When the iPhone came out in June, many people (myself included) loved it, but wanted it without the phone — and that pesky two-year contract with AT&T Wireless.

I'm no Luddite, but I don't want my personal media player to ring in the middle of a song.

That said, the multi-touch glass display was beautiful, Cover Flow was a great way to navigate tracks, and the Web browser was better than any other portable player's before it.

Apple could have delivered a player with just these features and nothing more and I would have been thrilled. But it didn't.

The company added a Wi-Fi version of the iTunes Music Store so you can buy songs on the go — now, if you have Wi-Fi access you can download tracks anywhere.

Apple also announced a partnership with Starbucks that enables iPhone and Touch owners to purchase songs they hear in Starbucks stores via Wi-Fi.

Okay, maybe I'm not in love with that last feature (I'm not a Starbucks addict). It would also be nice if the Wi-Fi store offered video purchases, too — it's currently music-only. And, yes, the earbuds still suck.

But those are my only complaints — and they are minor. The relatively hefty $300 and $400 price tags for 8 and 16 GB, respectively, don't bug me either.

Why? This is probably the best portable media player ever made.

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The Touch is a thing of beauty. It's much skinnier than the iPhone (which, for those who haven't held one, is the same depth as the old 30 GB iPod Video), and it's also a bit shorter and a hair wider, with dimensions of 4.3 by 2.4 by 0.31. The Touch weighs a manageable 4.2 ounces (compared to the iPhone's 4.8 ounces).

Are you going to slip this thing into your pocket? Depends. Cargo pants? Sure. Skinny jeans? No.

The 3.5 inch multi-touch widescreen has a resolution of 480 by 320, with 163 pixels per inch — identical to the iPhone. The only button on the device is the same button you'll find on the face of the iPhone.

The Touch's rear panel is shiny stainless steel like iPods past, not the brushed metallic look that iPhones have. In the upper left-hand corner of the rear panel, you'll find the black patch of plastic that houses the Wi-Fi antenna.

The proprietary 30-pin iPod connection and headphone jack rest on the bottom panel, and the sleep switch rests on the top left edge of the player (when held vertically).

There's no camera on the iPod touch, but that's not really much of a detractor since the iPhone's camera is more toy than tool. Like the iPhone, the Touch has a built–in accelerometer to make possible all those view changes when the player is held horizontally.

Navigation of the music, video, and photo menus is identical on the iPod Touch and iPhone. Similarly, the players load and sync with iTunes in much the same way.

You can scroll down lists of artists, albums, and playlists when in vertical mode, or turn the player horizontally to view the excellent Cover Flow feature.

For those who haven't seen it before (it's now part of iTunes and was featured on the iPhone), Cover Flow orders records alphabetically in a horizontal array, but visually, using album art.

Drag your finger through the display to move the covers, as if thumbing through a virtual vinyl collection, and click on the central cover to flip the graphic over and reveal a tracklist. From here, you can simply click on a song and start playing.

It's worth mentioning that this is the coolest way to navigate a music menu I have ever seen — and it's much more effective here than it is on the new Nano, which lacks the sexy multi-touch screen and is less graceful in its movement of the album art.

The Now Playing screen makes the album cover the main focus, filling most of the screen when vertical, and is identical to the same screen on the iPhone.

When your iPod Touch has finished synching to your PC's library, you can just unplug it — none of this ejecting business that other iPods make you do (and everyone inevitably forgets to do once in awhile, prompting an ugly error screen on your computer).

Possibly the best new feature is a subtle one: the double click.

Pressing the only tactile button on the player twice makes music controls appear over whatever screen mode you happen to be in — Safari, YouTube, etc.

Even if the player is locked, double-clicking will bring up a set of music controls that features track information, play/pause, forward and backward within a playlist or album, a Music button to take you directly to the Now Playing screen, and a Close button to escape.

This function works even if the screen has timed out and gone black and it's a great quick way to skip that song you hate (or pump up the volume on the one you love).

File compatibility for the touch will not surprise those familiar with iPods. For music, MP3 files (all bitrates, including VBR) load and play, as do AAC (both Apple's DRM tracks or iTunes Plus, obviously), Apple Lossless, Audible, AIFF, and WAV files.

