Editors’ note: This review was updated October 18, 2010, with CNET Labs’ battery test results.
Apple’s latest version of the iPod Touch hasn’t changed dramatically from the version first introduced in 2007, but the rest of the tech world has. It’s now the age of the “app,” the iPad, and smartphones both big and small. The iPod Touch shouldn’t apologize for being Apple’s “iPhone without a phone” anymore; it’s just as valid to call it an iPad that fits in your pocket.
Priced at $229 (8GB), $299 (32GB), and $399 (64GB), Apple’s fourth-generation iPod Touch takes everything we loved about the last version and makes it better. The screen is prettier, the processor faster, the design slimmer, and new features, such as an HD camcorder and FaceTime video calls, only make the iPod Touch more indispensable to those who aren’t already toting the latest iPhone or Android smartphone.
It isn’t easy to tell apart a fourth-gen iPod Touch from previous versions, but there are a few telltale changes. The chromed steel back now lies a little flatter, giving it a slightly thinner profile that’s less prone to wobbling when laid on a table. More importantly, the back of the Touch now has a camera lens in the upper-left corner, along with a pinhole microphone. The camera placement is nearly identical to the iPhone 4′s camera, though the cameras themselves differ. The camera used on the Touch is strictly designed for video recording, but it can be made to capture still frames, whereas the iPhone’s camera pulls equal weight as both a photo camera (5-megapixel sensor, LED flash, HDR support) and an HD camcorder.
Unlike the video camera Apple introduced on the iPod Nano in 2009 or the camera on the pocket-size Dell Streak tablet, the Touch’s camera isn’t obscured by your hand when you hold the device naturally.
The same is true of the video camera Apple added to the front of the iPod Touch, placed above the screen and behind the glass, where the earpiece would normally be found on a mobile phone. An integrated speaker is included on the Touch, but it’s located behind a tiny speaker grille on the bottom edge of the device, along with a standard dock connection and a 3.5mm headphone jack.
The volume buttons are still located on the left edge of the Touch, though they’re divided into two distinct buttons now instead of the single rocker switch design used on the two previous models. We took to the new volume button design without any hiccups, but we were thrown a little by Apple’s decision to move the screen sleep/wake button from the left side of the top edge to the right. It’s a win for lefties, we suppose, but it took a little adjusting to.
Aside from the addition of the camera to the face of the iPod Touch, the rest is just as you’d expect. There’s a home button below the capacitive touch screen, which still measures 3.5 inches diagonally. The width of the Touch has come down from 2.4 inches to 2.3 inches, which is made up in a slight growth spurt in height (up to 4.4 inches from 4.3 inches). The depth of the Touch is now 0.28 inch, thanks to the flattening of the curved back. Aside from the flatter design making the Touch less prone to wobbling on a table, the rest of these subtle design tweaks make no real practical difference–though it does prevent you from reusing the case from your old Touch.
At 3.56 ounces, this is the lightest iPod Touch yet. After spending a year with the third-generation model in our pocket, the thinner, lighter fourth-gen Touch feels invisible by comparison. Score one for the skinny jeans.
Unsurprisingly, the iPod Touch continues its neck-and-neck, spec-to-spec race with the iPhone. Features that made headlines when they made their iPhone 4 debuted have trickled over to the iPod Touch without much fanfare, but are no less impressive. You get the same A4 processor, same three-axis gyro sensor, and an identical Retina Display, sporting an impressive 960×640-pixel resolution at a dense 326 pixels per inch. You still can’t make cell phone calls on the Touch, surf over a 3G connection, or receive a GPS signal, but the gap between the Touch and the iPhone is smaller than ever.
One basic iPhone feature Touch users have missed out on for some time now is an integrated microphone. The fourth-gen Touch solves the problem with a mono microphone on the back that picks up sound equally in every direction (i.e., omnidirectional). The addition of the microphone is ostensibly there for the adjacent camcorder and new FaceTime video-calling feature (see below), but also works with features such as the Voice Memos app and third-party VoIP and audio-recording apps that previously required a compatible headset or microphone accessory.
