 16GB for $399.

As with the iPhone, when you first turn on the Touch, you need to connect it to an active iTunes account. This syncs it with information such as how much money you have available for wireless music downloads. I found this requirement a little annoying, since you can't use the device until you do it.

Another annoyance: If you happen to have more than one iTunes account, you'll have to remember to log into the desired one on your computer before you sync the device. The device will automatically use that account later when you connect via Wi-Fi, at which point you won't be able to switch accounts.

Manually Managed

Once that was all cleared up, I wirelessly downloaded the new Jennifer Lopez single, Do It Well, from iTunes over my Wi-Fi Internet connection. While I was pleasantly surprised by how quickly and easily it downloaded the file, that little "I love Apple" moment quickly turned to frustration when I plugged the Touch back into my computer. I kept waiting for the downloaded music to sync back to the music library on my iMac, but nothing happened. Three tries later—nada.

Turns out, because I initially checked "manually manage my account," the Touch wouldn't automatically sync downloaded tracks to my computer. The quick-start guide and online instructions were little help, so it took trial and error to figure out how to sync. Fortunately, these are problems you typically work through once and never have to deal with again.

With just two buttons on the device—one below the screen for calling up the home screen and one on the top left edge for turning off the display—the icon-based touch screen makes navigation both a snap and a pleasure. As with the gee-whiz features of the iPhone's screen, you can use a finger to zip through music playlists, or finger tabs and pinches to zoom in and out on a Web page or photo.

Some Missing Apps

Having reviewed the iPhone as well, I couldn't shake the feeling that Apple has a few applications waiting in the wings to make the Touch even more attractive. While the Web-browsing and YouTube features are cool, they're inaccessible when there's no Wi-Fi hotspot available. With the iPhone, you have the slower cellular data connection to fall back on for Web access. This limitation with the Touch will improve only slightly as Starbucks (SBUX) rolls out free access to the iTunes store over the coffee chain's Wi-Fi routers, but you still won't be able to browse the Web.

Video presents another unexpected obstacle: While the Touch is equipped to play video clips, you can't download them wirelessly to the device from iTunes. I transferred a few episodes of the Colbert Report from my computer, and they played without a hitch. The shiny glass screen doesn't make for the best viewing under bright lighting, but the 3.5-in. display puts the product several notches above the iPod Classic's 2.5-in. screen for video.

The Touch also lacks the iPhone's e-mail application, as well as its microphone, camera, and Bluetooth connection. To be sure, omitting a microphone and Bluetooth isn't much of a surprise, since enterprising users might have exploited them for calls with Skype or another Internet phone service. Also missing are the iPhone's widgets for gathering stock quotes, weather forecasts, and other information.

Sound Off

On Oct. 17, Apple announced that it will let third-party software developers create applications for both the iPhone and the Touch starting in February. That could go a long way toward addressing my feelings that the Touch's suite of applications isn't strong enough to make it worthwhile.

But perhaps more than anything, I was sorely disappointed by the lack of built-in speakers, since the key feature distinguishing the Touch from other iPods is its ability to wirelessly download music. So for example, because there are no speakers, you can't sample a new clip with a companion who might offer that extra advice on whether you should shell out 99¢ for the track.

An Apple spokesman says the company consciously decided not to include a speaker since the focus of the Touch is high-quality playback of music and video. I would argue that even a tinny-sounding speaker is better than none at all.

In short, the Touch may be the coolest new kid on the iPod block, but it will appeal to a smaller audience than the Classic or Nano because of its limitations and inflated price tag.

Edwards is a correspondent in BusinessWeek's Silicon Valley bureau .

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