The iPod touch has something of an image problem: it looks like an iPhone, feels like an iPhone. It even includes Wi-Fi and web-surfing like the iPhone. And yet it patently isn't one - a quick look across its glass-covered fascia will tell you that much.

Compare the neat rows of icons on the iPod touch's UI with that of the iPhone and you'll see that it has 11 virtual buttons, compared to the iPhone's 17. The difference is in the number of apps that Apple has chosen not to give you.

The iPod touch doesn't have an email client, SMS text messaging or a camera. You can't use it for one-click access to your stocks or the weather, makes notes or get route guidance using Google Maps. And of course you can't make and take calls with it - even though in theory you could using a VoIP application and the iPod touch's built-in Wi-Fi. Bluetooth is conspicuously absent too.

The web, Wi-Fi and more

Of course the iPod touch does share some key apps with the iPhone: you get music and video playback (natch), web browsing via Safari, access to YouTube online videos, a photo viewer and a calculator. It also has a calendar and address book and enables you to buy songs from the iTunes Wi-Fi store.

But even when Apple does give you identical apps to those on the iPhone, they're also curiously crippled. You can't add entries to the iPod touch's address book or calendar, even though the iPod touch has a virtual keyboard. You also can't use it to make notes - another frustration. So what's to love?

Actually there's quite a bit.

The best iPod ever?

It seems churlish to have to say this, but first and foremost the iPod touch is a music and video player. It's arguably the best iPod that Apple has ever made. The multi-touch interface is delightful to use, and gives you easy access to your favourite albums and songs using Cover Flow, which enables you to scroll through your albums using its artwork.

The 3.5-inch widescreen display also delivers many of the capabilities of the much-fabled video iPod. Watching a long movie is finally a pleasure to watch after the regular iPod's cramped screen. However decent contrast isn't the iPod touch's strong suit with a noticeable lack of detail in dark areas of the picture and a narrow viewing angle. LED backlighting borrowed from the iPod classic would have helped in this respect.

We also love the fact that you can visit your favourite websites (with decent browsing thanks to the iPod touch's zoom capability), download YouTube clips and buy stuff easily and quickly from the iTunes Wi-Fi Store. What other MP3 player gives you that kind of functionality? It's also incredibly skinny (8mm thin) and light (120g), making it easy to carry around in a shirt pocket.

Ear-stroking sound

Team it with a decent pair of headphones and songs ripped at Apple Lossless or AAC 320kbps quality and you'll be in heaven - the iPod rightfully retaining its crown as an audiophile source on this occasion.

Even the admittedly limited 16GB of flash memory isn't a deal breaker, even though Apple has long touted the quantity of songs - "20,000 songs in your pocket", etc - that can be stored on the iPod as a must-have. You'll just have to be a bit more selective about what you choose to watch a listen to - a feature easily accomplished using a Smart Playlist in iTunes 7.

As for the other crippled apps? You've never been able to add address book or calendar entries directly onto an iPod, because the iPod isn't a PDA. You can either add that information the next time you sync with iTunes. Or maybe you should just go and buy an IPhone.

The iPhone factor

That said, hoping for and expecting all of these things isn't really anyone's fault. If Apple had only given the iPod touch a different form factor or design, make the virtual buttons bigger so you didn't notice any apps were missing, and included a phone you didn't get gouged to own, then maybe the iPod touch would have been more accomplished.

Indeed you get the feeling that Apple knew the iPod had reached the end of the line, and needed a new flagship to beat off the competition. (Un)luckily for the iPod touch, Apple already had a phone with a revolutionary interface to hand and decided to use that, instead of producing something wholly original and ground-breaking. Ho-hum.

It's well-known that Apple's almost single-minded focus on the iPhone has caused all kinds of problems for the company: from the delay in the launch of Leopard, its next-gen Mac OS X operating system, to unsurprising refreshes in its desktop and laptop lines. To say Apple has been a little distracted this year would be an understatement.

As is stands, the iPod touch is actually a very good audio / video player that bears an unhealthy similarity to one of the most over-hyped products of the year. Maybe the iPod touch 2.0 will be more distinctive.