If we had to pick one feature that defines the fourth-gen iPod Touch, it’s the new video and photo capabilities. The camera on the back supports HD video recording up to 720p at 30 frames per second. The resulting video file is h.264 QuickTime MP4, which can be edited directly on the device using the basic trim feature or the more advanced iMovie editor (available for $4.99). You can sync your recordings back to your computer using the included USB cable, or send the results directly from the Touch using e-mail, MobileMe, or an upload to YouTube. We also have to give points to the Touch for being able to embed roughly estimated geotag information to your photos and videos, provided you keep the Wi-Fi antenna on.
The front-facing camera is convenient for self-portraits and video calling, but its VGA resolution (640×480 pixels) can’t compete with the HD camera on the back. A toggle button on the touch screen allows you to seamlessly toggle between the two cameras.
Both cameras are capable of taking still shots as well, but the results don’t hold up to the 5-megapixel camera (with LED flash) found on the iPhone 4. Essentially, these photos are simply video stills, which equate to a 960×720-pixel resolution using the using the camera on the back, or 640×480 pixels using the self-portrait cam. You get the same tap-to-focus capabilities found on the iPhone 4, but the shots won’t make your digital camera jealous.
Overall, the iPod Touch works well as a pocket camcorder, though we still prefer something like a Flip UltraHD when it comes to video quality, audio quality, and plug-and-play flexibility. That said, you can’t browse the Web, download apps, or e-mail your friends from a Flip, so take product comparisons with a grain of salt.
Gaming on the iPod Touch is better than ever, thanks to the improved display, additional three-axis gyro sensor, and a performance boost from the A4 processor. At the time of this review, there aren’t many apps and games that take full advantage of the new gyro capabilities, which add precise pitch, roll, and yaw motion control to the existing accelerometer and multitouch controls. Nonetheless, the breadth of game selection available through the integrated App Store is exhaustive. Beyond the expected selection of fun, addictive casual games, such as Angry Birds, Scrabble, and Plants vs. Zombies, there’s a growing number of console-quality titles, such as Mirror’s Edge, Assassin’s Creed, and Madden NFL 11.
It’s worth noting, though, that many of the more intense games take a big toll on the iPod’s battery life. In our initial, causal testing, a new game like Mirror’s Edge drained the battery to 20 percent in an hour or so of play. If gaming is going to be your primary use for an iPod Touch, it’s probably worth investing in an external backup battery pack.
Another gaming feature introduced with the fourth-generation iPod Touch is an Apple-developed app named Game Center, which comes preinstalled. The Game Center app acts as a leaderboard that collects your progress and achievements for all the games installed on your iPod. It also displays the top scores and game rankings of your friends and facilitates wireless, multiplayer gameplay between your friends, or will automatch you with a random player. If you’ve grown tired of playing Scrabble or racing games against the computer, Game Center is Apple’s way of making its game offerings more social. Of course, the cynic in us also sees this is a way for Apple to get people to play and purchase more games, but we have no doubt it will be a productivity-zapping hit.
Music and video
True to the iPod’s legacy as a media playback device, the iPod Touch delivers just about every music and video experience you can think of. Putting aside third-party apps, such as Pandora Radio, Rhapsody music subscriptions, or Netflix video streaming, the core music and video playback capabilities are impressive in their own right. Using Apple’s free iTunes software on your computer, you can sync your music collection, podcasts, audiobooks, music videos, movies, TV shows, and free educational lectures and videos from iTunes U.
If you’re looking to download new music or videos, there’s a direct link to the iTunes storefront on the home screen of the iPod Touch, offering everything from albums and podcasts, to TV shows and movie rentals. The same storefront can be found inside the iTunes software on your computer (though the app version is much faster to load), and any purchases made either on the device or using the software all ultimately sync up back to your computer.