Video support is limited to H.264 and MPEG-4; photo support is for JPEG, BMP, GIF, TIF, PSD (for Macs only), and PNG. All songs, videos, contacts, photos (which are pulled from iPhoto via iTunes), podcasts are loaded via iTunes when the player is synched.

The audio performance of the touch is excellent, as long as you chuck those lame earbuds and get a real pair — try Shure's SE210 earphones if you want to actually hear the low end and would like the earphones to stay in place.

One complaint I've always had about iPods is the lack of user-programmable equalization. Apple only allows you to change EQ settings in iTunes and then the settings, per song, will carry over onto the player.

That's a solution for folks who really want to micro-manage, but most people would be happy with a standard adjustable EQ, like the Sony Walkmen, Samsung, and Sansa players all have (to name only a few).

You might get lucky with some of the standard EQ presets, like Dance or Jazz, but I suggest just leaving the EQ off and finding the right pair of earphones.

Wireless iTunes

Now let's talk about the really good stuff.

How long have we been waiting for not only an iPod with Wi-Fi, but one that lets us buy music wirelessly and quickly?

It's here and it is awesome.

Once you have connected via Wi-Fi, clicking on the lower right-hand tab on the homescreen, simply labeled "iTunes," transports you to the Wi-Fi store homescreen (or whatever screen you were on inside the store previously if this is a repeat visit).

You can choose to pick through iTunes' Featured Albums, Top Tens (by genre), or Search.

Tap the search window and the much-maligned (but easy to use for short things like artist names) virtual keyboard appears.

I searched for the Afghan Whigs and only had to type in AFG for them to appear at the top of the list.

Clicking on their name brings up a screen with albums and songs to choose from.

I was pleased to find early, more obscure songs from a band not everyone knows and loves — this truly is iTunes in your hand.

Tap the 99-cent icon next to a song and it becomes a Buy Now button; tap it again and the button appears to jump into the lower right-hand corner tab, Downloads.

If you click on Downloads, you can monitor the progress of your purchases. If your Wi-Fi signal is strong, the whole process, per song, does not take longer than, say, 15 seconds.

When the signal is weak, the player may inform you that it couldn't complete the download. No worries — it'll save the progress it made and download the rest when a strong enough signal returns.

In the Downloads screen, there is a button called Purchased in the upper right-hand corner. Touching it reveals all the songs you've so far purchased via the iTunes Wi-Fi Store. These songs are also automatically added into your music menu and Cover Flow display, as well.

Even better: the first thing that happens when you plug back into your computer? Your Wi-Fi purchases are immediately transferred to your iTunes library.

It's a seamless process, it's quick, and the only drawback is that it'll be a lot easier for people to make ill-advised drunken music purchases than ever before.

The Starbucks aspect of the Wi-Fi feature could not be tested yet — it goes live on October 2nd in New York City and Seattle, then hits several other big cities in the following weeks before the holidays.

The concept is interesting, however: You walk by (or into) a Starbucks location, and suddenly the logo appears as an icon on the iTunes Wi-Fi store dock.

Touching it will pour scalding hot coffee onto your lap. Just kidding, touching it will reveal the current song playing in that particular location, as well as the previous 10 selections.

Want to buy them for your iPod? It works very much like the iTunes Wi-Fi store — a simple click and the deal is done.

It's too bad, however, that you can't turn this feature off. Not everyone likes Starbucks (I drink Folgers, folks — maybe with all the money I save I'll buy an iPod touch), and I would guess that a significantly smaller portion of the general population likes Starbucks' musical selections.

I'm not saying Starbucks plays lousy music, but taste is taste, and everyone's is different. When was the last time you heard heavy metal, rap, techno, or any other, say, aggressive style of music whilst ordering your low-fat, half-caf Venti Mochachino?

Fans of those types of music probably have little use for the Starbucks feature, and some will bristle at the icon advertisement that appears each time they pass a store.

The silver lining for Starbucks haters? The icon only pops up when you're in the iTunes Wi-Fi screen — so you won't see it if you're on the homescreen.

Video Star

The video experience on the Touch is nearly identical to the iPhone experience, and the same can be said of viewing photos, with one difference.

At full brightness the iPod Touch looks a tad better, with deeper, darker color saturation. This is odd, because Apple claims they sport the same 480-by-320 resolution screen with 163 pixels per inch.

Clearly, there is something slightly different, but it detracts very little from the iPhone to say that the new iPod Touch looks a little better in the color department. In fact, this may just be a standard variation in manufacturing.

