Sticking to the trend of incremental, rather than revolutionary improvements, the new touch slightly bests its predecessor's 22 hours music and five hours video playback by offering 36 hours of audio and six of video. Format support remains unchanged and as poor as ever compared to more than a few rivals. On the audio side up to 320kbps MP3, 320kbps AAC (including, obviously, iTunes DRMed tracks), Apple lossless, Audible (formats 2,3 and 4), AIFF and WAV files are catered for. Meanwhile video support is limited to either 1.5Mbps, 640 x 480, 30fps H.264 or 2.5Mbps, 640 x 480, 30fps MPEG-4.
Other players may have better format support - FLAC, Ogg and WMA for example - but frankly you don't buy an iPod for its audio quality. It's the interface and design that sets Apple's players apart from the crowd. You only have to wander around any reasonably sized town for half and hour to be reminded that, contrary to all good advice, most users are content to use the ghastly bundled earphones with their iPods. They probably all rip (or acquire…) their music at 128kbps so it takes up less space, too. That's just plain wrong if you ask me - Apple Lossless or nothing, thanks.
Rant aside (but seriously, if you buy any music player get a decent set of earphones as well, okay?) there's little to dislike about the iPod touch's audio performance in general. Firing up Anberlin's Cities highlighted the traditional iPod pitfalls of a slight lack in punch and clarity.The synth-heavy There is no Mathematics to Love and Loss, for example, while more than listenable, could definitely do with a touch (ho ho) more presence. The less complex Reclusion faired better, with the touch delivering a decently balanced sound and the synth effects nicely punctuating the electric guitar parts without overwhelming them.
Winding back a few years to The Smashing Pumpkins' Cherub Rock and the situation didn't differ much, the touch again making a decent show of itself. My biggest gripe is that vocals occasionally had a tendency of getting lost in the mix a little. Whether the touch or The Pumpkins are to blame for that, though, is a matter of debate. Incidentally, swapping from my Shure SE 420s to the bundled earbuds was a truly painful experience - who'd've thought it?
One good thing I can report is that the strange hiss Jon noticed with his 16GB first generation touch definitely wasn't present with my second gen model - either he had a dud or Apple has fixed whatever problem was previously present. If fidelity is your primary concern then the Trekstor Vibez (although good luck finding anywhere selling one) should be your first port of call, although a player from Sony, iRiver or Creative will also likely best anything from Apple when it comes to pure audio quality.
Video wise, a play through the three-part Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog - Firefly's Joss Whedon's side-project during the writers' strike - while sitting in bed confirmed what we've said before. The iPod touch's screen really is as small as I'd want to use on a semi-regular basis. That said, the screen is as vibrant, bright and colourful as anyone has any right to ask from such a relatively small device. I wouldn't want to use it to watch a film, but for TV shows (House, for example) it's pretty damn watchable.
So far, so good then, and I haven't even mentioned the most important feature of the touch…