By Richard Menta 10/27/08
Before the original iPod touch appeared last year the best Personal Media Player (PMP) on the market was not made by Apple. It wasn't made by Archos, Creative, iRiver, Cowon, or SanDisk either. It was made by Sony, but what caught my readers off guard was that this player wasn't from Sony's digital portable line. It was from their gaming line.
For two years, until the release of the original iPod touch, the Sony PSP was the best digital portable device on the market. When we reviewed the unit in May of 2005, Apple had not even released an iPod that could play video yet and when the company finally did deliver a video iPod the display size and resolution was modest in comparison to Sony's game player. As for selling content for their unit Sony beat Apple to the punch here too. While Apple struggled to find film and television partners willing to sell downloads for that first iPod video, Sony already had a number of titles available in their proprietary UMD disc format, a format that brought beautifully sharp pictures to the PSP's fine display.
Sony sold one PSP for every 2.3 iPods - video capable or not - making the company the second biggest seller in the digital media portable market. It most likely is the number one selling individual media player ever if you separate iPod sales by specific model.
But, you say, the Sony PSP is primarily a game player and therefore doesn't count? It does count. It counts, because more than 50% of PSP owners use the device as their primary media player. It counts for another reason too.
I always find it interesting how things come around full circle. Three
years ago Sony gave its portable game player extended media capabilities.
With the introduction of the iPod Apps store earlier this year, Apple
turned the iPod touch and iPhone into, among other things, a game platform.
One that is poised to pose a genuine challenge to the sophisticated handheld
gamers by Sony and Nintendo that dominate today's market.
We ran into a little trouble after we opened the package. First of all the updated version iTunes, which the iPod touch 2G requires, proved more sensitive to music files than earlier versions. As a result the Sync process to the touch 2G would fail whenever iTunes attempted to transfer a few tracks that we have to assume was less than pristine. Exactly what corruption, if any, existed on these files we don't know? All we know is that we had to identify each offending tracks from iTunes every time the sync failed and then remove them from the playlist before we could continue. Fortunately, there were only a couple such tracks, but troubleshooting the issue required a trip back to the Apple store as the Apple help lines were clogged during that time.
Once the iPod touch 2G was loaded we were ready to go. Overall, it looks and works very much like the first generation of the iPod touch, but tweaked to better the user experience. The navigation is improved and easier on the eyes and the addition of a speaker and audio controls on the side of the iPod are a welcome advancement. But some of the tweaks proved to be a source of frustration as we will discuss next.
Made for iPod Broken
One of the clear disappointments we have experienced with the updated iPod touch 2G is that it does not support some existing "Made for iPod" peripherals. Indeed, we have had to go back to recharging our units from the PC as neither our Griffin's iTrip FM transmitter nor our Altec Lansing inMotion speakers are supported by the new unit. When connected both offer up a "Charging is not supported with this accessory" error message on the iPod touch 2G display. At least the inMotion speakers will still play music from the touch 2G. The iTrip, on the other hand, won't function at all on the new iPod.
So with all the "Made for iPod" peripheral lining store shelves how do we know which are updated to work on the iPod touch 2G and which aren't? Does Apple expect us to replace perfectly useful peripherals because they won't play on the latest iPod models? Because Apple has been mum about this latest iPod update the Made for iPod label presently has a trust issue. We understand the need to ever improve a product, but our Griffin iTrip is only a year old, too new to be rendered obsolete.
According to posts on Apple's own site other devices reported not to work with the 2G include the Bose Sounddock and even Apple's own iPod HiFi! Phone calls to Apple's press line have received no response on the issue.
75% of the time I use both generations of the iPod touch to browse the Internet. For me, this one fact alone makes the iPod touch one of the most important handheld devices yet released. It is nice not having to fire up the laptop every time we want to get a baseball score or look up some fact. Free Wi-Fi hubs abound in coffee houses and libraries these days and the touch is the easiest tool we ever tested to locate and gain access to any open signal within range. Yes, several digital media players and mobile phones beat the iPod to Wi-Fi and Net access, including the Sony PSP, but none of them were good enough to get me to use them as my primary Web terminal.
Still, Apple's refusal to offer Flash and Java support for the Safari mobile browser limits it. Most notable is the iPod's inability to tune into radio and video sites like Deezer and Hulu, which stream whole albums and television episodes for free. Want to watch that South Park episode you missed through the South Park site? You can't. Unless these sites create applications for Apple's App store ala Pandora, their choice of streaming medium locks them out of the iPod. Naturally, this marginalization of Flash and Java media sites works in iTunes favor.
The touch-screen interface does an exemplary job of navigating, enlarging and shrinking pages. Even after I put a sizeable crack across the upper left corner of the glass on my original iPod touch, the sensors worked flawlessly. There have been a number of complaints over the iPod's virtual keyboard, but we found typing in URLs and search data good overall. It handled the big thumb test (my own) competently despite the lack of tactile feel. People with smaller fingers will still prefer the an actually hard key (most of the button-based keyboards I have tried on mobile units in the past were too small and tightly grouped for those of us with larger, less adept, fingers), particularly when typing in a lengthy email.
