Apple’s iPod upgrade is a nice Touch

Improvements to its most-expensive media player installs nearly every Web function found on its hugely popular iPhone, including Mail, Maps, Weather, Notes and Stocks, in a review of Apple’s iPhone, which I wrote glowingly about a few features that had nothing to do with making a call.

I loved the simple Notes program used to jot reminders you could then e-mail to a friend or your office inbox. Another plus was the ease of e-mailing a photo, the best such application on any device I have used.

Well, now I can do those things, plus a few other tricks, on the iPod Touch thanks to a substantial software upgrade. The only feature I can’t do on the Touch that I love on the iPhone is text messaging, and that’s because the Touch doesn’t include a phone. Otherwise, Apple’s top-of-the-line iPod is now this close to being the iPhone.

The Touch, like the iPhone, always could connect to the Internet via Wi-Fi. So in a move Apple should have done when the Touch was introduced, but likely didn’t because iPhone buyers might be annoyed at the similarities, it added every Internet function to the Touch that exists on the iPhone. The only things missing are the tools that require a cellular network.

The updated Touch exemplifies two powerful trends sweeping the gadget landscape: the use of Wi-Fi and the growing collection of third-party applications for hand-held devices.

I have put several such applications on the Touch, in addition to the new goodies from Apple. They include solitaire (old habits), Google mobile and direct links to several news sites. I used a new feature called Web Clips to create icons for those applications so I can open them with the touch of a finger.

Other media-playing hand-helds with Wi-Fi include the redesigned Sony Mylo and the Ibiza, from a Chinese company called Haier. More are coming.

These devices have morphed beyond media playback. You can send e-mail, surf the Web and do practically anything you can on a computer.

Four of the Touch’s five new applications — Mail, Maps, Stocks and Weather — work only when connected to the Internet. Also, improvements were made to existing Touch programs to take better advantage of Wi-Fi. For example, with Photos, I can e-mail a cute picture of the kids to my sister as easily from the Touch as on the iPhone.

The coolest feature is Maps and how it integrates with Contacts. Like most iPods before the Touch, a Contacts feature was included, but you couldn’t do much beside looking up an address or phone number. Now when you click on an address in Contacts, up pops a map that offers turn-by-turn driving directions to the front door.

It is not based on GPS, so it works only when you are in a Wi-Fi range. Maps uses a Wi-Fi positioning system, developed by Boston-based Skyhook Wireless. In my tests, the program worked great and provided information on traffic patterns to estimate how long a trip may take.

Another upgrade was to the Calendar program, where you can add appointments directly. This improvement has nothing to do with Wi-Fi, but before the upgrade one had to make appointments on a computer and then sync to the Touch. No more.


I do have some issues with the Touch improvements, however.

Notably, it is the first iPod software upgrade one must pay for. It costs $20, and while I’d argue it’s worth the cost, I’m puzzled by Apple’s new approach. In a way, this is akin to the $200 price cut two months after launching the iPhone. Remember how that rankled the early buyers?

Imagine if you recently bought a $399 iPod Touch and now are asked to pony up an additional $20 for the really cool stuff. Would that annoy you?

Also, while I have not tested the iTunes movie-rental service — I would use it for plane trips — I wish Apple would launch a music rental plan. The Haier Ibiza uses Wi-Fi to connect to Rhapsody’s ever-improving music service, where for a monthly fee I can listen to whatever I want without having to buy. It’s a great way to discover music. (Find an Ibiza review at chicago

Finally, there were two items I didn’t like about the Touch when it was released that are more apparent now.

First, storage. For music fans with a large digital library who also want to watch movies, 16 gigabytes is not enough space. Movies and TV shows take up much more room than music. I’ve had to keep music off the Touch in order to get videos on. I want a Touch with more storage.

Second, Wi-Fi is a huge power drain. You will need to charge your device after two to three hours of Web use. A better battery is needed.

Those issues aside, the Touch, while not a smart phone like the iPhone, is far more clever today than yesterday.

Let’s call it the smart iPod.

X Eric Benderoff writes about technology for the Chicago Tribune. Contact him at

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