Steve Jobs calls the second-gen iPod Touch "the funnest iPod ever". While we're not keen on his phrasing, we would have to agree with the sentiment. With its reduced price (AU$329 for 8GB; AU$419 for 16GB; AU$549 for 32GB), smoother contours and a surprise speaker, the new Touch is a cheaper, more cheerful version of its already sleek precursor.
Looking at the first-gen Touch, it doesn't seem like it would be possible to increase its chic factor. But place it next to the new version and the original suddenly looks a little tired. The second Touch has the same footprint as its predecessor, but a few subtle design tweaks make it feel a lot slighter in the hand. The main change is that the Touch has softened up a bit, its edges transforming into iPhone-esque rounded contours. This makes the player feel a lot more comfortable to hold, but can also make it slightly slippery when it comes to navigating lists one-handed.
The other notable design change is the addition of dedicated volume keys on the left side of the Touch. Black and unlabelled, the dual button is a larger version of the on/off key that sits on the top edge. It's unobtrusive but easy to find when the player is in a pocket, making it easier to ward off hearing damage if a song in your playlist suddenly assaults your ears.
Then there are the minor, cosmetic alterations: the Wi-Fi antenna is now shaped like an ellipse rather than occupying a corner chunk, and the headphone port is partially recessed — but unlike the original iPhone, it will accept the contours of non-Apple headphone plugs.
Apart from the aforementioned, the Touch retains its original design, including its lush 3.5-inch (8.9-centimetre), 320x480-pixel widescreen display. The circular home key beneath the screen is as unassuming as ever, and the dock and headphone sockets are in the same place. Basically, it's the Touch as you know it, but with softer edges.
Crammed beneath all the polished stainless steel and brushed glass is Apple's iPhone 2.1 software, which plonks an App Store onto the player and adds iTunes 8's Genius playlist creation. (The new software is also available to first-gen Touch owners through the iTunes Store at a cost of AU$12.99.)
The home display of the original Touch looked like it was missing a certain something: with only 11 menu icons lined up on the screen, there was a lot of black space to contend with. It's a different story with the Touch Mark II, which fills the void with the App Store, Email, Maps, Mail, Stocks, Weather and Notes. Icons can be rearranged by dragging them with your finger, and you can swap out the ones in the quick-launch section at the bottom. This is a welcome level of customisation from Apple, which tends to rank low in the personalisation stakes when it comes to MP3 players. (Compare recent offerings from Samsung and Creative, which allow you to change fonts, alter display colours and apply menu themes.)
Curiously, it's still impossible to enable disk use on the iPod Touch. This means that files can't be dragged and dropped to the player within Finder on a Mac or Windows Explorer on a PC. In a world where USB keys are sold at the post office for a few bucks each this might not seem like a big deal, but the storage feature has long been available on Classics and Nanos. What makes the Touch so special? The cynical among us would suggest that it's a ploy to get users to sign up for data storage via Apple's AU$119 MobileMe service.
Similarly, some of the Touch's new features are better described as "potential" features, as they require the purchase of additional accessories in order to operate. To use the Nike+ pedometer-and-software combo you need to nab a AU$28 shoe sensor, while voice recording isn't possible without splashing AU$48 on Apple's new mic-equipped ear buds. This inclusion of accessory-dependent features can be viewed in two ways: either Apple is being a tease and forcing you to spend more money, or they're being considerate by keeping things simple and assuming that not everyone is a runner or keen recorder.
The wow factor of the original player's touchscreen may be gone, but it's still the cleanest, slickest, snazziest interface we've ever seen on a portable media device. The addition of apps — the Apple-sanctioned, jailbreak-free version — reinvigorates interest in the interface, as the most impressive apps take advantage of the player's multi-touch and accelerometer features.
A perennial complaint about Apple music players has been that for a range that exhibits exemplary design and innovative interfaces, the same level of care is not shown in the sound quality — at least when heard through the bundled basic headphones. Though Steve Jobs acknowledged the grumbles and announced a new set of silicon-tipped ear buds at the iPod media event in September, the Touch ships with the same set of buds that accompanied last year's model. As a result, audio is akin to what we described in our original Touch review: good, but not great.
As expected, music quality through the speaker is pretty ordinary. But the trebly audio does make for a better listening experience than the strained, tinny sound you get from your average mobile phone.
The Web-dependent apps are beautifully rendered and easy to use, but in the context of Australia's internet infrastructure, their functionality can be hampered. For example, while we can appreciate the convenience of Maps on the 3G iPhone, it's a slightly different story when you're relying on Wi-Fi to load the roads. Australia's Wi-Fi hotspot coverage is patchier than a hobo's pantaloons, so you wouldn't want to rely on it to get you home when you've lost your way. Still, the Maps are "nice to have", and the Touch's location services are good at tracking your approximate location using local Wi-Fi networks. (If this feature makes you paranoid, location services can be turned off. This has the added bonus of conserving battery life.)
At the time the original Touch was released, most owners of highly-trafficked websites were still getting their heads around the idea of creating dedicated sites optimised for the player's display. With the phenomenal popularity of the iPhone, the number of sites tailor-made for Apple's portable devices has sky-rocketed, resulting in a much smoother browsing experience. One downer remains, however: Safari and Flash are still not friends. The inclusion of a YouTube app means you're not missing out on the site's time-wasting videos, but some multimedia content on other pages will not display.
In our review of the original Touch, we referred to the shiny player as "that precocious kid in class who just hasn't fulfilled his potential". Our unholy trinity of issues consisted of the high price — AU$549 for the 16GB version at the time of its launch — the lack of Apple-supported third-party applications, and loading issues within the Safari browser.
Happily, all three of our grumbles have been addressed with the release of the second iPod Touch. It's a beauty. The main question with this model is whether it will take off in a market that has only just taken delivery of the long-awaited iPhone. With its lack of 3G internet, GPS and camera, some may see the Touch as "iPhone lite", but the attractive price and ever-expanding range of apps to play with should attract a loyal audience.