Video settings that can be adjusted on the touch include Start Playing (your options are "Where Left Off" or "From Beginning"), Closed Captioning, Widescreen or FullScreen, and NTSC or PAL.

Browsing the Internet is also a glorious experience. The "pinch and expand" motion for the multi-touch screen is more useful here than anywhere else on the player, as it quickly zooms in on the headline you want to read or photo you want to see in detail.

Web sites can be viewed in vertical or horizontal mode, and the switch happens automatically when you turn the player sideways.

Safari comes preloaded with a bunch of useful bookmarks, organized into sections like Sports and News.

Of course, you can easily add your own bookmarks, as well as edit the ones that come with the player.

The YouTube feature is very similar to the iPhone's, with thumbnail stills of various videos up for navigation.

No word yet on whether Apple and YouTube have successfully managed to get the entire library up and available for Apple users, as they once said they planned to do by sometime this fall.

One minor disappointment: Even though you can save contacts to your iPod, you can't send YouTube suggestions to friends after watching a clip as you can on the iPhone. (There may be an Internet browser, but there's no built-in email.) Bummer.

Still, at the end of each clip, you can bookmark it, search related videos or use the tabs at the bottom of the screen to browse by Featured, Most Viewed, Bookmarks or a search window.

Other extra features on the touch include a snazzy clock interface (which makes it incredibly easy — and kind of fun — to set time zones, hours and minutes), Contacts (which sync via iTunes with your stored computer contacts — this can be edited on the iPod itself) and Calendar (which will display events from your computer's calendar but cannot be edited on the player itself).

Should you need to do complicated math, there is also a calculator.

The battery life is rated at 22 hours for audio and 5 hours for video. We will have test results for you very soon, and when the Starbucks feature is activated on October 2nd, we'll buy a latte, download a song, and update this review, so check back.

Naysayers will have their gripes: There's no FM radio and no recording capability of any sort.

The Archos line, for instance, has gigantic screens with programmable video recording capabilities. Those players, however, require expensive accessories to complete the task, have much less friendly user interfaces, and offer a far less sophisticated Web browsing experience.

In fact, in order to go online with the Archos 605 Wi-Fi, you need to buy the Opera browser plug-in.

Clearly, Apple wants consumers to buy music and video and to subscribe to podcasts rather than record content for free and listen to terrestrial signals.

We may never see FM radio or video recording capabilities in an iPod, so it's silly to expect or hope for, but as K.T. Tunstall said at the recent iPod press event: "Apple is actually making it more fun to pay for music than to steal it."

Regardless of whether she was paid to say that, I agree.

IPods have been evolving quickly in their short existence on this Earth. The iPhone and the iPod Touch, however, seem to be several leaps ahead of the excellent iPod Nano or, for that matter, any other player on the market.

At $300 and $400 for 8 and 16 GB, respectively, these are not cheap devices, especially considering the storage limitations.

Still, factor in the slick interface, elegant Web browser, the beautiful glass display, the seamless integration of the Wi-Fi music store, and the iPod Touch is worth the price. No portable media player has ever done this much so easily, or looked so good doing it.

BOTTOM LINE: With an excellent interface and elegant design, the iPod Touch is simply the best portable media player ever made.

PROS: Beautiful multi-touch display. WiFi access. Buy music via WiFi. Excellent user interface. Browser is a delight. Access to YouTube content. Thinner than iPhone. Double click for music control in any screen.

CONS: Can't purchase video via WiFi. Earbuds suck. Can't turn off Starbucks feature.

COMPANY: Apple Computer Inc.

SPEC DATA

Price: $299.00 List
Player Type: Flash MP3 Player
Radio: No
Recording, Voice: No
Recording, Line In: No
Video Recording: No
Music Playback Formats: AAC, AIFF, Apple Lossless, Audible, MP3, WAV
Photo formats: JPEG
Video Formats: MPEG4
Screen Resolution: 480 x 320 pixels
Screen Size: 3.5 inches
Dimensions: 4.3 x 2.4 x 0.31 inches
Weight: 4.2 oz

EDITOR RATING: Five out of five stars

Copyright © 2007 Ziff Davis Media Inc. All Rights Reserved. Reproduction in whole or in part in any form or medium without express written permission of Ziff Davis Media Inc. is prohibited.