With the introduction of the fourth-gen iPod Touch and a new $99 set-top box, Apple is offering TV show rentals for the first time. At the time of this review, rental content is limited to a selection of shows from Fox and ABC, but all content is priced at an attractive 99 cents per episode. Rented TV shows have a built-in expiration of 48 hours, once a show playback has started, or 30 days total, even if the show is never played. By comparison, rented movies have a stricter rental window of 24 hours once playback is initiated, or 30 days if unwatched.
As far as music and video services beyond iTunes are concerned, the iPod Touch is much more flexible than iPods in the past. Any unprotected MP3, AAC, Apple Lossless, AIFF, or WAV audio file can be transferred to the Touch without hassle, and DRM-protected Audible audiobook files will work, as well. If you have a collection filled with unprotected WMA music files, Apple’s iTunes software can take care of transcoding them into a compatible format. If you’re dealing with a bunch of DRM-protected WMA files (or more-boutique files, such as Ogg Vorbis or FLAC), you’re just out of luck. That said, if your protected WMA files are the result of a PC-only music subscription service, such as Rhapsody or Napster, it is now possible to stream and sometimes store these files using compatible apps.
The same situation is more or less true for video compatibility as well. A handful of popular unprotected video types, such as H.264 and MPEG-4, are supported in a variety of versions (MOV, MP4, M4V) and resolutions. Some files types, such as AVI, DivX, and XviD, can be made compatible using third-party apps. And some video services, such as YouTube, Netflix, and others, can be used to stream content by way of apps or the included Safari Web browser. That said, if you’re trying to sync a DRM-protected WMA file you downloaded from Amazon or CinemaNow, you’re probably out of luck.
The first icon you’ll see on the main menu of the iPod Touch is a new app labeled FaceTime. It’s a feature that has made its way over from the iPhone that allows you to place or receive free, real-time video calls over Wi-Fi. FaceTime calls can work from iPhone to iPhone, Touch to Touch, or between Touch and iPhone owners.
FaceTime calls on the iPod Touch perform just as well as they do on the iPhone, but the mechanics are a little different. Because iPods don’t have phone numbers attached to them, iPod Touch users need to set up their account on the device and associate it with an e-mail address. A contact list appears within FaceTime that you can add to and edit. To make an outgoing FaceTime call on an iPod Touch, you pick a contact from your list and select whether to place the call to the contact’s phone number or e-mail address. Provided that the person receiving the call has a compatible iPhone or a fourth-gen iPod Touch connected to Wi-Fi, the call should go through without a hitch.
Once connected, the front-facing camera kicks in and you can both see and hear the person you’re calling, and vice versa. As on the iPhone 4, there’s an onscreen button for switching between rear camera and front-facing camera. You can also tap the home button to disable the video feed and multitask on the iPod Touch while maintaining the voice call.
All in all, FaceTime is a cool feature. During our limited initial tests, we noticed very little latency in the FaceTime audio and video stream. The integrated microphone and speaker on the fourth-gen Touch make it possible to speak and hear your conversations without having to plug in a headset or mic adapter. The feature does work with headphones, however. If you plug in the basic earbuds included with the Touch, audio is routed to the headphones and the internal speaker gets disabled, but the microphone still works. If you plug in a headset with a compatible microphone (such as Apple’s in-ear headphones), then the headset will handle everything. Unfortunately, as with the iPhone, wireless Bluetooth headsets will not work with FaceTime calls. We’re not complaining, though, since the feature is free, well-executed, and 99 percent awesome.
So far we’ve been focusing this review mostly on the improvements Apple has made to the hardware and capabilities of the fourth-generation iPod Touch. The elephant in the room is all of the existing and continually improving capabilities of Apple’s iOS platform (formerly known as iPhone OS).
Core features, such as e-mail, the Safari Web browser, Maps, the YouTube viewer, photos, calendar, and notes, are still the heart of the device. The installed features are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the available capabilities. An iTunes App Store, accessible from the computer or directly from the iPod Touch, lets you download and install thousands of applications, including Internet radio players, games, voice recorders, social-networking tools, and much more.
