Of all the products Apple has and will release this year, the iPod touch is perhaps the one I've looked forward to the most. As I wrote back in January after Apple's hugely disappointing MacWorld keynote address, in which Apple CEO Steve Jobs didn't talk at all about the Mac but instead focused almost exclusively on the iPhone, I noted in my blog, "Why can't we have a widescreen iPod without phone features? Something like the Archos 604 but designed by Apple?" I then spent the next few months wondering why Apple wasn't pursuing this market. It just seemed like a no-brainer to me.

The iPod touch proves that Apple thought it was a no-brainer as well. Ostensibly an iPhone without any phone features--sadly, it's missing more than that, actually--the iPod touch brings the iPhone's fantastic and innovative multi-touch interface to the iPod line for the first time, albeit in a slightly different form factor and, if I'm not mistaken, with a different type of screen glass, which lends it a different feel. The iPod touch picks up a number of iPhone applications--Safari, You Tube, Calendar, the Contacts part of Phone, Clock, and Calculator--and splits out the iPhone's software-based iPod feature into three separate apps, Music, Videos, and Photos. What's missing? Well, you won't find iPhone applications like Text, Photos, Camera, Stocks, Maps, Weather, Notes, Phone, or Mail, and some of those omissions seem rather pointless, given the iPod touch's Wi-Fi Internet capabilities. (No email? Come on, Apple.)

You also don't get the iPhone's digital camera, external speakers, or AT&T EDGE support (the latter of which is no loss, frankly). The iPod touch does have one feature that's currently lacking on the iPhone, though it should be added later this month via a software upgrade: There's a conspicuous new iTunes icon on the iPod touch home screen that provides you with Wi-Fi-based access to the iTunes Wi-Fi Store. More on this in a bit.

A look at the hardware

One area that Apple improved the iPod touch design over the iPhone's is that the touch includes a normal headphone port: You can plug any headphones into the device and they'll work just fine, something that's most definitely not the case with the iPhone. (I had to buy a $20 Belkin adapter for the iPhone to use most of my existing headphones.) However, Apple also moved the headphone port to the bottom of the device next to the iPod connector port, as with the new iPod nano, and that's not exactly the most convent location for such a thing.

The 3.5 inch screen is also improved over the iPhone: Whereas the automatic dimming feature on the iPhone makes the screen appear a bit dimmer than I'd like for the most part, the iPod touch's screen is crisp and much brighter than that of the iPhone, and perfect for watching movies. (I've read of some early iPod touch owners experiencing problems with dark screens, but my unit does not have this issue.) On the minus side, the new surface on the iPod touch screen seems to catch my finger more often than with the iPhone. Thus, I find myself inadvertently selecting items that I had meant to scroll by on the iPod touch. I suspect this would be less of an issue if I were just using one of the devices, but moving between the two makes the different glass surfaces more of an obvious issue.

The iPod touch is available in two versions, one with 8 GB of storage, and one with 16, both of which are based on flash memory rather than a hard drive. This preference for style over functionality is an Apple trademark, so while I would have preferred a version with gobs of hard drive-based storage instead, even if that meant the device had to be twice as thick, that's not going to happen. What we get instead is an iPod that, while very similar to the iPhone from a form factor perspective, is actually shorter and even thinner than that device. It's also sharper on the hands than the iPhone, thanks to a new black ring surrounding the screen that's less scratchtacular than the iPhone's easily-marred silver ring, but also less elegantly curved. The size and shape are stunning, overall, and for those that covet design above all else, the iPod touch is gorgeous and compelling. But honestly, I think Apple erred here and should have instead gone bigger all around, with the device itself, with the storage space, and with the screen.

Indeed, one of the most obvious things you'll notice about the iPod touch is how its home screen is so bereft of icons, as it's modeled after the iPhone but offers less functionality. Look a little closer, however, and you'll see even more wasted space: At the top and bottom of the screen, there is almost an inch of dead space (well, there's that single Home button on the bottom), and I have to wonder how much better this device would have been if the screen simply extended to the top of the device and if the bottom button was accompanied by volume and media playback controls. And while this will no doubt send shivers down the spine of Apple purists, that single Home button should be replaced by a Zune-style click wheel, which provides volume up, volume down, rewind, forward, and select button functionality all in a single control, which works logically whether the device is held horizontally instead of vertically. It's just a better system that Apple's all-touch interface, which requires you to be looking at the device and holding with both hands.