The built-in speaker is a welcome addition to the iPod touch, though the top volume setting could be louder. This speaker is best used for games and videos so pull out the headset when you want to listen to music.
As always, Apple's products support only their proprietary technologies plus MP3 and ACC. Those looking for Ogg, LAME, or AVI support need to look at other portables. Now that the once ubiquitous WMA format has been abandoned by its creator Microsoft for the proprietary Zune standard, look for that codec to fade away over time. It will be interesting to see if Adobe offers a Flash for iPod anytime soon - or if Apple will even allow them to peddle it on the iTunes App service.
As mentioned before, I use the iPod touch for quite a bit of my Web surfing. I use the weather app nearly every day to get the local forecast and lately, with Wall Street up in arms, I use the stocks app daily too. I use email frequently, but only for my AOL account and find it to be quite functional, though the keyboard is best for serving brief messages and replies. I have even used Maps when I was trying to find a road in Brooklyn and was able to latch onto a free Wi-Fi node. Because I have upgraded my generation one iPod touch, the applications are identical for both players.
Overall, the iPod 2G is exactly what is was designed to be, a refresh of the 1G. Because you can update the first gen's software, it gets much of that refresh. Therefore, going into each and every feature will just be an exercise in redundancy. Both versions of the touch, despite the foibles we discussed so far, are groundbreaking portables. With the addition of the iTunes App store we are now beginning to see how potent Mobile Mac OS is and what Apple's plans are in the short term. And we are not just talking about technical abilities, but how future iPod players and iPhones can prove a conduit to entering and altering other markets.
The games available for the Sony PSP and the Nintendo DS are considerably more sophisticated than the titles that are available for the iPod and iPhone on the iTunes Apps store. But, sophistication does not automatically mean superior game play. Sony sent us eight titles when we reviewed the Sony PSP back in 2005 and while the player itself was superior, most of the games left us flat. The graphics were amazing, sure, but the elements of the play varied significantly in quality and fun factor. As the Nintendo Wii proved, there is more to game play than chip speed and resolution.
On the other side of the coin are the best Flash games on the Net that, despite their relative simplicity, offer a high fun factor. Top on this list are games like Desktop Tower Defense and Line Rider, which are as compelling as many of the better titles you might plunk $40 on.
The games on iTunes App store run between one to ten dollars, with many good titles running for less than five bucks. Application developers have specifically taken advantage of the iPod touch's accelerometer, incorporating it into game play, ala the Wii, and extending the capability of a unit without any hard buttons for controls.
For example, we purchased Cro-Mag rally for $1.99 and what we got was a game that utilizes the iPod's accelerometer in a way that allows the iPod body itself to serve as a very competent steering wheel (you have probably seen the commercials). For driving games I found this much more natural and engaging than the analog stick on the Sony PSP. Other than that, we found the PSP's buttons superior to the virtual touch screen keys on the iPod touch as there is a tendency for fingers to slip during play. Overall, the Sony driving titles are better games, but for two bucks CroMag rally offers far more value.
And this is where the iPhone and the iPod touch are poised to become major mobile game platforms, by targeting a price range well below what even a used PSP or Nintendo DS title sells for. iTunes Apps titles are also both cheaper and better than the primitive games the phone companies demand eight bucks to download to your cell. Cro-Mag Rally maker Pangea Software is certainly doing well financially, with several of their titles top sellers on the iTunes App store.
With the Mac OS built into the iPod touch, the unit is not limited to games. Already, the iTunes App store has proved to be a boon to online services, some which compete somewhat with iTunes. The most notable example, so far, is Pandora Radio, which almost closed up shop over burdensome US Internet radio fees. The popularity of the Pandora app on iTunes literally gave the company a, hopefully permanent, reprieve. Software can also evolve the iPod touch into a useful tool. At an Information Security conference I spoke at last year I told attendees that the iPod touch makes a convenient instrument to sniff out rogue Wi-Fi nodes. I strongly suspect that because of the mass adoption for the iPod - something few other makers can claim - commercial applications will evolve specifically for the iPod platform, creating tools for many areas of industry where portability is coveted.
Is the iPod touch 2G the best PMP on the market today? Despite the issues we encountered we still think it is a great portable and for many people the answer is definite yes. But there are a couple of strong competitors we have yet to test, most notably the Archos 5 and 7 series Internet Media Tablets, which also shipped last month.
The Archos players offer a number of features and advantages unavailable in the iPod. First, they utilize the Opera browser with Flash and Java support. This means you can watch complete shows free online at Hulu and the South Park web site. Both Archos units have bigger displays and support more audio and video codecs. They also have DVR capability, which means you can record TV programs and movies for free off of broadcast rather than buy them from iTunes. The Archos tablets also plays games. On the con side the units are bigger, heavier and more expensive than the iPod 2G. Still, Archos has blazed many a trail years before the iPod followed and our past experience with the brand proves it to be excellent choice.
So to answer the question on which is the best PMP, it depends on what you want and need. The Archos, at least on paper, may be the best PMP for you. We won't be able to say decisively until we test the unit. The same goes for new units from iRiver, Cowon and others that, likewise, offer compelling and powerful units.
Other MP3 stories:
Ticketmaster Monopoly Must End