The recent updates made in iOS4, such as home screen folders, threaded e-mails, and app multitasking, address most of the criticisms we’ve made of the device over the years. For more information on the updated capabilities of Apple’s iOS, read CNET’s full review of Apple iOS 4.
Apple rates the battery life of the fourth-generation iPod Touch at 40 hours of audio playback or 7 hours of video, which is an improvement over the previous generation’s estimates of 30 hours of audio playback and 6 hours of video. Our official CNET Labs test results averaged 49.3 hours of audio playback and 7.9 hours of video, making this the longest lasting iPod in history.
That said, as capabilities and uses of the iPod Touch continue to branch out into gaming and communication, audio and video performance may not be the best measure of real-world battery endurance. In our experience, 3D gaming tends to drain battery life the fastest. Taking measures such as disabling audio EQ, Bluetooth, and Wi-Fi can help to save battery life, as will lowering screen brightness.
Sound quality for the latest iPod Touch is just fine, and right in line with previous models. Apple could always do better on this front by offering custom EQ or a suite of audio enhancement settings beyond the stock EQ presets, but we’re not holding our breath. Provided that you upgrade your headphones from the universally loathed stock white earbuds that come included, you should be able to coax a great audio experience from the iPod Touch.
As of iOS 4.1, the iPod Touch now adds full AVRCP support to its existing Bluetooth 2.1 feature, allowing users to pause and skip songs or adjust volume via Bluetooth remote controls (when available). Pairing the iPod Touch with Bluetooth accessories such as stereo headsets, speaker systems, or car stereos is quite simple, and a record of previously paired devices is stored in the iPod’s Settings menu. The audio quality and wireless range (about 30 feet) using Bluetooth is about what you’d expect from most portable Bluetooth devices, and we’re happy to see that the audio from video playback and apps are transmitted over Bluetooth just as easily as music playback. It’s worth noting, though, that keeping Bluetooth active on the iPod Touch will take a toll on its battery life.
Video quality on Apple’s Retina Display is outstanding. Throw on some rented TV shows, a feature film, or a high-end video game, and the experience is so fluid and crisp, it’s hard to believe. Last year, we were a little iffy recommending the iPod Touch video experience over the OLED screen loveliness of the Microsoft Zune HD. At this point, though, we think it’s safe to say that anyone who can meet or beat Apple’s current display technology will still have a tough time matching Apple on the kind of graphically rich video and gaming content that can make those pixels sing.
The iTunes factor
If you’re considering buying an iPod for the first time, consider that Apple’s iTunes software is a required installation for your computer. The software is free and available for both Mac and Windows computers, and we encourage potential iPod owners to become familiar with the software ahead of time to ensure that it works well for you and your computer. To learn more about iTunes, we recommend checking out Download.com’s latest review and any user feedback associated with it.
The Apple iPod Touch is arguably the last shot fired in the war of portable media players. There’s simply no catching up to it in terms of quality and capabilities. In fact, we sometimes joke around at CNET about how many product categories have been unintentionally maimed by the Touch, including Internet radios, PDAs, portable gaming devices, and GPS receivers.
In fact, as the scope and power of the Touch’s capabilities continues to expand, it may have a role yet to play in the war of tablet computers. Apple already has an early lead in this space with the iPad, which shares nearly all of the capabilities of the Touch, only on a considerably larger screen. To not consider the Touch as a tablet computer based on its smaller screen size seems a little arbitrary, especially as Android-based contenders from Dell, Archos, Samsung, and others are exploring similar forms.
Time will tell how consumers will define the nascent tablet computer category, but don’t be surprised if the iPod Touch starts to find itself taking on new rivals beyond the shrinking world of portable media players.
This entry passed through the Full-Text RSS service — if this is your content and you’re reading it on someone else’s site, please read our FAQ page at fivefilters.org/content-only/faq.php
Five Filters featured site: So, Why is Wikileaks a Good Thing Again?.