But no. Apple, again, is too intent on elegance to actually make the iPod touch usable. So we don't even get the hardware volume buttons found on the iPhone. Instead, there is the single Home button mentioned above, and then a power button on the top of the device. (Which, annoyingly, is on the left side of the device, instead of on the right, as it is on the iPhone. So much for motor memory.) And that's it. The iPod touch is the first iPod that does not include a hardware interface for changing the volume, pausing or resuming playback, or navigating between or within media. So don't stick it in your pocket. If anything happens, you'll need to take it out, wake it up, possibly enter a passcode, and then make whatever change. And when you think about it, that's not really elegant at all. It could be dangerous.

Video-a-go-go

While most iPod touch users will likely access a variety of content types from the device, I've been looking for a pure video device to replace the Archos 604 I've been using for the past year or so. The iPod touch doesn't make the grade, for a variety of reasons.

Consider storage. With typical Hollywood movies coming in between 1 and 2 GB of storage space each (based on 1.5 Mbps H.264 format), you should be able to fit 8 or 9 movies on a 16 GB iPod touch, which is actually decent, but nowhere near the capacity of the 30 GB Archos. Battery life is decent, and in my tests I've been able to completely play through 2 two-hour movies without completely draining the battery, better than the Archos. The Archos screen, however, is dramatically bigger than that of the iPod touch though Apple's device wins out for overall quality. (Frankly, the iPod touch screen is closer in size, physically, to the Zune than it is to the Archos.)

Though this may seem silly, kudos to Apple for providing even a cheap little stand for the iPod touch: Though I'm bound to lose it, this little clear plastic doo-hickey is a must given that the device's curved edges mean you'll never get it to lean up on its own. (The Archos includes an even nicer integrated stand.)

Of course, not everyone will approach the iPod touch with my video prejudices. See part 5 of my iPhone review for a closer look at this device's wider iPod features, which are largely identical to that of the iPhone. In short, it's an excellent iPod, though the lack of hardware controls makes it somewhat less easy to stow it in a pocket.

PIM functionality

Thanks to its bundled Calendar and Contacts applications, the iPod touch can do double duty as a somewhat limited PDA. Sadly, the device's compatibility is as hobbled as is the iPhone's. See Part 1 of my iPhone review for a full discussion about why this is problematic, but the long story short is that the iPod touch, like the iPhone, only syncs with a very limited range of contacts and calendaring solutions. Hopefully, this will improve over time.

One word of caution: If you do enable this functionality, you should protect your iPod touch with a passcode. This will make the device less easy to use, as you'll have to tap a four-digit code every time you wake it up, but it will at least protect your valuable personal data should the device go missing.

Internet features

The iPod touch offers a curious mix of Internet features, mostly in support of the unit's Wi-Fi capabilities, which are apparently there mostly so you can buy music over the air from iTunes. (See the next section.) So you get Apple's mediocre Safari browser, which lets you log onto Wi-Fi accounts in airports and coffee shops. You also get YouTube--see, it's an entertainment device!--but not Stocks, Maps, Weather, or Mail, the latter of which would be especially useful. The problem with this approach is that you can't just "upgrade" to an iPhone to get these features: An iPhone requires a two year AT&T commitment, at a minimum cost of over $1400. That's a lot to pay just to get a few Internet applets and email.

See part 6 of my iPhone review for a closer look at Safari, which is functionally identical to the version of Safari on the iPhone.

iTunes Wi-Fi Music Store

When Apple announced the Wi-Fi version of its iTunes Store, I was initially quite excited: Anyone with even a reasonable imagination can see that over-the-air content purchasing was coming sooner or later to iTunes (along with, I hope, Wi-Fi device sync) so this wasn't a big surprise per se. But what is surprising is that the Wi-Fi version of the iTunes Store is literally only for music: You can't purchase any other content there, or even download free audio content like podcasts. So there are no music videos, TV shows, movies, iPod games, or other content available via the iPod touch. Instead, you must still use the PC-based version of iTunes to purchase this content.

Given this limitation, the Wi-Fi version of the iTunes Music Store works pretty well. And if you do buy a digital version of an album that includes a free music video, as is increasingly the case these days, you'll download that video from the PC version of iTunes the next time you connect.

I will be examining the iTunes Wi-Fi Music Store more closely in a future article.

Final thoughts

It is, almost, the iPod I've always wanted. Like so many of Apple's products recently, however, the iPod touch falls short in several key areas, leaving a general feeling of frustration. It is beautiful, as only Apple devices can be. It is elegant and technologically excellent, yes. But the iPod touch, like the iPhone on which it is based, isn't all it can and should be, and is instead a compromise of epic proportions. God, I wanted to just love the iPod touch. But there are just too many issues to unreservedly recommend it. So close, and yet so far.